Archive for the ‘climbing’ Category


May 30, 2014

That’s Dean Potter and his best friend Whisper. Here’s what he says to people who for some reason question the way he spends time with his dog: “Dogs don’t live as long as we do. Every day that they’re trapped inside a house is like seven days trapped inside a house for us. Certain people I know will say, ‘Hey, you’re freaking taking your dog BASE jumping you lunatic!’ But my response is that Whisper wants to come with me. My philosophy is take the dog with you. It’s part of the family. Don’t trap it in the car or at the house all the time. That’s no fun.”*
*From an interview in the July 2014 issue of Climbing Magazine

Way Not Complete

December 23, 2012


  Maurice Herzog led an expedition of French Alpinists that in 1950 became the first to summit an 8,000 meter peak, Annapurna.  His stirring account remains the best selling mountain adventure book to this day – more copies having been sold than even Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.  Herzog’s final line: “There are other Annapurna’s in the lives of men” has been an inspiration to many.

  Herzog died last week which is why I dug up my copy of the book, the cover of which you see above.  Interesting how cartoonish the image appears to us these many years later.  Had to be that way, I guess, because the nature of the narrative had not yet entered the common consciousness, hadn’t become part of the zeitgeist.  Sir Edmund Hillary, National Geographic, and the likes of Patagonia have changed all that.

  Subsequent books, one by Herzog’s daughter, portray him as having been controlling and egocentric.  Other members of the team had to sign a pledge not to publish their own accounts of the climb until long after his was on the market.  This resulted in the diminution of the heroic efforts of the others, particularly his partner on the summit Louis Lachenal.  M Lachenal remained essentially unknown while Herzog was highly decorated and went on to hold important government posts.

  Whatever happened, it remains an incredible and famously macabre tale.  According to Herzog, Lachenal suggested that conditions were too severe, that they retreat.  They of course did go on to make it to the top and back down, but at the cost of terrible frostbite.  The attempts by Dr Oudot to minimize the ramifications of exposure to high altitude and low temperature can only be described as horrific.  They lost all fingers and toes.

  Whatever he may have been, his description of his first time in the Alps sure makes me think about doing something other than stare into a screen:  “I believe what I felt that day closely resembles what we call happiness.  I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete.  It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied”.   

  He wrote that in 1953.  Jeesh.

*The quote appeared in his NYT obituary – 12/15/12 




Don’t Be A Stranger

February 10, 2012


  Much to my chagrin and way too late I just found out that the Wall Street Journal has an “extreme sports correspondent”.  If anyone out there knows what he gets per column inch please don’t tell me.  It would probably make me throw up.

Anyway, the most recent bit* was about climbing The Nose of Yosemite’sEl Capitan.  The route goes up the line between light and dark in the photo above and the top is some 3,000 feet above the valley floor. (The Burj Khalifa is about 2,700 tall) The first ascent in 1959 required an effort spanning thirty days.

Record time now is just over two hours which blows my mind.  Nose in a Day (aka NIYAD) – summit in twenty-four hours – is a relatively common occurrence and I’m close to convincing myself that with a bit (well, lot) of training and a young partner I could maybe accomplish that feat.  The considerable traffic over the last fifty years has made the path quite plain and clean.

Interesting thing is that though there is risk in opting for speed, there is also an element of safety.  The weather can change quickly, trapping those halfway through the more typical four or five day vertical journey.  Climbers die there every year.  Not long ago a pair froze to death not far from the finish.

In about 1975 I climbed up the dang thing with an amazing guy by the name of Ted Davis.  Ted’d left the states and the draft forCanadasome years before, but in those days of border porosity it was no problem to go back and forth with anonymity.

I’d never met a “draft dodger” and was predisposed to disrespect.  My number in the draft lottery was 101 to which the board never got close so military service got little serious consideration in my numb naïve mind.  Grizzly Ted took great pleasure filling in all of the blank spaces.  Including gratitude for those who did find themselves in harm’s way.

Politics had never come up with any of my other climbing buddies.  Neither did Buddhism, meditation, vegetarianism, or the environment until I met Ted.  He railed against the clear-cut decimation of northern forests and operated a company – Yossarian Enterprises – that replanted by the thousands.

Ted had climbed the Nose the previous year and invited me to accompany him for an attempt up a route more difficult and less traveled.  Two days in, about half way up, tired, hot, and cramped, we found ourselves atop a huge flat ledge.  It was wonderful to be able stretch out and reorganize our gear.  But then sun went down and stopped evaporating what turned into a waterfall.  We got soaked to the bone.

