Why We May Climb on Public Land is You

Williamson Rock, California (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Bundy standoff in Burns, Oregon has lasted more than 40 days and the latest news says it may be coming to coming to a conclusion. It’s raised a lot of chatter about who controls the use of public lands. In fact, it’s inspired at least one of us: Over Facebook, Andrew Bisharat suggested learning from the Bundy clan’s effort and leading a crusade to take over the fish hatchery (which is actually on private land) so that we can climb the lower half of Rifle, CO, where it is currently prohibited. He was a joking.

At least I think he was joking.

There’s a lot of anger about government’s role today. It’s fueling the Bundy family and many like-minded ranchers. The anger, though over various topics, prompts many Presidential primary candidates’ supporters. Generally, the current system and values expressed by our laws and put into practice doesn’t work in their favor and they are frustrated.

When it comes to public lands, climbers are on the winning side these days. We can easily take for granted that we are allowed to climb most everywhere. Official land management plans allow for climbing in the most desirable locations. Bolting is permitted in the backcountry in some areas, within some guidelines. And, among climbers, most of us self-enforce good neighbor-policies through following Leave No Trace principals.

But there some real threats to that system. The balance could shift. And it might not be in your favor any longer.

Freedom to Climb at Risk

The freedom of climbing — whether that freedom is about movement over rock and hills or overcoming the idea that something seems impossible to climb — is about a specific approach freedom.

That application of freedom comes from how society values that kind of freedom. Most of us don’t think about it much, but we can climb in the Adirondacks, Yosemite, Red Rocks and everywhere in between because we’re allowed to. Every park has a management plan and that covers permissible and impermissible activities, from where you can make fires to fishing access, are covered and revised periodically.

However, who is making those land management plans would change if the public lands they address were owned by someone else, like the state or local governments. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have bills to relinquish millions of acres of federally managed and protected land to states and local interests.

These are ongoing issues. And there have been ongoing issues like these that come and go onto our radar in climbing magazines and on social media. But these are real discussions that could shift who gets to graze their cattle where, how the ore beds are extracted, and where you can and cannot climb.

Speak Up

There are excellent advocates at the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund working to influence the outcome of discussions about the future of climbing in America. But they are empowered by you. Think about some other strong advocacy organizations:

  • NRA — It has a large membership that speaks up whenever their rights and freedoms feel threatened. And they contribute great deals of money.
  • AARP — This may be the largest national organization in size, and they are vocal on only two issues (Social Security and Medicare) for the most part, but it ensures the issues are protected and even considered sacred.
  • AIPAC — This group represents a small population of Americans, but it has an impressive infrastructure to mobilize advocates in nearly every Congressional district in the country with a reasonable amount of discipline.

All three of these examples have two things in common: They have dedicated members and they write and call their Members of Congress and other policymakers when summoned to do so.

So here is what you need to do:

  1. Join the AAC and the Access Fund, if you haven’t already. They are our watch dogs and our radar screen for threats to our way of life. And,
  2. Sign this petition from Protect Our Public Land, supported by the Outdoors Alliance, to go on the record that you support the protection of our public lands.

I believe compromise is always possible. While the lower-half of Rifle might be out of bounds, I think we can secure climbing and better land management for everyone. Hopefully will will do it without sacrificing what we hold dear and how we want to use the land.

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‘Alpine Warriors’ by Bernadette McDonald


Chamois in Slovenia (Magda & Maciej)

By 1979, the summit of Mount Everest had been reached by every major ridge, yet a large expedition from Yugoslavia arrived to top their last achievement of making the first ascent of Makalu South Face. The West Ridge of Everest was a long unconventional line to the top. It was first climbed by the Americans in 1963, and is still well celebrated in the United States today. Except the Americans climbed only the upper half. The Yugoslavians came to traverse it all starting at the base, low in the Lho La pass.

