The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.

Diversion: the streetlight

Visible through the branches of a mountain ash, the streetlight on the opposing block brightens the lower corner of my bedroom window. It shines every night, all year long. It did so during my whole childhood. And while the  lamp itself isn’t particularly striking–I’d never taken the time to look at it before writing this–the telephone pole and the bulb braced atop it illuminate not just the ground, but the air of that particular corner. Which, at some point during the fall, has always been filled with the small, reflective dots of snow cast in an amber glaze.

By mid-October, checking the lamp is a routine thing. There’s a tiny potential each time: perhaps, against all odds, that glance will yield the first snow of the season. Such peeks through the window put excitement into just getting up to head to the bathroom. Mornings are always easier when it’s been snowing. And though it was a slow sort of agony to sit in school when I was younger, snow coming down fueled the skiing stoke for later.

So when I arrived back in Montana two days ago from the UK, I was greeted by a snowstorm upon landing. Once home, I looked out the window to see the lamp, and the little dots descending under it, blanketing me with the comfort and excitement of all the years that I’ve stared out into the darkness at that streetlight. It’s winter. It’s time. It’s on.

“Not bad for November”: England, part I

In my last post, I feel it was pretty clear that we went a long ways to get into the snow. A lot of effort was spent. We worked hard. And it was totally worth it. Which makes what happened a week later that much more bizarre: I got on a plane, and headed to the United Kingdom for two weeks of Octoberish seasonal rewind.

Back in August, discussions started about the Mountain Equipment 15-16 winter range launch. Distributors, reps, and sales folks from all over the world convene here in the UK, where Mountain Equipment is based, to see the products that will be hitting store shelves less than a year from now. As my involvement as an athlete has grown, so has the need to introduce me to the rest of the brand family. Thus, I found myself at the airport five short hours after Whitefish Mountain Films, bags in hand, none of it including ski gear.

I’ll try to keep this rant short, because as Louis CK recognizes (in his profane fashion, so be advised), most of the inconveniences in air travel are minuscule compared with the fact you are “LITERALLY FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD.” However, my experience is one of the many that leads to things like Untied.com, a website entirely devoted to consumer complaints against United.

Leaving Kalispell, we taxied out, then came back to the gate because the air conditioning was on the fritz. We deplaned, and an hour and half later, we were airborne. My connections would have worked, but since it was tight, I opted to reschedule in deference to my checked bag. While at Denver, I watched my money get cut more or less in half when converted to pounds. I also got an electrical plug converter.

Leaving Denver, same thing happens. This time though, an oven at the back of the plane was emitting black fumes. I didn’t even know that planes had ovens. And this one didn’t see the “no smoking” signs. So we taxied back, deplaned, then ten minutes later, we line up again to reboard. Also, since my flights changed, my seat selections went out the window. Which put me in 2/3rds of a middle seat, the other third occupied by the exceptionally large gentleman next to me in the aisle. Fate offered me another route in the form of a lady who wanted to trade seats before the plane got going, but the attendants were trying to get everyone seated and I didn’t want to cause more fuss.

Upon landing at Newark, I realized that not only had my next connection been more or less lined up to fly right as I touched the tarmac, United had done me a favor. Instead of rebooking me to a later flight, they’d send me back to Chicago, then to DC, then over to Manchester the next morning. I went to the help desk. An angel disguised as a grumpy looking woman proceeded to look at my new itinerary, get as confused as I was, and then rebook me through Heathrow. She also gave me two food vouchers, in her wisdom, because I was seriously hangry at that point.

Not only did I find a real restaurant in Newark, but the flight over the pond went fine. Upon landing, I walked a couple miles, took a bus, and somehow made my way through some very long lines to connect with my next flight.

Sam Hoyt: ME Rockies rep, gentleman, scholar, and friendly face in the Heathrow terminal.

I swear that the flight up to Manchester was intentionally zigzagged to make it last long enough to serve me some nuts and a drink. Which I would have been happy to forego, if they’d instead just put my bag on the plane. Per the agents at Heathrow, my checked bag had made it across and through all the changed connections via some wizardry I don’t understand. That last, hour-long flight though? Nope. And thus did I arrive in Manchester: six hours late, jet lagged, under slept, disheveled, and without my main luggage.

