Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Buried in the Sky

There are a lot of great stories from a lot of horrible tragedies in the Himalaya. This is one of the great ironies of mountaineering literature. The most horrific stories are the ones that lead to the most interest amongst those of us that follow this type of literature. But there is more to these stories than just tragedy. As in tales of war or natural disaster, there tend to be people who show great compassion and courage, even when their lives are on the line. And for many readers this is the true value of mountain literature.

Most books that deal in Himalayan expeditions are about the Western climbers who make their way to the mountains. They tell the stories of Americans, Brits, Europeans, Aussies, and New Zealanders. They tell stories of Western privilege, Western mountain success, and the tragedy of Western death in the mountains. Most books don't tell the stories of the indigenous climbers, their struggles and their tragedies...

At least most books hadn't told that story... Until now.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day, written by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan is one of the very few pieces of writing that explores Sherpa culture and those factors that bring Sherpa climbers into the Death Zone. It is an extraordinary piece of investigative writing that provides a glimpse of the economic and cultural factors that lead Sherpas to work for foreign expeditions while examining the worst disaster in K2's climbing history.

In 2008, the news trickled out of Nepal slowly. There had been yet another tragedy in the Himalaya that made headlines around the world; and when the dust settled 11 people were dead. The main culprit? A combination of things, but perhaps of most importance, ignoring turn-around times at altitude and the destruction of the fixed lines by serac-fall in a feature known as the Bottleneck.

The events that took place between July 31st and August 3rd, 2008 provide the perfect lens for Zuckerman and Padoan to focus our attention not on the expeditions from a variety of different countries on the mountain, but instead on the Nepali and Pakistani climbers who assisted the international expeditions. And indeed, not just on their culture, but also on their hopes, dreams and nightmares. For many of these people Himalayan expeditions provide good jobs with decent pay in an economically depressed area. They are happy to accept the risk inherent in climbing mountains because it puts food on the table and allows their children to go to school. For many, there is little choice.

Some high-altitude workers have been incredibly successful. They have completed numerous climbs of mountains like Everest and Cho Oyu. Success on a peak as difficult and dangerous as K2 provides them with a major status boost and can provide them with more work opportunities at a higher rate of pay.

Buried in the Sky is the first piece -- that I've read, anyway -- that explores the cultural and religious significance of the mountains to the Sherpa people.  It explores the legends and the history as the Sherpas understand it and delves into the political and ethnic divisions that define their lives.

With this cultural history underlining the narrative, the book follows the stories of a number of Sherpa and Shimshali (Pakistani) climbers.  But two of them stand out, their narratives a step beyond the rest. Pasang Lama and Chhiring Dorje were both involved in the tragedy and were also both involved in an amazing rescue.

While descending and still high on the mountain, Pasang was forced to use his ice axe to secure a fixed line into place. The anchor was weak and the axe was needed to keep it secure. There were people below on the ropes and he couldn't stomach the thought of an anchor blowing out. He thought he could rappel and follow the fixed lines down to camp, without the need of an axe. At the time he was completely unaware of the fact that the line below him had been destroyed by icefall. And so, when he reached the end of the rope, he had no means to continue down...

When the ropes through the Bottleneck disappeared, Pasang had figured it was his time to die. Stranded, he was unable to climb up or down without help. Why would anyone try to save him? A climber who attached himself to Pasang would surely fall, too. Using an ice axe to catch the weight of one mountaineer skidding down the Bottleneck is nearly impossible. Stopping two bodies presents twice the difficulty, twice the risk. A rescue would be suicidal, Pasang thought. Mountaineers are supposed to be self-sufficient. Any pragmatic person would leave him to die.

Chhiring found the axeless Sherpa and decided not to be pragmatic. Instead, he attached a line to the man and began to short-rope him through the exposed space. It didn't take long for the two climbers greatest fears to come true, the pair slipped and were not able to arrest their fall.

The pair fell hundreds of feet, but eventually came to rest. Ironically, neither of the men were seriously injured and were able to make it back to camp.

