Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog

Today, on this last day of 2009, it is with great enthusiasm and reverence that The Mountaineering Review hereby inaugurates a momentous year-end award.  The purpose of the award is to recognize the best mountaineering blog of the previous year.  We at The Mountaineering Review  felt it important to name the award after someone whose integrity and accomplishments exemplify the award's significance.  Accordingly, we have chosen to name the award the Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog.



Dr. Cook's infamous 1906 photo of Mt. McKinley's summit

Since The Mountaineering Review is itself a mountaineering blog, there has been some understandable concern regarding procedural impartiality.  To address these concerns, we have decided to publish the multi-step process which was followed to pick this year's winner.  The reader will notice that if these steps are followed, there is simply no room for subjective bias.  Here are the steps:

(1) Recall to mind some mountaineering blogs.
(2) Discuss those mountaineering blogs.
(3) Give the award to The Mountaineering Review.

As you can see, if the three steps above are followed, there is no way that the arbitrary whims of judges can affect the outcome.  It is a purely objective process of which Dr. Frederick Albert Cook would surely approve.

So, without further hesitation, it is a great privilege to announce this year's winner of the Dr. Frederick Albert Cook Award for Best Mountaineering Blog.  The winner is . . . The Mountaineering Review!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Hair-Raising Day on Mt. Baldy

Wimping out low on Mt. Williamson on Sunday, December 20 left me with some unexpected free time. As a frequent (possibly obsessive) browser and sometime contributor to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board, I had been monitoring the growing enthusiasm surrounding a winter climb of Mt. Baldy being organized by MC Reinhardt. The outing was scheduled for Wednesday, December 23 and the weather forecast looked great. I posted some non-sense about The Mountaineering Review wanting me to cover the increasingly publicized climb, and MC said "come along". So I did.

I was looking forward to a relatively relaxed and sociable outing, though anything involving mountaineering boots, crampons, and an ice axe can only be so relaxed. At 3:30 AM my alarm sounded, and before too long I was motoring north toward the San Gabriel Mountains listening to Jon Krakauer's new book about Pat Tillman. At 5:30, I was the first to arrive at the blustery Manker Flat parking area. Shortly after 6:00, our scheduled start time, nine of us began plodding up the gated road toward the ski hut trail.

 
On the Ski Hut Trail

Chatting amiably with Shin, I suddenly had the feeling I was being ambushed by a bear. Turning around, I saw the tenth and final member of our party, Jeff Scofield, running up the trail in full winter attire. From that point, I pulled up the rear and met everyone at the ski hut. There we snacked and strapped on crampons, noted the windy and icy conditions in the bowl, and decided to follow the buried trail instead of climbing the bowl.
 
 
Traversing below the bowl

I was the first to set off across the bottom of the bowl and was promptly blasted in the face with spindrift. The snow on the steep forested slope rising from the bottom of the bowl to the south ridge was mostly consolidated, as it was on the rest of the route. Somewhere on that slope I crossed paths with Sara Berghoff, who, as it turns out, is a guide for Sierra Mountaineering International. Sara and I chatted for a while until strong winds on the upper stretch of the south ridge made walking, let alone talking, difficult. At that point on the ridge, everyone retreated to their own private worlds, cocooned inside balaclavas, hats, and hoods.
 
 
For the final few hundred yards, with the wind blowing at an estimated 30-40 mph, I followed a pattern. First, locate the next tree, which was not hard to do, because there was only ever one. Second, force my way to that tree through the wind trying to stay balanced. Third, take a few breaths at the tree and repeat.
 
 
At the last tree, I found Shin and Bob Masucci laying prostrate after returning from what they said was a considerably windier summit. Deciding that it would be more enjoyable to go to the summit with somebody else, I waited for the next hiker who happened to be Sara. Sara and I pushed our way up the final one hundred feet and upon reaching the summit plateau were blasted by a steady wind in the 50-60 mph range (according to my crude estimate).
 
 
Sara on the summit

They must have felt like they were missing out on something, because before too long Shin and Bob were back! And this time they brought Norma Ryan, Tracie, Blake Miller, and Ron. We stayed up there for about fifteen minutes, doing everything in our power to just remain upright.
 

Me on the summit

Trying to emulate Maurice Herzog on the first ascent of Annapurna, Norma let her glove blow away. Blake (I think) and I gave chase. After a few misses, Blake expertly lanced the glove with his ski pole, falling flat on his side in the process. With Blake out of commission, I unskewered the glove and triumphantly returned it to Norma, taking full credit while Blake brushed himself off. Alas, it was time to go, and just when I thought everyone was starting down, I turned in astonishment to see Sara striking her signature summit pose during a brief lapse in the wind.

About 500 vertical feet below the summit, we encountered MC and Jeff, who had ascended a chute in the bowl. Somewhere around there, I also caught up with Bob. Our conversation quickly jumped from climbing, to Kilimanjaro, to Amsterdam, to me alluding to things I did in Amsterdam, to me quickly regretting those allusions when moments later I learned that Bob was a retired police officer. But as irony would have it, it was Bob who was being arrested seconds later – self-arrested, that is, with his ice axe after a sudden slip.

By the time I reached the bottom of the bowl, I was really looking forward to having a snack at the ski hut. Because of the high winds, we had kept putting off our food break. But the food break would have to wait even longer. A little earlier I had thought I heard some yelling, but chocked it up to the wind playing tricks on me. Crossing the bottom of the wind-blasted bowl, Sara and I saw three guys standing about fifty feet uphill. Yelling above the wind, one of the hikers asked a question which surprised me:

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["Seltzer?! Why can't they just get water out of the stream?"] "What?"

Hiker: "Do you have any seltzer?"

Me: ["What the hell is wrong with these guys?"] "Seltzer?!"

Hiker: "Do you have a cell phone? A climber just tumbled all the way down the bowl and she is injured."

Me: ["Oh.  He said 'cell phone', not 'seltzer'."]

It was about 1:30 PM. Sara immediately began ascending the slope. As I was dropping my pack, I noted that our fun day in the snow had now transitioned into something serious. Fishing out my cell phone, I made repeated attempts to call 911 without success. Leaving my pack on the ground, I too began heading up the slope. After a few steps, I saw Sara and a guy assisting a woman down the slope. They were moving very slowly. As I approached the woman, I saw that her face was covered with abrasions and the skin showing through her ripped clothing was all red. She seemed self-conscious about her exposed hips, so I averted my eyes. I later learned that she had tumbled like a rag doll down the entire face of Baldy bowl – roughly 1,000 vertical feet.


