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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Thesenga Returns to Climbing Mag

As the climbing world turns! Jonathan Thesenga, former editor of Climbing magazine, is returning to the magazine as its new editor. Fans of the ongoing climbing-magazine soap operas will recall that Thesenga was fired in 2003 by corporate boss Primedia after a New Year's Eve party at Joshua Tree where he set fire to some white gas poured on a campground rock face. It will be amusing to see how JT's phoenix-like rebirth is greeted; I can hear the moaning and gnashing of teeth now from certain quarters. Obviously, his stunt was stupid, but he has expressed sincere contrition for it and he paid the price, including a hefty fine and the loss of his job. Personally, I reacted the same way I do when someone I know gets nabbed for drunk driving: It's completely inexcusable, of course, but who among us hasn't been over the limit at some point and just managed to get away with it? I felt Primedia overreacted with its summary execution of JT, and I find it fascinating that they're now willing to take him back—and willing to take the resulting heat.

Fact is, there just aren't that many good editors out there with strong climbing backgrounds. I'm biased and my opinion is suspect, of course, because I do a lot of work for Climbing and hope to continue under JT's new reign, so anything I say might be considered sucking up. But even though JT was only at the helm of Climbing for a single year, and thus didn't have much chance to exert his full influence, I liked what he was doing. He brings some youthful vitality to the mag but also a deep appreciation for the full range of the climbing experience, from bouldering to the biggest mountains. And he's a good writer: His story about Czech sandstone climbing in R&I 144 (Sept. 2005) was one of the funniest climbing stories I've read in years. I haven't talked to him yet, but I'll bet he's been thinking a lot about what Climbing magazine could and should be. It's not often you get a second chance like this one. I hope Thesenga makes the most of his return from exile.


Lafaille Now Believed Dead

French media are now reporting that a helicopter has spotted Jean-Christophe Lafaille's tent above 7,000 meters on Makalu, with no signs of life. It seems likely that he died somewhere between there and the summit. A very sad day indeed.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Lafaille Missing

Jean-Christophe Lafaille, who is attempting to solo Makalu in winter, has not called in on his sat phone since Thursday, when he arrived at a high camp at 7,600 meters. In a call to his wife, Katia, Lafaille said he hadn't been able to sleep for three nights because of intense cold and wind, but he was planning to head for the summit early Friday morning. It's certainly possible that the batteries in Lafaille's phone have died (he said on Thursday they were low) and that something has delayed his return to basecamp. But the weather is good on Makalu, and he should be down by now. According to Lafaille's website, a plane was supposed to do a fly-by today to look for his small tent at 7,600 meters—if the tent is there, the conclusion may be that he fell into a crevasse between his high camp and the summit. Lafaille is certainly a survivor: In 1992, he downclimbed for days with almost no gear and a broken arm to escape the South Face of Annapurna after his partner fell off. But the situation on Makalu is looking increasingly dire.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday Morning Time Waster

I'm a sucker for web cams, and this one of Ouray, Colorado, is a real beauty. Not only does it offer a superb view of one of America's most beautiful mountain towns (home of the famed ice park), it also hosts a "movie" of two days' worth of images. Yesterday's movie, as a storm that dumped a foot of new snow blew out of town, is particularly mesmerizing.


No More Blisters

Last year I put in huge trail miles training for ultramarathons. In the past, I've always had some problems with blisters, but I learned two tricks from veteran runners that have eliminated my blister problems—both for running and for hiking and skiing. The first is Sport Shield. It comes in a tube like roll-on deoderant, and it works like Bodyglide or other anti-friction solutions, only much, much better. You just apply a thin coat anywhere you normally get blisters (heels and toes for me), pull on your socks, and you're ready to go. The big difference between Sport Shield and Bodyglide is the former seems to last much longer; I reapplied it once during a 50-mile race and didn't get any hotspots. Even better news for me is that it seems to prevent any blisters in my stiff old leather ski-touring boots and on long approaches in mountaineering boots. Highly recommended!

I have less evidence supporting the other running trick, but it makes sense and seems to work. Mike Monahan, a runner with 10 finishes at the Leadville Trail 100, recommended wearing nylon stockings as ultrathin, friction-beating liner socks. I bought knee-highs and rolled them down around my ankles, and I used them on two huge runs in Rocky Mountain National Park and during my attempt at Leadville (86.5 miles in 26 hours). No blisters. Was it the nylons? I don't know. But they feel good!

