Whether one is a casual mountaineer or climber, or a veteran outdoor enthusiast, chances are you’ve heard of Ueli Steck, or as he is generally known, “the Swiss Machine”. With two Piolet d’Or Awards, innumerable fastest known ascent times, and the recent accolade from National Geographic in 2015 as one of their “Adventurers of the Year”, Ueli Steck has a list of honors and accomplishments that most people can only dream of. Recently, in an interval between climbing trips, Ueli was touring the United States in connection with the American Alpine Club’s 2016 National Athlete Tour. During the tour’s stop in San Diego, I was fortunate to sit down for a few minutes with Ueli during his day and quickly learned that being a professional alpinist calls for busy days both in the backcountry and in urban settings. Prior to chatting with me, Ueli had arrived in San Diego late the prior night before from his previous tour destination, and had spent the day climbing, getting his hair cut, eating tacos at San Diego’s well-known Lucha Libre, and of course preparing for his nightly presentation and the next stop on the tour. Despite his hectic schedule, we were able to have a relaxed conversation about mountaineering and travel, and where he sees the sport going over the next couple of years.
Amongst the general public, Mount Everest will always be “the mountain” – a place that is fascinating and amazing. However, among mountaineers, “the mountain” will always be K2. This is no slight to Everest – it will always be one of the seven summits, and it will always be the world’s tallest mountain. But in 2015, while Mount Everest remains a challenge because it is the tallest mountain on the planet, it also is a place where many of the challenges have been minimized due to the proliferation of professional guide services, and “mountain tourism”. While K2 has experienced some of the changes in the field of mountaineering, even today it remains one of the most dangerous climbs a mountaineer can undertake.
Last Friday (3/7/14), I went back into Arizona to meet up with two of my In Ice Axe We Trust co-hosts, @jestheccc and @moosefish to climb Humphreys Peak in winter. As Jes has done an excellent job discussing the backstory to the climb on her blog, I’m going to stick to just the facts relating to the climb, and the conditions. In short, the most difficult part of this climb was finding the snow and ice, as there was none to climb upon for several weeks prior. As I’ve discussed before on my blog, California is experiencing an extreme drought this year; and these conditions have extended into Arizona. Fortunately for us, the week before the climb, both Arizona and California received a number of small storms that did drop some snow in the higher elevations. While the storm totals weren’t as high as everyone would have hoped, they were enough to cover Humphreys with snow down past the standard Humphreys Peak Trailhead at the Arizona Snowbowl (elevation 9,200).
The first things that climbers and mountaineers think about, obsess about, and dream about are cold, hard stones and mountains, stretching into unknown skies above distant plains. The second thing that climbers and mountaineers think about is the open road. The open road can be any road; any highway; any dirt track; or anything at all. It is an abstract concept and cannot be quantified in mere words. It is every road and no road. It is absolute freedom; and it is a means to get to the wild. It is a symbol of freedom; and it is something, like the hills that always has a siren song.
Before I get to talking about the specific items that make up the ten essentials, it’s a good idea for me to define what the concept is behind the ten essentials. The reason I phrase it like that is because there’s no set standard definition of a specific set of ten items that everyone agrees upon. There are some standard answers and standard categories (see here, here, here, and here) but there is also a great deal of variety out there. Again, if there’s anything I’ve learned over my time in the wilderness, everyone has their own modified version of the ten essentials. Which is why I’m talking about the concept behind it; which is that these are the items you would want to have with you should disaster befall you in the wilderness. These are the items that would enable you to survive.
If you think you think Matt and I missed our podcast window on Wednesday, you'd be wrong. Yes, there was no show last week. And yes, we did not Tweet or promote a show this week. No, goats have not completely eaten IIAWT's technical equipment and clocks. The answer to why there was no IIAWT is because IIAWT is only on the second and fourth Wednesday's of each month, and between May and June, the calendar sets us, the hosts up with a nice little break. So look at things positively - you didn't miss anything, and we didn't trick you - the calendar did! But in case you did miss us, here's what you've been missing in the last two months!
