Friday, February 29, 2008

In Ecuador, climbers Matthias Liebert (Greensboro, NC), Alexandra Levin (New York City) and Michael Brennan (Scranton, PA) with AAI guide Jose Landazuri summited 18,997-foot Cayambe a little after 10:00am on Thursday, February 28th.

Cayambe and its hut. The icefall in the bottom right is where the climbing team practiced skills before making their successful ascent. Chuck Park photo.

Cayambe hasn’t seen any successful climbs all the way to the summit for the last month because of a huge crevasse surrounding most of the very heavily glaciated summit formation. This team circumnavigated the summit pyramid far enough to find a new passage to get past this final crevasse – thanks in part to their thorough scouting and to some new snow and ice collapses. They report “the weather and the climbing were both great,” in a call from the mountain. Everyone was doing very well and looking forward to relaxing in the comforts of La Cienega Hacienda today before moving on to Cotopaxi tomorrow March 1st. They’ll make their summit bid on Cotopaxi on March 2nd.

The large crevasse surrounding the summit of Cayambe was surmounted on the southeast side of the peak, out of view here to the right. Melissa Park photo.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Conserving Your Favorite Crag: What You Need to Know About the Access Fund

According to the Forest Service, the United States currently loses 6,000 acres of open space every day -- four acres per minute! Accordingly, 'conservation' is a word that we hear every day. Applied in many different contexts including energy, land, and economics, conservation is a timely tool for us to use in our daily lives.

The Access Fund is a non-profit organization with a dual conservation mission: to keep climbing areas open and to maintain the climbing environment. Backed by large-scale partners like Black Diamond, REI, CLIF Bar, and Prana, the Access Fund was founded as a way for climbers to give back to their recreation areas.

Adopt-a-Crag and The Boulder Project are the Access Fund's most visible programs. Adopt-a-Crag is a stewardship project that assists in forming partnerships between climbers and landowners. The goal of this particular program is to initiate litter clean ups, trail restoration, and wildlife monitoring in a designated climbing location. The Boulder Project is another stewardship program, one that focuses more specifically on low impact climbing. According to the Access Fund's website, low impact climbing includes understanding land ownership, minimizing impacts on off-trail locations, and speaking up to climbers who don't recognize the importance of conserving recreation areas.

The Access Fund also advocates for climbing conservation in several other significant ways. One important
resource they offer is creating climbing management plans for public lands. These plans help to maintain availability of climbing areas by mitigating the effects of recreationists. Their team of staff and volunteers also spend many hours lobbying in D.C., and maintaining a comprehensive list of recreation area access issues.

How Yo
u Can Help

Stay informed -- Make sure you have the latest information on access and closures for your region. Click Here to search by state.

Adopt-a-Crag --
Give back to your favorite climbing area by forming a stewardship group.

Play Gunther's Big Day game -- have a little bouldering fun when you're bored at work. Everytime someone buys the full version, a $10 donation is made to the Access Fund.

Activist Tools -- The Access Fund provides materials for climbers and landowners on how to be an activist.

Photo credits:
Top right - Access Fund
Bottom left - Access Fund, Patitucci

Monday, February 25, 2008

Planning for the Summer Climbing Season

American Alpine Institute's summer season courses are open for registration! If you want to improve your climbing skills before you start tackling your "must do list" for climbing this summer, it's a great idea to take an early season mountaineering course. We have course options for all skill levels, and private instruction is always an option if you have a tight schedule or very specific skills on which you want to focus.

