Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The High One

... is a translation of one native name, Denali. Lhawang and I spent the last couple of days packing food and sorting gear for our trip, and are ready to fly on tomorrow with our crew, weather cooperating. The internet at the guide house is down at the moment, so no pictures, but here's the cybercast link, at least. We're Team 2, now only with 5 climbers, one having canceled at the last moment. http://www.alpineascents.com/denali-cybercast.asp

It's raining at the moment, so we'll see if we actually get out tomorrow, or if we spend some time enjoying beautiful downtown Talkeetna. Here goes...

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Believe it or not, it's not all glamor and high adventure. Sometimes even mountain guides have to sleep, get over jetlag, recover. So what does one do with a week and a half off?

Well, mostly sleep. And unpack, do laundry, repack, email the expedition team, stop by the office, spend time with one's partner, sort through mail, etc. All the things everyone has to do, just on a compressed time schedule.

We were fortunate enough to have two beautifully sunny days here in the Northwest recently, so we decided to go camping. Yes, camping - not climbing, skiing, scoping a route, or training, just camping. Bellingham has a few small mountains just minutes away with lots of trails and actual designated campspots, so we packed a minimum of gear and hiked up in jeans. Yes, jeans! Laid our sleeping bags out by a small lake, had cocoa and went to sleep, enjoying the quiet and surrounding nature. Woke up, had more cocoa, laid around appreciating that we didn't have to be anywhere, and hiked back down as dayhikers started to arrive on this beautiful Saturday.

So there you have it. In another week I'll be back on a glacier, but for now it's nice to just be here, now.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

There and back again

It's kind of neat to go to a place every 6 months, with different people, different attitudes, different weather, just a chance to see the place in a new time and space and through new eyes.

We had a great trip up the Khumbu Valley, over to see Thame on the way, then up to Everest Base Camp and then up nearby Kala Patar to see where we'd been, and where we weren't going (Everest!). My second trip up in the spring, with all the climbers on the trail and in the tea houses - lots of characters around! Our own Alpine Ascents climbing team seemed like a collection of good people, great to get to know on the way up and usually getting to the evening's destination well before us! Good thing it's not a race...

We got a bunch of snow over the course of two weeks (way better than rain!), which kept the dust down and made things look pretty, and indicated that it was a little colder than last spring. This was validated when we got to our highest tea house and the indoor toilet wasn't working because the underground pipe outside had frozen solid! Ah, the nature of adventure. Fortunately the group was great, with a good sense of... adventure, and an ability to deal with what came our way, knowing it only makes for good stories later. (That's Ama Dablam in the background.)

Additionally, our trekking staff was particularly wonderful - we had the opportunity to ask lots of nuanced questions about culture and experience, see Tsering's parents' home, and just generally connect and have a great time with them. The particular people on each trek tend to change from time to time, but I do hope to have most of the same folks with us again in the fall. We unfortunately had to give up Mingma to accompany one of our group to Island Peak while I continued down with the trekkers. We did hear that Derek summited successfully a couple of days ago, so I guess it was worth it. *grin*

And in a blatant commercial plug, we used a UV-light water sterilization device called a SteriPEN on this trek for the first time, and it worked beautifully. There are many environmental impacts of trekking on this region, and a big one is the use of fuel. Historically there was barely enough wood to support populations living here, but the heating and cooking and water-boiling required by thousands of trekkers puts a huge strain on the amount of kerosene and propane and yak dung (yep) available for fuel. So our local organizer suggested switching to battery power, and NO ONE had any debilitating GI issues! This is pretty unheard-of up in the Khumbu, so that is my testimonial. Pretty cool technology. (We decided these animals moving propane up the trail were called "fuel mules". I call them rocket mules. Either way we hope they don't slip.)

And now we're all on our respective ways back home, with a little time in Kathmandu and lots of hours on planes, heading back to that myriad of things that make it home. A little time for me to unpack, remember what the Northwest feels like, then pack up again and head north...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Katmandu, round 3

Well, I have to admit that my first two visits to Kathmandu were a little different than I had expected. You hear so many things about this Nepali city that bring to mind the exotic, the timeless, the spiritual. Yet when I first arrived and wandered around for a couple days, it seemed awfully similar to the polluted, chaotic, concrete-filled cities of other Asian towns that have expanded simply by laying more rebar and asphalt.

