Archive for the ‘climbing’ Category

Mirabile Dictu

April 3, 2009


Ever concerned that I relentlessly hone my intellectual acumen, son gave me a special book for Christmas.  Toilets of the World.  It is a colorful tour of this important, but often overlooked corner of the built environment.

From a rugged plein-aire outhouse in British Columbia to an aluminum one that pops up like a periscope at night in Soho in London, to the dual culture stool in India upon which you can stand or sit, we visit all manner of approaches to these bits of the daily life of every single person on the planet.


You may find this hard to believe but(!), there is even a website devoted to the best restrooms in our country. Even more surprising is that the facilities in our local airport were voted #5 in the USA in 2006!  The one in the video below (21C Museum Hotel Louisville, KY) was voted #2 last year and  I’m proud to say that I was a able to add it to my tick list when in that city for a ceramics convention with guess who.

Perusal of the not quite coffee table tome led me to reminisce and recall related memorable moments of my own.  And lest you think poorly of me for so indulging I will hasten with the reminder that I’m far from the first to incorporate such, uh, organic matters into exposition.

Take Aristophanes, for example, who several thousand years ago in Athens wrote a play (Peace) in which a major character rode to heaven on the back of a dung beetle.  Why?  Perfect feedback loop.  Passenger doubles as source of fuel.

Anyway, the list of course is endless.  Writing names in snow with my brothers.  Lifting a lid and watching railroad ties pass beneath.  Using snow for the hygiene part.  Standing at a urinal in a fancy hotel (see above) and watching people in fine evening attire make their way through the hallway.  Stack of books in my own special place at home…

No regular visitor to this space will find it difficult to believe that my fondest such memories are set in the out-of-doors.  Once a friend and I were stuck nearly frozen on a ledge knees to chest in a blizzard for two days.  When the storm broke I commenced up the next part soon to feel an intense churning deep within.

My partner was directly below me holding my rope and I was thus loath to do anything to annoy him.  Took all of my will power to both make the necessary progress and purse a certain orifice till I made it to the top of that pitch, tied off and moved to the side.  I won’t go into any more detail, but will speculate that the occasion may well have led to the new National Park Service regulation that thenceforth climbers in that park must step off terra firma with a means of not leaving anything behind.

The last experience with which I will regale you was as an observer.  Years ago a friend (became my brother-in-law) and I were doing a route called Guides Wall in the Tetons.  Mid-way up on an adequate ledge that sloped back to front, he realized that there was business to be done.  He undid what was necessary, backed up, leaned against the wall, and lost himself in thought.  Unfortunately, the sloping geometry allowed the ‘fruit’ of his efforts to roll down upon and into his knickers.

Oh well, be honest, who hasn’t found themselves in something of the same predicament?

And, oh, the view!



March 13, 2009


         mid-light                                        retro-bustier1

  Hi girls!  Well, I said I’d get to fashion tips one day…  Such a steady and deep stream of women’s clothing catalogues flows through our mailbox that it would be impossible for me not to have honed a related set of skills.  Read what follows, but don’t tell your mother what I’m up to.  I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t be interested.  Your brother will understand.

  The girl on the right (Victoria’s Secret – ‘Beach Sexy’ Collection) is real nice, I’m sure.  And I too would do just about anything within reason for the bucket of shekels she probably takes away for her efforts.  Nonetheless, she looks like something you’d see in a window in Amsterdam.  Why else would the company sell their undergarments in multiples?  The only point that comes across has to do with something one is born knowing how to do even if it does take some number of years to rev up.

  The girl on the left (Patagonia Spring 2009) is nearly atop the most famous boulder problem in the whole world.  It’s called Midnight Lightening and is in Yosemite National Park.  It was attempted many times when I was hanging out in the Valley, but was not climbed until the year after my last serious visit (1978).  Once she presses up, she will be past the crux of the extremely difficult (5.13b) forty foot route.  Gently holding both lips between her teeth (opposite of the pout on right) and not setting her jaw, she makes it look easy.

