The Recipe for Climbing Success

Millions of us have marveled at Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completing their epic free-climb journey up El Cap’s Dawn Wall. It’s amazing, impressive, and interesting. Here’s some thoughts on it from beneath my hat of climbing historian (see http://www.alpinist.com/doc/ALP39/39-wired,  and http://www.andyselters.com/way.html).

What we witnessed was a pair of guys pulling off a challenge at the current edges of extended technical climbing. They dug deep into elite talent and epic determination. What’s especially unique though is how well suited this climb was for fans and spectacle. Dawn Wall free went from Caldwell’s next vision for El Cap to a live-feed super-climb that fascinated climbing fans and climbing media, to an international news event. The ascent applied sport-climbing tactics to a new scale, and it set a new standard for rock climbing publicity. As much as I congratulate and admire those guys I also hope against hope that this doesn’t set new popular expectations for what climbing is about.

When I interviewed Tommy Caldwell for my article in Alpinist 39, he was quick to say that “95% of my climbing is private, just me and a partner, and I never want to give that up.” To emphasize his point, his success as a sponsored climber is rooted in thousands of hours and millions of feet of climbing he’s done simply because he’s wanted to do it. What’s more difficult to know is how much the ensuing pulse of publicity and money into the climbing world may draw both new and established climbers into climbing as a spectator sport. Money and attention are necessary ingredients to anyone’s life, and celebrity is nothing new. When celebrity becomes the game though, anyone is wise to watch out for the inversion of value, where the sponsors and audience who pay the piper call the tune.

This was the biggest and blankest granite free route yet conceived, and the strategy for success had to be about breaking the project into manageable bites, and accessing the most demanding sections when all ducks were lined up. Over a period of eight years since Caldwell’s first foray they explored, defined, practiced, protected, fell, refined, fell again many times, and redefined and re-practiced and honed themselves to get each move on each series on each section of each of the 32 pitches. Just managing ropes and anchors to safely access over 3000 feet of stone was a feat in itself. To their enormous credit, they paid attention to not inhibit other climbs or climbers. As best I know they pulled their ropes when they weren’t on the wall, they took care to not place anchors that would notably change the character of the original Wall of The Early Morning Light aid line, and they directed their access lines away from other routes.

I’ve climbed the Nose and the Salathé Wall, and I’ve rapped off The Captain as a photographer, and I can vouch that both climbing and photographing take an impressive amount of brute work, mettle, and safety management. (By the way, the single act of letting myself off from the top was momentarily more heart-thumping and pants-wetting than any moment climbing the routes.)

The inspiration to find our climbing potential can take as many paths as there are climbers, styles, mountains, boulders and crags. But climbs that attract an audience often tip the scales—as has happened for far too long on overloaded Mt. Everest. The Dawn Wall free has been a unique confluence of elite climber vision and character, and route prominence and accessibility. Plenty of other climbs over the years stand out as just as noteworthy or more, especially if you measure with metrics of taking on climbs in a single push into uncertainty and adventurous terrain. Even Caldwell himself on El Cap; his 2005 free ascent of both the Nose and Freerider in a single day still sets the bar up there, and his traverse of the Fitz Roy group of spires in Patagonia with Alex Honnold last year makes the Dawn Wall seem like a gym membership. There’s room in the world for all these types of climbs, but there’s a lot more money and recognition in the Dawn Wall. In general I suppose only Tommy Caldwell can say which of his climbs has more heart. But there will now be even greater temptation for climbers and sponsors to assume that worthwhile climbing is a search for technical difficulty achieved with extensive rehearsal.

Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Path shows the way to climbing success. It starts with private connections between climber, partners, and terrain. Climb what has meaning for you in the style that challenges you, and make it more about the route transforming you than you transforming the route. When you’re ready to take on a climb that sets a new world standard, the means will open up for you, and the world will pay attention.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap's east face.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap’s east face.

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2014 Ladakh Trek and Climb Report

In August and September three of us pulled off a fascinating trekking and climbing trip to the northernmost reaches of Ladakh. Here’s the story and some select pictures:
The first of many ironic twists in this story is that the bureaucratic struggles came up, not in India, but here in the U.S.: getting a visa. To climb a peak in this region we foreigners need a special “X” visa, and though our whole team received several authorization letters for that from Delhi a new visa contractor here in the U.S. was essentially clueless about issuing that type of visa. Two committed members were unable to go because of this, and the remaining three of us were delayed by 3 weeks. This is a problem we voiced loud and clear at various levels, and I’m keeping an ear to the ground as to whether this frustrating situation is improving for next year.
Once in Delhi everything went smoothly, and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation made a special pre-briefing appointment with us on a national holiday to speed us to Leh and into the mountains. John Anton and I met our assigned Liaison Officer, a young man nicknamed “Hapi” from Dharamsala. On the flight to Leh I was surprised to see a lot of clouds and new snow on the few peaks visible. We would learn that one day previous the weather had switched from the usual blue skies to chilly and stormy.
Chuck Boyd was already in Leh, having gotten his visa earlier than us. He had by serendipity met up with a commercial British team, and in debilitating and almost dangerously rapid time several of them made the first ascent of a 6000m peak near where I’d intended for us all to climb. We met Chuck after he also cycled up and down the 17,582-foot high Khardung La. After a couple of days acclimatization we drove over that pass to acclimatize more with some fabulous trekking up the Rongdo valley, where I had explored and climbed in 2010.
Because I knew many of the villagers at Rongdo we were enthusiastically welcomed and we shared small gifts and bits of news from over the last couple of years. These villagers live in one of the most remote corners of Ladakh, and it was fascinating for us to see how they get along quite well with ancient ways and skilled techniques. For them it’s fascinating to meet curious and respectful people from the modern world. Watching one of the men shape local willow into a water-tight tea churn was particularly impressive.
While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

While his daughter watches, this Rongdo man shapes water tight tea churns using only a plane on local willow.

