Monday, December 31, 2007

A Personal New Year’s Message from AAI's Director, Dunham Gooding

Important time markers (like birthdays, anniversaries, and the change of year) are opportunities to assess where we are and what we have accomplished in the past year, and to identify what we hope for in the coming twelve months. But in terms of planning to achieve new goals instead of just hoping for them, there’s nothing more powerful than to be on the threshold of a new year!

As you enjoy New Year’s Eve and Day and as you enter 2008, I hope you will see this opportunity to commit yourself enthusiastically to some new goals in the mountains – targets that will keep you fit and help you stay in great health, and targets that will challenge your wilderness skills, climbing skills, and your mental capacity for making insightful judgments in complex environments.

As I am sure you know, few things in life match the sense of reward and achievement that you get when you tackle a major wilderness travel goal or climbing project and then succeed. Whatever your background and skill level at the time, the greater the challenge and the more complex the problem solving, the greater the reward always is.

So as you think about vacations and adventures that you would like to chart for yourself in 2008, consider expanding your skills, trying a new type of climbing, or making ascents in areas or technical levels that will be new for you. Whatever the program (an intro class or an advanced expedition), at AAI we are always committed philosophically and practically to helping you expand your capacity for taking on major challenges.

There’s nothing like a personal consultation with an AAI program director to sort out good options. It’s free, there’s no obligation, and you’ll be speaking with people that are the best at their job in the nation. Remember that when you do decide to climb with AAI, one call can do it all. We can handle all the arrangements for your trip, from making travel arrangements to outfitting you with the best gear in the world – and everything in between.

Call and use our knowledge to review your goals and options: (360) 671-1505 or 800-424-2249. Here are our specializations:

Dunham Gooding & Andy Bourne: Overseas trips
Coley Gentzel: Alaska/Denali, Cascades, Sierra, Colorado
Shawn Olson: Avalanche courses, backpacking trips, Kilimanjaro
Natasha Caldwell: Red Rock, Joshua Tree

We’ll enjoy speaking with you!

Dunham Gooding, Director

Friday, December 28, 2007

AAI helps you get started with your New Year's resolutions

If the outdoors, specifically the mountains, have a place in your New Year's resolutions, then let us help! If you sign up for any of our programs on New Year's Day, we will give you 10% off your total tuition (up to $200 off). To sign up, you must fill out the online registration form at on January 1 and mention code NY0108 to receive your discount.

Happy New Year! We hope to see you in the mountains in 2008!!

- The staff at American Alpine Institute

AAI's administrative office with a fresh winter snow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Aconcagua and Ecuador dispatches posted

Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere.

Both our Aconcagua and Ecuador High Altitude expeditions are underway. Aconcagua team members, with AAI guides Dylan Taylor and Joey Elton, are poised at High Camp (19,300 feet) and will make their summit bid on Friday. Ecuador team members and AAI guide Richard Riquelme are currently at the Cayambe Refugio and will be making their attempt on Cayambe tomorrow. Follow their progress up these famous peaks by visiting


If you are interested in either of these expeditions, please get in touch with Andy Bourne, our Foreign Programs Coordinator at or by phone at 360-671-1505.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mountaineering at Midlife

Myron and Adele walk towards the LeConte Glacier on the Ptarmigan Traverse.

Husband and wife team, Myron Allen and Adele Aldrich (Laramie, WY), decided while in their 40's that they wanted to learn to be mountaineers. Avid backpackers and scramblers all their life, they felt like they wanted to "up the ante." Since 2004, they've climbed with AAI on several fantastic mountaineering trips, including the Ptarmigan Traverse and the remote Mt. Challenger in Washington's Picket Range. Recently, Myron put together an entertaining article that sums up their adventures and explains what it's like to start this sport at midlife:

"Among America’s great midlife diversions, mountaineering hardly competes with golf, sports cars, and Harleys, not to mention that ancient pastime, fretting over the irreducible love handles that lard your flanks after age 40. Yet my wife Adele and I — at ages 45 and 50, respectively — chose precisely this stage of life to ramp up our mountaineering skills. After three decades’ worth of backpacking and scrambling, mainly in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, we wanted to up the ante. Three years later, after four sessions with professional mountain guides, we’ve acquired glacier savvy, sure-footed rock climbing technique, and solid rope skills. Let’s not exaggerate: we’ll never be certified
mountain guides. By the same token, we’ve also missed our chances to be major league shortstops and concert pianists. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to call us mountaineers, at long last." Download Myron's full article (pdf, 6 pages).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Former AAI climber publishes a book

Peter Len, who climbed with AAI in 2006 on the Ecuador High Altitude Expedition, just published a book on climbing. The book is called Distant Peaks - A Journey through Cultures & Conquests and is available through Millennial Mind Publishing (an imprint of American Book Publishing).