  That photo and shots like it in other catalogues and depicting other sports make me remember stuff like: the fact that your mother could throw the softball farther than I could in grade school and still is a much better skier; the girls state tennis tournaments; the Big 10 Women’s Soccer Tournament; climbing with you; and climbing in Yosemite myself.  

  Only after all that does it dawn on me that the girl is cute.  Uh, for her age.  And realize that since she’s obviously not a hack (to the contrary, world class) she must be particular about the quality of her gear.  It has to be comfortable and move with her.  She’s not getting paid so it’s gotta last.

  The cover of the Title Nine catalogue sitting on the kitchen table just now has an attractive woman in a bathing suit holding her surfboard and young son.  Thus we can see that she was able to convey a thought similar to that on the mind the young lady above right without, well, having to resort to skankitude.

  Finally, in the spring Athleta catalogue there are some attractive running outfits.  The caption for one reads: “Turn Every One of Your Runs INTO A SPECTATOR SPORT”.  The getup looks great and is not risqué, but that intent compels me to advise you to take care.

  You know that I never wear a shirt if it is anywhere near warm enough and certainly wouldn’t begrudge women any opportunity for ventilation and vitamin D.  Furthermore, I won’t ask you to consider a habit or burqua.   However, in the case of clothing, less is not necessarily more*.  Unless you’re chumming for sharks and ok with the ensuing mindless frenzy, remember that form should follow function*. 

* I paraphrased architects Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan so that your brother wouldn’t feel left out of the discussion.

**Left photo by Rich Wheater:  Check out his site.

Heh, heh, heh…

February 20, 2009


  Not long ago (well I guess you can see when), I was seated at a table with a bunch of crusty old (and not so old) farts discussing an important community development project.  A lot of money was involved and so were therefore complexities, hidden agendas, and outright misguided prejudices.

  Sometimes during such meetings I work on needlepoint or origami as sorts of insurance policies.  They ensure that the time spent is not a total waste.  To be fair though – the measure is usually not necessary and often my own contribution amounts to little more than a stupid joke.

  Both needlepoint and origami bear certain similarities with an arcane subset of mountaineering called ‘bouldering’ which consists of short routes of extreme difficulty.  All demand intensely personal – essentially solitary – commitment and creativity to engender any hope of real success. 

  They also help sharpen ontological acuity.  Paradoxically, acts of concentration such as these awaken a broad and deep sense of awareness.  I actually did most of the bit you see above while visiting my brother for a week some months before he died of cancer.  I remember every stitch I made, breath he took, and drip from the roof during that uncharacteristically wet Marin February.   

  Anyway, during the above referenced meeting I could tell by their furtive glances that several of my colleagues were discomfited by my silent activity. 

  Several times Mr. Curmudgeon fired a question at me to check for my attention.  Reminded me of grade school when I was the best day dreamer in class and loved to look out the window while we were taking turns reading aloud.

  The teacher would break order and call on me because she figured my mind was elsewhere.  She was right of course, but alas for her wrong too.  I’d pick right up where the last had left off without losing a beat.  Heh, heh, heh. 

  I nailed Mr. C’s questions, but nonetheless later was asked, anonymously, to leave my “stitchery” at home or the office or wherever.  In the end, the series of meetings wound up with nothing solved and no real purpose served, but the above project found its first incarnation as the cover of a graduation present/address book.

  Heh, heh, heh. 

* Above L-R: Sun over surf; an Iowa farm; and mountains.

In the evening haze heroes are coming home

February 13, 2009


  Edgar Snow was, I think, the first westerner to interview Mao.  He met with him in the old fortified stronghold of Pao An in northwestern China in 1936.  By that time Mao had already been fighting the Nationalists for 10 years.  Snow recounted this visit and much much more in his classic Red Star Over China which the Economist called “An exciting and vivid account of one of the world’s most important events…”

  His take squared with neither Warhol’s nor my facile conception.  Snow found Mao “gaunt” and “Lincolnesque”.  He sensed a “force of destiny” and was impressed with his breadth of knowledge.  Mao’s reading list included: Ghandi, Nehru, Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Rousseau, Darwin, Adam Smith, not to mention of course the Confucian analects etc and the Marxist philosophers.