Early Summer Season Course Dates
(for more information and complete course dates for each program, please use the link)

Intro to Alpinism (North Cascades)
May 4-9, May 12-17, May 18-23, May 26-31

Intro to Mountaineering (Sierras)
June 14-18, June 28 - Jul 2

Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership (North Cascades)
May 12-23, May 26 - June 6, June 9-20, June 23 -
July 4

Expedition Training Program (North Cascades)
May 18-23

Glacier Skills and Crevasse Rescue (North Cascades)
May 31-June 2

Alpine Ice Climbing (North Cascades)
May 4-9, May 11-16, May 18-23, May 25-30, May 31- June 5, June 7-12

Following a successful summit climb of Mt. Baker, an Alpinism 1–Intro group passes below Colfax Peak and the Black Buttes. Baker’s immense glaciers offer perfect training ground for snow and ice climbing during the summer months. The course also includes an introduction to rock climbing. Richard Riquelme photo.

Nearing Iceberg Lake on a Sierra Intro to Mountaineering course, with great views of Day and Keeler Needles (left and right center) and the East Face of Mt. Whitney (right). The course covers skills for rock, snow, and ice. Dylan Taylor photo.

Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership participants high on Sahale Peak and heading to the summit in North Cascades National Park. The course covers all aspects of alpinism, with time on rock, snow, and ice, and it concludes with a participant-lead ascent of a major peak. Gerry Chike photo.

The Expedition Training course covers all aspects of climbing and glacier travel encountered on large peak expeditions. Route finding through crevasse fields is among the many skills practiced.

Our Alpine Ice Climbing program culminates with an ascent of a challenging route on Mt. Baker. Here a team is photographed high on Baker’s North Ridge. Alasdair Turner photo.

If you have any questions about our programs, please call us at 800-424-2249 or email us at

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thinking about Denali?

In 2003, Jay Meyer summited Denali with an AAI expedition, and recently published an amazing website: "An Expedition to the Top of North America." In his website, he describes all aspects of the trip, including planning and preparation, a full description of the West Buttress Route, and how it feels to summit the highest peak in North America. The following story includes excerpts and photos from his expedition. If you would like to read the full version, click here.

"I first considered climbing Mount McKinley [Denali] in the early 1990s, when I became increasingly interested in winter mountaineering. With M
cKinley in the back of my mind, I climbed a series of progressively higher and more difficult peaks to improve and assess my skills. For me it was clear that a guided expedition would be the safest and most realistic way to attempt the summit. Although I had not climbed with the American Alpine Institute before, I researched the available services (six have National Park Service concessions) and chose AAI based upon its well deserved reputation for skilled, enthusiastic guides and a collaborative instructional philosophy.

My trip began in earnest when I left Portland, Maine for Anchorage, where I met AAI's guides and the rest of the team. Our guides were John Kear, Julia Niles and Seth Hobby, each exceptionally fit and skilled after years of guiding and climbing in the Cascades, Rockies, Andes, Himalaya and Alps. The team included a physician, two lawyers, an engineer, an architect, an air traffic controller and two graduate students. Two of the clients were Canadian, two British and the rest American. Although diverse, we proved to be very compatible and cohesive.

After meeting with the Rangers we returned to the airport, where we loaded into two ski planes. Although carefully weighed and organized, our gear was bulky so the boarding process was more like a mosh pit than a major airline!

Our camp procedures were fairly uniform throughout the trip, except at high camp where we spent nearly all of our time in sleeping bags sheltering from the cold and wind. In the lower camps we ate and socialized in a large kitchen tent pitched over a snow pit with seating around the perimeter and a central counter for stoves and cookware. In our smaller tents we read, talked, wrote in journals, listened to the radio, slept or just stared at the walls.

The first morning we carried loads to cache at a future campsite. It was cold and, at first, snowing lightly. But soon the snow fell heavier and blew into blizzard. In whiteout conditions the guides used GPS to find our way to the cache site, approximately five miles from base camp. There, in the blowing snow we dug a deep pit and buried our load of food and fuel. The return to base camp was difficult; we lost our way several times on the foggy, crevasse strewn glacier, finally snaking back to base camp almost twelve hours after we began.

