What Kind of Climbing Knife Do You Need?

The Climber, from Victorinox. (Andrew Toskin 2014)

I carry a Swiss Army knife almost everywhere I go outside of work. It comes in handy almost daily. I open packages, fix my kids’ toys, and it even once helped me performed a small surgical procedure (don’t ask).

The other day a nonclimber asked me what kind of knife I bring with me when I climb. I paused.

What did he think goes on up there?

I don’t plan on cutting my rope and splicing it back together. A knife doesn’t help me reach for the next hold. I don’t fight off beasts. At most, I might use my pocket knife to prepare or eat my meal… when I am in camp.

Oh, and I have never contemplated having to cut the rope with my partner dangling from it. To the best of my knowledge that has only occurred once in history and that makes it the singular exception rather than the rule.

My knife is well stowed when my climbing gear is out. The only sharp objects I need out are the front points on my crampons or blades on my ice axe — and that’s only on true alpine routes. I don’t use those rock climbing. The knife won’t be needed. Put it away.

At least this is generally true… A knife can remove old, excess webbing or an old rope, or help you cut an end of a damaged rope off. And there are specialty blades that are serrated and made to efficiently for that. Still, my Swiss Army knife could do it, and, if I ever had to, that is what I would saw with.

Still, it’s not something a climber should keep handy next to his/her belay device and locking ‘biner. If he/she has it clipped there, you might not want to make that person your climbing partner.

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How to Bring the Mountains Home with You

Alpinist magazine during the daily commute (Szalay 2014)

We often say that we should take only memories and pictures and leave only footprints in the wilderness. But it’s really not that simple. We’re human beings with passions and for some of us that means we want to immerse ourselves wholly in what we love, be that a national park or the ideal of a mountain man or woman.

While we don’t want to take anything physical or erect anything permanent or semi-permanent in the places we love, we want things that give a longer life to the euphoric sensations our adventures give us. For me, it even goes a bit deeper: My self-identity is wrapped in these places and adventures, so leaving my heart at the trailhead is impossible.

I try to bring the mountains home with me. I take pictures. I write down memories. Then I buy a twelve-pack of the locally brewed beer and buy gallons of maple syrup (at least for my journeys to Vermont) to enjoy for while longer. When I get home I look at gear in Patagonia catalogs with a bit of lust. I think about gearing-up for the next time my work schedule opens up for Natalie and I to go off with the kids someplace with wide open spaces. I consider buying that new backpack, I think, because I can load all my cool stuff and be as ready as Colin Haley for Mount Foraker.

Except, 85 percent of my daily routine involves driving city roads in our Subaru, riding subways and buses, walking on paved sidewalks, sitting in offices and cafes and climbing the three-story walk-up to our apartment. What do I need my Asolo TPS 520s and hard shell for when I usually need a pair of tasseled loafers and a sport coat?

I’m desperately trying to create an allusion of being in, or ready for, the mountains. I’m trying to satisfy a need for rock strewn trails, higher elevation, and the excitement of changing weather. This is despite the fact that I have responsibilities and commitments that conflict with that desire, and that I have I have willingly embraced those duties. (In fact, all of this is the true reason I started this blog.)

Desktop Mountain Art.

Shopping for new gear is a poor substitute for keeping the joy of the mountains; if I am just going to have it for that “one day” in distance, then it’s a waste. Gear wears out even from non-use. For example, my climbing harness just reached it’s expiration date after 10 years. Regardless of it’s visual appearance it’s done.

However, I recently realized that my library of mountaineering literature actually soothes my restless soul more than new duds from an outfitter. (Though, Sweetie, if you’re reading this, don’t let this discourage you from getting me another plaid shirt from Patagonia — I’ll wear those on the weekend anyway.) There is a wealth of climbing books, what Barry Blanchard called the “cannon of mountaineering” in his book The Calling is enormous — you should dive in. Plus publications, like the magazine Alpinist, are also wonderful outlets that connect with your mountain person ego.

Since Natalie and I moved back into our relatively small condo I have had to store the majority of my gear in a shed. What is left accessible is my library and some art. If you follow me on Instagram then you have seen my “Desktop Mountain Art,” which I put in different configurations and post periodically. Fascinatingly, these wooden models have struck gold inside me. I love them and they have raised ideas, thoughts and joy inside me. Of course, they also prompt conversations about art, mountains, and adventure. It makes me share memories and show pictures.

What we need is something that connects with us at a different level — maybe it’s our soul. The practicality of outdoor clothing and equipment are merely tools to shelter what houses that soul of ours. We need to reach deeper. In fact, we need to go directly to what those ads and descriptions in the Patagonia catalog are tugging at… the dormant feelings we usually only feel gallivanting in the outdoors. We need more art. It can be in written word or something for a shelf, or maybe something else I haven’t discovered yet.

