Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How Fire can Restore a Forest

It's that time of year again. The time when we see the Western United States go up in flames. It's often a depressing time because many of the massive fires we see every year reshape their environments dramatically. However, fires can have a rejuvenating effect on the forest.

In March 2013, photographer Rich Reid (http://richreid.photoshelter.com/) joined fireworkers as they conducted a controlled burn at Georgia's Moody Forest Preserve. He left his cameras rolling for nearly two months to capture the stunning regrowth of the longleaf pine habitat. What resulted was a really cool little video which shows forest floor regrowth.

The Nature Conservancy works to prevent the destructive megafires that are so common these days in the west. Learn more about their programs at Nature.org/adoptfireworker.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 27, 2016

Film Review: North Face

While mountaineering history is chalked full of stories of triumph and tragedy, there are a few that stand out. These stories are our collective heritage and they have built the foundation of our sport. And while some of these are inspirational, others are heartbreaking.  And some are so terrible that they chill you to the bone.

I had long avoided the North Face, a German film about one of the many early attempts on the Eiger's North Face. 


Because I know how it ends. The story of Toni Kurtz, Andy Hinterstoisser, Willy Angerer, and Edi Rainer is one of those stories that is told and retold.  Most of us have read the story in books like The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer or in Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer, or in any one of a number of other books or magazine articles that chronicle the tragedy.

In 1936, teams were lining up for a chance at the "last great problem of the Alps," the Eiger's imposing north face. Attempts on the face were a media sensation for two reasons. First, because it was a terribly dangerous wall that constantly resulted in fatalities. And second, because the whole wall may be viewed from the deck of a nearby hotel through telescopes.

After a number of failures two separate teams attempted the north face at the same time. They were composed of the Germans, Toni Kurtz and Andy Hinterstoisser and the Austrians, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainier. As the two teams moved up the wall they eventually combined forces, creating one team that didn't necessarily mesh well.  When the weather broke and tragedy struck, the team descended together, and ultimately died together.

And while the deaths were horrible, there was one in particular that stands out in mountaineering history. Toni Kurtz became stranded at the end of a rope, mere feet from his rescuers, as he slowly froze to death...

The North Face film is a dramatization of this ascent and the tragedy that followed.  And while some mainstream critics were not terribly enamored by the film, it is an excellent piece that was designed without the stupidity of mainstream American climbing films. There are moments in the film that could have been lifted from something like Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger, but don't seem Hollywoodish at all. For example, in Vertical Limit a cam begins sliding down a crack, threatening to pop out. This is something that simply doesn't happen. Whereas in North Face, a piton starts coming out, while the climber frantically pounds it back in. This is something that could happen, and as such, is absolutely terrifying.

There are a lot of differences between the North Face and Hollywood climbing films. The example above is only one of them.  The production values are another. The reality of the situation and the historical elements of the film are yet another. And then of course, there is the script...

Director Philipp Stolzl uses a wide array of elements to keep us in the mountain world.  Early in the film I thought that the sound of the pitons was rather odd. They didn't sound quite right when they were being driven in. But then I realized that Stolzl used the sound of the pitons as a static beat in the music, a technique that I've only witnessed one other time, in an a Academy Award nominated film called Atonement where they use a typewriter the same way. And while this little musical element may not seem significant, it provides the perfect example of the level of care put into the film.

The music and the beautiful shots of the mountain's norwand work together to build a framework that underlies a tightly written and intense script.  The characters are all engaging and real. The world, Germany under Hitler, feels dangerous and alive. And even ancillary characters throw out memorable lines.  Indeed, as climbers arrive in a train, a fieldworker makes the observation, "they come in a train and leave in a coffin."It is lines like these and the difficult and very real relationships between the characters that make a story tick...

The one criticism that I have of the story is something that served as a break from both history and reality. Late in the film, Toni Kurtz's girlfriend takes a train up to the gallery window on the Eiger. From there she climbs out on the north face and spends the night trying to be with her boyfriend.

I don't think anything like that happened. However, it is understandable that the filmmakers would like to raise the stakes by developing a love interest who has enough of a climbing background that she could spend the night out on the mountain. And while it is a little bit of a difficult moment to swallow, it does help to dramatize the death of the climber.

At one moment, a character in the movie explains that there is a legend about the Eiger. He says that a great ogre lives inside the mountain and devours anyone who gets close. In 1936 the ogre devoured Kurtz and his partners, creating another legend, one that very few climbers can forget.  The North Face is an incredibly well-produced film that tells what is ultimately a sad and tragic story about that ogre and his victims.  But it is also an important story. As I stated earlier, these stories are part of our heritage as climbers and mountaineers. And it is important for each of us to remember and understand these stories from our heritage...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 24, 2016

Film Review: Sanctum

Outdoor adventure movies come and go, and unfortunately few of them are really very good. Sanctum fits squarely in the "not-very-good" category.

