Friday, March 31, 2006

Ranger Mike's Rainier Blog

When I cited Mike Gauthier's Rainier climbing numbers yesterday, I also should have mentioned his new Mount Rainier Climbing blog. Gauthier, the supervisory climbing ranger and guidebook author on the mountain, is packing his pages with route conditions, accident reports, NPS updates, permit info and some good photos like this one borrowed from his blog. Very useful reading if you're planning a trip to the mountain. Want to see more photos? Check out Gauthier's old site Crevasse.com for some spectacular images from Rainier.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Keep Climbing Weird

There's a bumper sticker I see around here that says, "Keep Boulder Weird." It's a lament for the good old days when Boulder was something of a hippie town (or at least trustafarian), and not the overcrowded, upscale "Best Place to Live in America" it has become. Old-time climbers have the same lament, pining for the tribal days when everyone in Camp 4 seemed to know each other, gear was cheap (and you didn't use that much of it anyway), and the rare mainstream advertisement that featured climbing was regarded as a source of wonder and amusement.

Well, guess what? Climbing may soon be a fringe sport again. At least in mountaineering, participation numbers are plunging. There's a recently revived thread on the subject at cascadeclimbers.com, from which I stole these numbers provided by Ranger Mike Gauthier. These are registration totals for Mt. Rainier, the premier glaciated mountain in the Lower 48:

Year: 2000= 13,114
Year: 2001= 11,874
Year: 2002= 11,313
Year: 2003= 9,897
Year: 2004= 9,251
Year: 2005= 8,972

That's more than a 30 percent decline in six years. With the notable exception of Denali, numbers at other U.S. mountaineering destinations also are falling, as are backcountry reservations of all kinds at national parks across the country. What gives? It sure seems like the gyms and sport crags are more crowded than ever, to say nothing of bouldering areas. Backcountry skiing is booming. Is mountaineering just too hard and slow-paced for the average outdoorsy American? Did the recession knock the wind out of the mountaineering market? (If so, then why are Rainier's numbers still falling?) Are kids playing the Everest video game to train for the Big One instead of climbing real mountains? I dunno. But at this rate, climbing (or at least mountaineering) soon will be weird again.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mountain, Ahem, Folk Art

Parental Advisory: Don't scroll to the next screen if you don't want to see a bizarre depiction of human behavior. Last weekend, my wife and I skied up to Charlotte Fox's beautiful cabin on the flanks of Chair Mountain, above McClure Pass in Colorado. It's over seven miles in, but the snow was fast. In the morning, Charlotte and I climbed about 1,300 feet for one run—good snow in the trees, but the open bowls had been wind- and sun-blasted over the past week. I fell down. A lot.

The land around Charlotte's cabin, at 9,900 feet, was used by Basque shepherds during the mid-20th century, and these lonely souls carved amazing signatures and illustrations into the big aspen trees in the area. Now, this web site does not condone tree carving, nor stereotypes of shepherds (Basque or otherwise), but we have to hand it to Gerardo Lopez, who apparently tended flocks of sheep on these hillsides during the 1930s. The guy's arbor-glyphs are quite impressive, and it's amazing to see how well-preserved his, ahem, "work" remains after more than 70 years.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Skiing 52 Weeks Straight

You wouldn't know it this week, with snow every day in town and much more in the mountains, but spring (real spring—not the calendar version) is on the way. So now, with spring skiing in mind, a tip of the hat to Boulder's Andy Moore, who last year managed to ski 52 weeks in a row, ending in September—a streak that seems even more impressive (or nuts) than Mike Scherer's 246-month-in-a-row streak (as of this month). Andy posted a wonderful trip report, jammed with photos, on telemarktips.com, from which I borrowed his photo of skiing the north side of 14,267-foot Torreys Peak in late June. Reading through Andy's report is like flipping the pages of a perverse Colorado calendar, where the skiing gets worse and worse as the year goes on, yet is strangely inspirational at the same time. Definitely gets me jonesing for a litle spring action!