Water and green slime characterized the next few rope lengths (150’ ea).  The 25th was vegetated, rotten, running with water, and punctuated with a few dead mice(!).  Whenever you’d extend an arm to the rock, whether to place or remove protection, the water would course down your sleeve.  We should have turned back, difficult though that would certainly have been.

Day later we got to the tiny and sloping Sous Le Toit ledge.  Out of the waterfall we hoped to dry out.  Weather took a turn for the (even) worse.  It got much colder, windy, and began to snow.  Ropes froze.  Blizzard.  We put on our cagoules and climbed into our bivy sack.  Knees to chest we were for twenty-four hours.

We played umpteen games of twenty questions of which I won only about five.  We talked about his journey north and how his family felt about it.  It’s been a long time, but I clearly remember him describe his family’s disagreement, but still fervent support.  This was tremendous food for thought and I’ve come back to it again and again as first a brother and later as a parent.

Next day as clouds began to pull away from the Captain we began to hear the swoosh swoosh of helicopter blades.  I started to move around to get organized and recommence our upward progress.  Ted told me to “hold on a moment.  They’re here to rescue someone and we don’t want them to think we need help”.  I didn’t think we did either, but would have enjoyed a sympathetic fly-by expression of concern.

We topped out the next evening and started the hike down, but it was overcast and pitch black.  We decided that it would be dangerous to continue and best to spend one more night in the other realm.  Ted had some matches and we stoked a small fire till just before dawn.

That summer was the last time I laid eyes on Ted Davis.  We kept up correspondence and had several near misses, but never again crossed paths.  He died of cancer a few years ago and it pains me no end that but for a few miles and weeks we could have hiked together with our kids in Colorado several summers in a row.

Few days after he died daughter called with a big decision to make and had spent a lot of time alone in contemplation.  I told her that was a good approach and quoted from a book Ted had given me: “Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are… Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but who we never really wanted to meet”**.

*Wall Street Journal February 2, 2012

**Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

***The route Ted and I did, the Salathe, is left of the Nose, goes up to the heart shaped depression, around its left edge, then straight up.  The ‘document’ just above is the topo we drew with the help of several other friends who’d recently climbed the route.

One Fell

October 7, 2011


  Wife out of town again.  This time ministering post appendectomic daughter.  Interesting that these days doc doesn’t make one big slit, but several smaller ones instead.  Shoves flashlight into one, looks in another, and fishes vestigial organ out with a coat hanger or something through a third.

  Anyway, home alone one night and took a call from a friend I’d not seen in thirty-five years.  While talking about past exploits and future plans he reminded me of the ground breaking 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalogue the cover of which you see above.

  It was a paradigm shifter for many reasons – not least because of its rich production values.  (Speaking of value, copies sell today for $250!)  More importantly it was an exhortation for conservation of the vertical environment – “clean climbing” as well as the proclamation of a new moral imperative to retain real adventure in the experience of it.

  What though does this have to do with my friend’s and my considerations of next moves?  Well, open the cover and the first words one reads are Einstein’s: “A perfection of means and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.”  Said differently, a typical life from zero to sixty.

  Takes that long to take care of business, shake things out a bit, and begin to see through the lens of your own specs, not someone else’s.  To realize as Jung wrote: “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality”.

  As the conversation drew to its close with warm wishes and promises to keep in touch I pulled my copy from the shelf and paged through.  I was transported to a place long gone and paths not taken.  Not yet anyway.  I turned to the last page and a lyric courtesy of the Stones: “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind”. 

  I was electrified.  I dumped out the rest of the wine in my glass (seriously) and took dog outside to look at the stars.  One fell.  Our walk around the block felt like an airborne perambulation.  Had my friend not had me by the leash, I would have floated away.

*In case you don’t know, Chouinard went on to found Patagonia and set the pace for corporate environmental activism as well as outside cool.

**It’s never been lost to me that I was in that place long gone when my now roommate began to take serious interest in me (even though I didn’t use deodorant!).



Don’t Light A Match

September 30, 2011


  Well, news from CERN has it that there are particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Sounds like a big deal given E=MC2 and all of that.  However, reading through the blogs, it seems that Einstein’s theory already allowed for neutrinos of the “Tachyonic” sort to exist always at faster than light. 

