Inside the Real Fight Over Bears Ears

Straight lines. (All rights reserved)

Once, only vertical columns of ice and knife-edge alpine ridges enraptured me. Then a brief visit to the American southwest started to change that. Soon after, photos of the crack climbs around Indian Creek grabbed my attention.

It has also been impossible for me to ignore the pleas for us to write President Obama to create a new national monument around the Cedar Mesa Plateau, roughly where Indian Creek is tucked away: Bears Ears National Monument. This proposal comes from an Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah, and conservationists from across the U.S., including the Sierra Club, Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, among many others, have supported. I recently sent my own note to the President and I joined another organization, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, to support the ongoing advocacy efforts. Here’s why:

Game of Tug-of-War

The future of climbing in Indian Creek is now in the midst of a political game of tug-of-war. U.S. Representative Rob Bishop of Utah is proposing a bill that, among other things, would preclude any executive order by a president to name any further national monuments in Utah. He points out that the whole Utah Congressional delegation opposes the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal.

That last point is important, because, as I know from my days as a Congressional aide, the President is well aware that he should not take action affecting a particular state without support from the state’s elected representatives. If Obama uses his executive authority and designates Bears Ears National Monument without due process, without input broader than the Congressional delegation, then Obama’s actions could be contested, overridden, and ridiculed as poor governing.

Bishop has cleverly complicated efforts by introducing legislation that involves how federal public land in Utah would be managed in the future. (An updated version of his “Utah Public Lands Initiative” bill comes out today.) So long as this proposal is under discussion, the President has to tread extra-carefully; Congress has the power of oversight, spending, and authorizing. And most of Congress is staying on the sidelines, for the most part, in order to leave Utah’s delegation to have its say about its home turf. In addition to prohibit designating a new national monument, the bill alleges to “balance” industrial development and conservation efforts, but in reality it conserves new land in Northern Utah, not the canyon county in the south of the Cedar Mesa Plateau.

Key Moment

This is why a meeting on Saturday, July 16th at 1:00 p.m. PT in Bluff, Utah is so important. The Obama administration has called a public meeting to hear input from the region on whether there is sufficient public support for Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a critical test, if not just more input, for whether Obama can and should use his executive authority. Or is there enough input to render the Bishop PLI bill dead in committee (a harder thing to do.)

As a lobbyist with a large national nonprofit, I recently attended a similar public meeting, on a different subject (payday lending), in Kansas City in June. But the reasons for the meeting were similar. It was about the Obama administration wanting to take action it felt was shared popularly by the public, but opposed by Members of Congress. The meeting documented the statements from ordinary people and people with a direct stake on the topic on both sides of the issue. The forum also generated press, which made people speak up and take sides. It was a critical moment to drive and expose public interest and support for where it genuinely lies.

From my perspective in DC, this is the highest profile public lands fight right now. And it has ramifications for other proposals, like turning back larger swaths of federal public land in multiple states back to state government control that could turn it over to industry for resource extraction, rather than the recreational and conservation purposes Americans from coast-to-coast rely on.

There will be more key moments in the effort to make Bears Ears National Monument, but this is the time to either show up and speak in Bluff (RSVP here), even if just to say you support the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s proposal, or write to President Obama by clicking here. And join the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and/or Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, because the work won’t end here.

Speak up for Indian Creek, Bears Ears National Monument, and conservation, because there is more at stake than just Bears Ears.

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How Your Mountain Dreams Might be a Trap


Suburban sprawl. (All rights reserved)

Death from a climbing or skiing accident is hard to swallow. Suicide, by anyone, let alone a climber or skier, is more difficult because, well, it wasn’t an accident.

Which made Kelley McMillan’s piece in National Geographic’s Adventure Blog, “Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?“, alarming. The piece is focused on the ski towns, yet the data presented didn’t demonstrate that it was unusually higher in those communities than others, but I agree that the suicides were higher profile anecdotally. And it had an extra dose of being unsettling: How could people in paradise, living the dream, want to end it all? Was paradise killing us?

North to Vermont

My whole life I have wanted three things: A family, to be involved in politics and policy, and playtime in the mountains. With the first two down, several years ago I committed myself to make a big change.

With every ounce of my being, shortly after Natalie and I had our first child, I tried to relocate us up north to the land of mountains and snow. I dreamed of snowy days like in a Patagonia catalog where my kids and I would cross country ski after I finished work, and where chopping fire wood would be my favorite chore.

