Why I Won’t Encourage My Kids to Climb

Young boy scrambling (John Cathey-Roberts 2008)

I have new hesitations about whether I want my son to climb.

Schnickelfritz is almost two and he’s enjoying playing with trains and cars as much if not more so than his older sister. He loves the time he gets to spend with me, to roughhouse, and work with my wrenches and screwdrivers. He’s also notorious for pulling down the books down from my climbing library and looking at the pictures.

The other day, I suddenly had a sense of hesitation about his inclination toward climbing. I didn’t feel this way with Wunderkind the same way; maybe its because they’re so young, Schnickelfritz in particular, but he likes things for the thrill. I worry that might become a dangerous habit, and I had a very real lump in my throat the other day when I considered bringing Schnickelfritz to the climbing gym one day.

I have a long-standing deal with my wife: I promised to Natalie that I wouldn’t encourage climbing but she also knew that I wouldn’t discourage it if they were to show interest.

That was fine until I started to reconsider that they might not have the same desire to be risk adverse. As a climber, I am actually pretty risk adverse. I manage it and mitigate it with strength, technique, help, and if it gets to be too great, I bail. Always have.

Climbing can be frivolous, dangerous, and can cause trauma and grief. Broken backs, concussions, missing digits are tangible results; and that’s if you survive an accident. That’s the consequence. And the grief is said to be worse for those that love the injured. Those of us that haven’t been touched by those horrors tend to pretend it’s not there or dismiss it because we think we’ll manage the risks and threats.

For Schnickelfritz, perhaps some little scares will help. The first time falling from a toprope before being caught. Perhaps building their own anchor and asking whether he will trust his life with it.

It’s like walking onto a frozen lake. You need to feel comfortable doing it to do it.

Statistically, I know that the odds of a concussion, by comparison, is more likely to happen while falling while riding a bicycle. But I know climbing also has a different stigma about it’s danger. We climb because we’re seeking something elusive, and it’s often not risk itself but what we see through the risk.

I love the mountains. There I seek to experience peace that comes from exhaustion and the relief of simple pleasures. A hot shower, a cold beer, and the company of a good friend or loved one in the mountains beats the hot dog and beer after work at a baseball game.

I’m not going to forbid climbing. But I think I will be true to my promise to Natalie, with some new trepidation.

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What I Am Reading Now and Alpinist 49


Alpinist 49 has my first piece for the literary magazine on pages 20 and 21.

For the last two weeks I have been immersed in conference prepations and legislative meetings here in Washington, DC for Habitat for Humanity’s annual visit with Members of Congress. Staying current on my reading list has been more difficult since we had one kid and harder since two, but it’s nearly impossible during these busy seasons. But sometimes there is a sip of words and, more rarely, a greedy gulp.

So with the conference complete (and a success), my days suddenly seemed longer… and colder. The perfect conditions for reading just a little bit more, and excuse for another hot espresso. Here’s an update and some ideas for what to read next:

Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains I am on the verge of finishing up Blanchard’s book and will tell you more about it in a review in a few weeks. I first learned about Blanchard from Steve House and have been eating up anecdotes about him for over a dozen years now. It’s been great to read his autobiography. I am charmed by his days in the Alps, but am envious of his access to the Canadian Rockies.

Alpinist 49 — The winter issue is on newsstands now and I have a brief piece on the bottom of pages 20 and 21 about a true story from the Adirondack Mountains and a climber hat became well known in Yosemite. Please check out my article and Kelly Cordes’ compilation on “The Unclimbed” that also includes a perspective from one of my favorite contemporary Alaska pioneers, Clint Helander.

The Tower by Kelly Cordes (again) This is next on my list after Blanchard’s autobiography. It’s a comprehensive history of Cerro Torre. I like to joke that he talks about everything about how the bolts went up the Compressor Route until they were triumphantly ripped off with cackles.

The other book on top of my list, but I don’t have a copy yet, is One Day A Tiger by John Porter about the immortal Alex MacIntyre. One friend of mine that read it already recommended that everyone should drop what they’re doing and read it now.

I have about a half dozen books on my shelf that I have mentioned before but haven’t had time for yet. Patience, I keep reminding myself, is key. This is just a busy season.

