Saturday, March 30, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Alizée Dufraisse has made ​​the first female ascent of "El món de Sofia" (8b+/c, 5.14a) in El Pati. Alizée has been in Siurana, Spain, since the holidays, where she spent most of the winter trying to send her super-project.  The El Pati area is famous for other big climbs, like "La Rambla" which was first climbed by Alex Huber in 1994.

This next clip is of a soaking wet rare ascent of Cascade de l'Oule, Vallée du Grésivaudan, 280m, Grade V+ by Erwan Lelann and Arnáud Guillaume.  The waterfall flows down from St. Hilarite du Touvet, which is a commune only accessible by an inclined railway called a furnicular.

Here's another first ascent video for this weekend.  Carlo Traversi sent his project, a stout V13 called "The Reflecting Pool" in Red Rock Canyon, NV.  AAI will have a bunch of guides down in the Red Rock area in the next two weeks for Mountain Gear's Red Rock Rendezvous.  If you would like to climb with us in Red Rock, be sure to contact Tim Page at

Have a great weekend! - James

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Climbing Events April & May 2013

4/5 --Seattle, WA -- NWAC Snowball Dinner and Auction

4/5 - 4/7 Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

There are at least 4 Alpine Institute Guides in this video, Andrew Yasso, Paul Rosser, Tom Kirby, and Ben Gardner. Who do you know?

4/13 --Seattle, WA -- The Rain City Send Climbing Wall comp at UW

4/6 -- San Angelo, TX -- Angelo State University Climbing Competition

3/15 - 5/4 -- Bay Area, CA --
  • Friday, March 15th, 2013 • Concord Diablo Rock Gym • 5pm-10pm
  • Friday, April 19th, 2013 • Oakland Great Western Power Co • 5pm-10pm
  • Saturday, May 4th, 2013 • Mission Cliffs in San Francisco 
5/25 -- Yerevan, Armenia --

5/30 - 6/1 -- Boulder, CO -- Climbing Wall Association Summit

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Renan Ozturk spent a lot of time in the spotlight last year after the release of his, Conrad Anker's and Jimmy Chin's film about their ascent of Meru Shark's Fin.  The trio's documentation of the climb won much acclaim for their striking cinematography.  The following clip is a highlight reel of Renan's prowess behind the camera.

One of the hottest ski movies of the 2011-2012 season was Sherpa Cinemas All.I.Can, and personally, my favorite segment was JP Auclair's street segment.  Click here in case you missed it.  Well, this year for the Pain McSchlonky (a "hilarious tribute to legendary skier Shane McConkey"), they made a great video spoofing the JP Auclair segment.  To read more about the event, click here.

The first time many of us noticed Magnus Midtbø was at the 2011 World Cup in Arco, Italy.  Soon after that, a video was released on Youtube titled "Insane Norwegian Climber" where we saw that super-ripped Norwegian kid cranking one-finger pullups and one armed pushups.  Recently, Magnus has been spending time in Spain working on Neanderthal (9b, 5.15b).  While waiting for the route to dry, he decided to hop on Ciudad de Dios (9a/+, 5.14d).

The Santa Linya Collective - first teaser from MadSkillz Media on Vimeo.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Back-Up Belay

When should a person have a belay backup?

In the AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course, this question comes up constantly. When should I have someone back up my new belayer? When can I let them belay without a backup? And how should I back them up?

These are questions that exist throughout the climbing world. Many climbers who are not professional instructors regularly teach people to belay. So these are not simply esoteric guide questions, but are real and fundamental questions that anyone who has ever taught someone how to belay must consider.

New climbers should always have a backup of some sort. The possibility of dropping someone is very real for the rank beginner and is often still a possibility for someone with a little bit of experience.

The answer to when a person should no longer need a backup belayer is twofold. First, you should be comfortable with the fact that the person no longer needs a backup. A second, and far more important consideration, is when the individual feels comfortable enough to belay without a backup.

It is not uncommon for climbers -- especially very young climbers -- to teach their friends to belay and then to give them a hard time when they show concern about the level of responsibility they have been given. This is a recipe for disaster. One should never ignore or belittle a person's concerns about his or her belay skills. Indeed, this is exactly the type of red flag that would lead a guide to continue employing a belay backup.

Belay Backup Techniques

There are a number of individuals out there that have their hearts in the right place by providing a belay backup, but are doing it very poorly. Indeed, while putting together this blog, I found an instructional video that demonstrates poor belay backup technique.