  Dang complicated though and they’d not theretofore been detected. Guess we’ll have to wait for review of the evidence to see what, if anything, new was discovered.  But don’t you wonder where this stuff comes from in the first place though?  Scientific insights I mean? Here’s what erstwhile Princeton Psych Prof Julian Jaynes had to say about it:

  “The picture of a scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deductions is as mythical as the unicorn.  The greatest insights of mankind have come more mysteriously.  The literature is full of insights which have simply come from nowhere.*”  Said Einstein of his theory: “Suddenly the happiest thought of my life came to me”.  And “Why is it that I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?”

  Insights come when you stop thinking about the problem.  For example, years ago friends and I were encamped upon a glacier dreaming of first ascents up in the Interior Ranges of BC.  A storm set in and held us down for days.  One member of our party never left his tent and became more morose by the day.  Seriously depressed after several. 

  “We’re gonna die” he’d wail from inside his tent.  The situation wasn’t pleasant, but wasn’t that serious either.  Finally I decided to stick my head in and try to assuage his fears only to be nearly overcome with horrible odor of freeze-dried frijoles begotten methane.

  “Hey man” I said to him in recoil, “get the hell out of there and breathe some fresh air before you get really sick.  You got something muy bad goin’ on in there.  Don’t light a match.  Seriously.”  He moaned a bit, I persisted, and soon he emerged. 

   Five minutes later he was smiling.  Storm hadn’t broken, but his head was clear and he offered a few suggestions for elegant new routes of which no one had yet thought and which ended up years later with multiple stars in a guidebook.  Same here.  My best ideas always come  shazam while breathing outside air.

*From his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – to which I’ve previously and frequently referred.

**Gotta be honest.  I came up with some of this while perusing two books that’ll I’ll shortly wrap and give as birthday gifts:

The Courage to Create by Rollo May and Confronting the Quantum Enigma by David J. Kreiter.  And dang if, since I just bought them yesterday, I’m not going to have to go out and buy again for myself.

Meager Tools of Consciousness

August 12, 2011


  Do you dream in black and white or color?  Interesting that in the 50’s most respondents to that question would say b&w.  Now most say color.  What’s up with that?  Humanoid brains have evolved and grown in size, but not that much that fast…

  A philosopher* holds that the real answer is neither.  Those choices just happen to have been the most convenient metaphors or analogies for a given place and time – conjured up by those exposed to black and white film in the case of the former and color TV of the latter. 

  “Dreams don’t have to be pictures of any kind at all.  They could be simply thoughts – and thoughts, even thoughts about color, are neither colored nor noncolored in themselves.”

  We struggle with the meager tools of conscious experience to interpret the relationship between our brains – by far the most complex things in the universe – and everything else.  And to make it even (to me) less comprehensible, everything is relative.

  Know how if a tree falls in an empty glade there can be no sound?  Well, even should said tree remain upright, if there is no eye to look upon it, there is no color either.   Sight and sound are by definition the result of the interaction of stimuli, organ, and cerebral processor.

  At least to start with.  Research has shown that, for example, some originally sighted folks gone blind retain the ability to think in color, remember shapes of letters and faces while some do not.  Makes me wonder from time to time what one’s gray matter could cook up on its own.  Like, could one completely and forever sensory deprived somehow engender a hallucination? 

  Obviously, such experimentation has not been done on humans.  Unfortunately though. it has been on animals – monkeys.  Makes ‘em stark raving mad.  Would the far greater complexity of our neural networks make a difference?  For me the question comes down to the nature of consciousness.  Is it an emergent property dependent for its existence upon that meat pudding up there or does it exist independent of material origin?  There are respected thinkers on both sides of that issue. 

  At any rate, the richness of our interior lives is directly related to that of our experience.  Consider how different must be those of the two beings in the paragraph below: one an accomplished mountaineer on a ledge high of the side of a difficult and dangerous mountain and the other a peasant far below:

  ..We melt snow on our campstove.  Constellations cast flickering stories of gods, heroes and animals against a coal-black sky.  The earth spins, and for a few sleepless hours we linger far above the horizon.  We hover between the bliss of the heavens and the chaotic life on earth.  Time feels suspended: it’s as if we can view our planet from another, ephemeral world.  Far below, in the tangled rhododendron forest, the villagers of Moxi and Xinxing enjoy a rare cloudless evening.  With my headlamp, I signal our story to one resident, and he acknowledges our presence with his own flashing light…”**

*Perplexities of Consciousness by Eric Schwitzgebel reviewed by Nicholas Humphrey in the NYT BR 7/31/11.