Speaking of inspiration, Chris Davenport's bid to ski the Colorado fourteeners in a single snow season has stalled at 10 peaks (out of 54), but big March dumps in the southern Colorado mountains may breathe new life into the project. I hope he keeps going, even if there's little hope of skiing every peak from its summit before the snow all disappears. His trip reports and photos make superb reading.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Maestri Unrepentant

There's a fiery interview with Cesare Maestri in the April issue of National Geographic Adventure. Maestri, you recall, was the Italian who claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, not once but twice: in 1959 via the northern side and in 1970 by the southeast ridge. The 1959 ascent has long been disputed, and late last year a team of climbers completed the "Maestri route" on Cerro Torre's north side and found no evidence of his attempt above a gear cache only a quarter of the way up the route. Maestri is unrepentant. In the Adventure interview, French climber and journalist Charlie Buffet asks him, "How do you explain the controversy surrounding 1959?" Maestri says, "It is created by all those sons of bitches.... In my life, in my whole life, I never told a lie. Everyone knows I am sincere, I am loyal, I never tried to destroy someone in order to make headlines. I made headlines because I was the strongest solo climber in the world."

Many Italians still support Maestri, and I've talked to very accomplished American alpinists who say journalists and historians ought to leave the 76-year-old climber alone, to let him die in peace. In this interview, the Italian complains, "I am tired, I have had it up to here, and I am fed up. They ruined my life." But to ignore Maestri while he still lives, to give up any chance of a first-hand explanation for what happened on that granite needle in 1959, is an insult to history. The great controversies of mountaineering are surely less important to understand than the tides of war, the progress of science and destruction of the environment, but the truth still matters.

You have to buy the magazine to read the interview, but there's a good story about the controversy and fantastic photos from the November climb at Adventure's web site.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Well-Traveled Camera

Over the holidays, I drove away from Frankenstein Cliff in New Hampshire with my digital camera on the roof of my car. It didn't stay there long. By the time I got back to my motel, I realized what had happened. I dropped off my wife, drove back to Frankenstein, and carefully searched the parking lot by headlight and headlamp. The next morning, we returned to the cliff and looked all along the road for a couple of miles. No camera.

I posted notices on the lost and found sections of NEClimbs.com and NEIce.com that day. I also stopped in at the EMS and IME shops in North Conway to ask about the camera. No luck. Back in Colorado, I wrote off the lost camera and bought a new one. Then, a month or so later, I heard from a climber named Jesse Billmeier who had found my camera. He actually had dropped it off at IME the day I lost it, but an unhelpful counter person there hadn't directed me to the right place in the shop. Jesse waited a week or two, asked if anyone had claimed the camera, and then took it for himself. Booty! But, luckily for me, he happened to look at one of those web sites where I'd posted my notice, and, luckily for me, Jesse is an honest guy and he gave me a call. Well, to cut a long story short, Jesse took the camera back home to Alaska and then shipped it to me. After traveling more than 5,000 miles, it arrived in perfect working order. I sent him a reward and my heartfelt thanks. Moral of the story: Those lost and found notices actually work. And maybe ask twice at the store.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Last Word on Firsts

Cam Burns, the Bard of Basalt, sent me this nugget from Australia: A 15-year-old boy, climbing with his dad and a guide, aims to be the youngest ever on top of Mt. Everest. The never-ending parade of "firsts" on Everest is astonishing. (At R&I, we talked of doing a special Gimps Edition to collect all the First Blind Ascent of This and First Amputee Ascent of That stories that we somehow never got around to publishing.) The youth thing is particularly vexing. One side of me says it simply must be inappropriate to encourage a 15-year-old to climb Everest. But I'm cautious because A) I don't have kids, so what do I know? and B) For every parent-pushed preteen comp climber or Ed Viesturs wannabe trying to grab attention, there's another kid like Tommy Caldwell who started climbing with his dad when he was 3 and seems to have survived the experience just fine. Who knows if young Mr. Harris from Australia is an example of the former or latter?