Here is the book's back page description:
Distant Peaks is a chronicle of stories that detail the struggles and triumphs of a novice climber. Starting with a failed attempt on the Grand Teton during a climbing trip with his father, Peter Len gained respect for the mountains along with a thirst for summit success. Since then, his quest has taken him back to the Grand Teton and across the oceans to attempt some of the classic mountains of the world, including Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Mt. Kenya, and the volcanoes of Ecuador.

Here is what AAI Program Coordinator and Guide Andy Bourne says about Peter's book:
"For anyone who has wondered what it is like to climb some of the classic mountains of the world, Distant Peaks tells the entertaining story of one man's experience doing just that. It is one of the few books I have read that captures the unembellished realism of a self-proclaimed amateur climber going through the process of becoming an experienced alpinist. I'm sure Peter Len's stories of travel and adventure in foreign countries will inspire some armchair mountaineers to get out and try it themselves."

Monday, December 17, 2007

The powder hits Mt. Baker!

A snowboarder enjoys carving fresh powder outside the
Mt. Baker Ski Area. Photo by Tyler Mitchell and courtesy of
Mt. Baker Ski Area.

After receiving over 40 inches of snow over the weekend, the Mt. Baker area is a giant puffball of new powder. The Mt. Baker Ski Area reports a 70-inch coverage at the base, and a 90-inch base at the top of Chair 6.

With all this new snow, backcountry travelers should take extreme caution as avalanche risk can be high. Everyone who ventures into the backcountry should have: avalanche training, appropriate avalanche gear (beacon, prove, shovel), and a group of avalanche-educated friends.

To gain avalanche training, check out our Avalanche Level 1 course (Fri-Sat) running just about every weekend throughout this winter. We also offer Avalanche Level 2 for snow professionals and serious backcountry users.

For those of you who are new to the backcountry and would like to see what it is all about before you invest in training and gear, check out our backcountry skiing programs:

-Backcountry Skiing (Washington, Colorado, and Sierra; 2-day program)
- Ski Mountaineering - Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan Ski Ascents
- Private Ski and Snowboard Touring around the Mt. Baker Ski Area - 1, 2, or 3 days

To learn more, visit the links above or give us a call at 360-671-1505. You can also drop us an email:

Friday, December 14, 2007

Aconcagua Expedition underway!

Aconcagua's Polish Glacier descends from the summit diagonally right
Andy Bourne

We just received word from AAI guides Dylan Taylor and Joey Elton, who are leading our December 13 - January 3 Aconcagua Expedition. Here is what Dylan reported:

"Everyone arrived today just fine, and all baggage made it too. The team is very fit and strong, and we ought to see a good success rate with this team. A couple of Spanish speakers in the group (Sarah and Jake) will put Joey and me to shame. Clark has given the team a name, as well as team hats: "ISACS," which stands for "International School of Alpine Climbing Society" - it is pronounced "Ice-axe." Very clever. We are heading out from the hotel at 11:30am, stopping for permits, and then getting a late lunch in Uspallata before arriving in Penitentes for the evening. Hopefully it will be a bit cooler there. It is sultry here in Mendoza."

There are seven climbers on the expedition: Clark Glenn (Lawrenceville, NJ), Max Jones (Hebron, ME), Jake Leyden (Hebron, ME), Ben Small (Wallingford, CT), Kate Belanger (Pottstown, PA), Sarah Bryan (Hebron, ME), and Jesse Rohloff (Santee, CA). From the sounds of it, everyone is strong and has a great chance for success. We look forward to following their progress up the Western Hemisphere's tallest mountain and will be posting dispatches on our current news page, so check in if you want to follow along!


If you are considering an Aconcagua Expedition, please get in touch with our Foreign Programs Coordinator, Andy Bourne, at 800-424-2249 or at

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More good news from Ecuador

Classic photo of Cayambe and the hut. Chuck Park

AAI guides Benno Schlauri and Nacho Espinoza called again this morning from the summit of Cayambe to report that they, Matthew Holt and Fiona McIntosh had succeed on their ascent of that 18,997-foot peak. Again they said they had great weather and climbing conditions and that they had made the summit in very good time. Over the last week and a half they also summited 19,348-foot Cotopaxi 20,703-foot Chimborazo. They had originally planned to just climb the first two peaks, but with weather and conditions cooperating perfectly, they were able to add Cayambe as a finale. Congratulations to the foursome for their success on the "Big 3."

