How to Find Mountain Peace Anywhere

The once-elusive K7 West. (All rights reserved)

Kyle Dempster, the late alpinist, believed there was no reason to rush to the climb. In fact, he believed an approach, even if it was long — or maybe especially if it was long — was necessary.

It is the walk that gets you and your mind ready [for a climb.] The walk puts you into a trance. It is a meditative process that connects you with you, also your surroundings, and allows you to become completely accepting and fully aware of the climb ahead.

Kyle Dempster on approaches to Katie Ives in 2013

Although Kyle’s objective was the summit, he clearly embraced more than that, including the steps that brought him there, literally. In investigating how to hold onto the mountain high, I’ve learned there was some science to what Kyle did that we can apply too, plus some other habits we can adopt.

August is vacation month for me. I work less this month than any other time of year by taking off at least eight days if not 10 or even 15. And when I return I feel great — nearly bullet proof — in handling all my responsibilities and professional challenges. But it fades and I don’t want it to. According to a 2010 study of Dutch citizens after a vacation, people can hold the high reliably for a week… maybe two. Mere weeks. And, as I will share, Kyle’s approach walk is part of our solution.

COLLECT

I don’t know how Kyle felt after he returned from K7 West in Pakistan. It was a sought after objective that proved elusive to many experienced alpinists. He was probably disappointed the first time, yet relieved to be home and running his coffee shops once again. After reaching the summit, he may have felt elated, or proud, or lucky.

I have managed the stretch my mountain high once after a trip to New England. We visited Down East Maine and hiked sections of the Long Trail in Vermont. I purposefully took photos for the wall, bought a coffee mug with a lighthouse, and a baseball cap. The mug is a constant reminder as I use it every morning, and sometimes use it in late in the day with a beer when I write. The cap strikes up conversation sometimes, and I get to relive and share the visit. All of this helped me keep the feeling up for over two months. After that, it was a little harder to pull on. Photos helped, but the resiliency of the buoyancy took on water.

ANTICIPATE

This is where I realized Kyle’s intentional approach to the mountain was incredibly valuable. According to Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder and Laurence Ashworth of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, anticipation is capable of evoking stronger feelings and images than memories after the fact. Whether it’s a vacation, a mountain climb, or a coveted route, what we make of it and how we approach it matters.

Kyle anticipated the climb well before he arrived in the Karakorum. Choosing his objective, gathering gear and supplies, coordinating with partners, and familiarizing himself with the objective all took considerable effort. Planning is related to anticipation, which brings me to my next point.

PLAN

Planning the adventure or the vacation makes us anticipate and helps ensure our journey accomplishes our goals. For every trip, even a business trip, I write down two-to-three goals (not objectives) for the visit. For instance: 1. Spend time with Natalie and the kids; 2. Hike to a summit or pinnacle; 3. Find a craft beer I haven’t tried. Even my business trips are similar: 1. Build relationship with business partner; and 2. Return with a nugget of knowledge or wisdom to share with my teammates. I try to keep them relatively broad so as to leave space for the unknown. More importantly, I am anticipating various possibilities that make me excited… just about life.

READ (RATHER THAN WATCH)

In planning, it is tempting to turn to YouTube and Netflix for documentaries and films about your destination or activity, but do so sparingly. The visual medium has limited benefits for us as human beings, as Melissa Chu writes Inc. In fact, she says, when we read we are forced to engage our thinking and use our imaginations.

RETREAT REGULARLY

Making the mountain high last is also about creating the mountain high through anticipation. This is why I have my mountain book hobby, why I hike, climb, and it’s also why I play golf somewhat seriously. I plan, and in planning, I anticipate. I read, and in reading, I often retreat. I use my souvenirs from my travels, from my lighthouse mug, to my favorite sweater, when I do my hobbies. I even keep my rock climbing shoes nearby as they even evoke some sense of adventure and pride in being a climber that energizes me when I face some challenging responsibilities. It all comes down to the habits I build into my regular routine.

Kyle’s approach still resonates and feels like the most simple way to disengage from the hustle and bustle of life, and engage with what we really seek, and where we really want to go.

Leave the cell phone in the car, turn off the iPod, slow down, tune out and tune inward. Find creativity, observe, mediate on a decision, the answers and even the unknowns are inside, and walking is how you will arrive.

