Armchair Mountaineer News

The other morning, after getting Wunderkind out from her crib and setting her down to play, I took my copy of High Alaska off the shelf to take a look at the Sourdough ascent later. Well, I got distracted, set the book on her changing mat, and I played with Wunderkind a little bit before leaving for work. Edelweiss found High Alaska where I left it and she wondered if I was leaving climbing propaganda, like a religious zealot, for Wunderkind to find.

The zealot part wasn’t too far off, but the attempt at proselytizing was — er, ah — an unintended result of too many things on my mind.

Despite the hectic ways of life here in Peaklessburg this week, there are a couple of interesting pieces of news that have trickled my way recently:

  1. Steve House is writing a new book. He recently asked through social media for a list of all of the technical new routes on the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks climbed alpine style. He explained that he had his list but was checking his research for what would be a reference in a new book he was writing. Beyond the Mountain, his first book,was a very interesting narrative because of House’s intense perspective on climbing and his writing style. Whether the new book will be a narrative, a history, or something instructional, I’m sure his special perspective will make it worth picking up.
  2. Katie Ives was promoted to Editor-in-Chief of Alpinist. This is great news. Ives has been helping push the publication’s contributing writers to another level. Writing is a difficult thing and the quality and insight from the stories in Alpinist deserve thanks to Ives.

As for the Sourdough ascent on Denali… Well, it’s not just about them. But that’s for next week.

Thanks for dropping by again and have a great weekend! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

A Persistent Cold in the Valley of the Sun

Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, AZ before the heat set in (Szalay 2012)

I brought the cold with me to the Valley of the Sun — the greater Phoenix, Arizona area. Sudafed came too. For my second business trip there in three months, I hoped this time I would get the chance to take-in the hills among all the housing developments and do a little suburban mountaineering for real, I supposed. You can’t walk from sidewalk to trail in Peaklessburg.

This time in Phoenix, I had the cool, early mornings to my advantage as my internal clock was still on east-coast time. So I could get an hour or two before putting on my business attire. The hurdle holding me back now was this lingering, nagging virus.

The morning before I flew home, I looked from my patio again up again to the low but attractive summit of Piestewa Peak, formerly Squaw Peak, in the Phoenix Mountain Park and Recreation Area. The air was still and about 70 degrees. It was 6:00 a.m. That was it!

I went. I coughed a lot. I felt more tired than when I left. But I got to tread the stony terrain, admire the cacti, stave off the fear of coming across a venomous snake, and take this picture above. About an hour afterwards, I was washed up, in my charcoal suit, talking policy and popping a decongestant. I slept on the plane without any regret. The business meetings were productive and I satisfied my curiosity about the rumored chossy rock. It was indeed.

Thanks for reading my update. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Squamish and Parkland Debate

I’ve heard that there might be a big change coming to Squamish, BC. Many, including most residents seem to embrace it, yet it’s a choice that ought to involve many considerations than the local view.

I can imagine myself bringing my family back to there in the near future, not quite sure I like the change. We’d drive up the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver probably after enjoying Lord Stanley’s Park. Then, just before the main attraction, we’d show Wunderkind Shannon Falls. She might get bored, or tired, and we’d move on.

Finally, at last, we’d take-in the Stawamus Chief. Or would we? The view from the Highway alone is stunning. On one side earth rises sharply to the crisp blue air. The other dips into choppy water flowing in the Straits of Georgia.
All of it accented by my favorite color in the various sharp shapes and sizes that God makes evergreens.

Between the Falls and the great cliff, we might stop, pay CA$29 to ride up the ridge to Mount Habrich. You see, while more approvals are required, the District of Squamish Council in British Colombia has approved the plan to build a gondola within the park. Apparently, the Squamish Council didn’t think its attractions were enough or lucrative enough that they approved an enclosed ski lift for sight seeing the sound.

It’s better than what was proposed in 2004, which would have put the gondola’s path right atop and along the Stawamus Chief cliff. The outcry was significant but in 2011 the Sea-to-Sky Gondola reintroduced the idea, but this time for the neighboring ridge. The Squamish residents seem to tolerate the idea a little more with the added knowledge that the gondola’s path would be over an area “impacted” by logging.