Learn more about AAI's Ecuador programs and our new route on Chimborazo, please visit

Following acclimatization hikes and two days of skills instruction, even those with little technical climbing experience have the opportunity to ascend Cayambe (18,997 ft) and Cotopaxi (19,348 ft) on a 10-day itinerary. That’s followed by an optional 5-day extension to ascend Chimborazo, the highest peak of the northern Andes.

Sunrise on Cotopaxi from Cayambe. Melissa Park.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Newsflash: Success on new Chimborazo route!

The north side of Chimborazo, with AAI's new route shown in red.

AAI guide Benno Schlauri phoned from the summit of Ecuador’s 20,703-foot Chimborazo this morning a little after 8:00am Ecuadorian time (same as US Eastern time) to say that he, climbers Matthew Holt and Fiona McIntosh (Cape Town) along with fellow guide Nacho Espinoza had succeeded on the new north face route that AAI pioneered in the spring of 2007. His dispatch:

“We are happy to be calling you from the Whymper summit! We have clear clear skies and cool temperatures – it’s about -8 C (18°F) here on the summit of Ecuador, but fortunately for us there is very little wind.

We left our high camp at midnight and got here a few minutes ago, at 8:00am sharp. The route is in excellent shape. We had solid snow and ice and excellent cramponing. The views are also excellent and we had the special good luck of seeing Tungarahua erupting! Lots of smoke and ash in a plume. Matthew and Fiona are very happy - this is the first British ascent of this route (they are British citizens but living in South Africa)."

It’s good to be in the sun, so we will enjoy the summit for a while as it climbs higher in the sky and then had back to camp. We will have a celebration dinner in camp tonight for sure. It was a big day, but everybody feels good and is very happy. Our summiting of Cotopaxi a few days ago meant Matthew and Fiona are nicely acclimatized. It’s a great day for us. We won’t be able to transmit from base camp so we will talk to you more when we are back in civilization. Good bye for now from the top of Ecuador!”

If you are interested in learning more about AAI's Ecuador programs and our new route on Chimborazo, please visit

The north face of Chimborazo with AAI's new route marked. Conditions can change, but on our first climb of the route in 2007, we found it immune from icefall and rockfall dangers and offering superb snow and ice climbing in a remote setting.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Africa Journey Coming to a Close

Note: AAI Communications Coordinator Shawn Olson has been in Africa to climb Kilimanjaro and explore the game preserves of Tanzania and South Africa. This is her last dispatch before heading for home.

Greetings again from Zulu Nyala,

From beginning to end this has been an amazing trip. The safaris and animal viewing have been awesome, matched only by the ascent of Kilimanjaro. I’ll never forget the beauty of the climb, the diversity of the landscapes on the way up and then the way down by a different route, and the thrill of standing on the top of Africa.

Distant View
Kilimanjaro towers above the surrounding plains. Keith Gunnar

Tanzania was a great country to visit – very easy to explore. I have to say the same thing about South Africa, though it’s quite different – more comfortable. South Africa is very different in that it is a lot more....well...comfortable in a more developed, less dusty, less visible poverty, easier-to-be-there sort of way. But actually, from everything that I've seen here so far, Tanzania looks very special and unique, and I am appreciating that more each day. Don't get me wrong, South Africa, is amazing, beautiful, and full of surprises...just very different and not as wild.

We also went on our final safari of the trip and saw many baby zebra, impala, and warthogs. The warthogs are by far my mom’s favorite. They sometimes run around in circles because they have so much energy. Their tails go strait up in the air when they run about. We also saw a frog walking, not hopping. If you’ve paid attention to frogs, you can imagine how odd that looked for what we think of only as a hopper. One of these small frogs excretes a sticky liquid if it’s picked up; if you ingest this liquid you die right away. We kept our distance. Smart, right?

Image:Lightmatter warthog.jpg
A warthog, not more or less handsome than his colleagues.

We also got to play a little “bush golf.” Quite rough terrain, I have to say. Not to mention there were zebra and an impala on the course! They have 6 flags and there are only 3 clubs to play with, but we made it work. We have spent time with a really good group for the last 4 days, and we all played this version of golf together.

Image:Impala ram.jpg
Adult impala weigh 145 to 165 pounds and can
long jump up to 30 feet and high jump up over 8 feet.