  He had knowledge of the “negro problem” in American which he compared unfavorably with the treatment of minorities in the USSR.  He thought little of Mussolini or Hitler, but believed that FDR was anti-fascist and that they’d be able to work together. 

  Interestingly, Snow didn’t think Mao’d fit in with the intellectual elite because he could be found coarse and vulgar.  For example, during a meeting once, he took off his pants to attenuate the effects of the intense summer heat.

  Some thirty-six years later the image registered by Henry Kissinger was much more fully formed:  “I have met no one…who so distilled raw concentrated willpower… His very presence testified to an act of will.  His was the extraordinary saga of a peasant’s son… who conceived the goal of taking over the Kingdom of Heaven, attracted followers, led them on the Long March of six thousand miles, which less than a third survived, and from a totally unfamiliar territory fought first the Japanese and then the Nationalist government, until finally he was ensconced in the Imperial City, bearing witness that the mystery and majesty of the eternal China endured even amidst a revolution that professed to destroy all established forms.”

  Whoa.  Certainly the Chairman was also responsible for untold hardship, starvation, cruelty, misery, and death.  Those did loom largest in the memory formed by my early schooling.  Just as certainly however he was indeed the ‘Great Helmsman’ at the launch and early voyage of what has become modern China.  (Even though if back on the scene today he’d do a double take)

  Mao is on my mind because oldest daughter gave me a book of his poetry for Christmas.  Of interesting insights it is full.  Nixon recounts Zhou Enlai commending a verse of Mao’s: “The beauty lies at the top of the mountain”.  I agree with Mao, Zhou, and our former president, but probably with a far more literal interpretation than might have been theirs.

  In the spring of 1927 (the year my father was born…) Mao wrote The Tower of the Yellow Crane

China is vague and immense where the nine rivers pour.
The horizon is a deep line threading north and south.
Blue haze and rain.
Hills like a snake or tortoise guard the river. 
The yellow crane is gone.  Where?
Now this tower and region are for the wanderer.
I drink wine to the bubbling water – the heroes are gone.
Like a tidal wave a wonder rises in my heart. 

  Thirty two years later he wrote Return to Shaoshan*: 

I regret the passing, the dying, of the vague dream:
my native orchards thirty-two years ago.
Yet red banners roused the serfs, who seized three-pronged lances
when the warlords raised whips in their black hands.
We were brave and sacrifice was easy
and we asked the sun, the moon, to alter the sky.
Now I see a thousand waves of beans and rice
  and am happy.
In the evening haze heroes are coming home. 

  Clothes (or the lack thereof) don’t make the man I guess.  At least not less inscrutable.  Or two dimensional. 

*Shaoshan was Mao’s native village.

Hair City

December 5, 2008

  I started taking all of my children rock-climbing at a very early age and have enjoyed the experiences more than I ever could have imagined.  Usually.  Upon a few occasions terror and/or minor injury was/were unwelcome companions.  Matter of fact I probably did visit both upon each repeatedly.  Has made me realize that child abuse is not as easy to define as I’d thought.  And that perhaps it is sometimes inflicted without intent.

  Early one morning many, many years ago son Andrew and I made our way to the base of a cliff overlooking the river.  As we hiked beneath its lush deciduous canopy that was yet spring green, Andrew gestured toward a broad soaring bird that we could only sporadically glimpse.

  “Look at the hawk!” he exclaimed.

  “Vulture” I corrected without really looking.

  Our goal was the Sentinel, a free standing pinnacle 120 feet tall on the river side and about half that on the other due to eons of rock fall and other organic detritus fallen from the top of the main wall thirty feet to the east.

  We first climbed the easy east face.  It is solid gray limestone with many large solution pockets, natural handholds, and fossils so that route finding is not a problem and the experience pleasant.  The fact that a discrete summit is gained makes it all the more fulfilling.

