Inside the Real Fight Over Bears Ears

Straight lines. (All rights reserved)

Once, only vertical columns of ice and knife-edge alpine ridges enraptured me. Then a brief visit to the American southwest started to change that. Soon after, photos of the crack climbs around Indian Creek grabbed my attention.

It has also been impossible for me to ignore the pleas for us to write President Obama to create a new national monument around the Cedar Mesa Plateau, roughly where Indian Creek is tucked away: Bears Ears National Monument. This proposal comes from an Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah, and conservationists from across the U.S., including the Sierra Club, Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, among many others, have supported. I recently sent my own note to the President and I joined another organization, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, to support the ongoing advocacy efforts. Here’s why:

Game of Tug-of-War

The future of climbing in Indian Creek is now in the midst of a political game of tug-of-war. U.S. Representative Rob Bishop of Utah is proposing a bill that, among other things, would preclude any executive order by a president to name any further national monuments in Utah. He points out that the whole Utah Congressional delegation opposes the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal.

That last point is important, because, as I know from my days as a Congressional aide, the President is well aware that he should not take action affecting a particular state without support from the state’s elected representatives. If Obama uses his executive authority and designates Bears Ears National Monument without due process, without input broader than the Congressional delegation, then Obama’s actions could be contested, overridden, and ridiculed as poor governing.

Bishop has cleverly complicated efforts by introducing legislation that involves how federal public land in Utah would be managed in the future. (An updated version of his “Utah Public Lands Initiative” bill comes out today.) So long as this proposal is under discussion, the President has to tread extra-carefully; Congress has the power of oversight, spending, and authorizing. And most of Congress is staying on the sidelines, for the most part, in order to leave Utah’s delegation to have its say about its home turf. In addition to prohibit designating a new national monument, the bill alleges to “balance” industrial development and conservation efforts, but in reality it conserves new land in Northern Utah, not the canyon county in the south of the Cedar Mesa Plateau.

Key Moment

This is why a meeting on Saturday, July 16th at 1:00 p.m. PT in Bluff, Utah is so important. The Obama administration has called a public meeting to hear input from the region on whether there is sufficient public support for Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a critical test, if not just more input, for whether Obama can and should use his executive authority. Or is there enough input to render the Bishop PLI bill dead in committee (a harder thing to do.)

As a lobbyist with a large national nonprofit, I recently attended a similar public meeting, on a different subject (payday lending), in Kansas City in June. But the reasons for the meeting were similar. It was about the Obama administration wanting to take action it felt was shared popularly by the public, but opposed by Members of Congress. The meeting documented the statements from ordinary people and people with a direct stake on the topic on both sides of the issue. The forum also generated press, which made people speak up and take sides. It was a critical moment to drive and expose public interest and support for where it genuinely lies.

From my perspective in DC, this is the highest profile public lands fight right now. And it has ramifications for other proposals, like turning back larger swaths of federal public land in multiple states back to state government control that could turn it over to industry for resource extraction, rather than the recreational and conservation purposes Americans from coast-to-coast rely on.

There will be more key moments in the effort to make Bears Ears National Monument, but this is the time to either show up and speak in Bluff (RSVP here), even if just to say you support the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal, or write to President Obama by clicking here. And join the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and/or Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, because the work won’t end here.

Speak up for Indian Creek, Bears Ears National Monument, and conservation, because there is more at stake than just Bears Ears.

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Bold Alaska: Colin Haley’s Infinite Spur Solo

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Infinite Spur Solo. (All rights reserved)

Go ahead and grumble, if you want to, that mountaineering and climbing isn’t what it was in the 1960s in Yosemite or the Himalayas of the 1950s, or even that exploration is actually dead. Go ahead. But you might be missing some of the more amazing things happening in climbing.

For instance: fast-and-light ascents are being claimed with greater frequency (that’s not necessarily taking the fun out of sufferfests, for those of you fans of alpine suffering), routes like the Compressor on Cerro Torre have gone free, long traverses are being claimed from the Mooses Tooth to the Mazeno Ridge, lengthy linkups are dispatched in hours rather than days, and women are demonstrating an unquestionable prowess in alpinism.

Still, for the last couple of years, nothing has wowed me more than the solo ascent by Ueli Steck of Annapurna’s South Face in October 2013. I actually found it chilling. I think I lived on a happy high over it for some time. So it’s been relatively dull, by comparison… until yesterday.

