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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