Friday, April 18, 2014

Quickly Approaching

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It seems to me that big trips start as an idea.  Usually at it’s inception it seems like a crazy idea, an impossibility.  Planning begins, details are squared away and you stare at photos.  The idea takes shape, but it still looks like a picture on the computer screen.  

The days go by, tickets are purchased, gear is ordered, and it begins to feel more real.  The idea that was months away comes closer, six months away becomes one month then one week then one day away.  Gear is spilled all over the floor, packed into bags, weighed, unpacked, repacked, weighed again, and finally sealed tight for the final time.  
But the trip is still an idea.  It remains that way until standing at the base of the mountain.  When you are finally staring at the real version of the photos that you have been looking at for months it becomes real.  
That moment is growing closer.  The countdown is on, the idea will become a reality and the hard work begins 
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Communal Loss

There are some people who you do not need to know to feel the loss when they are gone.  There are some people who you know because they were so closely connected to those around you.  And there are times when the loss is so great you feel it in the air of the community that you live in, the community that you love.  

This is one of those times.
I did not know Stanley.  But Stanley, unbeknownst to him, was one of my heroes.  It was 2008 and I had just climbed half dome for the first time, I laid at the base, exhausted and asleep in the dark hours of the night.  I was awaken by the sound of clanging cams, laughing, and chatting.  Two men stood near me at the base of the Regular Northwest, sharing a smoke and getting ready to climb.  I checked my watch, 1:30am.
“I can’t believe we simuled the Monster, bet nobody has done that before,” one said with a heavy English accent, cigarette hanging from his lips while he clipped cams to harness in the darkness.  It became apparent they had just free’d El Cap via the free rider.  They exchanged banter and soon realized I was awake, probably mouth agape trying to understand what I was hearing.  They were friendly and apologetic, and I realized that they were starting up half dome for the first free ‘Link Up’.
As Sean and Leo started up the route I was stricken with terror.  The previous night we had slept on Big Sandy, the bivy ledge halfway up Half Dome.  We had found a small bag clipped to the belay filled with 2 Red Bulls and bars.  We had rejoiced at the extra food, we assumed that a friend who had climbed the route the previous day, in true big wall style, had left it for us.  As I laid there listening to Sean and Leo talk, I realized we were wrong, we had eaten their food cache.  It was an honest mistake, but it was gone none the less. 
The next morning, filled with fear that Sean and Leo were going to be furious and convinced that I shouldn’t have any evidence of the crime on me, I threw the Red Bull can down the hill into the manzanita, my fear of being caught outweighing my guilt of littering.  Years later I told Sean and Leo this story, they both laughed and brushed it off, claiming to not remember at all, only remembering the climbing and the jumping, the other details were blurred with time.
In that moment, as a new big wall climber the limits of what was possible were blown apart in my mind.  Climbing at night by headlamp? Simul climbing? Speed climbing? The Link Up?  The Free Link Up?  After that night I had a different idea of what was possible and I have always tried to hold onto that spirit of adventure.  Since then I have always tried to see everything as a possibility, all crazy ideas might not be so crazy, and I have grabbed hold of my share of big wall and speed climbing successes.
Since then I have spent a lot of time looking over an obscure list of El Cap speed records that is buried on the web.  Hanz Flourine’s list of speed records in Yosemite is the go-to archive for people who play this silly game.  Sean ’Stanley’ Leary’s name sits next to some of the hardest routes done in a push on El Capitan, he was a true pioneer.  But not only was Stanley an incredible climber, he was a kind and wonderful person who I wish I knew better and envy my friends who did.
I looked up to Stanley, he was a well rounded climber who could speed climb hard aid routes and climb hard free routes the same.  But the thing that always stood out, and most importantly, I have never heard anyone say anything negative about him.  In fact, I have only heard people say wonderfully positive things about him, rave about his exceptional character, and in our few crossings, that was what I saw.  And I admired that more than anything.  Because to me, that is a the greatest goal in life, to inspire people, to leave a wake of happiness, encouragement, and positivity as you pass by.
Even those of us who didn’t know Stanley will miss him, because he was someone worth knowing and we will now forever miss that opportunity.  
When the community around you grieves so deeply over a loss, you grieve with them.  So today, as a community, we grieve together. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Behind Enemy Lines