One final "trick": Wear the best socks you can afford. I used to buy three-packs of white "athletic" socks at Costco. Now it's SmartWool all the time. Worth every penny.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Alpinist Team to Launch Outdoor Mag

This is from a press release at the Outdoor Industry Association website:

"The publishers of Alpinist Magazine today [Jan. 24] announced that beginning in August, 2006, they will publish a new title focused on the adventure lifestyle. Called Wild, the magazine will explore 'the deeper side of wild,' where outcomes are still uncertain and dreams remain to be discovered. 'While Alpinist Magazine was born in Jackson, Wyoming, and raised in the mountains of our backyard, the people who work at Alpinist are far more than just climbers,' explained Alpinist editor and Wild founding editor Christian Beckwith....

"Beckwith noted that most outdoor athletes feel the mainstream outdoor publications are directed toward the periphery of the lifestyle. 'We recognize the journalistic and business niches of these titles. At the same time, we believe they leave a vacuum, one that the core of the outdoor community yearns to have filled,' Beckwith said....

"According to [publisher Andy] Leinicke, Wild will have limited ad pages; only 26 full page ads will be available per issue."

In other words, the Alpinist model. No word yet on the format or cover price. (Alpinist is oversized and $12.95.) Wild should be a beauty. Can it work? No doubt, the mainstream mags burn a lot of pages on gear "reviews," superficial "best of" articles and other fluff; many readers would welcome a deeper look at the outdoor world. Yet it's extremely unlikely Alpinist has returned a dime on the investment of founder Marc Ewing, and Wild will require even deeper pockets. This is an idea many magazine people have dreamed of pursuing for years. I applaud the Wild team's courage and wish them great success.


The Great Indoors

With global temperatures rising fast, indoor ice climbing may be the future. Check out these photos from around the globe. Clockwise from the top, that's the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven, Scotland; the Toyota Ice Hall at Vertical Chill in West Yorkshire, England (there's also a Vertical Chill in London); and O2 World in Seoul, South Korea.

This is real indoor ice, not that unsatisfactory plastic stuff that a few gyms have installed. I visited the Ice Factor gym in Scotland a couple of years ago and it's a bizarre experience, like climbing inside a giant, glass-walled meat locker. Most of the artificial stuff is more like snice (a snow-ice mix) than water ice, which is great practice for Ben Nevis but won't do much to prepare you for the fragile columns of the Canadian Rockies. But it's better than nothing—if you live in London, for example, it's at least half a day's drive to reach even the fickle ice of the Lakes District; it's 12 hours to Scotland. More and more gyms also are offering dry-tooling practice areas. This crack at the PowerPlant in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, looks like good action.

Indoor skiing also is moving onto genuine artificial snow (unlike the plastic mats in use for some years). The amazing, 25-story Ski Dubai just opened in the United Arab Emirates, with a quarter-mile-long slope, quad chair, ersatz Swiss village for your hot cocoa, and fake glades. What's next? Indoor bump runs? Dog sledding?


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cold Day in Vail

Charlotte Fox's avalanche dog, Max, chose a red down vest from The North Face to stay warm yesterday at the base of the Rigid Designator in Vail.

Leashless update: I climbed four pitches "sans dragonnes" in Vail. My hands stayed warm on a cold day (7°F at the car) because placing and removing gear was so quick and I could shake out anytime I wanted. But I got pumped silly on Vail's steep, sustained ice, and after two routes I was really wishing I had leashes. Methinks some specific training is called for!


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Whipper of the Week (Division of Miracles)

John Christie once took a 70-foot fall but didn’t blow the onsight. How is this possible? John was climbing a run-out pitch on Glacier Point Apron in Yosemite. Just before clipping a bolt, he slipped on the slick granite slab and started sliding backward. Somehow he managed to stay on his toes, and the angle was so low that he never picked up too much speed during his ass-backward slab schuss, yet he couldn't stop either—he slid 30, 50, 70 feet. Suddenly he backed onto a shallow ledge, rocked a few times, and stood. After gathering his wits, he climbed back up and finished the pitch. Since he never weighted the rope, he figures he still got the onsight.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Brush with Greatness

