December 12, 2014

The Passing of Lars Spurkland

Local ski activist and family friend Lars Spurkland passed away this morning. 

Taking a pause mid descent with Lars and Corky Still on Captain's Chair last Spring.

One of my most memorable times in the mountains was early on in my climbing career with Lars. And in some ways, it is a miracle that either of us survived it. 

Late April 2003. Unseasonably warm temps (90 degrees in Talkeetna) and a winter snowpack combined to result in very unstable cornices. Lars and I, pretty inexperienced at the time, were attempting an alpine style ascent of Foraker's SE ridge via the SW toe. 

The snow was unconsolidated, the cornices were large, and there was no opportunity for any decent pro in this particular spot. 'The big guy' Lars was following in my tracks. An estimated 60 foot long hunk of cornice 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep broke out from beneath his feet. I suppose not surprising that he triggered it while I had not while using the same steps as Lars has always outweighed me. I heard a yell and the air around me depressurized as the falling snow left a vacuum behind it. 

It was one of those special moments when everything is on the line and there is only opportunity for one decision, one action before choice is taken away by the continuing flow of events. 

The rope ripped through the unconsolidated snow, cutting further into the remaining cornice as I threw myself into self arrest just barely on the opposing slope of this very narrow & corniced ridge. I knew, just knew, that we were both going to die and I imagine Lars did too. But somehow I was able to hold Lars as he fell, buffeted by masses of falling snow. It shouldn't have worked. I think at the time that Lars weighed about 215, and each of our packs weighed about 60. I think he fell about 40 feet. If it wasn't for the rope cutting into the cornice, thereby decreasing the force of his fall it would be a physical impossibility. 

10 minutes went by with me digging deep with everything I had just to maintain my self arrest position with no opportunity to build an anchor. 10 minutes of absolute early morning Alaska Range silence, with no backup and no anchor. 

But then the impossible happened and Lars' weight began to lift. Eventually I gained enough confidence in his ability to move, still with no communication, that I flipped into a snowseat belay and belayed him up as he climbed. Finally he pulled on to the ridge crest, unharmed but badly shaken. He had taken a large inverted fall above 2000 feet of air. 

It was one of those experiences that that can have a strong effect on a friendship or climbing partnership. Lars and I had skiied together many times but had never climbed together prior to this. His brother Jan, whom I had climbed Denali with several years earlier, had been planning to be the third on the trip but was unable to come (I think due to knee injury). 

It could have been a cool replay of our childhood ski and sled adventures, playing with lincoln logs in the evenings in some kind of adult modality. I think we would have chosen a different line, something we could ski (perhaps the Sultana ridge), and things would have been safer in those strange conditions. As it was I think the experience acted as a bit of a wedge for Lars and I, and we didn't recreate much together again until I got lucky enough to get a ski day in on Captain's Chair with Lars and Corky Still last Spring. They were really fit from their season of coaching high school nordic and I struggled to keep up on the long skin with my massive skis. 

Nonetheless, we made great time, and each chose our own steep line on the first half of the descent. Corky and Lars took steep lines through the rocks while I skied the also steep chute we had bootpacked, coming in from the side. 

I don't know why Lars and I were allowed to survive on that day in April 2003 but I know that our lives and the lives of all those we love would be less rich due to our passage. I am glad that Lars was OK, and impressed with who he grew up to be. And damn, could that dude tele ski. It almost made me guilty to have my heels locked down seeing him ski those steeps freeheel like it was nothing. Thanks Lars for changing my life. I'm glad you got another 11 years.

December 2, 2014

A Quiet Movement

In the beginning of November we moved from Anchorage to Seward - A town of around 3,000 at the head of Resurrection Bay in the mighty Gulf of Alaska.

Panorama taken while running Crown Point Mine road, a Kenai Peninsula classic. 

Mount Alice and friends. Seward and its environs so far seems to present innumerable options for backcountry recreation including a lot of steep ski terrain.

Cool terrain hiding in the backcountry.

The Godwin glacier.