Baldy Bowl

The ski hut was only one hundred yards away, but it was locked. The injured woman, Natalie, was laid down in the doorway. Her friend Ian and a solo climber named Mike, who had descended the bowl to help, were making Natalie comfortable. Meanwhile, Sara began very sweetly, but deliberately and thoroughly, checking Natalie's condition. [You'll recall that Sara is a professional mountain guide.] Bob arrived a few minutes later and immediately began helping Sara perform first aid. Within a short time, Sara had emerged as Natalie's primary caregiver and confidant, while Bob had begun thinking about everything that needed to happen and initiating those things that were not already happening. [You'll recall that Bob is a retired police officer. I didn't mention that he worked in the homicide division for ten years.]

All told, there were probably twenty people in the vicinity of the ski hut. Since there was no cell phone reception at or near the ski hut, about six people headed down to get cell phone reception or initiate a rescue in some other way. In the meantime, Natalie had become very cold and was shivering uncontrollably. She also was unable to walk and looked quite scared. I offered her my down jacket and foot warmers. Other people contributed a variety of items. After Ian and Mike were unable to block a strong draft coming from below the doorway, Natalie was moved to the flat ground behind the ski hut. At that point, I handed over the emergency bivouac bag that I had carried with me on every hike for the past several years but never used.

After a dozen failed attempts to call 911, I blurted out that we should start blowing whistles. Sara immediately started blowing hers. As I worked my way through ten long whistles, I remembered the last time I had blown that whistle. It was ten years ago. My father had just taken a fatal fall on Long's Peak. Starting to choke up, I suppressed the distracting thought and focused on helping Natalie. Bob approached and looked me in the eye. Did he not like my whistling? Was it disturbing Natalie? Bob wasn't sure that the people descending the mountain would reach the search and rescue people in a timely manner. He explained that there needed to be absolute certainty that a rescue would be mounted. He asked me to run down the mountain, drive to the fire station in Baldy Village, and explain the situation to someone there. I was descending within one minute. The time was roughly 3:00 PM.

I ran as much and as fast as I could. My main motivating thought was, "I don't want Natalie to end up like my father". The one thing I could do at that point was to get down the mountain as fast as possible, so that is what I focused on doing. Once the snow and ice petered out, I took my crampons, jacket and hat off as fast as possible and kept running. When I got to the dirt road, I stuffed my glasses, which kept slipping down my nose, in a pocket and took off running even faster. Near the waterfall, I confronted three guys wearing large yellow jackets. They were either tourists in extremely unfashionable raingear or first responders. Thankfully, they were the latter. Someone had contacted 911. I relayed some info Bob had asked me to pass on, and they told me to convey it to the guys in the trucks near the waterfall. One piece of news that seemed to surprise some of the personnel was that the ski hut was locked. I volunteered to help, but they simply, and understandably, wanted the professionals to take over.

I lingered near the waterfall for about one hour, gazing up toward the ski hut wondering how things were going. During that time, a helicopter made several passes of the ski hut, but eventually flew off. As it turns out, Blake, Bob, Ian, Mike, and Sara constructed a makeshift litter and hauled Natalie part of the way down the trail. The search and rescue people arrived in small waves, and it was not until around 8:00 PM that Blake, Bob, and Sara were relieved of duty. At around 8:30 PM, Natalie was airlifted to a hospital.


Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: Natalie is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Friday, December 25. Merry Christmas.


Sara, Bob, and Blake: the three members of our group who stayed with Natalie until she was in safe hands

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Successful Winter Ascent of Mt. Williamson?

Ed Viesturs is fond of saying that his biggest failure as a mountaineer was summitting K2. His instincts were telling him that conditions were too dangerous, but he continued climbing regardless. Though Viesturs failed on K2, by his logic we succeeded on Mt. Williamson by listening to our instincts and turning around far, far below the summit.

At 14,375 feet, Mt. Williamson is the second highest peak in California and the sixth highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. Unlike the slightly higher Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson does not have a paved road ascending its lower flanks. Instead, climbers must make do with a dirt road that skirts the bottom of the mountain, roughly 8,500 feet below the summit. Complicating matters further, Mt. Williamson is "closed" for much of the year to protect its Bighorn Sheep population.


 
Mt. Williamson

Browsing around aimlessly for something to climb in late December, I was contacted by Ryan Griswold. Ryan had seen some of my posts on the Whitney Portal Store Message Board. Though he didn't show his hand immediately, Ryan, as it turns out, has a mild obsession with trying to climb Mt. Williamson in wintry conditions. He had already made three attempts (though he doesn't count one of them because it was so futile). Ryan was particularly keen on trying to climb the East Ridge, which splits the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek. That portion of the mountain is only "open" from December 15-January 1 and April 15-May 15.

Having never attempted Mt. Williamson, I busied myself with researching the eastern routes. I found descriptions and reports documenting the routes up the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek, including lots of complaining about the lower sections thereof, but nothing about the East Ridge. Having twice attempted the East Ridge, Ryan was optimistic about its feasibility. So I went back to studying photos and satellite images until I was sufficiently confident that we could traverse the ridge to a particular saddle and then cross into the cirque above the South Fork of Bairs Creek. Committing to the trip, we settled on an itinerary: camp at the trailhead on Saturday (December 19), ascend and traverse the East Ridge on Sunday, summit on Monday (the first day of winter), and return to the cars on Tuesday (or Monday if possible).

After driving my wife and kids to the Santa Ana airport on Wednesday, I began three full days of preparing for Mt. Williamson. The first order of business was to procure a pair of snowshoes. Having moved to Orange County from New York a few months ago, I didn't know where to start. After groping around on the internet for awhile, I landed at REI Santa Ana. Discouraged by the price of new snowshoes, I bought some other odds and ends instead, including some freeze-dried Mountain House meals.

Ryan was planning to eat his freeze-dried camp dinners right out of the bag, and I thought that sounded like a good idea. However, I had never done that before, so a test run was in order. But first, there was the matter of the stove, which had lain dormant in its stuff sack for far too long. Truth be told, the last time I went backpacking was 2002. After locating my MSR Whisperlite stove and fuel bottles, I discovered that it didn't work. Unfolding the manual, which was thoroughly smeared with black soot, I found the troubleshooting section and began disassembling the pump. One hour later, after cleaning the filthy pump, the stove roared to life and quickly boiled a pot of water. The Mountain House Mac'n'Cheese in a bag was a little crunchy, but not bad. At least I knew that my cooking system worked. The next two days of preparations are a blur, but the highlights were (1) renting MSR Denali snowshoes from REI and (2) spending hours preparing my three-season tent to be anchored securely to a barren, wind-blasted snowfield.

At 10:30 AM on Saturday, I began driving toward the Sierras while listening to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (which, by the way, is an amazing book). In Adelanto, home of the dangerous Brown Pride Gang, I stopped at Carl's Jr. for a sandwich and fries. About an hour later, the Coke I had consumed wanted out, so I pulled off highway 395 in the middle of nowhere. Standing there contemplating the desolation, I was surprised by several dirt bikes that suddenly popped over a hill and came screaming toward me. I walked briskly to my car, locked the door, and peeled back onto the 395.

