10 Awesome Things About Hiking with LITTLE Kids


Hiking shorter distances, seeing more (N. Stern)

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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How to Change Mount McKinley’s Name

I wrote this article well before it was announced that President Obama through his executive authority would rename Mount McKinley as Denali on August 30, 2015. Now it gives context why the move was so significant in breaking the political stalemate.

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

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

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

Buckeye Pride

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

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

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

The Map is Right

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

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

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

Bridging the Crevasse

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

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

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

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

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

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Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

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

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

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

The Day’s Greats Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice for an Aspiring Adventurer

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

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

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

Good luck!

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5 Reasons Why PaceMaker Trekking Poles Might Be Right for You

Atop Mt. Colden in the Adirondacks, June 2004.

I had finished a 30-mile hike which included a scramble up one of those beautiful, bald summits of the Adirondacks. I came downhill much faster than I had gone up and was carrying a 35-pound overnight pack. My hamstrings and calves were holding up and my trekking poles kept me balanced as I descended — which was more like a controlled stumble — seemingly bouncing from foothold to foothold.

I arrived back at the trailhead, exhausted but in a euphoric state. I leaned my poles against my old coupe, put my pack in the trunk, hydrated with a warm sports drink, started the engine and turned on some punk rock music and drove away down the long narrow dirt road with a triumphant feeling.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until three days later that I left my poles in the parking lot. That was 10 years ago this month. I haven’t had my own pair since.

Just last month  I was approached by PaceMaker Stix about reviewing their trekking poles. I hadn’t heard of them before and decided to check them out and see where they stood. After a quick Internet search I counted 18 different brands of trekking and walking poles. It seems only three or four brands are the most recognizable and widely accessible, however, PaceMaker consistently received the highest customer reviews online. I accepted the invitation from PaceMaker Stix to review a set of their sticks and I received a pair of their Expedition Poles.

I worked out a time with Natalie for us to take kids on a hike so I could test them out. The big hike in Shenandoah NP or the Monongahela NF I wanted became unrealistic with our commitments, but a semi-urban hike in the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Habitat along the Potomac was feasible.

Trying ascending with the PaceMaker Stix (Natalie Stern 2014)

This was also Schnickelfritz’s first time riding in the child carrier backpack. Wunderkind, who rode on my back down Mount Mansfield in Vermont in 2012, was now helping me test the poles.

After some long strides, a couple of leaps from one beached driftwood log to another, and finding some unlevel and occasionally unstable terrain to test ascending and descending, I have five reasons why PaceMaker Expedition trekking poles might be right for you:

1. Sturdy and Durable — They held up to my walking and leaning with all my weight with Schnickelfritz on my back. They are also light weight and appropriately rigid; the tips at the far end of the poles went right where I wanted them — there was no unwanted flexing.

2. Easy Extending and Holding — The flick locks are easy to open, close and adjust them. Even when Schnicklefritz and I bounced from log to log and leaned hard on them, there wasn’t any give. The same was true regardless of what length you choose to set them at.

PaceMaker Stix adjustable flick locks. (Szalay 2014)

3. Cork Grips and Comfortable Leashes –– The grips on my original poles several years ago were rubber with deep grooves for ventilation. They are great in the winter at keeping moisture out, but clammy. Cork is indeed better and I’m doubtful that they would perform poorly if I were using the poles snowshoeing in Vermont this winter. For most trekking pole aficionados, cork is the only way to go.

4. Affordable Prices — For their quality, these poles are truly affordable. They might even be “cheap” in price but not in performance. My old poles cost $110 for the pair. The PaceMaker Stix Expedition Trekking Poles cost $59.99 and I am just as happy with them. As a parent on a parent’s budget, I’d go with the PaceMakers everytime.

Schnickelfritz on the move, with Dad (Natalie Stern 2014)

5. Consistently Excellent Reviews –– Go online and look on Amazon or Google. PaceMaker fans are vocal. These poles are consistently given higher customer reviews.

By the way, since starting this blog in 2010 I have gotten several requests to review climbing and hiking books and various outdoor products. I haven’t turned down a request to review a book yet, but have turned down all the requests for product reviews. That was until I was approached by PaceMaker Stix. I felt it was something that you might enjoy too. My whole family did…

Sharing my PaceMaker Stix with Wunderkind (Natalie Stern 2014)

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This post is a sponsored post, but my words express my own opinion, as always.