By now you should have heard about Colin Haley’s solo ascent of Mount Foraker’s — er, well, since McKinley is going rightly by Denali now we ought to call Mount Foraker more formally Sultana — Sultana’s Infinite Spur. If you haven’t heard click here for the recap and here for Colin’s personal take.

Flash

Just over a year ago, I named the first ascent of the Infinite Spur by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 as an Honorable Mention among the top five Boldest Climbs in a Alaska. That climb took Kennedy and Lowe 14 days to navigate and deal with the conditions before topping out on Sultana’s north (and higher) peak.

But as Colin points out, no one had yet soloed the Infinite Spur. Other significant lines on Denali had, of course, been done alone. But Sultana has often been overlooked.

Colin’s experience here was also a powerful footnote to say that the climb is only half done upon reaching the summit. He got to the top in under 13 hours, but it took days in low-visibility to descend to safety.

Bold Solo Ascents

I have always been attracted to great solo feats and performances. I like goalies in hockey and pitchers in baseball. They’re unique and critical role to their team can’t be overplayed. A shutout and a perfect game are the pinnacle for those athletes.

In climbing, partnerships are highly valued. Teams are celebrated. And most of all, they are best experienced with teammates; because there is always more to climbing than climbing, just as there is more to fishing than fishing. And in regards to the Infinite Spur, even Steve House and Rolando Garibotti pulled off a lightning ascent in 2001.

But once in a while, someone like Reinhold Messner, Johnny Waterman, Ueli Steck, and, heck, even Alex Honnold, need to try something different.

Climbing is a game and the scenarios and the rules change (perhaps terms is a better word than rules), and the challenge is different. The failure and the accomplishment is weighed differently. Decisions are praised and criticized in that context.

It’s a matter about style, ultimately. Colin demonstrated boldness and style. I don’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps and approach, but when the next climber is ready, hopefully their judgment is sure and fortune will be with them.

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How Your Mountain Dreams Might be a Trap

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Suburban sprawl. (All rights reserved)

Death from a climbing or skiing accident is hard to swallow. Suicide, by anyone, let alone a climber or skier, is more difficult because, well, it wasn’t an accident.

Which made Kelley McMillan’s piece in National Geographic’s Adventure Blog, “Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?“, alarming. The piece is focused on the ski towns, yet the data presented didn’t demonstrate that it was unusually higher in those communities than others, but I agree that the suicides were higher profile anecdotally. And it had an extra dose of being unsettling: How could people in paradise, living the dream, want to end it all? Was paradise killing us?

North to Vermont

My whole life I have wanted three things: A family, to be involved in politics and policy, and playtime in the mountains. With the first two down, several years ago I committed myself to make a big change.

With every ounce of my being, shortly after Natalie and I had our first child, I tried to relocate us up north to the land of mountains and snow. I dreamed of snowy days like in a Patagonia catalog where my kids and I would cross country ski after I finished work, and where chopping fire wood would be my favorite chore.

I networked like mad from our home in the Washington, DC metro area for eight months and traveled to Montpelier and Burlington to do informational interviews with Vermont housing organizations, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and some mortgage companies. I even submitted applications to Ben and Jerry’s parent company and Green Mountain Coffee.

I began to have back pain that came only in the night. I would sleep for a few hours and had to sit up, or better yet, stand up. Even being up at 2:00 a.m. with Wunderkind, feeding a bottle, brought pain relief, but then I suffered from sleeplessness.

I had X-rays. I went to physical therapy. I thought the pain was from not being strong enough. I though it was from the stress of being a new father. If the job hunt was the cause, it never occurred to me. I got interviews for open positions. It excited me; I felt that I was in control.

But during the last day of my “informational interview tour,” I literally made a wrong turn. I saw some neighborhoods with some young Vermonters and they didn’t look happy. They didn’t look like skiers or even boarders. They were in a different Vermont, where it was cold, and dreary, and the urban music scene they craved didn’t exist.

Days later I quite my job hunt. I knew I could call Vermont home, but would my kids find it as fulfilling? I didn’t want to test it now. Hardly noticing, my back pain faded away, at first, inexplicably.

We Want a Change

I still think that regularly ice climbing in Smugglers Notch or hiking sections of Long Trail would make me happy. Not to mention stopping in at the Alchemist in Waterbury for a Heady Topper whenever it was freshest; it sounded too good to be true. Yet I’ve recommitted myself to the Washington metro area — and I’m good with that for now.