When I pulled into the parking lot of the evocatively named Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at 3:00 PM, Ryan was standing there waving at me. After a quick introduction, we both agreed there was no time to waste and promptly proceeded to the dirt road below Mt. Williamson. I parked my mini-van at the snowy Shepherd's Pass trailhead and loaded all of my stuff into Ryan's big-wheeled Land Rover. A few miles of bumpy, snow-covered road and one stream crossing put us on the south side of the North Fork of Bairs Creek. Before too long, it was dark, we were fed, alarms were set, and both headlamps were turned off in the tent.

At 4:15 AM on Sunday morning, I was awakened by Ryan's alarm. My alarm, set for 4:00 AM, had failed to go off. By 5:45 AM, we were shouldering heavy packs over consolidated snow in the pitch black, and I had taken a risk: my snowshoes remained in the car. I had several reasons for leaving my rented snowshoes behind. First, I probably wouldn't need snowshoes for much of the long East Ridge traverse. Second, my pack was too damn heavy for the task ahead with the snowshoes on it. Third, I had read a recent report that the snow on the western side of the Sierras was surprisingly consolidated. Fourth, the snow near the road was hard. After one hour of hiking, I realized that leaving the snowshoes behind was a bad decision.


 
Ryan Griswold in his element
 
It took us about five hours to gain 2,000 feet of elevation. Though we wasted about thirty minutes on a route-finding snafu, the main problem was the snow. With almost every step, I broke through the crust immediately after weighting my boot and plunged one or two feet into soft snow. On the steeper sections, I resorted to hunching over, laying my trekking poles horizontally on the snow, and using them as handrails. Progress was extremely slow and exhausting. Every ten steps I had to stop for ten breaths. Ryan certainly moved faster and less laboriously, but not too much faster. Over five hours, he probably spent thirty minutes waiting for me.

At the 8,000 foot level, we reached a difficult section that Ryan had negotiated once before in much drier conditions. We needed to make exposed moves onto a steep couloir, which then had to be ascended for a few hundred vertical feet to a notch. This was a good place for a break. It was also a good place to assess our prospects. We had gained about 2,000 vertical feet in five hours, and had to ascend about 2,500 more in the remaining six hours of daylight. However, much of the remaining elevation gain was going to occur on a complex ridge traverse, which would involve lots of ups and downs, thus adding to the elevation gain. We definitely wanted to avoid getting benighted on the ridge and doubted we could. The decision to turn around was easy, though demoralizing. It took one hour to descend ground that had taken five hours to ascend.


 
Me at our highpoint below the couloir
 
Throughout the day, we wondered how a party of nine was doing in the South Fork of Bairs Creek. They had started up the day before and were planning to summit today. The party included Rick Kent, who I have written about on this blog. This fall, Rick climbed Mt. Whitney twice in one day from Whitney Portal (12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss) and the Cactus to Clouds trail on Mt. San Jacinto three times in one day (25,000 feet of elevation gain). Considering the nice weather, we assumed that Rick would make the summit. However, due to freezing cold and blasting spindrift, the party was forced to turn around at roughly 13,000 feet. Though I sincerely wish they could have made the summit after all that effort, I was somewhat relieved to hear that they didn't: it somehow made my stupid decision to leave the snowshoes in the car less significant.

Partially because of the climbing disaster on Mt. Hood last week, my wife was delighted to hear that my three-day expedition had ended after half a day. For the first time in a long time, she was genuinely enthused to hear all about my outing. I am sure Ed Viesturs will be similarly enthused.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Really Happened to Mallory and Irvine

Today is International Mountain Day.  There could hardly be a better time to reflect on why you climb mountains.  And when contemplating the question "Why do you climb?", you may find yourself distracted by the infamous answer attributed to George Mallory: "Because it is there."  But what exactly did Mallory mean by this cryptic quip?  Theories about his meaning are as various as theories explaining his disappearance high on Mt. Everest in 1924.

The Wildest Dream, a movie scheduled for release in 2010, promises to shed light on the enduring conundrum of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance.  However, given that the mountain featured prominently on the movie's website is not Mt. Everest, but a reversed image of Mont Blanc du Tacul in France, I wouldn't hold your breath. [Editor's note: the image was eventually switched to Mt. Everest, perhaps as a result of this article!]  In fact, you may want to take this opportunity to draw a few deep breaths, because there is a brand new theory that simultaneously deciphers Mallory's cryptic quip and explains his disappearance.  And it is a theory that The Mountaineering Review is now proud to unveil on this International Mountain Day eighty five years after Mallory and Irvine vanished.

Solving complex problems often involves challenging assumptions that have been left unchallenged.  Consider again Mallory's retort, "Because it is there".  For too long, scholars and laypersons alike have assumed that by "it" Mallory was referring to Mt. Everest.  But on this day -- a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly as "an opportunity to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life" -- it is the distinct pleasure of The Mountaineering Review to lay bare what Mallory was referring to with the word "it".  When Mallory said that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there, he did not mean that he wanted to climb Mt. Everest because Mt. Everest is there.  Rather, George Herbert Leigh Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it is there.  Yes, that's right.  Call it what you like: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, or my personal favorite, Kangchenjunga Rachyyas.   

To reiterate what has been suggested thus far, Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because he believed (or knew?) the Yeti was there.  But what light does that shed on his disappearance, you ask?  Well, if you don't want to get snow blindness, you had better put on your mountaineering goggles.  But first, a refresher on the nature and history of science is in order.  Scientific theories endeavor to explain phenomena -- that is, they try to determine what causes what.  Sometimes, when a scientist finally stumbles on the correct theory, its accuracy seems so obvious in retrospect as to render all rival theories laughably preposterous.  (Incidentally, I know all of this stuff about science because my daughter's brother's grandmother's husband's daughter is a scientist.) 

With a clearer understanding of the nature and history of science, we are now positioned to account for the heretofore mysterious disappearance of Mallory and Irvine.  As with many good scientific theories, as soon as you hear this one, it will seem so obviously correct that all other competing theories (such as the one that will no doubt be presented in The Wildest Dream) will seem, well, wild.  Ok, here it is.  You may want to take a few deep breaths.  George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) and Andrew "Sandy" Comyn Irvine (1902-1924) were killed high on the northeast ridge of Mt. Everest (also known as "Sagarmatha" by the Nepalese and "Chomolungma" by the Chinese) by something that I will discuss in a forthcoming blog entry.  I actually lost track of time and ought to be getting ready for bed.  Oh, what the hell, let's do this now: They were killed by a yeti!  That's it, you read that right.  Mallory and Irvine were killed by a yeti.  Have a look at this picture.

