Friday, January 18, 2008

Feathered Friends

The upper limits of Mt Everest sit squarely in the jet stream. The reason that most climbs happen in the month of May is that throughout the year, the top of the mountain is buffeted by winds so fast that it remains unclimbable. Then in May, right before the summer monsoon season begins, a few weeks of calm weather prevail and the jet stream raises high enough that you have the opportunity to sneak up to the top in relative calm. This doesn't remove the temperature extremes, just the wind. Negative 40 is a standard temperature seen at high camp on summit day, so imagine what that would do with winds. I have a great picture of me on Washburn's Thumb, Mt McKinley in negative 40. The difference here is that Washburn's Thumb sits at 16,500', which happens to be 1,000' below the elevation of Everest Base Camp. All stars coming into line, add another 10,000' on to that before I'll be at Camp 4, preparing for our summit push. Please note the frost on my forehead. There's no other way to say it, negative 40 is cold. Mind numbingly cold.

In order to be comfortable in high winds, I'm having a down climbing suit built specifically for this trip. In a nutshell, this is a giant ball of down, wrapped around you in a way where you look like that kid on "Christmas Story"- the one that was all bundled up and then after his mom had just finished wrapping him up for school said that he had to hit the bathroom? Yeah. You have this little teeny slit where you can see out of and the rest of you is encapsulated in foofy down. It's truly kick-ass, but when I tried on a sample for sizing purposes it made me sweat inside of 3 minutes.

Feathered Friends is a local outfitter in Seattle and which focuses on specialized high altitude climbing equipment. It's actually a bit of a local legend and it's walls are adorned with climbing memorabilia from countless climbs spanning the globe. Unlike REI which is a sales machine for the masses, Feathered Friends is there to provide specific gear to a specific market, and based on this experience making such high quality gear, I went in and had one sized. I'm a humongo fan of the bumblebee look- easy to find in the white landscape and not all that common. So the fabrics I chose are wind resistant, breathable and bright, screaming yellow.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Permit Co$ts- Ouch

The first chunk of serious cash is now in. I wanted to cry. Seriously. That's not a joke. To make it even freakier, this was just to cover Nepal climbing permits. While there is a bit of speculation on exactly what is happening in the future surrounding climbing permit fees both in China and Nepal, for now there is definitely a difference in costs:

China- North Side: $4,900 per person (regardless of team size)
Nepal- South Side: $10,000 per person (team size can change overall cost)
Nepal also incorporates a $20,000 surcharge on teams wishing to attempt South Col Route.

It's not exactly a secret that China isn't hurting for cash these days. Nepal on the other hand, is. The poorest country in Asia, Nepal's climber permit philosophy essentially follows the adage of "the higher you climb, the more you pay". Given that there doesn't appear to be another mountain shooting up from the sea to challenge Everest's title as World's Highest Mountain, Nepal clearly recognizes that climbers from around the world will continue to come to Kathmandu. So, they can consistently overcharge with no fear of competition.

This link provides an interesting perspective on team costs and interface with the Chinese and Nepali Governments on climbing permits:

Interestingly, one of the article points involves China's interest in bringing the Olympic flame to the top of Everest during this coming year's Olympic Torch Relay leading up to the Beijing Summer Games. In a nutshell, the Chinese are very interested in the flame, and not so much on other teams being on the north side of the mountain. That does say something for the South Side and at the very least being able to feel like I'm part of an International climber community looking to achieve something alongside others. I'm guessing that with all the visibility of the Olympic flame this season, non-Chinese teams on the North Side are in for an interesting coexistence.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary: 1919-2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, First to Scale Mt Everest, Passes Away

Among all his accomplishments, the adventurer has said his work with the Sherpa people of Nepal has been the most significant to him.
By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, the mountain-climbing New Zealand beekeeper who became a mid-20th century hero as the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, has died. He was 88.

Hillary, who made his historic climb to the top of the world's highest mountain with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, died Friday, according to an announcement from the office of New Zealand's prime minister Helen Clark. The cause and place of death were not immediately reported.