For three days we trekked up the Rongdo canyon. With ponies carrying our gear and a Nepali cook (yaay Gokul!) plus helpers and a Ladakhi partner named Desal we were well looked-after. We visited petroglyph sites, we gawked at big granite walls and icy peaks, we paid our respects at a remote Buddhist hermitage, we visited a spectacular sacred waterfall, and we arrived at a grand meadowy camp at 15,300 feet. Chuck, who is a mountain guide with experience all over the world including the summit of Everest, said that this was probably the best trekking he’d ever done. Chuck received the news of a family funeral and other business awaiting his prompt return, so because of our delayed start if we were to climb our allotted peak with him we had few days to work with.
We trekked back out from Rongdo and took a couple of days’ rest in the big Nubra Valley while the ponies walked to our next trailhead. We visited two important monasteries, and on one evening we had the treat of watching a troupe of women performing traditional dances.
This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

This woman named Stanzin does a traditional dance as part of a performance troupe.

At this time the weather was stormy for at least part of every day. We learned from Chuck’s experience that the access to the peak I had originally intended to climb would be “suicidal” during wet weather because the route travels a narrow corridor through an unusual sedimentary formation of vertical and overhanging walls of loosely cemented rubble several hundred feet high. The British leader Chuck climbed with energetically affirmed this dire assessment, and I had seen this formation elsewhere in Ladakh. With this news and bad weather we didn’t hesitate to aim for another unclimbed 6000m peak in the Ladakh Range, a peak only Desal among us had ever seen but looked accessible on the map. A new road extended from the village of Hundar that way, and we would be able to reach a basecamp below the peak with a single day’s walk.
As soon as we unloaded our gear at the roadend it began to rain, making us glad we had decided to not venture up the “canyon of death” but rather a wide and green mountain valley reminiscent of pictures of Alaska’s Brooks Range. The rain stopped by noon, and we had tea courtesy of a young mother inviting us at her flower and vegetable garden. We passed some more petroglyphs, and by late afternoon we figured out with the map that we were arriving at the base of our anointed peak. We set up a comfortable basecamp at 15,300 feet in grass 30 yards from a meandering stream. The peak looked pretty easy to climb, one rounded high point on a ring with others that had ruddy granite summits.
Chuck of course was well acclimatized by now, and of course natives Hapi and Desal were in good shape to go high, but John and I were marginally ready to climb to 20,000 feet. I felt ok though and with Chuck’s encouragement that I be one of the first to the top, I decided I’d try to climb with the acclimatized threesome. After a day of rest I’d go back up with John to summit again. We carried camping gear and ropes up to near the base of the little glacier that poured off the peak, and though clouds lowered and surrounded us in fog we found a little bench with a small stream of water nearby, at about 17,000 feet. On these slopes we saw a healthy group of ngapo, or “blue sheep.”
A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

A small herd of wild sheep (ngapo) frequent the approach slopes to our peak.

The four of us woke at 3am to go for the summit, but storminess including a couple of intense blizzards kept us from heading up. At 9am however it seemed to be clearing, and we started up. When we reached snow slopes along the edge of the glacier we found the surface to bewas powder underlain with hard ice, a common condition I’ve noticed on glaciers in these arid parts of Asia. The others climbed on the west, rocky side of the ridge. The blocks of granite were also covered in powder and treacherously slippery, so I chose to keep my crampons on and make my way up the snow-covered ice. At about 1pm another blizzard blasted us and threatened to push us back, but the squall let up and by about 2pm we made it to the top, never having roped up. Our view was nice but abbreviated by the clouds. Our altimeters read 6070 and 6080 meters. Visibility improved enough to let us see that an easier scree and talus slope could take us all the way down to a lower glacier. Along the moraines beside that glacier we found a couple of cairns, then below that evidence of a campsite. These signs suggested that a previous group might have made an unauthorized ascent of “our” peak. Nevertheless we would be credited with the first ascent, and we named the peak Lungmochey Kangri, as local shepherds referred to that side valley as Lungmochey, which I believe refers to winds and a female mountain deity or spirit.
Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Me and Chuck Boyd on top of Lungmochey Kangri.