This time, however, I was goaded into visiting Bhaktapur, a preserved population center on the outskirts of Kathmandu, an area known for its historical buildings and lack of intrusive roads. We got out of the taxi and walked into what I had been envisioning all along.

Narrow streets, tiny doorways, old wood carvings, neighborhood temples, round wells, woodcarving or pottery or cobbler's shops... It is easy to imagine that these buildings, these paths and gathering places, haven't changed much in several hundred years. Stone carvings on temple stairs, rows of bells hanging from the eves, intricate forms hiding in wood in the shadows - all of these things seamlessly and un-selfconsciously a part of daily life

And I have to imagine that the whole of Kathmandu had this air about it when it was "discovered" by the western world in the 70s. In the early 50s, there were no roads that accessed this place from the outside world. (There were cars that had been taken apart and carried in, but you couldn't drive there!) The city in 1970 must have been so incredibly different from the West in ways it simply isn't now. I took a right by the Nike sign and went upstairs to get a 3G modem for my computer this morning. A little different, 40 years later.

But tomorrow we are on the first plane out to Lukla, back to a land that has changed in some ways, but not in others. The mountain trails are still steep and rocky, and yaks and people still carry everything that has to move up and down the valley. Follow the Everest Base Camp trek at www.alpineascents.com/everest-trek-cybercast-spring10.asp

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More skiing!

Well there's more winter, isn't there?

One last trip in home territory before going back to work - into the Baker backcountry for a trip to Mt Ann, a place I haven't been since my second-ever glacier climb up the Fischer Chimneys on nearby Mt Shuksan in 2002. It looks very different in the winter to be sure! A mid-week day with not a lot of new snow meant we saw almost no one, and a bit of a crust from some sunshine meant the travel was easy. Nice.

Up and over the ski area, across some flats, up the flanks to the ridge of Mt Ann (avoiding the skin track set right under a huge cornice being warmed by the sun), and along to the summit, where we deemed the skiing too steep (telemark [v] : Finnish word meaning "ack, it's too steep!") and too icy to be fun, booted up to the top and enjoyed the view before sliding back down on our butts. The greater part of having fun is knowing when to call it.

The skiing down was a little crusty to be really enjoyable, but we made some nice arcing turns and enjoyed being out in the pristine snow and beautiful weather. Sunshine and warmth - it must be spring! The days are getting longer, and we're looking forward to the opportunity for some longer tours.

But for now, I'm off to Nepal, to lead the Everest Base Camp trek for Alpine. Work is great, but it does so get in the way... *grin*

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lizzie Creek Cabin

Well, Dave wanted to know how I was going to spin this particular trip, because the net result of two weeks in Canada was a whole lot of skinning, hard work, and being soggy, and not so much sunny powder skiing. Yes, it's true. You win some, you lose some.

We were psyched to have a nice long chunk of time off, and lots of terrain we had seen in print and on blogs. 8-to-12-hour approach, cozy little cabin, and tons of alpine terrain of varying aspects and steepness. Sweet!! We took a couple days to organize, pack, and position ourselves just outside Pemberton, BC, about 30 minutes north of Whistler, and parked at the trailhead for the evening after sampling some "Chinese Japanese Canadian Cuisine" at the local Centennial Cafe in town. Equipment, check. Intentions, check. In position, check.

Weather, not so much. We woke to steady rain and couldn't bring ourselves to start uphill, choosing instead to haunt the bakery and library in hopes of finding a region of better weather nearby in time or place. No luck! A powerful low pressure system was spinning warm fronts out in the Pacific that were riding right over all the coastal ranges. We went back to the trailhead prepared to start out wet. Sure enough, on and off showers gave way to the dreaded "snain," part rain, part snow, as we trudged up a logging road toward our destination valley. Lots of incredibly heavy snow hadn't been skied for some time, and the trailbreaking was astonishingly tiring.