**”Out of Darkness” by Kyle Dempster in Alpinist 35/Summer 2011 His and partner Bruce Normand’s route on Mt Edgar pictured above

The Outdoor Cure

December 3, 2010


  There is an impressive new indoor climbing facility not far from where I live.  Visited it recently with youngest daughter and had a blast.  Vertical kinesthetics always provide their own special sort of joy.

  Daughter has been frequenting one in the Bay Area and was quite a bit more fit than her pencil pushing old man.  She cruised up and past the overhangs to the fifty foot summit with grace and ease.  Climbing is one physical endeavor that is gender neutral. 

  The sport’s most groundbreaking feat to date – the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite NP – was accomplished by a woman.  Lynn Hill.  Women know right off what it takes most men a long time to figure out, that finesse trumps brute strength.

  Anyway, the new wall incorporates a few hand sized cracks which up to this visit I’d seen in nature, but not plastic.  Either way, that sort of feature provides considerable security.  Slide your hand in, cup it, pressing fingers and hand heel to one side and knuckles to the other, and you have a multidirectional bomb proof purchase.

  Only trouble is that after a bit of upward progress thus effected the backs of your hands tell a tale of woe.  Especially if you’re out of practice and uncalloused.  (There’s a short such climb in Yosemite named “Meatgrinder”)  Oh well, I was visited by a waves of ouch and masochistic nostalgia as I slid my hands into my pockets later on.

  We had great fun, but it is not the same thing as being outside – somewhere between a video game and the real thing.  That thought occurred a few days ago when I came across an article in the 11-30-10 Science Tuesday section of the NYT titled “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space”.

  Turns out that there is something called “outdoor deprivation disorder” and we learn that its “effects on physical and mental health are rising fast”.  The diminished importance given to physical activity and the natural environment has led to a diminished populace young to old.  Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, etc, etc.

  Not to mention the most important thing of all – the state of one’s mind and the experience of living.  Depression, stress, attention deficit disorder, are included in what one researcher called “diseases of indoor living”.

  Even regarding our present topic.  I’ve been repeatedly astounded to learn that gym rats visit other gyms within miles, within sight even, of world class natural outcrops completely unaware and uninterested.  You tell me which situation would constellate one’s neurons most spectacularly – the one above or the one below. 

 *The building in the background is IM Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research


Ding Dong Ditch It

April 2, 2010

  Ok, it’s spring, and, uh, well, you’re not going to believe this, but though I’m at my office, my mind is not.  Wife knows where it is, or at least could relate the nature of the topography.  Somewhere on that divine razor’s edge.

  Memory of an exhilarating perch on a narrow ledge high up something tall and steep has never left me.  It constellates sporadically, but early every spring without fail.  Dang.  Much has changed in my life as well as in technical aspects of an ascent, but I’m fit and confident that I’d have no problem, at least not with the kinesthetic cerebrations.

  On a mid-cliff ledge looking out, eye to eye with the clouds and swallows, an exuberant solemnity wells up – especially if you’re with a good friend (or kid!) and the route is challenging, but not several grades too difficult.  All distraction falls away.  There is no thought of anything else.

  Indeed, there is no thought.  Thinking would just get in the way.  Each line has its own rhythm into which one naturally falls.  Necessary details of the task could be no more apparent.  At the ledge, as gear is rearranged, words seem superfluous and few are exchanged.

  Sometimes you linger for a glance, snack, or drink, but not for long and not often because all know there is an inverse relationship between time spent on the edge and well being.  Rocks fall, storms brew.  Less time given for shit to happen the better. 

  Quite the paradox, eh?  Visited with otherworldly elation while knocking on heaven’s door, one’s intentions lie just this side of the nave.

It’s Lucky He Didn’t Take The Stairs

February 19, 2010

  That’s Jyoti Raj in a series of youtube videos gone viral.  It’s an incredible display of bold athleticism performed upon an interesting bit of topography.  From this point of remove, it is impossible to judge the size of the holds or texture of the stone so as to develop a sense of the difficulty, but the ground would come up pretty fast regardless.

  I’d seen the video some months ago and have thought of the fellow occasionally since.  I wrote an essay in high school about the motivational question behind alpinism and am always interested in new inflections.  “Because it is there” never did much for me.

  I was thus thrilled to find in the January 2010 issue of Climbing Magazine* that someone had tracked the climber down and asked a few questions.  Turns out that the footage was shot at sixteenth century Chitradurga Fort in southern India.