The next day we broke camp at 11,000' and moved to 14,200', leaving behind a large cache of waste and items such as snowshoes that would not be needed until we came back down the route. At 14,200', in the basin at the top of the Kahiltna, is perhaps the most important campsite on the West Buttress route. During the climbing season National Park Service Climbing Rangers maintain a constant presence there, with radios and basic medical equipment. We were there at the height of the season, and the camp was crowded with more than a hundred climbers of many nationalities. After arriving we spent hours preparing our tent sites, kitchen and protective snow walls.

After two stormy days the weather cleared, and most of our team prepared for the climb to high camp. The process was slow as each climber clipped onto a rope and ascended in single file up a path of steps kicked into the steep hard face. One member had suffered breathing problems on the headwall, and decided to return to the basin camp with a guide.

Twelve hours after we left the basin camp, we labored over the final knob of the ridge and then down a short slope into high camp at 17,200'. After a short break to catch our breath in the thin cold air, we spent hours building camp walls with blocks of hard sawn snow.

When it became clear that we would be spending more than a couple of days at high camp, a guide descended to our cache at the top of the headwall to retrieve more food and fuel. But our supplies were still limited, and we were swiftly approaching the date when we had to fly off the mountain and return home. In fact, we all considered descending on Wednesday, but remained in the hope that it might clear on Thursday, the last possible day for us to attempt the summit.

I tossed and turned most of the night before our summit attempt. We had plenty to think about, all the good and bad things that might happen the next day. And beyond the next day, I also thought of my wife, family and future in mountaineering.

Early in the morning our guides gave the word and we began to suit up for our climb to the top of North America. As always on this trip, we would travel in roped teams so we put on harnesses with an assortment of carabiners, slings and other technical gear. My hands became stiff from the cold when I strapped crampons onto the overboots that covered my heavy plastic mountaineering boots. We gulped down a quick breakfast and warm drinks, and stowed a few snacks and insulated water bottles in our packs. Then, we roped up and headed out of camp.

I struggled for a comfortable breathing rhythm, finally settling on three or sometimes four breaths per step in a rapid, deep pant. After about two hours, we reached Denali Pass and took a break. Until then we had been climbing in cold shade, but when we reached the pass the sun hit us and its warmth was welcome. A few hours later we walked over a prominence known as Archdeacon's Tower, and down onto a plateau at the base of Pig Hill, the final slope below the summit.

The jagged summit ridge was spectacular, and at our feet McKinley's southwest face dropped away precipitously for thousands of feet. We snaked out along the ridge, clinging to its crest as we crept upward. And then we were at the top - a mound of snow on the edge of an abyss, with the ridge leading downward on either side.

On June 12, 2003, I stood on the summit of Mount McKinley with seven other members of an expedition guided by the American Alpine Institute. After a decade of preparation on smaller peaks, more than a year of training and 19 days on the mountain, I had reached the top of North America. Unquestionably, each of us experienced a flood of emotions as we embraced and congratulated each other on reaching this great high place. I was overjoyed for myself and also for my tentmate, who had come back to finish the job after a difficult trip years earlier that had stalled at high camp.

Returning to Talkeetna we experienced a jarring culture shock. After weeks on the mountain and glacier, surrounded by snow, rock and other climbers, we were now in a town full of cars, tourists, businesses, trees and greenery. After we unloaded the plane, I talked my way into a shower at the airport's tourist information building. It was unmitigated pleasure to peel off clothes that I had been wearing for many days, and then soak off the accumulated grime and perspiration.

Has this experience changed me, and what meaning can be drawn from it? I returned a little thinner and a little hairier, but with the exception of two bruised toes I suffered no injuries. I attribute my success and well being to diligent preparation, skilled guides, a worthy team and a healthy dose of good luck. But on a deeper level, achieving this great goal has proved to me that dreams can be made real through hard work and patience. And at the same time it has caused me to reassess my goals, because if one believes that dreams can come true, then it is even more important to consider which dreams to pursue."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Farewell! AAI employee Shawn Olson says goodbye...