Thankfully, the kind folks on the ground graciously whisked me and Sam Hoyt away to the Lake District, a place specifically designed in the fabric of the universe for relaxing. Sheep cover grassy hills which poke out of the mist in an etherial and calming way. Pubs have seen fit to put climbing gear in frames on their walls. Torrential rain gently affirms your decision to stay inside. Which was a good call, because we had meetings and stuff. After dinner, I presented on some of the ski trips that have been featured here. Which should have been the end of me for that evening, but of course that lead to a series of great discussions in the bar and a bunch of mildly chilled (but certainly not warm) pints.

The next day, we did more meetings and showings of the upcoming line. I’m not allowed to give out hints, though I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pipe. You’ll probably see some of it later this winter.

And in the afternoon, the nearly the whole crew rallied into the rain for a late hike up to Stickle Tarn.

I’ve never seen so many vibrant jackets in the same place.

Everything was really slippery with the rain. Even so, I had a blast scrambling around on the way up. All the energy of eating, airplaning, and meeting bubbled over into that giddy sort of excitement that my friends know well. “I’m outside! This is great! Let’s run wild!” More or less, I turn into a golden retriever.

Evan, our US sales guy, was stoked too.

Then we went down in the dark. I had a borrowed headlamp head torch from Christoph, one of the gents from Norway. So I managed to not explode on the slippery stones of the trail back down. Props to Joanna for handling them so well.

At home, there’s an hour delay minimum before I can get hot food into my belly post-hike. Here, there are pubs right at the trailhead. Brilliant.

The next day, we headed back to Manchester. My checked bag had yet to arrive, even though it was said that it’d be there my first night. I found out that since the agent at the airline hadn’t provided the phone number for our hotel (which I didn’t know) the courier wouldn’t dispatch the bag. They then handed it off to a third party, which was planning to deliver the bag after we left the hotel that afternoon. Even though we were still there by the time they said they’d deliver, no bag. So I headed back to Manchester with that sinking feeling that I’d have two pairs of underwear for the rest of the trip.

At dinner, we went next door to our hotel to sample the local pub atmosphere. I was keen to try some beers that I’d never seen before. However, horror of all horrors, it seems that the trendy thing to do in “hip” pubs is to bring in a bunch of American craft brew.

None of the US brews looked bad, per se. I even like some of them at home. So it was just startling. I drank something from Portugal that was basically a Budweiser or PBR, and toasted the irony.

The next day, I spent most of it at the ME offices. Thanks to everyone who made time to meet with me. Here’s the UK sales team looking very serious.

In the process of those meetings, it came out that Sam, our lead designer, could accompany me as I went to wander in the Peak District. He generously offered that I should stay at his house, citing the ease of leaving in the morning. So we headed out late (my fault), missed the train, and he graciously grabbed a taxi to solve my slow walking issues. He and his family then entertained me, fed me, and generally made me feel very much welcome. Many thanks to them for their stellar hospitality.

However, the weather wasn’t on the same program. We woke to rain.

And on the way out to Edale, it really started to rain.

Once at the trailhead and getting suited up, it came to pass that despite the rain coming down, Sam didn’t have his waterproof coat. I mentioned that we could call it, but instead he grabbed a large, green, German army poncho that he uses as a family picnic blanket. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my first clue to the fact that the English people think about rain very, very differently than anyone I’ve met anywhere in the states. Or at least they do in my presence. Because Sam threw on the poncho, and off we went.

Our plan was to do as much of the Edale skyline circuit before we needed to head back into town. The trail above leads up this valley, then onto a plateau, which leads off into a ridge that more or less circles the town of Edale. The red brown bushy stuff on the left side of the above photo are ferns, which regenerate to a forest green in the spring of every year. It’s worth noting that even though it’s called the Peak District, it’s more like the Rolling Hills With Gritstone Sticking Out Of Them District.

It’s not a proper day out unless you end up off trail. We went up this little valley, scrambled a short, very wet cliff, and then walked around.

Sam contemplates E.T. His poncho is rolled up atop his pack. By this point, the rain had stopped, and it was just foggy and soaked.

Once on the plateau, we swung around and things got increasingly boggy. Our route was evidently a very popular one. This means tons of foot traffic, and with the peat  and sandy soil just under the grassy surface, it takes very little for humans to start erosive processes that then get made huge by all the water coming through. We walked through a lot of mud, which is standard for this time of year, but apparently less so in the drier summer months.

