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.

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Mountain Drool: Monte Sarmiento of Patagonia

Ascending Mount Sarmiento in winter by skinning the bergshrund. (Rights belong to the photographer.)

The phrase “the ends of the earth” sounds barren, cold, and inhospitable. For you and me, it doesn’t prompt thoughts of loneliness and discomfort, but rather a reason to gather our essentials into a backpack and trod into the unknown. But as I will show, exploring once isn’t enough.

At the southern tip of the Americas, the continents terminate in a flurry of ripples of earth, water, snow and ice. The landscape brightest point is a twin-peaked mountain that rises high above the seaway. It has been mistaken for a volcano and thwarted many suiting climbers until its first ascent, which wasn’t until 1956.

Named for a Spanish colonizer, Mount Sarmiento reaches 7,887 ft./2,404 m at its highest peak. It was first seen by westerners by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Several other sailing explorers were impressed by its rise from the sea, including Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle. Author Jules Vern mentions the mountain in his books, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

HMS Beagle with Mount Sarmiento in the background.

The first attempts on Mount Sarmiento were made in 1869 and 1898, but both were precluded from significant advancement. Alberto de Agostini, a missionary in Patagonia, led an expedition to follow the path of the preceding attempt from the west. Agostini’s team succeeded in reaching the glacial plateau between the peaks, but was forced to turn back.

Agostini returned to his missionary work but exploring Patagonia became a lifelong preoccupation. Forty-three years later, at age 73, he returned to the remote and daunting Mount Sarmiento. He lead an Italian group of climbers via the east, but then swing to the north face. The group moved all around the mountain as they advanced, nearly circumnavigating the summit from lower on the mountain, including the southeast ridge and the east face.

Over the last 150 years the relatively low, yet challenging mountain has been climbed about a few dozen times. That’s about as much as one would think it should be climbed for a peak closer to the southern pole than a major city (a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s hownit seems.)

In fact, the precise history of the mountain is obscured by a lack or written records. A recent well publicized ascent of Mount Sarmiento claimed it was the first winter ascent when in fact that is likely not the case: See here in Alpinist .

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9 Things I Want My Daughter to Learn from Climbing

Daddy and daughter rock climbing shoes. (Szalay 2014)

My Wunderkind starts preschool today. She’s going to learn to write, spell her name, cut with scissors and gain more confidence.

Natalie and I have been asking her to not grow up too quickly. Her baby qualities passed too fast and her toddler period was truly beautiful and ephemeral. Soon she will be too big to ride on my shoulders and too heavy for me to pick up and carry in my arms.

In a few more years from now she will probably go with me to the climbing gym — the same one where Sasha DiGiulian got started. I might even take her to Great Falls on a weekend or a New England crag during one of our vacations. I’m sure that she will climb better than me right from the start. I have no idea whether she’ll latch onto the sport the way I have, but there are a few things I hope that she will take with her, even if she only climbs a little. They’re things I want her to learn in general, but I think climbing will help:

9. Fear is only as tangible as we let it be. Being afraid of something can dissuade us from doing things and being unnecessarily fearful can close doors and opportunities, whether it’s reaching the top or going for an audition. Identify why you’re fearful and consider whether it’s worth being scared about.

8. Know the value of communication. Too many climbers have been dropped or stopped being belayed because of poor communication with their belayer. We have to be clear with the people in our lives about our needs — whether it’s about slack or just about what we expect from our friends or colleagues. So being forthright and outspoken can help, but you also have to listen. You need to know where your friends and colleagues stand too; hopefully you’ll surround yourself with other honest and outspoken people too.

7. Who you tie your rope to matters. Before you’re in college, this phrase will become cliched to you: Your life is in your climbing partner’s hands. The thing is, cliches ring true. Choose wisely who you spend time with, particularly important events, whether it’s your tennis partner or the friend you want to take your first road trip with. The friend will be a significant factor in your experience and a critical link in your success and safety.

6. Comfort zones are about your current limit, not your potential. Climbing at the same grade can get stale and the difficulty of climbing at the next level isn’t about it being too hard or impossible, but rather a matter of horizons. Sometimes you won’t find out how much better you can perform — at anything — until you keep trying. You might even look clumsy for a bit, but that’s because you haven’t reached that view beyond your vision.