Kyle Dempster, ibid.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Twitter and Facebook. Anyway, I’ll post here on T.S.M. again for you in a couple of weeks…

The Finest Relic of Chris McCandless

Fairbanks Bus 142 on the cover of the first-edition paperback of Into the Wild (1997)

On June 18, 2020, the Alaska National Guard lifted the legendary bus,where Chris McCandless finished his adventure in 1992, out of the Alaskan woods for good.

The bus is from Fairbanks and was built in the 1940s. It is also 30 miles from the nearest road. The bus is beyond a river that appears to have run dry during part of the year, but is a deadly torrent the rest. McCandless stumbled on it when he ventured into the wild and used it for shelter. In attempts to see it and connect with McCandless for themselves, people would visit his “magic bus” every spring. Since, two more people died there and several others have necessitated organized rescues.

I am presuming you’ve read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996) or saw the 2007 movie by Sean Penn that it inspired. The first time I picked up the book, my parents saw the description that started “In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness…” It was definitely my kind of story, but the cover takes on a cult-like mystery; my parents were immediately weary of what it might do to me. Later, when I went to Alaska, staying with my friend Steve, he and I talked about three things: Climbing Denali, girls, and visiting Fairbanks Bus 142. We ultimately decided not to trek down the Stampede Trail and cross the creek; we realized that there were other more remarkable places that would change us without chasing Alexander Supertramp.

For some readers, the McCandless story awakens in many of us an inner sense of being independent, wild, and free. It’s the dirtbag life and not giving a damn about our job or convention. (Of course for others, he was an irresponsible, unprepared, rebellious, reckless youth.) Regardless, he challenged our perspective and made some of us reconsider our notion of how and what we live and work to accomplish.

And then there is this place. This memorial. This shrine. This bus several miles off the beaten path. It may as well have been a remote temple in a lush Himalayan valley only accessible by crossing glaciers, hiding a portal to reach a wise sage.

I wanted to visit too for many years. I was startled one day when studying my Denali National Park and Preserve Map years before visiting Alaska, I found the Stampede Trail indicating the path to the Bus 142. I marked approximately where it was and shared it with Steve. I admired Chris McCandless for his bold and deliberate actions. So many things about him were abstract ideas, which were challenging, but the bus was real and tangible. I could show you where it was. Maybe it could bring clarity?

Around 2014, long after the book and the movie, Chris McCandless’ sister Carine came out with a revision, or enhancement, about what she had known but diluted for years, about why Chris vanished the way he did and went on his journey. She said, in addition to embracing his love of nature, he had great anger directed toward his parents and wanted no more part of them. His parents were abusive to each other, and Chris and Carine felt helpless. Chris McCandless’ quest for freedom was not just from the things you and I want a break from, like responsibilities of a society and cultural norms, but an oppressive relationship.

I once heard that we have much to learn from addicts and eccentrics, and it is sometimes true (though not always.) I would put McCandless in the category of eccentric and hurt or traumatized person. The conventional approach to eccentrics or the traumatized is to just ignore or dismiss many hardships. McCandless is a worthy curiosity. It’s okay that that the bus was removed; the bus isn’t the vehicle to reach McCandless. I think Jon Krakauer has more to share about McCandless’ adventure, or what was known about it in 1996. It created a record, better than the bus, in his book, Into the Wild. The real artifact worth preserving and revisiting — or rather, re-reading — is the story that inspired us to look at things differently.

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P.S. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is not a mountain book or a climbing story as a whole. In my opinion, it is part of the general adventure genre, which is a broader category of what I normally cover here on T.S.M. In the book, Krakauer talks about his experience climbing Devil’s Thumb in Alaska. (It’s my favorite chapter.) The value statement and hashtag for this blog “#climbingmatters,” which used to be the tag line on the website’s masthead — Climbing Matters… Even though we work nine to five. — was partly inspired by Krakauer on page 134 of my 1997 paperback edition from Anchor Books: “By fixing my sights on one summit after another, I managed to keep my bearings through some thick postadolescent fog. Climbing mattered… The world was made real.”

Banff Mountain Festival and New Climbing Books for 2020

2018 Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival thank-you card.

Did you see the announcement tweeted from the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival? Well, the festival be will held virtually due to the pandemic, as I reported in my last post; that you knew. The 20,000 guests cannot all attend due to both social distancing guidelines and international travel restrictions. The tweet added some interesting detail: Somehow they will be holding a virtual marketplace and beer hall.

The market I comprehend… but virtual beer hall?

