A Porta-Ledge in the Himalaya

Thalay Sagar

Thalay Sagar’s north face

This is the story of the custom-made hanging “porta-ledge” tent that Kitty Calhoun and I used on our epic 2-week attempt on the north face of Thalay Sagar in the Garwhal Himalaya, India. Elsewhere you can find our tale of extremely exposed climbing and starvation survival. In this article I’m adding a chapter to the history of porta-ledges as compiled here by the legendary big-wall climber and gear innovator John Middendorf.

Kitty and I went to Thalay in September of 1986. We were professional guides and climbing fanatics, but in Bellingham we were a bit isolated and we went to Thalay not knowing that the face was one of the most notorious unclimbed objectives in world alpinism. Many parties–mostly European elites–had tried the face, all by fixed rope sieges, going up and back down every day. Neither did we think of ourselves as gear pioneers. We just wanted to be ready for climbing in a faraway land on a cool-looking objective that I wrongly thought would be just moderately difficult.

The whole porta-ledge concept came about as climbers started taking on routes so big and continuously steep as to take many days and offer basically no place to lie down. The overhanging aid climbs on the east face of El Capitan was where climbers started bringing ledges. There, easy access and pulley-hauling in almost friction-less space made the extra weight of a ledge a minor concern. In the Himalaya though of course every pound burdens so much more. John Roskelley and his partners took porta-ledges on their first ascent of the granite wall of Uli Biaho in the Karakoram in 1979. Before that, the examples we had of extreme sleeping solutions in the Himalaya were Don Whillans’ (aluminum) boxes on Everest and Annapurna, and Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker’s suffer-fest of 20+ days on Changabang in Garwhal–sleeping in hammocks. I had found it pretty difficult to get a decent sleep in a hammock in comfortable Yosemite spring, and the thought of a week of extreme high-altitude vertical camping–melting ice for water and such while hanging like a sack of potatoes in bitter cold–sounded, well, Tasker and Boardman could have that.

It was Michael Kennedy, editor of Climbing, who recommended Thalay to me. He sent me a photo of the face, with one spot marked not quite halfway up as a possible bivvy. His attached note suggested that a porta-ledge might be helpful. His snowy picture was from a very stormy season and I interpreted the face as a snow climb with a few technical pitches in the upper-middle and near the top. It looked like there ought to be opportunities to dig sleeping spots, but it would be such a wasteful bummer to get there and realize we needed a porta-ledge and not have one. so I started calling around to gear designers.

It was just three months before the trip when I recruited Kitty as my partner. She had never been to Asia before, and neither had she ever climbed in Yosemite-wall style with hauling and jumaring and ledge or hammock sleeping, as I had. But she was very fit from a lot of alpine climbing, and she was as determined as any climber I’d ever met.

The main commercial ledge then was Gramicci’s, and their 2-person model weighed, as I recall, about 14 pounds. That seemed way too heavy. I called Jeff Lowe, and we talked how the whole idea of sleeping arrangements on severe alpine routes was a serious next-level challenge. He suggested that I should reconsider hammocks. I remember thinking yeah, the weight saving would make some suffering worthwhile for maybe a night or two with a good forecast. But…also in the equation was how, in a two-person porta-ledge partners can share a sleeping bag, staying extra warm and paring a good 3 pounds or so off the sleeping system. And I had a secret alpine weapon, a fairly lightweight yet very warm 2-person Gore-tex down bag complete with separate down “helmets.” This was the genius of my friend Chuck Kennedy, who had been a luminary in the outdoor and gear design scene in Arcata, CA, while I was going to college there at Humboldt State. Chuck’s little company was called Down Home. Back then I worked for our friend Fred Williams, the owner of Moonstone Mountaineering, and I had learned to sew on Moonstone’s first machines.

My criteria for a lighweight 2-person ledge did not interest many, until I went down the street in Bellingham to my friend Rick Lipke. Rick was a big, Nordic-looking, Skagit search-and-rescue and martial-arts guy who ran a gear shop and little factory making “Extreme Use Equipment.” He enthusiastically jumped into the porta-ledge problem. He started by having Kitty and me lie down on the sidewalk. I was 6’2”, and Kitty was 5’1”, and as we lie there he drew a chalk triangle around us–me on the hypotenuse in-side, and Kitty out on the out-side. That became the dimensions of the triangular hanging bed we would share on Thalay.

