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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Messner's Feats and Feets

The lead story in the November issue of National Geographic is about the one and only Reinhold Messner. Although the article has some very interesting info about Messner's childhood, I found myself wondering, "Why now?" I suppose the general public hasn't read much about the latest Messner drama: the discovery of the body of his lost brother, Gunther, killed on Nanga Parbat in 1970. The most striking photo in the article is a double-truck spread of Messner's feet. He lost seven toes to frostbite after Nanga Parbat, and the feet are stunted and strange but not really shocking; I imagine them almost like hobbit feet without the hair. Click here to see a gallery of Messner photos by photographer Vincent J. Musi, including the fabled feet, as well as archival images.

Like most Americans, I've subscribed to National Geographic off and on for most of my life, and in my view it's gotten much better in recent years. The pictures remain excellent, and the magazine is making a real push to improve the quality of its feature writing (with varying success) and to liven up the overall content. I particularly like the front of the book in recent editions, especially a provocative monthly Q&A interview that typically runs six pages or so—highly unusual for an article in the front of a magazine. National Geographic also has been more successful than most at integrating the print mag with its online content—of course, National Geographic also has about 100 times more resources than most magazines do. Still, I think it's great that a hoary old institution like the Big Yellow Book is working hard to stay fresh.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Department of Scary Critters

Jason Poole, a superb adventure racer and ultrarunner from Colorado, got a nasty surprise at the World Rogaining Championships in New South Wales, Australia, this month. About two and a half hours into the 24-hour race, he was bitten by an Australian brown snake, one of the deadliest snakes on that continent full of deadly critters. Poole and his teammate, Adam Chase, hiked several miles to the road and made it to the hospital, where he was pumped full of meds and saved. Poole was wearing gaiters and apparently only one of the snake's fangs punctured his skin—doctors said that if both fangs had penetrated his ankle, Poole never would have made it out of the bush.

Rogaining, by the way, is a super-fun variant of orienteering. Instead of navigating from point A to B to C, you're given a map with dozens of checkpoints, called controls, scattered everywhere. The controls are worth more points the harder they are to reach. You plan your own route and try to bag as many points as you can within a set time period. (At major events, it's 24 hours and the map covers more than 100 square miles.) A friend and I ran in the last world championships, in eastern Arizona, in 2004, and I wrote a feature story about this amazing experience. (Read it here.) Don't get the wrong idea: I'm definitely no endurance animal. Rogaining is such an obscure sport that anyone can enter the world championships. In fact, although my partner and I had been orienteering for years, this was our very first rogaine. The photos here show my teammate, Dave Goldstein, at the 2004 championships, striding confidently at sunset, and then, the next morning, an utterly destroyed Dave taking a catnap while one of the real competitors (from the Czech Republic) punches a control. At least we didn't see any snakes.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Choss Master

I went to a slide show by Mike Anderson the other night, covering his seven, count ’em, first free ascents of big sandstone walls in Zion National Park in the past couple of years. He's a humble, funny speaker, the photos are excellent, and the show is well worth seeing if you get the chance.

I particularly liked one comment Mike made, only half joking, about training for traditional climbing: "All the sport climbers want to climb super-steep stuff like at Rifle, but it has no practical application," he said. "Vertical sport climbing is what you do to train for trad climbing: Smith Rock, Penitente, Shelf Road. Weird features, using your feet. It's kind of a lost art." I feel the same way about training at the gym: I try to force myself to stay mostly on vertical and slightly overhanging routes. Crimping and smearing on tiny, greasy plastic holds isn't as much fun as monkeying around on those big cave climbs, but it's a lot more like the outdoor climbs the vast majority of us do.

Hey, Mike: Free this! No amount of training is likely to allow a free ascent of the Shadow Line, the Zion route in this picture—at least not until it's been beaten out by more than the two ascents I know of...


Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Harness Broke

Although an official investigation remains to be completed, it appears increasingly—shockingly—likely that a broken belay loop on Todd Skinner's harness caused his death while rappelling from Leaning Tower. Skinner's partner, Jim Hewett, is quoted extensively in an excellent article in today's San Francisco Chronicle. "[The harness] was actually very worn," Hewett told the paper. "I'd noted it a few days before, and he was aware it was something to be concerned about." The story continued, "Friends of Skinner said he had ordered several new harnesses but they hadn't yet arrived in the mail. On Monday's climb, Hewett said the belay loop snapped while Skinner was hanging in midair underneath an overhanging ledge."

