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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The tragic death of a 26-year-old caver in Utah on Thanksgiving confirmed my long-held feeling: Cavers are nuts. Of course, many cavers likely say the same thing about climbers. When I tried caving the first time last summer, I got a lesson in perspective and humility that gave me a lot more sympathy for people who are afraid of heights.

My own fear is claustrophobia. It's not a severe case, but it's bad enough. I first noticed it years ago during a big snowstorm in the Adirondacks, with three of us crammed into a two-man tent. As the walls pressed inward, I felt discomfort rising to panic, and I had to open the door to let fresh air wash over my face—and fresh snow fill the tent. My claustrophobia has gotten slightly worse over time, and now snow caves and squeeze chimneys may give me serious concern. Sometimes on a cold night, with my mummy bag zipped up tight, I'll wake and go into a panic, grasping for the zipper.

I wasn't a prime candidate for caving.

Yet I'd always wanted to try it. I loved the various tourist caves I'd visited—no problem for me in those vast chambers. And if it weren't for my claustrophobia, I knew I'd love caving: the climbing aspect, the feeling of exploration, the strange geologic forms. It was all me. And so when my wife and I visited friends in southwest England last summer, and they offered to take us into a famous local cave, I had to sign on.

People have been exploring Swildon's Hole for more than a century. It's the biggest known cave in the Mendip Hills. The rock inside is polished smooth from thousands of hands and boots, and the floor is clear of obstacles. Our host, a friend and local caver named Steve Cosh, had been inside Swildon's dozens of times. He used to lead youth groups through the cave (we borrowed our headlamps, helmets, wellington boots, and spiffy jumpsuits from his old boss). Swildon's has some serious caving, including many underwater passages, but we weren't going that far. How bad it could be?

Pretty freakin bad. Swildon's has a tiny hut atop its entrance, which is like a manhole with a short ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, the passage turns horizontal and narrows to the point where you have to squirm on your back or stomach. I was third in our party of five, and as soon as I got into the narrows, the old familiar panic began to rise. I squirmed back again, bumping into the feet of a friend, which only made it worse. I've got to get OUT! I shouted. Back on top, I told the others to go ahead. I might or might not follow.

After a moment, I decided to try again. Going last helped. I could still see a glimmer of daylight as I shimmied through that initial passage, and I rationalized that I could always escape, with no one to block my way, if things got bad. My wife and friends were just ahead, encouraging me to follow. The passage was wider now, and I could scurry along on my feet, ducking under the ceiling. But then it narrowed past crawling size again—mandatory belly or back scraping. It was only 10 or 15 feet, and I could hear Steve talking to me from the other side. "Once you're through this one, it gets bigger for quite some time," he said, as if talking to a 14-year-old from one of his hoods in the woods programs. "Just give it a try. If you don't like it, you can go back out."

I was ready to go back out. But I also really wanted to continue. I narrowed my focus to the wall beside me, to the rivulets of water on the limestone, the strange knobs and tendrils of rock. Slowly, I felt my breathing slow, the panicky feeling subside. I decided to go for it. I squirmed through to Steve, and he smiled and pointed the way ahead. "No way," I said. "You go first—I've got to be last in line.

We were underground nearly two hours, exploring Swildon's upper passages. We clambered up and down drop-offs and through streams running along the floor. We climbed down and then back up a eight-foot waterfall. We had to boulder up through a hole named the Toilet Bowl. It was fascinating and beautiful, and at times even fun. My claustrophobia never got too severe after the initial panics, but it was always there, just under the surface, ready to rear up and smother me. I was glad to have entered Swildon's, but I was also very glad to get out.

Walking back to the car, Chris, my wife, was hopping with enthusiasm. She had loved it, couldn't wait to go again. "You're on your own, honey," I told her. Once was enough for me.

At times, I've been known to grow impatient with gripped climbers or with friends who are spooked by heights on a mountain scramble. What is wrong with them? I'll think. But now that I've felt a little taste of what they must be feeling, I hope I remember it the next time I'm with an acrophobe. Neither claustrophia nor acrophobia is an irrational fear, after all. And, of the two, acrophobia has more power to preserve one's life. But caving still seems nuts to me. Get me back to the airy perils of cliffs and ice falls.