I know that my wife and daughter would enjoy the ride to the top; it would be a chance to see the view from on high without a long, uphill hike or steep climb with dad interrupted by long breaks for water and photos. For the gondola alternative, the effort involved is significantly low and wearing flip flops right out of the car and through the turnstiles would be acceptable — I can see the appeal. It would also separate the hardcore outdoors types from the flip flip tourists. But if the gondola wasn’t there, I wouldn’t miss it. Besides, if the land was “impacted” by logging, why couldn’t it be allowed to be wild once again? If it were let be, it would come back, perhaps different, but the land would grow as it wishes, even if it’s just grasses and lichen.

The Squamish Council’s decision was not the final approval, however. It now turns to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District of British Colombia Parks and the provincial government. The developer hopes to build starting in September 2012, but the choice remaining is worrisome: In order for the gondola to receive final approval, the land’s designation must be downgraded from park land to protected land. The permanence of such designations are always subject to change by policymakers, however, it is far easier to reverse course on such choices when there is not infrastructure in place, such as a gondola or ski jump (the Adirondacks in New York comes to mind).

But it can also be likened to the proposal to drill in Alaska. Some polls claim that a majority of Alaskan residents support drilling to help with employment. However, many Americans — greater than the population of Alaskan residents — consider the land a natural treasure of wild places.   The decision needed for approval involves political discussions and policy decisions that involve more than just the local residents. Local residents aren’t the only people that have a stake, and in the case of the Squamish Gondola, BC Parks and the province — not to mention the people of British Colombia and even others like me — may value the ridge line path very differently.

The gondola could bring revenue to Squamish, allow those visitors and locals who wouldn’t hike or climb to the top for the view to ride high, and separate the tourist-scoffing from the tourists. But it actually does little else for the land itself. While the area is hardly true wilderness, the area around Shannon Falls and the Chief is often more wild than many people experience. It ought to stay untamed and a little inconvenient.

That being said, I take comfort that if the gondola was built, the Stawamus Chief would still be one of the largest walls in the world and that no gondola reached its top to create a Clingman’s Dome environment in what ought to be a magic moment of topping out. So things could be worse, yet they could be better too.

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Alaska’s Unique Pioneer Style

Denali's North Face as seen from a bush plane (TiresiasZ, 2006).

The best part about flying across the country is the time you get to shut off from the digitally-connected world to be left alone with your thoughts… Or your book. That is if you can resist paying the $7.95 for the WiFi connection. I didn’t give the airline the pleasure of having more of my money so I read some of Alpinist 37 and day dreamed about Alaska.

On that subject… there are several things that I like about Alaska above all other mountain-adventure destinations. It’s vast wilderness, it’s northern climate, and all the features that come with a remote, low-populated area. Compared to the Himalayas, Alps or Andes, there are few established communities that rely on and live in the mountain environment.

I don’t remember where I read this (though I wish I did at the moment,) but I realize its true, the Himalayas by contrast have several mountain villages scattered throughout the mountains. While those village residents rarely visit or rely on the mountains, they change the nature of climbing and trekking expeditions to the region. The villages provide milestones on a journey (if you’re romantic, they offer rustic culture). Alaska on the other hand, doesn’t have this. The Intuit, Haida and other Native Alaskans didn’t settle in mountain passes and consider such terrain simply white, treeless obstacles, but not the kind that dares you to overcome it.

Getting yourself to Alaskan climbing destinations in the Alaska Range, Wrangel Mountains or Revelations is often done by bush planes landing on glaciers or sand bars, depending on the time of year and conditions of the snowpack and river flow. This isn’t done in the Himalayas; helicopters are more common and the air density at the base of the mountains varies from route to route, and in some cases makes flight to that elevation too dangerous to attempt if not physically impossible. While the first glacier landing by bush plane was relatively early in Alaskan climbing history, in 1932 by Alan Carpe, there are routes that still necessitate starting the climb the old fashioned way… from the nearest road, on foot, oftentimes days away, with big packs. When David Roberts and Don Jenson and attempted Mount Deborah in the 1960s, they actually carried more gear than they could carry on their backs; they shuttled packs by carrying one pack at a time, dropping it off, returning for the other and repeat.

