Sunday, June 1, 2014

Success in Failure - The East Face of the Moose's Tooth

Alaska Range - Buckskin Glacier
Objective - The East Face of the Moose’s Tooth

4-20-14  Day 1 - Sunday

     Smooth flight in with clear and incredible views.  The Range is stunning.  The Moose’s Tooth is incredible, it’s huge and intimidating.
 

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4-21-14 Day 2 - Monday

     We skied to the base, 90 minutes breaking trail, not bad.  We picked a route, it looks incredible.  The headwall is so featured with crack systems, you can really see it all through the spotting scope.  The wall is definitely intimidating, but maybe less so from the base because there are features and there is a line.
     We’re going to start tomorrow, but it looks like a small snow storm on Thursday but then clear.

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4-22-14 Day 3 - Tuesday

     Change of plans,  It is supposed to start snowing by tomorrow and is poor until Saturday.  It is a tough call since it is only a few inches each day but we are afraid that should we get high on the route, the snow will be funneling down the descent which looks like a funnel for any accumulation.  We’re going to wait for this to pass.  It makes me nervous sitting in camp and staring at the beast…

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4-23-14 Day 4 - Wednesday

     The weather is still nice.  It feels strange to spend several days not climbing.  The days are long!  Sunlight until after 11pm but the glacier goes into the shade around 7pm.  
     We feel much more confident today than we did just a day or two ago, our bodies are adjusting to the cold temps, but man it is cold.  With windchill it clocked in at -16*F (-27*C) on the glacier tonight and there is only a slight breeze.  
     It is hard to be content with the decision to wait, but I am trying to see the positive side.  We enjoyed the day though.  We made a snow block entrance to the cook tent that was over 6’ deep.  We laid the skis across the top to do some pull-ups.  We have a nice camp now.
     Hoping for that good weather on Saturday.

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4-24-14 Day 5 - Thursday

     The snow that was supposed to be here never showed.  Today looks splitter, frustrating, we should have been climbing.  The forecast has changed again and looks positive until Monday when there is a small amount of snow (similar to what was supposed to be happening today).  Crap.
     We are going to pull it together and go up there now and check it out!  We are taking the full kit and prepared to blast.  I’m nervous but know there is a lot of positive energy coming our way.

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      That day we had found the conditions of the bergshrund to be extremely poor and challenging.  Skiy had to step one foot across a massive gap across the bergshrund.  He was able to excavate a foot placement then chop and dig until he could drive his tools downwards into the sugar snow.  I was positive it wouldn’t work but amazingly he managed to barely pull himself across the gap, kicking his right foot in.  This left him perched on the side of the vertical sugar snow wall.  He was barely staying on when a huge chunk of snow detached below his left foot, leaving him kicking in space.  I hastily moved from one side of the bergshrund ridge to the other, anticipating disaster and trying to plan a way to minimize the damage that a fall would certainly cause.  
   
     He kept trying to gain purchase with his tools, but there was nothing but unconsolidated sugar snow.  Somehow Skiy stayed on and was slowly able to dig, push, and kick upwards.  It’s hard to explain the complexities of climbing a crumbling wall of vertical snow; each attempt at a new hold yields a deeper trench in the wall, each kick is stopped by the resistance of the leg hitting the snow, but what is below the boot just falls away.  I'm not sure if he was climbing or crawling, and I watched, terrified and trying to figure out what to do if he fell.  Finally he lurched upwards, pulling on a tool stabbed straight into the slope above, his boots took purchase and he kicked over the lip.  Several hours had passed since our already late start, so we fixed the lines and returned to camp.  Forever tomorrow we joked.  But tomorrow we were going back and going up.
     
      Again the alarm beeped to life at 330am.  The cold was biting and fierce as we pulled on layer after layer of clothing and climbed from the tent to start boiling water, a process that was a full time job out here on the glacier.  We heated up our pre-cooked gourmet breakfast of eggs, sausage and hash browns and started skiing up the glacier.  As we moved up the snow slopes above the bergshrund we couldn’t help but notice that the snow wasn’t perfect; deep and fluffy, it wasn't the perfect styrofoam you hope for.  
 
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     We entered the first rock band to find more rime and less ice than we had hoped but Skiy took the lead climbing ice until it turned to nothing but fluffy snow smeared on the wall.  He pounded shallow, small beaks and started aid climbing until he was able to step out of the aiders and back onto the snow and ice.  Three long pitches brought us to the base of the second snow slope and I swung into the lead.  
     
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     The rock bands I passed while moving up the snow slope were featureless and the cracks I did see were thin seams, and often rotten.  We had no option but to simul-climb the whole slope, I shouted to Skiy telling him the situation.  A hesitant and drawn out “OK” replied from below, muffled by the seventy meters of snow between us.
 
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     I finally arrived at the second rock band, finding a blank panel of stone thirty feet wide and edged with dual off widths.  The right side, although heinous, looked the most probably.  I found a good belay and brought Skiy up.  I re-racked and left the pack at the anchor and started up, heel-toe jamming my left crampon in the OW, mixed climbing with tools, standing on small edges, chicken winging with my left.  I used techniques that came natural as a rock climber but I never imagined I would be doing in the mountains with boots, crampons and ice tools.  I chicken-winged and chimneyed my way up until I could final gain the thin ice and I fell into the swing-swing-kick-kick rhythm of delicate ice climbing.  
     
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     I had broken through the second rock band and found a belay, although I wished for better.  On the next pitch I traversed to the left side of the “Ribbon,” a twin ice band we could see from the ground, the final obstacle before the headwall.  As we feared the ribbon wasn’t even ice but rime crusted in a streak to the wall.  A line of moderate thin ice hidden under a layer of snow appeared to lead up and left of the ribbon.  We hoped this would put us in a position to return to the right, gaining the top of the ribbon and then onto the headwall.  I climbed straight up the ice runnel but it thinned down until it was just an inch of ice glued to the wall with exposed rock in places and nothing but snow in others.   
 