Larry Dalke just fixed my window blinds. Dalke, as any longtime Colorado climber knows, was one of the great pioneers of free climbing in the state. A regular partner of Layton Kor and Pat Ament during the 1960s, he made such breakthrough Eldorado Canyon leads as the overhanging final crack on the Naked Edge, the direct finish to the Yellow Spur, and the dangerous X-M, all classic "Larry Dalke 5.9s"—now considered solid 5.10. As I said, he was here to fix my window coverings (his business). After a time, I asked him if he was still climbing. "No, not so much, I don't have enough time," was all he said. It was pretty clear he didn't want to chat about climbing. I'll say this, though: He may have white hair, but he's darned nimble on a ladder.


Whipper of the Week (Rock Division)

It's worse than it looks: This poor fellow was attempting Ruby's CafĂ© (5.13a) in Indian Creek, Utah, when he pitched, ripped out two cams, and decked. Fortunately, he was fine, though at least one of his cams wasn't in good shape. The photo is from a sequence posted last week on SuperTopo. There was much blather about failed cams and the like, but the bottom line in this case appears to be that both cams that ripped were too small for the crack and thus a bit tipped out—a weak placement. In other words: operator error. Cams are such useful tools and so easy to place quickly and blindly that it's easy to be overconfident in their holding power. Dave Goldstein once ripped two 0.5 Friends out of the bombproof granite of Yosemite's Butterballs when he fell; he remembers thinking they were perfectly placed. And that was on granite, not sandstone. No single piece is foolproof. The lesson: Place lots of pro!


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fowler On The Loose

Coloradan Charlie Fowler, one of American's most accomplished climbers, has started blogging at On the Loose. The blog is a complement to Charlie's superb website, which, among many other things, offers dozens of free topos to rock climbs on the obscure sandstone of southwestern Colorado. In the past few years, Charlie has been producing beautiful Polaroid transfer images from his travels around the world. We published a wonderful series of his portraits of Tibetan people in R&I 103 (October 2000); check out the evocative texture of his images from a recent trip to Vietnam. Beautiful!


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Guidebook Jinx

Through bitter experience, I've come to think that buying a guidebook in advance of a climbing trip is a jinx. I love to sit and read guides as I (well, you know where I'm sitting) during the months before I head off on a trip, but all too often I end up canceling and the book gathers dust. I looked through my shelves this morning and found a bunch of books that I had purchased in anticipation of a trip that never happened or was a bust for weather or other reasons: Canadian Rockies (both ice and summer alpine books), Squamish, Rainier, Bugaboos, Tuolumne, Alpine 4,000-meter peaks, Pyrenees, Colorado's San Juan Mountains and Pembroke (Wales).

The latter was a real bummer: My wife and I were traveling through Wales a couple of years ago and carried climbing gear specifically to sample the amazing sea cliffs of Pembroke—a 100 percent traditionally protected area on superb fractured limestone. But when we arrived we discovered the British Ministry of Defense had closed all of the cliffs, which must be approached across a tank gunnery range. We gaped at the rumble of artillery and a helicopter firing rockets at a buoy in the sea, but did no climbing.

Ahhh, but we are just now booking tickets to Britain to visit a friend in June, and Pembroke is back on the hit list. This time we'll call ahead to check the military schedule before driving to Wales. All we need now is a little cooperation with the weather. In any case, I'm back to salivating over the Pembroke guide.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Whipper of the Week (Ice Division)

British newspapers are reporting the successful rescue of an ice climber who fell 150 feet in Scotland; an ice screw halted the fellow's screamer, but his partners were unable to reach him and the leader was left "dangling" for seven or eight hours (reports vary) before a rescue team summoned by mobile phone could haul all three to the top, hours after dark and just before a blizzard closed in. The Telegraph newspaper has the best story on the accident, as well as an excellent graphic (enlarge it for the full picture). Newspapers compared the scene to "Touching the Void," despite the obvious differences, as OutdoorsMagic points out, that "he was mostly uninjured, not left for dead and was well within range of a helicopter rescue rather than being forced to crawl down an Andean glacier." You do have to wonder why these guys were unable to do more for themselves, especially since there were two climbers at the belay—could they not have gotten one climber down to the leader to anchor and stabilize him? And, with that accomplished, could they not have rappelled? One hesitates to point fingers without knowing all the details, but it seems like a self-rescue class is in order.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