Along with some of the climbing I’ve been up to (next blog post), it’s be really eye opening to see the impact that tons of human traffic can have on a landscape. So many of the places I frequent at home are remote enough that they might see maybe ten to twenty people a year. Some places less. And as more people move to the mountains, and do the things that I do, the spread is going to change the places we play. That’s inevitable. Bogged out areas and super polished climbing holds can be our future, or I can be aware of that and help to set things right before they get bad. That means upping my own standards of Leave No Trace.

If one of my friends had been considering a trip like this, at this time of year, I’d probably have given the knee-jerk response: “What? That’s the start of ski season!” And that’s true. I’ve seen all the photos from home. But there’s a very different type of beauty at work in these landscapes. This trip has been about meeting people, but these new landscapes are pretty in how they roll, how their ridges connect, how the history of playing in them goes back hundreds of years. Stepping into that as a hill walker or climber is a unique thrill.

Even more, the hospitality for my entire trip has been astounding. I’ve been very lucky to stay in two lovely households, get personally shown around by folks who know this area well, and they’ve been super patient in dragging the sweaty American along as he fumbles setting up anchors and can’t run all the way up the hill. Many thanks to Duncan for all his logistical wizardry, Sam and Hannah and their family, Rich and Steph for where I’ve been the last week, Rich Bailey for his rock time, and Rich Woodall for getting me on the plane.

So has it been worth it to miss the start of winter? Absolutely.

Sam and I glopped our way back to the car, and headed out just as things really started to get almost sunny. That night, I got on a train to the Lake District, where I’ve been since.

Tune in for my next blog post to hear about my trad climbing education, becoming a lichen, and why fell running can involve falling.

Through the winter portal: Comeau Camp

It may not really matter when the snow finally hits the valley floor in my hometown, because when it does arrive, it feels like it came later than it should. The advantage of mountains around here, though, is that you can push the fast forward button on the ski season. Two pairs of boots, snow camping stuff in the pack, and every step up a muddy trail is a chance to hit the snow line and put skins in the snow.

Last week, Steven Gnam and I were both sick enough of office time that it was simple to make the call: we’d head up to Comeau Pass to find some snow and see how winter was progressing above us. With lenses, Steven’s pack was easily 30lbs heavier than mine. Before the trip was through, I watched him run downhill with it. Much respect.

Traveling upward, things steadily moved through fall into winter. Our boots touched snow in the switchbacks below the chalet, but we waited to switch out until things were filled in enough to actually skin up. I’ve been messing with the time lapse feature in the new iOS lately. The first attempts haven’t been good, but while we were stopped, the fog that we’d hiked through was creeping up the valley. I built a little tripod of snow on a rock, and starting recording. Just before we left, I watched the video and nearly dropped my phone. Instead of the static shot I’d imagined, the snow had melted at a constant rate, creating an unintentionally cinematic pan upwards. Here’s to accidents.

We switched to skis as the trail crossed the main gully below Mt. Edwards. Packs were joyously a little lighter. As I skinned away, all the dirt we’d walked over receding in the glide of each slide forward.

While not really filled in, there was enough snow to skin up on comfortably. We followed the trail up, across the stepping stones, and arrived at the base of the stairs a bit later than we’d estimated.

In the 1970’s, before this slot was blasted into the cliff, a metal ladder ran up and over the rocks. I can only imagine climbing that thing with a real pack while kicking rime off each step up the rungs. Instead, we had easy going with only one hard move over an ice flow on the stairs.

To respect the distance regulations and minimize our impact, we camped a bit down the hill on the east side of the little lake on the pass. We’d thought that camp would be quick and we could ski a little, but as happens, snow camping is slow camping. Getting and heating water required chopping a hole in the lake ice. Setting the tent meant anchoring to buried rocks. Since we brought a three season, the guy lines all had to be placed. Even then, the tent would do a minimal collapse every time wind hit it. Sometime after midnight, I came to the realization that no matter how many times the tent wall curled inward over my sleeping bag, the thing wouldn’t be going anywhere with the two of us in it. Just sleep.

And it proved to be fine. I awoke to this:

While I got my breakfast going, Steven took off to do a bit of recon.