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      After debating and searching I started up the thin ice.  A few moves before it appeared to ease there was a pop and the whole sheet of ice in front of me lurched away from the wall by an inch.  It had detached but somehow I stayed where I was, a terrifying feeling.  I had felt my tools pull away from the wall and my body flinched in reaction but I stayed where I was.  I carefully backed down the 25 feet to my last ice screw and traversed left into a snow filled rock corner that required 3D mixed climbing, wide stems, hand jamming and torquing of the ice tools.  It was exciting and hard but I felt good doing it.
     
      Skiy and I changed leads thinking the pitch above would be easy ice and snow.   It quickly became apparent we were wrong.  The ice quickly turned into a near vertical wall of terrible, unconsolidated sugar snow.  For nearly 2 hours Skiy dug, chopped, hacked and cleaned away the snow which flowed down in a spindrift hell right on top of me.  Climbing high above a few small beaks he continued to swing and dig.  I pulled my goretex up and sat, tense, as snow and pieces of ice rained down on me because I couldn’t move out of the funnel.  I tried to zone out and think warm as the spindrift poured over me.  I couldn’t look up or it would fly down my jacket and hit my face and I couldn’t move to either side, restricted by the belay.
     
      Suddenly, I was struck in the helmet, my vision flashed black and my ears rang as I collapsed onto the belay and let out a guttural “ooouughh.”  A huge piece of ice or rock had dislodged and smashed into my head, I was fine but it didn’t feel good.  Skiy confirmed I was ok as I felt my helmet.  I could feel a massive dent in the brand new foam helmet, I almost laughed, “Dude!  That put a huge dent in my helmet!”  I was glad it struck straight into the helmet and not a hand or shoulder where small bones could have easily been broken.  The next day I would find that the crown of my head was bruised where the helmet had pressed down with the force.
     
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       Needless to say the ice block started my demotivation.  The clock was ticking, it was getting late and the temps were dropping.  I would guess it was around -10*F or colder.  I was not yet freezing cold, but I was starting to feel much colder, my gloves were frozen, my pants were wet, and in just under 2 hours Skiy had only moved fifteen or twenty feet.  And worst, we no longer felt confident about our proposed bivy location, something that had been a major concern of mine because of the extreme temps.
     
       “How much farther to the crest of the snow?”  I asked.  “60-80 feet,” he told me.  I laughed aloud.  We were nearly 2500 feet off the ground, on the first snow cone, with several more like this higher on the route.  Despite being nearly 10pm it was still light out yet already below zero, and the temps were sure to drop more between midnight and three AM.  We both sat in silence, me thinking about how we would bail and Skiy probably thinking about how to persuade me to keep climbing.  We talked and discussed, and finally we decided that there should have been ice here, the snow should have been better, and the conditions just weren’t good.  Perhaps someone out there could have, or would have, kept climbing, maybe someone would have mix climbed on the rock to our right or dug longer or harder.  But for us, we decided that the safest choice, the way to ensure we can come home alive and safe was to descend.  So at nearly midnight, as the sun set, we rappelled.  
 
    
 
       In all, our mission on the Moose’s Tooth was an incredible experience despite the fact that we didn’t summit or climb a new route.  This trip remains an amazing success for us.  It was both Skiy and My first time in the Alaska Range and while we felt that we did know what to expect and we came prepared physically and mentally, we still had to work out many of the details of climbing in the harsh Alaskan conditions.  For me, I think the crux of the entire trip was a mental one.  Understanding how to control the uncontrollable; how to understand fear and when that fear is benign or when it is real, and understanding the conditions, the mountain and the weather.
     
       So often in alpine climbing we only focus on one type of success: Summiting.  It can be easy to look at anything less as a failure. Summiting the Moose’s Tooth was something that I wanted so badly, you invest so much time into training and preparing, so much money into the gear and the trip, it can be hard to accept anything less than the summit.  But for Skiy and I we had a “Successful Failure” as I have been calling it.  We didn’t summit and we didn’t climb a new route.  But we learned more than I have learned on a climbing trip in so long.  I learned how to function in some of the most bitter cold temperatures, how to come home with fingers and toes, and how to stay alive.  
     
       When I stood on the Buckskin the first few days, staring across the glacier at the Moose’s Tooth, I was terrified.  I realized, in many ways for the first time, that there was truly an option that existed that was to not come home alive.  There is always so much to learn, and here I saw that so clearly.  The severity of the temperatures really frightened me, climbing in alpine style in these temperatures is extremely challenging.  The mind fights against the discomfort with an impressive amount of force and it takes skill and experience to learn how to choose between the real dangers, and the perceived ones, and the wrong choice can have very severe consequences.  
     
      Because of this trip I have a much greater understanding of the mountains, of the cold, of snow, ice, bergshrunds, and climbing.  I better understand what the body can tolerate and what temperatures we can deal with.  I understand how to keep hydrated in these arctic conditions and the importance of that.  I understand how to combat the mental battle that occurs in extreme discomfort.  And while I stood at so many of those belays hating it, as soon as I stood back on the ground I loved it because I knew how to make it work next time.  So while we may have failed in climbing the Moose’s Tooth, we succeeded in learning and pushing ourselves to our limit.  And because of this trip I am prepared for the next and the dream lives on. 
 
 
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A huge thanks to the people and companies who helped make this trip happen, Berghaus USA, Scarpa NA, Julbo Sunglasses, Raw Revolution and especially the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant  My wonderful girlfriend Carmen for all of her support and encouragement throughout all of my adventures.

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.
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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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