Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Film Review: Third Man on the Mountain

There really haven't been that many movies made about mountain guides. I mean, there have been some...

Sanaa Lathan plays a world class guide in Alien vs. Predator...and she clearly demonstrates that bloodthirsty extraterrestrials are no match for an experienced mountain guide. I would tend to concur.

Robin Tunney plays a mountain guide on K2 in the worst best climbing movie of all time, Vertical Limit. We all learned a valuable lesson about guides in that movie, the lesson that it's important to bring nitroglycerin on any and all mountain expeditions.

And then there's Third Man on the Mountain.


You'd be forgiven if you didn't know this 1959 Disney film. But you're probably aware of the Matterhorn ride in Disneyland. This film was the inspiration for that ride. And it's no wonder, because the iconic mountain plays a central role in the film, as an infamous peak known as the Citadel.

Third Man on the Mountain is a beautiful film set high in the Alps during the golden age of alpinism. In other words, it was a time when guides and their charges worked together to develop new lines on unclimbed peaks. 

Disney promotes the film with the following plot synopsis:

Rudi Matt, a young kitchen worker, is determined to conquer the Citadel – the jagged, snowcapped peak that claimed his father's life. Encouraged by both a famed English climber and the youth's devoted girlfriend, Rudi goes through a grueling training period before he is ready to face the incredible dangers of the killer mountain.

What they don't say in this short synopsis is that the character Rudi Matt is the son of a mountain guide. And they don't say that the young man has a great desire to become a guide himself...



There is a great deal of climbing in the film that doesn't seem realistic, but it can be forgiven. Why? Because the heart of the film is in the right place. It's a coming of age story about a climber who wants to make the mountains a permanent part of his life. It's the story of an imposing route that that young man looks at every day. And it's ultimately the story of the young man's journey to the mountain.

Most of us can relate to this story.

It's sometimes difficult for those of us who are used to high end special effects to watch older films. It's usually obvious when they shift from scenes that were shot on location to scenes that were shot in a studio. Occasionally you can tell that you're looking at a matte painting... But the story is so nicely portrayed that I was able to suspend my disbelief and live in the moment throughout the film.

Of particular note, Gaston Rebufatt directed the second unit film crew for all the mountain and climbing shots. Rebufatt was the French guide who wrote the iconic book, Starlight and Storm, and participated in the first ascent of Annapurna.

Third Man on the Mountain was based on the 1954 young adult novel Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ulmann. This award winning book was republished in 1988 by Harper Teen and is apparently used as a middle and high school reading assignment.

Though I haven't read Banner in the Sky, I'm glad to know that this story is being read and even taught to young adults. It's likely that most students have the opportunity to watch the film after they've completed the book. It's good to know that this film has a life somewhere... It deserves it. It really does...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, May 20, 2019

Route Profile: Liberty Bell - The Beckey Route (5.6, II)

When I was twenty-years-old, some friends and I made our way up toward Liberty Bell Mountain in the North Cascades. We had climbed a few multi-pitch routes prior to that, but this was going to be one of our first real alpine multi-pitch climbs.

We approached in the late afternoon with the intent to bivy. That was the night that a marmot tried to cuddle up with me in my sleeping bag. I awoke with a shout, just as scared as the little furry animal as it darted away into the night.

The next morning we made our way up to the Beckey Route. I remember thinking that it was hard for the grade, which is something that I still think over twenty years later. I remember my partner being terrified on the rappels, even though they're not that exposed. And that's about all I remember from that first ascent of the route.

Since then, I've climbed the route literally dozens of times. I'never camped below it again. The route is totally reasonable from the car and back in a day. But it remains an incredibly fun line.

Most of the time the approach to the base is trivial. But in the spring of 2013, we found
getting on the route to be the crux of the day. A snowstorm had plastered ice all over the 
base of the route. Luckily, we were able to climb past it and up into the sun.

 This is a photo of a climber leading the first pitch of the route.
As this is an easy photo to get, it is a popular spot to take an iconic photo.

 Climbing the chimney on the second pitch. This pitch is always easier
without a backpack.

 AAI Guides James Pierson and Jeremy Wilson high on the Beckey Route.
Jeremy is on a variation in this photo.

Climbers moving down the upper part of the mountain.