So Alone

Feeling lonely? Imagine how you might feel if you were Mike Libecki or Jean-Christophe Lafaille. Libecki recently returned from five weeks completely alone in Antarctica, where he summited a 1,500-foot rock needle in 12 days of icy-cold climbing. Lafaille (at right) is now attempting the first winter ascent of 27,765-foot Makalu in Nepal, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, and he too is alone. Both men have deep experience with solo climbing; Libecki has soloed new routes on Baffin Island and Greeland, and Lafaille has soloed several 8,000-meter peaks. But there's a difference between soloing in high season in the Himalaya and soloing in midwinter. As he did last December on Shishapangma, Lafaille brought only a couple of people to Makalu basecamp to cook and watch his camp; on the mountain he is utterly alone.

I love solo hiking, running and climbing, but the level at which these guys pursue it is almost inconceivable. On Libecki's first attempted route this year, he dislodged car-size boulders four pitches up and literally pissed his pants he was so scared (not a recommended warmth strategy for Antarctic climbing). Yet he regrouped to make a beautiful first ascent. Lafaille has battled intense winds ever since he arrived on Makalu in mid-December; he just lost a tent in brutal winds as he tried to establish his highest camp. Yet he keeps working, carefully moving supplies up the mountain and acclimatizing. If he gets a break in the weather, I have little doubt he'll succeed.

Both men chose to remain connected to the outside world during their climbs; Libecki had a radio with which he could call for help from a Russian base several hours' flight away (though winds often would have prevented any flight), and Lafaille calls his wife nearly every day via satellite phone, and she posts updates on his website in French and English. Otherwise they are on their own, experiencing a sense of isolation and commitment that is very rare in the modern world.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Preview: Nova Show on Denali

This looks intriguing: Next Tuesday night, NOVA Presents "Deadly Ascent," an hour-long show based on a June 2000 research expedition to Denali. From the press release: "In an exploration of extreme medical science, NOVA ascends Alaska’s Mount McKinley to try to solve the mystery of high altitude deaths on one of the most dangerous mountains on earth.... NOVA chronicles daring mountain rescues and emergency medical evacuations as it accompanies an expedition team of researchers and experts employing the latest NASA technology to investigate the lethal diseases attacking climbers all over the world.... It’s no secret—cold can kill. But why? Even some of the most physically fit and well-equipped climbers still die on Denali, debilitated by a strange and confounding sickness. NOVA joins a team of medical researchers, rescuers, world-class mountaineers, military Special Forces and an astronaut taking part in a study by Dr. Peter Hackett, who turns the mountain’s vertical arctic landscape into a high-altitude lab."

Who knows if "Deadly Ascent" will actually prove informative to experienced mountaineers or if it will simply play up the supposed drama of mountaineering, "where climbers pit themselves against ... frozen giants and push the limits of survival," as the PR folks put it. Tune in January 17 at 8 p.m. EST to find out.

If nothing else, the show's website has some very cool features for those interested in climbing North America's highest peak. In particular, be sure to check out the "Climb Denali" interactive feature, which allows you to pan around 360° views from each of the camps on the West Buttress and the summit, and also to "fly" up the entire route. Great stuff.


Friday, January 06, 2006

The Gaddfly Starts Blogging

Canadian ice climber and paraglider Will Gadd has launched Gravsports, a new blog to complement his wide-ranging Gravsports web page, which, among other things, reports ice conditions and new routes from the Canadian Rockies. The blog is good stuff, and so far he's updating it nearly every day. I particularly like reading the descriptions of his workouts—a revealing look at what it takes to stay at the very top of your game at age 38 . Whoof!


Victims of Global Warming?