So if all of this doesn’t get closer to telling you more about how to fix our problem (and describe how messed up I am), I don’t know what does. I’ll be back in touch with more later. For now, enjoy the rest of your week and have a good weekend.

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Why We Should be More Thankful

North America (NASA 2011)

We’re expecting some moderate snow in the Mid-Atlantic region, and while I would normally be egging it on, it’s actually presenting a problem. It’s supposed to hit tomorrow, which is the biggest travel day of the year in the US. Natalie and I are hosting the Thanksgiving feast the next day; we have family driving down from Philadelphia and friends coming from London. We hope that they won’t be delayed.

Last year at this time I posted a piece on climber’s Thanksgiving traditions. This year I’m thinking about what, as a climber, I’m particularly grateful for. The answer brought be back… way back to sometime even before the 1900s.

But the story starts in high school when I began to think that I was born into the wrong era. I wanted to ascend unclimbed mountains in untouched wilderness. I wanted to hike in and port gear carried in by some exotic beast or a pied by shuttling loads. I though that roadside crags and airplanes dropping so-called adventurers or explorers into the backcountry was trivializing the experience.

Now, about 20 years later, I know that even explorers in the 1960s — when most of places like the Himalayas and Patagonia was untouched by Westerners — wish they were seeking out lands in the 1880s.

I also know that adventurers in the 1880s wish they were gallivanting before the advent of the telegraph or the railroad… when times were slower.

Sometime after starting to write here on TSM I got a little less ornery about the period we lived in. That is because I believe my kids, if they have a romantic and adventurous heart like their father, will wish they were actively exploring the world back when I was a kid.

So this is what I’m thankful for:

World Travel – We can go climbing on the other side of the globe and get there is 48 hours, not weeks or months.

Beta and the Internet — There is an unprecedented amount of information available for beta or just to take in the wonder of mountaineering history. Even the American Alpine Journal is now in expanded form online.

Climbing Style is Still First — Despite the armies of commercially guided “expeditions” that build tent cities at the base of major mountains and walk up fixed-rope paths, there are still climbers that climb in light and fast fashion and are not motivated solely by peak bagging. We just have to look for them, and searching for them is part of the pleasure of this age right now.

I’m sure that there is more. What else would you add? Leave me a comment, send me a tweet or shoot me an email.

Well, I’ve got to check the forecast… Have a happy Thanksgiving.

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Some Quick Notes and What I’m Reading Now

This rock climbing shoe fit in the palm of my hand (Szalay 2014)

I promised Natalie that I wouldn’t push the kids to get into climbing, though she understands that I won’t discourage it if they show interest. But get this: Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz both like to get into our piles of books. And lately, Schnickelfritz, who is a year-and-a-half old, has chosen the small picture book about Mount Everest off my bookcase. There are a lot of books within his reach and that one keeps surfacing and left somewhere on the floor. So when I stumbled upon this tiny rock climbing shoe, it was hard for me not to get somewhat excited. Still, I didn’t buy it; I know what I promised.

I’m very excited to have finished my first piece for Alpinist magazine. Alpinist is the leading English-language literary climbing magazine that delivera in-depth and beautiful feature articles quarterly. My submission is notably smaller than the well-known features, but that’s not the point; I got to share a little-known piece of climbing history that I think you’d like to know. Be sure to check it out in issue 49, which comes out around January.

And here are some quick notes on what is in my physical and virtual reading stack:

I am extremely late in publishing my review of John Quillen’s book, Tempting the Throne Room: Surviving Pakistan’s Deadliest Climbing Season 2013 (2014), which was available in paperback earlier this year. I accepted an ebook version, but, as I have discovered, I read ebooks at a much slower pace. I might go with the hard copy book next time.

Barry Blanchard’s book, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains (2014) came out at long last. I think I looked more forward to Blanchard to publishing his first book than I did Steve House’s. I only just began reading it, as I need to finish Quillen’s work first. It’s also an ebook, so I have to stay disciplined and keep my phone fully charged before my commute and time on planes traveling. (Please wish me luck with that.) Here is an excerpt in case you’d like a preview.

I continue to read and re-read parts of Alpinist 48. Katie Ives column, The Sharp End, is about the art of the approach and is available to read online for free. My friend Suzanne Ybarra writes about her late brother and his friend’s unyielding pursuit of El Capitan-south. It also has a short piece involving Don Jensen, which if you are as interested in Alaskan exploration anywhere near the way I am, well, it’s a must read.