  Then in the fifth grade (I think) Andrew was strong and kinesthetically adept.  He could do the most pull ups in his class and had no problem with the tight-wire in our front yard.  Thus, it seemed to make sense to search for greater challenge.

  I remembered a climb on the west face that could be done in three pitches, had wide ledges, and great views out across the river which is over a mile wide there and dotted with islands and lots of boat traffic.  As I recalled, the climbing was all chimneys with a traverse across a wide flat ledge halfway up.  Perfect.

  At its base, I tied Andrew into a tree and began the first short pitch.  The chimney was much dirtier than I’d remembered – filthy actually.  I quickly reached the small ledge and set up a belay.

  Andrew was up in a flash ever excited and unconcerned about the dirt.  I tied him to the belay anchor and took the step right and up to begin the traverse into the main chimney.  Andrew was less than thrilled as I disappeared from view and his side of the banter grew a bit tremulous.

  Indeed, I did move more slowly than I’d anticipated.  The ledge was not wide, but rather narrow.  And difficult to protect.  If Andrew slipped, he would take quite a swing.  Oh well, I thought, I’ll get to the bolts at the base of the main chimney, bring him over, and then cruise to the top.

  Only there were no fixed anchors, the rock was rotten, and the chimney wasn’t as I’d remembered either.  It’s walls were sharp, jagged, friable and constricted to a bulge a few yards up making for tricky passage. 

  It even thought momentarily about spitting me out and thus unleash the ravages of gravity upon us both.  I corralled such thoughts and relegated them to the place the Dalai Lama sends thoughts of women.

  Andrew called several times after my slow progress wondering what every second does when the leader’s progress is slower than expected: what sort of terror might lie ahead.

  He made it across the traverse slowly calling up “Dad I’m scared”.

  “You’re doing fine Andrew” I croaked.  We both knew that the choices were few and that the difficulties, for him, had just begun.

   He started up the crack.  Up, down, up, down, up down.

   Shit.  How do you holler technical advice to a little guy you can’t see, who’s never heard the terms, and you know is fighting back fear so that he can please his dumb old man?  I gave him a bit of tension from time to time, but knew that a tight rope would not help him through the bulge.

  He came to it and began to wrestle with the crux.  A flake broke off and crashed loudly below sending a flock of starlings into the wind.  The air then filled with the sounds of utter and complete despair.  I felt like Judas.

  He did though surmount the difficulties and soon I watched his little hand slap the top of the block upon which I sat.  He clambered toward me and came into my arms.  After a bit he turned and took in the view.  Without looking at me, he asked if we had to go on.

  No way off but up.  “Soon we’ll be in the sun” I said.


  As it happened, the leading arc of the solar disc edged over the top just as I began the last pitch – cascading rays down upon us and illuminating the zillion motes of dust that theretofore had been invisible. We were like exhausted pilgrims in a nave.

  I reached the top quickly and Andrew followed smoothly with a surprising return of confidence – quiet though he did remain.  Upon the small summit platform, he sat serenely gazing toward the distant rolling hills.

  As I bent over the rappel anchors a broad shadow stroked the loose coils of rope, the surrounding rock, and my back.  I raised my eyes to watch Andrew track the winged dihedral floating just above our heads.

  We exchanged no words for many minutes until he said matter-of-factly “Dad, it is a hawk, a red tail”.

  As the raptor then rose effortlessly on a thermal up into the sun, its backlit tail feathers twitched in fine manipulation of pitch and roll and shone rust red.

   *NB As you can see below, many more adventures did ensue.  And thankfully yet another of my father’s aphorisms has held true (so far): “Son by the time you can take me on you won’t want to”…




November 21, 2008


  I once had a wilderness experience in which I was all by my lonesome for four days.  It is amazing how thought patterns change in the absence of human interaction.  For me at least ‘monkey mind’ – jumping from one thought to the next haphazardly – disappears and is replaced with much longer cycle time.

  The days were filled with physical intensity and focus.  The nights were filled with stars and cerebration.  (“Stars, stars, stars!”  I wrote in my journal.*)  I can still recall the seeds of a cucumber sliding over my tongue down my parched throat and somehow making a connection between them and Orion’s belt.  I dunno.