I returned to Anchorage for a visit at Thanksgiving. Took this panorama on the 9 mile approach back to Triangle Peak, where I put in a quiet solo attempt on 'The Prism' (5.7 WI4). I bailed when my first day of the season chops had me moving without my full confidence, and felt like I made the right decision.

Triangle Peak. 'The Prism' starts behind the central, low rock buttress and trends up and right to the summit. Two easier routes exist to the left.

The main body of 'The Prism.'

View toward Symphony and Eagle lakes.

View down the first pitch smear.

Second pitch.

View from top of second pitch.

Final pitches. I decided to rappel from here as I wasn't moving with the confidence needed to free solo the upper crux, and didn't wish to self belay for time concerns.

Second rappel anchor which got me to the ground.

On another note, I may have an opportunity to return to the Western Kokshall Too with Jess Roskelly, Ben Erdmann, and Kim Ladigas, though planning is only preliminary at this point. This photo is one I took of the 'small side' of the Western Kokshall Too. I hope this December finds you well!

April 2, 2014

Cabin Updates

I finally took some time off of work to ski and run, allow some catch up on sleep. Spring is finally here and though I am working for the next few months it will be much easier to get out. Ryan and I are hoping to head back to Kyrgyzstan in the Fall. I need to train. I have 12 weeks until I graduate from doctoral internship with Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium (AK-PIC). Then all that stands between me and graduating is my dissertation. I am proud to report that I am feeling more motivated lately and have been putting some work into it. 

A few highlights from the week:

Corky, Lars and I deciding on our lines on Captain's Chair - Photo Corky Still

Our lines on Captain's Chair

Quick stop before second half of Captain's Chair back to the road

Here are some updates on what the cabin looks like these days -

Sleep loft/storage with guard rail to prevent visitors from falling down

Main living area

A typical Spring morning at the cabin

You can see here that we have been cleaning the bark off the logs  and sanding them to prepare to re-chink the cabin's interior for a cleaner look, less dust, and better heat containment.

Dining area + front window

Linen closet above bed & tall bedroom window

Tool storage, bookshelves, & view into the living room - You can see here that these logs are only partially cleaned and not yet sanded at all.

The new bed - a queen, and its off the floor for more storage space underneath!

The bedroom

On another note, Ryan Johnson and I are talking about heading back to Kyrgyzstan for another battle with some of the Kyzyl Asker area's fine unclimbed ice and mixed routes. I'll update as I know more.

May 15, 2013

Hayes Range 2013: Consolation, Solo, on Mount Hayes

In light of some of the major new lines that have been climbed in the Alaska, Kichatna, and Revelation ranges my recent consolation prize solo of the Southeast face of Mount Hayes seems like pretty small potatoes. However, my climbing friends remind me that a solo single push approach to alpine climbing in remote areas of Alaska is a rare thing - so I am choosing to share about my experience with you here. Rock and Ice and Climbing also chose to share a little info about the climb on their respective websites, linked above. In reality, I was surprised that this climb generated so much public interest as I feel I am capable of so much more in this realm.

Ryan Johnson and I arrived in the Hayes range via Rob Wing's Super Cub after a week of waiting for wind and snow to stop. Unfortunately, this was the coldest Spring on record since 1924 (links to Accuweather article and NewsMiner article on the interior's Spring weather). As I arrived the sun was leaving the Trident glacier and within an hour the temperatures were pushing - 40 degrees outside the tent at basecamp with our stoves struggling to produce the smallest amounts of water.

Another team (consisting of New Englanders Eliot Gaddy, Bayard Russell, and Michael Wejchert) was in the range looking at the South face of Mount Deborah around the same time, and found weather so cold they didn't even get on route ( Michael's thoughts on the feasibility of climbing in these temps parallel our own discussion and logic around the decisions we made on our trip.

Supported by the Mugs Stump Award, we had our eyes set on a steep line on Hayes' 2000m East face that was primarily North and East facing, intending to climb technical ground in single push alpine style and be out for 24-36 hours including a traverse of the mountain. With the extreme temperatures, however, discussions on strategy slowly turned from how amazing the climbing was going to be to whether we were going to be able to avoid severe cold injury during the climbing and the bivies that we now had determined would be mandatory to avoid exposure in the coldest hours of the night. 