The next key was the corner design. Rick decided to use the system that Eureka tents used on their ridgelines: a short and extra-wide joint tube with angled holes accepts the adjoining side poles. We researched the different types of aluminum tubing, decided on (by my best recollection) 2024, and found we could get it at Boeing Surplus. Kitty drove down to Seattle and picked up the tubing, while Rick and I started work on the sewing. I called Jeff again, and he recommended that to minimize condensation on the inside of the fly we should sew in vents screened with speaker foam. I knew that a vital fly feature would be to have the fly fit snugly to shed spindrift snow, and to this end we put in a shock cord around the bottom.

I made the joints simply by eye-balling a big drill through the wider joint tubes, then refining the angled holes with a round file. Rick fabricated the main poles with male-female pull-apart joints midway. The frame all stayed connected with shock cord. He designed a tight fly out of blue Gore-Tex tent fabric, a bed-span of buckle-tensioned pack cloth, and suspension webbing with a buckle on the outside corner to adjust for different slope angles. The anchor point at the top was an integral loop through the fly, so we we could stay always clipped in to full-strength webbing. Voila! The whole thing weighed under 9 pounds. It folded up nicely into a reasonable size, and deployed without any separating parts.

Another key to our camping was a hanging stove. None were available in the U.S., but I had an Austrian Markill kit that worked with Bleuet stoves. I’d picked it up in Kathmandu two years previous, just noting then what a cool idea it could be. I also sewed up some stuff-sacks with tie-in loops, because I knew that on a wall all your stuff has to hang.

A week before we left we took it all out to a little sandstone cliff at Chuckanut Beach, and it all seemed to work, pretty cool for a backup anyway….

When we got to Delhi we learned the monsoon had failed, and when we got to Thalay Sagar we saw a very big and very different looking wall than what Michael’s picture suggested. It was a 5800-foot granite fang with patchy ice. Yikes. A bit of scouting confirmed we would definitely want the porta-ledge.

Kitty Calhoun Thalay Sagar

Kitty Calhoun starting Thalay Sagar

The first night we set it up we had to hang it from ice screws–three of the old Chouinard hard-crankers that were the state of the art then. We knew that ice melts under pressure; would our total of 325 pounds of persons and gear hanging for a whole night melt out the screws? Had anyone really tested sleeping from ice screws before? We slept fine, and in the morning everything was secure.


The second day went pretty well too. I showed Kitty how to haul our packs with a pulley and jumars, and even on the 60-degree ice we found that hauling was much easier than climbing with them. Just before dark we set up again. When I poked my head outside I could see steam streaming out through the upper vent of speaker foam. Nice!

Kitty Calhoun and portaledge, Thalay Sagar

The porta-ledge

While breaking camp the next morning though, we screwed up. The problem was, we’d hung our packs from the main anchor and they hung below the ledge, and we tried to haul them up to us, between the wall and the tubing, while still kneeling in the ledge. It wasn’t working, and in frustration we just tried a big heave. Rip! An outside pole tore through its joint tube.

“Kitty,” I said, “We are fucked.”

“We’ll fix it,” she said, which I knew meant that I would fix it. The weather was still perfect, so I figured we’d worry about it come nightfall.

Kitty Calhoun and portaledge, Thalay Sagar

The broken joint with my repair cord

Luckily I’d brought some parachute cord, and indeed that night I could lash together that joint to hold, albeit with the foot segment sloping off some.

As we got higher the climbing steepened and the ice thinned. We moved more slowly and found very few anchors. Clouds came in as we neared the crux pitches, and snowflakes started to fall. We decided to stop and see the trend. Off to the left of our couloir I found a place to drive in a couple of pitons and set a couple of cams. Thank God, because….

Kitty Calhoun and portaledge, Thalay Sagar

Kitty sleeping in our blue room at 21,000 ft.

Four days later we were still there waiting out what proved to be a big storm. Spindrift poured down in continuous waves, night and day, and spilled off the triangular cone like magic. Then one day it warmed up. I happened to look outside just in time to see a huge avalanche coming down. I shut the door and yelled to Kitty to wake up and we braced our arms against the fly just as the first blocks hit. We felt the ledge flexing and straining under who knows how much force. It grew dark. It was so easy to picture the next blocks wiping us off the face like bugs into a fatal plummet. But everything held.