A few thoughts about winter menus and water.

Typically, snow camping can be reduced to two main categories: melting/boiling water, and everything else. We took along a Jetboil Sumo for that, and it did admirably. Since we had the lake a little walk away, it made more sense to carry water than melt snow. Where I’d usually take a filter in the summer, I used a Steripen Traveler to nuke the lake water with UV rays. This saved the filter from freezing up, and only added another small piece of electronics to the pile in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Snow camping usually leaves me dehydrated, for a couple important reasons. Really cold or really hot water can be hard to drink. Instant food can be pretty salty, which tastes good, but can actually leave you feeling more dehydrated after the mug of Ramen is gone. Because it’s cold out, it’s easy to go a while without drinking. The lack of minerals in melted snow or pure lake water seems to bother my stomach some. And also, your water bottle can freeze up.

To combat this, I took a regular nalgene liter with a FortyBelow neoprene cover. On the way in, this cut weight as I’d fill up at creeks that we crossed then use the Steripen. Once at camp, I’d fill it 2/3rds with lake water, purify that, then add another third of boiling to even out the temperature. To finish, I’d use an Endurolytes Fizz tablet to add in some beneficial solutes and make it taste nice, then drink to my heart’s content.

In and around camp, a GSI Fairshare is the absolute essential. Mug, bowl, small plate of a lid. Easily cleaned by swirling hot water inside with the top on. I have a neoprene FortyBelow bootie for it that adds insulation. Tea, breakfast, soup, whatever–the Fairshare is the absolute way to go.

With the rest of my menu winter camping menu, it’s nice to keep a balance of calories, taste, and heat. Even though we were out for only two days, fruits and veggies are always the things that I miss most, so I tried to take care of that.

Trail food, lunch, and snacks:

Hammer Bars (which don’t freeze up until it’s down around 10 degrees F)
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter
48% milk chocolate with otters on the wrapper
Triscuts
Cheddar cheese
Blended fruit tubes. These things are like baby food, but make for a compact way to get some fruit in your backcountry diet.

Dinner:

I took an instant, single serving, organic black bean soup mix from the grocery store and rebagged it in a ziploc. Once in my mug, I added the noodles from a packet of ramen, then filled it up with water. Ten minutes later, I had black bean noodle soup.
Dried seaweed sheets can be a great, light way to get iron and greens while out, and you can add them to soups or wraps if you want.

Breakfast:

In a ziploc baggie:
Potato buds, some garlic salt, instant milk, grated pepperjack cheese. Throw it in the Fairshare, add water, and bingo: super breakfast. If I could find a nicely tasting protein powder that works when heated, I might add it here.

Tea is great, and though I’m not much of a hot-drink-in-the-morning person, it’s nice when cold camping.

Anyway. Once Steven returned, and we got breakfast done, we headed out to ski. Pits showed something like three feet of new accumulations atop the permanent snow fields in the drifts, and while the layers weren’t the best, they weren’t very reactive in our tests.

Skinning back up to camp:

After some lunch, we headed over to the main snowfield of Gunsight.

Because of the layers we’d seen earlier, we followed up the ridge and dug two hasty pits en route. Even at higher elevation, there was some kind of rain/melt crust with intact groppel 15-20cms below the windswept crust in the more loaded areas. This made us pretty cautious, but it wasn’t super reactive, and we didn’t have any problem with it.


I’ve skied this snowfield at numerous times for five out of the last six years. When I worked at Sperry Chalet, it was my go to. The way it sweeps down off the summit of Gunsight has yet to get boring, and I’ve yet to ski it in the same condition twice.

On our way back to camp, Steven found a nice wave to surf.

And with that, it was time to pack up. In my rush to get everything back onto my pack and head out, I just threw my hiking boots under the lid straps without actually tying them in. We descended the stairs, skied about halfway to the chalet, and when I went to switch back into my boots, found only one of them still on my pack.

Instantly, I realized that it could have fallen off anywhere. If I couldn’t find it, I’d have a left foot in a ski boot for the rest of the seven miles to the road. “IDIOT!” It was so annoying to not have done something as simple as securing them to my pack, but that’s haste for you. I should have thought more about it, and it’s good to learn those lessons.