After an initial attempt on the line was aborted in its initial phase due to unprotectable, unconsolidated overhanging snow and hypothermia, we headed back to the tent to take stock of our situation and determine a more realistic plan. 

The North and East facing climbing simply wasn't going to be receiving enough sun to be feasible in the temperatures that we were experiencing. Alternately doubting our chutzpah and considering a vaguely suicidal high commitment attempt, we turned our attention to a possible consolation prize on the sunnier Southeast face. 

Going to sleep in the evening, I was excited for the prospect of doing some more climbing in the beautiful and remote Hayes range, even if it was going to be more moderate. In the evening and throughout the night, however, Ryan remained awake the entire night coughing. When I roused him at around 6:30am to launch, he continued coughing and was unable to eat. He considered launching with me regardless but we both agreed that such a plan was at the very least imprudent and would possibly compound the already present issues of extreme cold and altitude we would encounter on the face. After a brief discussion, I posed the possibility of him resting while I walked over to the face to consider a solo attempt. After 45 minutes of deliberation and more time cooking a big breakfast I was on my way out of camp and walking over to the face. 

A couple hours later I had completed the approach to the base of the face, geared up, and entered moving the moving meditation mode I typically experience when soloing. When I crossed the 'schrund I had divided the face into three sections; (1) a lower snow apron, (2) an hourglass shaped icefield topped by a steep rock wall, and (3) steeper alpine ice finish. Routeline taken indicated in photo below (2030m of relief), with climbing to around AI3 M3 along the way.

It turns out that the line I took parallels a line completed by Tom Walter and John Bauman in 1988 to approximately 2/3 height. There, the lines separate with the Walter-Bauman traversing right to gain the ridge at a lower point while my ascent heads direct from the mid-face icefield to the summit ridge. Essentially, this is a minor variation to the Walter-Bauman, as far as I know the first solo of the face.

Nearing the top of the lower third of the face.

Levi's Bump (9800 ft) from the Southeast face. It turns out that Ryan skied up glacier to watch me climb for a couple hours and said I was moving fast.

My lonely tracks just after exiting the hourglass shaped icefield at about the 2/3 mark.

Moffit and Shand from my third food/water stop. Things started clouding up, which was a mixed blessing. The clouds brought less extreme cold, but this was accompanied by moderate snowfall and a loss of visibility. 

Hayes' South summit from the upper mountain. The building cloud you can see ended up turning into snowfall and deposited about 8 inches of new snow in basecamp by the time Ryan and I awoke to prep to fly out the next day. 

Finally, flat-ish ground. And its been snowing for the past 2 hours. Time to change clothes, hit the summit, and start the 2000+m descent of the extremely crevassed East Ridge in quickly dropping temps. To all those who say that solo climbing only yields two kinds of photos, scenery and self-portaits, take that - you can also take pictures of your own gear. 

In the white room on the summit of Hayes (13,832 ft/4216m). I also visited here in 2010 with Ryan Hokanson via a moderate new line on the West face. So far, three of my four climbs in the Hayes have been accompanied by inclement weather. Here are links to my 2010 trip with Ryan Hokanson, and my 2009 trip with Matt Klick. Following this, I returned to my backpack and began the rest of my descent of the crevassed East ridge of Hayes in deteriorating weather. As often happens, the descent was the crux of my personal experience due to the darkness, snow, crevasses, icy downclimbing segments, and all that time on the go.

Of the many crevasses I encountered on the East ridge of Hayes, this was among the last as I neared Levi's bump and the last portion of my descent back to the Trident. The final segment of the descent was in the pitch black with snowfall to boot. I had to trust my instincts as I completed my onsight descent of the East ridge and struggled around on the glacier in search of basecamp - the sight of Ryan's headlamp as he came to find me on the glacier after 18 hours on the go in such severe temps was welcome to say the least.