The AAI Guide Class of 2012, on the summit of Liberty Bell.
From left to right: Liz Daley, Everett Chamberlain, Tad McCrea, James Pierson, Jeremy Wilson

--Jason D. Martin




Friday, May 17, 2019

Self-Arrest with Crampons

We teach self arrest a lot.

You could argue that we teach this skill more than any other. Every single course that goes out onto a glacier will spend at least some time covering this foundational skill. Some will spend all day, whereas others may only spend a short period of time. But it happens on just about every mountaineering trip...

There are a lot of different elements to a successful self-arrest and this particular post wasn't written to address them all. Instead, this post was written to discuss the one area of self-arrest where there is a fair bit of contention: toes up or toes down.

One school of thought is that when you arrest, you need to kick your toes up off the ground. This is so that if you are wearing crampons, they won't catch and flip you over.

The second school of thought is that you should kick your toes into the snow to help arrest the fall. In this school of thought, your toes should go in immediately to provide more resistance to the slide. However, this school also believes that you should only do this if you are not wearing crampons. This school believes that you should not kick your toes in if you are wearing crampons for fear of injury or flipping over.

The third school of thought is that you should always kick your toes into the snow, regardless of whether or not you are wearing crampons. The theory here is that stopping is the most important thing and that it's worth the risk of getting flipped over or injuring your ankles to stop.

Most AAI guides teach a combination of the second and third schools of thought. Programs that teach the first concept are definitely in the minority these days. The number one focus of any self-arrest activity is to stop a slide and most of the time, that means using your feet as part of the arresting system.

The real question comes when we look at the most obvious break between the second and third schools of thought. In the second, you kick your feet up while wearing crampons and in the third, you put them into the snow no matter what. Each of these styles of thinking are a little bit too rigid. In alpine climbing there are seldom absolutes. Both concepts have validity in one venue or in another. The problem is that it depends on snow conditions.

If you are on hard, solid ice or neve, then it's usually better to kick your feet up into the air. If you are on semi-solid terrain with occasional harder sections, then it's probably better to kick your toes in. This "it depends" approach isn't what most people want to hear. They want to hear a black and white answer; in part because a black and white answer is easier to remember in the heat of the moment.

Strategical thinking when moving in the mountains, in any kind of terrain, should always be composed of two questions. What is is the likelhood of a fall? And, what are the consequences of a fall? If these questions are always at the forefront of your thinking, then a black-and-white answer may not be so important. If you are constantly strategizing what you'll do in the event of a fall, then it is likely that you will react appropriately when the right skill is needed.

There is no easy closure on this question. There will always be people who argue vehemently for one of the three schools of thought. When all is said and done, none of the arguments matter. All that matters is that you can stop yourself when you fall.

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Film Review: Blindsight

Our culture has evolved to a point where we are very accommodating to people with disabilities. There are special parking areas for people who have trouble walking or are in wheelchairs. Computer systems help the deaf to speak on the phone. And many crosswalk signals use a series of clicks and vocal announcements to help the blind determine when to cross the street.  And indeed, these are just a few examples of many hundreds of things that we do in a first world culture to accomodate the disabled.

In the developing world things are very different. People who have lost limbs, who can't walk or who can't see, must often resort to begging on the street. In Tibet, the problems that come with a disability like blindness are compounded by the fact that many Buddhists believe that the reason that a person is blind is because they have done something terrible in a previous life. The result is that blind people are often treated like pariahs, or half-humans...


In 2004, acclaimed climber, Erik Weihenmayer was asked to lead an expedition of blind Tibetan youth up a 23,000-foot peak adjacent to Mount Everest. Why? Because Weihenmayer was the first blind man to summit the tallest mountain in the world.

Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German woman, runs the only school for the blind in Lhasa. It was at her school, Braille without Boarders, that she learned of Weihenmayer's successful ascent of Mount Everest. The mountaineer became an instant hero to the children of the school. Tenberken wrote a letter to the man, that started with the following lines:

After you reached the top of the world our Tibetan neighbor rushed into our center and told the kids about your success. Some of them first didn't believe it, but then there was a mutual understanding: if you could climb to the top of the world, we also can overcome our boarders and show to the world that the blind can equally participate in society and are able to accomplish great things.

She finished her letter with the question, "I wanted to ask if you would like to come to Tibet, maybe even to do a small climbing workshop with our kids."

Weihenmayer agreed and subsequently put together an expedition for the kids to climb Lhakpa-Ri, a 23,000-foot satellite peak of Mount Everest. Indeed, the trek to the base of the climb follows the same course that Everest climbers attempting the North Ridge tend to take. The Advanced Base Camp is the same as it is for Everest.