It is unfortunately quite common for climbers to simply hold the rope to backup a belayer. This is often done in a lackadaisical manner (see photo below) and may not provide the appropriate amount of friction to adequately stop a fall if the belayer panics and lets go of the rope.

This is an example of a VERY BAD belay backup. Note that the backup
belayer is not really holding the rope and that he is not in line with the device.
It is highly unlikely that he will be able to arrest a fall if the kid on the tree lets go.

There are two simple techniques to back someone up who is on flat terrain. The first option is to give the belayer a hip belay. And the second option is to simply run the rope through a second device on the backup belayer.

A Belayer with a Hip Belay Back-Up

Occasionally I work with kids. In such a setting I tend to add yet another piece of redundancy to the system. I employ a backup belayer as well as a knot-tyer. In other words, I have a kid tie backup knots every six or eight feet. This keeps a person occupied who would otherwise be a potential crag management hazard. Admittedly, tying knots in the rope is overkill with adults and even with competent high school students. But when it comes to middle school kids, the more activities they have the better...

If the belay is running through a GriGri or a Cinch, then it might be okay to have a slightly less radical approach to your backup belay. It doesn't take much to arrest a fall in such a device.

If you are not on flat ground and a backup belayer can get below the belayer, it might be acceptable to simply hold the rope for a backup. This is what is refered to as an inline belay backup.

An Inline Belay Backup

Another option that allows you to hold the rope is to create an inline redirect. In other words, the belay rope runs from the belayers device, to a ground anchor and then back to the backup belayer. In such a situation it is super easy for a backup belayer to arrest a fall by holding the rope.

A Backup Belay Running through a Redirect

Backup belays are an important part of the safety net for the beginner climber. If you're new to climbing don't hesitate to ask for a backup. And if you have the opportunity to teach someone how to belay, always always always employ a belay backup. It could save someone's life!

--Jason D. Martin

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Climbing Events March & April 2013

3/22 - 3/24 -- Mt. Baker, WA -- Splitfest (Splitboard Festival)

4/5 --Seattle, WA -- NWAC Snowball Dinner and Auction

4/5 - 4/7 Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

There are at least 4 Alpine Institute Guides in this video, Andrew Yasso, Paul Rosser, Tom Kirby, and Ben Gardner. Who do you know?

4/13 --Seattle, WA -- The Rain City Send Climbing Wall comp at UW

4/6 -- San Angelo, TX -- Angelo State University Climbing Competition

3/15 - 5/4 -- Bay Area, CA --
  • Friday, March 15th, 2013 • Concord Diablo Rock Gym • 5pm-10pm
  • Friday, April 19th, 2013 • Oakland Great Western Power Co • 5pm-10pm
  • Saturday, May 4th, 2013 • Mission Cliffs in San Francisco •

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

One Day Ski Of Mt. Baker

When your alarm goes off at 2:30 AM on a Saturday morning there can be a slight bit of confusion as to what is going on. My eyes barely open to see the clock, and my mind races to figure out where I am. I'm in my bed not a tent, so I can't be working. I worked all week so why did I have my alarm set must have been a mistake. Turn that noise maker off and get some sleep!

As I roll back over to drift back into dream world skiing Mt Baker crosses my just-wakening brain. Ah that would be fun definitely need to do that. WAIT!!  My eyes open wide a burst of energy surges through my body, all of a sudden I am awake. I grab my phone and immediately text Casey: We still on for today!  Minutes later my phone chirps as I get the coffee going  see ya in 15-20.

We depart Bellingham at the rich hour of 3:15 AM and start the drive up to Mt. Baker.  The road is closed about 4.5 miles and 2000 feet below the Heliotrope Ridge trail head. The morning is clear and crisp as we don our headlamps and set out at 5 am to bite off the first chunk of mountain.

The first part of the ski is a very easy, enjoyable, and gentle skin up a road to the trail head. Just before we reach the trail head, we get an amazing view of our objective as the sun begins to lighten the sky. Conditions appear to be good and avalanche danger seems very manageable. I take a moment to scan the skyline for any recent avalanche activity up high, although it is hard to get a real feel of this as the sun is rising due to flat light. I see nothing glaring to suggest the avalanche danger has changed since I checked the Northwest Avalanche Center Avalanche bulletin at 2:45 AM. I remind myself to not get caught in the classic heuristic trap of blue bird day, big objective,  great skiing, and complacency.