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

Our local guide Stanzin Desal and Liaison Officer Hapi on top of Lungmochey Kangri

We continued descending and made it all the way to basecamp at dark to a grand meal from Gokul. In the morning Chuck hustled out and he was able to reach Leh that night and make his flights home the next day. John and I looked up to climb the peak again, but the unusually bad weather got even worse. With more snow falling on the heights we decided to do more exploratory trekking instead. We visited two other valleys, both with lakes reminiscent of the Sierra. Rain and snow continued, however. Desal, who has lived in Hundar all his life, said he’d never seen such weather in Ladakh in any time of year, much less late August and early September. This was my 10th visit to Ladakh and I felt the same. We would learn that the same storms were much worse on the monsoon side of the Kashmir Himalaya. The famous Kashmir Valley completely flooded, an unprecedented event. Between India and Pakistan some 500 people were killed and thousands made homeless.
This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

This villager, Tsering Angchuk, was herding sheep up high, and he invited us into his hut for salt tea.

We enjoyed leisurely trekking up canyons that few Westerners have ventured up. With daily storms adding snow up high though we started to worry about crossing the 18,000-foot high Lasermo La to get back to Leh. Our intrepid horseman Phuntsok said it should be no problem, but we remained concerned. I had expected to make good use of a solar shower on this trip, but in lieu of sun one day everyone gathered a big heap of ample yak dung and Gokul built a fire to heat us up a bath.
Making use of partly sunny periods that came most every day, we moved into position to cross the pass. At our highest camp a gazgazri (lammergeier vulture) buzzed us a few times, and we also saw some other rare birds  streaming for the pass, heading south to no doubt winter in the Gangetic plains.
Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

Ponies carrying across the snowy Lasermo La.

To our surprise we found it pretty easy to hike over the pass because winds had left the snow pretty firm. The ponies didn’t even hesitate. Dropping down the other side it was heartening when we started seeing the Indus Valley and the peaks above Leh again. At our camp that evening we were visited twice by a beautiful red fox. The next day we reached road again above the village of Phyang, and we drove back to Leh.

Red fox near camp

Red fox near camp

There’s many more places to visit and peaks to climb in the Ladakh Range and Karakoram, and as my familiarity with the language and land continues it seems like ever more doors of interest open up. Stay tuned, I will likely be scheduling to lead another trip for 2015, and let me know if you’re interested to have me come through your town with a multi-media show on this area.

The Ladakh Marathon

Distance runners take note: one of the more scenic and fascinating marathons in the world today is held at the northern tip of India, the Ladakh Marathon. This last September 14 was the third annual celebration of distance running in the Himalayan rainshadow, terrain reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra on steroids. Rimo Expeditions, the event organizer, asked me to be the official photographer this year, so I got an up-close look at the action and the changing faces in this magnificent territory.

The event actually includes four simultaneous races: a half marathon, a 7k fun run, the showcase marathon, and a super challenging ultra: in over 40 miles the the Khardung La Challenge tours up and over a 17,582-foot high pass. We decided to make the marathon the photographic priority, so from before the 6:30am start I spent several hours riding along the 26-mile course on the back of a motorcycle. I also covered the extensive post-race festivities.

High elevation gives this marathon a fitness fascination. The start is at the race’s high point of 11,800 feet (where the air pressure is about 35% less than at sea level), and from there the course heads down, down to the “lowlands” and a breathtaking (in every way) tour through the villages and grand spaces along the Indus River at around 10,500 feet. The course then ramps back up to finish at the city of Leh at 11,150’. This is not extreme elevation, but it’s plenty high so that visiting contestants need to arrive at least a few days ahead of the race to get used to it. Four or five days should give most everyone enough acclimatization to prevent mountain sickness and allow a reasonable performance. Many visiting runners got by with just three days, but their performance must have suffered. Even better performance and more ease would come from doing a trek through the mountains for a week or two at 12-15,000 feet, as after that the marathon elevations feel pretty tame.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Runners start the section of the marathon course along the Indus River valley.

Ladakh was an inland kingdom until a few generations ago, and the main town of Leh until recently was a trade, palace, and religious center “in the middle of nowhere,” where caravans of camels and ponies came from far away to barter wares. After 1947 independence the new nation of India barely knew of its trans-Himalayan territories, and even today many or most Indians won’t recognize the word “Ladakh.” The Ladakhi people are of a mixed Tibetan, Persian, and Kashmiri heritage. A majority are Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, almost half are Muslim, and a small percentage are Christian. Today Leh has a thriving tourism business with daily flights and dozens of guest houses and curio shops, making it reminiscent of Kathmandu 20 years ago. Most of the visitors are European “adventure-backpacker” tourists and Indians looking to experience the farthest reaches of their nation.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

This year the four races attracted about 3000 runners, most of them Ladakhi. This evinces an interesting change compared to when I first started going to Ladakh back in the 1980s, when I was fresh out of college. At that time the overwhelming majority of Ladakhis were subsistence villagers. To hard-working families then, any idea of sports and seeking out extra exercise seemed like crazy foolishness. In fact I remember seeing a play where they poked fun at a Ladakhi character who tried to act cool and modern by wearing a sweat suit and faux-jogging around town. Today tourism, government and military work have allowed many Ladakhis to accumulate enough wealth to buy cars and winter homes in warmer parts of India. In Leh very few people still grow their own barley and wheat, though they might have vegetable and flower gardens. And the new generation of Ladakhis runs in the Marathon—especially students, young adults and soldiers, women as much as men—they are excited about it. The Ladakh Marathon has quickly become an avenue for Ladakhis to build new strengths and identities as people who are advancing into the modern world on their own terms, and staying true to their values and important traditions. Look around the globe and you see that it’s quite rare for cultures anywhere to go from village subsistence to modernity without gross disruption of some sort, but Ladakhis are doing it, and their Marathon is a case in point. Any foreign runner will be welcome, and part of any the experience will be seeing an indigenous people working out a positive future. The post-race party featured both a Ladakhi pop band and a traditional dancing troupe, and it was impressive how seamless was the mix between generations.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

Traditional dancers perform for the marathon participants after the races.

