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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Original K2 Photos May Have Been Sold to Cover Costs

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Mystery K2. (All rights reserved)

We are in the seventh week of a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic, and Natalie, the kids, and I are still healthy and haven’t gone totally stir crazy. We’re pretty self-disciplined with lots of healthy habits, so I think that’s keeping us buoyant.

I am very concerned about the future of my climbing gym. When this whole thing started, I thought I would just return whenever it reopened, but I know now that this won’t be the case. Until a adequate testing is available in the states and, hopefully, a vaccine, climbing gyms will have a lot of challenges with social distancing and cleanliness. It’s making me seriously consider building my own 40-degree training wall in my garage, which I had planned to do when we relocated here.

Work has been the greatest source of stress, as usual, so I have been going through old TSM files. I thought you might appreciate this brief follow-up: Last fall (on September 6, 2019 to be precise), I received a reply to an email I sent to Anne-Christine Clottu Vogel on February 21, 2013. I know; it came quite late, but TSM is still active and my interest in this inquiry hasn’t waned. A.C. Clottu is one of Jules Jacot-Guillarmod’s granddaughters, and the thorough and well-written reply came from A.C. Clottu’s first cousin’s husband, Jean L. Des Arts. If Jules Jacot-Guillarmod rings a bell about K2, well, it should…

WESTERN EYES ON K2

In 2013, I wrote a three-piece series on the cover photo of Alpinist 37, which was not in high resolution, wasn’t in color, and was not suitable for Instagram. The image, however, was one of the first photographs and proper representations of the second-highest peak in the world. K2 was always difficult to see and was remote, even for people that lived in the Karakorum, which is part of the reason why the designation by T.G. Montgomerie stuck; names like Chogori or Dapsang only somewhat recently became known. The view wasn’t artistically drawn, it was tangibly real. What I wanted to know was how did that photo become lost and suddenly resurface only now?

My inquiry, initially only to Alpinist Magazine editor-in-chief Katie Ives lead to a series of introductions. I already knew Greg Glade at Top of the World Books in Vermont and Beth Heller who was then the librarian at the American Alpine Club. But she also pointed me to the owner of the image, the mysterious Bob Schelfhout-Aubertijn and A.C. Clottu. Bob and I started a friendship where we bonded over mountaineering, parenthood, beer, and dealing with assholes on the Internet. Later, I wrote a “Local Hero” piece for Alpinist Magazine about Bob. A.C. Clottu, however, never replied.

Des Arts did not recall how the email came to his inbox. However, he read my blog posts and gave me a very informed response. In fact, he commented how he was, “[A]lways somewhat irritated that Crowley’s name is mentioned together with Eckenstein who, to my knowledge, was the leader of the expedition and a thorough organiser.” He was correct; I had mentioned them both together. Des Arts went on to say, “On that expedition, by the accounts of both the British members and [Jules Jacot-Guillarmods], Crowley’s role was a minor one, not the least because he was ill for most of the time. I think one is vastly overstating Crowley’s capacity as a leader and organiser, probably because he was a pretty big mouth and well known for his character and later for his ancillary activities… The main reason for the expedition’s failure was the bad weather, not the conflicts of personality.”

PHOTOGRAPHERS AND PHOTOS

How, after all, did that early image of K2 get lost only to resurface decades later? According to Des Art’s reply, the family seemed to understand this very clearly: “[Jacot-Guillarmods] was an ardent photographer and besides exchanging photographs with other photographers, he sometimes both gave them away and even sold them to cover his costs (more important at the time than today.) So, there may be copies or plates in circulation.”

Sometime between when Jacot-Guillarmods passed on the plate, and when Bob acquired at auction about a decade ago, the plate was mislabeled, miss-associated, and became a time capsule-treasure that Bob excavated and Alpinist Magazine celebrated.

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Is Mt. Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Mt. Kennedy of the Yukon. (All rights reserved.)

I started to feel like I was missing something significant. Alpinist Magazine had a feature on Mt. Kennedy. Then my Google alerts showed a lot of “chatter” about Mt. Kennedy and suddenly Gripped Magazine had an article. Was Mount Kennedy the Mountain of the Year?

Well, not exactly, but there are two stories, and both are worth talking about.

In 1965 Jim Whittaker led Senator Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of an alpine objective in Yukon Territory formerly named East Hubbard, renamed by the Canadian government that same year after the late president, John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’ve often dismissed the ascent as notable but not significant. David Stevenson made it more interesting for me than just notable.

David Stevenson was a member of Mt. Kennedy’s second ascent in 1977. He also wrote the long-form feature — a mountain profile — in Alpinist 67. The mountain was remote, and it has all the elements of classic David Roberts and Bradford Washburn far north American alpine adventures, including long slogs, shuttling, and no contact with the greater world for months at a time and being at complete peace about it. I read that stuff with nostalgia. (Does that make me weak, or subconsciously critical of my modern hurried life?) Regardless, the feature was excellent and worth the purchase or the subscription.