After almost three years of working at the American Alpine Institute, I am sad to say that I am leaving. It’s been an amazing experience working here – the people are the coolest of any job I’m sure I’ll ever have. The job itself, it goes without saying, is also cool – what better way to spend all day than talking about mountains? I will surely miss this place, but it is time to move on, time to pursue my “professional” interests. I have taken a job at a local communications company called Baron and Co, where I’ll be working as a copywriter and media planner. I am excited for this next step in my life and am glad to know that AAI will be just around the corner in historic Fairhaven. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, once you get yourself wedged into the AAI circle, there’s no going back...

Here are some random picture memories from the years' past that make me smile:

When Gunther (Natasha's cat) came to visit AAI:

Hanging out in Red Rock with Niki and Zephyr:

Richard and Greg, always the jokers:

Hanging out in a crevasse, on my first AAI course ("um, guys? it's kinda cold down here...":

Climbing Mt. Ruth with Aura on a fantastic day with a killer view:

Climbing the North Twin with Andrew and making the horrible mistake of descending down the east gully...don't try it.

Before I went to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro, Andy gave me a very serious lesson in satellite phone usage:

And Natasha almost didn't let me go (literally):

Here is a random picture of Coley partaking in his "other" hobby, because believe it or not in the three years I've worked here I've never snapped a picture of Coley Gentzel.

The "Huckers" after Ski to Sea, aka: friends I would not have met if it weren't for AAI (I feel sooo lucky to know you girls!):

The ladies of AAI, summer '07:

Just finishing up a flight tour of the North Cascades - doing "research" for one of AAI's programs...

Dunham got to go too:

My parting shot....

I'll miss you all! And for those of you who I helped register and prepare for your programs, don't worry - Andy, Coley, Natasha, and (our newest) Ruth will all take great care of you.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Freedom to Roam - A 21st Century Vision to Protect and Connect North America's Wildlands

(Reproduced courtesy of Patagonia, an outdoor-apparel company that places environmental conservation high at the top of its priority list.)

Climate change threatens to drive more than a million land species to extinction, according to the Extinction Risk from Climate Change study. Habitats for mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, and butterflies will become warmer. If these species remain trapped in warming habitats due to human development, one-quarter of them could disappear by the end of this century.

Global warming is forcing wild animals to shift habitats. If migration is blocked by human development (suburbs, highways, gas and oil rigs), many species may not survive into the next century. Providing species (like this grizzly) with greater freedom to roam between shifting habitats can do much to support their survival. In North America, this means protecting and restoring wildlife corridors along the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide, the Appalachians, and several other smaller, but equally important, locales.

Freedom to Roam is a partnership of conservation organizations, recreation groups, and corporations dedicated to establishing migration corridors between protected areas. To learn more about this partnership's goals, please read Patagonia's current article on the subject. You can also check out Patagonia's recommended resources page.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Red Rock Rendezvous Announces 2008 Athletes and Guides

The fifth annual Red Rock Rendezvous rock climbing festival, set to take place on March 28-30, just announced the list of internationally renown athletes that will be leading the event’s scheduled clinics. The climbing athletes include: Mijka Burhardt, Tommy Caldwell, Olivai Cussen, Malcolm Daly, Mica Dash, Brittany Griffith, Arno Ilgner, Dean Lords, Dale Remsberg, Beth Rodden, Matt Segal, Pablo Stein, and Don Welsh.

Participants at the Red Rock Rendezvous get the opportunity to take rock climbing clinics at all levels from the above-mentioned athletes. Ten American Alpine Institute guides will also be instructing clinics during the festival, as well as be available for booking before and after the festival. Call us at 360-671-1505 to book a guide around this time, and see our Red Rock webpage for details on pricing and routes.

“The quality of instruction received by participants every year is what makes this event unique and keeps climbers coming back,” said Paul Fish, president of Mountain Gear.

Presented by Mountain Gear and sponsored by The North Face, the festival is in its fifth year and will be held at the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas, as usual. Funds generated from the festival will benefit The Access Fund and other local and national non-profit organizations.