Having clearly articulated this intoxicating new theory about what really happened to Mallory and Irvine, a sober evaluation is required.  The history of science demonstrates that the best theories have sweeping explanatory efficacy -- that is, they not only explain the main thing you want to explain, but every other related significant detail as well.  The Yeti theory can obviously explain how Mallory and Irvine died (a yeti killed them).  But can it explain why Mallory's body was found, while Irvine's body was not found?  Yes.  The Yeti ate Irvine (because he was much younger than Mallory), but was too full to eat Mallory.  And now for the explanatory hurdle -- that one little fact that the rival theories just cannot explain.  Why was Mallory's body found with all of his personal effects intact, with one glaring exception: the photograph of his wife that Mallory planned to leave on the summit?  Quite simply, the Yeti stole it.  That is what you call explanatory efficacy.

So, there you have it.  Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest because it -- namely, the Yeti -- is there, and Mallory and Irvine were subsequently killed by that selfsame Yeti.  It should go without saying that the timing of the publication of this Yeti "theory" (one is now tempted to say Yeti "fact") could not be any worse for the producers of The Wildest Dream.  Although I'm sure the scenery will be pretty, in light of the Yeti theory, watching the movie will be like watching two teams who failed to make the playoffs in their final regular season game: ultimately, it just won't matter.

Curiously, though not surprisingly, representatives of The Wildest Dream could not be reached for comment.*

* I didn't try to reach them.   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Arbitrariness of Lists

Many mountaineers are obsessed with completing lists -- for instance, summitting every peak above a certain elevation in a particular region.  Peakbaggers aspire to climb all 12 peaks above 14,000 feet in California, all 53 peaks above 14,000 feet in Colorado, and many have died trying to summit all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters in the Himalayas.  But to me, these lists are extremely arbitrary.  What, for instance, is so important about 14,000 feet?  Why not 13,900 feet?  Or 14,100 feet?  Being cleanly divisible by 1,000 does not seem especially significant. 

The length of one foot is itself an arbitrary convention.  For whatever reason, people agreed that one foot is 12 inches, but there would have been nothing unnatural with setting it at 13 inches.  In which case, no peaks in California would reach 14,000 feet.  To make matters worse, in order for a peak to "count" as a 14er, it has to rise a certain distance above the saddle connecting it to a higher 14er.  In California, if this distance (the peak's prominence) is set at 200 feet, then Thunderbolt Peak "counts", but not if it is set at 300 feet. 

Climbing a mountain, or a lot of mountains, can be valuable in its own right.  For some reason having to do with human nature, climbing mountains that fulfill certain numerical thresholds seems to add a layer of value to the experience.  Why that is the case is a topic for further reflection.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Carlos Soria is my new mountaineering role model

Since turning 50, the Spaniard Carlos Soria has summitted nine 8,000 meter peaks.  More impressively, he climbed five of them, including K2, after turning 65, and one of them (Gasherbrum I) at age 70.  He plans to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks by age 75.  But Soria is not just obsessed with peaks rising above the arbitrary 8,000 meter threshold.  Earlier this year, he made the first ascent of Dome Kang (~7,200 meters) in the Kangchenjunga Massif.  Soria worked as a carpenter until "retiring" at 65. 

Part 1 and part 2 of the ExplorersWeb interviews

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review of "Dark Summit"

In spring 1996, over ten climbers died in a storm while climbing Mt. Everest, including the accomplished leaders of two commercial expeditions, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. The story of that terrible season was told, not without controversy, by Jon Krakauer in his best-selling book Into Thin Air. In spring 2006, over ten climbers again died climbing Mt. Everest, but this time in relatively fine weather. Nick Heil explains what went wrong in his book Dark Summit: The True Story of Mt. Everest's Most Controversial Season, published in 2008.

Though most of the action in 1996 took place on the south side of Mt. Everest, it was the north side that stole the show in 2006. There are two main reasons why climbing from the north side became more popular. First, the standard route on the south side passes through the extremely dangerous Khumbu Icefall, which is located immediately above base camp. In order to establish higher camps and acclimatize, climbers are required to play Russian roulette with the precariously balanced ice blocks in the aptly named Icefall many times over the course of an expedition. Dozens of climbers have died in the Icefall. However, there is nothing akin to the Khumbu Icefall on the north side. Second, the permit fees on the northern Chinese side are significantly lower than those on the southern Nepalese side.

After 1996, new commercial operators took root on the north side of Mt. Everest, most notably Himalayan Experience (a.k.a. Himex), run by Russell Brice. Dark Summit is in part a biography of this major player on the world's highest mountain. The achievement that catapulted Brice into the ranks of elite climbers was the first traverse, along with Harry Taylor, of the notorious pinnacles on the northeast ridge of Mt. Everest. Though they were unable to follow the relatively easy ground above the pinnacles all the way to the summit, they had negotiated terrain that killed two of the world's foremost alpinists, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker. Now, almost two decades after his groundbreaking traverse of the pinnacles, Brice was making a living guiding clients up the easier section of the northeast ridge above the pinnacles.

The world was horrified to learn that on May 15, 2006, roughly forty climbers walked by David Sharp on their way to the summit as he lay dying in the snow. Hearing that Brice had told his guides and clients to let Sharp die, much of the world was outraged. But of course, the story is much more complicated than that, and it is a merit of Heil's book that he carefully and thoroughly describes that complexity. Once that complexity is understood, one gets the sense that fingers were pointed at Brice not because he was guilty, but because aside from Mt. Everest, he was simply the biggest thing around.

For anyone interested in Mt. Everest, especially the recent commercialization thereof, this is a must read. The descriptions and analyses of the various fatalities in 2006 are illuminating, and the biographical sketch of Brice is, for me, the most engaging part of the book. The book is well-written and the opining is kept at reasonable level. The author's professionalism is evident throughout the book, as is his passion for the topic.

Addendum: Interestingly, the following note now appears on the Himex website: "As we are unable to get guaranteed access to Tibet, Himalayan Experience is currently not operating expeditions to Everest North Side. Our alternative is Everest South Side."

Another outstanding book in this genre is High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, written by Michael Kodas and published in 2008. Though it has been a year since I read this book, what I remember most is the sustained and shocking harangue against George Dijmarescu (9-time Everest summitter) and the guiding company that his Sherpa wife nominally leads.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Schooled on University Peak

This past weekend (November 21-22), I climbed Independence Peak and University Peak in the California Sierras.  The 300-mile drive into the mountains on Friday was exacerbated by two factors.  First, escaping the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area took three hours because of heavy traffic.  Second, the weather forecast was calling for a snow storm and high winds in the Sierras that night, which added a nagging uncertainty.  After twice missing the poorly marked road to Onion Valley, I began the gradual ascent in search of a bivy spot.  Not wanting to get stranded in fresh snow in the 9,200 foot Onion Valley parking lot, I parked roadside much further down and slept fitfully inside my car, which was buffetted by strong gusts all night.

