Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Urge-Giver

A great thing about visiting mountain ranges you've read about and dreamed of all your life is to discover mountains you'd never even heard of. Visiting the Khumbu, I was interested to see Everest and Lhotse and Ama Dablam in the flesh, as it were, as well as lesser-known peaks that I'd written about but never eyeballed, like Kwangde and Tawoche and Kangtega. But there were also surprises, like Kwangde Nup, with its a gorgeous rock buttress splitting the north face, first climbed by Alex Lowe and Steve Swenson way back in 1989. And then there's this icy needle, spotted from the hills near the Thame monastery, looking due east past Kangtega. If there's ever a peak that gives one the urge (in the memorable Mick Fowler phrase), this is the peak. But what is it?

I had to consult with Lindsay Griffin, keeper of all mountain knowledge, who e-mailed the answer promptly: It was Melanphulan, of course, a.k.a. Peak 6,571m. The peak received its first known ascent in 2000, by Supy Bullard and Peter Carse. The AAJ note describing this climb pointed to a previous photo of the ice pyramid, by Ace Kvale, in the 1996 AAJ. The caption for the full-page photo was simply: "Unnamed, unclimbed, Khumbu region." As far as I know, it still has only one route.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Yaks and Mountains

Yak and the Nuptse-Everest-Lhotse massif.

Yak and Tengkang Poche.

Yak and big peak above Thame, possibly Teng Ragi Tau.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Solu Khumbu

The photo at right shows the jam-packed trail about halfway between Lukla and Namche Bazaar in Nepal, early one morning after the Lukla airport had been closed for two days because of poor weather. An estimated 80 flights arrived in Lukla the day the airport opened, dropping off more than 1,000 trekkers anxious to make up for lost time. They weren't making much time this morning. Fortunately, we were headed in the opposite direction, and once we'd pushed past the camera-wielding tourists, lumbering dzopkyos, and porters laden with 200 pounds of kerosene and San Miguel beers, the trail was nearly all ours again, just as it had been for most of our trek.

When we planned our Solu Khumbu trek, we were guided by time constraints (only two weeks in the mountains) and by more desire to experience a variety of Nepali culture than to see a constant panorama of high mountains. We quickly realized that we had neither the time nor the interest to hike all the way to Everest Base Camp, as most Khumbu trekkers do. Instead, experienced friends such as Jim Nowak, cofounder of the dZi Foundation, recommended that we follow the uncrowded, less-Westernized traditional Everest approach from Jiri. However, we also were warned that the Jiri trek begins with a series of punishing ascents and descents. Then we discovered that there was an airport at Paphlu, about halfway between Jiri and Lukla. We opted for the roller-coaster flight to Paphlu's hillside dirt airstrip ("Thank you for flying with us. Please pick up your heart by the gate") and began our trek there, and this proved to be a terrific compromise.

We were starting in the Solu half of the Solu Khumbu region, among lush, terraced hill farms and small Sherpa and Rai villages. Each day we saw only one or two other Western parties, and usually we were the only guests at the teahouses we used; we encountered only one other group of Americans in five days of trekking. Solu was a feast of unexpected delights. At the huge Thupten Choling monastery, we watched and listened to a broad room full of monks at prayer, and shared photos with the young monks and nuns. Creeks and flumes spun enormous water-powered prayer wheels. A family butchered a buffalo in the trail, the enormous heart standing on a wooden stake, the entrails hung on a clothes line to dry; later we saw porters carrying baskets laden with buffalo meat up the trail for celebrations of the Tihar festival; a crow landed repeatedly on one porter's basket and pecked at the meat as he walked along. We drank rich, brothy Sherpa tea in a home near Taksindu La. Young singers crowded into the tiny dining room of our teahouse in Nunthala to peform the "Bhailini!" chorus, sung on the third day of Tihar. The next day, young men and women in traditional dress danced in nearly every village. Slowly, unfamiliar peaks were revealed, including broad, sacred Numbur (below), just under 7,000 meters high.

When we joined the main Everest trail near Lukla, the character of the trek changed instantly. Suddenly there was a steady stream of large trekking groups—10 to 20 walkers and their guides. Arrows appeared by chortens, pointing out the correct clockwise route to walk around them. (Most trekkers ignored the arrows.) We celebrated our first flush toilets, and the broader range of choices on dinner menus. And, of course, the famed Khumbu peaks hove into view, including our first sighting of Everest and Lhotse. We were saddened about leaving Solu behind, but excited to see what the Khumbu would bring.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Bargain Basement

According to a statement posted on Alpinist's website, the magazine and all of its assets (subscriber list, website, film festival, a ready-to-be-printed book collecting some of Alpinist's Mountain Profiles, etc.) may sell out of receivership for as little as $30,000, free and clear of all liabilities. An offer of this amount has been accepted, and the sale will close if no higher bid is received by December 22.

On the surface, this seems like a screaming deal, and no doubt will give many loyal readers hope that Alpinist might be resurrected. But consider this: A number of good, experienced publishers are known to have taken a look at Alpinist's books since it went into bankruptcy. Yet, so far, none has been willing to cough up more than 30 grand, which is less than it would cost to print a single issue of the magazine. Clearly, they must not have seen any hope of reviving the old business model. I have no idea who made the $30,000 bid, or what the bidder's plans are, but I'm quite certain the old large-format, limited-advertising Alpinist, in all its glory, will never grace readers' mailboxes again.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday Morning Time Waster



Melissa Andrzejewski and Chris McNamara fly wingsuits between enormous cliffs on Baffin Island. I love her "fraid dance" on the lip and how long it takes to commit to the leap. Can you blame her?

This clip is from the bonus section of McNamara and Lincoln Else's new 15-minute BASE jumping DVD: Learning to Fly. The film covers McNamara's energetic (to say the least) first year in the sport, in which he did 400 skydiving or BASE jumps, from California to Kuala Lumpur. In this clip they jumped from a subpeak of Kiguti above Sam Ford Fjord and flew through a notch and alongside the 3,000-foot north wall of Kiguti, landing on the frozen fjord. Yikes!