Steven caught up with me, realized what happened, and figured that he could run back up to look for it. I was in no condition to run, and certainly didn’t have the footwear, so I stayed with our gear while he headed back up. Twenty minutes later, he grinned back down to me, boot in hand. Huge thanks to him for that huge help–it saved my foot, the walk out, and probably the whole trip. I switched out my gear, ensured that everything was strapped on tight, and we headed down.

We weren’t the only folks heading down the trail:

But as we went, speeding along in time to a ski crampon that was dinging with every step that Steven took, we didn’t see anything. We walked down through slush, then mud, then dryish trail. The winter portal had closed, and it was definitely fall again. Somehow, we didn’t put on headlamps either, and by the time we hit the car, it was nine tenths dark.

Thanks to Steven for joining in the madness of a couple days up high, heavy packs, and especially for saving my foot with his running prowess. Here’s to the season.

Cellular solitude

You are reading these words on a screen. They come to you as information from a vast network of computers. Most likely, you were linked here via social media or email. Such a path to written word would have been unthinkable to people a hundred years ago, and the capability of the internet to enter and alter people’s lives is incredible. Without it, my work as a writer would be much harder. And there’s no question that I’m as intractably stuck in the world of the internet as anybody else. But as people who are both on and offline, we must find ways to negotiate technology and ridgelines in a life that spans both.

A foggy wander around the Hanging Gardens with my grandparents and mom a few weeks back.

Recently, I finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Covering the important shift in brain function that results from way we interact on the internet, it should be essential reading for nearly everyone. Societal transition from books or newspapers to screens has done more than just simplified and shortened our access to content. The new format, with its hyperlinks and flashing advertisements, changes the way that our brains process information. Instead of the blank margins of a book, where the words are the focus, I know that I’ve felt the restless distraction posed by interacting and reading on the net. In some ways, this blog is part of that noisy wave. Carr summarizes this eloquently:

“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”

Speaking about the Twitter discussions of live events, Carr states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers.”

Myke Hermsmeyer hightails it down the diagonal above Lunch Creek a week ago.

Tuning out. As I read, I thought hard about what it means to tune out, to become involved in activities that have nothing to do with electronics or the myriad ways they’ve come to constitute our lives. The feeling crept up that Carr is writing from the standpoint of someone who often can’t escape the things we’ve done to ourselves. Which would be the case for me–but I’ve got a serious habit of doing things that don’t occur in cell service. The blank margins of a book, that entirety of focus and deep concentration on task at hand, these are the feelings that come with being beyond the reach of text messages, email, social media. Solitude is not just getting away from people. It’s also a retreat also the maelstrom of technology that comes with us.

Tara Oster takes in the views at Stahl Peak Lookout last week.

In the centuries after the creation of the printing press, the naturally distracted state of the human brain experienced a new phenomenon. Carr writes, “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to single, stated object…they had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them”.

My time in the mountains is, for me, that concentration. When focused on the next turn in a chute or balancing to make the next clip while climbing, the wealth of distractions quiets. Nothing else is there but the moment. And I’m convinced that in the same way that books provide that depth of distraction, the outdoors free from screens and cell service are a wilderness essential to our survival.

Taylor Streit makes his first tuns of the season yesterday on Logan Pass.

Deep thought isn’t a luxury. Time to think should be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get it in conversation in a coffee shop or being battered by groppel high on a peak. Perhaps the photos between these blocks of text seem like a distraction. Instead, view them as the real point: as outdoors people, we need our solitude more than ever. There’s much to gain by what we can access with our technology. It shouldn’t supplant our ability to think, though. It can’t replicate the joy of sweating hard to achieve something physically difficult. In its frenzy, it won’t allow us the ability to retreat. So shut off your screen, turn off the nonsense, and go play for every reason you already know.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

On brutality in the mountains

A box of old notebooks still lurks in my closet. Recording the capricious and hormonally charged span of years from high school into college, there’s a pile of angst and unformed emotion via poetry. In light of studying and gaining perspective in the craft of writing, they now seem so raw and reckless in their vicissitudes as to be pretty dang useless. However, their true testament is to the simple fact that writing, for me, is an outlet for emotion.