Skinning just past Grouse Creek
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

After a quick food and tea break at the trail head, we start moving up the mountain. We follow Grouse Creek to the base of Heliotrope ridge and start to skin up the gully. We do our best to keep a low-angle efficient skin track to conserve as much energy as possible for the the 8000+ feet of skinning we will be doing that day. About and hour later we stop to drink and refuel our bodies. More low-angle track setting and a couple of hasty pits lead us to another break on top of Heliotrope ridge. The sun is getting higher in the sky, the snow conditions are shaping up to be perfect. I begin to think this could be a summit day. Again, I take a moment to remind myself about complacency.

Blue Bird on Heliotrope Ridge
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

From Heliotrope Ridge we traverse slightly downhill and cross the upper stretches of the football field and take another food and tea break on the pumice ridge. On the ridge the snow conditions change a bit. I throw out the idea of not going to the summit and instead turning multiple laps high on the mountain in great snow. Both Casey and myself decide that since neither of us have summitted Baker yet and the conditions on the Roman Wall are variable but still good conditions for volcanic dome skiing, that this would be a great day to put that tic on the list "skied from summit of Baker".

Perfect blue bird day
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

We put the skis on our backs and start to boot up the last 800 or so feet to the summit. Booting went much easier then anticipated  and I take note of variability in the snow.  The last 200 feet I find myself breaking trail through a pocket of deeper snow and think just maybe we will get some powder turns up high.

 Looking down towards Pumice Ridge
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

We summit right around 1 PM and don't waste much time rejoicing on our success, immediately beginning to switch from skinning mode to skiing mode.

Summit plateau with true summit in background
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

Top of Roman Wall 
(Photo: Casey O'Brien)

My legs never feel super fresh after 8000 feet of uphill travel but there always seems to be a bit of ease once I get my heals locked back to my skis. I always think, I will be able to rest a bit on the descent. Unfortunately, the first part of the descent is the most technical portion of the ski. A 300 foot sustained 40 degree slope to a mid 30 degree variable snow condition ski back to the pumice ridge.  My legs are on fire as I try to make every turn look effortless to the folks who are booting up the Roman Wall. One turn is boot deep wind buff, the next turn is chunky ice, then back to variable powder, then to sastrugi snow. Legs are on fire, head is in the game, the slope ends in crevasses. Yup, I am skiing a volcano!

Once we got off the pumice ridge and started our descent to the football field we were blessed with perfect low angle powder turns. We stop mid way and eat our remaining food, drink more water, take in our accomplishment and the amazing views. Some traversing to Heliotrope Ridge leads to steeper terrain. After a quick discussion of snow conditions we determine that skiing the steeper slope would be very rewarding. We weren't wrong.  A confusing traverse through the trees led us back to the trailhead and then a very easy and yes relaxing ski down the road brought us back our cars!

--Mark Cionek, Alaska Program Coordinator and Guide

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

Winter is still holding strong in much the US.  However, I know there are those of you out there who have already taken a trip or two to warmer climes to get a jumpstart on your climbing this year.  Hopefully this will give the rest of you that extra boost to get out there.

Salomon puts out some great skiing clips throughout the season.  Their latest edition again highlights a combination that is becoming more and more common - skiing and flying.

In case you are one of those folks who aren't quite ready to put away their skis, here's a nice one from ski mountaineer Vivian Bruchez.

AAI will be running our 6-day Ski/Snowboard Mountaineering course later on this spring.  We have slots open in our May 12-17 course, and are still looking for enough skiers to confirm our earlier courses.  If you are interested in joining us for one of these, check out our Ski/Snowboard Mountaineering page or email me at

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 15, 2013

POV Falls in Scotland and Europe

Go Pro cameras have changed climbing and skiing. Now we get to see what the most extreme climbers and skiers see when they are in the mountains.

And we get to see what happens to them when they fall or they get buried in an avalanche...

We have featured a number of videos on this blog that provide an avalanche victim's perspective. In every case, the victim survived. This past week, two "survivor videos" were uploaded. Each of them show a fall.

This first video was taken by climber Mike Roberts on Scotland's Parsely Fern. The climber is making his way up a moderate slope, solo. When a piece of ice comes down and catches him, he falls...and he falls, and he falls.

It's not clear what kind of injuries he had at the base, but he survived...which is more than most people could say for such a long drop.

To read an interview with Roberts about the incident, click here.

In this second video, it's clear that this snowboarder is in way over his head very early in the game.  The real problems tend to come at the 11:25 mark of the video where he decides to start "scooching" down the snow-slope on his rear-end. Things deteriorate from there...