Life can be strange.  Two weeks ago a Pakistani Taliban group attacked the Diamer base camp on the western side of Nanga Parbat, one of the worlds largest peaks on the edges of the Karakoram Range in Pakistan.  I have spent the last 5 months planning and preparing a trip to the Great Trango Tower, about 120 miles from there.  I was in the middle of a huge hike, trying to pound my legs into stronger and better shape for this trip when I received a text message from my brother with a link to the news story.

The TTP attacked the base camp in the middle of the night, pulling the 10 or 11 climbers and mountaineers from their tents, shaking them down, robbing them, and then they were lined up, questioned about their religion and shot, each then received a bullet in the head as well. Until this attack the Taliban had never attacked mountaineers, we negligently considered ourselves to be relatively 'safe' in the mountains.

The last two weeks I have spent posted in front of my computer, emailing and talking on the phone with some of the most traveled people I could think of to that region.  I was filled in on the details and the harsh realities of how the region where this attack happened has long held supporters of the Taliban and has not been a 'safe' place for quite some time.  I was told how the region on and around the Baltoro Glacier, near the Great Trango, is very different, a different culture, religion, people, and attitude from the region this attack happened.  I was told how I would. be. safe. once in the mountains.

My partners, two of Poland's best expedition climbers, guys with impressive resumes on many of the largest big walls in the world, appeared to be relatively unfazed by the news, disturbed, but unfazed.  They understood the dangers of traveling to Pakistan going into this, they understood the details of the region and the complexities of the political situations.  I informed them of all the information that I was getting and the many positive responses and encouragements to stay the course and go through with the trip.  That is what they planned to do, I wanted to so badly.

However, for me, the situation was different perhaps, maybe it was because I am American, maybe it is because I am younger than them.  Despite the fact that only one of the ten westerners killed was an American, the group had committed the attack in response to American drone strikes and they explicitly stated they were trying to get the Americans on the mountain.  They also stated that they would continue to target foreigners and planned to increase the violence and frequency of future attacks.  These lines from the news stories stuck in my head, engrained in my mind, the harsh realities of the situation.

It is hard to explain the thought processes I went through, for several days my stomach was upset and uncomfortable, I couldn't figure out why.  Towards the end of the week I randomly tweaked my neck while sitting at the computer, it instantly went stiff and hurt like hell, I think from the stress and tension I had been carrying around.  Rarely a moment went by that I was not thinking about the future of my trip and the situation in Pakistan.  Every day ended in the same horrible indecision, yes, no, yes, no.  I felt bi-polar, swinging between confidence in my choice to continue with the trip and then the depressing feeling that there was no way I could go.

I knew of four or five other American Parties, groups who had encouraged me and been motivating beacons of how it is possible to go to Pakistan and climb on the largest mountains in the world, some of the best and most traveled american alpinists.  Slowly, one by one these groups cancelled their trips until I was the last to choose.

Finally, after a phone conversation with another climber who was slated to leave the first week in August, I realized that I could not make a decision until I talked to my parents.  I am close with my parents, they are supportive and encouraging, although truly scared by my motivation and passion for climbing in the mountains and traveling to other countries. I knew in my heart what my mother was going to say, it was the only thing a mother can say, I couldn't expect her to encourage me off to a country where, for the first time ever, mountaineers (and Americans) were now the direct target of terrorism.  So I called my Mom and we talked, I listened.

She told me she would not tell me I could not go, I am an adult, the final decision was mine.  She told me that she understood if I felt the need to go, she didn't like it, but she understood, these opportunities don't come every day.  But she also told me she did not want me to go, more than anything she did not want me to go, but that decision had to be mine.