Like many national expeditions in those days, it was huge. It included 25 Yugoslavian mountaineers, 19 Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen boys, two mail runners, 700 porters and 18 tons of gear. The ascent had to overcome a steep and severe gap, which required a winch to overcome so it was possible to haul the gear over the broken portion of the ridge. All efforts and ingenuity combined, the Yugoslavians positioned three Slovenian climbers at Camp V who were close to each other, Nejc Zaplotnik, Andrej Stremfelj, and Andrej’s brother, Marko Stremfelj.

Shortly after starting out from Camp V, however, Marko’s oxygen apparatus malfunctioned. After some jostling with the regulator, Marko was forced to turn around. Andrej was conflicted  and frustrated about ascending without his brother; it was so unjust. Andrej went on with Nejc, but they weren’t free of issues, however; both their equipment failed and only Nejc had enough tanked air to get him to the top. Andrej said he’d go on and as high as long as he could.

The summit was far, and the day was getting late. Nejc was determined to reach to top on this push, so he steeled himself mentally for a cold, dark high-altitude bivouac, which likely meant losing toes, fingers or limbs to frostbite and possibly death. Except when they radioed base camp, they realized that it wasn’t as late as they had thought; they still had plenty of daylight ahead. Buoyed, they plodded upward. But upon reaching the Chinese tripod on the summit, elated, the question was daunting: We can’t go down the way we came, so what the heck do we do now?

Alpine_WarriorsThis was a mere moment of one of the dozen-and-a-half stories Bernadette McDonald retells with prose sometimes bordering on poetry and with the courage to cuss when the tension required it in her latest award winning book, Alpine Warriors (2015).

Writing from the Top

Bernadette McDonald has been in a unique position to uncover some of the hidden stories among European climbing communities. She oversaw mountain culture programs, including the Mountain Film and Book Festival, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and she has published (or edited) over eight books. Perhaps most notably Tomaz Humar (2008) and Freedom Climbers (2011), both of which won the grand prize in the Banff Mountain Book Competition when they were written.

The best climbing and mountaineering literature doesn’t just list the characters, the route, and the accomplishments, but tells a non-climbing story through the challenge of the climb. McDonald has done this with biographies, and in Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors she talks about a national story of a people (the Poles and the Slovenes, respectively.)

Surge of Himalayan Ascents

I spoke briefly with McDonald after she won at Banff in November, but before I started to read it. So I knew premise of the book and that it was similar to Freedom Climbers, in that it was a national history of climbing. But she emphasized that it was about the Slovenian accomplishments in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t understand why that was so significant until halfway through the book. She sums it best at the start of Chapter 12:

Although Yugoslavian climbers entered the Himalayan arena late, the international climbing community was stunned by their accomplishments on Makalu and Everest and awed by their near successes on the South Faces of Dhuahlagiri and Lhotse. There were many more: Kangbachen, Trisol, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gaurishankar South Summit, Annapurna, Gangapurna, Yalung Kang, Ama Dablam, Lhotse Shar — the list of ascents went on and on. As their triumphs accumulated, confidence grew. So did national pride.

Alpine Warriors tells a story about Yugoslavia after World War II and the dozen-and-a-half alpinists from Slovenia that changed Himalayan climbing. These climbers were from a war torn country, with religious, political, and ethnic fragmentation reduced to poverty. These conditions, arguably, and combined with the location near the Tatras, produced a hardened group and several leaders that brought these hardened men to the Himalayas, not in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when the 8,000-meter peaks were being climbed by their major ridges, but later, when the new challenges had to be spotted and seized before anybody else.

To name a few of the great alpinists McDonald writes about, Ales Kunaver was the leading visionary and teacher, Nejc Zaplotnik was their spokesperson and spiritual leader, and Francek Knez is the quiet outsider that climbed big walls with a grace and ferociousness the likeness no one has ever seen. These three alone are worth an English-language biography.

Lots of Competition in 2015

It was a difficult field for any mountaineering book competition, in 2015, whether it was Banff, the Boardman Tasker, or the American Alpine ClubBernadette_McDonald Award in Literature. Alpine Warriors was up against Kelly Cordes’ The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, and John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger, just to name a few. Of course, it helps when you have a good story to tell, which all of them do, but these folks can all write.

