Northeastern Trad Climbing

The diversity of climbing styles is much broader than we tend to think of it these days. While veteran climber’s like you are sensitive to the differences, it’s hard to easily draw distinctions for non-climbers. Even new climbers tend to think the culture is homogeneous, on the surface, and it seems so by reading the various climbing magazines.

It’s not until you either hit the road and visit some landmark crag or mountain, or you become aware that your home mountains are nothing like the ones you read about in, say for example, North Carolina or Arizona. Maybe you suddenly sense that while the bolts in your community are standard, they’re discouraged at the destination you’ve drooled over in a Patagonia catalog, but you’ve never placed pro. And maybe there is a climbers bar in your area, but no hangout, not even an outfitter, at the other. What did these discoveries do to your perception and enjoyment of climbing?

When I moved to our nation’s capital to be a part of the action of government and politics over a decade ago, I knew that I would miss the Adirondacks and the White Mountains in the northeast, but I was put off by the climbing culture for years. The local crag at Great Falls was exclusively for toproping, and for thay matter, hardly the wilderness experience of the north woods.

When your climbing passion germinates in the northeast, you’re going to have a disposition for all weather conditions, seasons and wilderness — wilderness characterized by bushwhacking and seeing more bears than people at times. It also means being part of a history steeped in trad climbing and friction slabs.

Don Mellor, Adirondack native and climbing guide, said in his 2001 special-jury-mention book at the Banff Mountain Book Festival, American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing, that the traditional climbing of the region is most in any area of the United States. He explains that it’s because of the thousands of natural lines throughout the Adirondacks and the White Mountains. That, combined with defenders of the ways of Fritz Wiessner and Robert Underhill climbing style and ethics, you have a culture built around taking the mountain lines for what they are and having to bear full responsibility for success or failure.

I appreciate you stopping by for a read once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.


It’s Here: 2013 American Alpine Journal


Wunderkind and I stopped by our mailbox on the way home from our walk last night. I said to my toddler, “Let’s see if it came.” It did and the rest of the mail seemed less important, or at least less interesting.

Every year, in the middle of August members of the American Alpine Club receive the annual edition of the American Alpine Journal and Accidents in North American Mountaineering. The AAJ is by far my favorite of the two, though I am sure to read both as quickly as possible.

There are a lot of articles and reports worth devouring, but here is what’s on my short, short list for anyone who wants the Readers Digest version:

P. 102 — Recon: Revelations by Clint Helander — Clint is a nice and generous fella that happens to be a true pioneer in climbing in a day and age when there are a lot of hot shots going to Asia. Clint has found gems right here in North America and it’s as close as you can get to the days of climbing with Ad Carter and Bradford Washburn as you can get. This doesn’t mean to imply he climbs old school at all — read it an see.

P. 38 — Doubleheader by Kyle Dempster — I don’t focus on the Karakorum and Himalayas like most people these days, but I know that the ascents of K7 and the Ogre are significant and impressive. I’m bracing myself to be wowed.

P. 88 — Life Essence by Pat Goodman — This region in the Northwest Territory has long excited me, and Pat Goodman is as wonderful for climbing as his name suggests and he hasn’t disapointed me with his observations and stories yet.

P. 97 — Himjung Style by Ahn Chi-Young — The language barrier often gets in the way from what happens in this part of the world. I want to look through this port hole because I don’t know what I don’t know.

I left off this list Sandy Allan’s piece on the Mazeno Ridge traverse, which should have won the Piolet d’Or, and Freddie Wilkinson’s feature of the traverse of the Alaska Range’s Mooses Tooth massif because I think they have been well covered, not because they don’t deserve the read.

I am also going to spend time closely reading the book reviews before I read the trip reports. I think that it’s important to know what has been written about our community before diving into what it has done recently. It helps to stay in tune with the views and approaches of our niche yet diverse group.

Lastly, the obituaries might be just as important as the trip reports if not more so. The reports are snapshots of what may one day be written at the end. The In Memorium section, covers the climber in full. Whether you knew them or not, these mini biographies should be read carefully. I’ll pay close attention to the notes on Michael Ybarra, Bjorn-Eivind Artun, Roger Payne, Bean Bowers, and Yan Dongdong.