  Mr. Raj was a wild child and ran away from home at age 7 after having been kicked out of school.  He somehow made his way to a larger metro area more than 500 miles away where he found work at a ‘sweet shop’ which he left after five years of abuse. 

  Thence to Chitradurga where a family took him in and for whom he ran errands in turn for his keep.  At about age eighteen he was accused of theft and decided to leap to his death from atop a large cliff.  He made it to a perch about fifty feet up, but decided  to get more air to ensure that impact would do more than break bones.

  To his astonishment, as he continued up, people began to gather and cheer.  Heartened, he also found that he enjoyed the vertiginous kinesthetics and returned the next day to begin his exploration of the  seven story fort walls nearby.

  Had he taken the stairs, his would have been the only and last hurrah.  But just as important as his first applause, the concentration necessary to make the upward progress extirpated the negative cerebrations long enough for his mind to clear and absorb the new view.

  That was three years ago.  Now a local celebrity, he has become reacquainted (if not reunited) with his family and teaches climbing to young people.  Why climbing?

  “It gives meaning to my life.  It’s the only thing I’ve ever enjoyed, because life has otherwise been full of hardship.”  Funny how things sometimes turn out…

*Article on page 28 by Dev. S. Sukumar

Ah, The Peonies!

October 9, 2009


    Ever see the movie Heat?  It’s a really great cop v robber flic with Pacino (cop) and De Niro (robber).  Val Kilmer is a steely with chinks bad guy too.  Ashley Judd’s his wife.  De Niro and crew are skilled, astute, and only go after the largest of hauls.  Last one eight figures.  Movie is wonderful, mesmerizing, in your face violence.  In fact, De Niro demands that his last victim “look at me, LOOK AT ME!” before delivering the revenge fueled coup de grace.

  My savor of the gunplay and bloodletting came to mind while reading a bit about the President of Liberia – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female president of an African country.  Question: “If women ran the world, would wars still exist?” Answer: “No. It would be a better, safer, and more productive world. A woman would bring an extra dimension to that task – and that’s a sensitivity to humankind.  It comes from being a mother.” 

  Question: “But if women had power, they would be more likely to acquire the negative traits that power breeds, like selfishness and territorialism.”  Answer: “It would take a very long term of women absolutely in power to get to the place where they became men”.*

  What is up with us men?  I remember studying the Yanomamo people who inhabit a bit of the jungle between Venezuela and Brazil.  Napoleon Chagnon wrote the best selling anthropology treatise of all time about them.**  They were fascinating for having been theretofore untouched by civilization.  Real time look at primal.  Garden of Eden it was not.  Guys sat around blowing hallucinogenic drugs up each other’s noses all day while women slashed, burned, and cooked.  Third of the men died violent deaths.


  I’ve read elsewhere that our incredible inability to get along is what led to the original diaspora from Africa.  Group gets to 5,000 or so in size, factions arise, violence attends, they spread out.  Years on, given half a chance, a group more technologically advanced wipes out one less so.  Jeesh.

  Somehow though we’ve made it this far.  Truth and beauty do exist and are known to exist by men and women alike.  President Sirleaf might well see more soulful women than men, but some men have tamed or cathected their urges and transmogrified their blood lust. 

  Mountaineers, for example, challenge gravity and weather to suffer a cold and frightful experience risking their contribution to the gene pool all the while.  First ascensionists get to pick the line and have naming rights when successful.  Sometimes position and kinesthetics combine to make a stairway to heaven.  On the massive Gogarth Sea Cliffs in North Wales for example, Ed Drummond put up a spectacular route which he named “Dream of White Horses”. 

Dream of White Horses

  Or – just saw an exhibition of Cy Twombly’s late work.***  Unspeakable beauty.  Unspeakable.  The representation below of one picture from his “Peony Blossom Paintings” conveys only the slightest of hints of an in-person experience, but alongside panel six he has a haiku by Takarai Kikaku inspired by 14th century samurai Kusunoki Masashige: 

Twombly Peony 2

Ah, The Peonies

For which


Took off his Armour

Cool, huh?

* NYT Mag, 8/23/09

** Yanomamo, The Fierce People by Napoleon Chagnon, Holt Rinehart Winston 1968

***Cy Twombly: The Natural World Selected Works 2000-2007.  The Art Institute of Chicago May 16 – October 11, 2009