While I love the things I go to Vermont to visit, the reality of the day-to-day might be different than I imagine. The job market is weak, and even then I know people move to the state and buy a house near their job in one neighborhood only to change jobs and be forced to commute an hour one-way. And what would the length of winter and mud-season do for my family being inside more; would we really play outside as often as I think we would? Would we feel cabin fever?

Vermont’s suicides have risen in the last two years. In fact, the suicide rate has risen to a 30-year high, and it is the leading cause of death for young Vermonters (among those aged 10-24).

Since settling on — or, perhaps better put, re-committing to — Washington, DC, I’ve been diligently accepting it as home. It has taken some work; I had to embrace the humidity of summer (baseball games help). And I finally think of the subway as a luxury. I also started planning more regular getaways to New England despite the long-haul drive up north.

My family and I might, one day, still move to the mountains. If we do, it will be because of the mountains are the “bonus” to so many other things that we want, including good schools, an affordable home, steady income, and healthy lifestyle options for all of us. For now, I’m working on making it work here in and around the big city and visiting the mountains in almost sacred pilgrimages during breaks spread out in between.

While we might want a change, the change of surroundings isn’t always what we need. Sometimes the change we need is all in our head.

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Conjuring Up the Mountain High through Art

Baffin Island in color. (All rights reserved)

I risk embarrassing myself quite a bit with my new interest in drawing mountains and climbing scenes, but I figure if I don’t share them I might not keep practicing and working on improvement. So here’s the announcement: you can follow me on Instagram and see more of my drawings of the mountains.

I draw for similar reasons for keeping this blog: Trying to hold on to the feeling of being at peace of some degree of bliss from being among the mountains is generally elusive. But I have found that mountain art has helped make the mountains come to me, even in the Washington, DC metro area. And writing on this blog has always conjured up the mountains and most of those feelings.

Alpine start. (All rights reserved) Alpine start. (All rights reserved)

Until recently, I have just been taking in other people’s art, like Renan Ozturk‘s paintings. But with some nudges, including from my wife and friends, I finally gave in and started to try drawing again.

Generally, I try to use as few lines as possible and use colors that capture a feeling of the landscape more than accuracy. What do you think of that approach?

So come follow me on Instagram and please comment, let me know what needs improvement. Let me know when the low-lying fog looks more like lava. Let me know if you like the combination of colors.

I draw whatever interests me at the time, but I want to connect with you too, so please don’t be shy.

The shriek that was turned to stone. (All rights reserved) The shriek that was turned to stone. (All rights reserved)

 

Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved) Good morning, K2. (All rights reserved)

 

Denali rising (All rights reserved) Denali rising (All rights reserved)

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How Alex Lowe Shines for Us Even Now (Despite Some Dark Days)

Shishapangma’s star. (All rights reserved)

Early on the morning of May 1, 2016, I was catching up on the news I missed during a mad-dash trip to New York City with Natalie and the kids. After I got through my political and baseball news apps’ feeds, the reports of Ueli Steck’s and David Goettler’s discovery on the south face of Shishapangma was all that mattered: Alex Lowe’s and David Bridges’ remains were found after 16 years.

We knew it would happen, but I resented that Fox News, NPR and so many other mainstream sources were covering it. I prefer to keep access to climbing news through climbing sources and climbers’ personal posts. This was out there for everyone to grab. Really out there. (Except, it was already mainstream; their deaths were reported in the New York Times, but I only just learned that.)

I get anxious about this stuff. After all, Alex has a widow. She wrote a beautiful memoir. What would it mean to his best friend and now her husband? The press never cares about stuff like that.

But as a few days passed, I realized the family’s personal reaction wasn’t as interesting as the one from everyone else that had some deep rooted knowledge, and often, affection, for Alex.

The Portal

On October 5, 1999, Conrad Anker, David Bridges, and Alex Lowe were climbing Shishapangma. They were around 19,000 feet and intending to make the first American ski descent of the 8,000-meter peak. A large serac calved and started a massive avalanche down the south face. Anker was blown up into the air. Bridges and Lowe disappeared into the debris of loosened snow and enormous blocks of ice.

Conrad Anker is one of America’s best recognized mountaineers today, particularly since he discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest and even more so now that he appeared in Jimmy Chin’s award winning 2015 film Meru.