And when it’s pared that simply, there’s nothing wrong with those notebooks. Many of the blog posts here are a sort of decompression or reflection on trips involving various levels of stress or enjoyment. If you’ve read them, you know. Writing is not the dictation of finalized thoughts–while we write, we rethink and generally clarify the things we’re trying to get down. There’s a therapy to words in that sense, because to write is to continually reconsult about a topic until the final catharsis of the finished product takes some of the burden with it.

As of today, the ski mountaineering community has experienced a couple weeks of tragedy:  Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi died in an avalanche just short of the summit of Shishapangma. Yesterday, snowboard mountaineer Liz Daley died in an avalanche near the Fitz Roy massif. Also yesterday, ski mountaineers Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair have been presumed dead in an avalanche on Monte San Lorenzo (or Mount Cochrane) on the Chile/Argentine border. No rescue party has been to the latter, but with helicopter reports of inert bodies and a minimum of 48 hours in the cold, it’s a pretty slim chance. I hope that I’m wrong.

But as the notebooks attest, these times of emotion trigger a written response. Instead of being speechless, or submitting some excuse about words not being adequate, here’s a try.

“We [climbers] demonstrate in the most stunning way of all–at the risk of our lives–that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself. This quality is the basis of all human achievement…it can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers–that I–serve all humanity. We prove that there is no limit to what man can do.” -Walter Bonatti

My heart goes out to those who knew and loved these wonderful people. I thank all of them for their proof.

And the rest of us, who watched on as they did incredible things, as they redefined what could be done via a pair of skis ridden by the human spirit, are now left to ponder the course our aspirations will take. On one hand, I question whether I have any legitimate claim on the sorrow in their deaths–after all, I didn’t know any of them personally. Jumping on the bandwagon of a dead icon as if an imagined connection means as much as the loss of a spouse or real friend only demeans their deep grief.
On the other, these people are my people. People in the mountains. Exploring on their crampons; sending it down on their skis. The ski mountaineering community is, and will probably continue to be, niche enough that the effects of these deaths reverberate. And for international ski icons like Fransson and Auclair, their passing reflects not only the loss of an individual and the bright creativity that made them so worthy of their status–it also marks the loss of people I looked up to. It makes final their progress into difficult, dangerous terrain. It stops their ability to continue showing us “what man[kind] can do,” and because I cherish them for their abilities in that realm, it represents a loss of a leader in a small community.
On yet another hand, such losses bring home that the sheer bliss and joy that comes from our good times in the mountains has another, darker, equally as sheer side in brutality. If Fransson and Auclair symbolized pushing forward, this is the rebound. It is so hard to acknowledge, as it forces me to reflect on all the close calls. This spring, a broad wet slide aired off a cliff above and took out a face traverse we’d put in only ten minutes prior. In another incident highlighted at the start of my season edit, I kicked off a wet slab/corn slab of two week old snow on June 30th. In both cases, luck figured heavily. And to hear of people dying when they have much more experience makes going out again a complicated pile of emotions for me.

Danger is such a part of what I do. It’s somewhat relative–driving in cars at 70mph only a few feet from people doing the same in the opposite direction is considered very normal. People knowingly eat food that may cause disease or early death, or readily expose themselves to chemicals that do much the same. So perhaps there’s some variability and danger in skiing down mountains, but I don’t see it as that much worse than many real dangers that we take for granted. I make calculated guesses and try very hard to be safe in the mountains. Even so, the truth is that the consequence of death isn’t something I understand, and it’s hard to weigh that kind of thing honestly. I think it gets covered over, and much like the drop under one’s feet while leading or the exposure that you can’t afford to fall off, I try to hold it in value without letting it paralyze my moves.

During college, a ski buddy took his life. The day after I found out, I skipped my classes and drove I-90 up to Snoqualmie Pass and the PCT. Once up high, I took a detour to a rocky outcrop that doesn’t see much traffic, wrote him a note, and tucked it in a crack in the rock. I said goodbye to him aloud up there, the wind carrying my words off to the north. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed to do.

In 2012, an avalanche swept down Tunnel Creek at Stevens Pass. It killed three pillars of the local community, including Chris Rudolph. He’d been the one to lure me to Stevens, the one who had gotten me a job, the one who was constantly stoked to get out and play. I wrote this in his memory, and though I’d rework the beginning, it still fits with how I felt then.

So I don’t know what I’ll do this time. But the writing is there, and as with these other knocks to the heart and to confidence, the start is as simple as a sentence.