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Annals of Obsession: Update

Bill Wright has completed his Longs Peak project: climbing the 14,259-foot monarch of the Colorado Front Range via a different route each month during a single calendar year. Wright made 14 ascents in 2008, with only one failure (an attempt on the Diamond in winter), and he climbed an estimated 80,000 vertical feet in all conditions. On December 6 he completed the quest via the arduous Keplinger's Couloir on the south face. (The photo shows the upper mountain looking Patagonian during a brief clearing on December 7, from Black Lake in Glacier Gorge.) Check out Wright's website for the full story, trip reports, and interesting stats. A remarkable, unprecedented feat.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Top 10 Names for Climbers

10. Eddie Sender
9. Cam Burns
8. Chris Wall
7. Rok Zalokar
6. Dick Stone
5. Felix Berg*
4. Crag Jones
3. Chris Craggs
2. Steve Roper

And the No. 1 climber name: Dave Dangle!

Except for Eddie Sender, which, Alpinist revealed, was a nom de plume for the late Guy Edwards, these are all the names of real climbers. Got more good climber names? Add them to Comments.

* Felix Berg? The name means "fortunate mountain."

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Alpine Briefs

I've been working on a little side project for the past few weeks: a new website called The Alpine Briefs. This site is the brainchild of American Alpine Journal senior editor Kelly Cordes; I provided some grunt work, along with AAJ editor John Harlin. In our work as AAJ editors, we receive lots of very cool reports, photos, funny stories, and other material that doesn't fit into the AAJ's relatively rigid format. Some of this info ultimately will appear on expanded AAJ web pages, but while those are in the works Kelly inspired us to launch the Alpine Briefs, and, once inspired, we took it much farther than we ever expected.

The site is still new and will build slowly, but we think it eventually will become a much-needed voice for international alpinism, especially in the wake of Alpinist magazine's passing. (Devoted Alpinist.com readers will notice some subtle influences on the Alpine Briefs.) We'll also be sending an e-newsletter to AAJ contributors and American Alpine Club members every couple of months, with updates on the latest content.

On a semi-related note, a new outdoor-sports magazine is launching in Colorado—something of a surprise in this economy, but definitely a niche waiting to be filled.  Elevation Outdoors will launch in February as a free bimonthly, edited by Doug Schnitzspahn, longtime executive editor of the late, much-underappreciated Hooked on the Outdoors.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Monday Morning Time Waster


Now that's speed climbing. Tip of the hat to Bill Wright for this link.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Home Harried Home

Chris, my wife, said it best this morning: "I miss the simplicity of Nepal." We were both up before dawn, running around the kitchen, preparing for a typically crazy work day. After a month in Asia, and especially a long trek in the Himalaya, it's difficult to readjust to Western life. In Nepal we woke, put on the clothes we'd worn the day before, walked all day, ate a simple dinner, and went to bed. Day after day. By comparison, our lives at home seem frantic, and we are often frazzled.

How to capture a trip as long and varied as ours in blog posts? Can't do it, I think, at least not yet. I'm not ready. I'll roll out a few stories over the coming weeks. For now, a couple of favorite photos: Thamserku from just above Namche Bazaar (top) and spinning prayer wheels.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Off to Nepal


Back November 18. See ya!

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The End of Alpinist

I just got back from the Utah desert, where the American Alpine Journal hosted editors of climbing magazines and websites from 11 different countries in a six-day International Editors' Summit. We gathered for discussions on the business, content, and ethics of climbing publications in the 21st century. (Plus, of course, some great desert towers and splitter crack climbing.) During these meetings, we enjoyed the company and wisdom of all three editors of Alpinist: Christian Beckwith, Katie Ives, and online editor Erik Lambert. These are talented folks. Quality folks. And they left our meeting only to learn that their magazine had been shutting down while they were gone. Having had the experience of telling my own magazine staff that they were about to lose their jobs, I know how this whole business feels. It sucks.

The outpouring of emotion over Alpinist's demise is a tribute to the good work these editors did. Readers are offering to do "whatever it takes" to bring Alpinist back. But it's time for a little dose of business reality.

Alpinist was a very good magazine, but it never attracted nearly enough readers to turn a profit, and profit is what keeps all business' doors open. The cyber-space is full of grousing that the "other mags" are fit for little more than butt-wiping, but if the other mags, including the one I sometimes write for (Climbing), are really so bad, then why are they still in business after decades when Alpinist survived less than seven years? Is this because climbers are brain-dead automatons easily seduced by the "mass" media? Is Alpinist the victim of big, bad businesses willing and able to squash the little guy? Give me a break. Both Climbing and Rock & Ice are operated by companies nearly as small as Alpinist, and they're run by hard-core climbers—and without the deep pockets that Alpinist cofounder Marc Ewing was willing to empty now and then to prop up his pet project. Climbing and Rock & Ice survive because they deliver, to greater or lesser extent, what readers and advertisers want to see, with a business model that still works, no matter how damaged and vulnerable to new media it may be. In fact, Climbing's paid, audited circulation has posted substantial gains this year.

Speaking of new media, many climbers ask: Why don't Christian and his fine crew just run Alpinist.com as a stand-alone entity without all the costs of printing and shipping a magazine? Well, it's because producing material as fine as Alpinist's requires paying real journalists and editors decent salaries, and no one has figured out how to make a climbing website generate the kind of revenue to do this, let alone create a real return on investment for owners. As I learned last week at the Editors' Summit, some websites are getting close: UK Climbing, for one, supports several salaries without a print publication, and although it is not yet generating a real profit it seems to be the most forward-thinking and innovative of the English-language climbing sites. But UK Climbing is succeeding because of serious investment in technology and talent, and in this economic climate there's not much spare change floating around for risky new investments.

So, what about blogs and other community-supported media? As Peter Beal argues in a post on his Mountains and Water, these new media have changed the publishing landscape for good. No doubt. But most blogs reflect only a tiny sliver of the broader climbing world, and it's nearly impossible for all but the most obsessive online reader to get the full picture by subscribing to blogs. In my job as a climbing news reporter I get paid, in effect, to surf the web, but even so I get overwhelmed by the mostly useless information. Like them or not, the successful climbing magazines perform a valuable service by sifting through all the twitter and latest-greatest and deciding what's worth publishing.