I networked like mad from our home in the Washington, DC metro area for eight months and traveled to Montpelier and Burlington to do informational interviews with Vermont housing organizations, the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, and some mortgage companies. I even submitted applications to Ben and Jerry’s parent company and Green Mountain Coffee.

I began to have back pain that came only in the night. I would sleep for a few hours and had to sit up, or better yet, stand up. Even being up at 2:00 a.m. with Wunderkind, feeding a bottle, brought pain relief, but then I suffered from sleeplessness.

I had X-rays. I went to physical therapy. I thought the pain was from not being strong enough. I though it was from the stress of being a new father. If the job hunt was the cause, it never occurred to me. I got interviews for open positions. It excited me; I felt that I was in control.

But during the last day of my “informational interview tour,” I literally made a wrong turn. I saw some neighborhoods with some young Vermonters and they didn’t look happy. They didn’t look like skiers or even boarders. They were in a different Vermont, where it was cold, and dreary, and the urban music scene they craved didn’t exist.

Days later I quit my job hunt. I knew I could call Vermont home, but would my kids find it as fulfilling? I didn’t want to test it now. Hardly noticing, my back pain faded away, at first, inexplicably.

We Want a Change

I still think that regularly ice climbing in Smugglers Notch or hiking sections of Long Trail would make me happy. Not to mention stopping in at the Alchemist in Waterbury for a Heady Topper whenever it was freshest; it sounded too good to be true. Yet I’ve recommitted myself to the Washington metro area — and I’m good with that for now.

While I love the things I go to Vermont to visit, the reality of the day-to-day might be different than I imagine. The job market is weak, and even then I know people move to the state and buy a house near their job in one neighborhood only to change jobs and be forced to commute an hour one-way. And what would the length of winter and mud-season do for my family being inside more; would we really play outside as often as I think we would? Would we feel cabin fever?

Vermont’s suicides have risen in the last two years. In fact, the suicide rate has risen to a 30-year high, and it is the leading cause of death for young Vermonters (among those aged 10-24).

Since settling on — or, perhaps better put, re-committing to — Washington, DC, I’ve been diligently accepting it as home. It has taken some work; I had to embrace the humidity of summer (baseball games help). And I finally think of the subway as a luxury. I also started planning more regular getaways to New England despite the long-haul drive up north.

My family and I might, one day, still move to the mountains. If we do, it will be because of the mountains are the “bonus” to so many other things that we want, including good schools, an affordable home, steady income, and healthy lifestyle options for all of us. For now, I’m working on making it work here in and around the big city and visiting the mountains in almost sacred pilgrimages during breaks spread out in between.

While we might want a change, the change of surroundings isn’t always what we need. Sometimes the change we need is all in our head.

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How to be in Two Places at Once


A couple of years ago Jason Stuckey shared with me his high-resolution photos from his first ascent with Clint Helander of Apocalypse Peak in Alaska’s Revelation Mountains. I recently stumbled upon them cleaning up some files. They’re dazzling. Dizzying.

I zoomed in on Clint. At first he appears as a mere stick figure on a steep snow field, but closer in I could see the contours of his helmet, and count the number of pickets and screws hanging on his harness. Then, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: Clint was looking in the same direction Jason was, and I was, in taking in The Angel, another 9,000-foot tall mountain (9,260 to be precise) over the valley. He had made the second ascent a year earlier.

Looking at these photos from my laptop in my Washington, DC-area condo at 6:30 a.m., I feel a sharp, cold gust brushing my exposed skin, and a little where it isn’t. The clean, unfiltered sunlight is blindingly bright even though my lenses are dark, almost black. It’s a bluebird day, rays bouncing sharply off the snow. And I can imagine my calves stretching, getting oddly warm in an unwelcome way, as I’m standing on my front points.

Then I remember that I have to wake the kids in an hour, and I am supposed to cover a Congressional hearing on the Hill at 10:00. I must remember to wear a tie today. I need to be there to know what the tone of the meeting was and whether any promises were made so I can hold them accountable. If I don’t, no one else will. At least that’s what I strongly believe, even if it might not be entirely true, or necessary.

Damn it. I want to be here. Living with my family. Fighting for my cause. But I want to be in that photo too.