I sat on the couch staring out the window, waiting for Carmen to get home and I brought it up with her.  She had been supportive of this trip from Day 1, encouraging me, staying positive despite being scared by the realities of climbing in the largest mountains on earth, and finally she told me what I already knew, she did not want me to go.  She, also, would not tell me I couldn't, she wouldn't tell me not to go, but she did tell me that she did not want me to go.

So Carmen and I stepped onto a plane bound for Portland, Oregon to celebrate the 4th of July with my family.  It seemed a little Ironic to celebrate our nations freedom at the same time that I chose to cancel a trip due to terrorism, but the 4th of July has always just been a celebration of family for me.  My grandfather was not doing well, he had spent the last month in a nursing home and was moved to the hospital the day we arrived.  I got to visit him in the morning while he was awake and alert, he didn't seem great, but his crotchety spark was still there.  I was the last of the family to show up and see him.  That afternoon his condition got worse, two days later with my mom at his side he passed away.  A strange but beautiful happening.  I think he was waiting for everyone to get to Portland, he knew how much fun the 4th of July always was with all the family together.

My decision not to go to Pakistan feels like the right one.  After a weekend with my family I just justify the stress that this trip would have put them through, not a day would have passed that they would not have worried.  For me, the stress of traveling to and from the mountains would have been horrible, perhaps in the end it would have been worth it, but it would have changed the trip from fun to an 'experience'.  Regan and Marcin are going to continue with the plan, I wish them the best of luck, I know they will be safe and I hope for great success, I hope that one day I can go to the Great Trango and climb the route that they will establish.

In the meantime I turn my sites to other objectives, the mountains won't go anywhere and one day I will get to climb them.  Several friends have offered me excellent backup plans, which I appreciate, again I have to make choices, but this choice seems so much easier and so much less stressful.

I have to thank all of the people and companies that helped to make this project happen, there was so much support from the climbing community.  Special thanks to Zamberlan, CAMP, Rab, Metolious, Mountain Boot Company, Raw Revolution, Totem Cams.  I am sorry to change courses, but everyone has been very understanding and I greatly appreciate that.

The Big Picture

In life there are moments when the rare and grim realities of the outdoor sports we love are thrown in our faces.  Moments that make us realize how fragile life is, how delicate we are, and how fast it can all change.  They hit you like a freight train, smashing the wind from your chest and leaving you speechless and hurting, a hurt that is only cured by time.  The last several months have brought too many of these sad moments.  

These accidents leave me feeling hollow and lost.  They force me to look inwards at what climbing means to me, its value and importance in my life, and at the risks and at the tradeoffs.  

When you ask questions like these, you don't always find the answers you hope for or expect.  I find ways to justify why this happened to someone else and why it won't happen to me.  Perhaps many of the reasons are true, but the reality is that you just never know.  More often than not climbing is a very safe sport, there are almost always ways of mitigating or eliminating risks, but then there are the times there are not, or when you make a mistake.  But do you quit and throw in the towel because of the possibility, the chance, or do you heighten your senses, increase your awareness, be more careful, and forge on? 

In the last few months, since I got back from Patagonia, I have had so many great days in the desert around Las Vegas, in the mountains, and at home.  For the first time in nearly three years Carmen and I have a home, somewhere we are excited and happy to be.  We are close to the beautiful desert mountains and everything they have to offer.  Carmen is hard at work at her internship-turned-job, but revitalized by the desert beauty that surrounds us.  For me, I have had enough time to reflect on life and to realign my path back to nursing school and a future in health care, a choice I am excited about.

As I prepare for a trip to The Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram I have mixed emotions and mixed opinions on life and climbing.  I love my life, my wonderful girlfriend, my family and friends.  And I love exploring, challenging myself to the extent of my abilities, seeing huge mountains, and climbing huge rocks, these are many of the things that make me who I am.  These passions have driven me in life for the last 8 years, they have sculpted my relationships, my jobs, and my experiences in life.  I can't imagine quitting climbing or traveling, so I think I need to learn from the lessons of others, be aware and be careful, and continue on.