  When I made it back to the Mirror Lake bus stop the only others there were a mother and young son.  Son looked at me and moved closer to his mother.  She looked at me and held him tightly.

  I said hello and hoped that they’d ask what I’d been up to so I could regale them with my tale of glory.  No response.  I suppose the Mom subscribed to a corollary of the theory I frequently repeat to my daughters: the only decent boy they’ll ever meet is their brother, myself included.

  Wife’s gone again and all this was running through my head last night.   Certainly, it is not the same at all just to be at home alone for several evenings in a row complete with any number of phone conversations.  But, still, one’s mind finds a different gear. 

  I agree with the French philosopher Pascal: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”  If one cannot be comfortable alone with one’s own thoughts, how can he/she possibly have honest interaction with another?

  Even a dog. Know how you can talk to someone and be thinking about something completely different? Staring into the eyes of mine last night it dawned on me that a dog, at least a smart one, knows if you’re day dreaming or not.  With a dog you must commit.  They wait for engagement.

  How’s that for deep thinking?

  I also agree with Donne that “No man is an island”, but one is unable to really deeply understand that without an experience of real solitude. 

*While looking back in my journal I saw that I had been wondering how I measured up to others my girlfriend/future wife had been dating.   I was pretty much of a bum at the time.  In retrospect it is funny to have been concerned.  The ones I saw were all weasels.

Las Animas

August 15, 2008

  In the 8/10/08 NYT there was an article about the recent tragedy on K2 titled: “Does Climbing Matter Anymore”?  Tragedy it certainly would have been if just one had perished let alone eleven, but only a couch potato would ask that question.  It is actually more of a koan and the answer is the Louis Armstrong response to the ‘what is jazz’ question:  “if you have to ask, you’ll never know”.

  Commercial endeavors (a big and growing) aside, adventurers know what they’re getting into and do so with purpose and resolve.  No matter if it’s the Himalaya or an unnamed wood, they understand that there is grave existential peril in a comfy slouch.  

  For some reason, the piece brought to mind a trip taken many years ago…

  We were headed, by narrow gauge rail, toward the Chicago Basin at the head of Needle Creek in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.  Our car was several back from the engine, but even so, its spewing plume made me feel like an erstwhile citizen of Herculaneum.  I could not understand how my wife and kids were not bothered and instead hopped from side to side describing the scenery with ebullience.

  The angular bits of coal dust soon floating across my cornea triggered not exactly a pain response, nor diverting anticipatory thoughts of the wilderness that we had barely entered, but instead memories of recent car troubles, problems at the office back home, and dinner the last night in Aspen.  Why had we left?

  El Rio de Las Animas Perditas, the river along which the rails mostly traveled, was far below yet beckoned hypnotically.  I sank into my seat resignedly to obsess and await what might lay before.

  Just as I entered the state between wakefulness and sleep, the train stopped at the ghost town of Needleton which lies approximately midway between the railroad’s eponymous northern and southern terminuses; Silverton and Durango.  We jumped out, hustled back to the boxcar to retrieve our backpacks, and watched the train depart and disappear.

  The steep ten mile hike up along Needle Creek was in a word, brutal, but at least my thought pattern began to make sense.  I was again in the wilderness with my family.  Did we have the right stuff?  Would we be safe?  Would we have fun?

  Well not right off. First, cartographic aphasia led to several wrong turns, a trip to the top of a pile of rubble some distance from the day’s goal, and hours lost.  Then the water pump/purifier performed poorly and during attempted remediation an o-ring popped into the stream.  Finally, it rained intermittently during the hike up and through the night.  One of our tents leaked and all five of us spent the first night huddled together in the other – a few with pre-oedemic headaches.   

  Nonetheless next morning the pervasive beauty began at least to inflect my cortical cramping.  We set out to hike yet higher and reached a pair of lakes at about 12,000 feet.  There were of course no trees, little vegetation, and the water virtually sterile due to its hibernal solidity.