I’m not privy to what the judges at Banff discussed (I wasn’t even one of the book category pre-readers), but I know from reading Cordes’ and Blanchard’s books, McDonald might have had her closest competition yet. They all had the ability to make their prose dance like poetry, but McDonald had the touch and a perspective. She didn’t just tell a story about a life. She didn’t just tell about the lives that came to a temple. She told the story of a people through the lens of climbing.

Reading Alpine Warriors I learned more about Yugoslovians and Slovenians than I was taught in 20th Century European Politics and Soviet History in college. I read about 20 or so mini-biographies about Slovenian alpinists in Alpine Warriors. I learned about Nejc Zaplotnik’s Slovenian classic book, Pot, which means “the path” or “the way”, and I read the first passages translated and widely distributed in English, thanks to McDonalds’ painstaking work over the phone with an interpreter. It opened my world to a people and an experience that is unique and was previously hidden from me.

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Belmore Browne Against Denali


Denali National Park and Preserve (Gregory”Slobirdr” Smith)

Despite what his biography says on his official website, today Belmore Browne is better known as an artist than as a mountaineer. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case. But Browne seems to have been mostly neglected except for a handful of recent articulate pieces from an Alaskan newspaper and a few mentions in some recent books.

It’s Browne’s involvement with the history of the attempts that lead up to the first ascent of Denali that interest me; his role and accomplishments should put him in our collective memory more often.

Alaska’s Greatest Challenge

Denali’s summit was first reached in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, and Harry Karsten, the “Seventy-Mile Kid,” Robert Tatum, and Walter Harper. Before that it may as well have been the last great problem on earth. Judge James Wickersham stood at the north face and dared to attempt it’s flank in 1903, though he soon declared that wall impassible.

Then in 1906 Frederick Cook returned to the mountain after circumnavigating it in 1903 and came with Herschel Parker and several other Alaskan adventurers. Cook and Parker lead a cross country expedition that took them across Western Alaska, into the Alaska Range and to the a glacier that Cook named for his daughter, Ruth. Crevasses severely broke up the frozen river that season and stopped the exploratory group in their tracks. They turned around going back west to return home.

Shortly before completing the return journey to their starting point, Cook announced he was returning immediately to climb the mountain with one other team member. Belmore Browne, who was among Cook’s and Parker’s men, looked on skeptically with Parker and Cook departed. Cook left, with some gear, but noticeably to both, without a rope, a key piece for safety and moving himself and equipment over glaciers and up slopes. Browne and Parker returned to civilization, with the seed of plans to return.

A Hoax as Big as Alaska

Cook returned announcing that he had climbed the mountain. And he had a traditional summit photo to prove it. Cook was celebrated for his vision, bravery, and the grand accomplishment.

However, Browne and Parker didn’t just doubt Cook, they flat out didn’t believe him. They had seen and been to the Alaska Range. They knew what a concerted attempt would require in time and energy. Denali was too expansive and too treacherous to have permitted Cook such swift access to the top in the time frame he claimed. In addition, Browne and Parker had traveled for weeks with Cook before being sent away and determined that Cook wasn’t trustworthy.

Although Cook’s alleged ascent of Denali is widely discredited as a hoax, the Frederick A. Cook Society continues to promote Cook’s many accomplishments, including being the first person to stand atop Denali, as bona fide truth.

For Browne, Denali hadn’t been climbed yet and still required someone to finish the job. By 1910, in fact, after four years of addressing Cook’s claims, the only way to clear things up was to disprove Cook’s summit photo and dash for the top himself. Browne recruited Parker to help him go for the summit, after they duplicated Cook’s summit photo — wherever it was taken.

Browne and Belmore knew the general return path Cook would have made back to Denali after they separated so they started there and looked to match the features in the photo with their limited maps and their view of the landscape. Then, they found it. Twenty miles southeast from Denali, at an insignificant nub at a mere 5,300 feet above sea level. This was almost 15,000 feet below the summit and nowhere near it. While they managed to prove no one had climbed the mountain yet, their attempt to get to the top was unsuccessful.