Eight previous British expeditions had failed to reach the top of the 29,035 foot peak and a number of expedition members had died in the process, most famously climbing partners George Mallory and Andrew Irvine who disappeared on Everest in 1924. But at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing made it to the top of the world.

Hillary's first words, to fellow climber George Lowe, when he and Tenzing returned from the summit were, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!"

Word of the British Everest expedition's success reached England the night before the coronation of Elizabeth II, resulting in a memorable newspaper headline the next morning: "All this and Everest too!"

Hillary and John Hunt, the British Army colonel who led the Everest expedition, were knighted by Queen Elizabeth; and Tenzing received the George Medal, the second-highest award for gallantry that can be given to a civilian.

Hailed as one of the 20th century's great adventurers, the 33-year-old Hillary became one of the most famous men alive, with his long, rugged face appearing on everything from magazine covers to postage stamps.
The tall and lean Hillary never expected to become a world-renowned celebrity. "I was a bit naive, really," he told the Detroit Free Press in 2000. "I was just a country boy. I thought the mountaineering world would be interested, but I never dreamed that it would have that effect on people who didn't climb." And, he maintained, he never regarded himself as a hero. "I was a mountaineer who worked to reach the summits of mountains," he told USA Today in 1998. "Even in my 79th year, I don't believe a word of the rubbish printed over the years.'

In 1985, he became New Zealand High Commissioner (ambassador) to India and was based in New Delhi for the several years. But along with the triumphs came tragedy. In 1975, Hillary's first wife, Louise, and their 16-year-old daughter, Belinda, were killed when the single-engine plane they were flying in crashed on takeoff at the airport in Katmandu.

In 1989, he married June Mulgrew, a longtime family friend and widow of fellow mountaineer Peter Mulgrew, who had taken Hillary's place as a commentator on a 1979 Antarctic sightseeing flight and died when the plane crashed.

Over the years, Hillary served as a camping equipment advisor for Sears Roebuck, lectured widely and wrote a number of books, including "High Adventure," "The Crossing of Antarctica," "No Latitude for Error," "From the Ocean to the Sky," "Nothing Venture, Nothing Win" and "View from the Summit."

Over the past four decades, Hillary spent much of his time raising funds for the Himalayan Trust. He founded the nonprofit organization in 1961 as a way to give back to the Sherpas, one of the many ethnic groups native to Nepal, who served as guides for Western expeditions in the Himalayas. By 2006, the Trust had built 27 schools, two hospitals and 13 village health clinics, in addition to rebuilding bridges, constructing drinking water systems and providing student scholarships, among other projects.

"Nothing in life can be more satisfying than being the first," Hillary reflected in 2000, "but what I'm proudest of is my work in the Himalayas." The middle of three children, Hillary was born July 20, 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand. His father ran a small weekly newspaper in the country town of Tuakau, where the family lived on seven acres that included a half-dozen cows, a large vegetable garden and orchards. Hillary's father's hobby was beekeeping, and he eventually abandoned journalism to run what had become a profitable commercial beekeeping enterprise.

Introverted and bookish, Hillary did so well in grammar school that he skipped two grades. But the gawky boy who would one day conquer Everest was shorter and weaker than his classmates in junior high school. Inept at sports and gymnastics, he suffered hazing from both his classmates and his athletics teacher.

Intending to become an engineer, he entered the University of Auckland. But, he later said, his found it difficult to adapt and lacked interest, so he dropped out after two years and went to work in his father's thriving beekeeping business.

Hillary, who first saw snow at 16 when he went on a school skiing trip to Mt. Ruapehu on New Zealand's North Island, began climbing four years later when he, a friend and a guide climbed a small peak near a resort on the South Island. In 1944, he was called up for service in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and flew on Catalina flying boats in search and rescue operations in Fiji. After the war, he returned to climbing and scaled New Zealand's snow-covered, 12,349-foot Mount Cook, which he later described as "the ambition of all local climbers." "I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do, spend my life among the mountains and the snow and the ice," he told the Detroit Free Press in 2000. "I had never been happier in my life, and I couldn't wait to do it again."