The little spoof above was my take on the whole subject in R&I's last "Schlock & Vice" edition (September 1995). I couldn't put it any better today.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Voiding the Warranty

When I was at Rock & Ice, we used to brainstorm about an article or series called "Voiding the Warranty." It was intended to describe the ways creative climbers modify their gear to make it more effective or useful for purposes the manufacturer likely wouldn't condone: turbo-charging stoves for cold, high-altitude conditions or rigging a Gri-Gri for solo climbing are two good examples. Sadly, it never came to fruition, but British climber Andy Kirkpatrick's Psychovertical.com is taking up the torch.

After only a few months online, Psychovertical is the best source on the web for real-world, hard-knocks technique and gear advice for serious climbers. (Climbing magazine's online Tech Tips sections is also packed with good info but is not as well-organized.) Kirkpatrick specializes in cold, serious climbing: winter climbs in the Alps, Patagonia and Alaska, among other nasty places. Such environments tend to sort out the textbook advice and catalog copy from what really works. Bivouac techniques, climbing as a party of three, hauling a pack, leading with a pack, unusual knots, bad rappel anchors—it's all there. Some of Andy's material will be more useful (and understandable) to Brits and climbers in the Alps than to Americans, but it's all worth a look.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

The Mightiest Wind

I'm surprised I hadn't heard that the Central Tower of Paine had been blown over by a 500 mph wind. But the Weekly World News (motto: "The World's Only Reliable Newspaper") is on top of the story. Seems the "strongest wind ever recorded" buckled the granite foundation of "Mt. Cordelia," toppling the tower onto the farming village below. I didn't even know there was a village on the glacier below the Torres del Paine, but pictures don't lie, do they? As meteorologist Pietro Baggia of the South American Meteorological Unit (SAMU) told a reporter from the Weekly World News' Valparaiso Bureau, "It was the perfect windstorm with gusts of 500 miles per hour. Thanks to increased global warming, the widening hole in the ozone, and the ocean-disrupting effects of La NiƱa, we can expect to see an increase in winds of this magnitude. Next time, we may lose an entire mountain range." Consider yourself warned.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

More Titan Photos


Steve Levin provided more photos from our climb of the Sundevil Chimney in Utah's Fisher Towers in early February. Since we were trading leads, these shots give some different views of the route's seven pitches for those curious about the climb.

The pics above are looking down the first pitch on Day One and jugging the same pitch on the second day. The next photos are looking down the third pitch, which has some difficult aid at the end of the pitch, and then a butt shot at the crux aid of the fourth pitch, followed by the start of the cool mud stemming section.



The last climbing shot is taken from the bivy ledge atop the fifth pitch. From here, it seems clear that you must go up into the obvious chimney. Nope. You're supposed to tension traverse straight left from just above where I'm climbing. I headed right and and up into the chimney. Poorly protected free climbing ensued. You can just see the easy exit crack that gains the summit at the top of the photo.

That's Steve on the right in the sunset summit photo and me on the left, thinking, "Hurry up and take the damned picture so we can get the #%&@! out of here!" By the way, I learned (or relearned) something critical during the descent from the Titan: An LED-only headlamp may be fine for approaches and climbing in bright, reflective snow, but it's not sufficient for technical climbing and descents on rock. Those little lights are tempting because they weigh almost nothing, but I'll never do a big rock climb again without a lamp that has a bright traditional bulb.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Dear Boss: I Quit

What was I thinking? I sent this postcard near the end of my third trip to Colorado. I was working for a magazine back in Boston, and I wasn't really quitting: I thought my editor would see this beautiful photo of Hallett Peak, know that I was a climber, and understand that this was just wishful thinking and I was just kidding around. A year earlier, I had pulled a similar stunt. I was in North Conway for a weekend of ice climbing, and on Sunday we discovered that the Fang, a rarely formed three-pitch route at Frankenstein, was in good shape. It was too late to climb it that day, so my partner and I made the decision to stay another night. In the morning, I called my boss and left him a message: "I've got a once in a lifetime opportunity today, and I've got to take it!" I hung up, we went and climbed the Fang, and on Tuesday morning I showed up at work to discover that my boss had been convinced I was at a once-in-a-lifetime job interview.

