Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dog Days

Last month, if you happened to glance at the southeastern horizon at dawn, before the sky was bleached by daylight, you'd have seen a bright star rising. In Greek mythology, Sirius, the brightest star in the northern night sky, was the Dog Star, the canine companion of Orion the trophy hunter (he once bragged he'd kill every animal on Earth). The fact that the star rose together with the sun at the hottest time of the year led ancient Greeks to suppose that Sirius was responsible for that heat. Hence, the dog days of summer - a classic instance of confusing correlation with causation. Reality is, as always, stranger and more interesting than superstition. In the nineteenth century, Sirius was found to be in fact a double star. The previously unseen companion is a white dwarf, a fantastically dense object held up against the crush of gravity by an exotic quantum mechanical effect.

Thoughts of ancient superstitions and modern physics flitted through my head as I sweated up the trail above the Bugaboo glacier. Ian and I had waited until late afternoon to start hiking but to little avail. The sun might have started down from its zenith, but down among the trees and bushes the air lay warm and still. The dog days of summer indeed. Finally, some ways above the ladder ("Good training for the Second Step on Everest," I quipped), we emerged from the stuffy greenery into a light breeze. My sweat-soaked shirt felt cold and clammy against my back as I shouldered my pack after a quick snack for the remaining half-hour grind to Applebee.

"This wasn't in the forecast," I complained early next morning. Sirius, and even the sun for that matter, were hidden by dark clouds trailing ragged tendrils of rain. A few heavy drops spattered ominously on the granite slab where we sat eating breakfast; thunder murmured in the distance. Suddenly unsure, we lingered over banana bread and cowboy coffee, before a few patches of blue sky enticed us out of camp. It was a good call: by the time we were stumbling up the melted-out rubble of the Crescent Glacier, the east face of Snowpatch Spire glowed in the sun. Our toes, cold from kicking into snow down in the moat, quickly warmed up on the blindingly white granite of the rock scar at the base of what used to be Deus Ex Machina and was now Welcome to the Machine.

The following morning we slept in and didn't emerge from our bags until the morning sun had turned the tent into a sauna. The evening before, an off-route ramp that went nowhere, along with lengthening shadows in the valley, had turned us around a couple of pitches from the summit ridge. Still, with ten pitches of sustained climbing to get to that point, we felt like we'd earned a lazy start to the day. A black tea, a coffee, then another coffee, while we sorted gear for a cragging day on Eastpost Spire. Finally, after a couple of hours, we got enough caffeine flowing through our veins to motivate us for the fifteen-minute approach. We picked up the packs, then put them down again. The sky, a flawless blue just an hour earlier, was now the dull white of a cataract. To the west, over the ruin of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, dark storm clouds built by the minute.

"I think we should pack up and head down," Ian voiced what we were both thinking. A few minutes earlier we'd been casually packing to go climbing. Now, as the first drops came down, borne on gusts of wind, we frantically dumped out the gear, balled up the tent and stuffed in the sleeping bags. Fifteen minutes later, as we headed down the trail, the skies opened up while thunder cracked between the spires. "Good timing, eh?" we congratulated ourselves. On the drive home, we cranked up the heat rather than the air conditioning. The dog days of summer were over.

Ian below the east face of Snowpatch Spire, one of the finest alpine crags around.

Ian starts up the first pitch of Welcome to the Machine out of the moat...

... and comes up the steepening ramp of the second pitch.

The fourth pitch has a bit of everything, even a deadpoint for those whose crack-climbing technique isn't up to snuff. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Yours truly starts up the seventh pitch. Higher, perfectly spaced fingelocks lead up an overhanging dihedral. It doesn't get much better than that. Photo: Ian Welsted.

For inspiration, we were treated to the Matt-and-Will show on the Tom Egan Memorial Route. Photo: Ian Welsted.

Ian comes up the "enduro" ninth pitch...

... and begins the fists section of the tenth.

From high on the east face, we look down on Applebee enjoying the last of the day's sunshine.

The following morning the sun's nowhere to be seen as we leave the nearly deserted campground.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Himalayan snapshots

The last time I wrote a post for this blog, I was on a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou, the second of the three flights taking me from Calgary to Kathmandu. A great deal happened since then, most of it unexpected. Was the Nepal earthquake a black swan event? Or was it merely an instance of Russell's turkey? I suppose it's a matter of perspective.