8 hours in, we decided to call it for the day and built a snow shelter, half cave, half ski-tent, that served quite well since it wasn't stormy, just snowy. A much-needed rest, as we were still a little tired the next morning continuing up. Another 5 hours, directions that didn't quite match the terrain, and lots more heavy trailbreaking later, we reached the hut. Home sweet home!! Very cozy, and almost entirely covered with the 8-9 feet of snow on the ground and roof, it did have some wood stacked inside that let us finally get dry and warm. Whew! The continued snow and fog led us to spend the next day harvesting dead branches and trees to stock up the firewood supply for the next few days, and excavate an outhouse entrance from under the same huge snowpack.

Time to ski! There can be too much of a good thing, though, and we had it. So much snow that trailbreaking continued to be difficult, and enough clouds and snow to keep us from being able to see anything. All those beautiful mountains and valleys around us, and we can't even see them! The avalanche danger had our attention, too - it was warm and had been snowing continuously for several days. We turned back from an intended tour and took a couple of consolation runs on the slopes above the cabin. Could be fun snow, but soooo much work to use it! Fatigue and increasingly soggy precipitation made for an early afternoon.

Next day, a similar story as we broke trail up the same exact hillside, our previous track completely obscured by snow and wind. We had a few runs and still-dry layers when we called it a day - quite an improvement! The next morning was already day 6, and time to head out. Fortunately, the snow had finally consolidated enough to enable us to actually ski out (instead of breaking train again), and we made good time. We even saw the sun once!

If being all hard-core and outdoorsy requires fortitude and endurance, it also requires knowing when to actively avoid it! We ended up at a great place called The Hitching Post Motel, and highly recommend it to anyone heading north of Whistler. Super nice owners, some nicely renovated rooms, and a perfect kitchenette area to allow for breakfast in bed options. Much needed after six days of being cold and soggy! Slept in, checked out, and hung out in her laundomat to reorganize and regroup. The weather was improving, so we stayed close and drove up to Duffey Lake for two more days of skiing, moving back into truck-camping mode.

This time, the weather and snow cooperated beautifully! Others had set a skin track up before us, the snow was fluffy, and we actually got some sun. Ah, timing. A few more people there, not the complete solitude of a cabin 13 km in, but the backcountry of British Columbia is definitely big enough to accommodate. Lots of natural and triggered avalanches were coming down, and we were more than happy to observe from afar as they set off slides across the highway and then cleared debris from the road. By this time, we were pretty tired from only one day of rest in the last nine, so were grateful to head back home, only a 4-hour drive! So close, just across that border line.

I'm definitely hoping to go back to the cabin again, hopefully when the weather is a little more cooperative. Next time, it would be nice to get something more like this: http://richso.blogspot.com/2011/01/lizzie-creek-new-years.html Ah, well. (Oh, and if it looks like I was shooting in black-and-white, I wasn't, it was just grey out!)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Lots of snow!

Well, it's supposedly a La Nina weather pattern year, but while we're getting plenty of precipitation, and plenty of it as snow, the freezing level occasionally goes way up and drops some rain, too, so it's not shaping up to be quite as extraordinary as the record-setting winter of 1999.

Still lots of great snow, though! Some of it comes with good visibility, some of it does not. One of the first tours we did when I got back was up by Mt Baker in possibly the most complete whiteout I have ever experienced. We call it being in the ping pong ball - the light scatters and refracts from clouds and snow the same way, making it impossible to distinguish surface water crystals from suspended water droplets. You find yourself in a perfect visual sphere with no orientation, literally impossible to tell whether you're about to bump into a snowbank or have the snow end beneath your feet. Great snow, but hard to ski! Still good to be out, of course.

Next time out, a little better visibility, but we still needed some trees to steer by. So into the Swift Creek woods, just behind the Mt Baker ski area. The snow was amazing, knee deep until you got your telemark turn on... then it became waist deep as we crouched down mid-turn. Heavy enough to ski on top of, light enough to be really, really fun. Telemark is such fun. A little video of some low-angle lovin' - it doesn't have to be steep to be fun...