Alpinist or some successor in the same vein may yet survive. My best guess is that someone will buy the excellent Alpinist.com, and another investor might buy the Alpinist Film Fest. But Alpinist the magazine is almost certainly dead, at least in the big, open format that readers loved, and with the talented editorial staff that made it what it was. As beautifully as Alpinist executed the limited-advertising, high-subscription-price, "reader supported" business model, it simply didn't work in the tiny climbing market.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thursday Morning Time Waster

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam attempt the Schmatterhorn, encountering rock fall, sloppy rope work, and a Swiss army knife with one too many tools.

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thank You in Advance

Blog posts are going to be a little slow over the next month or so. As part of my work with the American Alpine Journal (the new AAJ just came out!), I'm organizing a "summit meeting" of editors of international climbing magazines, journals, and websites. We've got 13 foreign editors, along with representatives of Alpinist, Climbing, and Rock & Ice, descending on the AAC headquarters in Colorado next Friday for the start of our six-day conference. Should be super-interesting, but, man, it's been a lot of work to pull it off! Then, six days after the conference ends, I head to Nepal for three and a half weeks of trekking and touring. Woo-hoo! I'm hoping to blog from Nepal, but we'll see.

In the meantime, don't touch that dial. Our regularly scheduled programming will resume soon.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Days in the Park

On Tuesday I got a last-minute assignment from Backpacker and quickly laid plans for a two-day traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park, via the summit of Longs Peak. The forecast was perfect for Wednesday and Thursday, and this late in the season I had no time to lose.

The idea was to walk from Grand Lake up East Inlet Creek, then over Boulder-Grand Pass to Thunder Lake in Wild Basin. After camping there I'd go cross-country to the base of Longs' south face, climb the peak via Keplinger's Couloir, and descend the Keyhole Route and north-side trails to return to the Bear Lake area. I wasn't sure how the cross-country legs would work, but the route came together beautifully. The East Inlet Creek drainage is my new favorite valley in Rocky Mountain National Park—maybe on the entire Front Range. The east side of the Park is dramatic, with all those glacial cirques, but the west side has a lush, wild feel, and East Inlet Creek is simply gorgeous, especially in fall colors. I had expected Keplinger's to be a tedious scree-slog, but it wasn't bad at all. On top of the 14,259-foot peak it was calm and warm enough to sit comfortably in a light sweater—remarkable for late September. I was the only one of seven people who summited that afternoon who'd brought crampons, and I zipped past everyone by plunge-stepping down the icy snow in the Trough. Then it was just a long easy walk out to the car, with the afternoon sun lighting up the russet and gold ground cover on Longs' broad northern slopes.

This hike comprised about two-thirds of a big loop that I'll describe next year in Backpacker. We'll be recommending four to five days to cover this segment, so doing it in two was physically punishing. But mentally—what a treat!

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Yuji Attempting El Cap Double-Header

Japan's Yuji Hirayama has arrived in California to attempt an extraordinary double-header on the Nose of El Capitan: a free ascent of the route (5.14a), followed by an attempt to improve the speed record he set in July with Hans Florine. If successful, Hirayama would be the fifth person to free-climb the Nose (if you count Scott Burke's ascent which included top-roping the Great Roof free). As for speed, Hirayama and Florine believe they can slice as much as 15 minutes from their 2:43:43 record if they rest an extra day between attempts—last summer they speed-climbed the route four times in ten days. Gamba, Yuji!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

World Championships of Buildering

There's a Buildering World Championships? Who knew? In fact, the first "world championship" of bouldering on buildings, bridge abutments, and underpasses was held in Cologne, Germany, in 2006, and the second is slated for October in the industrial Ruhrpott area, in and around Essen in western Germany. There's even a defending world champion of buildering: Christian "Benky" Benk. Who knew? I'd never  heard of this buildering competition, but I wasn't surprised to learn that Udo Neumann, the German photographer and filmmaker, was one of the men behind it. Neumann, co-author of the seminal Performance Rock Climbing with Dale Goddard way back in 1994, has always been keen on experimentation. I remember sitting in a van at Smith Rock and listening to Udo and Dale rave about the genius of Linus Pauling and how bananas were the secret to climbing power. But I digress...


The first World Championships of Buildering looked like a somewhat ragtag affair (see the video below), but from Udo's scouting photos the problems this year look intriguing and really fun (and likely illegal). The climbers will rove among various monuments, bridges, and buildings, using buses and trains to reach remote problems. "Granite, sandstone, concrete, bronze—you’ll get it all under your fingers," Udo writes at his website. "Who among you has climbed on bronze before? Can you imagine?"

Quirky, sure, but I could easily see this catching on. Imagine a buildering festival in Manhattan or downtown Tokyo, with problems carefully chosen (and vetted with the authorities) for crowd appeal. It would be an eye-opener and a genuine celebration of the fun in climbing, unlike the grim affairs that "real" competitions often seem to be. Call it the anti-World Cup. Brrring! Is that Red Bull on the line?


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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

El Cap Free Solo: Only a Matter of Time

Last summer I wrote here that someone would free-solo a route on El Capitan within five years. A year later, I believe I might have been too conservative. The unthinkable may happen much sooner. Today we learn that Alex Honnold, 23, has free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome: 23 pitches, up to 5.12a. Honnold's solo comes exactly a month after Dean Potter free-soloed a 600-foot route called Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) on the north face of the Eiger. When Royal Robbins and company made the first ascent of Half Dome's 2,000-foot northwest face in 1957, the obvious next step in big-wall climbing history was the main face of El Capitan, which Warren Harding and partners completed about a year and a half later. The next step is obvious today, too.

Let me be clear: I have not asked either Honnold or Potter if he plans to attempt an El Cap free-solo. But surely the thought must lie somewhere in their minds, either simmering in the back or blazing at the front. Both men have soloed routes technically as difficult as El Cap's easiest free climb: Free Rider (5.12d). Both also have completed long, difficult solos, demonstrating they can hold it together for hours. But Free Rider is much more demanding than any climb that has been soloed before, with multiple 5.12 pitches and some extremely insecure moves. On his Eiger solo, Potter climbed with a five-pound BASE parachute on his back, an emergency back-up that might have saved his life if he slipped. So far, Honnold has worn only shoes and a chalk bag.