  The surface upon which our vibram almost squeaked had been polished smooth by the icy meniscus’ expansive ancestors and was ensconced high up in and surrounded by the castellated rim of the cirque.  The air was still, though laden with the smell of brimstone and the sounds of the neophyte creek.  Sally and I watched our three children silently stepping from rock to rock as if in performance of some Shinto rite.

  It is amazing – the grandeur of the infinite – that with which one becomes suffused in an area so devoid of life’s layers.  Wondering about how that sort of stark emptiness could be so fulfilling, so sort of spiritually tumescent, I recalled a proposition of physics which as written by one Alan Wallace has it that: “there is more energy in a cubic yard of empty space than in all the matter of the known universe”.  It must be that energy which has led native peoples around the globe to impute magic and divinity to such purlieus.

  After further exploration and a bit of rest we decided to move our camp down valley from whence to find a seldom visited lake about which we’d somehow heard.  Why it held allure I’ll never be certain.  There was no trail marked on the map and our guidebook described its approach as steep, indistinct, discontinuous, and treacherous.

  Indeed, though we were amazed at the myriad flora, fauna, and signs of men long gone that we had missed on the way in, we could not even determine which drainage would lead up to the darn place.

  Frustrated my group became as we covered the same steep mile several times in search of both some sort of indication of previous trail bifurcation as well as simply a way to cross the now adolescent torrent.  Our only encouragement was an animated description of hidden beauty by some wild eyed sacerdote.

  Our persistence was soon rewarded when another stranger offered assistance.  This one, a local fishing guide, showed us where to cross and described in general (the nature of the mountainside did not lend itself to detail) the way to the lake which was several thousand feet up and over a subtle ridge replete with turrets, hidden streams, and it was true – no real trail.

  “Purty well hid” he said looking upwardly as he twirled his mustache.  “Awful purty though; awful purty.”  In parting, he blew a wad of tobacco juice across the trail in front of us.

  The next morning we started up through the trees as directed.  They were dripping wet and seemed more like a forest of kelp.  After an hour or so of bushwhacking and log hopping, vestiges of the old miner’s trail did appear.  It was discontinuous – segments averaged about 100 yards in length – but we soon found ourselves able to follow it quite well by naturally filling in the blanks and being aware of the degree of arc and slope of a stretch, interpolating, and allowing reawakened internal guidance to lead us to the next short section.

  Occasionally, the way disappeared completely for quite some distance having been wiped out by landslide or avalanche and overgrown.  We would then build a little cairn at the breakpoint as we dropped into each new bit of destruction we had to cross to reach more virgin wood.

  More serious were the hazards created a bit past the more or less halfway point as the ridge’s rocky ossature began to protrude.  Mossy cliff edges were hard to identify due to the soft lighting and surrounding mist.  Fortunately, their position had been fixed in our minds while scanning the terrain the previous afternoon.

  As we rose, clouds obscured our view of the valley below and Mt. Eolus and subsidiary peaks to the north.  Once though, during a brief respite and snack, a hole appeared through which we watched massive disembodied blocks of orange granite seem to float in space.

  By the middle of the afternoon, light could be seen through the trees above.  Negotiation of a broken dark cliff band led to the top of the ridge, but not yet quite to our destination.  An old path led first to a absolutely still shallow tarn by which we sat briefly to watch trout dart back and forth with their dorsal fins protruding above the surface.  The glistening triangles were interesting counterpoint to the similar shapes on the far horizon.

  Our lake rested in a peneplain one hundred yards to the south and was larger than we had expected; several acres or so.  Behind and around it sloped a meadow resplendent in yellow and green which itself was collared by a rolling monadnock.  Its highest point looked like a turtle’s head beginning to emerge from the folds of its neck.

  As we approached, the clouds parted allowing the sun to set our wet garb steaming and reveal the lake’s luminescence as well as transmute the meadow into its almost iridescent apprentice.  It is in such a place, upon such a surface that Tibetan Lamas trek to read the names of the future.