There is of course much more to the overall story, but the porta-ledge saved our asses. When the storm finally cleared several days later we descended, over two days of rappelling. Some months later, back in Bellingham, I gave a slide show on the trip at Rick’s shop and we hung the ledge for everyone to see, like a NASA capsule that had come back from space. I kept the ledge stored at the shop. A few years later the building burned down.


Some Notes on My Friend Allen Steck

A couple of weeks ago Allen Steck, age 91, was introduced to a packed hall here in Bishop. Allen took the lectern and started reading from his new book, A Mountaineer’s Life, just published by Patagonia. As we listened we could study a grand photo projected on the wall, a black and white shot of a man in vintage flannel on a snowy summit eyeing a spectacularly steep and fluted Andean peak. Gradually Allen told us that the man in the shot was himself, in 1952, on the summit of Huandoy, looking over at the daunting, untried wonder of Chacraraju. The everyday garb in the picture and rope simply knotted around his waist seemed far out of place in the ultra-high realm that today we assume requires space-age gear. He was imagining how one might climb Chacraraju, and we understood that that photo of him looking out to the barely possible was simple, and symbolic for his life. The audience was a mix of young and old, climber and hiker, savvy and green, and in the half hour that Allen spoke he gave us all just a sample from a soul embedded in mountains to a depth and breadth few of us can imagine. Many walked away with signed books, but even when they read the whole volume they’ll get only a partial image of where Allen has journeyed.

I befriended Allen in the late 1990s. I think we first met out of something to do with the mountaineering history book I was writing. Allen still loved to climb, and he recruited me to lead harder pitches that he and his friends could follow. I really enjoyed climbing with Chris Jones, Joe Fitschen, Joe Kelsey, Eric Beck, Steve Roper, and others. Owens Gorge, Rock Creek, Joshua Tree, Granite Basinm, Lover’s Leap (which has Allen’s favorite crag route ever)…we went a lot of places. The “golden” guys would usually max out at 5.10a or b or sometimes c, pretty serious for people in their 60s and 70s.

Allen Steck Climbing in Rock Creek, ca 1998

At the end of one cragging day in 1999 Allen said, “You know Andy, next year is the 50th anniversary of the S-S.” I thought for a second and realized he was referring to the Steck-Salathé, the famous route he’d done on Yosemite’s Sentinel Rock. My eyes opened wider, and he said, “Do you want to do it?” So Allen and I did that. He had recently turned 75. A warning: don’t let any guidebook 5.9 rating deceive you into thinking that the route is reasonable. It’s not. It’s absurdly strenuous. I strained and pressed inch by inch for pitch after pitch, with sticky rubber on my feet and a big cam or two on my rack. I tried to imagine being up there with light boots and the rope just bowlined around my waist, a few pitons and bolts and three cups of water per day for five days, and I just can’t. That tenacity is lost to history. During our struggles Allen pointed out the sloping, uncomfortable niches where he and John (who was then 51) had slept 50 years previous, and ways that they’d negotiated sections a bit differently.Allen Steck starting up Sentinel Rock at age 75

For years people prodded Allen to write his memoirs, and he kept putting it off. He always had better things to do, like go climbing in new places. Once when asked at a campfire in Joshua Tree how the writing was going, he grumbled and said, “I’d love to climb in Morocco! Let’s go next summer!” I believe he went.

Finally at about 87 he slowed substantially and in the winter of 2015 I drove across California with my scanner and laptop and spent a week with him at his place in the Berkeley hills, going through his hundreds of pictures to scan for the book. California climbers tend to think that Yosemite holds most of what counts in climbing, and few appreciate that for Allen Sentinel Rock was just a local tour, a launch site to major climbs worldwide. As we pored through his file cabinets of slides, prints and negatives, I understood. The first American attempt of an 8000m peak in Nepal, with Willi Unsoeld. Great first ascents in British Columbia. Of course Mt. Logan, the biggest climb on arguably the biggest peak by volume on the continent. An 80-day walk through the Grand Canyon. There was no time and space to put in a lot of other notable stuff. He put me up in a spare room with a window to the bay and a bookshelf burdened with the complete works of Goethe, in German.