The authors indicate that had this been a "Western rescue" where one person surrendered his ice axe for the safety of many and where another helped the first to safety, such a selfless rescue story would have made it into the mountaineering history books. But because it was a pair of Sherpas, the story was barely reported.

In the aftermath of the tragedy there were a number of accusations made about the way that teams worked together and the differences between the Nepali and Pakistani climbers. As with many mountaineering triumphs and tragedies, arguments over specifics can easily degenerate into "he-said, she-said" style arguments. The truth can be difficult to come by.

The writing team for this book studied the incidents around the 2008 tragedy for two years. They made seven trips to Nepal and three trips to Pakistan, trekking to regions that are almost never visited by foreigners and obtaining unprecedented access to military and government sources. It is likely that their accounting of the tragedy is the most objective put on paper to date.  But it would be understandable if it offends some readers. It doesn't always paint the foreign climbers in the best light.

Buried in the Sky is a beautifully crafted piece and it stands out in the world of mountain literature. Many armchair mountaineers are infatuated with Mount Everest and the stories that revolve around the tallest mountain in the world.  But Mount Everest isn't the Savage Mountain. No, that name is reserved for K2, a mountain inhabited by the last of a group of bloodthirsty goddesses hunted by an ancient warrior.

The final sister -- Takar Dolsangma, the youngest, with a green face -- was a hard case. She mounted a turquoise dragon and fled northward to the land of three boarders. In modern Rolwaling folklore, this is Pakistan. Guru Rinpoche (the ancient warrior) chased after her and eventually cornered her on a glacier called the Chogo Lungma. Takar Dolsangma appeared remorseful and, spurring her dragon, ascended K2, accepting a new position as the goddess of security. Although Guru Rinpoche never doubted her sincerity, maybe he should have: Takar Dolsangma, it seems, still enjoys the taste of human flesh...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, July 27, 2015

Snow Seats and Dynamic Belays

Standard snow anchors are comprised of pickets, flukes, bollards and deadmen. As stated in previous blogs, sometimes people overlook items that might be used as deadmen such as packs, crampons, ice axes, skis, trekking poles, and stuff sacks filled with snow.

Quick snow anchors can be devised from just about anything...including your body.

Most of you are probably familiar with Simon Yates and his infamous snow seat in Touching the Void. To say the least, that was an unusual situation.

Photo by Jason Martin

To create a quick snow seat you must simply sit down in the snow, arc your legs, and stomp your heels into the snow. After you've achieved this position, you will be able to put a climber on belay. However, if the climber takes a fall with slack in the rope, it is possible that you may be pulled out of the snow seat. There are two ways to keep this from happening.

The first way to deal with a potential shock-load in a snow seat is to add a snow anchor to back it up. This could be anything, but many climbers will simply use their ice axe. The belayer must then clip the climbing rope (which is tied to the climbers harness) to the snow anchor. Most will just make a clove-hitch with the rope and then slide the shaft of the ice axe down through the hitch. If the belayer has elected to use a hip belay, the tie-in must come off the same side of the climber's body as rope running to the climber, otherwise the load will twist the belayer uncomfortably.
The second way to deal with this is by using a dynamic belay. In other words, when the climber falls, allow the rope to run through the belay device for a short period of time, slowly breaking it and bringing it to a stop. This allows the snow seat -- and you -- a much smaller shock. There are clearly some problems with this technique and it cannot be used in every situation. The dynamic belay is only truly useful on steep snow climbs where there is little danger of a falling climber hitting something.

If we learned one thing from the Simon Yates in Touching the Void, it's that snow seats are an excellent option in terrain where you do not anticipate a need to escape the belay. If there is anything suspect going on, it's important to build a bombproof SERENE/ERNEST anchor.