  We looked in and saw ourselves.  Needed sunglasses.  The kids scurried around the edge for about half an hour while Sally and I watched and wrung out.  They first clambered around bone bleached piles of tailings and then continued around the lake, in birth order, toward a position opposite us.

  Their animations were uncharacteristically subdued and we speculated about the nature of their conversation.  I will forever hear the soft tones of their voices lilting across the invisible surface barely discernible from the sound of the gently falling water nearer to us.

  The clouds eventually drew back together reminding us that we were ill prepared for a night at 12,000 feet and serving effective notice that one must not long tarry in such a place lest the right of return be forsaken.

  Our descent was pure, clean, and mostly silent.  We had little trouble finding our way even though, if anything, the air grew more murky.  The cairns led us across the desolation zones and in between those we discovered keloid scars left by miners on the uphill sides of trees for unenlightened colleagues.

  Needleton was thriving the next afternoon with others in wait of a ride back to Durango.  Abigail flagged down the beast as it approached puffing and belching.

  We threw our gear into the boxcar and slowly climbed on board without a look back.  Pilgrims.

Bell’s Theorem

July 18, 2008

  An old guide with features as sharp and chiseled as the rock ledge upon which he sat stared into the void.  His much younger companion ministered his smooth hands with tape and tincture of benzoin.

  Higher up, the youth, a “guide aspirant”, allowed as how the elder moved rather well for his age.  Indeed, he had so far been impressed.  There was no retort or response but for the crunch of rice cakes and gurgle of water from the canteen – water which had been scooped from the clear cold stream far below.

  Long before sunset the guide had prevailed upon the youth to take advantage of the broad ledge traversing both walls of the huge dihedral they were ascending.  Protestations as to the waste of yet available light were left echoing alone.

  Moreover, though the ledge on one side was flat and smooth, the other was roughly castellated.  The youth had remarked upon this fact and the related possibilities for a comfortable night.  To his then further dismay, the old guide insisted that they both watch the moon from amongst the blocks.

  Just after dawn, there was a terrible sound from high above.  Covering his head and face with his hands, the youth pressed himself to the back of the ledge and behind the now welcome hunks of orange granite.

  Thick with the smell of damnation, the dust cloud slowly cleared as the young man peered between his fingers to see the old man unmoved and beyond him unweathered rock where the opposite ledge had for millennia been.

Can You Hear Me?

July 11, 2008

  Ever see The Perfect Storm?  Remember near the end when it’s clear the end is near and the character played by Mark Wahlberg screams into the storm over the raging sea:  “Christina? Christina, can you hear me?  I don’t know if you can, but I’m talking to ya, baby.  Do you know how much I love you?  I loved you the moment I saw you.  I love you now, and I’ll love you forever.  No goodbye.  There’s only love, Christina.  Only love.”

  And then after the storm, after Bobby (Wahlberg’s character) and his colleagues have all perished, and after the memorial service, Christina recounts a recurring dream in which “all of a sudden there he is.  That big smile…” And he repeats the above word for word.  “And then he’s gone.  But he’s always happy when he goes.  So I know he’s gotta be okay.  Absolutely okay.”

  Sebastian Junger writes in the introduction to the book that “No dialogue was made up”.  So while the film is largely true to the book the last words to leave Bobby’s mouth in the movie are fiction, but Christina’s dream not.  No matter what, cool bit of antiphony, right? 

  The day after the last time I saw the movie, I read a note in Outside magazine about a book by Maria Coffey: Explorers of The Infinite which asked: “What is it with extreme athletes and paranormal experiences?”

  Had to buy the book.  Found it fascinating.  Coffey punctuates her work with views and explanation of mainstream science, but it is clear that she believe that there is indeed something else going on.

  During the course of reviewing historical accounts of and numerous interviews with folks living life on the edge: “I became increasingly convinced that extreme adventurers break the boundaries of what is deemed physically possible by pushing beyond human consciousness into another realm.”  

  She quotes Krishnamurti:  “A complex mind cannot find out the truth of anything, it cannot find out what is real – and that is our difficulty.  From childhood we are trained to conform, and we do not know how to reduce complexity to simplicity.  It is only the very simple and direct mind that can find the real, the true”. 