I have seen some large dung beetles and crickets here. We saw a dung beetle rolling a dung ball the size of a golf ball down the road. They use zebra and elephant excrement to make them, then lay their eggs inside. The newly hatched beetles have to eat their way out. The crickets are large and their buzz sounds like an airplane. Last night in the bathroom I had one buzz by my ear, then it landed on my leg – it was huge! So I locked it in the bathroom for the night and let it out this morning. I’m getting the hang of these little adjustments.

This morning we leave for the airport for check-in at 1pm. We fly to Johannesburg, to Amsterdam, then to and Seattle. We will get home Thursday evening. I am excited to come home, but really sad to leave. I have had some really, really good experiences! I even have a nice tan going.

Home soon,


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Cheetahs, servals, caracals - This must be Africa

Greetings. We have enjoyed a great visit to the Cheetah Rehabilitation Center Zulu Nyala Game Reserve. It should be called the All-Cats Rehab Center because they had cheetahs, servals, caracals (which are also called Persian Lynx), and African wild cats (which look exactly like domesticated house cats, except they have stripes on their tails and legs and are in fact quite wild). There were quite a few different cats in various stages of care – primarily animals here are brought in by farmers who find them as abandoned babies, or by people who tried to keep them as pets and found that it didn’t work out.

Image:Serval looking back.jpg
Young serval. When fully grown these cats can weigh between 25 and 40 pounds.

We arrived at the rehab center at 4:30pm, just in time for feeding. We were greeted by a young woman named Hugonette who had four buckets of raw, plucked chicken. Our group of six was completely surprised when she gestured for us to follow her into the first enclosure which contained the serval cats. This would have never happened in the US. I mean, these cats were wild and hissing and all clammering for the chicken. Servals are about as big as a labrador retriever, but they have big teeth and large, long claws. They are beautiful though, and indeed went for the chicken and not us, so we mostly just stood around and gaped while they ate.

Next were the cheetahs. They had three, each in their own enclosure. One was a grumpy old female, so we didn't go in her cage, but we did go in with one of the males, who actually let me pet him while he was drinking a bucket of blood from Hugo's hands. It felt like an entirely BAD idea, but she encouraged me to "just give him a little stroke," and so I figured when else am I going to get THIS opportunity. I've got pictures, for those of you who don't believe it.

Adult cheetah with a big yawn.

To be released into the wild after rehab, the cats have to prove that they are ready. This means that they have to kill a live chicken that has been let into their enclosure and NOT SHARE it with the other cats. One of the servals recently passed this test and will be released soon. Apparently the cheetah that we petted catches chickens, but then just lets them go without taking a bite. He'll have to practice hard over the next few weeks in order to qualify for a return to the bush.

We also got to watch the caracals and African wild cats eat. Before she threw the chicken to the caracals, though, Hugo went into the enclosure and brought out a two-month old baby caracal. Oh my gosh, so stinkin' cute. I got to hold him, and he just went all limp and let me adore his fuzzy warmth. He did have frighteningly big paws and claws, even for a two-month old. Again, I have pictures to prove it.

Anyhow, we go to go in the pens with the cheetahs and all the other cats and give them some personal attention and watch them feed. Also we got to hold one of the baby caracals, which was pretty crazy. I got some really cool pictures. After that we came home, went back to the hotel and had a great dinner.

Tomorrow is our last day here, and then we’ll be on our way home. We haven’t decided what we are doing tomorrow, but I will call in a dispatch and let you know. Hope you all are doing well. It’s hot here, about 90°F, so as good as this is, we’re looking forward to some cooler temperatures.

Back to you soon,


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Big game, small cats - South Africa

Note: for dispatches from Shawn's recent ascent of Kilimanjaro please visit:

Greetings from South Africa:

I posted my wrap-up on the Kilimanjaro climb on the AAI dispatch page, and now that we’re in South Africa, and I though I would give you an update on the latest here.

After the climb of Kilimanjaro, we enjoyed getting some R & R on the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar (described in the last dispatch). That was a really good experience – so refreshing – and afterwards we flew from Zanzibar to Johannesburg and then on to Richards Bay, and from there we drove to our current location, the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve. It was a long day of traveling, leaving Zanzibar at 6am and arriving here at 8:30pm, but well worth the journey. We are in the heart of Zulu-land, and are doing our best not to accidentally speak Swahili here (darn, we were just getting good at saying basic things in Swahili).

Most of the game lodges seem to have pools. Very
refreshing after being out in the bush all day.