The Passionate Divide

Adam Campbell, an Arc’teryx ultra-marathoner, lawyer and reader, wrote an essay in the fall-winter issue of the brand’s Lithographica publication titled, “The Passionate Divide”.  Campbell loved three things: running, legal challenges, and reading. They are his passions and while he considers himself fortunate, as many people don’t have even one passion, he is simultaneously cursed by having more than one. His ambition made him want to do well at both. Except improving at one meant sacrificing time that could be used to improve on the other.

Campbell talks about the quest so many people talk about everywhere: elusive work-life balance. Natalie has learned, and sometimes reminds me that balance doesn’t mean 50-50; balance can be 70-30 if it makes sense and you accept it. She’s right. But I haven’t figured out what the right arrangement is either.

The conflicts Campbell faced broke up his marriage and ended his time at the law firm where he worked at the time. And he stopped racing. He worked to find his motivation again. Then he realized that the idea of balance is all wrong — which is more to Natalie’s point to me. Campbell wrote, “balance means that two things are in opposition with one another; they are counterweights with nothing in common.” But we both know that isn’t true. Campbell’s passions are part of his whole. My passions are part of me combined. As Campbell also wrote, “Integration was the path to less internal conflict… Be gone guilt.”

One Unresolved Matter

Is climbing still mainly an outdoor activity in the mountains? That’s the way I prefer it. But climbing is in just about every peakless metro area through gyms. Even when I go climbing these days, it’s mostly indoors. All that’s great except when it’s the outdoors that we crave. And this presents the issue that Campbell’s approach can’t resolve.

Campbell’s approach has shed a lot of light on my passions for being a stronger climber, better at my job, a better husband, a better father, a better fantasy baseball manager, and a better artist. I realized that I compartmentalize things too much. Which means I often played king of the mountain with my passions. Now I realize that it’s okay so long as I recognize that they are not competing against one another.

After contemplating this for a long time, I’ve realized that our self identity isn’t just made up of one thing, even if it’s one thing at a time. One word can’t describe most of us, whether it’s climber, friend, or guitarist. We’re the combination of many things. And though we may not be great at any of our roles, the sum total can be beautiful. In fact, for us flawed mortals, perhaps only through the whole can we be beautiful.

However, resolving the turmoil of the passions that I can enjoy in and around this city where I live is one thing. I even have to work at trying to be comfortable and embrace the urban lifestyle. (I think I am doing better than I was a few years ago.) It is the passion for a job in the city versus a more wild surrounding that I am still having trouble resolving. Resolving it for passions — which are, broadly speaking, hobbies — is a different matter than the environment.

Passion for Place

Looking again at Jason’s photographs, I sit quietly and feel the wind and absorb some of the sun’s rays. I imagine loosening the pic of an ice ax, being careful not to break it, and reaching higher to chip into a firm bite of ice.

But I’m not in Alaska. So maybe after the hearing, I’ll leave work early, get Natalie and the kids and go play by the river. That actually sounds pretty darn good too.

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It is Down to K2, and Other News


Nanga Parbat Light. (All rights reserved)

I woke a short while ago and turned on my phone to read the news about the U.S. presidential debate held last night. Instead I was thrilled to hear this news:

At around 3:37 p.m. in the Karakorum, Alex Txikon, Ali Sadpara and Simone Moro radioed that they have made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. According to sources reported through Raheel Adnan, of Altitude Pakistan, the day was beautiful without even a cloud.

The descent is underway right now. So while the first ascent has been made, the climb is only half done. Good luck on the descent!

So that leaves K2 as the only 8,000-meter peak left unclimbed in winter.

(I guess we know where Simone Moro and everyone else will be applying for permits next year.)

In other news, the American Alpine Club is holding it’s Annual Benefit Dinner this weekend right here in town (Washington, DC). It’s like a mini-conference. Tonight is a members only (free to attend) Climbers Gathering at a local indoor climbing gym (not my local one, unfortunately), where well-known climbers will speak and several awards will be given, including honoring Katie Ives for excellence in climbing literature. Tomorrow there will be panel.discussions, a silent auction, and the main event featuring Conrad Anker and Damien Gildea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 American mountaineering expedition to Antarctica.

I can’t attend this year, but I am thrilled to be meeting up with a few of the attendees, mostly known for their writing. (I’m keeping these meetings all off-the record; sorry.)

Also, if you haven’t heard, this year’s Piolet d’Or will award present the lifetime achievement award in April to Voytek Kurtyka. His climbing accomplishments, such as his work on Gasherbrum IV, and other ascents and attempts, were spectacular, and deserving of the award. But he resonates with me, and other climbers, also because he has an almost mystic side and connection with nature (i.e it’s wild unpredictable side) that leaves himself open to the mountain.