Lastly, while I don’t possess a copy yet, I am excited about reading John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger (2014) about Alex MacIntyre. A biography of MacIntyre is enough to interest me but it also took the grand prize at the 2014 Banff Mountain Book Competition.

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You Didn’t Know This About the Birth of Mountaineering

In some ways it’s amazing that mountaineering was born, to a large extent, during the latter half of the 1800s. At that time, physical endurance activities were unusual characteristics for a recreational activity, but that was slowly changing. The Industrial Revolution made work more efficient and the resulting labor movement instituted the novel idea of free time. So we went to music concerts, read popularly printed books, and gambled where it was accepted.

Still, physical endurance activities were usually left to soldiers, like those serving the British Empire, protecting and expanding territory. (This played a role, in part, why the terminology of mountain climbing centered around the idea of conquest and described features of mountains as ramparts or defenses.) Sporting and physically engaging activities were just emerging, seemingly for the first time since the Greek Olympics, and the leading sport, believe it or not was walking.

Walking anywhere of any distance in those days was considered odd. Roads were narrow and suitable only for horses, carriages, and wagons. And when destinations were far, there was always the risk of being benighted; without flashlights, lamposts and electricity, being stranded after dark, and with it perhaps the cold, was a danger we have long forgotten. Yet walking suddenly had the potential to be a feat.

Men — and this was a male actvity — with some bravado and competitive spirt would take bets on whether one of them among the gamblers could walk from one town to another or from one county to the next over. Sometimes these bets would take a competitor 100 miles or so in a day. It became known as pedestrianism in Britain and the United States, and was even the start of professional athletics in the United States, even predating baseball players.

Pedestrianism or the walking wager of the 1800s.

Pedestrianism came after the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1865 and some other historic moments in mountaineering, however the arrival of the walking wager, as pedestrianism was less frequently called, was a leading part of mankind’s movement to seek physical challenges. Opening the door to such challenges to a new fieldnof self discovery.

What did these pedestrians see and feel? Did it feel like a night on a belay ledge when they were benighted? Did they halicinate from the exhaustion? Did they get clarity in who they were as people and what makes them feel alive? These answers were a mystery to the spectators, and only walking far for oneself would yield any useful answers. In fact, it seems like a version of an alpine quest.

Pedestrianism was part of our embrace of ourselves as physical beings and connecting with that physical world around us. It started on a level plain of countryside by just walking, but it lead to explore the other plain on the Y-axis.

British men went beyond pedestrianism by visiting the Alps for walks and scrambles. They entered the ranges not for the lush alpine meadows for the good of livestock, but to explore the landscape, know themselves and challenge the hurdle of being benighted.

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Should You Pack Marijuana for the Alaska Range?


“Snow dome” in the Alaska Range (Ashok Baghoni 2011)

Every morning I wake up and I read the newspapers to stay informed for work — mostly stories on political issues and government policies. After that I turn to the climbing news and blogs. The morning after election day in the U.S. (which was Tuesday), was a little different. I follow America’s 50 state governments too, not just the federal elections, so there was a lot more political and government news to take in.

Voters across America considered 147 referendums. Some were on raising the minimum wage, some were on veteran’s benefits, and one hotly covered topic in a few states — including Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia — was the “legalization” of marijuana.

State climbing mecca Colorado previously allowed marijuana to be sold relatively freely. I haven’t heard of any outright depravity in climbing and marijuana use since it became legal. I’ve actually heard really pathetic stories about one climbing partner eating some questionable mushrooms and then getting stranded, naked, high up on one of the Flatirons. But that wasn’t marijuana.

When it comes to alpine Alaska, marijuana has made it’s way to basecamps and higher on Denali (think 17 camp) even before legalization. I recall reading that even Jon Krakauer “lit up” after climbing Devil’s Thumb and returning to his basecamp on the Stikine Ice Camp. (Some of you probably we’re surprised by this, and that makes me chuckle.) Well, Jon admitted that it wasn’t a good victory lap.

I’ve read posts in chat groups where climbers have speculated whether marijuana might help them climb with more focus. Has anyone asked the same question of beer or whiskey?

Marijuana might be legal in some of the best alpine climbing playgrounds in the U.S. now, but a good meal and a good nights rest might do more for your ascent than anything else. Be safe out there!

One last thing that I wanted to mention… The picture I posted above I discovered on Flickr. It reminds me of the feeling, if not the precise view, I shared with some friends camping at the Snake River camp site in Denali NPP. I’ve been saving it to share it at the right time. I hope you enjoy it and have a good rest of your week.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.


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