Allen Steck at his light table

I could muse about so much that hanging out with Allen has taught and meant. But here’s just a few background pictures. Just go get the book, and read it after you’ve done your climbing.

Allen Steck at his kitchen in Berkeley

A Note to My Son on Truth

We’re in Donald Trump’s world now, casing the scene, and wow, have you ever seen so many people wondering and arguing where we are and where we’re going? How can it be that some of us say this territory feels like exile in howling-hell, while others say they’ve opened the gates to the promised lands? It’s an Alice’s Wonderland.

Appropriate for his age, my 13-year old son doesn’t much bother with politics. He has friends of all stripes. But when he came home from school the other day the first thing he said was, “Dad, did you hear Trump went to the White House and met Obama? It sounds like they had a good meeting.” That’s when I knew the election was affecting him. He’s seen guys wearing “Make America Great Again” hats marching down Main Street and brandishing Confederate flags. He watched on election night and told me how his mother turned ill “like she had PTSD,” and after sleepless nights fell sick with a cold. I understood that he was looking up to me for hope that, if Obama and Trump can meet and even praise each other, maybe he was growing up into a peaceful story after all.

What could I tell him? For years Trump campaigned that Obama was an immigrant fraud, then he denied that and blamed Hillary for the rumor. He labeled Obama as a traitor and one of the worst Presidents in history, won on the platform that the country was a disaster and that he would right us by overturning every last thing that Obama has done. And now he trumpets Obama as a good man? Which legacy are we marching from, or to?

Well son, Trump’s deal is to make himself both the messiah we hope for and the satan we fear. Because he is both he is neither. What he is is the salesman pitching fears and hopes and turning them into his capital. He exaggerates here and vilifies there, destroys now and denies then, ransacks first and then promises and reverse-promises, always selling himself long. Reporters ask him his policies and which truth was true and he keeps us all guessing, fort he is not interested in facts or policy or what he said moments before. All the million things from the wonder of a night sky and a warbler’s song to mathematical proofs and discovered truths in general are churn in his wake. As a public persona at least he is a soulless huckster, living large on the trumped up fears and hopes in his grasp, taking into his portfolio of outrage the power to be, (as he’s stated) the arbiter–the soul arbiter–to the very disarray he sows. With apparently no hope or fear of his own at stake, he stands as the one to decide whose fears and hopes will take precedence.

As I ponder my son, tall, blond, athletic and thoughtful–a great kid who many other kids admire, I discern to tell him: Look, we all live through alliances, and that means that politics–deciding who you ally with–is as inevitable as shopping at the store. The trick is to never sell your fears and hopes. We have to find them and own them, and knowing  truths that cannot be sold we can welcome this sort of challenge. We humans have the skills to see truth through our eyes, know it with our heads, test it in our guts, and feel it pulsing in our hearts. Take measure up and down your body this way, and go into alliances and relationships trying to listen well and speak mindfully. In just a few years, far too soon, you will be of age to take up arms or not for the land you stand for, and the choices you make will be very real.

A Review of “Eight Years in Tibet”

We all know of Heinrich Harrer’s escape-to-refuge story, Seven Years in Tibet. It’s one of the West’s classic reads for the land beyond the Himalaya, turned into a famous movie. But do we know that it was his partner, Peter Aufschnaiter, who really made their escape through Tibet possible, and that he too wrote a book?

Only by the grace of inter-library loan could I track down a rare copy of Eight Years in Tibet. It’s arguably our most accurate general reading portrait of Tibet around the time of the Chinese takeover, and an interesting vista into the unusual man who found his destiny there.

Aufschnaiter was a climber, geographer and agricultural scientist from Kitzbühel. Biographies tell that he joined the Nazi party in 1933, but his life and words tell that his love was to work apart from politics and ego, and engage wild terrain and down-to-earth people. When he took expeditions to Kangchenjunga and Nanga Parbat in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s he started studying the geography, languages, and traditions of the Himalaya and Tibet. This fluency and the natural rapport he found with the Tibetans and the land is what carried him and Harrer across the Changtang in winter. So “without the use of any kind of trickery we…arrived, just like that, in the middle of the so-called ‘forbidden city’”–Lhasa.