Weihenmayer put together a group of guides and filmmakers to show the inspirational story of these kids, their plight in Tibet, and their adventure on a mountain. The result is an amazing and inspirational story.

The DVD of this film that I received from Netflix was a bit unusual though. It was designed for both sighted and unsighted viewers. That may sound weird to readers of this blog. I wasn't aware that some films were designed to be "viewed" by the blind.  A narrator explains what is being shown on the screen throughout the film.  One might think that you could turn this feature off through your DVD player, but for whatever reason (likely my basic lack of technical prowess with such things) I was unable to do this.

With that in mind, I watched the film with this extra element. And I found it to be a very enlightening thing.  Of course, the film is about blind people, but by watching the film and hearing it the way a blind person might I had a different -- and very positive -- experience with the film than I might have otherwise.

Additionally, I watched the film with my four-year-old and my five-year-old. Being my kids, they're very familiar with mountain climbing films. But also being young kids, they haven't been exposed to many people with disabilities. It was very cool to watch them first come to an understanding that there are blind people out there. But then second, to also come to the conclusion that if the kids can go rock climbing, mountain climbing and skiing, then they're really no different than anyone else...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, May 13, 2019

Denali West Buttress Expedition Team 1 (May 12 - June 1, 2019) Dispatch 1

In the Company of Ticks

As the weather warms, it feels surreal as I step out of my winter dreams of warmth and into a bright sunny reality. I love wearing shorts on approaches... But as it warms I cannot rid myself of the feeling that some little bloodsucker feels the same spring euphoria as I when he sees my bare white calves approaching.

Now I don’t want to sound like some kind of entomophobian (yes, there actually is a word for fear of insects), but lets be honest, nobody enjoys cavorting with these little monsters. So if you're like me and want to avoid ticks this summer, here are some tips, tricks and general info about these crazy arachnids.

Adult Deer Tick
Photo from Wikipedia

Ticks are viscous little creatures. They've figured out that since they can't jump or fly, the best way to get their vampire on is to wait in brush, tall grass, and bushes along deer and human trails. Some ticks have even developed the “oh-so-not-cool” move of falling out of trees and onto an unsuspecting host.

Once they have reached their delicious meal, ticks will insert a barbed feeding tube into the host to secure themselves in place while they feed. This blood feast can last from a few hours to several days. Once satiated the creepy little parasite will drop off and hide while it spends some time digesting your blood.

While the tick is stuck to the host it might feel guilty about taking so much away and thus want to give a small poisonous “present” in return. These presents are numerous as ticks are capable of transmitting a variety of diseases, the most common of which is a fun little thing called Lyme disease. If you are one of the lucky 1% of all tick bite recipients to contract Lyme disease, you will know in anywhere from 3 to 32 days after being targeted by the creature. The present will start off as a headache with fever, fatigue, depression and a bulls-eye shaped rash around the bite mark. If at this point you decide that you don’t want to keep this gift, you will not be able to return it to the tick, (besides that would be rude). Instead, you will need the help of a doctor and his antibiotics, which in most cases will rid you of the disease.

However, if you decide that you would rather keep the bloodsucker's gift, then you will begin to contract chronic problems as the disease attacks your organs, especially the brain, heart, and bone joints. The longer that you wait to get treated, the harder it will be to treat the disease. In an extreme case Lyme disease could lead to a permanent paralysis.

Luckily though, there are ways to prevent ticks from getting to skin level. When playing in popular tick habitats (pretty much any wooded or forested area in the world), one should wear long sleeved shirts, pants, and a hat. Another trick is to tuck your pant legs into your sucks so as to look like such a dork that the tick will be embarrassed to be seen on you (it also will prevent them from crawling up your boots and socks into the promised land).

However, even with the best of defenses, the ticks still might find their way through and therefore it is good to do a thorough tick check a few times a day while paying special attention to the warm places of your armpits and groin. It's also a good idea to check your pets over to make sure that they haven’t become a blood buffet.

If a tick is found, then the best method of removal it is use tweezers. Pull in line with the creatures body and it's entrance hole while holding it its body as close to the head as possible. Be careful and move slowly; as much as you might hate these guys, the last thing that you need is for one's head to pop off while beneath your skin.