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How to Change Mount McKinley’s Name

The US Capitol rotunda, on a “hill” that I have climbed more than once (Deep 2011)

This past weekend, Fox News had an article that shed light into why, after more than 100 years, the highest peak in North America was named Mount McKinley, or rather why it was still named Mount McKinley. It’s older native name Denali is more commonly used, and I should know, I am reading and in conversation about this mountain often. Denali, rather than McKinley, is also officially recognized by the government of Alaska.

The bottom line reason the name is still McKinley is that the US Board on Geographic Names, a federal office with the authority to change the mountain’s federally recognized name, has deferred to Congress. But interestingly, they aren’t actually requiring a hearing let alone a vote to put a hold on the name changing process. No, rather Ohio Congressman Bob Gibbs introduced a bill to keep the name as McKinley and that’s sufficient.

My five years of serving as a Congressional aide and the past eight as a registered lobbyist has raised a bit of thought…

Buckeye Pride

While the mountain is in Alaska, more people than Alaskans lay claim to it. It’s North America’s highest peak and a point of America’s pride in its own vastness.

But the mountain was named by a gold prospector for a US presidential candidate that supported the gold standard, which was a political issue that was important to the prospector. But the candidate, William McKinley, would be elected president. He was from Ohio. The name would stick. And the citizens of Ohio had a president and a national landmark in America’s world class wilderness.

Changing the name of the mountain would not be a victimless act. Having the mountain is a matter of pride for Alaskans, and calling it their own is a point of state pride for Ohioans in the Buckeye State. Alaskans have the mountain. Ohioans want to be forever connected to the mountain.

“Morning in Denali” (Mark Stevens 2012)

The Map is Right

The name on the federal version map isn’t wrong. Neither is the Alaskan version with Denali written on it. In fact whatever name you were to put over the topo lines would be fine. It’s subjective. Even Denali isn’t the only native name, but it’s the most commonly used.

There was even a time when people debated about whether Denali was actually two mountains. It essentially relies on the map makers and public’s tolerance for what makes a separate mountain versus a subpeak. Factors like distance between the summits and the depth of the col between them all come into play. Some map making communities have official criteria.

If Denali or McKinley, depending on what you want to call it, was actually two separate mountains and the south peak’s name was McKinley, what would you call the north peak, Denali?

Bridging the Crevasse

The US Board on Geographic Names has the authority to rename Mount McKinley, however, its 1981 rule has made it fairly clear that the Board will abstain from taking action: “The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not render a decision on a name or its application if the matter is also being considered by the Congress of the United States.” The principle underlying this, is that it is deemed to be considered by Congress if there is a proposal. The proposal alone, officially introduced as a bill, objectively indicates that it is a matter for Congress to decide.

This means that either the board needs to change its policy or Congress has to make a determination. I think the chances of the board changing its position are unwise for its own purposes; it would be foolish for them to be the cause of more legislation if they used their existing authority to change the name while Ohio is holding the line. The advocacy/lobbying work has to be focused on the Ohio delegation and Congress itself.

If competing bills were introduced — one backing the name Mount McKinley and the other Denali — would be something of a low priority on a policy level and may not garner sufficient attention. Congress is a responsive body, it doesn’t usually lead. It needs a crisis. There won’t likely be a crisis on this issue, especially when there are issues like the debt ceiling to wrangle over.

Without Ohio’s Congressional delegation solidly buying into changing the name to Denali, I doubt that the matter would be settled if the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill and the President signed it, regardless whether Congress chose McKinley or Denali.

That said, if someone has a good reason to change the name, I’d love to hear it and I might know someone that can lead the lobbying effort.

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Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

From Left: Oh Eun Sun, Steve House, Reinhold Messner at the 2010 International Mountain Summit, which was held in South Tyrol (Gore Tex Products)

Despite appearances, and some disputed evidence to the contrary, all great explorers, climbers, and endurance athletes are people just like you and me. Well, not quite just like you and me. They are indeed human, but their development took a very different path.

Great adventurers have usually reached the requisite 10,000 hours required to become an expert in their specialty early in life. Then then got innovative. Once they became an expert, the things that were said to be impossible, they could react with open mindedness: “Well let’s give it a try and see.” (Think of Tommy Caldwell and the Dawn Wall project.)

I have been reading biographies of mountaineers and climbers for 20 years. I have been following climbing news closely for 10 years. Over that time I have made some observations about how great climbers became great. It applies more broadly because, fundamentally, it’s no different than how a great baseball player or musician rises to the Major Leagues or Carnegie Hall: They started at a relatively young age, never gave up, and at some point started obsessing over their craft.