Awaking at dawn on Saturday, I was glad to see that the forecasted snow storm had not materialized.  So when I pulled into Onion Valley a little while later, I saw not fresh snow on the ground, but something much more worrying: a lone figure wandering around the parking lot with a rifle.  Coming to a complete stop, I stared at the armed, camouflaged man for a full minute before concluding that he was simply a hunter -- a bear hunter, as it turned out.  Trying not to think too much about the rifle-toting man with whom I was sharing the otherwise vacant parking lot in the middle of nowhere, I slowly packed for an ascent of the West Face of Independence Peak (11,744 feet).


View of Nameless Pyramid on the trail to Robinson Lake.

I followed the trail for about one mile over occasional patches of hard, slick snow to the point where I thought the West Face route began.  Departing from the trail, I ascended a scree slope for a few hundred vertical feet until it funnelled into the broad couloir that rises over 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  The moderately angled couloir was plastered with a foot of snow that varied from hard and icy to soft and unconsolidated.  Midway up the couloir, the sound of a gunshot reminded me, somewhat disconcertingly, of the only other person in the vicinity. 


Looking down the lower half of the couloir.

Near the top, the couloir steepened into a narrow gully involving several sections of third class scrambling.  Reaching the notch on the summit ridge, I deposited my ice axe, crampons, and trekking poles, and weaved my way up the serrated, sometimes exposed, crest to the summit.  Downclimbing the third class rock in my big leather boots and descending 1,000 feet of alternatingly icy and unconsolidated snow was somewhat tedious.  Returning to my car 7.5 hours after starting, I was surprised to see that the bear hunter's car was still the only other car in the parking lot on this glorious, sunny day.      


Looking south from the summit of Independence Peak.

Having warmed up on Independence Peak, my plan for Sunday was to climb the North Face of University Peak (13,632 feet).  Since the peak is named after the University of California-Berkeley, I thought it would make sense to climb the peak with someone affiliated with UC-Berkeley.  After all, climbing the East Ridge of Mt. Russell with someone whose last name was Russell -- namely, James Russell -- had been a great success.  Thus, I recruited a post-doc from UC-Berkeley to join me.  Coincidentally, that post-doc was James Russell.

After picking up James in the town of Independence, we drove back up to Onion Valley.  Confronted with an array of bear warnings, I assured James not to worry, because the only other person camping up there had a rifle and a permit to kill bears.  Partially because of that, but also because of the regular wind blasts, I was glad to be the one sleeping in the van instead of a flimsy tent.

The day began, as many days in the mountains do, with a visit to a cold and dark pit toilet.  At dawn we were hiking up the Kearsarge Pass trail and chatting amiably about a variety of light topics, including God, mountaineering deaths, and the collapse of civilization. 


A Mt. Everest-like snow plume blowing from the summit of University Peak.

After two miles we turned left onto a side trail leading to Matlock Lake.  At the lake, we left the trail and began working our way up snowy ledges toward the unnamed lake at 11,400 feet.  The snow was hard and steep enough to justify strapping on crampons. 


Matlock Lake [Photo by James Russell]

Every few steps, we would break through the crust and plunge annoyingly through a foot or two of soft powder covering leg-twisting rocks and branches.  After about thirty minutes of this, we arrived at the barren, cold and very windy lake which marks the bottom of the North Face of University Peak.

After another 15 minutes of crashing through unconsolidated snow, we began ascending a moderately angled couloir filled with thankfully firm snow.


Looking down at the bottom of the first couloir.  [Photo by James Russell]

We zigzagged our way up for perhaps 1,000 vertical feet, feeling the exposure grow with every step.


As the couloir petered out, we traversed a rib of talus on the right into a broader couloir that extended another 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  It was at this traverse that we unwittingly deviated from the standard North Face route and into (what I now know to be) the North Couloir. 


More zigzagging up firm, moderately angled snow led to considerably steeper chutes that curved to the right of the summit.  Trying unsuccessfully to avoid the steepening and somewhat less consolidated snow, I monkeyed around on rocks that were steeper than they looked before resigning myself to the snow.  I dithered long enough to lose sight of James, who was climbing at a steady, confident pace.  The final hundred feet of snow was steep (and exposed) enough that I had to face directly into the slope and felt compelled to plunge the shaft of my ice axe to the hilt when it was not stopped short by underlying rock with a reverberating bang.  At this point, I was feeling very tired and had to rest after every few steps.  I was quite relieved when the angle finally relented and I was able to walk onto a friendly saddle and sit down. 


View of Kearsarge Lakes from the North Couloir.

With James nowhere to be seen, I began slowly meandering up the steep, rocky ridge.  Skirting the first pinnacle on the right, I spotted James at the notch between it and a second pinnacle.  James indicated that he had been unable to surmount the first pinnacle and would have a look at the second one instead.  Neither of us knew where the actual summit was.  Moments later, James exclaimed that he was on the summit.  Dropping my pack, I scrambled up to meet him.  The summit register provided sufficient confirmation that we were on the tippy top. 

James on the summit (from his camera).

The wind that had been harrassing us most of the day was strong enough that I could not keep my balance on the summit.  Battered by the wind on the small, airy summit, we left after signing in and snapping a few photos.  It was around this time that I announced my intention not to descend our ascent route.  That final stretch of snow in the North Couloir was just too steep and exposed for my tastes.  Fortunately, I knew of an easier way down -- namely, the second class Southeast Ridge route.  Having felt perfectly comfortable on our ascent route, James had reservations about descending an unknown route.  But my description of the descent route put his mind at ease.  However, there was one conspicuous omission from my description: I neglected to mention the boulder field which is usually described with adjectives like "tedious" and "interminable".

From the summit, we traversed and descended sand and boulders to what we thought was University Pass, but which was actually the top of the "shortcut variation".  Here we re-donned our crampons while being blasted by wind and stepped into the 45-degree couloir that drops about 700 feet into the aforementioned boulder field.  The snow was (thankfully) in perfect condition, making for a fast and easy descent (though I was ready to self-arrest with my ice axe in a heartbeat).

Our descent unfortunately slowed to a crawl in the boulder field.  Weaving our way over and around boulders, we repeatedly plunged through the snow and crashed jarringly onto variously angled rocks.  One such rock sliced right through James' gaiter and pant, leaving a gash in his leg.  Though we desperately wanted to get through the boulder field by nightfall, we found ourselves stumbling around off-trail by headlamp for the next two hours.  Well below Robinson Lake, we finally found the trail and followed it back to the car 13.5 hours after setting out.