When used properly, snow seats and dynamic belays can save a great deal of time...and as we all know, speed in the mountains is safety...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Figure-Eight Follow-Through

The figure-eight follow-through -- also often referred to as the figure-eight retrace and the rewoven figure-eight -- is one of the hardest working knots in climbing. Most climbers tie this knot multiple times a day.

This short video shows one how to tie the figure-eight follow-through. The climber in this video does a great job of dressing the knot. In other words she doesn't have any weird crosses and the knot looks very clean. What she does a poor job with is her "back-up" knot. If you use one, it should be a single fisherman's knot which is also known as a barrel knot.

This second video shows the proper finish, but names it improperly. They call it a double fisherman's knot in this video, when it is actually a single Fisherman's Knot.

The reality of the so-called "back-up knot" is that it is not necessary. If your knot is dressed and there is at least one fist worth of rope sticking out of the end of the knot, then all will be well.

Many of my students tell me that after they related this information about back-up knots to the manager of their climbing gym, the manager wouldn't relent on his gym's back-up knot policy. This is not something to sweat over. If your gym requires that you tie such a knot, you should just do it. Some gyms have insurance policies that require this unnecessary step, whereas others have created protocol based systems that are hard to change without chopping through a lot of red tape. It is less of a headache if you just follow the gym's rules while you are there.

Some climbers like to finish their figure-eight with a "Yosemite tuck" or "Yosemite finish." This is common technique is accomplished by tucking the end of the rope back into the knot. The upside of this is that it can clean up the knot. The downside is that this technique may seriously weaken the knot if you use the inside of the knot as a belay loop. If you load the loop of the knot it is possible that it will invert, after which you will only have part of the figure-eight remaining. Some people cure this problem by passing the rope around itself before going through the hole, but that makes the knot a little bigger.

A Figure-Eight Follow-Through with a standard
Yosemite Finish.
A Figure-Eight Follow-Through with an
extra wrap. This is better.

After learning about this, many people ask why one might use the inside of the knot as a belay loop. In alpine climbing, a small percentage of climbers still use harnesses without belay loops. In technical terrain it's always better to have a belay loop, so those without one often simply use the inside of their knot. If this is something that you wish to do, it might be better to avoid all types of Yosemite tucks or finishes. Even better, if you're going to be on technical terrain, you should use a harness with a belay loop.

And lastly, this is a nice video that shows an overview of a few different figure-eight knots from the figure-eight family:

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 7/23/15


--A climber fell 20 feet and broke his ankle when a rock gave way in the Mount Washington Wilderness on Sunday. Linn County Search and Rescue responded Sunday to assist. To read more, click here.

--Technical rescue crews from Vancouver and Fire District 6 were called to Beacon Rock State Park in Skamania County Saturday evening after an injured climber was reported to be stranded 150 feet above the ground. To read more, click here.

--Canadian homicide detectives are treating the death of a teenage Australian skier as suspicious after his body was found in a gravel pit near the ski village of Whistler. Jake Kermond, 19, from Harrietville, Victoria, was last seen about 7.30pm on April 26 when leaving the Adara Hotel. A dirt biker found his body in the pit in an industrial area on the outskirts of Whistler on June 17. To read more, click here.

--Here's an update on the Gold Bar Boulders access situation.

--The U.S. Army wants to create a North Cascades training area for helicopter pilots that would include a high-altitude landing site in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and another within a mile of the Pacific Crest Trail. To read more, click here.

--A new line has gone up in the Picket Range of the Cascades.


--The north face of Peak 11,440+, above Spring Lake in Sequoia National Park has a new route on it, The One That Got Away clocks in at 5.11b C1, 1,500'. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Opposition to the Oak Flat land exchange is heating up. Earlier this month, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva introduced the Save Oak Flat Bill, HR 2811, into Congress. It has bipartisan support with three Republican and eight Democrat cosponsors. This bill would repeal the controversial land exchange legislation that was buried within the 2015 Defense Authorization Act. Attaching the land exchange bill (which was unable to pass on its own) to a piece of must-pass legislation circumvents the democratic process and provides another example of an inequitable federal land giveaway. The Access Fund has been working to protect the Oak Flat region, home to hundreds of roped climbs and thousands of boulder problems, from a foreign mining company for over ten years. The loss of Oak Flat climbing would result in the largest loss of climbing resources in the US. To read more, click here.