The Whiteout

Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker returned to climb Denali in 1912. Unlike any previous attempt, they found a route, and broke the altitude record for the mountain. Bound for the south summit (the highest point), walking up a modest snow field, they entered an absolute white out. The summit was hidden. The return route wasn’t even certain. And the mountain turned away Browne and Parker for good.

Browne would write about his three expeditions in a book first published in 1913, The Conquest of Mount McKinley. Browne also became a renounced painter, and an Alaskan political leader that even helped Alaska achieve statehood.

Browne’s efforts protected the integrity of Denali’s early climbs, laying the groundwork for Hudson Stuck to make his bid. Browne may be better known as an artist today, and he is a better known climber than a politician. Though, maybe he ought to be better known in full.

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Sources: 1) Anchorage Daily News; 2) BelmoreBrowne.com; and 3) David Roberts, The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

‘The Ghosts of K2’ Adds Twists to the Early K2 Saga

Ghosts of K2 Cover

Scouting K2 in 2008 (Maria Ly)

While the early attempts on K2 up until the first ascent has been told in whole and in part many times, I thought that there was enough heroism and controversy to keep people speculating. I also thought nothing could justify a new book. After all, climbers and armchair mountaineers could argue the merits of whether Fritz Wiessner’s leadership on the 1939 attempt and whether it was he or his team alone that lead to stranding Dudley Wolfe high on the mountain for dead.

Then there is the oxygen tank-controversy of the 1954 first ascent. The tanks allegedly ran out well before the summit, but was it from a fluke in the primitive apparatus or part of a conspiracy and a deadly effort to compete against their fellow climbers, which also lead Walter Bonatti to spend an extremely cold night exposed without shelter on the steep flank of K2?

Mick Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of Everest (1999) and the documentary filmmaker, was in a unique position to share two fascinating and new pieces of information that only recently became available that makes us reconsider the controversies and the characters involved, through his new book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent (2015).

Ghosts of K2 Cover

The Climbers’ Perspective

In addition to the new twists The Ghosts of K2 offers, Conefrey gives readers the nearest thing that I have read to an objective re-telling to the expeditions. Conefrey covers seven expeditions, from 1890 through 1954, by telling the story about what happened from the perspective of the expedition climbers that puts the reader in the moment. (Albeit, the 1890 attempt of Roberto Lerco was only a paragraph long, which is all the information available on that mysterious adventure.)

To some degree the book is a rehash of existing literature, so it could feel like a redundant read if you have covered any number of other books, including ones by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, or Jennifer Jordan, except Conefrey applies hindsight and the insight of “revisionist history” judiciously and tactfully, which allows for two things:

  1. Gives the reader the feel for the expedition’s challenges as they were during the attempt; and
  2. Allows the facts as they were reported by individual climbers to mount so the controversies and biases can mount before he demonstrates how differently we can look at things.

The Ghosts of K2 tells the tales that make up the saga of K2’s firsts attempts through the lens of a documentary film director; we witness Oscar Eckenstein, Aleister Crowley, and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902, the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909, Charlie Houston and his star studded crew in 1938, Fritz Wiessner and his rag tag bunch in 1939, Charlie Houston and his “brothers” again in 1953, and, finally, Ardito Desio’s successful all-Italian expedition in 1954. Conefrey made an award winning documentary, by the same title as the book, in 2001 that appears to have laid the track for this cog railway; the documentary was historical and matter-of-fact with a wonderful narrator that gives a suspenseful tone to the old black-and-white photos and film. But the new input Conefrey in offers in his new book is difficult to ignore for any armchair mountaineer, let alone anyone objectively looking at the events on and after the K2 attempts.

Tidbits and Twists

The Ghosts of K2 wasn’t written to be the academic history book I presumed it would be when I started reading it; rather, with the passage of time, and the deaths of some parties, diaries and other documents have surfaced by some of the climbers and their family members of those in the 1939 and 1954 expeditions. This is information that wasn’t available in 2001.