University Peak on the right with the "shortcut variation" couloir in the upper middle of the picture.  From the bottom of the couloir, our descent followed the drainage in the right half of the picture. 

Turning the car key, the engine started and then promptly stopped.  I said something like, "huh, this has never happened before".  James shot me a worried glance.  Fortunately, the car started on the next attempt, and we rode happily to Lone Pine, where I returned James to his girlfriend.  At 12:30 AM, I made two wrong turns in a labyrinth of detours near Los Angeles, started feeling panicky in my sleep-deprived state, but got back on track.  By 2:00 AM I had transformed my mini-van from bivy mode to kid-carrying mode and was poised and ready to get Esther to pre-school seven hours later.       


Our route up the North Couloir of University Peak.  [Photo by Craig Jackson] 


Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain"

This book is the second collaborative work by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts.  Viesturs was the first American to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks (and he did them all without supplemental oxygen) and Roberts is a prolific author of mountaineering literature, in addition to being the author of several harrowing first ascents in Alaska.  The book was prompted, or at least made more relevant, by the disaster high on K2 in 2008, in which eleven climbers were killed after the partial collapse of the notorious serac above the crux "bottleneck" section.  The dangerous traverse below this serac is featured on the front cover of the book.  When this incident was first reported, I remember thinking that someone would write a book about it.  This is that book.  Well, sort of.

K2 (the book) switches back and forth between first-hand account/analysis of climbing "the savage mountain" and scholarly history of the many disasters that have unfolded on its flanks in the last century.  The rigorous historical narrative ends, seemingly prematurely, at 1986.  Even though Viesturs is listed as the primary author (the book is by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts), it seems obvious which author wrote which section.  Having read several of Roberts' books, I recognized his characteristic style throughout: lots of quotations (especially from personal journals), dense and careful prose, and the occasional sesquipedalian.  Roberts' style is epitomized in his eye-opening, myth-busting True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna.  Almost by default, I assumed that the sections in the book that were more casual and conversational were penned by Viesturs.

Given Roberts' strong presence in the book, I kept forgetting that Viesturs was the primary author.  Thus, when the writing was in the first person, I imagined Roberts' doing the talking -- that is, until the person talking would mention climbing K2 or some other Himalayan peak, and then I would realize that Viesturs was the one talking.  Another problem with the book is that I experienced deja vu several times, most notably in the chapters on the 1939 and 1954 expeditions.  The writing about the respective American and Italian expeditions sounded too familiar.  I couldn't help but think that I had read something very similar in one of Roberts' other books.  He does seem to have a habit of repeating himself from one book to the next.

Despite the aforementioned problems, K2 is a captivating and enlightening read.  Viestur's unparalleled analyis of the perils of high altitude climbing is educational.  For instance, throughout the book Viestur's extols the virtues of "wanding" routes -- that is, placing lightweight, bamboo gardening wands at regular intervals through sections where routefinding could be difficult in a whiteout -- and provides several studies of cases in which climbers could probably have avoided fatalities had they bothered to wand the route.  Having read this book, I will be much more inclined to visit a lawn & garden center before venturing onto a big, glaciated mountain.     

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crazy for "Crazy for the Storm"

Most people try mountaineering by choice, but others are forced into it by circumstance.  Such was the case for Norman Ollestad.  In February 1979, a small plane carrying the 11-year old boy crashed into Ontario Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California.  The injured boy found himself perched precariously in a steep, icy chute in the upper reaches of a drainage just north/northwest of the summit.  Reluctantly leaving his dead father and pilot behind, Norman and Sandra, his father's girlfriend, began a terrifying, inch-by-inch descent of the steep chute, roughly 3,000 feet above Chapman Ranch.  Unfortunately, after descending just a few feet, Sandra slipped and plummeted about 2,000 feet to her death.  What followed for the young Norman was a harrowing descent that called upon every piece of mountain wisdom imparted by his father over the years.

Crazy for the Storm, written by Norman Ollestad, is primarily a book about surviving a plane crash, but it is also about the complex relationship between a boy and his larger-than-life father.  Norman's father was an extremely interesting and motivating figure.  He once wrote a tell-all, insider's tale about Hoover's FBI and routinely coaxed Norman beyond his comfort level on surf and turf to find diamonds in the rough.    

This book is riveting from start to finish.  I was at the edge of my seat not only during the sections chronicling Norman's survival epic, but also during the sections about surviving a broken family.  Some of the most suspenseful moments in the book occur when heated interactions involving his tempestuous stepfather rise to the combustion point.      

Now I must make a confession.  I didn't read this book.  Yes, you read that right.  Just to be clear, I'll say it again: I didn't read this book.  Instead, I listened to the audiobook, which is read by Norman Ollestad himself.  Norman's spoken reading is excellent.  There are subtle changes in his tone throughout the book which greatly enhance the listening experience.  For instance, when speaking as the young Norman, he assumes a slightly sullen and bratty tone.  However, when talking about being a father himself, he sounds more like his indomitable father.

Norman returned to the remote (and elusive) crash site in 2006 and published his memoir thirty years after the crash.  His amazing recollection of details indicates that he is still reeling from the impact.

Friday, November 13, 2009

First Snow of the Season in SoCal

Still reading Crazy for the Storm, primarily about a plane crash on Ontario Peak, I couldn't resist the urge to get back on that mountain for the second time in a week.  But which route should I take?  I wasn't about to go groveling in Falling Rock Canyon again, and the standard trail was not even worth considering.  So I turned my head slightly to the left of Falling Rock Canyon and found an unnamed ridge for which no information was available on the internet.  Satellite imagery indicated some precipitous sections that looked questionable.  It was perfect.   

Arriving at the Icehouse Canyon parking lot before dawn, I noticed that something didn't look right high up on Mt. Baldy.  After a regrettable experience in the dark public restroom, I focused more closely on Mt. Baldy and came to the conclusion that the upper slopes were covered in the first snow of the season.  Hmmm.  Would Ontario Peak be covered in snow?  I looked at my sneakers.

At about 6:00 AM, I started hiking up Icehouse Canyon.  I turned right into Fir Draw, which I followed for only about 100 yards before turning right and ascending a scree slope to gain the steep, sharp ridgeline.  I then followed the ridgeline straight up to Peak 8688, just east of the main summit of Ontario Peak.  I summitted at 9:00 AM after roughly 3,700 feet of elevation gain.  By 11:15 AM, I was comfortably seated in the public restroom back at the parking lot.

Looking down at the lower third of the ridge.

Looking up at the middle third of the ridge.

Looking down at the crux of the ridge (about halfway up).

Mt. Baldy viewed from the upper section of the ridge.

Wasteland below the summit of Ontario Peak.

 View from the summit of Peak 8688.