Zulu Nyala is a game reserve in eastern South Africa that has a series of lodges open to the public. The wild lands of South Africa are divided up between public (government-run) and private reserves of land. All are fenced to protect the animals from poaching and from hunting outside the preserve boundaries. Zulu Nyala is small by comparison to other game reserves - I think about 1500 hectares. But it’s home to the four of the "Big Five" safari animals (the only thing it doesn't have is leopard, but it does have rhino, elephant, buffalo, and lion).

It also has the usual warthogs, nyala, impala, zebra, giraffe, crocodiles, hippo, rock monitor, kudu, spotted genets, and so many others. The animals here are much fatter and more relaxed than in the Serengeti because they have way less in the way of predators. Also, we are here during the “lush season,” so there is plenty of food. All the animals are "dropping" their babies, and so we have seen fairly new little critters tottering about on their spindly legs. Very cute.

Elephants heading down the road near Zulu Nyala Game Lodge.

Most memorable so far was a six-hour game drive we did from 2:30 to 8:30pm. It gets dark here around 6:30pm, so we did two hours in the complete dark. We had a great guide named Brit, who is a white guy by appearance but seems to know the Zulu language, culture, and land as if it were his own, and indeed, he did grow up very close to the game reserve on a sugar cane plantation. We had a great group in general – including a man and his father from Boston, two women from Seattle, and Mom and me. We saw a huge variety of animals and had a great time - just generally laughed and bumped around in the safari car for 6 hours.

Three-quarters of the way through, we stopped, and the guide pulled out a table, picnic cloth, and a full bar. I had some very nice whiskey on the rocks, after which I just HAD to try the Amarula Cream, a local liqueur specialty. Seriously yummy - it's like Bailey's Irish Cream taking a sexy, tropical vacation. We toasted to a backdrop of a lightening storm that was coming in, and afterwards, on the drive back, we found the lioness that we had been searching for all day. She was gorgeous and completely unconcerned, just moseying down the road ahead of us, lit by the special red light that preceded us (red light doesn't blind the animals like regular headlights do.) Minutes before we pulled back into the lodge, the rain waves, and we all marveled at the perfect timing.

In the morning, we’ll be heading out to visit a cheetah rehabilitation center and I’ll call or post again after we get back.

By for now in lush South Africa,


The white rhinos have been really impressive.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Date with Geronimo

Red Rock Canyon from the "first pull out."

As a mountain guide people often ask me if I get bored of climbing certain routes. In Red Rock Canyon I’ve climbed Cat in the Hat (5.6+ II+) thirty or more times. I’ve climbed Solar Slab (5.6 III+) at least twenty times and in the Cascades I’ve summited Mount Baker twenty-nine times. So I know the routes very well, but do I get bored…?

The answer is no.

I don’t get bored because there’s always something interesting going on. Sometimes it’s an interesting person I’m climbing with. Sometimes it’s an interesting conversation. And other times an interesting event takes place on the route.

Sometimes the events that make a trip really memorable have little to do with those of us on the climb (like ash falling on a crag from a nearby forest fire), while other times they have everything to do with the climbers I’m with. Such was the case earlier this month.

The author, AAI guide Jason Martin - Anne Marie and Ian (and dinner!)

Ian and Anne Marie were what I would call a normal climbing team. The young couple had a background that included a great deal of gym climbing and some outdoor single pitch work, but little multi-pitch experience. Upon meeting the two in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area I suggested that we climb Geronimo (5.7 II+), a fun and laid back four-pitch route with big ledges and mild exposure. Little did I know that something extraordinary would happen at the top of the route on that beautiful fall day.

This season I’ve done Geronimo four or five times. Indeed, I’ve probably done it more than any other route in the canyon this fall. Geronimo requires a forty-five minute approach, so even on the busiest weekends the classic climb only sees a few parties a day. And though the route is notorious for stuck ropes on the descent, the lure of a quieter climb like this during the busy fall season is hard to ignore.

Anne Marie climbing Straight Shooter (5.9+) - Ian approaching the Newcastle Crag

Geronimo has another interesting feature. It is perhaps the only route in the Conservation Area that has a summit register. A small rusty box is attached to the bolts on the summit with a tattered piece of webbing. Inside the box is a series of notes, photos and business cards. Most of the notes simply identify the members of the different climbing parties that sent the route.

We reached the summit after an enjoyable ascent. Both Anne Marie and Ian were excited to make the top since it was Anne Marie’s first real experience way off the deck and only Ian’s second.