The festival will offer clinics for advanced, intermediate and beginning climbers on Saturday and Sunday. Registration is $89 per person for the Saturday and Sunday events, and $179 per person for the Friday “Intro” day and Saturday and Sunday clinic combo. Registration includes the Friday night opening celebration, free climbing at Red Rock Canyon when not in formal clinics, a dinner buffet on Saturday night, demos, comps and mini-seminars by event sponsors, a blow-out party and slide show on Saturday night, pancake breakfast Sunday morning and service projects to assist in the environmental conservation of the Red Rock Canyon and Spring Mountain. For only $39, participants can receive access to all of the festivities without the climbing. All of the festival activities outside of the climbing clinics will take place at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park located approximately 10 minutes from the entrance to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

For more information and to register, call 800.829.2009 or visit

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Importance of Being Prepared

AAI Program Coordinator and Guide, Coley Gentzel, writes on the importance of being prepared for your climbing trips.

In climbing, when things start to go wrong, the problems are usually a result of multiple or compounding bad decisions or breakdowns in the systems. Of course, there are many examples of situations where one major catastrophic event or act of god was the sole purpose or cause, but more often than not, big problems are a result of lots of little ones.

This weekend I was climbing a moderate, multi-pitch ice route here in Washington’s Cascades. We had done some scouting that morning to see what routes were in condition before we finally settled on the route we ended up climbing. From the parking lot, we could see that there were two parties ahead of us on the route, which was not surprising considering our late start, the lack of other attractive options in the area, and the moderate but quality nature of the climb.

From the car I could see that there was one climber at the belay above the first pitch and the other climber was still on the ground. It took up about an hour to hike to the base of the climb, and when we got there, the second climber was just leaving the ground. I didn’t pay much attention as we fiddled around, racked up, and got ready to climb. My partner for the day had never been ice climbing before and so we spent some time practicing techniques on the ground before I got ready to start climbing. The second party had chosen a line on the far left side of the climb and were top roping the first pitch.

When I was ready to lead off, I noticed that the 2nd climber of team #1 had just reached the belay at the top of the first pitch. It had been roughly two hours since we had seen them from the parking lot, and for the first time we stopped to think about the this and it became apparent that they were likely new to either ice climbing, multi-pitch climbing, or perhaps both. In a cragging or roadside venue, this is not uncommon at all and I have certainly grown accustomed to sharing routes of this type with new climbers.

I led the first pitch and set up a belay out of the way of the party already on route. The leader had led straight up from his belay at first and then traversed from the far right side of the climb to the far left side of the climb, placing one piece of intermediate protection on the traverse. I crossed under their rope to build my belay, thinking that his 2nd would come to the intersection before mine, and it would be easier for her to step over my rope rather than have to go under it on steep terrain.

As both 2nd’s made progress up the climb, it became very apparent to me that the woman following on the other leaders rope was not confident or comfortable with her foot or axe placements and she seemed very uneasy about everything. Her ice axe leashes weren’t attached or being used properly and as such, she was unable to use her tools effectively. Her feet looked very unstable and she couldn’t seem to get comfortable or secure with her crampons. She eventually worked her way past my belay and started taking out the piece of intermediate protection her leader had placed. When the gear was cleaned, she started working her way onto the steep ice above and as soon as her feet were at eye level, I noticed that both of her crampons were hardly attached to her boots. She was on the verge of falling and looking at a very large pendulum fall because the rope traverse basically straight out from where she was at. The leader above said his anchor was not very solid and eagerly encouraged the follower not fall. Seeing the potential disaster unfolding in front of me, I quickly bouldered above my anchor (not recommended) and clipped a locking carabiner into her belay loop and put her on belay from my harness. As soon as I was able to clip her in and secure the rope, she fell. I was able to keep her on tension from my anchor while I had the leader pay out slack. This slowly lowered her to below my anchor where I clipped her in and where she was safe.