This ridge is excellent.  I think it is better than Sugarloaf Ridge and possibly even Register Ridge.  The crux of the route is the 3rd class, 20-foot, narrow gully pictured above, which is surmounted by repeated stemming on mostly secure rock.  There is also some rock scrambling lower on the ridge which probably rises to 3rd class as well.

A ridge this good needs a name.  Two names that immediately came to mind were "The Sam Page Victory Ridge" and the "Sam Page Conquered This Ridge".  However, upon reflection, I came to the opinion that these names are rather imperialistic, and perhaps even a bit self-aggrandizing.  You are of course entitled to your own opinion.  Regardless, I have tentatively settled on the name of "Falling Fir Ridge" for the following reasons.  First, the ridge is in between Falling Rock Canyon and Fir Draw.  Second, as depicted in the image above, there are many fallen trees at the top of the ridge.  The name would be perfect were the fallen trees fir trees, but Wifey PhD thinks that they are pine trees, which she insists are not fir trees.  Well, as Steven Wright says: "You can't have everything.  Where would you put it?"      

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Crazy for the Grovel

This past Saturday, whilst other SoCal hikers were doing laps on the Cactus to Clouds trail, I set my sights a little lower.  Inspired by reading Crazy for the Storm, an autobiography primarily about surviving a plane crash on Ontario Peak, I thought I would have my own (hopefully less exciting) adventure on Ontario Peak.  Incidentally, Crazy for the Storm is an excellent read, in part because you are never sure if the author will live or die.  After all, the book could literally be ghostwritten.

My plan for the day was to grovel up the Sugarloaf Ridge route on Ontario Peak. Turnout for the hike was less than desired, but I set off alone anyway from the Icehouse Canyon parking lot at 6:00 AM. After about 15 minutes of walking on the well-maintained trail, I headed off-trail up the aptly named Falling Rock Canyon.


While I was picking my way up Falling Rock Canyon, I heard the sound of, um, falling rocks. Their source was the little guy pictured below, who I think was a Bighorn Sheep lamb.


I knew that at some point I had to climb out of the canyon to the right toward the saddle between Sugarloaf Peak and Ontario Peak.  I almost got suckered into a steep, narrow chute, but continued to a broad scree slope leading up to a clearly discernible saddle a few hundred feet above.


Ascending the scree slope was not nearly as bad as it could have been, as the rocks in a shallow chute on climber's left are larger and mostly stable.  I have certainly experienced worse slopes in the San Gabriel Mountains.  From the perfectly shaped saddle, I followed the ridge -- which is comparable to Register Ridge in terms of distance, angle, and quality -- to a sandy, brushy plateau.


Turning around on the plateau, one is confronted with an outstanding view of Mt. Baldy.  Just above the plateau, a maintained trail is intersected and followed west to the summit.




From the summit of Ontario Peak, I found myself scanning the slopes below for remnants of the 1979 plane crash, wondering which steep, icy chute Norman Ollestad was forced to descend.

Back on the saddle between Ontario Peak and Sugarloaf Peak, I found a certain Aerosmith song running through my head before realizing why.  The tune energized me to confront the scree slope descent, which is described as "a real ankle bender. Really loose, and about as fun as a trip to the dentist."  To my delight, the scree skiing from the saddle down to Falling Rock Canyon was excellent.  I descended about 500 vertical feet on soft sand in about two minutes.  The trick is to descend about 100 feet skiers left of the line of ascent.  But just when I was starting to think that the entire Sugarloaf Ridge route was a classic, Falling Rock Canyon began seriously aggravating me.  The rocks in the canyon are loose, and on several occasions I stepped on an ostensibly secure rock which shifted, resulting in painful ankle abrasions.  One stable-looking rock turned out to be a trap door through which I fell about two jarring feet.  Because of the loose nature of the rock on the lower half of this route, it is probably best done solo or with at most one other person. 

Returning to the parking lot at 11:30 AM, I once again tainted an aesthetic experience in the mountains by visiting the public restroom. 


The northern aspect of Ontario Peak (8,693 feet).  The Sugarloaf Ridge route is clearly visible to the trained eye.

Monday, November 9, 2009

25,000 feet of elevation gain . . . in one day

On Saturday, three hikers each ascended the notorious Cactus to Clouds trail three consecutive times.  The trail begins near Palm Springs, CA and climbs roughly 8,400 vertical feet to a tram station on Mt. San Jacinto.  The hikers started at various times between 2:00-3:00 AM and rode the tram back down after each ascent.  They finished their last ascent at 9:45 PM, seconds after the final tram had descended.  Alas, smooth talking prevailed and the tram operators graciously arranged one more ride for the weary hikers.

News of this feat has been received enthusiastically.

Sources:
Mt. San Jacinto Outdoor Recreation Forum
Rick Kent's Photos

Friday, November 6, 2009

A tussle with Mt. Russell

Sure, Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous* United States, but after climbing it twice (or even twice in one day), one begins to look around for other challenges.  What one sees when one looks around from the summit of Mt. Whitney is the precipitous southern wall of Mt. Russell.  At 14,086 feet, several hundred feet lower than Mt. Whitney, Mt. Russell is sometimes dismissed as just another fourteener in the Sierras.  But R. J. Secor's description of the peak can get one's attention: "This is the finest peak in the Mount Whitney region.  It is high and beautiful, and none of its routes are easy".  It got my attention.  In early October, I recruited several people to join me for a Sunday climb of Mt. Russell's classic East Ridge.

As we approached the weekend, the weather forecasts got progressively worse.  By Friday, the forecasts for the Sierras called for 50 mph winds with gusts up to 100 mph on Sunday.  That was enough for most people in our party to cancel.  But I had not been to the Sierras in over six years, so it was going to take a lot more than talk of 100 mph gusts to discourage me. 

On Saturday, I made the 5-hour drive to Lone Pine from Orange County and picked up my reserved day-hiking permit.  I then drove up to Whitney Portal at ~8,300 feet and found my reserved campsite at the full campground.  To my surprise, the two guys in the adjacent camp site were also from Orange County.  Not wanting to drive all the way back down to Lone Pine for dinner, I thought I would see if the Whitney Portal Store was still open, and if so, have a look at the menu. Wanting a solid and "safe" meal the night before my big outing, I was a little wary about eating a burger and fries at the unfamiliar Store.  Fortunately, the meal was perfectly satisfying and filling.  In addition, I sat around the communal table and chatted with several interesting people (more from Orange County), including Larry Goldie, the owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides, who had just completed a 12-hour car-to-car ascent of Mt. Whitney's East Buttress.