David Bridges was a climber and photographer on the rise, known for his strength and endurance. He was 29.

Alex Lowe, 40 at the time, was a living legend. He performed insane rescues on Denali, earning him he affectionate nickname “The Lung”. He rode a Goddamn giant broken icicle to the ground and lived to ice climb again. And he was Anker’s friend.

Lowe’s widow, Jennifer, knew very well that one day Alex’s body would come to the surface. She said in her memoir that she was not looking forward to it.

Turning to One Another

I reached out to some friends to see how the news affected them, some of whom hadn’t heard the news yet. They weren’t surprised; glaciers routinely turn up what they’ve taken from us. And it wasn’t particularly enlightening; it wasn’t like finding George Mallory’s and Sandy Irvine’s camera. But it made us talk not about new routes and reaching, but about Alex and our humanity.

Alex made them feel good. And he still does. Here are two examples:

Whenever Jason Cobb, who’s written a guest post here on TSM before, thinks of Alex he

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Alex Lowe’s Icicle. (All rights reserved)

thinks of him grinning ear to ear, with his “crazy” hair sticking up, gripping his ice tools. Alex conjures up a sense of daring, and being gifted, while conveying enthusiasm that’s still infectious today.

Another friend, a former contractor I hired to do some data management work, didn’t know about Alex when we met. She was a big rock climber (even climbed when she was very pregnant) and worked for years at out local outfitter on weekends. I wrote my series on The Greatest Climber of All Time because of our conversations about all of the great climbers she didn’t know. Alex naturally came up, both in talks with me and her talks with her colleagues at the outfitter. She asked her colleagues for advice for a thank-you gift when her contract ended; I received Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s memoir, Forget Me Not.

She went on to recognize Alex’s influence on the stories with Conrad Anker, particularly the National Park Adventure IMAX film featuring Conrad and Alex’s son, Max. She emailed me as soon as she heard the news from Shishapangma: “It brings everything full circle.”

Finding Alex again has made us pause and reflect on his life, not unlike on a religious feast day. It’s made us look at ourselves, not just inwardly, but toward one another. I think we live in an era that is simultaneously wondrous and worrisome.

In a day and age where social structures are being “disrupted” and the craziness of a presidential election is crazy unlike ever before, and threat of terrorist attacks hangs over everyone quietly, Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges make an appearance. That’s significant, because in 1999 when they were lost, the world was was also a scary place: in January President Clinton was impeached in a partisan brawl; war broke out in Kosovo; East Timor’s vote for independence was met with uprooting; people fretted about what the Y2K bug would mean; and two students from Colombine High School in Colorado killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in a searing mass shooting.

Alex shined to us then. Alex shines now. He did that despite the horrors of his times. And now we’ve found him again. Maybe it was just when we needed him most.

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Sources: 1) Alpinist; 2) Rock and Ice; and 3) Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Forget Me Not, (City, Publisher 2009), pages.

John Muir and Hudson Stuck Feast Day

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Rock hopping. (All rights reserved)

In 2009, two significant historical individuals close to climbers and outdoor enthusiasts were given a status near Sainthood: John Muir (1834-1914), the great explorer and photographer, and Hudson Stuck (1863-1920), the leader of the first successful ascent of Denali, were named Holy Men by the Episcopal Church.

Because of their status as great Episcopalians, Holy Men are assigned a feast day, a day of celebration, on the church’s calendar. April 22nd was named their combined feast day. Not coincidentally, April 22nd is also Earth Day.

If you’re Episcopalian, or even Catholic, you know that there was nothing resembling a Thanksgiving holiday on any saint’s or holy person’s feast day. Rather it is a day to contemplate, dwell, or meditate on the holy person’s life and work. However, there are particular mentions, prayers, or readings from scripture assigned or associated with the feast day’s honoree (or in this case, the honorees) on their feast day to help celebrate and speak something to one’s soul.

The official record by the Episcopal Church in naming these men as Holy characterized Muir as a “Naturalist and Writer” while identifying Stuck as a “Priest and Environmentalist.” (Stuck was an Archdeacon in the Diocese of Alaska.)

You may read the prayer and scripture readings by clicking to this page of the Episcopal Church’s website.

So on their upcoming feast day, ask yourself (and maybe even your friends), what does John Muir and Hudson Stuck mean to you and your community?

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Sources: 1) EpiscopalChurch.org, 2) Sierra Club and 3) Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.

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