Carrying the AAJ under your arm everywhere for weeks if necessary is worth it to get through all of the rich content the community has shared. For me, with a busy regulatory work schedule coming up and two young children, it will be necessary. I’m a little worried since I haven’t finished reading Alpinist 43 and the latest issue of Climbing. I’ll gladly set aside my other books, but staying on top of my periodicals of choice is getting dicey.

May you have adequate time to read in gulps rather than sips.

I appreciate you stopping by for a read once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Stowe Derby and Bedstand Reading Notes

The current, shorter reading stack (Szalay 2013)

Someone asked about what happened with me skiing in the Stowe Derby this past February. I said I was training for it multiple times starting over a year ago and then my updates faded into silence.

The Stowe Derby is the oldest cross country ski race in North America held in Stowe, Vermont every February. It starts at the top of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest point, and goes down the snow- and ice-covered toll road that visitors drive up in the warmer months. The second half of the race is virtual-straight away route through the valley into Stowe itself. Here’s the wacky twist that makes it a ton of fun: You pick whether you want to use cross country skis or downhill skis and you have to wear them throughout the race.

I didn’t enter this year. You see, Natalie and I had an agreement: If we were expecting our second child this spring, we’d put the race off for a season or two.

The arrival is coming any week now and we’re really excited.

In the meantime, I’m trying to stay ahead of a little bit of reading before the blissful mayhem of having a toddler and a newborn take-up more of my energy and steal my sleep. So I thought I would fill you in on what’s on my reading list:

Alpinist Issue 42–The rule in my house goes like this: When the quarterly literary climbing magazine arrives, give it to me and I’ll set aside the time to read it ASAP. So it often travels in my padfolio to work, in my Patagonia shoulder bag on weekends and kept on my bedstand at night. Sometimes I only read half a page, but that’s progress and enriching.

In 42, Alpinist‘s longest-serving teammember and its relatively new Editor-in-Chief, Katie Ives, dazzled me a new ways in her editor’s column, The Sharp End. It’s about the value of our books in relation to climbing. I’m mostly an armchair mountaineer nowadays, so I found it true and touching. I have reread this column several times since receiving it.

Halfway to Heaven: My White Knuckled — and Knuckle-Headed  –Quest for the Rocky Mountain High I picked up this one by Mark Obmascik at a charity used book sale more than three years ago. This title was far from my short-list of books I was hoping to find, but it has been helping bring some much needed escapist reading these last few weeks as I finished a very intense two months (published a professional article, held two conferences and ran a board meeting, not to mention the move into the new townhome) and this has been an unexpected comic relief. It’s like Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods for Colorado’s 14ers and I highly recommend picking it up for the history and amusement.

Forget Me NotThis book was given to me by a new friend that climbs much more often than I do and has become a reader of TSM. Jennifer Lowe-Anker wrote this memoir about her life with her late husband, Alex Lowe, coping with his loss, and falling in love with Conrad Anker. It’s a very different type of climbing story, and one in a sub-genre that want to explore: Stories of love and loss in the climbing community. I haven’t officially started reading it just yet, but I’ll fill you in on more later. If you’ve read it, please save your thoughts until I’m done; I want to hear them, but later…

A List of Classic Climbing Books–In my notebook (the black-bound volume in the stack) has a running list of two sets of classic climbing books: 1) the one’s that are popularly read; and 2) the influential titles, which is essentially a narrower list plus several that are unavailable except through collectors. I’m using this to build and structure my personal library to one that suits me better. I have a wonderful hodge-podge of titles on climbing that I enjoy, but I am missing several titles that I probably ought to own because of my priority interests in climbing. You might hear more about this later.

Thanks for dropping by once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Everest 1963

Mount Everest‘s earliest attempt was in 1922. Its first ascent was in 1953. Its first winter ascent in 1980. Somewhere in the early 1990s current events stopped being interesting.

It became like the American space shuttle program. At first everyone watched every launch with wonder. Then attention slowly evaporated. Then no one cared unless the stale routine turned into a deadly fireball.