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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Patience and The Dragon Fitz Roy

Patience is a difficult skill to practice.  Going to Patagonia made me realize there are many different types of patience in life.  The most difficult type of patience seems to be the one you use while waiting for something bigger.  Waiting for a moment in the future, one you aren't sure will come but that you hope for and have no control over. 

This is the patience that climbing in Patagonia requires.  You wait in town, a town that has grown substantially over the last several years and no doubt offers far more amenities than it use to.  But you wait none the less.  The winds howl through the streets making it hard to walk and you sport climb or boulder in the wind.  You watch it rain, guessing how that translates to the snow in the mountains.  

Patagonia is a lesson in patience.  It had been over two weeks since we had a real weather window.  There had been a single day, February 7th, my birthday, with enough good weather for a jaunt to Aguja Guillamet.  Of course, you talk with those friends who have been around for several seasons and they tell you of years where months came and went full of rain and wind, without the mountains or the climbing in town.  And you use this to help find a greater acceptance, a greater patience, for your current situation.  One that is, no doubt, better than the tales of wind and rain. 

In February the weather proved to be less than ideal for climbing in the mountains.  First we were denied entrance because of high winds, despite lovely blue skies, but we stayed positive knowing that the dry conditions were likely good for the massive east face of the Fitz Roy that we hoped to climb.  We hiked in to Paso Superior, stashed our gear, headed back to town and waited.  The days blurred by.  We were patient: waiting and wondering as we distracted ourselves in town.

Then the rain came, not too much, but just enough to coat the mountains in a healthy layer of snow.  Finally the weather forecast gave us what we had been waiting for: a window.  We packed and headed into the mountains.  It had been snowing and raining in town and we were apprehensive  about the unknown: unknown conditions, unknown routes, unknown outcome.  The time for patience was over and the time for climbing was now.

Two days later as the sun rose, casting its golden purply light onto the 4500 foot east face of Fitz Roy, we started to climb.  We were no longer nervous or apprehensive about what were here to do.  We were excited and relaxed.  We were confident and rested.  We had been patient and now we had to act.  This is what we had waited for.

After about Nineteen hours we had finished the Royal Flush and were now on The Corazon.  We stopped at a snowy ledge to boil some water and I took off leading again, pushing upwards into the darkness.  We didn't stopped to sleep, we had planned to push through the night, climbing straight through in a single push until the summit.  We had done this many times in Yosemite, we had prepared for this.  The breaking point of exhaustion came just before sunrise, it wasn't a bonk, nor was it hitting the wall, because we had bonked long before and continued to function at our prime in the depleted state.  

We moved nonstop, our short fixing working better than we had expected.  Despite moving fast the final pitches had become increasingly more confusing, we were lost in a maze of walls and terraces, massive ice formations loomed overhead, and features that look minuscule in photos defied reality with their actual size.

Twenty Seven hours later we were still climbing.  While Cheyne moved upwards, I looked to the east.  There was a change in the air, the clouds were beginning to form close to the ground and move towards us rapidly.  The beautiful Cerro San Lorenzo, 100 miles off on the horizon suddenly became enshrouded by dark grey cumulus clouds with a massive lenticular over the top.  The clouds smashed into the bottom of Fitz Roy, Mermoz and Guillamet and pushed up in the strong upward thermal currents.  As I watched, the voice in my head began to shout.  

We were painfully close to the summit, we knew it, we could feel it, but we couldn't see it.  We were over 4000 feet up the east face, with nearly 40 rappels to return to the ground and although we were tricking ourselves into feeling good in the fresh morning light, we both knew that we were deep in embrace of exhaustion.  We suspect the summit was less than a few hundred feet off, but the time was now.