Tenzing died of a lung infection in 1986 at 72.

In addition to his wife, Hillary is survived by his children Peter and Sarah and several grandchildren.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mt Rainier West Side Highway

This past Saturday, a small team departed from Seattle at 5am and headed up the West Side Highway at Mt Rainier National Park. Arriving in heavy snow at the Nisqually Gate, we were greeted by Deb Dunlavey, the Special Permit Coordinator for the park and who expressed a great deal of interest in telling us about the volume of snow that the park had accumulated over the past few weeks, and the expected foot over the next day. I think she may have been a little taken aback by all four of us looking back at her with excited expressions instead of either turning back or looking defeated. A little snow? Come on, it'll take more than a little snow to turn us back. We provided sat phone #, intended travel route and a quick list of our technical equipment. Once past the Gate, we moved the short distance to the West Side Highway turnoff, and prepared our equipment.

About a mile in from the Nisqually Gate, a gravelly road turnoff nestled in a woody band of thick brush that begins at 2,500'marks the start of West Side Highway, and in our case, the beginning of our trail. In summer months, a gate is opened, the road cleared, and vehicle traffic can continue another 4 miles up the West Side Highway to an intermittent parking lot. However, in winter months the snow frequently descends down to the start of the Highway- more of a name given to this one lane'd stretch of gravel from it's beginnings than to describe today's 8 lane monsters. The only winter traffic the West Side Highway sees these days are cross-country skiiers or in our case snow shoers. Judging from the lack of even a footprint in the snow where we were parked, I'd hazard a guess that we were the first group of people to visit the West Side Highway in quite some time.

We noticed straight away that the snow- falling all the way down to where our vehicles were parked- was fairly deep. So we threw on snowshoes from the get-go and loaded up. We had two snow sleds along, which were to supply us with miscellaneous technical and overnight equipment we might have needed as well as extras of what was in our pack. We were prepared to spend quite a bit of time out in the Rainier outlands if the weather soured and it came down to it. But given our mode of travel and ability to back navigate using GPS, there really wasn't much of a need for 6 days of white gas all things considered.

The West Side Highway winds its way through the deep vegetation of a Pacific Northwest forest. Filled with old growth trees so large four people couldn't touch hands by wrapping themselves around, thick, ferny underbrush completes the denseness of of what amounts to a wide range of pines, oaks, and other trees
stretching to the sky. Moving upward from the trailhead, the road only puts on a few hundred feet of elevation before reaching the intermittent parking lot but those few miles were slow going. Snow getting deeper and softer, our team pressed on breaking trail and slowly coming up behind were the two sleds.

Finally reaching the intermittent parking lot somewhere in the neighborhood of 10:30, we noticed that the snow was already 3' deep and added our snowshoe "tails"- specifically designed to add floatation to softer or deeper snow. Given that several of our team are larger and heavier guys, we were already at the upper limit of what snowshoes are designed to support. I think that's funny in a way- everything seems to be rated for an average male of 165 to 170. I weigh in at over 200, thanks to muscle mass. So for snowshoes that are designed for a little, thin guy wearing a pack, I'm already at the top end of the rating scale without even a pack on. What that means is that I sink in deeper while the little guy floats on top of the snow, happy as can be. Ugh.

We moved through the parking lot and then spent 1 1/2 hours chest deep in snow, routefinding through a half mile piece of trail that had been completely washed out by the river. It is here that you see the true unharnessed force of moving water. At one time, the Highway was able to lazily wind through the forest alongside the river. However, some time in the early '90s, winter floods erased a portion of the roadbed, thereby closing the road to vehicle traffic onward and upward to Round Pass. Over the ensuing years, the park hasn't gone in to upgrade or repair the West Side Highway, so it has continued to deteriorate. Two years ago, the washout was roughly 1/4 mile long and truly just flanked the river. After last years flooding, another full 1/4 mile of road has completely vanished, replaced by gullies and rocky strata as a new arm of the river now bubbles down what used to be a gravelly and graded path. Someone has taken a log, flattening one side to make a rudimentary bridge over what used to be an established overpass capable of vehicle traffic. 50 yards downstream, one of the 8 foot wide galvanized steel containment tubes lies haphazardly in a jumble of rocks where the flood tossed it as if a giant hand had swatted a fruit fly. Today, the waters remained calm and snow silently fell while we broke trail to the log and shoveled 4' of snow off so we could pass.