We sat on the summit under the warm glow of Red Rock’s afternoon sun. Anne Marie lazily snapped photos of the steep craggy walls around us and the city in the distance. Ian dug through his backpack looking for something to eat.

Suddenly the young man had something in his hand. I struggled to see what it was. Everything became clear as he sunk to his knee and held a ring out to Anne Marie.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

The young woman was thunderstruck. She stammered, tears shimmering in her eyes. “You’re not supposed to do that,” she whispered. “You’re not supposed to do that.”

Ian smiled and looked at me, “she hates surprises.”

“Not surprises like this,” she responded. “You’re not supposed to do that…”

Once I realized the gravity of the situation I took the camera from Anne Marie. I did so just in time.

The young woman whispered her mantra once more, “you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Does that mean yes?” Ian asked.

The newly engaged couple at the top of Geronimo.

Anne Marie looked up, her cheeks streaked with tears of happiness and said “yes.” She smiled, “yes, I will marry you.”

I frantically took photos of the happy couple as they kissed and then embraced one another. As they held each other, I realized that this would definitely be one of those days that I would remember.

The moment passed and all three of us were different in some way. Each of us were better people. The happy couple made a life-changing decision before me. And I am a better person for simply having witnessed it.

Ian climbing at the Newcastle Crags

“We should write something in the summit register,” I said. The couple happily agreed.

I didn’t have a pen, so Anne Marie borrowed my knife and sliced a small piece of cardboard out of the ring box. She then carved a simple message into the cardboard. It read:

I Said Yes!
November 8, 2007

Red Rock sunset.

You can read a longer version of Jason's story on our web site here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Kilimanjaro Dispatches

As we add new dispatches from Shawn Olson describing her ascent of Kilimanjaro, you can read them on AAI's Trip Dispatch and Current News Page.

Waterfall Ice Climbing - Cold and Scary, or Quite Contrary?

When I first got into rock climbing, nearly twelve years ago now, I solemnly vowed to never go ice climbing. From what I had read about the fickle pursuit, it sounded cold, steep, scary, and dangerous. At that point in my climbing career dangling from some small rock hold in warm weather was about as much excitement as I was hoping for. The thought of strapping medieval instruments of torture to every limb and lashing myself to 10 ton chunk of frozen water for a few hours at a time seemed about as far from enjoyable as I could imagine.

The author in SW British Columbia

These days, I manage to get at least a handful of ice trips in a year, and I would say that most of my most memorable climbs have been ice climbs in the alpine environment.

I don’t recall exactly when or where I decided to throw in the towel on that promise to myself to stay away from water ice. I can say that it didn’t come until after having spent a lot of time on rock and on glaciers. I think as I worked towards progressively more involved and difficult snow and glacier climbs, I started to understand a bit more about ice climbing and started to see that it wasn’t just a sport for gymnastic psychos with a death wish. I realized that there was moderate ice that even a snow walking, rock climbing, skinny guy could have fun on without dying. Of course once your toe is in the water, you might as well have your leg in the water. One your leg is in you might as well just take the dive. And so it went with ice climbing.

AAI climber John Greco in Banff

I started dabbling and playing around with tools on small chunks of ice in and around the Washington Cascades. Then, during my first year at AAI, I took a trip to Ouray with a co-worker at the time, Cory Bennett, and my ice climbing career was officially launched. I was blown away by the quantity and quality of the ice in Ouray. It was like the pictures I had seen in magazines and nothing like the anemic smears over pick dulling rocks and mini-pillars here in Washington. It was real ice. Long, beautiful waterfalls made of perfect blue ice.

We climbed every day for a week. At the time I was using straight shaft tools. By the end of the week, my knuckles were so badly bruised and swollen than I couldn’t get my gloves on any more, and so it was time to go home. Upon returning home I bought a pair of Black Diamond Cobra’s a real ice tool, and hit the ground running. I haven’t looked back and now each year, I anticipate the coming ice season as though awaiting the arrival of an old friend. It is cooling off here in the Cascades now, and ice should be just around the corner.

An AAI group approaches the climbing area in Lee Vining

If you are considering ice climbing for the first time, here are a few tips to get started.