April 10, 2013, Episode 6: Mt. Rainier, Part I: The IIAWT How-To-Climb-Guide. Mt. Rainier - a mountain - no, a volcano so big it deserved two shows. On this first episode, Matt and I spoke with Katie Levy of Adventure Inspired, who had some great insights to how a novice prepares for the Disappointment Cleaver, and mountaineering in general. Katie also had some great comments about climbing mountains for charity; and about how she reviews gear for her readers, so this episode, like always, is a must listen! (Also, stay tuned to the end for a special guest - and friend of the show!)
April 24, 2013, Episode 7: Mt. Rainier, Part II: The IIAWT How-To-Climb-Guide-Continues. What's better than talking Mt. Rainier? Talking Mt. Rainier with a veteran climber like Kevin Cherilla of K2Adventures. We also had on our friend of the show, Jes (more info here) for some added color commentary. On this show, we again talked about climbing for charity, and the difficult - and STEEP Liberty Ridge Route.
May 8, 2013, Episode 8: Mt. Whitney, Part I: The IIAWT How-To-Climb-Guide. This show is also known as "When Goats Attack". Although there was no guest host, both Matt and Chris picked up the slack in an information packed must-listen guide about climbing Mt. Whitney. (For an added bonus, read more here about what you need to know about Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental United States).
May 22, 2013, Episode 9: Mt. Whitney, Part II: The IIAWT Guide on the JMT and Other Routes to the Top. Once Matt and Chris got rid of those pesky goats, they were ready to talk Whitney the way Muir saw it after his long treks in the Sierras. What better way than to talk about this than with a bona fide expert, the SoCalHiker, also known as Jeff Hester. This show had some great details from Jeff, who has hiked the John Muir Trail twice, and also had some great secret tips on how to ascend Whitney via non-traditional ways.
If these shows don't get you out into the mountains, perhaps next week's show on Mt. Shasta will intrigue your mind and inspire your body; but until then, see you on the trail!
I’ve been heading up to Mt. Whitney on a yearly basis for a while now. I’m not quite sure when it started, because I have a love-hate relationship with the mountain. Every time I get there, I am amazed, awed, and thrilled to be there. Then, at some point on the climb, the positive emotions turn negative – I get tired, I posthole for a couple miles, or something minor happens and becomes frustrating. I then vow never to go back. After about six months pass I think to myself, “I should really go to Mt. Whitney”, and the cycle starts again. This year, due to some external factors, I had to make my yearly trip earlier than usual (Last week, I talked current trail conditions here), and while I was climbing/mountaineering/hiking along, I realized that I had a tip to share about climbing Mt. Whitney. I’ve shared many tips, but the main tip, I realized as I sat under perfect blue skies at just above 12,000 feet on an icy slope, is that it is more than fine to turn around on Whitney, and in fact, turning around on Whitney, or any mountain, for that matter, can make your climb into a better experience – and not just for practical life-saving reasons.
Hear me out: I didn’t summit Whitney this year, and I don’t have a problem with admitting that, as it was one of my better climbs. I feel that this is what makes the difference between a veteran climber, and a novice climber. A novice climber feels the pressure of having to make the summit at all costs, and when they don’t, in my experience, they come up with the x, y, and z of excuses of why it didn’t happen. A veteran climber, on the other hand, simply states the obvious: that there were adverse factors, but admits that they personally didn’t get it done. To prove this theory, I need look no further than my last climb of Whitney. From two miles in, I had to find my own route; I was on ice; I was on snow; and there was a stiff, vigorous breeze that was pushing against me at around 25 mph; and in the chute, the sun partially melted the snow and slowed my progress to a crawl.
