August 5, 2015

This Ain't No China Jam

As we await our bags in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan it seems a perfect time to share the expedition video from my last trip here with Ryan Johnson. Please enjoy and hope the best for the arrival of our bags so that we can move on from the city toward the Western Kokshall Too!

June 3, 2015

Life on the Rollercoaster - New Beginnings on the Peninsula and Back to Kyrgyzstan...

All last Summer I collaboratively made long awaited plans with my life partner of three and a half years to move to a more rural location in Alaska. We were torn between Seward and Chickaloon. We researched job options, considered various ideas for our potential living situation, talked about fun things that we could do in each place. Eventually, we decided on Seward for a variety of reasons including access to the ocean, tons of mountains, trails, and canyons, local ice climbing, a local hospital, and proximity to my familial cabin in Moose Pass.

My little cabin in historical Gilpatricks, Alaska near Moose Pass

But, just like a movie that has a really happy sounding opening scene, things were not to be as we dreamed. Thankfully it wasn't because someone died or there was a zombie apocalypse but you can already can guess the situation was unpleasant at least for me since I have set the story up this way. We returned from a Fall trip to visit family and spend time on the Maine tree farm that has been part of my mother's side of the family since the beginning of the 1900s and began packing for our long awaited move. We both arrived in Seward without local employment, though I had been in contact with potential employers for several months. Eventually I got a job projected to start in the beginning of January, while my partner didn't get her hoped for employment in the emergency room and continued working intermittent nursing shifts in Anchorage. The strange thing was that in between these three day blocks of shifts she didn't seem too motivated to come to Seward to explore our new landscape or build community for herself. In fact she seemed a lot more interested in staying put in the big city and couchsurfing in between shifts. Confusion began to set in a little bit for both of us I think. We made a couple friends but overall, things felt a little slower and more difficult than we had expected. Eventually my partner came back to town but started looking at plane tickets to exotic locations and making plans to travel even as she paid lip service to building friendships and community for herself in our new home. Overall things felt difficult but I personally felt that we had overcome way more difficult obstacles during the course of our relationship. Unfortunately, at some point my partner stopped talking about how she was doing and turned inward, away from the collaboration and mutual excitedness for a shared life that we had been working on building.

The big surprise came on the day of our long term family friend's funeral, which it turned out was the day before I was to start my new job in my new home. It was a big day for a lot of people, especially for Lars' family. Lars Spurkland was a long time friend, local ski advocate, and his family was already missing him. Despite the sadness of the occasion it felt a lot easier to focus on all the amazing things that Lars had done in his 39 years and I looked forward to bonding with our shared friends and Alaskan extended family at the event. When my partner arrived I was excited to see her and wanted to introduce her to Lars' family.

But it turned out that she showed up at the funeral to let me know that she no longer wished to be together as a couple and requested a ride to Seward to get her things in preparation to exit my life without much of a trace or explanation, which she did the following morning. It just happened to be the morning I was to start my new job. Over the next couple days she came and went in Anchorage without a trace, removing her few remaining belongings from my parents home in Anchorage without speaking to anyone, moving like a shadow into our past. I helped her find a place to live, with her ironically moving back into our old shared home in Anchorage which had now been rented by my good friend Cody. Eventually it came to light that loneliness and depression led to infidelity, with an uncharacteristic six month spell of dishonesty on her part. The joy that life brings is a result of growing through our mistakes rather than pretending they didn't happen. At the time of course, my world fell apart and I felt utterly alone in our (my) new home....torn by feelings of inexplicable guilt and loneliness, unable to sleep. Ironically having my employment starting up gave me just the structure I needed to survive and helped me make some friends during that initial period of huge stress.. I hope that she finds her way and can forgive herself to grow through it. At least when I learned about the infidelity, all the rationalizations and justifications regarding the manner of her leaving made sense.
Within a few weeks things were starting to look a little brighter. Finally things froze up which was a lifesaver because we had a horrible snow year. I began to be able to remember who I was, that I was an OK person, that I deserve love. I joined in 'silly' community activities like the volleyball league and made some new connections. I explored the canyons in all my free time and looked for ice, finding a myriad of amazing routes with new route potential in many places and a lot of cool existing lines. All in all Seward and surrounding areas have given back tenfold with new joys found around every corner as you can see below.

Ice skating to cool ice routes in the backcountry near my cabin. Photo: Rachel Taylor

Pitch one of a potential new line (?) reminiscent of the classic Hollowhead back in Hunter Creek. I n absence of information, I gave it a personal reference of Hollowheart in honor of my struggles (WI4+ 180m). Photo: Rachel Taylor 

The view of my backyard from the flats near Nash Road.

A spectacular new line I completed with Aaron Thrasher and Elliot Gaddy that we called 'Rhinestone Wizard' (WI5 350m) in reference to a cool jewel shaped rockwall nearby.

Pitch 4 of Rhinestone Wizard - Photo Elliot Gaddy/Aaron Thrasher

Aaron Thrasher soloing easy ice on a line we took to calling 'The Big Easy' (WI3 200m) - Photo Ben Chriswell

Aaron Thrasher and Ben Chriswell walking home from 'The Big Easy' which can be seen in the background.

A bunch of amazing boulders in an 'undisclosed' location near Seward.

One of another group of nice boulders in a different 'undisclosed' location near Seward.

More of the same. Overall, my approach to the many cool things I have found around here is 'show, don't tell.' So, if you want to take a look at some of the things I have been finding or doing, please hit me up and come on down to take a look. I promise you it will be worth it. 

I've also gotten really excited about exploring new frontiers on my bikes, both around Seward and my cabin in Gilpatricks. Once I get my GoPro bike situation dialed in, I will look forward to sharing some footage with you all.

The motorcycling around here isn't too shabby either.

Finally, I had a lot of reservations about heading back overseas to Kizil Asker in Kyrgyzstan due to trying to build my new life and practice here in Seward, a little PTSD from my burials on my last attempt there with my brother from another mother Ryan Johnson. Black Diamond via Bill Belcourt threw down to help make it easier to decide to go with my new partners Benjamin Erdmann and Kim Ladiges. Just committed and got my plane tickets on Monday!

The Western Kokshall Too. Looking forward to heading back for another stab at hopefully multiple lines with Ben and Kim. Here's hoping for new love and continued explorations and route development here at home in Seward and Moose Pass as well! Yet again, climbing, you have saved my life. I owe you a debt of gratitude. And thanks for giving me the confidence to chase my dreams even when I am feeling a little bit broken down by life. My friends, thanks for being patient with me, it took a while until I felt competent to even share what has happened in my life with any depth. My coworkers, thanks for your flexibility in considering how to work out on call shifts while I am overseas! Now to get in killer shape to send in Kyrg!

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.