This year as before all the races were won by Ladakhis, who of course are genetically adapted to high altitude. Most of them train very little. The ones I interviewed typically said they trained for “about 10 days” to “about a month.” The winning times this year were 3:16 by Shaukat Ali for the men, and 4:10 by Sonam Chuskit among the women. There were a decent number of Indians who came up from the lowlands, as well as a few European runners. The fastest Indian lowlander ran the marathon in 4:11, and a Danish woman came in at 5:02, but I think in both cases they had a minimum of acclimatization time. It seems to me that a 3-hour foreign marathoner who acclimatizes with a couple of weeks or more at altitude could give the Ladakhis some stiff competition. But who knows?

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Tsetan Doker of Lamayuru village being interviewed on national TV after coming in first place among women in the Khardung La ultra race.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Shaukut Ali with 100 meters to go as he wins the Ladakh Marathon.

Challenging the Ladakhis in the Khardung La race might be another story. The winner there was Shabbir Hussain, who came in at 6:35, barely a minute ahead of Rigzen Norbu. Tsetan Dolker was the fastest woman there, at 8 hours flat. Along all the courses there are numerous refueling/aid stations.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

A marathon runner cruises below some Buddhist prayer flags along the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

One of the Ladakhi women who completed the marathon, out near the Indus River.

Rimo director Tsewang Motup is highly optimistic about Ladakhis’ future as runners. India does not have a great long distance running tradition, but there are other marathons around the country, and the top Ladakhis are starting to compete in Mumbai and other locations. Tenacity and a likely genetic altitude advantage tell Motup that Ladakhi runners should start aiming to represent India in a future Olympics, perhaps as early as 2020. We’ll see, we’re shopping for some inspired coaching to visit and get a training program going.

For more information check with me, and know that starting next summer I might be organizing a trek timed to cap off a great mountain holiday with the Ladakh Marathon.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Marathon runners descend past a village near the Indus River at about 10,500 feet.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Two marathoners pair up along the open spaces in the Indus Valley.

Partnerships, and Not

I finally got to see the film The Summit, thanks to my friend Darcy Ellis! The movie did an impressive job of realistically re-creating unfilmed parts of the 2008 tragedies on K2 with re-enactments from the Alps, including generating computerized settings that look surprisingly like K2. With minor exceptions the story was accurately and vividly portrayed. However, why did the filmmaker throw in Walter Bonatti interviews and footage from 1954? Jumping back and forth to an over-argued controversy was distracting. I was also disappointed not to see more from the Korean team perspective.

I’m seen in a couple of anonymous cameo appearances. One is when several of us are carrying Wilco von Rooijen to his rescue helicopter. The other is near the very end when I am talking with Pemba Gyalje; he’s telling me how Marco had at first aggressively repulsed Pemba’s efforts to help him, basically fighting Pemba off from saving his life. As I heard Pemba’s tale I recognized that Marco was in a medical condition we call “combative.” Irrational aggression happens when our brain is suffering or especially physically pressured, as with high altitude cerebral edema. I respond (unknowingly on camera) by saying that Marco at that point was “a head case.” Everyone since has been pulling for Marco to tell what exactly happened with Gerard McDonnell (especially Gerard’s family of course). Marco really tried, he loved Gerard. What someone caught on film was Pemba telling me that Marco was in pretty bad shape up there, lucky enough to get down much less put together all the details of who did what and when and why. I was really moved to see Gerard’s family and girlfriend tell their perspectives; it’s gotta hurt bad.

My experience at nearly 8000 meters those same days on nearby Broad Peak was enough to tell me it’s really tough that high. Even if “the climbing is easy” we all operate up there on a tenuous thread that needs to be carefully planned for. You have to have your extreme on. Ounces feel like kilograms, steps seem like miles, and all things need to go right. And you need partners, all of us at some point anyway. I realize now that I can share some additional lessons from that season.

On Broad Peak summit day I ended up being the strongest member of our team, the only one with a chance for the top. As probably 30 of us on Broad Peak settled in for a short night at over 23,000 feet a wicked wind came up. Everyone for hours feared their tents were about to be ripped away, nobody slept. On K2 that night a Serbian climber named Hoselito was indeed sheared off his perch, and as he dangled from an anchor Pemba answered his cries and saved him. No one would consider going for the top in that wind. Then suddenly at about 2:30am it stopped. It was like being transported; in one minute it went from scary tempest to a starry, calm night, the usual 25 below or so. Everyone on Broad Peak booted up and raced off, despite the later-than-planned start and no sleep. My partner Dave Watson took off I believe without drinking or eating anything. I decided that on one of the half-dozen toughest endurance days of my life I needed at least a basic ration of unwarm tea and a cup of grape-nuts in milk. I was one of the last to leave camp, but I ended up somehow passing people.