Writing about such ascents gives me a queasy feeling. No matter how objective one tries to be, a story about soloing has the effect of glorifying it. I do not think Potter, Honnold, or other soloists are motivated primarily or even significantly by publicity, but surely they are not unaffected by it. Do journalists and their eager readers become, in effect, participants in these dangerous climbs—and are we complicit when the worst happens? Like many climbers, I'm fascinated and impressed by hard free-soloing, and at the same time I'm frightened and even repelled by the act. How can someone put his life on the line like that? And for what? Yet I might ask the same questions of many climbers whose feats I cover and admire: I am fascinated and impressed by alpinists who attempt lightweight ascents on the world's harshest peaks, and I fear for them too.

History provides some guidance: Climbers have been pushing themselves beyond the bounds of what most would consider reasonable since long before the advent of corporate sponsorship. Some of the most impressive and dangerous ascents in climbing history have been carried out in obscurity, far from the media glare. We cannot fully explain the motivations behind hard soloing and other forms of extreme climbing. We can only marvel and hope.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Winter is Coming

I've been super-excited about rock climbing in the past few weeks, and my worn-out old body is responding. I've surprised myself with some hard onsights (for me), despite having done no real training. The force of gravity seems to drop as my spirits rise in the cool, clear weather of September.

And so it's with mixed feelings that I contemplate this seasonal fact: Within three weeks of today, the first ice climbs will be completed in Colorado. Sometime in the next few weeks we'll get a heavy snowstorm in the mountains, and autumn routes like the Smear of Fear on Longs Peak will quickly freeze up. Maybe the rumored big ice on Mt. Evans will come into shape. (It wasn't quite there when I walked in last September 30 and took this photo.) When routes like this do appear, they will only last a couple of weeks, and you have to seize the day if you want to climb them. And all I want to do is go rock climbing.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

CO Avalanche Center Loses Major Funding

This Friday night the annual Avalanche Jam, a benefit for the
Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), was supposed to take place in the parking lot of Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. Hosted by Backcountry Access, the fund-raiser put $15,000 in the avalanche center's pockets last year. But today organizers sent an e-mail saying they had to pull the plug on the event, because "the permitting process proved too much." On top of that, the CAIC has lost $10,000 in funding from a major annual donor. This is grim news for skiers, climbers, and others who depend on the CAIC's daily forecasts to get them through the snowy season. But there is something winter-lovers can do to help.

Join the Friends of the CAIC. It's a no-brainer. Donors support the avalanche center's in-depth regional conditions reports, the best weather forecasts available for the Colorado mountains, and research and education designed to prevent deadly accidents. Friends who donate $30 get the center's informative Beacon newsletter and a morning forecast e-mail. Donors over $45 also get an afternoon forecast by e-mail. I just renewed my membership, and you should too. As the old saying goes, "The life you save may be your own."

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Avalanches: The Herd Mentality

I've been thinking about the avalanche last week near Mont Blanc that killed eight climbers. I was on the slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul just last September, approaching the Chèré Couloir , an ice line on the triangular rocky buttress just left of the slopes that avalanched. As we walked up toward the base of the climb, my partner, John Harlin, cautioned me against wandering too close to the ice slopes to our right. At the time this seemed silly. Sure, I could see the big seracs perched overhead, but there were dozens of people plodding up and down the climbers' track that zigzagged along the face that morning. How dangerous could it be?

Avalanche professionals are well aware of the perils of this sort of thinking. When a steep slope is carved up by ski tracks, it must be safe, right? After your buddy skis an unbroken field of powder, it obviously ain't gonna slide, right? Avalanche pros urge skiers to make their own decisions, but humans are herd animals and there is a false sense of safety in numbers.

I remember walking toward Windy Corner on Denali and passing enormous green blocks of ice along the climbers' trail. These desk-size ice boulders had obviously tumbled thousands of feet down the West Buttress and would have obliterated anyone traversing the slope. We hurried past this spot as quickly as our lungs and tired legs would allow, yet two separate parties of climbers had chosen to stop here for lunch, leaning their bodies against the ice blocks that seemed to have been placed there like magical back rests.

The dangers of the herd mentality are greater on often-guided peaks like Mont Blanc. The average climber thinks: If the guides are going up, it must be safe. But even though professional guides may have the background and skills to assess the risks better than you or I, they're still tossing the dice each time they traverse a slope under seracs. It's still a gamble.

The risks on Mont Blanc du Tacul are well-known. An avalanche in almost the exact same spot killed a climber as recently as 2005. But last week it was quickly back to business as usual on this slope, one of the standard routes toward Western Europe's highest peak, with numerous parties criss-crossing the deadly avalanche debris, no doubt aware of the accident but unwilling to change plans. Sometimes humans aren't the smartest animals. 

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thursday Evening Time Waster

Fire up the laptop, pour a tumbler of single malt, and settle into a comfy chair: You'll be wasting some serious time here. Today Patagonia launched a very cool multimedia site called the Tin Shed. The idea is you're hanging out in the old shed in California where Chouinard Equipment Company—Patagonia's predecessor—got its start, and you're sharing stories and photos with your pals. And this site, slated to be updated quarterly, is packed with good stories.

A few of these videos and slide shows have already been posted on the Internet, but most are fresh. The best I've seen so far is Steve House's 30-minute film from the first ascent of K7 West in Pakistan last summer. But climbers will also find Rolando Garibotti narrating a slide show of the Torre Traverse, historic film of Henry Barber climbing Yosemite Valley's Wheat Thin in 1977, and stories from Sonnie Trotter attempting Rhapsody in Scotland, Brittany Griffith and friends climbing a huge wall in Oman, and Kelly Cordes ranting about the nature of alpinism. There's also a very cool slide show from the Shed when Chouinard Equipment was still producing gear there. As you'd expect from Patagonia, the site is attractive and slickly produced (though the Torre Traverse piece has crashed my browser twice when I tried to open it, so maybe there are still a few kinks to work out). In many ways, this site is doing what Quokka hoped to do for climbing in the go-go days of the Internet in the late ’90s, but without the absurdly high budgets and huge support crews. Oh, what the hell, I'll use the word Patagonia is probably hoping I'll use: These stories are "authentic."