The film follows a team of cave-divers, climbers and cave explorers on their quest to drop down a deep hole in Papa New Guinea in order to find a cave system that connects to the ocean. While exploring the depths of the cave a cyclone settles on land far above the team. The team's exit is blocked and the water begins to rise. This forces the team to descend deeper into the cave system and to try to find a way out to the ocean.

The plot is fascinating and it could have been an excellent outdoor adventure film. But alas, the writing is quite poor. The characters are weak. And there are some sequences that are just plain bad...

The writing team for this film is made-up of people who haven't done much when it comes to narrative drama. Screenwriter Andrew Wight has a number of underwater documentary films to his credit, but no real narrative film-writing experience. And screenwriter John Garvin has no other screenplays to his name. Director Alister Grierson has a handful of other movie titles under his belt, but they all appear to be second-rate B films.

It is clear that the reason this movie was made was because super-director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss) was behind the production team. It's well-known that Cameron enjoys working with an underwater environment. He has pioneered a number of underwater and deep-sea filming techniques for both his narrative blockbusters as well as for some of his lesser-known documentary works.

The underwater cave diving sequences in Sanctum are cool. Some of them are really cool. And this element of the film lends credence to the entire -- sometimes painful -- experience of watching the movie. It is clear that the focus of the film was to play with this type of cinemetagrophy instead of telling a story that has some value.

Supposedly the story is based on real life events. It appears that the real-life version of the story wasn't anywhere near dramatic enough for Hollywood. The problem with the real-life story was that, while dramatic, everybody survived and there were no cardboard villains twisting their mustaches.

In 1988 Sanctum screenwriter Andrew Wight was on an expedition that mirrored the one in the film. His team was exploring a deep cave when a cyclone arrived causing a flash-flood which cut-off their exit route. Wight and his companions were forced deeper into the cave system to find their exit.

The core of the story is really interesting, but the characters and the situations some of the characters put themselves in are somewhat ludicrous.

There is a tendency in Hollywood-style outdoor adventure films to paint one character as a gruff, hard, outdoor-type guy. Usually this kind of character has seen it all. And often there's a coldness or a latent level of violence in the character. Think Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction, or Scott Glen in Vertical Limit, or even Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet. The character is so common in these types of movies, that he (and it usually is a he) is almost archetypal.

The problem with the gruff-outdoors-guy-who's-seen-it-all-and-is-an-ass because-of-it character is that he doesn't exist in real life. Yeah, there are a lot of anti-social climbers out there. And yeah, there are a lot of people who are obsessed with their objectives. And indeed, there are a lot of people out there who will push it to the limit and beyond to achieve their goals. But, you know what? Even when they're arrogant, most of these people are still nice. They want to talk about their passion and they want to bring you into it. And most of them don't see death on a daily basis the way these types of characters seem to.

The leader of the caving team, Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is just such a character. At one point in the movie a man is seriously injured and Frank decides that the best way to deal with him is to drown him instead of to try and get him out. This is absolutely crazy. And not only that, but dealing with an injured character that they're trying to keep alive would have been a whole lot more interesting than murdering him.

There is another archetypal outdoor adventure movie character as well. That's the billionaire playboy explorer, who is actually a coward. Ioan Gruffudd plays this character well because there's little to play. It's a boring and simplistic characterization that needs to disappear from adventure films.

This is a women and minorities die first movie. These types of films had their heyday with horror movies in the seventies, eighties and early nineties. I thought that modern filmmakers were done with such a terrible story arc, but I was wrong.

And from a climbing perspective, one woman dies after she gets her hair caught in a belay device and decides that she should try to cut it out...accidentally cutting the rope. She should have taken one of our classes...

Sanctum is not a good movie, but there are some interesting sequences and some moments where you're with the characters as they struggle to survive. But when they start to talk, things fall apart...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Travel Safety in Developing Countries

Many of our guides spend a great deal of time traveling in developing nations. As tourists with expensive climbing and photography equipment, we are definitely seen as targets. Most of us who have spent significant amounts of time in South America or Asia have encountered some petty crime.