I caught up to and teamed with Oh Eun-sun, one of two Korean women then aiming to be the first woman to climb all 8000m peaks. Others who were real pros at 8000 meters, including Daniel Nardi and Veikka Gustafsson, were ahead in a real league of their own, with things going well for them but still in for a very long day. As a beautiful day dawned I kept telling myself I wouldn’t push to my limits, at 50 years old I was “just” a photographer, I needed to catch up to Dave and get shots of him skiing down, and I knew we both needed to save something for our real show, K2 the following week. Oh and I traded off breaking trail for each other in breakable crust 8 or 10 inches deep. I enjoyed her company. I noticed how she carried nothing but a small camcorder clipped to her harness; no water, no food, no extra anything, no pack at all. I had a liter thermos and about 8 ounces of some kind of snack, plus spare mittens. Behind us were a team of several Spaniards. Then the crust hardened a bit, and Oh, who probably weighs 100 pounds or less, stopped breaking through. She started walking on the crust like it was a sidewalk and cruised on ahead, while I kept punching through with every gasping step. The Spaniards slowly caught up to me in my lead toil, but they said they didn’t feel strong enough to take over breaking trail. They took a rest and I kept going.

I made it up to the bergschrund as I saw Oh climb up a convenient snow ramp leading over it and onto the easy final slope to the col. To my right was a guy coming up, he carried skis. I realized it was Dave. In the dark two separate routes had developed, and somehow I had gotten ahead of him. He came over and said he felt awful, he had puked a couple of times, he’d rested for awhile at the very high camp that the Iranian team had put up, and he was turning around. Dave has climbed Everest twice, and throughout the trip he had been the strongest among us. When he says he’s going down, it’s because he has to.

I thought about what I should do for about one minute. I was there especially to get pictures of Dave skiing, something very few people have done on an 8000er. I really wanted to get to the col at least to see the undoubtedly amazing other side of the Karakoram. But Dave was not looking too good. The Spaniards arrived and a couple of them were surprised and perhaps a little disappointed that I was also turning around, even though I was still moving relatively strong. There’s a long way to go on Broad Peak’s summit ridge. My instinct was to stick with my partner, and that’s what I did.

I poured Dave some tea from my thermos. He stepped into his skis, I got out my camera. He started skiing and I started marching down, sort of keeping up. He would do a few turns in the crappy crust and variable powder and then stop and gasp. A couple of times he stopped and dry-puked. He’s an amazing skier. I got some good shots, with K2 behind, Nanga Parbat way off to the southwest. Within an hour we’d descended about 1500 feet and he started feeling a lot better. He even pulled off a series of jump turns in the crust. He got down to our tents 15 minutes ahead of me, and I was glad marginally thicker air was already doing him better.

About that time I fell knee-deep into a crevasse. I could feel the space beneath my dangling feet, and I grasped over to clutch at something solid. This was dangerous. I was right on the route everyone had walked on, and there were supposedly no crevasses up there, but in that drought year I found one. I felt extra imperiled because I knew that even though there were some 30-odd internationally experienced climbers in the vicinity on that summit day, none had any rope. The nearest length of cord was thousands of feet below; if I or anyone else had fallen in deeper there could have been no rescue. That’s how hard you work up there, nobody wants to carry a single ounce. It took five minutes but I swam out, the crust supported me.

Dave and I packed up Camp 3 with a good 40 pounds each. He skied down and got to Camp 2 a good hour ahead of me. The next day we loaded up everything from Camp 2 as well. With Chuck Boyd having gone down some days before not feeling well, and extreme skier extraordinaire Dan McCann having already flown home after surviving a horrendous fall, Dave and I had to carry absurd loads, at least 90 pounds each. Negotiating over clifflets and icy slopes even fixed with rope was tough while tottering under that kind of burden. At one point on glazed-over rock Dave slipped and hung from his ascender. He called for help, and it was all we could both do to get him back up and unweighted from the rope so he could continue down. About 8 of us waited overnight at Camp 1, as per Veikka’s radio recommendations, because the afternoon rockfall was horrendous. The next dawn we made it down through the trashy limestone and melt cascades and rockfall and tattered ropes that made up Broad Peak’s pitiful lower slopes in that season after an almost snowless winter and spring. When we got to the bottom Dave turned on the radio and heard the awful news unfolding on K2.

With each 8000 meter peak season all sorts of tragic and heroic stories come through the wires. My one-season experience with how people operate up there prompts a question: What if I had decided to keep going up on Broad Peak? Several people have asked me why I didn’t. Perhaps that’s the norm. I don’t think Dave would have thought the worse of me, and had our situations been reversed, he probably would have kept going up. He was at that younger stage of life. In retrospect we can see that he had played the odds ok, he was quite capable to get himself down. Well, regardless of the odds I wouldn’t have felt good about leaving him in an uncertain condition. Second, I wouldn’t have gotten the photos, my primary role and avenue to success on the trip. Third is my main point here, to speak to how climbers—and people in general—do and don’t work together. If I’d continued up I wouldn’t have felt good in an extreme situation with no partner, and in proximity to a dozen or more acquaintances any of whom I might have to count on, or who might have to count on me. That struck me as pretty strung out. Basically I hadn’t prepared to solo Broad Peak, and I’ve never liked the idea of tossing my lots to work around people in extreme situations whose trust I have no basis to share.