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Petit Grepon: What's in a Name?

A few days ago a friend wrote with a query: "I just did the SW Corner route on the Petit yesterday (awesome) and was curious what 'Petit Grepon' actually means. And who else would know, if not you?" I confidently wrote back: "The Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park is named after the Aiguille du Grépon in Chamonix." And then I thought: Hold on, what the hell's a grépon?

It wasn't easy to track down, but after e-mails from knowledgeable friends in four countries and some time-wasting noodling on Google, I found a website that seemed authoritative on place names in the Chamonix area: Noms de Lieux de Suisse Romande, Savoie et Environs. The conclusion? Grépon is derived either from the French word "grappin," which means "grapnel" (a grappling hook or anchor with several flukes), or more likely from various Franco-Germanic or Celtic words for "rock." More specifically, the site said, grépon means "rock" in the patois of Haute Savoie, where the aiguille resides. Lindsay Griffin, ultimate source for mountain info, passed on a note from a friend, Luca Signorelli in Italy, who confirmed that grépon "comes from the dialect term 'greup,' which means a steep, rocky slope made mostly of slabs."

So there you have it: The Aiguille du Grépon is a "rocky needle, possibly resembling the fluke of an anchor." The Petit Grepon is its smaller cousin.

Alpine etymologists might also like to know that the Grandes Jorasses near Chamonix is not named after an African mammal, as Layton Kor would've had you believe when he named the Grande Giraffe in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon. Signorelli again: "Jorasse is an old word of Celtic origin (derives from 'juris'), and means 'mountain forest,' and of course Jura comes from it (and, incidentally, 'Jurassic.')" Of course.

Seems the south (Italian) side of the Grandes Jorasses once was heavily wooded, but repeated fires and the changing climate reduced it to the rocky slope we see today.

Class dismissed. There'll be a quiz on Monday.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blog Roll: Adventure Running

I'm never been much into running races, other than obscure varieties like orienteering and ultrarunning. For me, running has always been about maximizing fitness for the things I want to do in the mountains. (That and exercising my dog.) When I trained for the Leadville 100 in 2005, the best result was the fitness to do backpacking trips like the 26-mile Four Passes Loop above Aspen in a single day. The same spirit motivates one of my favorite new blogs: Adventure Running.

Launched this spring by Buzz Burrell in Boulder, Colorado (more about him in a moment), Adventure Running is a multi-author celebration, not just of running but also of the cool things that serious endurance allows you to do. Recent reports include a speedy 18-hour Ptarmigan Traverse in the Cascades, a morning ascent of the technical East Temple in Zion, a one-day 50-mile traverse of Zion, and several canyoneering–trail running loops in Canyonlands. The blog could be improved with better identification of the individual authors and more stories, but it's a great start. Hopefully we'll soon see more reports from ascents of remote mountains as the summer winds down.

Buzz is an inspirational figure, still super-motivated at an age (mid-50s) that many athletes are slowing down, and he's one runner that has made the most of his fitness in the mountains. He's done one-day ascents of Gannett Peak in Wyoming (18 miles from the road) and Mt. Olympus in Washington (about 19 miles from the car). He did Rainier, Adams, and Hood in a 28-hour push. He's run the Colorado Trail and John Muir Trail. Some people have no interest in speed, and I can certainly understand that, but as I wrote in the publisher's note in the inaugural issue of Trail Runner magazine nine years ago, "For me, trail running is not a competitive sport but a means to explore wild places—and to do more exploring in less time." The Adventure Running blog is carrying that torch.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Climber Artist Series: Ginger Cain

Anthony "Ginger" Cain's mountain paintings are well-loved and have been widely exhibited in his native U.K., but are nearly unknown here in the U.S. That's a shame because his work is super-appealing to climbers. Cain studied art in the early ’60s but had no interest in an academic career. He moved to Wales and worked on his painting, supplementing his meager income with mountain guiding. Though not among the elite, he was an accomplished climber, pioneering rock routes up to 5.10 in the late ’60s. Cain's large oil and acrylic abstracts gradually evolved into more realistic mountain scenes, often in watercolor. "With a climber's eye dictating them," Cain's website says, these paintings "said something to fellow climbers in their own language."

I find the best of his work to be very compelling. Scenes dominated by cold ice and black rock are somehow rendered full of warmth and life, yet without sugar-coating the reality of these harsh environments. They make you think, "I know it's dangerous, but I want to be there."

Cain owns the Mountain Art shop in Llanberis in North Wales, and sells originals and modestly priced prints by mail and through an online retailer. Most of his patrons, his website says, have been climbers and "mountain obsessives," including well-known British climbers Mo Anthoine, Chris Bonington, Joe Brown, Mick Burke, Nick Estcourt, Doug Scott, and Don Whillans. I feel certain that if more North Americans were exposed to his work—and perhaps if he painted more North American scenes—he'd find an enthusiastic reception on this side of the Atlantic.

I like climbing and I like art. From time to time, the Mountain World features the work of climber artists that catch my eye.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Peak Named for Sue Nott

A New Zealand–American team recently had a productive visit to the remote Cordillera Apolobamba in Bolivia, completing half a dozen first ascents on 5,000- to 5,700-meter peaks. The expedition was largely sponsored by the McNeill-Nott Award, an annual grant program established by Mountain Hardwear and run by the American Alpine Club, in honor of the late Karen McNeill and Sue Nott. In a nice touch, the climbers named one summit Punta Nott—it's the peak circled in red on the right in the photo.

This makes at least four routes or formations named for Nott, a remarkable climber from Colorado who died with McNeill while attempting the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker in 2006. In addition to Punta Nott, I'm aware of Snotty's Gully on Pharilapcha in Nepal, named by Britons Jon Bracey and Nick Bullock; the Sue Wall route on the Sioux Wall of Ben Nevis, named by the UK's Ian Parnell; and Dang Da 'Dren Pa on Shachun in China, named by Dave Anderson and Sarah Hueniken—the Tibetan words translate roughly as "to inspire, enthuse, and uplift," and the route was named in tribute to Todd Skinner, Karen McNeill, and Sue Nott.