Depending on how I tell the story; any one of those reasons could be used as an excuse as to why I didn’t make the summit. But here’s the deal: I got a late start. That was on me. I wasn’t moving as fast as I could. That was on me. I didn’t bring snowshoes. That was on me. Finally, perhaps my conditioning could have been a little better, because my conditioning could always be a little better. Those external factors? Well, it’s Mt. Whitney. In 2007, when I successfully climbed it with my group, I woke up in the middle of the night at Trail Camp, and headed outside. At that point, there were 35-45 mph wind gusts ripping down the mountain. The temperature? A balmy -1. The climb? Yeah, we made it up to the summit and back down the next day in those same winds. As for snow, I’ve seen more snow on the mountain in 2002, 2005, and 2010, just to name a few times.
As for the chute, in 2010, we made good, but not great time on our ascent, and got trapped in the chute in that same molasses like snow and ice – but we still summited. To top that off, on that same climb, we had to hustle off the summit to avoid an unexpected thunderstorm. That storm also dumped snow on us during our descent. All of that happened on June 21st – the summer solstice! My point? On Whitney, like any big mountain, there’s always going to be problems. There’s just no two ways about it. This is a true story: every mountain, including Mt. Whitney is always going to throw everything it can at you. The weather is always going to be an issue. The altitude is going to always be an issue. No matter how good your conditioning is, your conditioning is also always going to be an issue. The reason these things are always going to be an issue is because mountaineering – the climbing of mountains - is challenging; namely because mountains themselves are large, immovable objects, and are inherently challenging. Mountaineering is meant to be a challenge. After all, it’s not sleeping. It’s meant to challenge every aspect of your being.
This challenge is also what I’m talking about when I talk about the difference between novices and veterans. In my opinion, and not everyone may agree with it, a novice makes those excuses I talked about above, because they feel like they’ve failed the challenge of climbing the mountain. A veteran, on the other hand, understands this point: that the challenge is only failed if you endanger yourself; or other people. Whether you make the summit is immaterial. The challenge is how you respond to adversity – the mountain. Sure, the summit is the most tangible example of whether one completed – and rose to the smaller challenge; but the real example in my mind as a veteran climber of whether one has risen to the mountaineering challenge is whether one made it back down safely – irrespective of whether one has “bagged” the peak.
I turned around on Whitney this year, because I knew I didn’t have enough daylight left to summit and safely descend. Sure, I had the gear; and sure I had the skills. I also knew that I was the only one on the mountain that day. If something happened to me, and accidents do happen on Whitney, I would be on my own, in a bad way. I turned around because the challenge was to get down safely at that point, and come back another day. Sure, it was easy for me because I’ve been on the summit eight times. But, I’ll be honest: as a veteran, I would have turned around even with no summits under my belt, because the mountain is always going to be there.
That’s the awareness I’d like to leave novice climbers with: the mountain is always going to be there – but you won’t. If you’re in a spot where it’s “go” – or “don’t go”, give the “don’t go” serious consideration, because you can always come back. Sometimes, when you don’t go, as well, you not only place yourself in a better position in terms of surviving, you place yourself in a better position for appreciating what’s out there, and that’s what I’d like to leave you with. I don’t know how big the mountaineering community is world-wide, but I’d be willing to guess that even with the increase in popularity the last ten years, it’s still fairly small. We, as mountaineers are a minority of the populace. We are a community that will hike, climb, and yes, mountaineer into some of the remotest spots on the planet. These are spots that most people will likely never hear about; and may likely never see. These are spots that most people will likely never experience, even if they are popular spots like Mount Whitney. Irrespective of whether a far summit is achieved, we as mountaineers have a duty to appreciate what others cannot; and appreciate what beauty there is in the world.
So, if you are on Mount Whitney later this year, or on any other peak, and your trekking poles seem heavy, or your ice axe keeps sticking, stop, look around, appreciate the challenge, appreciate the environment, and appreciate the moment. Maybe you make it up; maybe you don’t, but the important thing is that you accept the challenge of returning, and the challenge of appreciating what you, and only you are seeing at that moment.