Tibetans walking Barkhor, 1987

Tibetans walk the Barkhor, the circuit street around the Jokhang temple, 1987

Acutally they were half starved and in rags. This is typical of how Aufschnaiter mostly writes his adventures, ordeals, and amazing transformations of fate out of his book, and gets right to what he sees as the main point–observing and describing the land and people. Anyone who has visited the Tibetan hinterlands in recent times will recognize how the territories ring with high mountain light and the people are thoroughly charming. He also inserts some of the extensive and mutually admiring correspondence he shared with Sven Hedin, the previous generation’s most accomplished Tibet explorer. IMG_0311

Aufschnaiter does give us an insider’s summary of the politics in Tibet at the time, showing how the nation was indeed run in a feudal way. The regions of Ü and Tsang apparently were perennial rivals. In Lhasa the Reting Rinpoche regent and the office of the Dalai Lama were at a near civil war, and the regent himself came to pay the ultimate price. Two regions to the west went to battle over a sacred statue. And many a harmonious-looking village was actually a serfdom under a corrupt hierarchy reigning down from the Lhasa government through absentee nobles through hired managers. In Shekar (the district just north of Mt. Everest) taxation exacted to Lhasa amounted to 40,000 slaughtered sheep a year. Of course this was just the sort of thing feudal Europe did too. As today so then too it was practically a mystery how Tibetans could find their abundant smiles. Lest anyone take this as justification for the Chinese takeover, Aufschnaiter despaired to see the Chinese making claims on Tibet, and he shares an anecdote of a local Chinese trying to bully the truth. When he is commissioned to create a dam and irrigation system near Lhasa he unearths prehistoric artifacts and remains that are distinctly Tibetan, and—because this supports the notion that Tibetans have been in Tibet for millennia—a Chinese schoolteacher accuses him of being “an agent of the Americans or Indians.”

Tibetan nomad and children, Lhasa, 1987

Nomad woman and children, Lhasa, 1987

For most of the book we see Aufschnaiter taking up public work projects, mapping ranges, visiting outposts, and exploring personalities and places. Scholars of Everest will enjoy the research that he put into seeking the peak’s original name. We also see his special admiration for Milarepa, the 12th-century yogi whose story and poetry are celebrated foundations of Tibetan identity.

Nomad ca. Kailas

Nomad and yaks, 1999

When Chinese troops marched toward Lhasa, Harrer fled south across the border, and Aufschnaiter went west, to map and explore in Tibet for another year. He makes it clear that that’s where he wished he could stay. Not until late in life did he write this memoir, and he died before he could finish. Thus Eight Years in Tibet was collected and published by his friend Paul Bauer and scholar Martin Brauen.

Andy Selters and nomads ca. Kailas, 1999

Myself with Tibetan nomads, ca. Kang Rinpoche, 1999 Photo courtesy Barbara Cameron


The basic movements of skate skiing are more similar to T’ai-chi than any other activity I know. It’s no coincidence that skate skiing is one of the most efficient forms of movement we can do. I will explain the basic similarity here.

In both skate skiing and in most basic T’ai-chi movements we start with our weight on a rear leg set in one direction, and we press off that foundation onto a forward leg set or going in a different direction, usually about 50-80 degrees offset. The fundamental force to transfer from one leg and one direction to the next is a spiral emanating from our center, springing us forward onto the front leg. When we gather and settle on that front leg we then sink a bit (loading the “spring”) and then spring to the next leg.

In T’ai-chi we learn that a spiral is the most balanced, stable, and effective way to transfer energy. A spiral is a combination of both directional and rotational energy, a combination of both yang and yin. In T’ai-chi we also learn to move from our center, a point deep within us just below our navel, and near the front of the spine. I have drawn spirals in the accompanying photos of myself both skating and doing T’ai-chi to illustrate the key force we like to cultivate. If you can operate mindfully with this spiral at the center of your body, you can skate, you can do T’ai-chi, you can do a lot of things a lot more effectively.