That climbers would name routes on three continents after a friend is ample testimony to the memories she left us. I'm sure other routes have been named for Sue and Karen—if you know of more, please let us know.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Be a Film Critic...Or Just Play One Online

Here's your Tuesday Morning Time-Waster. The Reel Rock Film Tour, which kicks off its fall tour September 10 in Boulder, is hosting a filmmaking competition, and visitors to the Reel Rock website can choose the winner. Four finalists in two categories have been posted; the winners of each will be featured in Reel Rock's 80-plus-city worldwide tour. Voting deadline is September 1. Let's see...eight 3-minute films, plus voting, that's at least half an hour wasted. You'll thank me later.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

August Snow = Epic Mountain Running

A powerful August storm coated Colorado's mountains with snow on Friday. For some, this was a treat. Mike Scherer skied his 275th month in a row, the conditions handing him an unusual summer ski tour at Berthoud Pass (see his photo). But for runners in the annual Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, and the Leadville Trail 100, the conditions were epic.

At Pikes Peak, snow and rain lashed the course on Saturday, during the 13-mile ascent. Most of the second wave of runners were turned around at the A-Frame, 10 miles into the race, when conditions deteriorated to the point that officials deemed it too dangerous to continue to the 14,110-foot summit. The 750-plus who made it to the top hurried to escape via buses and vans before hypothermia set in. Conditions had improved for the Marathon on Sunday, but the upper trails still were slick with packed snow. Matt Carpenter, 44, won the Marathon, as usual, with a time of 3:36:54, more than 20 minutes off his record pace but still damn good.

At Leadville conditions were marginally better, and a little over 40 percent of the 455 starters finished the cold, wet race, about the same percentage as usual for this tough high-altitude 100-miler. Duncan Callahan was first in 18:02:39, far slower than recent winning times (but still a record pace in the 1990s—an amazing effort, considering the conditions). Super-hiker Andrew Skurka was second.

Conditions like these create superb challenges for mountain runners, and it's cool to see how many runners persevered. Good accounts of the races can be found here and here.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Publishing Follies

Of all the things I saw at Outdoor Retailer while reporting for the trade show's daily paper, the most surprising was the news that a West Vriginia–based team is planning to launch a new climbing magazine this fall. Dead Point Magazine is a glossy bimonthly that will take aim at young climbers, with its first issue slated for October 15. With the tiny climbing market already crowded by four national magazines—Alpinist, Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Urban Climber—and magazine sales generally down, observers must ask: Are these guys smoking crack?

Maybe, maybe not. Dead Point hopes to gain a foothold through free distribution at climbing gyms and retailers, along with a hefty online presence. “We are definitely going after the youth market,” founder Matt Stark told me as we watched the Mammut Bouldering Championships. Stark explained that his magazine would have an “edgy look” and would take more chances with feature stories than the existing magazines do. “We’re not going shy away from risqué articles,” he said. “Our second issue is going to turn some heads.”

The free distribution model hasn't been tried yet by a national climbing magazine, and it makes good sense. Free distribution works by printing many copies and placing them where the target market is likely to pick them up, thus providing a large audience for advertisers. Dead Point will boost its readership by posting each issue online immediately, with hyperlinked ads. The climbing market seems ripe for this approach. The number of climbers visiting gyms each day dwarves the subscriber lists of all four existing magazines combined. For various reasons, these mags have yet to convince more climbers to fork over the ducats for a subscription. In fact, the only time many climbers likely see Rock and Ice or Urban Climber is when they scan the free copies on the couch or in the bathroom of their local gym. Why not target these folks directly?

Dead Point is clearly going after Urban Climber, which also targets the youth audience but charges $4.99 for a single copy or $17.97 for a seven-issue subscription. (Urban Climber is published by New York-based Skram Media, which also publishes Climbing and Climbing.com, one of my employers.) Urban Climber is well-established and appears to be well-liked; the latest editions are packed with ads. For Dead Point to steal this business, it will have to provide superb editorial content as well as mass distribution, because advertisers attach extra value to customers willing to pay for good editorial. Advertisers also must admire a magazine's content and feel good about appearing in its pages. So, while the new magazine's business model is intriguing, we'll have to see the first several issues before getting a better sense of whether the Dead Point will stick.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Problem with Bouldering Comps

I hadn't been to a big-time climbing competition in quite a while, and I was keen to check out the Mammut Bouldering Championships in Salt Lake City, part of the Outdoor Retailer trade show. I've watched many comps since the early 1990s, including World Cups and national championships, and though they have little to do with the climbing I love most—the kind that takes place on cliffs and mountains—I've found the best comps to be heart-pounding, involuntary-screaming exciting.

Despite many, many positives, I thought last Saturday's event in Salt Lake fell short—which is disappointing because these NE2C comps represent the state of the art. At least 1,000 people had crowded onto the roof of a parking garage by the downtown Shilo Inn. There was food and beer; a DJ mixed live tunes. As the sun went down, concert-style lighting played on the four wildly overhanging bouldering structures. The climbers took huge falls and stuck outrageous moves. This was by far the best production of a climbing competition I've seen, and, at least at the start, it had a good festival atmosphere.

Yet the audience was surprisingly unresponsive. They'd cheer a strong move or a new high point, but there was little of the anticipation, the sense of tension, that a good live sport builds in an audience. By midway through the event, the crowd was listless. Despite the action-packed format (up to four climbers performing simultaneously), this had real drawbacks as a spectator sport.

Lead climbing may be boring to watch, but lead competitions are easier to understand than bouldering comps: Generally, whoever gets the highest on the final route wins, and since they send out the best performers last in the finals, the excitement tends to build. In bouldering the placing is determined by scores from multiple problems and attempts, so it's much harder to keep track of what's going on. The five-minute rests between each climber's attempts don't help, making it harder to follow along as the climbers move from one problem to the next. The Salt Lake comp had a live announcer and scoreboards updating the results, but they didn't keep up with the action or make enough sense of the developments for the audience.