I wrote about my experiences on the north side of Everest on my sponsors' blogs. For raw impressions of our expedition as it first unfolded and then folded, check out the blogs of Arc'teryx (instalments 1, 2, 3 and 4), Black Diamond (instalments 1 and 2) and Scarpa (instalments 1, 2, 3 and 4). I didn't feel I had much to add to what I wrote there, so rather than repeat myself I thought I would relive the trip through images. I didn't find the experience I was looking for in Tibet, but I lived through the one nature dished out. I am one of the lucky ones: I still have a future to dream about.

Everest from Chinese Basecamp. In spite of its chequered reputation, in the end Everest's still just a big, beautiful mountain. Like on other sought-after peaks such as Denali, while normal routes might be crowded, when you step off the beaten track you can find all the solitude and adventure you could wish for.

David Gottler and...

... Daniel Bartsch, my partners for our proposed alpine-style attempt on a new route, sipping espressos in Kathmandu's Thamel district. It felt strange to go on a big trip with two people I'd never met before. More than anything, it was the jokes that flew back and forth in countless emails that convinced me we'd make a good team. And we did.

Before leaving Kathmandu, we sought blessing from a lama. The three of us knelt before him while he uttered incantations and tapped our bowed heads in an elaborate ritual. He didn't take long with Daniel and David but took his time with me. I never did find out why.

The svastika, a thousands-years-old symbol of good luck in several Eastern traditions, on a Nepalese truck.

When we first crossed into Tibet, I didn't quite know what to expect. I was mortified when a Chinese border guard dug out a khata from my pack. Somewhat to my surprise, he let me go. Later, I realized that Chinese authorities are fairly tolerant of Buddhist symbols and practices - so long as they remain safely apolitical. 

Four days out of Kathmandu, we drove over a 5000-metre pass. It was the fastest I ever went from thick to thin air. Fortunately, other than the occasional stop to stretch our legs, we didn't have to exert ourselves.

Tibetan towns are full of dogs. Theirs isn't an easy existence, wandering the streets looking for scraps of food. At least they have thick fur and each other to keep warm on the cold high steppes of central Asia.

Late in the afternoon on our second day in the town of Tingri, the skies cleared. There, high above the brown plains with their herds of sheep and goats, rose the snowy Himalaya. Cho Oyu is on the right; Everest is the pyramidal peak on the left.

The following day we drove over more high passes on a bumpy dirt track. Everest disappeared behind intervening ridges. When we saw it again, its huge bulk filled the southern horizon.

A few kilometres down from basecamp is the "old" Rongbuk monastery, a cluster of buildings and caves where monks have lived and meditated since the 1700s (the "new" monastery further down valley was founded in 1902). When I first stepped into the candle-filled cavern, I rushed straight back out: between the 5000-metre altitude and hundreds of burning candles, it felt like there was no oxygen left to breathe. Once my heart slowed down I eased back inside, knowing now what to expect.

After a few minutes my eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was then that I spotted a cat napping in a corner of the cave. In spite - or perhaps because - of being oxygen deprived, it looked supremely content.

Speaking of oxygen, on this trip even more than on any other Himalayan expedition, we needed to take our time acclimatizing. Instead of following the yak trail to the 20-kilometre-distant advanced basecamp, we spent our days hiking up a talus-covered ridge directly above basecamp. There, just a couple of hours from camp, we could pitch a tent at nearly 6000 metres and begin the arduous process of getting used to functioning in air containing less than half the oxygen we breathed at home.

We scrambled up the nearest peak, a rounded 6300-metre hump. The shattered limestone rubble near the top reminded me of my beloved Rockies. It was strange to think that we were in fact higher than the summit of Denali. We didn't yet know it would be the highest point we would reach on the trip. Photo: David Gottler.

From our modest summit, we gazed across at Everest, still more than two and a half kilometres higher. We knew that our plan for climbing a new route in alpine style was a long shot. All the same, as we grew more comfortable in the thin air, we felt anxious yet optimistic about the coming weeks.

It was while we were resting back down in basecamp after one such outing that the earthquake struck. Luckily camp is in the middle of a stony plain, with nothing worse than rubbly hillsides rising above it. After the initial shock passed and we realized we were likely safe where we camped, our thoughts turned to the south side of the mountain and to the deep valleys of the Khumbu. The sometimes confused news arriving from Nepal during the coming hours and days proved worse than our worst fears.

To begin with, we thought about going to Kathmandu and helping in any way we could. Then, once we realized we would be worse than useless there, we considered going on with the expedition. However, after a few days' hesitation, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association decided to close the big peaks of Tibet to climbing.