Dropping supplies by bush plane was a common practice through the 1960s for well-organized expeditions. This enabled a team to get part way up their chosen route without having to carry all the food and cooking fuel in their packs. However, it was inefficient and littering. Oftentimes the air dropped packages where smashed on impact, with canned goods opened and spoiling. Other times packages were never found. The practice has since been discontinued officially in some parts, like Denali National Park, and unofficially in others thanks to Leave No Trace ethics (which always makes me think of climbers choosing to leave a pack or extra ice axe up high out of a matter of convenience).
But walking in — what climbing guide author and former Denali Ranger, Jonathan Waterman, calls “Alaskan pioneer style” — is still necessary for access to Denali’s north face, Wickersham Wall, and long approaches from roads are required for other regions too, especially where there are no landing areas suitable for bush planes. And as Waterman points out repeatedly in High Alaska, it’s often the approach — especially the hazards or river crossings — that are more consistently life threatening than the ascents and descents.

Again by comparison, last I checked, the most common hazards en route to K2 or Broad Peak is the altitude and the food and water quality in Askole. Bears, river crossings, tussock fields, and an angry mother moose… They’re is nothing else like North America’s far north.

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Old, Seasoned Gear, Far Mountains

At long last, the weather is more seasonable. Peaklessburg had 11 days this November over 70 degrees (F). Yesterday morning I wore a jacket and gloves and steam rose off my coffee.

I’m already looking forward to my winter getaway later in Vermont’s Green Mountains and I was making a mental list of what I would pack. It struck me that it’s mostly the same stuff I’ve been packing for winter fun for ten or more years, that I bought primarily as body armor for Adirondack ice climbing and that I now employed for snowshoeing and skiing.

There is the long, old-style shell, the ice climbing gloves bought on discount and the fleece insulation with the old EMS logo getting compressed, but not yet stripped at the knees and elbows. I wondered whether a refresh was in order.

This thought struck me because shortly before Thanksgiving I read 36 — that being issue 36 of Alpinist magazine. I really enjoyed it and already reread my favorite articles and sidebars, like Derek Franz’s fiction piece and Joe Josephson’s history of ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon in Montana. It’s enough to get really excited about the Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival next week!

I also enjoyed perusing through the three catalog inserts 36 came with from Mammut, O.R. and Bent Gate Mountaineering (BMR). For a moment, I was succumbing to the marketing genius and contemplated buying a three-layer Gore Tex hard shell in some bold, bright new color.

Some of you might remember that the popular color for new gear in the late 1990s and the early 2000s was a muted purple. That bright green — like on the jacket that Jimmy Chin zips up in that populist commercial from The North Face — I don’t think was even invented then.

My gear, minus my original shell, does the job of keeping me warm, dry and protected from the wind as appropriate, so from a practical standpoint there is little reason to make serious upgrades. I bought a new shell a couple of years ago that I am reasonably pleased with, but it is not nearly the hardcore climbing shell my original parka was.

Besides, having signed onto the Common Threads initiative recently — which I take seriously — there is no functional need right now to make big changes to what I am putting in the back of my Subaru for Vermont. Perhaps if I was heading for climbing in the Revelation Mountains or the Cirque of the Unclimbables I would get outfitted with brand new layers. Then again, maybe I would just sew patches on the threadbare areas and play up the old, veteran-of-the-hills look.

So, I could definitely use a bit of a refresh at some point. But I might wait until just before I might embarrass Wunderkind one day; I’ll be picking Wunderkind up from school or skating practice in the future wearing some ridiculously muted purple jacket with patches. Yes, that would be the right time.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

Hurricane Irene and the NE Backcountry

With Hurricane Irene making landfall, most of the media and public’s attention is on the storm’s impact along the heavily populated areas and along the coastal regions of the eastern seaboard – and for good reason. But the impact in the northeast backcountry will be severe too and nobody is talking about that!

As of Saturday, August 27, 2011, the path of the storm is expected to travel from Cape Hatteras northward toward Long Island and then into New England dumping huge amounts (eight-plus inches) of rainfall and distributing it with the help of intense, sustained winds. The saturation and the gusts has the potential to damage property but also the mountainsides of the White Mountains, Green Mountains and the Adirondacks.

Heavy rainfall can cause mudslides and flood rivers. Winds will likely be stronger in the mountains than in other areas in the storm’s path because of the differences in atmospheric pressure at various altitudes among the mountains’ microclimates; the air will be unable to move over or around a mountain and will be forced to compress and funnel through valleys and over ridges at furious speed. This will likely cause areas of trees to be impacted by blowdown.

Hopefully it goes without saying, stay off the trails and the peaks over the next few days. Don’t worry, the adventure will continue even after the damage is done.

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