When I returned to Boston after sending this postcard, my editor laughed it off; he wasn't really expecting that I would quit. But the thing is, three trips had revealed the bounty of climbing out west and convinced me I needed to escape rainy New England. Within a few months, I left this job and set out on the roundabout path that led me to Colorado for good.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Watch Me!

Oh yeah, this is the job I want! Spotting competitors at the start of the Ice Climbing World Cup's final route in Hemsedal, Norway. Watch out for those heel spurs, man! (Photo by Dag Hagen, courtesy of www.norsk-klatring.no.) And they say volunteers are hard to find at competitions...

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Hamburger Helper

Mark Richey was leading one of the Torpedo Tube offwidth/chimneys on the rough granite of the Nautilus at Vedauwoo, Wyoming. Mark Wilford was belaying. Richey had run out of gear and started wingeing as he squirmed and scraped up the sharp, crystalline rock. "I could deck from here!" he grunted. Wilford replied, "Don't worry, you'll bleed to death before you hit the ground."

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Innovation in Outdoor Gear

There's an excellent article on Backpacking Light about the lack of innovation in outdoor equipment in recent years. The site's editor, Ryan Jordan, writes, "I've come to realize after reviewing hundreds of new products every year that the true test for innovation is simple: the product (or technology) serves more functions better with fewer sacrifices than the products or technologies it intends to replace." He argues, for example, that tube-based hydration systems don't make the grade, nor do soft-shell garments, because each comes with its own set of sacrifices that causes it to fall short of true innovation, compared with the product it's designed to replace. Jordan cites some truly innovative products, such as the superlight Alpacka rafts, along with some that seem to me not so groundbreaking. Finally, in the most interesting part of his story, Jordan and his contributors craft a long list of innovations the outdoor industry has failed to deliver—a fascinating wish list.

Get Outdoors rants that most innovation in outdoor gear is irrelevant—that it's all about driving fractional gains in market share, with the counterproductive result that equipment seems too complicated and makes outdoor sports seem harder and more inaccessible ("extreme") than they actually are. But what about modern ice-climbing gear, which is so easy to use that huge numbers of climbers have been lured to the sport? What about shaped skis and lightweight alpine-touring gear? Or suspension systems on mountain bikes? Initially such developments seem like the overcomplicated and overhyped product of the industry's marketing arm, designed to prematurely obsolesce your quiver of equipment. Hell, I resisted sticky-rubber climbing shoes for a while. ("Just a fad.") It's true, as Backpacking Light argues, that most "innovations" today do nothing to advance the sports. But once in a while a true breakthrough not only allows the best skiers, climbers, paddlers, etc., to push a little higher and harder, but also makes getting outdoors more fun for the rest of us.

My dream product? Lightweight and efficient systems to actively (probably electrically) warm gloves, core garments and sleeping bags. Nothing developed yet has come close to meeting Backpacking Light's standard for innovation ("serves more functions better with fewer sacrifices than the products or technologies it intends to replace"), to say nothing of reasonable price. All it would take is about 10 degrees of added heat to make an ice-climbing glove that would eliminate the screaming barfies forever. Now that's an innovation I would celebrate!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Alpine Wisdom

"Go slow—we're in a hurry." John Harlin just passed on this great saying, which he picked up from the German climber Nico Mailander. Essentially it's "Haste makes waste." So true in the mountains, where shortcuts or carelessness often results in problems, usually just as the wind is rising and graupel is starting to pelt from the sky: a sloppy rappel setup leads to stuck ropes; leaving off the crampons for that easy snow patch leads to sketchy and time-consuming moves over ice; skipping a chance to rehydrate leads to the inevitable bonk. Great mountaineers consistently take care of the little things—they slow down when they're in a hurry.

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