Jon Popowich’s article in Gripped, “The Role of the Banff Centre in Mountain Literature,” didn’t shed any light for you and me about the beer hall thing. Popowich wrote his essay on the influence of the Banff Centre before the pandemic. It was actually heartbreaking, because everything he said was true, and not only has the Centre been forced to make the festival virtual, but it had to lay off three-quarters — 284 people — of its teachers and staff due to decreased revenue.

I was worried that the festival and its Mountain Book Competition would be cancelled. As Popowich showcased the Centre overall and the festival’s role in spurring new creative outlets for mountain culture. In fact, it’s not just climbing and alpinism, as it was when it began; it’s broadened to other subjects as well. As an article competition pre-reader, I even had a submission about a wilderness fly fishing trip that blended personal experience and the wonder of nature, through a scientific lens. Popowich explains, with insight from Bernadette McDonald and others, about how the “voice” in climbing books and stories have been fostered and amplified through the Banff Centre and its amazing team past and present.

Popowich also called out an upsetting trend that the Banff Centre helps counter, at least somewhat, that I have been talking about for years: Climbers today don’t read. In fact, I’ll go a step further: Climbers today don’t read and they don’t know mountain history. Popowich surveys climbers at the gym, as I do, and wherever I meet other climbers here in flat Peaklessburg.

This trend has consequences on what’s published; books of the past were autobiographies and introspective narratives; today climbing and mountain books are often “Trojan horses” carrying an environmental or social message. This isn’t exclusive, thankfully. And I am hopeful about these books that caught my attention, which are set to be released later this year:

NEW BOOK RELEASES FOR 2020

Vertical Reference: The Life of Legendary Helicopter Rescue Pilot Jim Davies by Kathy Calvert (which was released in May.)

Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers by Lynn Martel.

Emilio Comici: Angel of the Dolomites by David Smart (I will be reviewing this for you here on T.S.M.)

All that Glitters: A Climber’s Journey through Addiction and Depression by Margo Talbot (I’ll share my review of this one on this blog as well.)

Buried: Updated Edition by Ken Wylie.

Altitude by Olivier Bocquet (author of text), Jean-Marc Rochette (artist).

Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season by Bernadette McDonald (I hope to review this one for you here.)

I still have more questions about this beer hall, and whether the organizers can pull it off, I am a little doubtful, no offense. What I do know for certain is that during the festival, and while I am doing my pre-reading, I’ll be sipping a dark brew, thinking of the Banff Centre very fondly. I hope you will too.

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How the Pandemic is Disrupting Your Favorite Climbing Magazines and Journals

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Even on a good year for climbing magazines and periodicals, meeting publishing deadlines are a Herculean effort. Despite that we’re in the midst of a global health pandemic and social uprising over grave injustice, publishing is just as hard, if not harder, to climbing publishers. And it could be easy to dismiss our climbing magazines and journals as unimportant, however, climbing is where people congregate and put whatever values — for health or racial equity — into practice and express ourselves in the subtle ways that matter.

Like everything else, the work of our favorite publications all stopped in shock — twice — first with the shutdowns to public health, and then again after the uprisings around George Floyd and many others. I asked several magazine and journal editors whether they would be publishing as normal through the end of the year. Some were fortunate to get the very-much in demand, but too scarce, Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) financial assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration under the CARES Act. Advertisers have pulled back, according to all of those I checked in with. Everyone said something to the effect of, “If nothing else happens…” they will be publishing as normal through the rest of the year.

And I also checked in with Katie Sauter, the Director of the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library, to get a global view, because they receive all of the publications. As of a few weeks ago, the magazines were coming in but that she recently learned that from the New Zealand Alpine Club that their magazine and journal will not be printed this year, but many other club journals and magazines have continued to stream in.

Here’s what the editors reported:

ANNUALS

  • American Alpine Journal — Dougald McDonald, the Editor of the AAJ, says the 2020 edition is a month behind schedule but otherwise on track to deliver a full issue to AAC members this fall. However, with no climbing in Alaska, no spring Himalayan season, probably no Karakoram season, and so forth, the 2021 edition will be briefer than typical editions.
  • Accidents in North American Climbing — The American Alpine Club, which also publishes the AAJ, suffered in its revenue from the pandemic shutdowns, and as a result will be offering a digital version of Accidents only. So when AAC members receive their box this fall, it will not contain a hardcopy of this important book. It was a necessary sacrifice to still provide all of the AAC’s valuable content.