On our last full day in basecamp, we wandered up the rubble of the Rongbuk Glacier toward the north face of Everest. It was a cloudless, shining, windless day. The distant icefields and couloirs glistened in the sun. I knew it was selfish of me, with the tens of thousands of tragedies unfolding in Nepal, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed our expedition ended before it had truly began.

The next morning, our cook Sitaram smiled as he bid us farewell, even though back in Kathmandu his family slept out in the streets, too scared to go back inside their damaged house. What was thwarted ambition next to lives that would take months, even years to rebuild - if they could be rebuilt at all?

Less than two days later we were in Lhasa, playing at being tourists, taking pictures of the Potala palace with a red Chinese flag flying above it. Everest and all that happened there was already receding into the past, a past remembered but no longer experienced.

Lhasa is a strange mix of the old and the new, of Tibetan tradition and Chinese development. The two appear to coexist peacefully, though SWAT teams in their black uniforms lounging in the corners of temple squares say otherwise.

We wandered through the city getting haircuts, dining on an eclectic mix of Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese food, playing street pool.... In another day we would go our separate ways, the whole strange trip but a memory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everest bound

The night sky to the north, over the Bering Straight, was the surreal blue of another planet – perhaps the methane-rich atmosphere of Neptune, with all the red sucked out of the light. I was halfway through a fourteen-hour flight, itself only the second of three. Step by step, they were transporting me from the familiar surroundings of Calgary to the alien chaos of Kathmandu. It’s on the plane that a big adventure first becomes alarmingly real. For months we dream, plan, train and organize. Then one morning we wake up, make one last espresso, load bulging duffels bugs into the car trunk and head for the airport. The future becomes the present.

What was still in the future, but a very near one now, was my first experience of the highest mountain on the planet. Everest? Really? How is it that after saying for years that I was too much of a climber to have any interest in that massive, graceless peak, I was headed there? What had changed?

Photo: Gunther Goberl.

Everything is change. For many years I’d remained contentedly local in my beloved Rockies. Some friends had even started calling me a Rockies rat. But, I argued, why bother going to Alaska or the Karakoram, when you could get a lot more climbing done within a few hours of home? Then, ten years ago, something changed, and I went on back-to-back trips to Alaska and Pakistan. I found out I’d been right: if I’d stayed home, I’d have climbed a lot more. But I also realized there was something in those faraway places I couldn’t find in the Rockies. I’m still not quite sure what it is. It might be the violet Alaskan twilight, or maybe a porter caravan snaking up beside a rubbly glacier. It’s probably not the gurgling bowels on a twenty-four-hour drive up the Karakoram Highway.

And so, last summer, when a friend suggested a Himalayan double header, I was intrigued. Perhaps here was a chance to experience the surreal world above 8000 metres, a world I’d been especially curious about since Ian and I’d gotten a taste of the air above 7000 metres on K6 West two years ago. A chance to experience that world at least partly away from normal routes, fixed ropes and crowds. In the end the double header got distilled to just one peak – Everest. Why Everest? I’m still not sure. It wasn’t my idea, but it seemed like a good one. It didn’t matter now. Daniel, David and I would acclimatize on the north ridge, the normal route from the Tibetan side, then try a new variation on the northeast face.

Photo: Gunther Goberl

My training for K6 West consisted of hiking really fast on my way up to sport-climbing projects at the Lookout. The thought of trying to go almost two kilometres higher must have had me worried, as for the first time in my life I drew up a training plan. It was the real thing: a spreadsheet with activities planned for each week three months in advance. It was squats and pull-ups instead of plastic bouldering after work; solitary hikes with a pack full of rocks instead of drytooling with friends on weekends. The temptation to go play was strong at times, but any lapses would have left glaringly obvious gaps in the spreadsheet. Besides, I was curious to see if structured training would make me fitter than the usual just-go-climbing approach. I suppose I’ll find out in the coming weeks.

*** 

An expedition, even a relatively small one, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many people are involved: people who, one way or another, help us pursue our passion. Before I disappear into a world without readily available wifi, I want to especially thank some of them.

Louis R.: Thank you for the very idea of this trip. I look forward sharing one of your dreams with you sometime.

Laura F., Nathalie M. and Tony R. at Arc’teryx: Thank you for believing in this project, and at times making it your own.

Kevin L. at Scarpa North America: Thank you for helping to make this trip happen from the start.

Doug H. and Kolin P. at Black Diamond: Thank you for your friendship. I look forward to getting out with you next winter.