Cheyne and I discussed the options, I expressed my concerns with the weather, three days ago the mediogram had shown rain in the forecast for that night, the clouds did not help to disprove that forecast.  Cheyne wanted to push on, I understood why, but I feared being caught in a storm more than I desired the summit at that point.  I was intimidated by the descent, and the early morning hours had showed us that our bodies were not thermoregulating like they should; we had sat in the sun, not feeling cold, yet shivering while we boiled snow and drank water.  A wet cold storm would not be good for either of us.  

So we made the choice to retreat back down the route.  The rappels were easy and went smooth.  It was an incredible and never-ending rewinding of the route, passing back by the pitches that we had visited just hours before, but felt like ancient, old memories.  We had a small speaker and iPod with us, we turned it on blasted the music while rappelling to keep our moral high despite the ever increasing fatigue.  

We stepped back into camp just before sunset, mixed emotions of success and failure swirling in our minds, but smiles on our faces none the less.  We boiled water and ate food, recounting events to our friend Kyle who was at camp.  As we climbed into the tent, delirious with exhaustion we heard the familiar pitter-patter of rain on the fabric.  We made it back just in time, the rain started and it rained hard through the night.  

Back in town it is always easy to kick yourself, rehashing the should have's, could have's and would have's.  It is not as easy to be happy with the decisions you made, to look at missing the summit as a success, and to be happy with the full effort that was invested, despite the outcome.  Cheyne and I discussed all the details time and again.  We recounted the decisions and what we could have or would have done.  And in the end, we agreed, we made the right choice.  Because of our decision to turn around we learned so much, and made it back safely.  We found acceptance with the choices we made, we got down smoothly and safely.  We had successes, even if we didn't put our boots on the true summit.

Time for crampons and a drink. (Photo: Kyle Berkompas) 
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The beast that awaits us giving off a massive breath of clouds as we approach.
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 Heading towards Paso Superior.
 The last steep hill to gain respite at Paso Superior. (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)
The East Face of Cerro Fitz Roy.  Royal Flush takes a right-of-center line past a large roof, meets the highest portion of snowy terrace and then continues straight up towards the ridge and summit.  (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)
In the beginning…pitch one, starring up across the ocean, hoping to see land.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Somewhere around the 4th or 5th pitch where the ground really falls away and the horizon takes shape.

A roof that looked little from the ground at the end of a pitch that would never end left me with 2 cams that fit and an anchor on the far side.  (Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Cheyne takes the lead around pitch 15 and heads towards a wall so steep it was hard to understand what we were looking at.

Cheyne conveniently convinces me to swing through for the wide pitches.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

Somewhere around pitch 24, I remember looking up, feeling shocked at how much granite
disappeared overhead and thinking, "I have to free climb this?!." 
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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The never ending stem box with the 'less-than-halfway terrace' far below us.

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As the sun set we found some rime ice for the first time, I quickly turned the lead over to Cheyne.

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'The Impasse' Pitch.  I started up this chimney squeeze monster in the dark, with no pro and was turned around and spent an hour looking for another way around.  As we debated defeat, Cheyne boiled water while staring at it, I nodded off between pots of water, and finally he spoke up and wanted to give it a go in the light.

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Quickly the weather changed and the voice in my head started to warn me.

Painfully close to the summit, less than 100m, we started the long return to the glacier below.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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Team effort.

Beat up and broke down.
(Photo: Cheyne Lempe)

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The weather reveals itself.  Eight to ten more rappels, a long walk across a scary
glacier, and we arrived in camp soon followed by pouring rain.

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Off the glacier, down from Paso, boots off, crampons packed.  We are done.  We gave it hell and had success and failure. We spent 19.5 hours on all but the last few hundred meters, we spent a few hours boiling water as the sun came up, pushed a few more pitches, but missed the summit still.  In a non-stop push we moved for 36 hours nearly to the summit and back.

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Wet, a little cold, real tired, and ready for food, we walk from here.