When we compare skate skiing with “classic” cross-country stride-skiing, we shouldn’t be surprised that skating is dramatically faster and more efficient. By comparison, when we’re striding in-line, we still want to have a spiral force operating from our center down the power leg, but with the legs both going in the same direction the spiral force is restrained. To use a martial comparison, you wouldn’t want to punch someone or deflect someone’s punch with both your feet facing the same way. I figure that in skating I can go about 15% faster than I can in classic striding, even though my skis are traveling significantly farther, because they’re angling across the track as well as in the direction of travel.

I hope this helps build some more awareness of how our bodies like to work.

© 2016 by Andy Selters

My Son Plays Baseball

Ace Selters throwing a 2-seamer.

Ace Selters throwing a 2-seamer.

My son Ace plays baseball. When he was eight I told him I didn’t care if he climbed and did mountain sports like me or not, but he had to find something outdoors he liked and get after it. “You’re not going to sit around in front of screens all the time,” I said. He chose baseball. Now he’s fairly obsessed with every corner of the national pastime, and I’ve been helping coach his teams.

I can still remember some of the homers and line drives I hit when I was his age, and I can still feel some of the hot-corner catches I gloved. Now I’m one of many adults bringing 12-year olds into the sport.

Ace at Dodger Stadium

Ace at Dodger Stadium

A lot of times the kids goof off. They show up to practice talking kid gossip and throwing the ball randomly toward one another, basically practicing poor throws and potentially hitting each other. Then during structured practice some of them sometimes compete for attention by clowning. Maybe they dance around and taunt on a base, maybe they call for the ball at any throw regardless of the play, or maybe they get tagged out but keep running like a jester all the way to home anyway. This kid-crap on the field pisses me off, but I try to discipline them back into learning the game without showing anger. I don’t always succeed, but I know they’re just kids. They have plenty of disciplined hours in school, they’ve got various stresses in their lives they’re often not ready for, and it’s important for kids to play.

But by age 12 baseball is not child’s play any more. The bigger kids (like Ace) are hurling that little white ball across the infield like a bullet, and they bat with shocking force. You gotta be ready or else. And they want to be cool like major leaguers, they want to win. It’s us mentors’ job to teach them how to win and play as hard as they can with sportsmanlike respect for the game and their opponents. I tell the kids with all my sincerity that it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, the real tragedy would be to go through life without finding what you can play your heart out to, and get it done. The real triumph is the honor to play.

Last month Ace hit a three-run homer to take the lead against our toughest rivals. Everyone on our side roared, myself coaching first base too, of course. As he rounded first I high-fived him as we watched the ball sail over the fence and bounce into a parking lot. Around second he trotted basking in triumph, and around third he headed toward home where his teammates were gathered and bouncing like popcorn to welcome him. The other team kicked at the dirt, waiting glumly in their positions. That was a great moment he and I will remember forever.

Ace about to send a double to the opposite field.

Ace about to send a double to the opposite field.

Yet it’s not all innocent glory watching our kids turn into jocks. The whole process starts, of course, when friends and peers are divvied up pretty arbitrarily into opposing sides. We put them in uniforms and line them up on their respective baselines and sanctify it all with pledges of allegiance to the flag and to fair play, and if there’s musicians “…the home of the brave!” echoes across the outfield. When the game gets going the parents and friends and coaches and everyone important to them watch and shout as the kids hurl their pitches and the other side protects home and hits with high-performance composite bats, and everyone keeps score while we all cheer when they do well and remind them when they screw up. We teach baseball, but the real message they hear is that play is no longer free-form, you don’t get to goof around as you like. There’s rules and especially there’s consequences. If you want to win you have a lot to learn. That’s all well and good, let’s bring them into real life, but it gives me pause when I hear how our little darlings in the dugout have learned to say things like, “I really want to beat the crap out of these guys!” or “C’mon ___ don’t suck!”

Ace now has a new, adult-sized bat (at age 12 he’s 6 feet tall!). He practices swinging it in the living room, hitting air-homers from different parts of the strike zone just like I did. As I caution him to keep it calm and away from the lamp, I recall that shot he sent into the parking lot. That moment was rich in allegory. Within the arena the ball is a triumphant missile, but past the fence it bounces harmlessly, there’s no consequences except perhaps a broken windshield.