In the photo: Yup, that's me, smiling for the camera, but not because I'm enjoying myself. OK, maybe just a little.... Photo by Steve Cosh 


Friday, December 18, 2009

Probably Not the Best Screw


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Never Stop Litigating

I just had to laugh when I heard the North Face was suing an upstart company in the Midwest that calls itself the South Butt and sells clothing with parody logos and slogans ("Never Stop Relaxing"). A very similar scenario unfolded about a decade ago when I was running Rock & Ice.

The old Franklin Climbing company had been running a series of full-page ads featuring portraits of interesting climbers posing against a white backdrop. The ads were simple and sharp, and we liked having them in the mag. In early 1999, the company sent us a particularly funny one: a photo of a baby boy sitting on the floor and peering into the front side of his diaper, with the tiny tagline "Never Stop Explorin.' " We thought it was harmless and cute, and if we thought about it at all (which I doubt), we expected the North Face would laugh along.

Uh-uh. Shortly after the ad appeared, I had to take a call from the company's CEO—the CEO, for cripe's sake—who said he was suing Franklin and that we'd better stop running that ad immediately or he'd sue us too. I groveled a bit (hey, we needed the North Face's advertising money more than we needed a freedom-of-speech case), and the problem went away. The Franklins' problems with TNF eased, too, although probably not as quickly.

This time, though, the legal action may have backfired for TNF. In the age of viral information, the North Face just looks like a bully, and the South Butt had more than 4,400 fans on its Facebook page this morning. They're undoubtedly selling loads more clothes than they ever expected, though I doubt they were prepared for the onslaught of orders.

I also doubt the South Butt will be in business for long. The Franklin incident seemed ridiculous to everyone but TNF, but in this instance I'd say the North Face actually has a very strong case—I mean, South Butt is trying to sell its clothes primarily by trashing the TNF brand. That's not right. But for the North Face, will winning in court mean losing with the public? 


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lacelle Avalanche Video Analysis

Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, prepared this excellent video analysis and reconstruction of the avalanche accident that claimed the life of the great Canadian ice climber Guy Lacelle last Thursday in Montana's Hyalite Canyon. This tragic incident and Doug's timely video are sobering reminders of the dangers that lurk in seemingly innocuous terrain. You just can never let down your guard—ever.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Nordic Skating

The December issue of 5280 has my story about three new "adrenaline" sports to try in Colorado this winter. Of the three, by far the most intriguing to me is Nordic skating, combining the long blades of speed skaters with cross-country ski boots and bindings for long-distance cruising on ice. Although few people in Colorado have even heard of Nordic skating, it's big in New England, where Vermont-based Nordic Skater sells and rents the gear, starting as low as $89 for skates and bindings. (Most cross-country skiers already own the necessary boots.) As a kid in Maine, I skated along winding streams to connect chains of frozen ponds, and when I talked to Jamie Hess, owner of Nordic Skater, I was pleased to hear that people still skate up the Royal River near my hometown. There's nothing quite like speeding over bumpy ice along a twisting creek, each bend bringing a new revelation. I can't wait to try it again.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

National Geo Adventure Calls It Quits

The December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure will be the last one, another victim of the Great Recession and the changing tides—the tsunami—affecting print journalism. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. Since its launch in 1999 under editor John Rasmus, the magazine has balanced superb reporting—I've got The New Age of Adventure collection by my bedside—with massive amounts of trip and equipment service material, and it was backed by the mighty National Geographic Society. I didn't do much work for the magazine, but I always enjoyed my dealings with its editors, especially Cliff Ransom and former editors Jim Meigs and James Vlahos. Steve Casimiro, the magazine's peripatetic West Coast editor, has just published a good report and reflection on his magazine's demise at his Adventure Life blog. Good luck to everyone.


Off Route in Nepal

Is it just me, or does it seem misguided that Nepal's cabinet ministers are staging a meeting at Everest base camp to call attention to global warming's threat to the Himalaya? The ministers have flown to Lukla and soon will continue by air to base camp. That's X number of helicopter flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, plus Y flights to Everest base camp, plus Z return flights, all adding up to a nasty output of carbon emissions. The threats to Nepalese mountain communities are real, but is flying around the Himalaya the best way to publicize them?


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Deep Water Reservoir-ing

Now this looks like fun...

Deep-water soloing above Lake Powell. Photos by Rachel Kemble (upper left, courtesy of Josh Thompson) and Greg D., used with permission. See Mountain Project for more pics, including some enticing walls with not-so-soft landings.