I regret that the mountain has become Burning Man on the Khumbu. Okay, that’s a bit off. Even unfair. Burning Man is a much more exciting event today.

So until some wild alpinists successfully traverses Lhotse, Everest and Nuptse in a single push, the activity around the mountain will likely remain less than compelling. But I still enjoy Everest for it’s history. And this spring marks the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by an American.

Over the holidays I read Jim Whitaker’s 1999 autobiography, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, published by the Mountaineers Books in Seattle. My copy was pre-read and evidently bought at an Eddie Bauer based on the price tag firmly baked into the dust jacket.

Whittaker recounts his introduction to climbing as a child, his involvement in mountain rescue organizations, his career as a guide on Mount Rainier, how he grew and expanded outfitter REI, his relationship with the Kennedy family, and of course, his ascent of Mount Everest.

Whittaker’s ascent was actually only the seventh ascent of Mount Everest. With so few lines completed to the top of the mountain at that time, the American expedition, which included Tom Hornbein, and Willi Unsoeld among others, had a virtually blank canvas and yet Whittaker and the majority of his teammates drew over the same line climbed by Hillary and Norgay 10 years earlier. Whittaker’s ascent became the popularly marketable climb through National Geographic and others because he was among the firsts. Yet, the next to reach the top, just days later, took a bold, original line and completed the first traverse of Everest. That climb receives plenty of accolades too, but in many ways deserves more.

During the1963 American attempt, the expedition split into two teams above the Ice Fall. One team, which Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu eventually lead the way to the top, took the route established by Hillary and Norgay up the Ice Fall along the South Col. Meanwhile, Hornbein and Unsoeld were going to create a new route up the West Ridge, and descend by the South Col.

There were more variables with the new route. The West Ridge was steeper and the progress was slow. Hornbein and Unsoeld arrived on the summit quite late in the day. They later spent a cold, strange night on the South Col route at high altitude with two of their partners that had summitted earlier that same day. Overall, their ascent was light and fast. In some ways, the climb was ahead of its time in the same way is was old fashioned; like going up an Alp in the 1800s with only your axe, a loaf of bread and a blaze of courage.

Years later Mark Twight would write with venom about the death of the American alpinist. Since we now know that Steve House and others have redeemed the American alpinist, I guess we can say what Twight perceived wasn’t really death but rather dormancy. Clearly the American alpinist went into hibernation after the West Ridge ascent, because Hornbein and Unsoeld were very much awake and alert American alpinists.

We can’t all be Hornbeins and Unsoelds or Whittakers. But perhaps there is some of that American alpinist dormant in us, ready to keep things interesting.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following me on Facebook or Twitter. And feel free to share this post with your friends. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Sources: 1) Whittaker, Jim, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1999); and 2) Hornbein, Tom, Everest: The West Ridge (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1998).

What Do You Seek?

Maybe the question is not the tiresome why [do we climb],” Kelly Cordes says, “but what do we seek?” –Katie Ives, The Sharp EndAlpinist 41

My favorite commercial from the SuperBowl hit the mark on the climbing experience I want. Oddly, it was a car commercial.

It went like this: A high school kid is dressed in a tux and about to go to the prom solo. He gets a boost of confidence from his dad who lends him his Audi. He barges into the party and passionately kisses the girl, then the football-playing boyfriend decks him. The commercial cuts to the kid driving away with a smirk of satisfaction and a blackeye.

The part I savored wasn’t about what a car can do for me or the rush of adrenaline and excitement of taking a risk and becoming memorable (legendary, no doubt, in this case), but rather the combination of bravery and living in the moment. The high awareness of the moment and the perspective that comes with euphoria and sense of wholeness. It’s when all your bodily effort and your soul touches someplace that feels outside time. Happiness is involved too.

Kelly Cordes’ point about asking what we seek when we climb, rather than more broadly why do we climb is clever means to drill into our ice-core souls. Why has always been a dull bit when I’ve tried to clearly explain things to my family. I’ve felt the need to justify my love for climbing as an activity and an intellectual interest by addressing their values. I thought it was a persuasive approach. I realize now that I was being partly untruthful. I’d say that it helped me serve clients and customers better because I took the time to separate myself from the routine of suburban and urban life. I said it was about therapy. It worked but the answer didn’t really explain it entirely.