By college age I no longer rated good enough to play baseball. I began air-practicing with ice climbing tools, reaching skyward into the frozen realms. I’d taken up athletic endeavors in the mountains wildernesses. Out there your whole game is outside the fences, and there are no rules except what terrain and gravity and your will to live declare. Ultimately the mountains taught me that in the authentic big world beyond our defined games you’d best keep focus on the tasks at hand, because the consequences are not winning and losing, but life and death. Out under the skies and stars, competition and keeping score are distractions.

Dave Watson playing with consequences near Broad Peak basecamp, K2 behind.

Dave Watson playing with consequences near Broad Peak basecamp, K2 behind.

As best we can we bring our children up in a safe world where they bloom with friends and collaborators, and then we contrive conflict and send them into it. Any parent can tell you that if we don’t give them structured competition with guidelines most kids bring it on by themselves, probably in part because it’s in the genes we pass on, and probably also because they see what they need in the world they’re growing up into. The Lord of the Flies story haunts us.

What I fear is that when we train our kids to know life by winning and losing they take that game past the fences. Games are wonderful when our missiles land in a glove or a parking lot. But out there on the highways and battlefields, in the markets and the mountains, we are all one, breathing from the same sky, drinking from the same global water supply, chasing the same currencies. We need friends more than opponents. Nevertheless we still divide into groups hardly less arbitrary than baseball teams, and we mark our lives by winning or not. Our missiles and our money and power have consequences of a whole new order in games we can’t hope to keep score in much less referee, and because we are all fundamentally undivided we wield the weapons essentially against ourselves.

Breaching the Park Boundaries

As part of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Inyo County has suggested that we rethink the National Park idea and read Uncertain Path by retired park historian Bill Tweed. The county invited me to contribute an illustrated lecture. As I prepared my presentation, what most occurred to me is that the parks are “Experiments in Boundaries,” so that’s what I subtitled my talk. I started by recalling how, when I researched and wrote my first book, a hiking and natural history guide to a bunch of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the park naturalists talked about two things: First, how they wanted people to make the world a better place by taking park ideals such as recycling and respect for nature back home. And second, they were tired of answering the question, “Where’s the tree you can drive through?” That tree of course was in Yosemite not Sequoia, and weakening effects of the tunnel and traffic had felled it many years previous.

America indeed invented the idea of national parks, and it arose out of our mythic belief that pioneers came upon a wilderness continent. Nowadays we’re becoming more aware just how much of an illusion that myth has been. Books including 1491 by Charles C. Mann and Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson bring out archaeological and historical information on: 1) how European diseases had spread to wipe out an estimated 90% of many Indian tribes decades before pioneers even arrived out West, and 2) the extent to which Indians actively managed so much of the continent. After California’s Mariposa Battalion of 1851 brutally exiled the Ahwaneechee Indians from Yosemite Valley, the immigrants flooding in to the new Golden State (including John Muir), conveniently forgot, weren’t told, and didn’t imagine that the valley’s meadows, for instance, were a function of the Indians’ fire management for oaks and deer.

The world’s first national parks bill was presented in 1864 for Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove by California senator John Conness, a rare progressive at that time who it is said was later voted out of office for supporting the rights of Chinese immigrants. The bill passed without discussion during the Civil War, carrying the irony that had Southern states not seceded they would have likely blocked the precedent of the federal government getting involved in land protection.


Senator John Conness, author of the 1864 Yosemite park bill

When John Muir arrived in Yosemite he heard like no one else ineffable music that rang through the valley and the whole Sierra. America was thrilled to hear that their Western outback could provide not only new prosperity and new independence but spiritual renewal as well. As immigrants to the West swarmed into the Sierra in a free-for-all of monitor mining, overgrazing, ethnic cleansing, gunfighting and rapacious logging, the lofty idea of experiencing original wonder in spectacular landscapes allied with tourism entrepreneurs to generate preservation as a balancing priority. In the early 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, and Bishop’s own Horace Albright (the first two directors of the NPS) dedicated so much to that priority.

HIker and waterfall rainbow, Yosemite

Darla Heil at Cascades below Vernal Falls

In line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous proclamation that Western frontiering ran out of frontier in about 1890, America’s mainstream moved on from the landscape ideals. In this era Mather and Albright were especially brilliant at expanding constituency for the parks by encouraging motor touring and car camping. New park territories were established, inevitably after intense political fights versus those who wanted the freedom to make use of material resources therein. Essentially there has been a race to prevent the destruction of landscapes yet to be appreciated by most of the nation.