PERIODICALS

  • Alpinist Magazine — Height of Land Publications, the parent company, has declared their operations as “business as unusual,” in what actual seems to be business as usual for most media today, even before the pandemic. Despite some advertisers pulling back, they expect to publish roughly on schedule for the next couple of issues.
  • Rock and Ice Magazine — Although the issue recently released during the first three months of the stay-at-home orders was delayed by two weeks, Francis Sanzaro said they’re hard at work but no telling whether it will be on time or a week or two delayed.
  • Climbing Magazine — Matt Samat — who, I suddenly recalled, edited my first piece in Alpinist about eight years ago — is the Editor and he told me, “We are on schedule for our next two issues, and fingers crossed for our annual (final issue of the year).” The magazine has emphasized its digital content while everyone was home, and started a Contributor Fund.
  • Gripped Magazine — There were delays at the printer initially, as the vendor temporarily shutdown. David Smart (yep, the author of Paul Preuss,) Editorial Director, said with the printer back up and running and everyone at Gripped to a regular work schedule means they expect to publish the regular number of issues through the rest of the year.

GOING FORWARD

The next several months we will receive our favorite magazines, perhaps a week or two late. But the effects of the pandemic with climbing publications hasn’t stopped there. The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, which hosts the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival, is a large educational institution on a global stage. Due to financial constraints, the Banff Centre was forced to permanently lay off 75 percent of its workforce — 284 people. The Festival, which also hosts the Banff Mountain Book Competition, normally hosts 20,000 from around the world over a week’s time every fall, but due to global travel restrictions, and public health concerns, the event will be held virtually this year.

Over the last four months you were probably thinking… let the subscription lapseonly the social change happening now matters… And you were right. Yet the real change is going to happen, not over social media or even in policy, but in our day-to-day interactions and habits over the coming months and years. Our habits seep into everything else we do. Better health choices for everyone’s safety, and relationships that respect everyone’s dignity regardless of the color of their skin, in our ordinary interactions are where the change happens. It will happen at school, work, churches, and our recreation. So it matters in climbing too, and these publications aren’t just about being better climbers, they are exhibits of us being human and, hopefully, better people.

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Climber, You are Equipped for Times Like These

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The once elusive K7 West. (All rights reserved)

Climber, you have a gift to help you get through this turbulent time.

Like you, I have been largely at home for nearly 90 days. I haven’t done any climbing, but I hope you have. When able, I read my issues of Alpinist, Climbing, and some books rather than spend too much time on my phone, which has been especially difficult this past week.

And like you, I have a heavy heart. There have been over 375,000 deaths worldwide due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, and for me that includes a loved one. For we Americans, things are dark here, particularly with the uprising around the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Read, Tony McDade, and many more. And there’s been vandalism and violence and retribution. Although racism has been here since European explorers arrived on the continent, it still lurks about in nasty, evil ways. If the myth of American exceptionalism was still still alive, surely we should face up to reality that was always a myth. I recognized that it wasn’t true just a few years ago.

As adventurers, I think you and I are poised to see what’s possible, in justice, equity, and peace. I know you might prefer to face adversity of a different kind right now, particularly without health worries, existential questions, and politics. Part of me wants to flee to somewhere remote and disconnect. No smartphone. No news. No radio. Ernest Shackleton’s fourth expedition to the South Pole actually appeals to me in calming way lately.

However, Shackleton was not escaping anything; he had a clear objective. He was headed to the South Pole, by nature an adverse challenge. He suffered and he endured. He guided his stranded crew through shipwreck, cold, long days, buoyed ebbing morale, and navigated the high seas. They were missing so long they were presumed dead. And when they all returned safely to an England 497 days later, they arrived in their own new normal, with a world at war. Change is the only constant.

For you and me, climbing matters not only for our appreciation of movement on rock and human achievement in the mountains, but for the superpower of perspective. By now, in your climbing career, you probably realized that there is more to climbing than climbing. In fact, it’s not even Instagram posts of your route or view or even your clever boulder problem around your kitchen cabinets during COVID-19 self-isolation, as joyous as those things are. Climbing is about our inner being; it tests our nerve and our perspective of what’s possible for ourselves and humanity. It has always been about seeing the beauty of a challenge, even if it’s absurd, and pursuing the dream. We build strength, condition our endurance, and innovate equipment and technique to see our visions through.

That mountain or route you daydream about is not itself a challenge, rather how you look at it. El Capitan has been reached without a rope a million times before Honnold scaled it with Jimmy Chin’s camera’s on him — except he took the route no one ever actually free soloed before. A beautiful, ephemeral line that changed how we looked at the world, what’s possible, and our humanity.