Unbelievable. I spent the last two days refuting these rumors to friends who called to speculate about the cause of Todd's accident. No way a belay loop breaks, I said. No way Todd would be using an old, tatty harness—he was too experienced, too careful. He could get free harnesses! I still wonder if somehow the loop was compromised: cut on an edge or tainted with some corrosive substance. But I know this for sure: Like thousands of other climbers this morning, I'm headed down to the gear closet to have a look through my kit. I'm not assuming anything is "good enough" anymore.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ski Descent of Everest? Not Exactly

Kit DesLauriers is being hailed as the first woman to ski Mt. Everest, or, in the more carefully crafted reports, the first woman to ski "from the summit" of Everest. On October 18, DesLauriers climbed to the top with her husband, Rob, and other members of a team from Berg Adventures, and then she, Rob, and Jimmy Chin started skiing from the top. However, in view of conditions on the route, they decided to rappel the Hillary Step, then climbed over the South Summit and down to the South Col. They spent the night there, skied the Lhotse Face the next morning, and then skied and downclimbed the rest of the way to base camp. This is certainly a great personal achievement, and DesLauriers and the team should be psyched about what they accomplished and proud that they made the decision to put safety over personal glory by removing their skis when the conditions were too dangerous. However, Outside's web site is trumpeting that DesLauriers is the "first woman to ski the Seven Summits and the first American to ski Everest," and is plugging a big story in January. NPR ran an interview with "the first person to ski the Seven Summits."

The DesLauriers-Chin descent was far from a complete, continuous descent of the mountain, a feat that was first accomplished by the Slovenian Davo Karnicar in 2000. Karnicar skied the South Col route, including the Hillary Step, the steep slopes on one side of the South Summit, the Lhotse Face, and a dangerous bypass to the Khumbu Icefall low on the route, all the way to base camp in less than five hours. The following year, Marco Siffredi snowboarded the Norton Couloir on the north side of the peak. These two men set the standard for riding Everest.

Again, this isn't to take anything away from DesLauriers' accomplishment. And the DesLauriers have been completely straightforward about what they did and didn't do, telling NPR, for example, that "it's important to be clear" that they didn't do a complete ski descent—they skied 6,000 feet of the 8,500 feet of skiable vertical on the mountain. It's just unfortunate that the mainstream media (and many specialty outlets) have got it wrong. There's still a big goal waiting out there for the first woman to make a complete ski or snowboard descent of Everest. For that matter, Karnicar hopes to complete the Seven Summits sometime in the next few months by skiing Mt. Vinson in Antarctica. In the minds of most skiing purists, he then would be the first to ski the Seven Summits. It would be a shame to see such achievements diminished because the media had declared that someone else came "first."



There's a wonderful tribute thread on for Todd Skinner, who died Monday in an accident on Leaning Tower in Yosemite. Read it if you didn't know the man or wonder why people are talking about him. Striking to me are the kind words from certain Valley regulars who were once outraged at Skinner and his importation of new-wave free-climbing tactics to Yosemite during the 1980s. I guess death silences critics, or maybe it's just that Skinner's broad smile and relentless enthusiasm finally won out. RIP, Todd, though resting is hardly what we'd come to expect from you. Maybe "redpoint in progress."


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stanley Peak

John Harlin and I were super-keen to climb a peak during our visit to Banff, and fortunately the autumn snows had been light and the weather on Saturday was excellent. While UIAA delegates argued over the future of the organization in a Banff conference room and AAC board members headed to cliffs around Canmore for some cragging, John and I got up in the dark to head to Stanley Peak, about half an hour away from Banff. We didn't exactly get an alpine start, leaving the trailhead at 7:45 a.m., but we figured we could finish a route on Stanley's north face and still get back to Banff for the Alpine Club of Canada's centennial festivities. The sun rose as we hiked past the Stanley Headwall, its notorious ice climbs only showing smidges of ice, and after a couple of hours we reached the base of the glacier, which had iron-hard, centuries-old ice at the base but a healthy covering of snow above.

Living in Colorado, I have easy access to abundant and diverse climbing, but the one thing that's missing is glacial mountaineering, so it was great fun for me just to get the chance to rope up and zig-zag through some crevasses, leaping the odd snow bridge. Guides' reports on the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides site had commented on the abundance and size of new crevasses on Rockies glaciers, and though we had no basis for comparison we found the Stanley Glacier to be surprisingly complex. The schrund on our chosen route, the Waterman Couloir, was big but pretty easy to pass on the right. Above, it looked like a short, simple snow gully, but the couloir was at least 1,000 feet long and took us more than two hours to climb, even though we moved together. The snow covering was thin, and the ice underneath was glassy, brittle, and super-hard, and it was filled with hidden shards of limestone and shale. I smacked my picks dozens of times on hidden rocks, and later discovered that I had bent the tip of one of them, which I'd like to think is an explanation for why my left hand was getting so tired near the top.