  Coffey tells the story of a couple who followed, on foot, a caribou herd for months and hundreds of miles way up in the Yukon.  Alone and vulnerable, they fell into rhythm with the pace of the life of the animals.  Some weeks in, they both began having dreams.  The dreams began coming true.  “Heuer and Allison believe it was the rigors of the journey that led to their dreams and the other inexplicable events that began to unfold.”

  The identical twin British mountaineer brothers, Adrian and Allan Burgess provide several fascinating anecdotes.  In one, Adrian, who didn’t often remember dreams and hadn’t thought about a certain dead alpinist friend for quite some time was visited by her in his sleep during early stages of an attempt on Nanga Parbat.  “Adrian, you’re with the wrong people, get the fuck out of there” she told him.  He was shaken and did leave.  Shortly thereafter the team was hit by an avalanche.

  It’s not all dreams.  There’s intuition.  “Jung described intuition as the perception of realities that are unknown to the conscious mind.”  Marlene Smith says: “Intuition is about our body translating the energy it picks up, animals listen to those physical messages, but most humans reason them away”.  Among other examples, Coffey cites evidence of unusual activities of some animals and primal people that spared them death from the Asian tsunami in December 2007. 

  In 1985 a mixed Spanish-Polish team of alpinists attempted Nanga Parbat.  They communicated in English over their two way radios.  During the descent there was a terrible storm and all “felt near death”.  After safely reaching base camp, they listened to the recordings of their conversations and were amazed that they were all speaking in their native languages – unintelligible to each other.  Yet during the actual event they understood one other perfectly.

  There are many more stories and much hypothesizing, but it’s hard at the very least to disagree with British climber John Porter who said: “I think the starting point for any sort of weirdness is life itself.  If we’re here, then it seems to me that anything is possible.” 

  After all, without even having to wade through the several bewildering mainstream explanations of the origin (or lack thereof) of our universe, it interesting to note that physicists do agree that the universe is made up of: 4% matter as we know it; 22% dark matter that we maybe know something about; and 74% something else yet to be determined. 

  Now that’s weird.

Ockham’s Razor Is Also Sharp

March 4, 2008

 There is a definite downside to adventure.  Several in fact.  And by adventure remember, I’m not talking about sitting against a tree by the river, eyes shut, bobber in the water, string tied to your toe, waiting for a tug.     

  I am talking about the sort of endeavor for which the south end of the learning curve yields lacerations, contusions, and confusion.  With progress, scrapes and dunkings etc get fewer and farther between and thought processes more subtle.  With time and prowess come economy of movement and cessation of thought.  And ever more dangerous situation.

  The obvious potential drawbacks are such things as death and/or dismemberment.  Gravity sucks as is said.  So does hitting a fixed object at a high rate of speed, or freezing to death, or dying of thirst, or hunger, or lack of oxygen.       

  Failing those, problems arise with a first hiatus.  Sooner or later, depending upon the nature of the interruption, experiential desire will return.  In the words of British alpinist Mo Antoine, “The rat will be fed”.  Yup, the rat can be drugged or boozed or beaten into submission, but not forever.  The sooner one makes an offering, the more the attraction of traps and poison is attenuated.       

  The most troubling problems though come with offspring.  Folks whose ideas of fun raise the hair on the necks of friends and neighbors, shouldn’t be surprised when their kids call repeatedly from the ER, or after an attack by a puma in Bolivia, or from the local pokey after a night on the town. If both parents have contributed high pain thresholds, well, hold on tight.       

  Dang.  What’s wrong with staying home?  Couch potatoes don’t get stitches.  Everything can now be undertaken virtually.  Aristotle, for one, found field work unnecessary.  He figured that everything could be worked out in one’s head.       

  No truth in virtual.  Ask Galileo.  Or climber Barry Blanchard who wrote of setting off on an adventure:  “I felt as though I was pushing at the door of a dangerous radiant, cathedral”.  That’s where will be found the metaphysics of light.