--A lightning strike likely killed a man and a boy in their tent Tuesday night or early Wednesday near West Maroon Pass, though two other children camping with them were unhurt, authorities said. The two dead were father and son, while the two survivors were an older daughter about 12 years old and younger son approximately 8 or 9 years old who had been staying in a separate tent, according to a U.S. Forest Service volunteer who spoke with the man who found the bodies, helped report the incident and saw the children come out of the wilderness. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Note that if you book an Aconcagua trip with the American Alpine Institute prior to August 1, you will be able to climb for the 2015 rate instead of the 2016 rate!

--A battle is currently looming in Congress over the transfer of a huge swath of America’s public lands in the west—putting millions of acres (and the climbing opportunities they offer) under siege. To read more, click here.

--The official trailer for Meru was finally posted on Tuesday. The film follows climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk as they attempt to ascend the Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru. The an alpine big wall in India’s Garhwal Himalaya. To see the trailer, click below:

--Is sponsorship commercialization of the wilderness? A ranger in Maine thinks so and cited Scott Jurek after he completed his record breaking trail run. To read more, click here.

--Reel Rock has officially announced their 2015-2016 lineup. To learn more, click here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Leave No Trace: Leave What You Find

It's not especially intuitive...

You see a beautiful flower, a cool native arrowhead, a colorful rock, or something else that you just want to take home and keep...but you know what's going to happen to it. That flower will be destroyed in your pack. That arrowhead will just end up in a junk drawer. And who knows what you'll do with the rock?

In the fall of 2006, a friend and I were on our way out to climb Jackass Flats (II, 5.6) in Red Rock Canyon. The route is located in a part of the canyon that is not visited very often. Indeed, until a few years ago a heard of wild horses roamed freely in the desert there. Wild burros still make their way across the desert in this area with very little oversight by humans.

It was on this approach that we found it...the skeleton of a wild burro. The bones were a bit scattered, but they were all there. The most spectacular part of the skeleton was the skull, bleached white by the desert sun. It was an incredible find.

My friend indicated that he thought that he could sell the skull on Ebay for a fair bit of money. I didn't feel comfortable with this. Finding that skeleton made our day. Ultimately, we decided that it was best to leave the skull for the next visitor. We decided that the experience of finding something like that was one of the values of playing in the mountains.

A Burro Skull found in the shadow of Windy Peak in Red Rock Canyon
Photo by Jason Martin

When we left the skull, we were adhering to the fourth of the seven principals of Leave No Trace, Leave What you Find. The following text about this principal is from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website:

Minimize Site Alterations

Leave areas as you found them. Do not dig trenches for tents or construct lean-tos, tables, chairs, or other rudimentary improvements. If you clear an area of surface rocks, twigs or pine cones, replace these items before leaving. On high impact sites, it is appropriate to clean up the site and dismantle inappropriate user-built facilities, such as multiple fire rings and constructed seats or tables. Consider the idea that good campsites are found and not made.

In many locations, properly located and legally constructed facilities, such as a single fire ring, should be left. Dismantling them will cause additional impact because they will be rebuilt with new rocks and thus impact a new area. Learn to evaluate all situations you find.

Avoid Damaging Live Trees and Plants

Avoid hammering nails into trees for hanging things, hacking at them with hatchets and saws, or tying tent guy lines to trunks, thus girdling the tree. Carving initials into trees is unacceptable. The cutting of boughs for use as sleeping pads creates minimal benefit and maximum impact. Sleeping pads are available at stores catering to campers.

Picking a few flowers does not seem like it would have any great impact and, if only a few flowers were picked, it wouldn't. But, if every visitor thought "I'll just take a few", a much more significant impact might result. Take a picture or sketch the flower instead of picking it. Experienced campers may enjoy an occasional edible plant, but they are careful not to deplete the surviving vegetation or disturb plants that are rare or are slow to reproduce.