A few weeks in town, a little skiing and catching up with friends, and suddenly it's time to head up to Canada for a longer ski trip with Dave. There's certainly plenty of snow, so let's hope the weather cooperates, too!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Team Bob addendum

One of the climbers on Team Bob had enough oxygen capacity left over on the summit to do a little filming. It's a good glimpse of what it might feel like up there... Enjoy!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Team Bob

Yes, it's true, Bob, you get a whole post! Team 8 was definitely an interesting team, a great collection of easy-going characters that made this trip a good one.

Many changes took place on the mountain in my absence. For one, it had gotten hammered with snow, so the concern for water at the higher camps was alleviated, and upper trails were covered in perfect styrofoam snow, great for cramponing. Additionally, the park (which is a provincial park, not a national one, which might explain some things), in its zeal to be a real park with real rangers and rules, used some of the newfound money from elevated permit fees to station a doctor at the very first camp. So while Matthew made hamburgers for dinner, I sat with the doc while all our people were checked for oxygen saturation, lung sounds, blood pressure, etc. More checks and more structures = a better park, right?

Ahem. Once at base camp (after a second medical check), we settled into carrying loads up the mountain. Lhakpa Gelu joined us at Camp 1, which meant that we had more stories and carrying power added to the team, as well as just an amazing mountain person. Afternoon snowstorms graced us for a few days but didn't cause trouble, and after that we had some great weather and moved up to our Camp 3, most people's camp 2. The forecast was for a couple days of high winds followed by a good period, so we spent an extra day there, gaining a little more rest and acclimatization, then moved up and summarily had our summit day.

A beautiful day, though a little windy at the start, and 6 of 10 folks stood on top with us. Lhakpa took three down who were running out of resources for a continued trip up AND down, and once back at camp we pooled all of our remaining meal resources to have some very flavorful mashed potatoes for dinner that night. But there's no standin for real food, so the next day we gratefully headed down to base camp and the path home. A memorable team, for sure!

Back in Mendoza, I was psyched to enjoy a few more days of watermelon and other fresh summer fruit, but am expecially excited to be back in the Pacific Northwest where there are things like organic lettuce and molasses. Yes, I have odd tastes, but it's good to be back where I can have them! The mountains are wearing some fresh snow, I get to go skiing in the fog with my partner, and it's good to be back.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Up the hill

Well, the team is here, and so is there luggage - what more can you ask for? We just had a great welcome dinner in the warm Mendoza evening and are headed out tomorrow morning. There's potentially a bit of SAT phone trouble, with a half-charged battery and no compatible charger here, but we'll make it work. Follow Team 8 at http://www.alpineascents.com/aconcagua-cybercast.asp Back soon!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is the southernmost city on the South American continent, and the place where flights to and from this part of Antarctica are based. (Ushuaia is further south, but on an island, not part of the greater landmass.) Climbers going to Mt Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica, fly to and from the ice with the only private company that operates here, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions or ALE. They have been in business for 24 years and make something as incredibly complicated as operating a base in Antarctica as seamless as showing up at the tip of Chile.

In between my Aconcagua trips, I went down to meet the incoming Vinson climbers for Alpine Ascents and get them ready to fly onto the ice. The two guides who will actually be with them on the mountain stay down to guide two trips because the flight costs about $15,000 round trip, so I act as their proxy guide until they fly. This means I get to see a new part of the world and learn a little more about the whole Antarctic scene while getting to know some new interesting people.

Summer in southern Chile is not quite as balmy as Mendoza. The high most days was around 55, sometimes less, with a warm sun but a cold wind. It's a sea town, but on the east coast of land, along the Strait of Magellan, which is an inland shortcut to avoid storm-lashed Cape Horn. Cruise ships and fishing boats and colorful roofs decorate this grey place where many of the buildings date from 100 years ago and there is an awareness of its distance from the rest of the world. We roamed around town several times daily looking for meals, and spent some time just checking out this place where we would be waiting until it was time to fly.