(By the way, Black Diamond sells three versions of its picks for the Viper tools I use: Don't buy the Laser pick, which is sold for "pure ice," because almost no ice climb is that "pure." You'll end up hitting rock sooner or later, and I bent the tips of two Lasesr picks in a single season. OK, maybe I overswing a bit, but I'll only buy the tougher Fusion or Titan picks from now on.)

John amazes me with his fitness. He has spent most of the last year in Mexico, working on a book, with almost no opportunities to get into the mountains. Yet he kicked my ass on this 5,000-vertical-foot day, and he seemed unfazed by 1,000 feet of ice climbing. Some of it is due to sheer enthusiasm—he relishes each of his limited days in the hills—but he also stays honed by making daily life a workout. He says escalators are a "pet peeve" and never uses them; he takes the stairs if he has less than seven flights to go up or down. In the airport on the way home, I watched him work his calves at the counter by our gate, rocking up onto his toes over and over, and doing curls with his 20-pound briefcase as we waited in line for security. Whatever he's doing, it seems to work.

Stanely is a decent-sized Rockies peak at 3,155 meters (10,351 feet), and from the top we could see Assiniboine, Temple, and thousands of other peaks—I've got to get back here! The descent was long and complicated. We hadn't brought the guidebook, but I'm not sure it would have helped anway. The descent to the east, down a snow gully adjacent to an icefall, now appears choked with crevasses and ice walls. We ended up downclimbing a gully farther east that could easily have been a climb. Two routes in one day! It was a 12-hour round trip to the car, and we were sure we'd missed the Alpine Club of Canada's centennial dinner, but such events apparently start later in Canada than at home: We sat down at 9 p.m., just in time for the first course. John stayed up dancing and carousing until after 3 a.m. I went to bed at midnight, hoping it would rain the next day so we wouldn't have to climb again. But it was just good enough to go to Yamnuska.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I made a quick trip to Banff last weekend for various American Alpine Club and Alpine Club of Canada events, and we were so lucky with the late-fall weather that I ended up skipping most of the meetings and climbing three days in a row. On Friday, John Harlin (editor of the American Alpine Journal) and I did a short route on Yamnuska, Alberta's storied 1,000-foot limestone cliff. The rock on Yam is better than that on many Canadian Rockies peaks, but it's not perfect. Our three-pitch route, Smeagol (5.9) had one junky pitch, one decent pitch, and one superb steep pitch at the top. It wouldn't get the two stars the guidebook gives it in Eldorado Canyon or Yosemite, but it was a great introduction to the cliff on a gorgeous Indian Summer day.

On Sunday, John and I returned to Yam with Phil Powers, executive director of the AAC, hoping to do a full-length route. It was early afternoon by the time we got there and the top of the cliff was in mist, but we figured we could rappel at any time and might as well just go for it. My guidebook weighed about a pound, and we were debating whether and how to carry it when someone had a brilliant idea: Two of us were planning to carry digital cameras anyway, and so we just snapped pictures of the relevant guidebook pages and then zoomed in on them when we needed to figure out where to go en route. Worked great!

Our route (Kahl Wall, 8 pitches, 5.10a) was wandering and ledgy at the bottom, but the upper half was excellent, with steep face and corner climbing on great rock. We got a bit of rain and shivered in our light jackets, and some graupel fell during the last pitch, but we made it to the top and the heavy rain didn't start until we had nearly finished the descent. The next morning it was snowing hard in Calgary. Snuck in another one! Yam reminded me of climbing in the Dolomites (perhaps my favorite destination in the world), and I loved it despite the grueling approach march. I hope to return someday a bit earlier in the season and try one or two of the harder routes.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Send It!

Canada Post issued a stamp in July to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Alpine Club of Canada. This made me curious about other stamps related to the mountains. I found a the mother lode at the Dutch online stamp dealer

Not surprisingly, nationalism is big in stamps. Examples, clockwise from top left: 1982 stamp commemorating a Soviet Union expedtion to Mt. Everest; a 2004 edition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Italian team's first ascent of K2; and a Chinese stamp from 1965, marking the 1964 first ascent of Shishapangma. Strangely, Bhutan, which has tightly restricted access to its mountains, issued a stamp in 1982 celebrating mountaineering. Skiing is widely represented, too. This 2004 Austrian stamp cheers on the Herminator. Want to see more? Go to Postbeeld and search for "mountain climbing" or "skiing."



Layton Kor, one of the most talented and prolific climbers of the 1960s, commented this month on the achievements of modern climbers: “I'm glad I climbed when I did, back when things were easy.”


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Northwest Mountaineering

The classiest online mountain publication in North America, the Northwest Mountaineering Journal, has released its third edition, covering alpine climbing and skiing in the Pacific Northwest for the past year. If you've never seen this beautiful collection of trip reports, reminiscences, and profiles, set aside an hour or two to browse through all three editions.