Leave Natural Objects and Cultural Artifacts

Natural objects of beauty or interest such as antlers, petrified wood, or colored rocks add to the mood of the backcountry and should be left so others can experience a sense of discovery. In National Parks and some other areas it is illegal to remove natural objects.

The same ethic is applicable to cultural artifacts found on public land. Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites, or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures, and even antique bottles found on public lands.

Ironically -- as stated above -- even trash that has been left for over fifty years could be considered a cultural artifact. Imagine the remains of a mining operation that are hundreds of years old or the vestiges of an old pioneer settlement...these items develop value by staying where they are. Indeed, in some National Parks it's actually illegal to pick up items that are over fifty years old.

Leave What You Find wasn't designed for outdoor educators to wag their fingers at people with, but instead was designed to give people an opportunity to relish in an outdoor environment that hasn't been impacted by modern people. Finding beautiful plants, beautiful trees, beautiful rocks, beautiful animals, beautiful artifacts and beautiful vistas are one of the main reasons that we visit the outdoors. If everybody takes a bit of that a way, there will be nothing left to look at...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, July 20, 2015

Guide Like Liz Scholarship Winners - 2015

Just under a year ago the American Alpine Institute community, the climbing world and the skiing world were floored by the tragic news of Liz Daily’s death in the southern ice fields of Patagonia. The young guide and professional splitboard athlete was killed in an avalanche on September 29, 2014.

Liz left behind a legacy of outstanding professionalism, joy, enthusiasm for the mountains, and a tender patient care of not only her friends, but of her trip participants, as well in the backountry that she loved.

Liz began working as a guide for the Institute in 2012. Already a talented splitboard athlete with many technical descents around the world, she brought her joy and enthusiasm to all she met in her work at AAI.

In honor of her life as an exemplary guide and all around incredible woman, the Institute has awarded four women with a scholarship targeted to help them pursue their gown guiding ambitions. Each of these women have demonstrated an enthusiasm akin to Liz’s and a dedication to professionalism that speaks volumes for the up and coming female guiding community.

Every conversation about Liz includes comments about a few of her outstanding characteristics. As the Institute staff sorted through various applications for the Guide Like Liz scholarship they sought these out among the applicants: never ending supply of stoke, strong leadership, a deep and abiding love and respect for the mountains, and equal doses of ambition and humility.

Here is a little about the women who fit the criteria and won Guide Like Liz scholarships.

Liz taking a selfie while guiding Mt. Shuksan

Lizzy VanPatten, a Bellingham local, got her start climbing in 2013 and was immediately smitten with the sport. Generous friends tutored her during her first year of climbing, but by the summer of 2014 she was ready to be self-sufficient and signed up for a 12 day course with the Institute.

During her time on the program she gained an appreciation for the skill required to climb in more remote places and immediately following the course, she invested in her first big climbing purchase, a trad rack. The rest of the summer took her to crags and alpine routes alike around the Northwest and by the next fall she was gearing up for a big climbing trip down to South America to test her mettle.

After a three month climbing trip filled with tremendous new experiences, Lizzy returned to the States amped up and ready to begin pursuing guiding as a career. She found that not only does she love to push herself physically with climbing, but that she also wanted to share the joy she finds in the mountains with others. Ultimately, Lizzy would like to work in wilderness therapy, but hopes to have a solid background in mountain guiding before tackling the nuances of other peoples mental struggles.

Lizzy was awarded a $1000 scholarship and plans to use it to continue her guide education at the Institute. None of us can wait to see her out crushing in the mountains.

Katelyn Spradley was raised in the flatlands of the south, but eventually found her way into the mountains as a young woman and continues to return to the mountains every in order to get her fill of granite and clean mountain air.