After regaining the trail and recharging for a few minutes, we continued across another ravine and then up, up, up through a series of switchbacks passing through 3,500'. Trees and branches were covered in a thick white blanket, the skies were grey and swollen with more snow to come and acting as an insulator, everything was deathly silent. Beautiful, but completely still other than the sound of our voices or the sleds scraping along behind us. Off in the distance, the sky was alive with more snow heading our way.

Still quite low considering the sheer height of the 14,410' mountain immediately adjacent to us, but with the snow building up and coupled with trail breaking, the day became long and hours more tiring. Because the nearest person was miles away, the snow was our own- pristine powder where we set the pace, broke trail and had to drag our infernal sleds behind us. God almighty those things were frustrating at times. Good because having them meant we weren't putting all that extra equipment on our shoulders, bad because sled gear would fall off, the sled would flip, or generally weigh you down. After stopping at Tahoma Pass to set up camp for the night, I could feel the sled tugging on my pack for hours- almost like the swaying one feels after spending the day on a boat.

Once at Tahoma Pass, we went about setting up camp for the night. Doc Peterson turned to on kicking off our snow shelter, Leonard and I started shoveling out a cook shelter, and Rick gathered wood and matting. We quickly learned that our snowshoes were deceiving- while we were tromping around happily, the snow layer had a current depth of over 5 feet. As we dug down, the shelters became deeper.. and deeper.. and deeper. First to be completed was the cook shelter, which we built with ledges to sit on and relax our weary legs. It had been a full 8 hours to go the 6 miles that we had traveled so we were collectively looking forward to a steak dinner, some scotch, and a warm camp fire.

For as heavy as they are, we were all thankful that we had humped in DuraFlame logs to help get a coal bed going and judicious use of white gas had a fun effect that could warm up the entire cook shelter in a matter of seconds. Ever see a 5 foot high flame? Toss some white gas on a DuraFlame for a great photo op. The one on the right is titled "Where's Leonard?" So warm.. 20 degree night air and easily in the 40s around the cooking shelter where wet clothes steamed off moisture and after a few minutes all of us were asking "hey, are your toes burning inside your boots?". Using the fire, we cooked up steaks- although the first few were seared on the outside, raw on the inside. Is this what it was like for cavemen, gnawing away on a slab of Wooly Mammoth? Nasty. While Doc P and Ricks steaks were well cooked the entire way through, Leonard and I ended up looking like something out of Survivorman- gnawing away on our steaks to tear off the cooked parts, returning a scary looking piece half the size and looking like it had been beaten with a hammer to finish cooking on the flame. Doc even went so far as to marinate his in Scotch. Serious comfort food.

After the evening whiled away, we crawled into the sleep shelter and then our bags for a restful night sleep. I think we slept for close to 10 hours that night, waking up at 8 and realizing that we had received another inch or so of snow. We finally emerged from our shelter like Groundhog Day, rubbing our eyes, yawning and blinking at a beautiful morning sun dancing off the trees a few hundred feet above us. We made my favorite mountain energy meal: bagels with cream cheese and bacon. Yum. You can't eat too many of them back down here, but up in the mountains there is little guilt to a meal that provides plenty of slow-burning fuel to sustain several hours of march. As the team packed up, the sun streamed through the trees to make our departure from Tahoma Pass a bittersweet moment. Shoveling in our area, we started making our way down the trail we had carved the day before, looking back one last time before turning the corner and striking back out on the long trip home.