Returning to my campsite after dark, I was glad to finally meet James Russell, who would be accompanying me the following day.  James Russell, as it turns out, is a celebrated young scientist back home who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UC-Berkeley.  And his last name certainly augured well for our climb.  After a horrendous night's sleep, in which I laid wide awake all night listening anxiously to the regular jet engine-like roar of the wind gusts, I stumbled out of my tent at 4:00 AM and began packing up.  By 5:00 AM, we were hiking up the trail by the light of our headlamps.

The first major obstacle we encountered was the dangerous Ebersbacher Ledges.  Knowing that the ledges were narrow, precipitous, and hard to find in the dark, we had done our research and easily spotted the crucial entry point by headlamp.  Thereafter, we moved carefully and had no trouble on the ledges.



Happy times near Clyde Meadow before the sand/scree slog.

The second major obstacle was the dreaded scree slope which begins in earnest at around 11,200 feet and eases at around 12,800 feet.  The drudgery of this steep sand slog exceeded all expectations.  Since most steps up this slope are followed by a downward slide of half a step, it really involves about 2,400 vertical feet of unrelenting misery.  The only positive experience I had on this seemingly interminable slope was the realization that the wind had dissipated and we probably had a good shot at the summit.



Above the sand/scree slog with the East Ridge of Mt. Russell in the background.

After the steep sand/scree slope, it was a relatively quick and easy walk to the saddle between Mt. Russell and Mt. Carillon, where one is simultaneously confronted with the sheer north face of Mt. Russell and the surprisingly huge Tulainyo Lake (alleged to be the highest lake in the United States, or something like that).  Upon reaching the saddle and being promptly overwhelmed visually by the dark blue of the vast lake, which contrasts sharply with the prevailing tan color of the surrounding landscape, James exclaimed, "What the hell is that?"



Tulainyo Lake

By this point, we were both very tired, but glad to get off the sand and onto some solid granite.  The solid granite of the east ridge quickly narrows to only a few feet in places, with terrible exposure on either side.  The east ridge is rated 3rd class, which means that (1) you need to use your hands to climb, (2) there are always good hand holds if you stay on route, and (3) the consequences of falling are such that you wouldn't want to fall.  In many places on the east ridge, the consequences of falling are such that you really, really wouldn't want to fall. 



The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the Russell/Carillon Col.

Upon arriving at the first really steep and exposed section, it occurred to me that we might not make the summit.  It looked sketchy and I was tired.  But we picked our way along the right side of the ridge and, although the exposure held my attention, the climbing was quite easy.  Further along the ridge, and at about the point where I was quite ready to be done with the ridge, I arrived at the crux.  Staring at this narrow and frighteningly exposed section of the ridge, I despairingly thought it was impassable without taking more risk than I was willing to take.  After all, I am a family man.  But my despair was unwarranted as moments later I followed James around to the right on what seemed to be easier ground. 



The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the summit.

After a few false summits and many short breaks to catch my breath, we stepped onto the summit at around 2:30 PM.  I was exhausted and my summit portrait, which I will not post because I look considerably less happy than someone is supposed to look in such a place, shows it.  Somehow James had the energy for exuberant summit poses, even though I suspected that he was similarly drained.



Russell on Russell.

Given how steep and exposed our ascent of the ridge was, I had reservations about descending.  But we picked our way along the ridge and before too long we were back to the safety of the sand.  My expectation of a quick descent did not come to fruition, as James experienced constant cramping in his legs that made it temporarily impossible for him to straighten his legs after bending them.  Some hours later, after negotiating the Ebersbacher Ledges in the fading light, I became the slow poke as my new shoes, which were one size too small, began crushing my toes.

Returning to the trailhead at around 7:30 PM -- after ascending and descending almost 6,000 vertical feet over the past 14+ hours -- neither of us had the luxury of relaxing.  I still had to make the ~5 hour drive back to Orange County and James had to figure out how to get back to San Francisco since his ride had (for reasons I won't get into here) left without him.  After contemplating a variety of scenarios for getting home, some involving me doing things I really didn't want to do, James opted to stay at the new hostel in Lone Pine, which is owned and operated by the owners of the Whitney Portal Store.

It pleases me to say that this story has a happy ending as I managed to get my daughter to pre-school (almost) on time the next morning and James made it back home the following night.  Now for the moral of the story: climbing a mountain with someone whose last name is identical to the mountain's name is a recipe for success.

*Word Challenge: Use "contiguous" in a sentence that has nothing to do with the United States.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two much on Mt. Whitney

At ~14,500 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak not only in the California Sierras, but in the contiguous United States as well.  With a paved road leading to a trailhead at over 8,300 feet, and a well-maintained trail free of snow for several months a year carved all the way to the summit, Mt. Whitney is ascended hundreds of times annually.  The peak is often done as a day hike, either by the 22-mile (round trip) trail or by off-trail routes, such as the 3rd class Mountaineer's Route.  Once upon a time, when I was fit and well-acclimated from living at around 8,000 feet in Mammoth Lakes, I hiked the trail in 11 hours round trip.  That same summer, I took three days to do the Mountaineer's Route.  Suffice it to say, climbing to the top of Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal and back again in one day is challenging for most mortals. 



But climbing Mt. Whitney once in one day is not enough for some.  Recently, several contributors to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board have chronicled climbing to the summit twice in one day from the trailhead at Whitney Portal.  Such a feat involves around 12,500 feet of elevation gain (and, of course, 12,500 feet of elevation loss).  One of the mountaineers, Rick Kent, reported taking about 17 hours for the double-header, while Richard Piotrowski reported taking 20 hours.  Even before their Whitney doubles, these peakbaggers had become notorious in the regional mountaineering community for their outlandish outings.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.  It will also be interesting to see what kinds of harebrained outings their Whitney doubles inspire among their peers.      

Monday, November 2, 2009

Off the beaten track on Mt. Baldy

Yesterday I dragged a former college roomate, who I had not seen or even spoken to in 16 years, to the summit of Mt. Baldy (10,064 feet) in southern California.  Fortunately, he has taken good care of himself over the years, so slogging up and down 4,000 vertical feet before noon was no problem.  Aside from catching up with Eric, the highlight was seeing a group of about six bighorn sheep, including some lambs, meandering around Baldy Bowl.


Mt. Baldy, a.k.a. Mt. San Antonio, is one of the big three alpine summits in southern California, the others being Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto.  Most hikers heading for the summit of Mt. Baldy opt for either the Ski Hut Trail or the Devil's Backbone Trail, but there are excellent alternatives that avoid the crowds. 


The Register Ridge route, which we ascended yesterday, follows a steep, rough path for over 2,000 vertical feet between the beginning of the Ski Hut Trail and the middle of the Devil's Backbone Trail.  The path is not maintained and disappears in some of the rockier sections.


Though we saw about one hundred people during our descent of the Ski Hut Trail, we saw nobody on our ascent of Register Ridge.  In fact, in the six times I have been on Register Ridge, I have seen no one but my companions.