Grant D. at Feathered Friends: Thank you for helping Daniel and me stay warm on the mountain.

Jim P. at Elevate Me Bars: Thank you for tasty energy food for all three of us.

Evin C. at Suunto: Thank you for a great training and climbing tool.

Scott J. and Steve H.: Thank you for patiently explaining to me the basics of training for alpinism.

Janusz M. and Artur M.: Thank you for giving me the benefit of the hard-won wisdom of Polish Himalayan climbers.

Robert S.: Thank you for generously sharing your high-altitude medical expertise with a stranger.

Jeff G. and Manuel D.-A. at Mount Royal University: Thank you for supporting this rather non-academic passion of mine. 

*** 

Wifi might not be readily available on the north side of Everest, but this being the 21st century, we won’t be completely without it. While I might find it hard to update this blog, I will be sending updates to my sponsors, as well as simply pushing the button on my Spot. The links are on the right side of this webpage. Namaste.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Headwall

"Let's go to the Headwall tomorrow."

And that's all that needs to be said. When Rockies' ice climbers talks about the Headwall, there's only place they could be talking about. In the twenty-odd years I've been ice climbing (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time in its cold, blue shadow. Some seasons it seemed like I did half of my climbing there. A couple of years ago I put in seven days just on The God Delusion: stumbling over snow-covered scree in December, skiing up loaded down with rack, drill and avy gear in January, either way coming out by headlamp. But this year, February was already more than half gone and I still hadn't been to the Headwall. I began to feel an unease, a feeling of guilt almost, as if I'd neglected to visit an old friend. All the same, I needed a reason to go; otherwise I'd just be going through the motions.

While hanging out on an unloved face above Canmore that was Ian's latest obsession, he told me he'd been to the Headwall a few days earlier to have a look at Rhamnusia. Classy mixed climbing, thinnish ice, loose but bolted rock, he said. It was good enough for me. Even better, I hadn't climbed the route before, a rare treat at the Headwall.

"What do you want to do on the weekend?" Bob asked. Polish Bob, a long-time friend, was in the Rockies for a week, and we were both looking forward to climbing together.

"There's a route left of Nemesis that could be interesting." Living in the warm, wet Pacific Northwest, Bob hadn't done any mixed climbing this winter, so I kept my answer deliberately vague. After all, he might decide that chossy M8 halfway up the Headwall wouldn't be the best choice for the first mixed route of the season. My ploy worked.

"Are you walking or skiing?"

"Skiing. See you at the edge of town at six."

I packed the rock and ice gear, set the alarm for five and went to sleep. It felt like old times.

The Headwall seen from where the summer trail enters the hanging valley, with French Reality, Nightmare on Wolf Street and Acid Howl visible. And that's only the beginning.

There more - much more - up the valley: Man Yoga...

... Suffer Machine, Nemesis, Killer Pillar...

Rhamnusia, a fine Sean and Shawn creation, follows the obvious discontinuous line of ice left of Nemesis.

The first pitch offered real mixed climbing: one tool tapped into a veneer of ice, the other torqued in a crack.

The ice at the start of the second pitch was a bit on the thin side. Fortunately intermittent cracks gave great protection.

On crux fourth pitch, overhanging choss...

... lead to a gravity-defying dagger.

"I've got to start drytooling again!" a pumped but psyched Bob gasped as he topped out on the fourth pitch.

The last pitch of steep, blue ice was a fun formality. Soon I was standing on flat ground, pulling my hood on against the wind sweeping down from the glacier above. The scoured slopes across the valley shone yellow in the afternoon sun. Yes, it was just like old times at the Headwall. The following weekend I was back for more.

Monday, March 2, 2015

All talk

Last November, in a dark studio in the bowels of the Banff Centre, I had the chance to talk for an hour with the English climbing journalist Ed Douglas. I'd long been a fan of his lively yet careful writing, so it was a real treat to speak with him in person. He rose even further in my estimation when I found out that, being from Manchester, he knew some members of New Order. For a while Ed had a hard time steering the conversation away from that band's history and music, and those of its ill-fated progenitor. However, eventually we did get around to other things - like alpinism. By rights my friend Ian Welsted should've been there too, but he was actually climbing at the time.

Recently the Banff Centre started releasing on its YouTube channel the wealth of material it had collected over the years. There are some real gems there, like Geoff Powter's conversation with the quirky duo of Rick Allen and Sandy Allan. For the record, here's Ed's and my chat. I hope you find some bits interesting.