Upon inspecting the woman’s boots and crampons, I saw that she had a flexible pair of mountaineering/trekking boots paired with a crampon that was step-in compatible. Her boots did not have the needed toe welt or rigidity for the crampons to function, and the result was them flopping off of her feet. Not wanting to command the situation and/or ruin the climbers' day out, I made the “recommendation” that they let me lower her to the ground and then the leader could continue to the top and descend with us. Fortunately they agreed, and I didn’t have to take a more firm stance and require this course of action due to the potential safety concerns for them and others on the route if they had chosen to try and continue. I quickly set up up a lower using a Guide ATC with a redirect for the lowering strand backup up with a kleimhiest off of my harness. A few short minutes later and she was on the ground. I led off across the climb with double ropes giving the tail end of one strand to the other leader for him to tie into, finished the climb, built an anchor at the top of the climb and brought both climbers up.

This experience reinforced many concepts for me, and I hope that the couple was able to learn a few things from the process as well. Any one of the issues that they encountered (improper gear selection and application, choosing a route above/beyond ability level, traversing without adequate protection, bad belay anchor) would not have necessarily been a show stopper or serious safety factor in and of itself, but when one or more of these things are present, suddenly you have a recipe for disaster.

In solving the problems at hand, there were several things that made a safe execution of the “rescue” scenario possible. First, being able to identify and realize the seriousness of the compounding factors of an imminent fall, a pendulum fall, and a poor belay anchor was key in knowing when to take quick action. Next, knowing how to effect a full-length lower safely and easily. Third, leading on two ropes made it both possible and easy to add a second climber on the opposite side of the route to our team and finish the route rather than rebuilding anchors and re-structuring our lead rope at a hanging belay know to have poor anchor options. Fourth, using an autolocking belay device made belaying two climbers on two ropes from very different points on the climb possible. Last, none of the other “compounding” factors described above were present on our climbing team.

Recounting this series of events is as much for my benefit as I hope it will be for yours. Things unfolded fairly quickly in this situation and only now, after the fact, can I take the time to reflect on all of the components and factors and more fully understand what allowed things to work out for the better instead of the worst. The thing I am most impressed by in all of this is the importance of proper training and of being properly prepared with knowledge and equipment. With my background in technical climbing and professional training in guiding and rescue techniques, executing these things felt more like second nature or a logical solution to a problem, rather than an overwhelming and complex situation. The motions and components were familiar to me and were all things that I have practiced and carried out many times over the years. In stressful times and intense situations, you need to be able to go into autopilot mode and react appropriately based on the factors at hand. Our courses and trainings are structured with exactly this goal in mind, to help climbers build their base of skills and experience that will prepare them well for scenarios like this and many more, in the mountains and closer to the road. Thorough and adequate training in technical skills, medical scenarios, and decision-making factors should be considered as essential as the right boots, clothing, or hardware for a given outing. If you haven’t taken the time to properly educate yourself in either simple or more complex skills and scenarios, perhaps now is the time?

Safe climbing everyone.


Friday, February 1, 2008

2008 summer dates added for Ecuador High Altitude Expedition!

A classic view of Cayambe, with the Cayambe Hut
in the foreground. Richard Riquelme

If you have ever wanted to participate in our Ecuador High Altitude Expedition but haven't been able to get away for the November - March time period we usually run the program, then we have good news for you! We have just added summer dates for this fantastic expedition, so you can now use your summer vacation to join our expedition - choose one of three departures: May 16, June 6, June 27. Ecuador has two dry seasons, a longer one during our winter, and a shorter one during our summer - so May, June, and July are great times to climb the famous Cayambe (18,997’) and Cotopaxi (19,348’) on a 10-day trip, and Chimborazo (20,703') on a 5-day extension. We also offer 10-day trips to climb Illiniza Sur (17,268') and Antisana (18,714'), and are offering three summer departures for this trip as well: May 16, June 6, and June 27.

To learn more about these expeditions, please get in touch with Andy Bourne at or at 360-671-1505.