My family and friends found the pictures and stories from my trips the most compelling but they still questioned the safety and comfort of the endeavor. I usually just shrugged. I understand more clearly now that to do anything worthwhile, there is always a little bit of effort and it sometimes involves a degree or misery. I’m okay with that and I even apply the principle to a lot of activities in life.

What’s compelling for me — as in the real goal of an wilderness adventure — is to reach that moment of touching someplace metaphysically higher — call it heaven. After a long slog, the satisfaction of the top that opens to an expanse — particularly a wide open space such as the top of a route or a bald summit — is euphoric. I’m not worried or even thinking about due dates, my next errand or the emails or even bills accumulating at home or at work. It’s strictly thoughts of wonder at the place I’m in. Concentration on my balance. Conscious of the weather conditions and the angle of the sun. Blissfully happy.

The perspective is an important one. Because for me, I’ve found wide open space — even a hillside meadow — and the feeling of separation from the daily grind and elevation to a peaceful place nearly outside of time are somehow linked with me. There I have these fleeting moments of wholeness and bliss where the world seems to hold still both physically and in my modern multi-tasking mind. It’s still long enough that what really matters is crystal clear. I can think of numerous examples from coming to a clearing in Shenandoah, to the hillside unkempt lawn at my favorite resort in Vermont.

Unfortunately, wherever or however I come to those pinnacles, I can never hold onto them. A religious leader once told me that this was the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a temporal state. Alternatively, you can be going through a rough time and still be joyful. Joy has to do with keeping the bigger picture in mind, even if the memory of what’s important gets muddled in the confusion of life.

Interestingly, I just recently realized that I don’t have to climb to achieve that heavenly awareness. It came to me in a meadow at Trapp Family Lodge last September when I was playing with my wife and daughter. The state of mind was the same place I had visited during my most memorable climbs and hikes. Really. Yet, getting to that point took a lot of work: Building relationships, saving for the expense of time off, arranging for work to operate in my absence. The work of getting to that state was akin to sackcloth and ashes or a narrow bivy, low on rations and you dropped your fuel canister.

The temporal state of a happy place is hard to reach consistently. But the quest of boiling everything down to life’s essence is what I work on doing (mostly unsuccessfully) every day. It’s a quest, and I believe that there is no better means of reaching that objective than mountain climbing. I also think alpinism is the ultimate method to stretching one’s abilities and getting what I’m talking about. This may not be the case for everyone, but I suspect most would agree and where we disagree it’s a matter of semantics.

One final thing I want to mention: If you are only reading Climbing or Rock & Ice — which are good publications that I read too — you might not be getting all that you need if you’re into the essence and sharing the actual experience of climbing. You have to read Alpinist too. It helps identify and maybe even look into those soulful moments of being whole almost anytime.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Farewell to Maurice Herzog

Last Friday, while waiting for my bus to start my morning commute, a new acquaintance sent an email to many of his contacts to share a news story from Le Monde: Maurice Herzog passed away. In Herzog’s 93 years of adventure, he is remembered for being the first person, along with Louis Lachenal, to stand atop an 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna.

I read the story of that 1950 first ascent written by Herzog the first time when I was a teenager and again late in college. Herzog lost cache with me sometime after the second reading when I learned more about the disputed elements of the story. Herzog may not have been so galante or brave so much as an egomaniac.

Regardless, I can’t deny the effect that the ascent and his book had on me and countless climbers. I read the book a third time on a recent vacation for just what it was and for the simple pleasure of an journey into the unknown. I’m grateful to him.

One thing I’d like to point out, is that Annapurna was the alternative objective of that 1950 expedition. A neighboring 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri, was the primary target for the French that year. However, the mountainous terrain was virtually unknown and the maps were poor and often wrong. The exploration and the climbing that they accomplished was remarkable, especially in a mere few months. Herzog deserves credit for leading and managing his team through such a risky enterprise and for making the decision to shift objectives in a timely manner.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter, because like you I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.