Example: As the women's final neared its conclusion, the MC announced that last year's winner, Alex Johnson, needed to flash the final problem to win the comp. Johnson flashed Problem 4, everyone cheered, a couple of news guys (including me) corralled her for interviews. It wasn't until next morning that I learned that, in fact, Alex Puccio had won, because she matched hands on the highest hold she reached on Problem 3 in a single attempt; Johnson had needed two attempts to make this match. But there was no way we in the audience could have known this until long after the event was over. The men's comp was clearer, with Chris Sharma flashing three of the four problems. But Ethan Pringle, starting much later in the running order, also finished three problems. How close was he to Sharma? Was it possible for him to win? Was there a make-or-break moment in his performance? No one told us.

This is very much a friendly criticism, because I happen to think climbing comps are cool, and I want the athletes to get the exposure they deserve. The best comps I've seen have been thrilling, and I wanted this event to be just as exciting, but it wasn't. Climbing may make for rotten TV—most climbing shows are duller than dishwater— but it seems to need TV-style commentary and analysis to make it spectator-friendly. Large, immediately updated scoreboards would help, as would expert live commentary, though both would have to be used in a way that made the standings and the stakes clear.

Maybe for some fans it's enough just to see the sport's best do what they do—not so different from going to a golf tournament or a bike race, where you witness only a fraction of the action in person. But I think bouldering fans deserve more. With all the lights, music, spectacular outdoor setting, and lithe athletes making impossible-looking moves, the Mammut Bouldering Championships had the right ingredients, and the audience in Salt Lake liked what they were seeing. They just had no idea what they were seeing.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Wilderness Retreat

Last Friday I left work early to hike deep into Wild Basin for a climb of Mt. Alice, the striking 13,310-foot peak on the south side of Rocky Mountain National Park. We'd chosen Mt. Alice to escape the oppressive heat that has dogged Colorado's Front Range these Dog Days, and we ended up escaping the oppressive and depressing news from K2 that broke over the weekend. I've thought of writing more about the disaster on K2, but I've never been to Pakistan and I've never attempted a mountain as big and serious as K2. What could I add to the finger-pointing and second-guessing that has begun?

So, Mt. Alice. Seven miles to a bivy above the Lion Lakes, then a long mile or so to the base of the 1,500-foot east face. A short slip-and-slide up a snowfield, several hundred feet of scrambling, six long pitches, and a hip-hop up teetering talus to the top of this superb peak. The joy of a climb like this lies not so much in the route itself, which was fine but nothing spectacular, but in the isolation and natural beauty of the setting. We shared the route with no one, and the entire glacial basin with just a few other souls. The 10-mile hike back out was painful but quick. As the inevitable public doubts and moralizing erupted over K2, we enjoyed a 24-hour dose of everything that is good about mountaineering.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

The K2 Reports

Horrible news this weekend out of K2, where many climbers appear to have died after an avalanche hit the upper slopes while they were descending from a big summit push. A serac fall apparently wiped out the fixed ropes that safeguard a crux passage through the Bottleneck and across a delicate ice traverse at over 8,200 meters. Counting on those lines, many of the climbers had not carried their own rappel ropes, and apparently were not able to descend on their own, though a few managed to downclimb the steep ice and make it to safety, albeit badly frostbitten.

The young American climber Freddie Wilkinson wrote the best early analysis of the accident that I saw on Sunday morning at, of all places, the Huffington Post. Wilkinson provided a useful climber's perspective that stood out among the body-count "reporting" of the mainstream press. In general, the British media also seem to do a better job with stories like this than their American counterparts do, perhaps because of the long mountaineering tradition in the UK.

In my own reporting this morning, I was guided in part by the editorial stance of Explorer's Web, which chastised the media and mountaineers yesterday for racing to report deaths in the mountains. Explorer's Web's Tina Sjogren cited a very personal example to bolster her argument: In 1996, on Mt. Everest, she was in Camp 2 on her way down the mountain after the deadly "Into Thin Air" storm, and she and her partner were reported to have died. It was three days before they could get word out that they were OK. Mountaineering history is full of instances of climbers who were thought to be lost but somehow managed to survive. It certainly doesn't look good for the remaining climbers on K2, but the media, fellow climbers, and Pakistani officials ought to have shown more respect and restraint.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Best of Show: Innovative Gear Awards

I'm headed to Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake next week to report for the trade show's daily paper. With gear in mind, here's a look at the most innovative new equipment from the European OutDoor show, held two weeks ago in Friedrichshafen, Germany, as chosen by a jury that reviewed 280 new products from 25 different countries. I haven't held a single one of these products in my hands, but they all look intriguing.

Gold Wiglo Tent Concept, by Bergans of Norway. A kind of tepee with a main post in the middle and three additional posts on the sides, providing generous floor area, large entrances, and great stability.

Gold Therm-a-Rest NeoAir from Cascade Designs. Super-light air mattress said to be warmer than any other non-insulated air mattress. Jury said: "Not only unbelievably light and beautifully designed, it is also extremely comfortable and very easy to use."

Silver Smart belay device from Mammut. A lightweight device designed to automatically catch much of the load in a fall, particularly useful for skinny ropes. Jury's opinion: "Smart is dynamic, quick, and simple. A convincing design solution with perfect functionality."

Silver Mamook GTX boot by Mammut. A full-function mountaineering boot weighing just 3.5 pounds a pair.

Silver Exos 46 pack from Osprey. A lightweight but stable backpack. Jury's opinion: "The sophisticated structural design provides excellent wearing comfort."

Silver Steel Blade shovel from Grivel. Super-light snow shovel with a steel edge for icy snow. Jury's opinion: "The shovel has been reinvented: small, light, and multifunctional."

Silver BH1 bolt from Bolt Products in Germany. Twisted steel bolt that "dynamically jams into the hole when pressure is applied to significantly increase its holding power."

Silver Orbit camping lantern from Black Diamond. Super-light, adjustable, pocket-size lantern with big candle power. Jury's opinion: "A good-looking, aesthetic, low-key product."