Follow through with the possibility though: if I did continue up, and everything had gone well to the top, then there would be the matter of getting down and getting all our gear down. I had no radio, Dave carried our shared unit so we could talk to basecamp. We would have had no way to coordinate reuniting for descent, no way to know how the other was doing, no way to figure out how to divvie the loads, no way to help each other on the long descent. At the very least, the potential for acrimony would have been high, with me stumbling beyond exhaustion and utterly spent from the summit, Dave hopefully ok but having to guess what to leave for me and whether to wait and for how long, each of us on our own but still counting on each other.

And that describes well a dysfunction with how so much of modern life goes on now, notably on 8000 meter peaks but in most every sphere. People go into endeavors grand and small aspiring to be individuals and practically wanting little to do with each other, all the while being fairly or utterly dependent on everyone else in that sphere. We want freedom and we want support and we push the envelope in both directions at the same time. I was surprised to read in the great Ed Viesturs’s autobiography that even he steered his plans toward a thankful use of fixed ropes that other parties had strung up. A crack French team preparing to do the west face of K2 alpine style that 2008 season came over to acclimatize with all of us on Broad Peak, and they naturally made liberal use of the fixed ropes that we’d strung. Reinhold Messner is always described as a lone superman, but on many peaks and especially on K2 he had partners and jugged fixed ropes like everyone else. It’s just super hard to both acclimatize and climb without sharing the logistical challenge, much less the emotional challenge. Honest sharing is fine, I’ll leave it to others and other times to declare standards of 8000 meter ascent legitimacy. But when there’s stress and fungible muddiness in partnering and everyone maneuvering for private commercial glory it creates shaky partnerships and unreliable dependencies—this is what sets the stage for hard and bitter times, and sometimes disaster. Press reports and sponsorships and our culture all slant that way. Whole expedition tales are summarized in grossly simple lists of summiters and when and how many more to go. That publicity structure effectively focuses the endeavors, and climbers force themselves into half-trusted alliances they might hope to leave any step of the way.

To compare though, like any American I couldn’t find fulfillment within the Russian or Korean expedition model, where a big team of comrades operates under a commander issuing assignments and coordinates.

Natural partnerships can remain simple even in extreme situations, and we all know how they work when we climb in our local mountains. The four Norwegians on K2 had it going seamlessly, as did Veikka and his two partners. Certainly they were commercially motivated and supported teams. But first and foremost they were partners, they knew and trusted each other and stuck with each other from start to finish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0pPhTLvzu4

Dave Watson skiing on Broad Pk. ca. 24,500 feet, K2 behind. Karakoram, PakistanDave Watson skiing Broad Peak

Deeper Seeing; Post-color Black and White

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Storm Clouds Gathering over White Mountains

 

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Spring Storm and Virga, Owens Valley and White Mountains

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Eastern Sierra Near Big Pine

Photography for most of us has for some time been mostly about colors, myself included. Ever since I studied under and then worked with Galen Rowell I’ve learned how to find color in the mountains; from alpenglows to floral and geologic combinations, to the jackets that people wear to complement the land…. Nothing wrong with that, Georgia O’Keefe called herself a colorist. We’ve all enjoyed the amazing developments in color technologies, to the point now that we expect every local newspaper and brochure to feed us in color. But this year I’ve started to work selected images in black and white, and it’s opening my eyes anew.

Our first reaction to the idea of black and white photography is that it’s classic, a style from the past. I don’t mind that message, but quickly I’ve relearned how looking at color files and the colored world around me for the black and white structures within is a path to deeper seeing. When you look in black and white you see light and shadow in a purer form. And when you load a digital image onto your computer and take it to monochrome and it works in tones, you understand that color can be a distraction. By taking color away we see the image’s core design more clearly; the shape, form, light, shadows, and the texture of the subject come right up front. Good black and white is like a hidden story disclosed, a visual tale hidden within the color world we so easily take for granted now. When I work in monochrome I feel more like a craftsman, bringing out that hidden tale. Today we are surrounded by color imagery, and even when we see a great color photograph now we turn to seek the next almost as soon as we admire the first; in this context black and white photography can come forward as something special; it’s post-color art that draws our eye to look deeper and longer.

The better digital cameras also enable a new era of great black and white. I now use a Nikon D800e with my old Zeiss-Contax lenses. This system gathers as much resolution as a 4×5 film camera, and captures detail through a wider range of values than even black and white film. I turn selected RAW images to monochrome in my first stage of processing, using Iridient Developer software. The latitude for “burning and dodging” light and dark is pretty impressive.

Wide latitude or not, an image still is only as good as the moment of shutterclick. Composition and light on the subject will always define what you can and (and for me, what I want) to portray. From there, in digital monochrome you have wonderful latitude in lightening and darkening different parts of the image to strengthen the story. In color, to avoid unharsh hues and get pleasant colors you generally need to shoot at times of lower light, often morning or evening, when colors are not burned with contrast. But when you’re working with relative values, you might be able to shoot in the middle of a bright day, depending on the subject and your vision for light and shadow. The image here of Yosemite falls I took at about 2:30 in the afternoon, when the high sun cast across the falls and cliff in a way that brings out the breathtaking feel of the valley under the heat of a pleasant spring day in California’s backcountry. In color this image looks kind of baked; the hues are contrasty and they detract.