After tromping up and down non-technical peaks for a few summers, she decided to try her hand in something a little more vertical. It only took a few gym sessions for Katelyn to realize that she was meant for the more airy environment. After college she made a b-line for the mountains and eventually settled in Colorado and acquired a job at the Fort Lewis College Outdoor Pursuits program as their intern. This gave her already substantial guide resume some more weight.

Katelyn is currently pursing a masters degree in sports management that she hopes will enable her to start her own company geared towards getting women into the outdoors – a place she believes women can find their strength, realize their abilities, and celebrate their femininity. Katelyn has found her inspiration in female guides like Liz Daily, Lindsay Dyer, and Melissa Arnot and hopes that through her own career she can inspire other women as these women have inspired her.

Katelyn has been awareded $750 to pursue her Single Pitch Instructor certification through the AMGA and is taking her first steps toward becoming a certified mountain guide.

Haley Johnston moved across the country five years ago after deciding that she would rather spend her days in the mosquito ridden and rugged landscape of the Alaska Range than strapped to a desk on the East Coast laboring through the realm of corporate finance. Life seems to have taken off for her since her arrival in the great northern state where she thrives as a volunteer snowboard instructor and is employed as a backcountry trekking, snowboarding, and river guide.

Haley has just started to test the waters of the world of vertical climbing, a place that continues to feed her love of the alpine environment. Although comfortable in glaciated terrain she wishes to round out her technical skills so she can more confidently guide in alpine environments. Like Liz, Haley loves splitboarding and has spent many days exploring the backcountry snow of the Alaskan mountains in her backyard.

Her desire to become a more technically competent leader stems from her passion for bringing women into the backcountry and giving them the opportunity to thrive in leadership roles. She understands the financial, logistical, and lifestyle challenges of guiding and the unique challenges that come with being a female guide. She believes that she could someday become a role model for other young women in the industry. She has been awarded $750 to help her follow her dreams.

A self-proclaimed, “addict of alpine,” Amy Ness’ personal climbing resume is not something to be taken lightly. With more than a handful of notable first ascents on grades 5.10 or harder both in the USA and abroad, Amy stands out as a strong female climber charging into terrain more commonly dominated by men.

Amy's passion began on the plastic climbing holds at a Portland State Fair as a young girl and since then has taken her from her current home in small town California, nestled at the base of the Sierra, to the towering and forbidding peaks of Patagonia. However, the bulk of her climbing experience has been personal and recently she decided that she is ready to start expanding her vertical environment to include guiding.

Amy plans to pursue AMGA Alpine Guide certification and hopes that in ten years she could be running her own guiding company out of the Sierras in California. Part of her vision includes a camp geared towards the younger climber and she hopes to share her love of rocks with kids in a stress-free and secure environment. She plans to become a certified Single Pitch Instructor in the coming years, and to assist her with this has been awarded $750.

All of the women who applied for the Guide Like Liz scholarship are making much needed strides in an industry largely dominated by men. The four women selected represent the strength and dedication of all female athletes and guides. The Institute is proud to sponsor a budding female guiding community and to do so in the name of Liz. Her life and legacy will continue to bless mountain communities around the world through the women who follow in her footsteps.

Congratulations to Amy, Katelyn, Haley, and Lizzy for being the first to receive the Guide Like Liz scholarship. We hope to see you all out in the mountains over the next many years.

Liz Daily in Charmonix France

The Guide Like Liz is sponsored by the American Alpine Institute and the Alta Group. If you would like to donate to this scholarship fund, please see the donation info below:

Make checks payable to "Liz Daley Scholarship Fund" 

Bank routing number = 325170835
Account number = 100413715

Bank name and address =
Heritage Bank
1318 12th Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 527-4960

--Jess Lewis, Instructor and Guide

Friday, July 17, 2015

Technique: Oppositional Forces

The Beta Angel series provides a series of excellent coaching tips for beginner to advanced level climbers. In this video, the Beta Angel coach demonstrates several techniques for oppositional climbing.

--Jason D. Martin