This time, leading up to the award ceremony might be a good time take a closer look at him and the little bit of writing he’s contributed to see what’s there for us. More on that later.

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Why We May Climb on Public Land is You


The Creek. (All rights reserved)

The Bundy standoff in Burns, Oregon has lasted more than 40 days and the latest news says it may be coming to coming to a conclusion. It’s raised a lot of chatter about who controls the use of public lands. In fact, it’s inspired at least one of us: Over Facebook, Andrew Bisharat suggested learning from the Bundy clan’s effort and leading a crusade to take over the fish hatchery (which is actually on private land) so that we can climb the lower half of Rifle, CO, where it is currently prohibited. He was a joking.

At least I think he was joking.

There’s a lot of anger about government’s role today. It’s fueling the Bundy family and many like-minded ranchers. The anger, though over various topics, prompts many Presidential primary candidates’ supporters. Generally, the current system and values expressed by our laws and put into practice doesn’t work in their favor and they are frustrated.

When it comes to public lands, climbers are on the winning side these days. We can easily take for granted that we are allowed to climb most everywhere. Official land management plans allow for climbing in the most desirable locations. Bolting is permitted in the backcountry in some areas, within some guidelines. And, among climbers, most of us self-enforce good neighbor-policies through following Leave No Trace principals.

But there some real threats to that system. The balance could shift. And it might not be in your favor any longer.

Freedom to Climb at Risk

The freedom of climbing — whether that freedom is about movement over rock and hills or overcoming the idea that something seems impossible to climb — is about a specific approach freedom.

That application of freedom comes from how society values that kind of freedom. Most of us don’t think about it much, but we can climb in the Adirondacks, Yosemite, Red Rocks and everywhere in between because we’re allowed to. Every park has a management plan and that covers permissible and impermissible activities, from where you can make fires to fishing access, are covered and revised periodically.

However, who is making those land management plans would change if the public lands they address were owned by someone else, like the state or local governments. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have bills to relinquish millions of acres of federally managed and protected land to states and local interests.

These are ongoing issues. And there have been ongoing issues like these that come and go onto our radar in climbing magazines and on social media. But these are real discussions that could shift who gets to graze their cattle where, how the ore beds are extracted, and where you can and cannot climb.

Speak Up

There are excellent advocates at the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund working to influence the outcome of discussions about the future of climbing in America. But they are empowered by you. Think about some other strong advocacy organizations:

  • NRA — It has a large membership that speaks up whenever their rights and freedoms feel threatened. And they contribute great deals of money.
  • AARP — This may be the largest national organization in size, and they are vocal on only two issues (Social Security and Medicare) for the most part, but it ensures the issues are protected and even considered sacred.
  • AIPAC — This group represents a small population of Americans, but it has an impressive infrastructure to mobilize advocates in nearly every Congressional district in the country with a reasonable amount of discipline.

All three of these examples have two things in common: They have dedicated members and they write and call their Members of Congress and other policymakers when summoned to do so.

So here is what you need to do:

  1. Join the AAC and the Access Fund, if you haven’t already. They are our watch dogs and our radar screen for threats to our way of life. And,
  2. Sign this petition from Protect Our Public Land, supported by the Outdoors Alliance, to go on the record that you support the protection of our public lands.

I believe compromise is always possible. While the lower-half of Rifle might be out of bounds, I think we can secure climbing and better land management for everyone. Hopefully will will do it without sacrificing what we hold dear and how we want to use the land.

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Why Do We Climb Indoors?

That’s a lot of climbing (and ice) gear for Kansas City!

I was waiting for the dentist and a headline on the cover of the October issue of Outside magazine caught my eye: “The Most Hated Men in Climbing.”

I don’t read Outside, mainly on principle. It’s headlines are made to make you pick it up and turn the pages, and I rarely feel edified for the content. When I finally found the article, which was under a completely different headline (damn it!), the most hated men turned out to be route setters at indoor gyms.

To a greater surprise, I kept reading. I’ve always climbed in gyms, but only recently embraced indoor climbing as a way for me to climb more regularly. Wait, no, accept it is a better word than embrace. I love mountains, not plastic. I get excited about snow and ice, sometimes big walls, but not warehouses separated from valleys and vistas. Still, I was getting into the article. What’s wrong with me?