We spend time in cities as well as in open camps near the mountains. Each of the two environments have their own circumstances. In order to be safe and avoid theft, one must "follow the rules" in each of these environments. Following is a list of precautions that should be undertaken in any foreign environment:
  1. Many guides make a photocopy of their passports and carry it around the city. They put the passport itself in a hotel safe that they feel comfortable with.
  2. Use a money belt or money necklace. If you don't feel comfortable with the hotel safe, carry your passport in the money belt/necklace.
  3. When you first arrive in a country, be sure that you know what the currency looks like. One of our guides was once given change in play money shortly after he got off the plane in Bolivia.
  4. If you elect to wear a small backpack around the city, place luggage locks on the zippers. In crowds, wear the backpack on the front of your body so that you can see it. People will often try to open zippers when you are still. In extreme cases they may even attempt to cut open the bottom of the pack with a knife.
  5. As ATMs become more popular throughout the world, it has become easier to obtain money in developing countries with a debit card. This keeps one from carrying massive amounts of cash or hard-to-convert travelers checks. If you do choose to go this route, talk to your bank first. They may give you a list of "safe" ATMs in a city. If you don't have such a list, make sure that you use an ATM attached to a bank and be sure that you are aware of your surroundings before putting your card into the machine. Do not use a machine if there are any suspicious characters around.
  6. Beware of fake police and fake taxis. If someone flashes you a badge and then wants to see your money, be suspicious. If a taxi doesn't have appropriate documentation in the window, be suspicious.
  7. No matter how much you trust it, do not leave expensive items out in your hotel room.
  8. Do not wear expensive looking jewelry in public.
  9. You may choose to wear a "decoy wallet." In other words, you have a wallet that distracts a potential thief from going for the real thing. Never put your wallet in your back pocket. Even zippered pockets can be opened or cut by experienced thieves.
  10. Women should try not to respond to local men that approach them for no apparent reason in foreign countries, especially in patriarchal cultures. Even a curt "no" may be construed as the start of a conversation.
  11. Be wary of new romantic relationships with people in developing countries.
  12. If you pay for your hotel room in advance, be sure to obtain receipts.
  13. Beware of circumstances where people need help or are trying to help you. In other words, if somebody is trying to hand you a baby for some reason or is trying to help remove bird dung from your shoulder, be suspicious and watch your bags closely.
  14. Do not wander around a city in a developing country at the middle of the night while intoxicated.
  15. When camping underneath the mountains in a developing country, hire a cook. If you can, try to get one from a local outfitter. The cook will double as a camp guard while you are in the mountains.
  16. Be sure to bring all of you gear inside the vestibule of your tent at night. Do not leave anything of value outside.
  17. If you use animals to carry gear on your expedition, be sure that they are loaded appropriately. Don't let them put a sleeping bag on one animal and a tent on another so that they can charge you for more animals. In addition to this, make sure you know how many animals you hired. Sometimes locals don't keep track and round up in their estimations.
On AAI trips, the guides will always orient you to the particular dangers of a given city or camp. If you elect to climb in foriegn countries without a guide who is "in-the-know," then be sure to research the tourist oriented scams of your destination before you leave.

Traveling and climbing in developing countries can be incredibly exciting. But the excitement dissipates when something is stolen. Always keep your eyes open and be smart. This is the best way to keep your vacation on the right track.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 20, 2016

Down vs. Synthetic

On big expeditions a good sleeping bag is perhaps the most important piece of equipment that you carry. A sleeping bag does a great deal more than to simply keep you warm at night. It becomes a means to keep water bottles from freezing and provides a way to dry out damp clothing and boots. And indeed, in an emergency it might be the last shield between you and hypothermia or even death.

So what kind of sleeping bag should you invest in? Down or synthetic? Synthetic or down?

Advantages of a Down Sleeping Bag:
  1. Many would argue that nature does it best. Down (either goose or duck) tends to be significantly warmer than a synthetic alternative. Ounce per ounce, down tends to be approximately three times warmer than synthetic.
  2. If you take care of it, down retains its shape and loft. With proper care a down bag can last a lifetime.
  3. Down tends to wick body moisture away which can make for a far more comfortable night's sleep.
  4. Down is far more compressible and lightweight.
  5. The nature of down is that it keeps you warm in the cold and cool in the warmth.

AAI Guide Justin Wood enjoying a book in a down bag on Denali.

Disadvantages of a Down Sleeping Bag:
  1. The largest disadvantage to a down bag is how poorly it deals with water. A wet down bag is close to useless. Those who elect to use down in a wetter climate need to have all of their systems dialed. In other words they need to be very good at protecting their bag from the elements.
  2. Once wet, down bags don't dry easily.
  3. Down can be difficult to clean. If it is improperly cleaned it may break down and lose its loft. Be sure to read and follow all washing directions on your down bag.
  4. Some people have allergic reactions to down.
  5. Down is expensive.
Advantages to a Synthetic Sleeping Bag:
  1. Synthetics are more weather resistant and dry more quickly.
  2. Synthetics are easier to care for.
  3. Synthetics are hypoallergenic.
  4. There is a lot of variety out there and it tends to be less expensive than the alternative.
Disadvantages to a Synthetic Sleeping Bag:
  1. Synthetics tend to be heavier and bulkier than down.
  2. Many synthetics don't pack down as tightly as down.
  3. Synthetics tend to breakdown and perform poorly over time.
  4. Some of the lower end products may not fit well.
So which is better? Most guides use down bags, but they know that they have to be hyper-aware when it comes to getting them wet. If you don't think that you can do this, then a synthetic bag is the way to go.