There were of course many genuine inheritors of Muir’s legacy of passion for being embedded in nature. Among them Charles and Enid Michael stand out. Through the 1920s Charles was assistant postmaster of Yosemite, and he and his wife Enid were an inseparable pair in scrambling all over the valley precipices and High Sierra peaks. Enid wrote hundreds of “Nature Notes” articles with a passion and style not unlike Muir’s. But as America moved away from finding hope in nature and on to feverish things like wars, the Dust Bowl, and economic inflations and the Depression, the Michaels’ enchantments were catalogued as quaint curiosities. Americans came to regard the parks as designated vacation refuges that gave the appearance that nature and the nation were alive and well and entertaining. The parks fostered constituents and enchanted visitors with creative attractions such as the Wawona Tunnel Tree, the firefall, and bear feedings.


George Melendez Wright was a seasonal ranger in Yosemite who saw how the park’s animals and their habitats needed to be treated as wild. He took up the task of inventorying wildlife, and Horace Albright elevated him to head a new Wildlife Division of the parks. To Wright we owe a lot toward our modern expectation that the parks should serve as living ecosystems.

So many Americans, myself included, owe a lot of personal development to national park experiences. And the national park idea, “America’s Best Idea,” has spread around the globe. We owe ample gratitude to the people who established the boundaries and maintain the parks. But I can’t help but point out how the boundaries’ limitations and illusions have come clear. This is essentially what Uncertain Path is about. Bill Tweed emphasizes that the basic premise of preserving park “resources” unchanged in perpetuity is impossible. Put another way, the modern dichotomy of enabling extraction and consumption as best we can across most of the world and ascribing nature to parks where we can look but not touch has gross repercussions. In the parks it is as if we see the land through a window, a windshield actually. I’ve played around with one of my photos in Photoshop to portray this.


Yosemite Falls; Digital photograph montage

And this is where climbing comes in. When we start up a peak or a wall we get out from behind the windshield and take ourself body and soul into the very structure of the landscape. The Indians engaged the land of course even more intimately, and I would never claim symmetry between what I find as a climber and how they lived. But climbing, to the degree that it’s a personal journey into the terrain, is one of the better immersions we’ve got.


Here’s me following the Great Roof pitch on El Capitan’s Nose route, 1989. Photo by Dave Turner

I think of many seminal figures; Muir, the Michaels, David Brower, Yvon Chouinard; these people took themselves directly into Yosemite’s terrain, and they carried what they found outside the park boundaries to say, “whoa,” we need to respect life on both sides of the boundaries. If we have developed a taste for quiet places where we try to keep our hard presence out of certain landscapes (as well as the imagery of them) it’s because we have overwritten so many places with our frenzies to succeed.

Bird Lew descending Mt. Gilbert

Bird Lew below the summit of Mt. Gilbert, looking west from the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park

National parks may indeed be “America’s Best Idea;” how much poorer we would be today without them! Along with industrial development the parks idea has spread to most every country. Nevertheless our situation tells us we need to revise our ideas. Like the dams at Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon, like the forests that have grown thick from decades of fire prevention, we cannot wall off change with park boundaries. The dams are filling with silt and eventually they will cease to function, and the forests of course are going up in flames too big to manage. Parks cannot be the nation’s sole repositories of native plants and animals, and drive-by video shootings of designated scenes on summer holidays cannot be the sum of our acquaintance with nature.


Summer Sky, Sierra

The under-appreciated half of any landscape is the sky, where things are ever-changing and there are no boundaries. The land itself and our own ways of living are little different, just slower to change. As global warming threatens the sequoias at Sequoia, the roads at Rainier, the glaciers at Glacier, the meadows at Tuolumne and so many more “park resources,” the director of the National Park Service has said that “climate change is the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks we have ever experienced.” Changes at every level are forcing us to see that no matter how much we want to keep parks unchanged, on either side of the boundaries we are agents of change embedded in the flow of nature. At some point along this way we need to huck off what doesn’t make us healthy and realize we’ve already jumped in.


Mother and daughter at pool, Yosemite National Park