5. If you think it’s too risky, then it is.  Only you can determine what your comfort zone is when it comes to dangers. Dangers are real and shouldn’t be ignored. Know your limits. But limits are relative based on what you deem as risky. I certainly do not want you to free climb like Alex Honnold, but as an example, he doesn’t think his free climb of Half Dome was too risky for him. But it is for me.

4. The joy of finding your way without a map or guide. While the map shows you where you are, it’s a unique experience to chart a new path without a map or regardless of the map. Please start your climbs from the ground up. Some of those routes may be dead ends, but you won’t know what’s up there until to you go.

3. You get out what you put in to it. I must confess that I have put more time into being an armchair mountaineer than a real climber since becoming your dad (you probably know that from my footwork.) But I have learned from other examples that the rewards of dedication to an activity or cause are equal to the effort. Dive in and enjoy!

2. Looking at the world from the ground is only part of the picture. I think your perspective is already somewhat unique and creative compared to your peers. Still, most people see the world from the flat plain of everyday Earth. But there are a few of us that go to those anomalies on the plant where rock juts up from the surface. The perspective might provide insight on the world and ourselves, but you can’t understand until you travel there for yourself.

1. You’re capable of a great deal. You have so much potential right now. I can’t wait to see where you choose to take it.

I don’t think I need to say comparing Wunderkind to the boys; we’re fortunate live in a community where its assumed that the girls can do as much as the boys if not more. Still, I think that even now she is learning to be confident in who she is as a girl and a person. I hope that for every little girl growing up into a woman.

Regardless, if any little girl can learn these nine things, they’ll be okay.

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Do We Need A National Dirtbag Day?


Lifelong climber and guide Bill Simes. He said "Climbing is a very personal thing." (Szalay 2001)

Our pioneers’ ways are indeed dead.

Cedar Wright recently made a documentary on the the end of the dirtbag climber. Dirtbags are either the most obsessed or dedicated climbers; I believe they are in the latter category where they’re dedicated to climbing and depriving themselves of all societal comforts to devote themselves to climbing. They’re often misunderstood by most people as unkempt and dangerously obsessed.

Our pioneering climbers were dirtbags and they sacrificed a great deal. Several legendary climbers from the 1960s through 1980s like Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, and John Long left everything to perfect their climbing skills and accomplish amazing human feats. They climbed walls that people said would never be climbed and often did it faster that ever imagined. Their sacrifice was more akin to depravity than the risk of death; they left all comforts of society, from steady income to personal relationships.

However, as Wright explained, the cheap living at campsites near popular climbing destinations that supported dirtbag ways in the US have raised rates and shortened stay lengths; the result is that dirtbags have a tougher time living “homeless” on prime real estate. There are numerous other factors, but that’s just one example.

I think Wright is correct when he said that it’s harder to be a dirtbag today. After all, it’s harder now to be a pioneer in climbing. Climbing’s most significant climbs today are not usually about first ascents but how he route was climbed (though there are still virgin summits and unclimbed walls). Climbing has always been about pushing the envelope with what the conventional thinking said was possible whether it was about speed or making the most direct line passed overhanging ice.

Dirtbags made a path for other climbers to follow. And climbers today are less likely to go on a dirtbag pilgrimage. That’s not all bad news for climbing culture: First, the modern climber, it seems to me, is more likely to travel to multiple climbing destinations during their own personal pioneering days. Second, climbing gyms have taken our sport in a new age, which has produced stronger climbers than ever before.

However, we need a way to tell more people about pioneering climbers from the 1960s, 70s and 80s and their dirtbag devotion. We need a national day in their honor where we tell stories and inspire a few new dirtbags. The American Alpine Club, Access Fund, Sierra Club, local organizations like the Mountaineering Section of the
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and retailers like REI, Erehon, and Hudson Trail could promote to members and customers.

Here is how you can help: If you like this idea, please share this post with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else you visit. With your help, maybe soon, dirtbags won’t be so misunderstood and they’re passion will be better appreciated.

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