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Boulder No Longer Center of the Universe

Where is the "epicenter of rock climbing in the United States?" Yosemite Valley? Boulder, Colorado? Smith Rock in Oregon? Nope, it's Dallas, Texas, according to a story in yesterday's Carrollton Leader. Before you choke on your chimichanga, read on. The paper had interviewed Kyle Clinkscales, coach of Team Texas, a competition climbing team based at the Exposure Rock Climbing Gym in Carrollton, a Dallas suburb. Team Texas has won the team title at the U.S. youth nationals for the five of the last six years; eight team members will be traveling to the Youth World Championship in Australia in August, the paper said. So, sure enough, the Dallas area is a serious center of rock climbing achievement, if you count plastic holds as "rock."

In fact, Team Texas's 35 climbers, ranging from 9 to 19 years old, also climb real rock, despite the somewhat limited opportunities near Dallas. “We’re the only team in the country that travels and rock climbs outside," Clinkscales told the paper, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole. According to the Team Texas website, the team has logged more than 150,000 miles in road trips since 1999. They've probably even hit some of those lesser epicenters of U.S. climbing. In any case, you can't argue with success.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Master of Disaster

A backpacker named Brian Quines has started Hiker Hell, a blog that catalogues the myriad outdoor mishaps and tragedies that make it into the news. He has no shortage of material: In the last three days, Hiker Hell has covered a man stuck under a boulder for 16 hours, a missing father and son in Ohio, a hiker rescue in Phoenix, a fallen rock climber in North Carolina, a crevasse fall in the Alps, a rock climber rescue in Australia, a rock-fall death on Mt. Hood, missing hikers found in Colorado, a hiker rescue in Alaska, and a "drunk bastard who got what he deserved when he jumped down a 30-foot waterfall and injured himself." Makes you never want to leave the house.

"I was always intrigued by stories of survival, and why people like us hit the outdoors, even with the inherent danger that we may not come back," Quines said. Who knows how long he'll be able to keep up this litany of disaster, but for now Hiker Hell is worth checking out.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Annals of Obsession

Colorado climber, cyclist, runner, and all-around endurance nut Bill Wright is more than halfway through an attempt to climb Longs Peak once a month for a year—and by a different route each month. Several mountaineers have climbed the monarch of Rocky Mountain National Park every month of the year, including streakers like ranger Jim Detterline, who once went 30 months without missing an ascent of the peak, and who just this month completed his 300th climb. According to Wright, Bill Briggs attempted the different-route-every-month feat twice, but came up just short. Apparently, no one has done it yet.

It won't be easy. In the summer finding a climbable route is simple—Longs has more than 100 named routes on its flanks—but every Longs climb is tiring: The shortest routes require more than 12 miles of hiking and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. And the choices narrow dramatically in winter. Strategically, Wright is leaving some relatively low-hanging fruit toward the end, planning ascents of the Keyhole Route (with his wife and son) in September and the Cables Route (north face) in December. His tick list so far includes classics like the the Trough (January), Notch Couloir (April), and the Casual Route (5.10) on the Diamond in June, as well as lesser-known lines like the Northwest Gully (March) and the western ridge between Longs and Pagoda (July). The latter was part of the rarely done Glacier Gorge Traverse, climbing over 10 peaks in just under 14 hours. One could quibble with Wright's "different route every month," since many Longs routes converge, often hundreds of feet below the summit—especially those reaching the top via the Loft and Clark's Arrow traverse. But this is an impressive effort, nonetheless, and with a bit of luck Wright may pull it off. Read his trip reports here.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday Morning Time-Waster

A great spoof from the Onion—all too realistic.


Plight Of Missing Hikers Will Make Great Movie

Tip of the hat to Pete Takeda.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Naming Rights

This lovely ice pyramid in the Hindu Raj of Pakistan is the mountain formally known as Peak 5,519m, now called Somerset Ski Club Peak. It received this rather unlovely name when an Italian expedition climbed the mountain last summer and then auctioned the name to the highest bidder: the Sci Club Somerset in Turin, which paid 8,500 euros (around $13,500) for the naming rights. The money will be used to help fund a new aqueduct to supply water to the village of Ghotulti in the Chhantir Valley, not far below the newly named Somerset Ski Club Peak.

Selling the names of mountains to benefit the nearby residents is all well and good. But why stop there? Here's how my quick-thinking boss, John Harlin, responded when I mentioned the naming of Somerset Ski Club Peak: "That could be a great business. Collect big bucks for naming peaks after people's deceased relatives (grieving parents should be easy pickings), companies, schools, clubs, girlfriends (Valentine's presents), chihuahuas, etc, etc. Then spend a month in Kyrgyzstan or Tibet or Yunnan collecting your 100,000 euros per year for doing what you love doing. Unfurl commemorative banners on summits, place pictures of loved ones in cairns, scatter ashes, say a poem, whatever they want. Totally cheesey, and yet a totally cool way to make a living."

Sounds good to me. I'm in.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

2008 AAJ Off to the Printer

Each year I've worked on the American Alpine Journal, I've vowed that I'll get my sections done earlier—that I'll spread the enormous workload over more months. And each year I and the other editors endure an exhausting push to complete the 500-page book sometime close to our deadline. Now this year's book is finally done—late, as usual—but off to the printers at last.

The AAJ is the Grade VII big wall of climbing and mountaineering publications. Although there are brief moments of excitement and even joy in producing this book, most of the process is just painstaking, seemingly endless labor. And, like those who've never done a big wall, people who haven't worked on projects similar to the AAJ can't really understand what's involved. It's just very, very difficult, in ways that surprise me each year. The sheer volume of work and the weeks of brain-frying attention to minute details are not compensated with anything like a professional salary, given the time invested. Yet I wouldn't trade this work for anything else. For one thing, I get to work with fascinating individuals from around the world—this year, in my sections of the AAJ, I worked with authors from 17 different countries. (How cool is that?) I get to collaborate with an extraordinary team of fellow editors and designers: John Harlin, Kelly Cordes, Lindsay Griffin, Steve Roper, Joe Kelsey, Adele Hammond, and Dan Gambino—a dream team. And there is a great sense of pride that comes from working on a journal that's been continuously published for 79 years and is absolutely unique in the world. Truly, it's a privilege.

Now, pour me a drink. I need one.

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