1. Go with a more experienced partner or a guide. Surprise advice coming from an employee of a guide service, eh? Ice climbing, much more so that many other pursuits in the climbing world, is full of weird tools, techniques, terminology, and hazards. Going with someone who knows the ropes can save you hours, if not years of doing things wrong, inefficiently, even unsafely. On my first real ice trip I got to climb with a fellow named Scott DeCapio, and before seeing him climb, I didn’t know what a real ice climber looked like. Scott moved with a fluidity and confidence that I didn’t know was possible. He rarely swung more than once and climbed a pitch in a matter of seconds that had taken me a half an hour of hacking. With a few small tips and tricks, my ability progressed leaps and bounds in the days following that experience. It could have taken me seasons of flailing to get anywhere even close to what others helped me to accomplish in days. The value of instruction and leadership in ice climbing cannot be overstated.

2. Get the right tools for the job. Having the right gear can make the difference between a frozen knuckle bashing pumpfest, and an enjoyable pitch with warm hands and pain free fingers. These days there are more tool and crampon combinations than pitches in the Ouray Ice Park and making sense of the mess can be a daunting task. Consult a guide or a gear shop professional with experience and see what they recommend. Many services offer rental tools, which can give you the chance to try several different pairs in a day. Dress warmly, but be able to shed bulky layers quickly and get into your action suit for the climb. On long routes a small, stuffable parka will make your day. A thermos of hot drink in your pack is a lifesaver.

3. Know where to go. Picking the right location for an ice trip can make the difference between a great trip and a frustrating experience. Ideally your chosen location will have easy access to a variety of terrain, and you’ll be able to top rope easy climbs and harder pitches in the same area.

In North America, here is a list of reliable ice climbing destinations that would be perfect for a first (or 50th) ice climbing trip:

  • Ouray Colorado. The country’s first, biggest, and best ice climbing park. Many people don’t realize that Ouray is a Mecca for backcountry ice climbing as well.
  • Lee Vining Canyon, Eastern Sierra, CA. Lee Vining doesn’t have the volume of ice that Ouray does, but all of the routes are close to each other, and there are great options for easy to advanced ice routes and for mixed routes.
  • The Canadian Rockies. When ice climbers die and go to heaven, the go to the Canadian Rockies. The Rockies are widely known as the best ice climbing destination on the planet. One could spend a lifetime in the place and not climb the same route, in the same condition twice. Banff and Canmore are at the center of the climbing there.
  • Cody, Wyoming. Somewhat off the beaten path, Cody has ice climbing in the Wild West. There aren’t a lot of beginner options at Cody, and it is primarily known for its super high quality multi-pitch climbs.
  • Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman has a rich history in climbing and has been the home of many a world-class alpinist. The canyons surrounding the Bozeman area and farther east to Yellowstone National Park have many hallowed American classics hidden amongst their walls.
  • Washington State and Southwest British Columbia. AAI guide Jason Martin has authored a guide book, Washington Ice, detailing the ephemeral ice in Washington State. When it gets cold enough to form, there can be some amazing climbs in Washington. Reliably there are a few good options almost every year.

AAI teaches courses and guides climbs from mid-December through March in Ouray Colorado, Lee Vining, CA, and the Canadian Rockies.

If you would prefer to climb ice in the summer time – that is right, the summer time – (did I say summer?) come check out the glacier ice options on Mount Baker!

See our web site or email me at our info address for more details and happy climbing.

Coley Gentzel
AAI Program Coordinator and Guide

Monday, November 19, 2007

New Kilimanjaro Dispatches

Shawn Olson, AAI's Communications Coordinator, called in two new dispatches from her Kilimanjaro expedition over the weekend. You can read them ("Arrival at Machame" and "Camp 1") on AAI's Current News and Dispatch Page.

Cheetah and babies, whoa!

Note: All future dispatches from Shawn's Kilimanjaro trip will be posted on AAI's Current News and Dispatch page located here:

Today was our last at Ndutu Lodge, and it was a great one. We took three safaris. In the morning, we returned to the site of the buffalo kill and actually got to witness the lioness eating....kinda gorey. She was really working hard tearing the meat and abdominal lining and was visibly tired and panting hard. She kept looking around for the other lionesses to help her eat this massive beast before the hyenas and vultures helped themselves.

Lake Ndutu with Mt. Lemagrut in the distance

The next safari was probably the highlight and was unplanned. Our guide Steven heard that there had been a cheetah sighting and came and found us to ask if we wanted to go try our luck locating it. We did try. And we were lucky. After driving around for about a half hour, Steven suddenly stopped the Land Cruiser and said, 'there they are!' We saw a mother cheetah lying in the grass with her three cubs. We watched them for quite a while as one of the cubs tried to climb a tree and wrestled with his buddies - so cute. Cheetahs are incredibly beautiful up close (we were about 15 feet away), and it’s rare to see, them, so we felt super lucky. On this drive we also saw another new animal for us: the bat-eared fox. They were very skittish, so we didn't get photos but got a good look. 