A short video with a few reflections from my time alone on the Southeast face. I am happy Ryan and I were able to salvage something from our trip! Thanks to our friends and family, the Mugs Stump award, Black Diamond, Arc'Teryx, Sterling Ropes, GU Energy Labs, and Alaskan Brewing for their support of our climbing ventures. 

Malawi January - February 2013: Community Psychology in Action

By some strange fortune Nora Miller asked me to be adjunct faculty on an Alaska Pacific University 'Community Psychology in Action' class taking place in Malawi, Africa this winter. 

My primary impressions of Malawi consist of the complementary and contrasting facets of hardship and resilience we observed among the people we met and the experiences that they shared. There is far too much going into my overall impressions of Malawi to share in this short post - rest assured that the picture is complex and I hope to head back to Africa someday to learn more.

We were based in the village of Bolera near Mangochi, Malawi, taking day trips elsewhere in the area to do collaborative work with community members and organizations. 

Our group did a bunch of different things while there. Activities included class time, caring for orphaned children at Open Arms Malawi, a variety of collaborative projects at Malawi Children's Village (MCV) with Gracious Secondary School, cultural and scenic trips, participation in a presentation by Together Act Now Malawi, and support and workouts with the Bolera running team which was supported by Alaska's own Skinny Raven Sports.

Holding children at Open Arms.

Photo: Samantha Hernandez

The Bolera running team in their new shoes and shirts thanks to Skinny Raven.

The former sporting shoes of Bolera's burliest young athletes.

The class takes a ride in a rowboat to look for hippos.

Photo: Samantha Hernandez

A cool house that was abandoned due to infestation by insects. Insects are everywhere in Malawi. There were a few times I woke up after being hit in the head by a falling beetle.

Blank canvas for a collaborative mural project between our students, several MCV students, and local artist Thom Walker. 

Lake Malawi from near Cape Maclear.

Friend Alinafe and his little brother making a soccer ball out of condoms, rags, pieces of bicycle tires, and a blanket.

Photo: Samantha Hernandez

Our group with artist Thom Walker and our completed Alaska-Malawi mural. 

Photo: Samantha Hernandez

March 19, 2013

Trip Report - Kyrgyzstan and China Fall 2012

Finally - A post sharing about our trip to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and China. The reason I haven't shared before now was that I, we, have such overwhelming ambivalence about having to retreat from Kizil Asker. Thank you all so much for your patience.

Ryan Johnson and I met for he first time face to face in Juneau, March 2012, where we climbed some cool ice lines (link) and got weathered away from a potential attempt on a new line on one of the Mendenhall Towers. From the first moment I met Ryan, it felt like I had found a long lost brother; For a guy with no brothers, this felt like a big deal.

By September 2012, Ryan I were on our way to Kyrgyzstan. We met in LA psyched for travel to new places and to do some alpine climbing. The trip got off to a rough start with a missed flight and a variety of interesting 'SNAFUs' resulting in us arriving in Bishkek a day late and a couple bags short after an overnight in Instanbul. When Ryan's feces gushed out of the plumbing in the wall during breakfast at our B+B, we started to worry that our trip was cursed. Ryan's post (link) on this section of our trip is way funnier and more informative than mine. All photos credit Johnson & Johnson (Ryan Johnson or Samuel Johnson - brothers from another mother) minus the last photo of unknown origin.

The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Once we were in Bishkek we got down to shopping for food and working on logistics with our local contacts ITMC (link). The next morning our missing bag arrived and we were quickly on our way. In the last town with internet, I did my typical thing and turned an important comprehensive examination paper in via internet to be placed in my PhD program's comprehensive clinical examination portfolio by my fellow student Valerie Hewell. Thanks Valerie, I woulda been screwed without your collaboration (passed the comp after I returned following a quick revision)! Once that fateful email was sent, it was on to the business of the trip - trying to go climbing.  

Helping Sasha, ITMC's driver, do a little maintenance on the UAZ (link) before heading south to tackle the infamous bogs of the Kokshall Too.  

Approaching the Kokshall Too from the North.

Alas, the bogs attacked and we worked for almost 24 hours to get the UAZ through to the toe of the Kormorova Glacier. 

Altitide sickness? How about a nice recon hike to get the oxygen pumping...