The Day’s Greats Visit

Every so often, mortals like you and me get to see these exceptional humans. My meeting with super hiker Andrew Skurka has had a great impact on me. Skurka has combined long trails to form enormous loops, like his 7,000-plus mile tour through Alaska a pied. He’s fit, organized and has a geeky quality, and an awe for the wilderness experience we crave. Almost a hundred years ago, someone better known toured the US: George Leigh Mallory, the legendary Englishman who was part of three expeditions that explored and attempted Mount Everest.

Skurka and Mallory both rose to the tops of their sports by starting early. Skurka circumnavigated his home state of Minnesota when he was still in high school. He did so with style too: In the dark and cold of winter. Mallory started young as well, climbing in the British Hill Country and later the Alps, earning appreciation from his older fellow climbers for his extraordinary rock climbing abilities and stamina. When people later learned about these men, they weren’t teenagers and they had been hiking and climbing more often and longer than nearly anyone else at any age. Their visits might be likened to going to see the Pope.

More recently, Ueli Steck toured the US for a series of presentations and even stopped at the headquarters of National Geographic here in Washington, DC in early December. Steck, it seems, has been climbing his whole life. It’s hard to see his ordinary-man qualities here in the states, yet Lisa Hummel posted a picture on Instagram of Steck enjoying a rich parfait after breakfast the day of his presentation. The image showed something of the disciplined athlete rather displays: indulgence. We suddenly saw through a window to his humanity.

Reinhold Messner is coming to New York City for the American Alpine Club Annual Benefit Dinner on January 31. I haven’t seen or heard about a frail moment with him. His ego is giant, which we, from far away, tend to excuse. Up front it can be displacing; Ed Viesturs met him and said that he’d read everything Messner had written. Messner replied that it was impossible and he was right. Not everything Messner had written was available in English.

Messner started like the rest of them, climbing his local crag and aspiring for more.

While all of these men started working on their specialty early in life, there was another element in their makeup: They believed in themselves, and some of them, if not all of them, had a sense of destiny. Their effort and skill grew into the vision what they dreamed would be possible.

I’m positive that the same could be said about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the climbers that have become a household name after they free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.

Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

The formula for achieving great things is less about age; you don’t have to start young, even though being young when you start your quest helps considerably. The formula requires expertise; you have to master hiking, navigating, travel, rowing, rope management, technique or whatever is required of your specialty. And the details can’t be underestimated; walking the Long Trail in Vermont is one thing, but traversing the a routeless path ten times as long in winter is something more advanced than putting one foot in front of the other. Getting 10,000 hours in at your favorite activity is necessary, as the author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out. It applies to the adventurous among us too.

The other key characteristic is the need to advance and take moderate risks. Andrew Skurka, who hiked around nearly the whole of Alaska and the Yukon calls himself risk adverse. When I heard him say that at National Geographic people in the audience scoffed. However, it was true: If you tracked his progress since he was a teenager, his hikes got progressively longer and he added a new learned skill each time. For instance, he went from following trails and roads to going mostly trailess, and graduating from snowshoes to skis. He grew by taking reasonable and moderate risks at each step. On thr other hand, too many risks or too much risk might have gotten him hurt or killed.

Based on what I have seen and been reading for years, my advice for someone that wants to make a grand adventure is this: If it’s worth the time and sacrifice to you, then set aside the time to hone the necessary skills, don’t rush, and believe that you will do it. And along the way, expect people to suspect you’re crazy or wasting your time.

Good luck!

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Why Isn’t Lonnie Dupre Getting the Glory?

Descending the summit ridge of Denali (Mike P 2005)

You might have missed the news from Denali with all of the light shined on the Dawn Wall project in Yosemite. Of course, the Dawn Wall project was a brilliant effort. Seven years worth of perseverance, problem solving, and transformation for Tommy Caldwell. Five for Kevin Jorgeson.

I have been a Caldwell fan since sometime before he was kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan. I also remembered thinking his career would never be the same again when I learned he cut off his finger. I thought that his traverse of the Fitz Roy massif with Alex Honnold might be his most memorable accomplishment.