The purchase of a sleeping bag is a big financial decision, but that shouldn't be the deciding factor. Instead, it should be based on where you think you're going to use it and what type of conditions you think you're going to encounter the most.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 17, 2016

Glacier Travel Ettiquete

Climbing etiquette is a weird and wiley thing. What is acceptable in one area may not be considered acceptable in another. What is common practice in one spot, may be looked upon with horror in another. In the larger climbing world, there are millions of etiquette questions, but on a glacier there only tends to be a few.

1) What is the etiquette for passing a rope team on a glaciated climb?

It is acceptable to pass a rope team on a glacier. However, this must be done without hindering the other team's progress that you're passing. If a team has a pace and continues to hold that pace, then they have a right to the boot-pack trail no matter how fast they're moving.

A team works its way up Mount Shuksan
Photo by Alasdair Turner

In order to pass the slower team, the faster team must step out of the boot-pack and pass the other team without slowing them in any way. This may take considerable energy if the snow outside the boot-pack is soft or deep. The passing team should not complain about having to pass as they didn't get up as early as the slower team.

If your rope team is walking in a boot-pack and needs to take a break, the polite thing to do is to step out of the trail. You should not take a break in a place that blocks others. If your team is slow and is taking a lot of standing mini-breaks (i.e. stopping for a few seconds or even a minute or so), then you should step out of the boot-pack and allow faster teams to pass in the trail without protest.

2) Who has the right to the steps that have been kicked in the slope?

There is a nice line of steps kicked into the slope going all the way up the mountain. Clearly, it is easier to use the steps that another team has put in than to create your own. As you're climbing up the mountain, you see another team descending in the steps. Their plunge-steps are completely destroying the steps as they descend. And while this may make things more difficult for your team, you didn't create the steps and as such, don't have any ownership over them.

A team camps on the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker
Photo by Alasdair Turner

If you create a series of steps up the mountain, you do have the right to use them on your descent. However, it is far more polite to leave these steps for others. I will almost universally try to leave my steps for other climbers, unless the snow is incredibly soft and difficult to move through. Occasionally, the snow is so deep that new downhill steps could cause a climber to hyper-extend his or her knee. When conditions are this severe, I use my uphill steps for downhill travel.

3) What should I do with my human waste? Should I leave it on the summit for all to see with a nice pile of toilet paper? Or should I do something else with it?

You should do something else with it.

On expeditions or on big mountains, sometimes you can put your waste in a crevasse, but you should pack out your toilet paper. On smaller glaciated peaks, you should use a Wag Bag or the equivalent and pack everything out.

If you have other etiquette questions, feel free to post them. This is such a large topic that a single Blog cannot do it justice.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/16/16


--Saving grizzly bears in the North Cascades is widely supported among Washington state voters, according to survey results released Monday, June 6. That includes voters, like those in Whatcom County, who live around the ecosystem. California-based Tulchin Research conducted the survey May 19-22 of 600 registered voters in six different parts of the state, including east and west of the Cascades, where the mountain range seems to separate the state politically. To read more, click here.

--Climbers on Mount Baker photographed a recent debris flow across Boulder Glacier on the volcano’s eastern flank in early June — but the barrage of ice and rock was more a geologic curiosity than a real threat to most people. Such debris flows occur occasionally and are not a concern to anyone except mountaineers, a Western Washington University geologist said. But observers will notice what resembles a river of gray on the 10,781-foot summit that’s about 30 miles east of Bellingham. To read more, click here.


--An adult cow moose with three-week-old calves was found shot dead inside Denali National Park Wednesday morning, the National Parks Service says. The moose was discovered near the Denali Post office, NPS wrote in a press release. Park officials determined that it had been killed one or two days prior. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Here's an interesting article about innate sexism in action sports and in the promotion of women's action sports...

--So there's been a lot of news recently about people messing around with animals and dangerous natural features in Yellowstone National Park. A fishing guide named Hank Patterson has created a funny and poignant video for those who would visit Yellowstone:

--Children under 14 would be required to wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding under a bill the New York State Senate has passed. But the legislation could die in the state Assembly, where every year for the past 15 years similar bills have died without being voted upon. To read more, click here.