Peter Boardman and The Shining Mountain

He doesn’t have a household name, but it comes up in mountaineering discussions periodically and in general literature too.

Today, Peter Boardman is best associated with the Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountaineering Literature, an award that was made to honor their memory. He was a pioneering alpinist that pushed boundaries and is still a hero to some climbers that are familiar with his legacy.

His most notable ascents were made with fellow Brit Joe Tasker. Their first together was chronicled in Boardman’s book, The Shining Mountain (1978), when they attempted the blank West Face of Changabang in the Garhwal Himalaya. Ken Wilson, a British climbing magazine editor, commented that their planned line, which Chris Bonnington announced to the public, “didn’t look like a married man’s route.” (Which makes me chuckle every time I read it.)

For some of us, his climbs were done before we were born. The mountains he climbed are recognizable, though the routes were firsts ascents or attempts: Petit Dru, Denali, Everest twice, Kanchenjunga, Carstenz Pyramid, K2 twice, and obscure destinations like Kongur in China, Gauri Sankar’s South Summit in Nepal, and, of course, Changabang’ West Wall.

One of the reasons there is a climbing literature award that bears his name is because of his quality writing and storytelling. The Shining Mountain is not only inspiring but covers the self doubt with honesty. It’s also leads by example: While it acknowledges not everything is easy or possible, it’s rarely dipping into the dark depravity of despair because he was objective inbhis analysis but confident with tempered optimism. The establishment of the Boardman Tasker Prize keeps his memory and his many accomplishments alive and relevant.

As part of another project, I recently reached out to Dougald MacDonald, the Executive Editor at the American Alpine Club and the fearless leader of Climbing magazine. I asked him about some of the best mountaineering books ever written by sharing my preliminary list. He looked at the titles and sent me only one title that he said sprung immediately to mind: Boardman’s The Shining Mountain.

He was right that it belonged on my short list. I included The Shining Mountain on a best-of list in a recent guest post on Desk to Dirtbag: Be sure to check out Ten Must Read Mountaineering Books. I hope that the list might have your next book for vacation or some escapist reading.

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Gear, Stuff and What We Need


I’m on the lookout to buy a pair of belay gloves and two cool child-sized fleece sweaters, possibly from Patagonia, for my little kids. This year’s Gear Guide from Climbing magazine had a good breathable pair of gloves but no kids clothes (but why would they?)

I would probably send an Instagram around of both finds if I get them. I might even hash tag Gear Addiction or gearaddition just for amusement.

Since Natalie and I started our hopscotch move to a townhouse and back to our condo, we have let go of belongings and made rules about what new things can come into our home to stay permanently (such as decorations, books and magazines.) We’ve read that such habits can keep things tidy too.

The process of moving twice in just over a year, and reducing our collection of stuff, also made us examine why we want new things. It quickly became obvious to us: If it wasn’t something we needed or enhanced how we lived, that thing we thought we needed was merely emblematic of what we wanted our life to be. It indicated what we would rather be doing. It begged the question: Why not just do it or get rid of it?

I guess we were filling voids. For me, that meant gear for the kind of climbing and hiking I wanted to do but wouldn’t be able to commit to, if at all. I suddenly felt like I was forcing a square peg into a round hole.

What we really needed to do is go out and do what we are day dreaming about. Get out and do it. We’ll figure out what we really need, and in some cases what we don’t.

Take for instance my Uncle Tom. (He was my mentor and guide for getting into outdoors pursuits. I joined him on his quest to climb the Adirondack Mountains’ 46 highest peaks on several backpacking trips, mostly on trailess routes.) After every trip, he returned home and emptied out his old REI external framepack. He did so to ventilate the contents and sort everything into two distinct piles: 1) Stuff he used, and 2) Stuff he didn’t.

He cussed over the stuff he didn’t need. It weighed him down.

But we both learned something after these exercises. Sometimes things we needed we didn’t even bring. A hatchet would have been helpful. The pillow was unnecessary. And maybe we should take less food.

What I really remember are what shines through in the photos. The landscape. The smiles. The rocky trail and the feel of stepping stone to stone under a weighted pack.

I think we learn more from doing than shopping. We figure out what we need from trying. We find who we are out there.

Good luck.

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