Climbing Mystery

I just got back from a business trip to the greater Kansas City area in the American Midwest, which is one of those destinations that’s known for being flat. I met with a Kansas public official who has spent a lot of time in my home in the Washington, DC area and he said the biggest difference between there and Kansas was how we measure time: In Kansas they talk about miles driven, but in DC it’s about minutes spent in traffic jams. After covering 200-plus miles driving at mostly 70 mph in three days, I got it.

As with every trip, I try to squeeze in a little hiking or climbing, and these days all of the climbing is indoors. Still, I have found some interesting gyms. I liked the Great Western Power Company in Oakland, California. I was surprised that the greater Miami, Florida area had one well-kept gym let alone its two gyms. Kansas City has three. The greater Washington, DC area where I live has five. My hometown in Upstate New York only had one (albeit the Adirondacks and Gunks weren’t too far away either, so they probably weren’t needed).

I spent time in both the Kansas and Missouri side of Kansas City, but the Climbing Business Journal had an interesting story recently about how Kansas, which is one of America’s flattest states, has opened several indoor climbing gyms. This was a surprise to me; usually gyms open nearby traditional outdoor climbing destinations, so climbers can train regardless of the season or the weather. But the Midwest — America’s heartland — it seemed like a bit that there was something drawing people in that I didn’t understand.

Gritty and Underground

I stumbled upon a MooseJaw outfitter by happenstance after a meeting with the local Habitat for Humanity leaders, and saw a peg wall stocked high and wide with ‘biners, cams, slings and even a modest selection of ice tools. It turned out that the previous store manager was a native of Kansas City and he climbed ice. He recently took a promotion and moved to Chicago, but the gear was still prominently featured. It was then that I realized something about geography about Kansas City that I hadn’t thought about from living in Washington, DC — the Colorado Rockies weren’t really that far from Kansas City; less than nine hours away by car.

I didn’t have time to go to Colorado, so I asked about the local gyms. Ibex was the area’s full-service gym with long, high routes. The Cave, on the other hand, was a bit “gritty.” It’s what he said next that told me I had to check it out: “You have to take an elevator to get to it because it’s underground.”

So I found directions to the The Cave. and the instructions on the website said, “Take the elevator down and follow the signs.” The elevator entrance stood alone in a parking lot and the inside had two signs. The first you couldn’t miss: “No Climbing: Please Help Us Keep Our Elevator Clean and Safe.” The other was smaller and said something urging riders to enjoy the ride down 10 stories underground.

After walking through a labyrinth of hallways, I was signing my waiver. I asked the guy, a 20-something running the place solo, what these tunnels were built for. He promptly replied, “It was a mine.” I said really? “Yeah, I mean it must be. What else could it be for?”

The facility, called Dean’s Downtown Underground, was actually built by Lester Dean, Sr. in 1954 with the help of a lot of surplus government explosives. He purchased land that had an incomplete railway tunnel that was started in 1873, drained it and got to work.

The gym had a plastic cave, 14-foot bouldering walls, a climbing treadmill, and a slackline setup. They used the standard V-scale but also had their own “VB” scale for beginners; I think it only went to VB2 before going to V0. I wasn’t too impressed by the 14-foot walls, though they managed to compress a lot of routes in a small space.

The cave was the gem. Well padded. Overhanging. And deep; it felt like the cave at it’s farthest point went about 15 feet in, which meant the wall was a ceiling.

The best part about The Cave was the other climbers. They were focused, knowledgeable, and very funny. I was about 15-years older than most of them and they even made me feel welcome and comfortable. But, then again, that was how I felt almost everywhere in Kansas City.

We Need Hobbies

Just before going to Kansas City, I took family my family apple picking near Shenandoah. Near Front Royal we passed the a warehouse that’s been there forever that has been the local Crossfit gym. It had a new banner this season: “Need a Hobby?” Maybe that was what was wrong with me.

I’ve read that climbing gyms are very popular among 20-somethings because of the appeal of the socialization. But I have recognized, that it’s a sport that encourages participation over excellence, even though excellence is a natural goal. It’s also an action sport that requires more socialization and more interaction and trust than say mountain biking or paddle sports.

The other thing is the nature of adventure. Yes, you can’t have adventure without the unknown, and the walls in a gym seem pretty obvious. But the unknown is personal performance, and trudging past your own fear. For me, it’s more adventure than I ever got playing soccer or basketball.

We need hobbies, and if that hobby offers some adventure… well, maybe that’s what gets us climbing indoors these days.

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