In process art piece providing an overview of the Western Kokshall Too. Its almost done, keep your eyes peeled! If you're at all interested, check out - thanks for looking!

We got off route on our approach to our acclimatization objective on the Ochre Walls in the dark. The mighty manspoon, sirs and ladies, was our only saving grace as we had our first of several open bivies on the trip. 

The following day, things went a little better and we sent our line which consisted of 600m of awesome climbing with some moderately runout thin ice cruxes. We called our line Mr. Casual (IV AI5) as it felt casual compared to our main objective on the South face of Kizil Asker. Above, I am leading a fine pitch on Mr. Casual.

The Ochre Walls with route lines indicated.

Myself following not so casual 'extra thin' vertical ice on another pitch of Mr. Casual.

On top of the Ochre Walls.

After sending our warm up line on the Ochre Walls, it was time to turn our attention to the main attraction of our trip, an oft attempted 1400m mixed line on the South face of Kizil Asker on the Chinese side of the border. Unfortunately, 3m of new snow and what added up to about 2 weeks of bad weather changed our plans and we spent days of wasted effort struggling through knee to crotch deep snow with heavy packs. Here we are making our way toward the high pass between Kyrgyzstan and China. 

The line, front and center, consisting of snow, steep ice, and mixed climbing in a big wall setting. The only routes thus far on this face have been Russian and Belorussian big wall routes completed via relatively equipment, resource, and personnel heavy approaches. A couple handfuls of parties have gone to the Kokshall Too to attempt this particular 'line of interest.'

Myself launching into the start of the steeper climbing at around 5000m.

In the evening we were proud of ourselves for completing 900m of engaging climbing to the base of the upper mixed systems. We fed, watered, congratulated ourselves and harbored glorious thoughts of steep frontpointing, torqueing, and finding ourselves on the summit in the next 24-48 hours...if only the weather would hold. This shot is of me at our bivi during a short lull in a hideous storm that continually buried us for almost 24 hours until we were able to escape, rappelling through sometimes life threatening avalanches. 

For a couple months after we returned, I found myself inexplicably worried about asphyxiation as a result of the hundreds of burials we experienced at this bivi.

Due to the strength of our partnership, and all the effort we had expended making our way through deep snow to the Chinese side of the mountain, deciding to bail was the most difficult decision either Ryan or myself have ever made in the mountains. Even so, we knew it was suicide to remain on the wall with the amount of snow accumulation that had occurred in the past 24 hours. 

Constant spindrift interspersed with heavier, dangerous avalanches including a couple of serious thrashings left us thankful for reaching the glacier alive. Nonetheless, we found ourselves yearning for the mountain and have a shared wish to return to the Kokshall Too. 

Our high point on Kizil Asker (5842m). 

Thanks SO much to the Copp-Dash Inspire Award for supporting this trip. We are currently working on editing film for the creative storytelling effort and hope to have the film completed sometime this year. We will let you know, Aimee Copp, when it is ready!

Thanks, infinitely, to (in no particular order):  
  1. Ryan Johnson, for keeping me psyched during those times on our trip when I started to forget why I still alpine climb.
  2. Our friends and family for supporting us on this trip, the trips we have been on, and will go on in the future.
  3. Roger Strong and Arcteryx for outfitting me in entirely new kit prior to heading to Asia (our open bivies on the Kormorova, at advanced base in China, and on Kizil would have killed me if I had still been wearing my destroyed alpine gear from the past 5 seasons). 
  4. Jay Dufresne and Black Diamond Equipment for their consistent support of my climbing ventures at a grassroots level. 
  5. Sterling Ropes for setting us up with the best half ropes on the planet so that we could focus on climbing and surviving verses a rope that couldn't stand up to the workload.
  6. GU Energy for their support of my climbing and their work on cutting edge nutrition the past couple years. 
  7. Clay Cole for buying the expedition a GoPro camera so that we could capture first person footage we need to tell our story. 
Hang tight, friends, for the completed art pieces and eventually, the film from our expedition. Thank you for looking at this site - as with everything else in my life, a work in progress.