This season of COVID-19 exacerbated by grave racial injustice is no different. We need to use our superpower and apply a wide, broad, and long perspective. It’s for safety, health, equity, and a better world.

What do you see when you look at a mountain in your life. An opportunity? A dream? Something futuristic? Maybe we’re not collectively fit enough yet to see how the path comes together, or in our case a route to some normalcy and racial equity. Maybe we need more conditioning to rise to the challenge. Maybe we need to dream, or just endure while holding on to our vision for the future, even when violence and forces conspire to smash our hope. The first way to the top might be just one foot in front of the other. Later, we might go the hard way, maybe ropeless.

How do you see things now?

For your next steps, I recommend clicking over to the Access Fund’s list of actions items to be part of the solution.

Use your perspective and hold on to your vision.

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Climbing Gyms are There for Me but I Cannot Be There for Them

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Pulling Plastic. (All rights reserved)

After three days of wrestling with the question, I realized that it was over. You see, when the pandemic started, and we all shut ourselves inside our homes, I thought, okay, this will be like one prolonged snow day with out the fun of snow. I’m an introvert. I live with my favorite three people in the world. I have plenty of fulfilling hobbies. I can make this work! I even received a polite email from my climbing gym saying that they won’t be charging me, which freed up some of my cash to renew my subscription to Alpinist Magazine right away.

But after several weeks of reading the news and making business decisions for the safety and health of the employees and volunteers of Habitat for Humanity I run, I the complications of the novel coronavirus made clear that this was not a prolonged snow day. And my climbing gym, which I recently bought a membership, was even more complicated than building homes and reopening our ReStore. I might not be returning to my gym until there’s improved treatment or a proven and widely used vaccine. The bottom line, as this article from Gripped Magazine explains, climbing gyms cannot be fully sanitized, and with my family and responsibilities to my employees, I can’t risk spreading the virus or getting sick and being incapacitated for weeks.

While climbing gyms are reopening across the country, here in Pennsylvania, they’re going to be closed for a while. The Governor has a three-phase plan for reopening by region, that works like a traffic light with Red, Yellow, and Green phases based on the number of reported COVID-19 cases per capita. Climbing gyms may only open in the Green phase, and our region is still in Red and has a long ways to go. My gym hasn’t even been posting updates, partly, I think because they don’t have staff to do so, and we can just watch the general news.

GYMS ARE ADAPTING

Climbing Business Journal reported on how gyms are reopening. Face masks and removing your street shoes prior to entry are mandatory at a gym in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another gym is limiting the number of climbers according to the square footage. But the key question for me is about all of the surfaces; one gym is making sure the holds are cleaner by ensuring the climbers are cleaner with hand sanitizer readily available. But one gym is focusing only on the climber, not the holds or ropes, admitting that it is just to difficult to manage. Oh, and rental gear…? That’s a thing of the past at a gym. Some gyms renting out harnesses will be putting returned harnesses on a “time out” while any virus riders die off.

A set of survey questions from Vertical Life, the app, shed some light into what gym owners are thinking. However, as they explain in the survey introduction, “…these proposed measures have not been tested, nor do they have to necessarily be implemented at your gym in the way described, or at all.”  Here is a link to the Vertical Life Survey.

  • Limiting your time at the gym.
  • Scheduling climbers to visit throughout the day. (The survey asks specifically about our tolerance for alternative hours, such as early morning, lunch hour, weekends late.)
  • Using an app or other scheduling tool to check the current number of people checked in at the gym, booking visits in advance, paying fees online, contactless check-in, and being notified about new routes.
  • Limiting routes and boulder problems in order to promote social distancing.
  • Limiting area and choices of routes or problems.
  • Wear a mask.

LIQUID CHALK

Ph.D. Chemist Andrew Abeleira on GymClimber.com says, “The short answer is maybe, but not in the way you’d expect.” Abeleira goes on to explain that the liquid chalk won’t prevent the virus from lingering on your hands, but it would reduce the airborne matter in the gym, thus providing less surface area for the dreaded organism to ride to its next victim. I suppose that I’ll be retiring my chalk bag to the shelf as another relic.

I’m not giving up on my — albeit modest — climbing goal of bouldering V6, but I have extended the timeline by a year or more. I am 41 and need to work out hard now to keep from aging poorly, keep up with my kids, and keep hiking the Adirondacks and the Presidential Mountains well into my 80s and 90s. I still have some time to keep climbing, but now the circumstances of climbing at the gym five minutes from my house, just are not right for me.

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