Feel free to comment and if you like any one or two of these images in particular let me know.

Spring Storm and Virga over Owens Valley, White Mountains

 

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Eureka Sand Dunes

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Budding Cottonwood, White Mountains

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Owens Valley near Independence

 

 

 

Can We Find Common Sense in Los Angeles ?

This week I wrote an essay for the Inyo Register, about how common sense tells us that Los Angeles should integrate solar energy into its city landscape rather than panel over swaths of the Owens Valley. (Here’s the link: http://inyoregister.com/node/5704). The Department of Water and Power isn’t saying if they’ve even considered that common sense solution. So just what is the logic for installing panels 200 miles distant from a famously sunny metropolis?

From the point of view of LA’s Dept. of Water and Power, the ratepayers of Los Angeles should benefit from the Department’s purchase of the Owens Valley land 100 years ago. They already own the Owens Valley land, and the Department’s mandate is to provide power to their ratepayers using their capital in the most financially efficient way they can. If they were to “go shopping” for solar panel space in Los Angeles, they’d have to enter into discussions and negotiations with landowners, be they private homeowners or mall and parking lot owners, maybe CalTrans…. This is understandably a complicated idea, and it’s possible that the utility would be pressed to pay for the right to erect solar collectors. From DWP’s perspective, why should they bother negotiating for installation space when they did their shopping 100 years ago?

The problem gets to the root of how we operate as a civilization. For ratepayers, electricity comes from switches, water from faucets, and as long as you pay your bills it all works great. In the same way, land in our system comes from acquisition. It’s acquired capital. DWP has an impressive portfolio, and they’re operating like a private capital group developing their investments. All well and good, except that they’re not a business working within a market, they’re a monopoly public utility with powers tied to public mandates and elected officials.

The second and even grander conflict is that, just as water comes from the earth and sky not faucets and electricity comes from natural energy sources not switches, land originates not as capital but as a fact of creation. We can mandate all the private property assertions we want, but not even DWP can create land, and when big swaths of land that people love and that plants and animals live on is proposed to be paneled over we all have a stake we can feel. Our freedom-loving brains and our ownership laws say that landowners have the right to develop their deeded land as they see fit. Yet our hearts know, for instance, that all Californians have a stake in how big swaths of the Eastern Sierra are managed. From neighborhood CC&R’s to the Mono Lake public trust decision (and of course so much more), we have passed laws that bring public interest to bear on private capital rights. When there’s lots of money, land, and water at play, we can expect big arguments. The people of Los Angeles and their city council need to hear the arguments here.

In this case, it seems clear that DWP is trying to get around even discussing the broader public values in their holdings on the Owens Valley floor. From their perspective as a capital-enhancing utility, ratepayers are simply bill-payers and land is simply capital. But in their role as a public agency accountable to elected officials there’s inherent complexity. There’s voters. I bet if you put the question before the Los Angeles voters, should they carpet-panel the Owens Valley or should they approach landowners—especially owners of big, baking parking lots—and offer to cover even parts of their lots with super-green and cool-looking solar panels that shade their cars, people would vote for the latter. Would it cost more? We don’t know because the Department hasn’t disclosed if they’ve even asked the question. But the fact that they’ve offered to pay our disturbingly pliable Inyo County to not sue over this case makes it clear they’d like to play the game like a private capital group, keeping their supposedly public decision-making cards to themselves.

Here’s my suggestion: that the LA City Council come up with legislation to generate and enhance the civic will to integrate solar panels into the city’s amply sunny landscape. Sure there’d be negotiations. But should a mall owner be compensated for allowing solar panels to go up over their property, or should the city be compensated for providing shade and a genuinely green and civic image enhancement? This could be an even trade. Trader Joe’s for instance ought to jump at the opportunity to enhance their creds and the comfort of their customers. Compare whatever compensation costs against the transmission loss, power line costs, and compensation bribes inherent in the Owens Valley installation and let’s see. The State’s mandate to include more renewable energy is an opportunity to make the original Sunbelt city a place that over-sunned cities all over the world will look up to. We need leadership to create a city where people and institutions actually talk to each other to accomplish mutual goals, including giving due respect to their hinterland properties.

Mind-Body Connections

I’ve recently finished reading Healing Back Pain, The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno. A couple of friends told me how within six weeks after reading this book their back pain went away. That was the cure, they read the book. Say what? Yes, the position of this book is that a lot of pain, especially back pain, arises not from any misalignment, or disc issues, or overwork, or strain or any physical source, but rather it stems from pain in the mind. Dr. Sarno tells in medically correct prose how time after time he has successfully treated patients by helping them explore that they are suffering from hard times: harsh emotions sent from their mind course down through their central nervous system, restricting blood flow and causing pain. And as the patient discovers how their mind has been shielding them from emotional injury by distracting them into feeling physical pain, the distraction no longer works. The pain goes away, and the circumstances that created the emotional pain are seen for what they are. That’s how it worked for my friends Christy and Lissy.