The media focus on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall route these past three weeks has been impressive. It was the 2015 equivalent of setting up your picnic under the Eiger’s north face to watch the first attempts unfold through binoculars. It gave me the opportunity to talk about (and explain) climbing to people I wouldn’t normally.

Still, I felt like one of my secret treasures was suddenly exposed. I was proud but part of me wanted to put it back in its box.

Also during the same last three weeks, another milestone climb with a story of perseverance was unfolding in the far north, on Mount McKinley/Denali: Lonnie Dupre made his fourth attempt in five years to climb Denali alone in January. He summitted on January 11, 2015 around 2:15 p.m. local time.

Why hasn’t Dupre received more attention? I mean, like Caldwell and Jorgeson, Dupre wasn’t the first to climb their route. El Capitan has been summited hundreds of times and same with Denali. However, the numbers dwindle when you consider how they climbed their line. For Dupre, 16 people have summitted Denali in winter already. But no one has topped out alone in January, the heart of the coldest season.

Until now. But I wouldn’t want Lonnie Dupre to get the same treatment as Caldwell and Jorgeson. Could he? Should he?

Of course, Caldwell and Jorgeson are both extroverted with strong sponsors. While on the other hand, Dupre takes a different approach to his fundraising and promotion. It’s more in tune with the climbing and adventure audience (well, at least it’s in tune with some purists). Plus, Alaska is much more remote that is Yosemite Valley. CNN wouldn’t travel so far, I don’t think.

Climbers know what Dupre did even if the world didn’t focus on it. And I’m okay with that.

So congratulations to Lonnie, Tommy and Kevin. Thanks for sharing your journeys with me.

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Undaunted by the Wickersham Wall

Big Mac in Big Alaska; Denali’s Wickersham Wall is the slope on the right hand side of the large white mountain (Teddy Llovet 2013)

Long before Yosemite was a climbing destination and Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Project was drawing the mainstream media to the Valley, climbing was a wilderness experience in the alpine. One of the greatest challenges of the 20th Century was the north face of Denali (20,237 ft./6,168 m.)

In a 2013 article of Harvard Magazine proudly proclaimed”Seven Harvardian’s Denali feat still unmatched 50 years later.” Rightfully so. The 1963 ascent of Denali that the article referred to filled many of my daydreams when I was in high school. It’s possible few climbs will surpass that ascent in greatness.

The students from Harvard, from its own Harvard Mountaineering Club, successfully scaled the Wickersham Wall. The name itself stung like a whip. It’s name given to the gargantuan north face of Denali. The wall rises from an ice fall, of cleaved glacial fissures, at a mere 5,000 feet, and then rises in a steep, and steady slope for 15,000 feet to the mountain’s modestly junior north summit.

The name of that wall was not merely to honor Alaska’s first federal circuit judge and one of its popular policymakers, but to honor the same man who was an Alaskan pioneer.

Ten years prior to Hudson Stuck’s first successful ascent of Denali and just shortly before Frederick Cooke tried to fool the world as the greatest explorer the globe had seen, James Wickersham organized a daunting quest to climb to the top of Denali. It was 1903 and the roads were far, the trails were not obvious, and the equipment was practical but may not have been efficiently functional.

Denali with its north face on the right-hand side (Mark Stevens 2012)

The way up, it seemed to Wickersham, was a straight line up the north face from where the Peter’s Glacier ended. At first glance the path was simple and uncomplicated.

I have long speculated the feelings Wickersham and his four men, who threatened to flea several times, were thinking standing at the base of the north face. Despite witnessing rock fall and avalanches, they climbed to 8,100 feet on the Jeffrey Spur (named for one of Wickersham’s team members). Those same conditions pushed the determined, but inexperienced adventurers back to civilization.

When the Harvard Mountaineering Group traveled from Boston to the great north face, they climbed, as Harvard climber and respected climbing author David Roberts later explained, in a state of naivety. The avalanches and rock fall persisted, despite Bradford Washburn’s recommendation of a line that might be sheltered from them. But when the inexperienced college-aged climbers arrived, they didn’t know that the amount of rockfall and avalanches nearby were reasons to retreat. In reality, they scathed death.

I suspect that the route will one day be climbed again, but the conditions will have to be such to allow it and the climbers will have to accept more risk than the average climber would on a normal alpine route.

It still makes up my daydreams, but today, instead of thinking of climbing it myself, I consider what else is as challenging or as bold as the 1963 ascent of Denali. I’ll be looking…

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