A genet living at the lodge

We just came back from the third drive, and the hit of this one was the lilac-breasted roller. I know, this sounds like a fancy car-hop (waitress on roller skates), but actually it's a bird, and a quite beautiful one at that. It's about ten inches long, with bright turquoise feathers and a lilac-colored breast. Wow. It was a startling sight to see against the dry, tan bush landscape. We also saw an elephant break a tree.

We saw a group of three young Masai boys who were tending their family's cattle at a seasonal camp. Young Masai boys are sent with the cattle to the lowlands to graze in the dry season when there is no water in the highlands. Masai are the only people who are legally allowed to walk and live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (all others must be in a vehicle or accompanied by an armed ranger). Life is very hard for these young boys who are charged with fending off the lions, buffalo, and elephants from their cattle. If they are brave in the performance of their duties, we were told they will be rewarded with the best wives. It is startling to see such young boys with such serious responsibilities.

Lovebirds are very plentiful around the lodge.

Tomorrow, we drive back to Gibb's Farm and from there I will drive north to meet my guides for Kilimanjaro while my mother (a pediatrician) begins her health assessments of children in the bush. This is probably our last emailed message for a while, but tomorrow or the next day I will start phoning in dispatches on the sat phone.

Talk to you soon,

Friday, November 16, 2007

Eat, eat, eat. Don't get eaten.

This is the mantra of the Serengeti. At least what I've seen of it. All the creatures, humans included, are busy busy busy and spend all day looking for food and water, while trying not to get eaten. And when I say humans are doing this too, I mean it. There are still loads of Masai people who live traditionally, herding cattle and living nomadically off the land. We see them every now and then on our drives from place to place - they just appear suddenly on the side of the road, with their bright red and purple dress, long staff, and sandals made out of old tires. They are very serious compared to the other Tanzanians we've seen, who seem happy and bright despite the extreme poverty they are living in. But I won't go into that now....

The Ndutu lodge

We arrived at Ndutu Lodge yesterday, after a full day of driving from Gibbs Farm thru the Ngorongoro Crater and onto the Serengeti. What a day of driving! We saw so many animals, that I am going to refer to our list that we made as we saw these incredible creatures. Here we go:

Elephants at the watering hole beside the Ndutu lodge.

Cape buffalo, warthogs, jackals (both golden and black-backed), ostrich, serval cat, zebra (my favorite), wildebeast, hartebeast, spotted hyena, Thompson gazelle, hippo, elephant, flamingos, rhino, lions, Grants gazelles, Masai giraffe, impala, dikdik, Steinback antelope, leopard tortoise....and I won't even list all the birds, but wow we saw a lot and our guide, Steven, named them all for us.

So there is the list so far, but I'm sure it will grow. A few of the encounters were especially memorable, like the three female lions that had just killed the buffalo and that were panting in the shade before eating while the buffalo slowly bloated with death and sun. Or like the giant elephant that moseyed in front of our car, each step like a meditation, and ears waggling to fan his hot hide. The giraffes tonight were possibly the best - we saw two young males fighting for dominance - they fight by what's called necking, where they twist their necks up and push against each other. It seems a very civilized way of fighting, because from what I could tell when they got tired they took a break and had a little snack to replenish their strength, then they would continue the necking. they also use their short horns as weapons and bang their heads into each other - it was fairly ferocious, in a giraffe sort of way, which is slow and graceful...

Wildebeest at Ndutu 2nd Feb 2005, photographed by one of our guests, Todd Gustasson.
Wildebeest on the drive to the Ndutu lodge.

Ndutu Lodge is quiet, beautiful, and the rooms are simple. However, we have found in all three lodges we have stayed at so far, the food is far from simple. Four course dinners, tea time (yes, I'm in heaven...there is unlimited high quality tea here WITH unlimited hot milk and raw sugar!!!!). Breakfasts and lunches are also extravagant and I am sure I am gaining weight and loving every calorie. Hopefully Kilimanjaro help in that area...

Bringing out the evening lights at Ndutu.

Speaking of, I leave in two days to meet my Kili guide! I am feeling ready. I did go for a run at 6000 feet the other day and it did kick my butt, but oh well, I'm certainly not going to be running up Kili.

OK, I will now attempt some photos, but no promises...and probably no captions for now as I am running out of time on the computer.

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