Without delving into the details of what Sarno calls “Tension Myositis Syndrome,” a lot of us wellness practitioners talk about how different emotions “inhabit the body.” Anger, fear, hurt, shame, anxiety, guilt, sadness…they all take away the freedom in our motion, the clarity of our thinking, the alignment of our posture, and they put the hurt onto the medial glutes, the hips, the lumbar, the trapezius, and the heart…. This is actually not a new idea, in fact it’s rediscovering what the ancients knew and really what our bodies know very well, that we are a mind-body system. For a few centuries though we’ve been operating (literally and metaphorically) by a strangely controlling and very fallible assumption, that the body is a chemical-physical machine that will do what we tell it to, that corrections come from surgeries, physical therapies and chemical manipulations, and that we are at our highest capacity when our minds operate independently and computer-like, by disembodied logic.

The classic statement for the inspiration of the body-as-machine tradition was Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Defining us by logic alone; what was he thinking? Did the man really exist only as thought? Why didn’t he declare, I feel therefore I am? Just as easily he could have said, I fear therefore I am, or better yet, I love therefore I am. And why did we follow him down the road of disembodied logic and pretty much go about dismissing as noise all the messages of life that don’t subscribe to said logic? And of course the whole idea crumbles to the level of a joke on all of us when we learn that Descartes’ inspiration for his declaration was a dream from an angel—not a particularly logic-based source. Logic is a powerful tool, and even as we continue to use and need it every day we are steadily unwinding the imposed belief that body and mind are separate with the body subordinate, like driver and car. A declaration that the mind can command everything is essentially a wrong assumption and at its most extreme it is a declaration of war on the body. Today we are ramming into the limitations of Descartes’ assertions, and accepting that heart and body awareness play into the steerage of our lives.

Maybe the most powerful way to understand how mind and spirit inhabit the body is the chakra system, developed by yogis in India. The best treatise I’ve seen on the seven wheel-centers of life-energy that stack up along the spine is Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith. Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Rapp, professor at Deep Springs College and formerly at Stanford for turning me on to this book. From the tailbone-area chakra where we contain confidence or fear for our very existence, through our emotional-sexual groin, to the belly chakra that centers our intentions for presence in society, up through the central heart chakra where love generates, on through our creative and intuitive centers and up to the spiritual foramen that finds links to the cosmos, the chakra system is at the very least a map for personal growth. More powerfully, it is a system of awareness that pays dividends as we delve into it over years of practice. One aspect explained well in Judith’s book is how the chakras operate with both rising and sinking energy. Upward is liberation, downward is manifestation, and we are healthy when energy from both directions flows through. Without downward rootedness in the things and processes of everyday life, spiritual sensations are doomed to float aimlessly. Without a spiritual awareness and upward seeking, the things and processes of everyday life are just that, bound to stray and mould in their own dark corners.

In 2001 I was in an airplane crash that crushed at least 3 of my lumbar vertebrae. I was damaged, kind of fundamentally. Today the bones and joints have been physically healed for over a decade, and I rarely feel pain. But for many years and even still I have movement restrictions in that core area of my body. Scar tissue? Not really. Damaged muscles and ligaments? Not any more. I don’t think doctors have a working physical explanation of what limits someone with an “old” injury like this, and I find it most helpful to accept simply that fear inhabits that center of my body. Of course it’s afraid, I suffered a horrendous trauma. My lumbar area wants to protect itself, and my mind wants to reinforce that protection.

But movement is reassuring, and vital. T’ai-chi and yoga and walking and running and rock climbing all are good for me partly by enhancing blood flow, but I suspect that the more important point is that movement reassures those muscles, bones, and joints and probably the part of the mind that manages them that we, body and mind, are all free to move now without fear of getting hurt again. It takes time. There’s been a mental-spiritual recovery that roughly correlates with my physical recovery. I emerged out of stunned terror to awareness and appreciation that I was going to live, and I’ve progressed through rediscovering that I have renewed motivations and a role in life, I’ve sired a son, and onward through the manifestations and aspirations of a roughly healthy individual, all the time working to expand mobility and develop fortitude along my injured spine.

In T’ai-chi practice we integrate movement through the spine, in fact we put the spine in charge. As my teacher Mr. Pang says, we practice because our minds need rest and our bodies need exercise. We do T’ai-chi’s “choreography” with the mind simply paying attention to movement through all the joints, from the center of the body down through the hips and knees, upward through the chest and shoulders, feeling the feet accept the shifting of our weight and our hands at the end of our arms aware but soft as air, just following direction from the very defined center. We pay attention to opening tense areas and activating dead areas, giving less and less quarter to pain or fear holding on with tension. With practice we feel each movement evolve into the next and the next with unrestrained accuracy and fluidness—effective, centered, and relaxed certainty. And, we pay special attention to balancing the paradox of movement: we punch by pressing into the ground through our spine and legs, we push right by opening left. Every movement is facilitated by applying the counterforce. When we are done practicing, the mind comes back in to a slightly new and refreshed body, and thoughts come naturally more positive.

I’ve poked around with a variety of wellness practices, and I’ve found T’ai-chi to be especially effective and straightforward in calling the mind to quiet down and inhabit our whole body. In fact, we can think of it as moving so that the body inhabits the mind, with toe-to-head effectiveness. Without strain you just find the most effective and powerful movements. As Mr. Pang said long before Nike, we just do it.

Stay tuned for a T’ai-chi for Climbers workshop at Body Wisdom studio in Bishop.

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