The second story was a new feature-length documentary will be released this fall (fall 2019) about the sons of the original climbers, including a candidate for governor, a band manager, and young mountaineer, repeat of the climb 50 years later, Return to Mount Kennedy. Like most other climbing films (or any film or movie for that matter), I won’t rush to watch it, but I am curious about how the film delivers on its promise to tie in a theme of conservation.

Mt. Kennedy isn’t the mountain of the year. Who am I to declare that? But that does give me an idea for this blog; perhaps I have mountains or climbers of the month that I can focus on here on the blog and social media? Well, it’s just a thought.

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Who is Nirmal Purja?

North Doodle. (All rights reserved)

In March 2019, we saw the results of a press push. Some guy no one knew was going to try to make history.

Nirmal Purja claimed he was going to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time. Not in years, but months. The record had been over seven years. Purja wanted to do it over a single season. I shared the news on social media and the reactions were in alignment with mine, but more succinct:

  • Bullshit on so many levels. Don’t give him the publicity he craves.
  • “Impossible… I think it’s cheap publicity nothing more.”
  • “This shouldn’t even be ‘news worthy’ until he actually does the deed. Anyone can say they’re going to summit all 8000ers in a single year, but I’d bet money he can’t do it.”

Yet as of the end of July 2019, he has already made history by completing 11 of his objectives with only Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, and Manaslu remaining.

So who is this guy?

First of all, the thing he is actually most famous for is the May 23rd photo of the conga line of climbers heading to the top of Everest. Yes, it was from Purja’s Instagram account. He had already embarked on his journey, which he calls “Project Possible 14/7.”

Purja is Nepalise and served from 2002 through 2018 in the British military through the Brigade of Gurkhas and later in Royal Navy’s Special Boat Teams. During that time he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire, as the MBE after his social media handles indicate. (MBE is not knighthood; there are higher orders which are knights.)

Based on Purja’s Project Possible, he is an excellent logistical planner, and has a strong will. It appears to have drawn some significant resources including his lead sponsor, Bremont, a luxury watch maker. He is also supported by four experienced Sherpas. Jeff Moag talks about his team on their K2 push — and it really was sheer will and muscle — that got them to the top this season, possibly making rather than breaking Purja’s Project Possible 14/7.

What Purja has done to date has already been historic. The previous speed record was by Kim Chang-ho of South Korea at seven years 10 months and 6 days. He finished in 2013. The previous record to that was by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987 after seven years 11 months and 14 days. His approach is innovative in concept, though not fitness or technology. Climbers have reached base camps by helicopter before. Mountaineers have climbed multiple 8,000ers in a single trip, though usually within the same expeditionary trip. Doing them all has surprised many, including me.

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How Free Soloists Die According to Alex Honnold

The Valley of Light. (All rights reserved)

I just finished my written review of The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott and published by Dutton in March 2019. The “big” review won’t be published until sometime after May 8th. That’s okay. There is plenty of stuff to share that didn’t fit into the 800-word limit.

One thing I had to share from Synnott’s book was how Honnold views the risk of death from free soloing. (Synnott calls this Honnold’s “homegrown statistic.”) According to Honnold, Synnot writes, “no free soloist has ever fallen while pushing his limits.”

Synnott quotes Honnold: “It doesn’t seem to be the way that people die.”

Synnott considered these free soloists from The Impossible Climb:

However, there are two that died free soloing

While this subject was morbid and covered only about a page, the book is still more about life and facing fear and the choices we make.

Go pick up a copy, I definitely recommend it.

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How Do You Follow and Support a SAR Thousands of Miles Away?

Rope team. (All rights reserved)

Since Thursday, February 28th, there has been a search for Danielle Nardi and Tom Ballard on Nanga Parbat. They went missing while attempting a new route up the Mummery Ridge. To date, only a snow-filled tent in an avalanche path around Camp 3, where they were last reported, was found.

It’s hard to know what to do in these situations 7,000 miles away. So I do a lot of things…

I try to follow with interest, hoping their found, perhaps descending a whole other section of the mountain with an incredible story to tell.

I’m also the praying type, so I pray.

Actually, I have more things I try not to do:

I try not to make judgments. (“Oh, they’re gone.”) As long as there is a SAR underway, I try to stay positive. Because, what do I know. I’m not there. It’s on the other side of the earth.

They have friends and family. As Tommy Caldwell says in his book The Push, or Tim Emmet said on the Enormocast recently, only thoughts of how their demise while climbing (or wing-suiting, for Tim) would affect their family gave them serious pause and inched toward heartache. Family lives on and we live with them.

I try not to ignore it. Especially until it is resolved. These things are not trivial current events about a Chinese man-made archipelago or story of a concert on some island. It’s more akin to miner’s stuck in their mine. Except these guys were going for fun, and as professionals, let some of us 7,000-miles away live vicariously.

How do you follow these scenarios? Do they affect you?

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