Three hikers were killed on Tanzania's 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro when rocks apparently fell from the crater wall and struck them as they climbed a gully at around 17,000 feet; other hikers and porters were injured and were evacuated from the mountain. Could global warming be at fault? Mountains are inherently instable, of course, but glaciers on Kilimanjaro have been melting back at a rapid rate in the past decade or so, and, as any mountaineer knows, warm conditions often produce rock fall as the ice and snow that cements loose rocks in place melts away. In news reports, a park official blamed "a rapid change of weather" or possibly high winds for the rock fall; indeed, high winds often trigger slides of rock loosened by melting ice. If the warming trend persists, more rock-fall incidents seem inevitable, and some scientists predict the snows of Kilimanjaro will disappear entirely within two decades. Read more about research on the vanishing glaciers of tropical and subtropical mountains in Mark Bowen's comprehensive new book, "Thin Ice." Scary stuff.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

One-Word Commands

Here's a little humor courtesy of Tanya Faw, the longtime advertising manager of Rock & Ice:

A man and a woman are out cragging, and it's obvious that they, like many couples, do not climb well together. He keeps lecturing her, she takes it badly, and their arguments can be heard up and down the cliff. One of the things he keeps harping on is that she needs to use shorter climbing commands. "Don't say, 'Give me some more rope,'" he instructs. "Say, 'Slack!'" Or: "Don't tell me to, 'Pull in the damn rope,' because I might not hear you. You should say, 'Up rope!'" So he leads a long pitch and she starts following, and it's one of those days, with the wind blowing, when he can't hear anything but everyone else at the crag can hear every word each of them is screaming. She's trying to clean a stuck piece, and he keeps shouting helpful hints like, "What the hell is taking you so long?" She yells, "I can't get your goddamned piece out," but all he hears is, "I cant...damned...shout."

"One-word comands!" he yells to her. "One-word commands!"

Climbers all along the cliff listen as she loudly and precisely enunciates her next command: "Fuck.......... You!"


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Secrets of the Stars

Jerry Moffatt, one of the all-time great rock climbers, spoke at a slideshow about his struggle to do the first ascent of The Dominator (V12 or V13), one of the hardest boulder problems in Yosemite Valley. At one point, he was so frustrated that he decided to try microwaving his chalk to ... what? Make it drier? It wasn't clear if this helped. As he got closer to sending the problem, Moffatt kept missing a deadpoint to a crucial hold. One time he'd miss to the left, the next to the right. To succeed on the climb, he needed to nail this hold dead-on. Moffatt thought, "I could do this if it was a pocket." So, he took some tape and blocked off the bad sections of the hold, left and right, leaving a narrow gap to aim for, as if it were a pocket. He stuck the move next try.


Sunday, January 01, 2006


Time for New Year's resolutions. It's sort of a silly process, but I do find it useful to check now and then and see how I'm doing on both short-term and lifetime goals. I ticked a couple of items on my life list last year, from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous. Sublime: the classic 18-day raft and kayak journey down the Grand Canyon. Ridiculous: rode a horse for the first time. I also spent much of the year training for the Leadville Trail 100 and managed to finish three ultramarathons after never having run anything longer than a half-marathon. However, I DNF'd on the big one after 26 hours and 86.5 miles with a calf injury. (That's me in the photo at mile 39.5. Ummm... burrito....) I was focused on running last year, so nothing big got done on the climbing front—hope to change that in 2006. The short list of outdoor goals for this year:

• Ski touring in Yellowstone (already booked for February)
• Classic Colorado ice: Still some big climbs I've never done, including Bridalveil, Ames, Hidden Falls and anything in Silverton and Eureka
• Elk Mountain Grand Traverse: the classic Crested Butte to Aspen ski race (this one is highly suspect, since I don't do nearly enough ski touring and training, nor do I have a partner lined up, but you've gotta have goals)
• Lake City 50: No Leadville for me this year—I've got too many other plans to do the necessary training—but I think I can be ready for this classic race in June, said to be the toughest 50-miler in the country
• Rock climbing: Get back to 5.11 trad fitness and the ability to flash the odd 5.12- sport route
• Nose in a Day: I tried once but had a week of terrible weather and never really got a good shot at it
• Canada: We've got to replace the deck at home, so no expensive overseas trip for us this summer. We're thinking about a road trip that, I hope, will take me to the Canadian Rockies and/or Squamish for the first time
• A certain traverse and a certain new route in the Indian Peaks, near my Colorado home
• A certain new route on a classic desert tower
• Pretty sure I'll be in Ecuador in the fall and hope to bag a volcano or two before global warming melts all the ice
• Pretty sure we're headed to Spain next Christmas for sunny limestone

Dave Goldstein has a great term for this sort of thing: "paper motivation." It's easy to list all sorts of goals and make ambitious plans as you scan guidebooks and websites. So, the real question for 2006 is this: Do I actually have the resolve for all these resolutions?