Various members of the group spent time in the scenic areas of the city, including the expansive local cemetery. We spent an afternoon in this peaceful place filled with memorials big and small to the dead of the last 100 years. Dr Suess-inspired trees were set among some really ornate crypts and monuments and other simpler plots. A beautiful setting, one clearly well-attended by loved ones.

Our other fascinating destination was a full-size replica of Magellan's ship Victoria which originally passed through in 1520 and is being built from the original plans. A local penguin-tour and kayak-rental operator is losing business due to increased competition, and decided to take this opportunity to give shape to his passion. He and a business partner built the frame of local wood, and 6 local carpenters who normally build fishing boats finished the rest of the work. He invited us on board to poke around as we pleased, and we got to see it as one rarely does, without barricades or limitations. It's a small ship, called a nao, that requires 18-40 people to sail. He plans to make his money back from tourists for a few years, and then sailing it in some capacity for fun and profit.

But all is not idyllic in southern Chile. Interestingly, a national government decision to reduce the subsidy on natural gas has caused enough concern in this cold land to spark a series of strikes, the latest of which is an indefinite strike closing down roads into and out of the city, including to the airport. Faced with the possibility of not being able to leave town, I decided to get out while I could in order to make sure I was back for my next Aconcagua trip. Back in Mendoza, I hear from the Vinson climbers that normal delays due to weather are being exacerbated by lack of mobility due to the strike. ALE has its hands full, to be sure! Hope they can get out soon - Punta Arenas is nice and all, but I wouldn't want to spend too much time there...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Half-time show

Well, at the beginning of this blog, my hair was 1/4" long. Today... (drumroll please) ... I actually put it back in a ponytail. Yes, it's very exciting. It's more of a dish-washing brush than a ponytail at this point, but it is functional. 10 years since the last time - lots of ground in the intervening years. Now, once again, I'll be buying and losing elastic bands with (most of) the rest of the female population. Oh, boy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Team 3

... this year on Aconcagua was a great team. Ten people from across the country and globe, tossed together in that mixing bowl we call an expedition team - they were all fun and generous and strong, and on top of that we had fantastic weather almost the whole trip. Unheard of on this mountain!

Things (not big things, just things) are afoot on the mountain. The climbing fees increased from $550 to $800 in the high season, and the park is trying to become a "real" park. New ranger huts being choppered in where previously there was only a stone lean-to, base camp physicians who actually know high altitude medicine (Sebastian was fantastic, docs in previous years less so) - you won't be able to recognize the place in a few years! But there will never (in human time, not geologic time) be another highest peak in South America, so people will continue to come.

When we arrived in Plaza Argentina base camp at 13,800', they had just experienced winds of 100mph which seem to
have generated a freak twister that tore Grajales' facilities apart and nearly nabbed one of Alpine's guides. They had rapidly called in new facilities and supplies (the propane oven was delivered by helicopter while we were there) and our experience was back to normal, pizzas and all. It was still a little windy at base camp, but the rest of the trip was great - just a day or two of moderate winds, otherwise generally quite calm and nice. Sweet!

Christmas day fell on our rest day at 19,200' Polish Camp. We made a little tree out of our ice axes and crampons and decorated it with battery-powered lights and a headlamp. A team of three Canadians who had been next to us much of the trip came by and regaled us with well-rehearsed songs of kazoo, harmonica, and recorder. What a nice touch! It is amazing what communities form in places where people are enduring common hardship. Voluntary, in this case, but true nonetheless.

We moved up to our final camp and had a beautiful summit day, with 6 of 10 of our climbers standing on top. We retreated to camp, then the following day to Plaza de Mulas base camp, and finally enjoyed a little more oxygen. After more wonderful base camp pizza, and a group sleepover in the dining tent (to avoid pitching our own tents) we hiked out in the worst weather of the whole trip, snow and rain for 13 miles to the trailhead. We even saw a small mudslide (rocks the size of pianos!)! But everyone arrived safe and sound back to civilization, and after several showers and remembering how to sit in chairs, we are enjoying the finer points of Mendoza.

Now for a little down time, sorting out budgets and trip reports and laundry and email. I'll be heading down to Punta Arenas to meet the Vinson climbers in a few days, but for now it's nice just to be wearing cotton...