Mick ConefreyThe question of who actually stripped the camps stocked with sleeping bags and food late in the expedition in 1939 is addressed anew with evidence. Likewise, the most controversial expedition to the Karakorum, the 1954 Italian assault on K2 is revisited — with evidence. Conefrey reevaluates whether Walter Bonatti was a blameless victim and if those that made the first ascent, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, did or did not actually run out of oxygen as they claimed, or if they did, what does that mean for Bonatti and his allegations of Lacedelli and Compagnoni? In both instances, the evidence could be interpreted a little differently, and perhaps discounted altogether, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the reevaluation of events. And if anything, may make the history come alive again for a younger generation.

Along the journey, the Conefrey includes insightful trivia pieces and observations on the shifts mountaineering has taken over its history, the stuff that climbers and armchair mountaineers devour. My favorite of which was when Conefrey explains the revolutionary thinking involved in climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum and likened it to the move to climb the great north faces of the Alps, but only after all of the major ridges have been climbed. The notion had been considered reckless by some, and a natural advancement to others. For example, the attempts on the north face of the Eiger was a significant milestone in mountaineering history, but it might as well have been going over Niagara Falls in a barrel to many witnesses at the time.

Overall, The Ghosts of K2 makes the reader feel more intimately involved with the attempts on the mountain, and they are rewarded with some tantalizing new twists about what may have really happened when some great climbers tried to reach the top. After reading it, you might find yourself speculating on the controversies anew at the crag or at the bar.

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10 Awesome Things About Hiking with LITTLE Kids

Young hikers in Arizona (Take a Hike Arizona)

I have two little ones under five. While I’ve slowed down my own ambitions for hiking and climbing, I haven’t let their little legs limit the fun of being outdoors. In fact, focusing on the kids’ experience in nature has made for some experiences that rival some of my adventures in the Adirondacks and even Alaska. They don’t normally get your adrenal gland feeding the machine, but they make you feel just as alive. And isn’t that the whole point?

Here are 10 things that are awesome about hiking with the little ones that I had no idea about just five years ago:

10. You have to smell the roses. They’re slow and see the smallest things, sometimes for the first time.

9. Municipal parks come into their own. I professed to being a trail snob before kids. Now that I am a father a little woods and an urban creek becomes a gateway to sharing nature.

8. You get to teach, and talk about trees, and streams, and maps, and gear, and outdoor basics! Nuff said.

7. They get into packing. Nobody likes packing, except these little guys, and it’s contagious.

6. Rain isn’t a problem, it’s an excuse to wear rain boots and jackets. Go play!

5. Finding trailmarkers can be a game. My Uncle Tom started this one with me, albeit when I was older.

4. Puddles aren’t just mosquito havens. Before we drain them, you have to jump in them.

3. Sticks, stones, and leaves are the attraction. And it can occupy them for a real long time. (So I suggest bringing a nice picnic for you and your spouse.)

2. They’re early risers. I’m a morning person. Big people aren’t always willing to go out an watch the sunrise, but these little buddies will!

1. They make you look at everything with renewed wonder.

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Three Things Climbers Cannot Ignore Much Longer

Ines Papert climbing ice along a fjord near Eiksvag (Thomas Senf)

Did you get the email from the Access Fund asking you to take-part in their survey? It asked two heavy questions, and for me, it revealed three things we cannot pretend isn’t happening.

Question 1: “What do you believe is the most pressing issue the climbing community will face over the next 5 years?”

Movie audience (Emily Barney)

Answer 1: How Climbing and Mountaineering is Portrayed in Major Films

Bad climbing movies may be more than just an irritant. Everest. Vertical Limit. They’re more likely to steer people away from climbing and draw the public’s attention away from the craft involved, the discipline and skills, and the beauty of nature, and sometimes elusive goals. Instead, in movies, climbers that die look obsessed and the survivors like lost souls with regret. None of which tells a truth that can be generalized for all of climbing-dom.