Following are two videos which show methods of tick removal. The first shows the use of a forceps and the second discusses a number of tick related issues before demonstrating removal.



Ticks are gross, but good prevention and treatment will keep them from being anything more than a major nuisance.

--AAI Staff

Friday, May 10, 2019

Diamox - The Wonder Drug?

Diamox is the trade name for a drug called Acetazolamide. This is a "altitude wonder drug" that many people take to increase the speed of their acclimatization. It is also a drug that some people put a little too much hope into instead of acclimitizing properly.

The reality is that Diamox is not a wonder drug. It is is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that is commonly used to treat glaucoma, epilepsy, hypertension, cystinuria, dural ectasia and of course, altitude sickness. The drug is designed to help your body make the chemical changes that it needs to make in order to function better at altitude.

We get a lot of questions about this drug from people who are planning a Denali climb or other high-altitude objective. But we also get them from people who are going to go on relatively low-altitude climbs.

Those who are climbing peaks that are less than 14,000 feet tall really shouldn't worry about any type of specialized drug to acclimatize. They should just take their time. Those who are climbing peaks that are between 14,000 and 16,000 feet should only take the drug if they've had problems in the past. And those climbing peaks that are 16,000 feet tall or more, should really see how their body reacts before filling it full of drugs.

The reason that we advise caution with this drug is that it has side-effects that can be difficult to deal with. Diamox is a diuretic. It causes you to urinate frequently. This, of course, can lead to dehydration, which is a contributing factor to altitude sickness. It can also cause a very unusual sensation in the fingers and toes. It feels like they have fallen asleep. This could be confusing or even scary in extremely cold environments.

Diamox - A Prophylactic?

Some climbers choose to take Diamox prophylactically, starting a few days before going to altitude. A percentage of climbers respond well to this, especially if they take between 125 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg per day before ascending rapidly to 10,000 feet or more.

What is rapidly? This is generally a fast one to two day ascent from sea level. Examples of rapid ascents might include Mount Rainier or Mount Whitney in two days...

Those who have a history of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are urged to take Diamox prophylactically especially with plans for a rapid ascent or plans to ascend 2000 feet or more per day after reaching 10,000 feet.

Diamox forces the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate, the conjugate base of carbonic acid. The more bicarbonate excreted, the more acidic the blood gets. The more acidic the blood gets, the more that ventilation is stimulated. This will ultimately result in more oxygen in the blood.

Clearly the changes in the blood take time. It takes time for the body to catch up to your altitude. As such, Diamox cannot be seen as an immediate fix for AMS. If the symptoms are bad, then climbers are urged to immediately descend before the AMS devolves into a life-threatening cerebral or pulmonary edema.

When to Take Diamox


Many guides argue that the best time to take a drug like Diamox is right before bed. As I know that I don't tend to breathe as deeply at night as during the day, I will usually take Diamox before I go to bed when I'm at high camps on high altitude peaks.

On the one hand an evening dose of the drug may help you acclimatize better up high at night. It may also keep you from getting sick at night. But on the other, you are unlikely to sleep well due to the whole, "I have to pee every five minutes" thing.

Others feel that the morning is better because it doesn't interrupt your sleep.

Alternatives

There has been a lot of research over the last few years that indicate that Ginkgo Biloba may work extremely well in acclimatization. As this is easily attainable at health food stores and has few side effects in healthy people, it may be a much better alternative to Diamox.

On the other hand, those taking anticoagulants such as ibuprofen, aspirin, warfarin, or antidepressants should be wary of potentially dangerous side effects.

Altitude Research

Understanding altitude and its effects on the body is an extremely broad topic. This blog has only touched on the bare surface of the subject and indeed, only on the bare surface of the uses of Diamox. Those interested in learning more should check out Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains by Charles Houston or Altitude Illness: Prevention and Treatment by Stephen Bezruchka.

A Final Note

We are not doctors. We are climbers. And the advice here is just that, advice. All the information here is based on our experiences working at altitude and everyone's body reacts differently under such circumstances.

Diamox is a prescription drug. And it is extremely important that you get proper medical advice before self-medicating with any such drug. If you are on an expedition with a guide, it is also important to tell your guide whenever you take any drugs.

High altitude climbing is an awesome experience. Diamox is merely one tool that will help you to get up high. Another, and perhaps far more important tool, is to use good sense, good judgment and to acclimitize properly.

--Jason D. Martin