Climbing movies made for a broad audience draw in responses from all walks of life, but the group that sees a high peak and only thinks of cold and discomfort rather than beauty of nature and the nobility of patience and fortitude probably won’t easily get it through a film; we’ll always be “crazy” to them.

Is there anything we can do? Possibly.

When U.S. military veterans were returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan they were depicted as battle-weary, likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and people that were owed something. In some cases that was true, but largely it was not.  It made it difficult for some to get jobs or at least the best jobs for them. Chris Marvin, an army pilot that was shot down and suffered many bodily injuries, returned to civilian life and started the veterans’ advocacy nonprofit Got Your 6, taken from a military phrase about protecting one’s blind spot; its mission was to refocus the public’s image of veterans as a public asset and to do so through a partnership through veterans nonprofit organizations and Hollywood. His effort was seen as successful and I recently invited and met him at a conference to learn more.

Climbing needs some ambassadors to the movie industry to help depict climbing in a more real light. Like the best comedy, where you don’t have to make things up, the best climbing film and stories, even for broad-audience movies, don’t have to be contrived and overly fictionalized (or even darkened) to represent what climbing is really like.

Indoor rock climbing (Claudio Brisighello)

Answer 2: Integrity of Climbing When Transiting to the Outdoors

Climbing has been growing in popularity. (There are a lot of reasons to know this, but I’ll cite just this New Yorker story as the most comprehensive package.) This has been happening for a couple of decades but the last 10 or so years have been different because the attraction of indoor gyms have been leading the way to growth in the United States. And the movement by some to “advance” from gym to crag presents a new set of risks.

While there are efforts by gyms and even climbing groups like the American Alpine Club to educate people transitioning to outdoor climbing presents a unique risk to the activity for all of us.

New outdoor climbers need mentorship and support to ensure safety practices unique to the outdoors are done effectively, etiquette among climbers are maintained among other climbers as well as land holders and managers, and, last but not least, the traditions and history of climbing are passed on to younger climbers.

About traditions and history, it doesn’t surprise me but it bothers me too, that young climbers have no idea who some of the most significant climbers in history are, from Reinhold Messner, Walter Bonatti, to say… Fred Beckey or Tom Frost. These are leaders that set the bar for the expectations of what is possible and our new level of what is our horizon. These historical figures aren’t likely to be forgotten, but they seem to be easily dismissed or taken for granted.

Regarding etiquette and safety, efforts appear to be underway, but this singular concern, may have the broadest reach to affect all climbers. A few bad practices, a poor headline at the wrong time, could ruin access and costs for all of us.

Question 2:  “If you could change one thing about the Access Fund, what would it be?”

Hard hat climbing helmet (Darren)

Answer: Promote the Development of Concussion Protective Climbing Helmets

I wore a yellow hard hat when I was a college kid working for my father’s general contracting business. My climbing helmet, which was the old version of the Half Dome from Black Diamond, was the same thing except with a chin strap. Like my hard hat, it was great to protect my skull and brain from hard falling objects. But if I ever took a whipper by head would be mostly unprotected from the jolts and my brain was squish to one side, hopefully unscathed.

But that’s the thing, as this article in Climbing magazine said, no climbing helmet on the market protects us from the injuries of a concussion. Skiing has gone from no skier wearing a helmet to nearly everyone wearing fully protective — including head trauma — helmets in a mere few years. Much research and science has gone into the development of better preventative equipment and treatment for concussions thanks to professional team sports like American football, hockey, and other sports. We should join in.

If the climbing community, or its leaders (such as the helmet manufacturers), guide services, and land managers, required better helmets we’d all be safer.

The risk and adventure of climbing will still be ever present, but by reducing the risk of the potentially years-long or life-altering concussion injury.

Your Job

Whether these are really tasks for the Access Fund or some other organization like the AAC or AMGA, I don’t know. What I do know is that all of us that care about these things must speak up and say these three things are important.

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