We can learn from these incidents.  

In the first, the climber was in terrain that he was comfortable with and he had wo tools, which theoretically would give him a bit of a self-belay.  However, he is soloing beneath a climber on ice.  And ice that you hit with a pick tends to fracture and fall. I would suggest that he put himself in a dangerous predicament by being below another climber.

In the second video, we see a very young man on a route that is way over his head. There has been a push for young skiers and snowboarders to attempt harder and harder lines. This is certainly due to the fact that there is fame for a small number of these individuals that push the limit... 

But if you're going to push the limit, you should work your way up to it. Try things that are a little harder than the last thing you successfully completed. Don't try to be Jedi Master on the tenth day of your ski season... Ski smart and stay within your ability.

--Jason D. Martin

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Climbing Events: March & April 2013

3/22 - 3/24 -- Mt. Baker, WA -- Splitfest (Splitboard Festival)

4/5 --Seattle, WA -- NWAC Snowball Dinner and Auction

4/5 - 4/7 Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

There are at least 4 Alpine Institute Guides in this video, Andrew Yasso, Paul Rosser, Tom Kirby, and Ben Gardner. Who do you know?

4/13 --Seattle, WA -- The Rain City Send Climbing Wall comp at UW

4/6 -- San Angelo, TX -- Angelo State University Climbing Competition

3/15 - 5/4 -- Bay Area, CA --
  • Friday, March 15th, 2013 • Concord Diablo Rock Gym • 5pm-10pm
  • Friday, April 19th, 2013 • Oakland Great Western Power Co • 5pm-10pm
  • Saturday, May 4th, 2013 • Mission Cliffs in San Francisco •

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ian McEleney Completes Palisade Traverse in Winter

American Alpine Institute guide Ian McEleney and partner Jediah Porter recently completed the first full winter traverse of the Palisades in the easter Sierra. The Bishop Buzz, hosted by Skandar Reid, recently interviewed Ian and his partner about their adventure.


The Palisade Traverse makes its way along the Palisade Crest, which includes six 14,000' peaks and includes eight miles of climbing. Some say that there is up to 70,000 feet of climbing along the spine. So a full winter ascent is no joke, and we are very proud of Ian for this accomplishment!

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, March 11, 2013

Jummaring a Fixed Line

Last week we covered the concept of using a fixed rope in an instructional setting. There are two other ways to use a fixed line. The first is on an aid climb and the second is on a big mountain expedition.

Chris McNamara is one of the better known big wall climbers out there. Aside from managing and producing supertopo guidebooks, Chris has recently developed a How to Big Wall Climb book.

In addition to writing books and overseeing the "supertopo empire," Chris has found some time to make instructional videos on big wall climbing. In the following two videos, he discusses fundamental techniques for using jumars (mechanical ascenders) on a fixed line in a big wall setting:

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

"If at first you don't succeed, try, and try again..."  This classic phrase is the essence of a concept that all climbers are familiar with:  the project.  Whether it be sport or trad, a long alpine route or a pumpy boulder problem, we all have our projects - the carrot dangling in front of our noses, pushing us forward and, in our cases, upward. The first video this weekend shows the trials and attempts of Mina Leslie-Wujastyk projecting "Careless Torque" in the Peak District, England.  The route was established in 1987, the same year that Mina was born, and has waited these 25 years to see its first female ascent.

Careless Torque from Outcrop Films on Vimeo.

Since Friday was "International Women's Day," I thought I would highlight some more amazing women of the climbing world.  In this next clip we find Sasha DiGuilian working on "Golden," a 5.14B at the Cathedral in southern Utah.  Coincidentally, Sasha also has some inspiring words on persevering through your tough climbing goals.

I couldn't focus on women climbers without mentioning the amazing Lynn Hill.  Lucky for you, you get a 2-for-1 in this next video, because in has another superstar female climber, Katie Brown.  In this video, Lynn and Katie get the FFFA (that's First Female Free Ascent) of West Face (V 5.13b/c A0), Leaning Tower, Yosemite.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bad Skiing Forecast? Good Climbing.

The end of my ski season is rapidly approaching and I have been trying to ski as much as possible.  When I saw the forecast for last weekend, rain to 7k and lots of it, I was more than a little upset.  

After some internet pursuing, I finally decided to head out to Frenchman’s Coulee or Vantage to do some rock climbing.  Fellow AAI guide Chad Chochran and friend Boe Trosset were willing partners.  We departed Bellingham late morning on Friday and started the drive.   

After driving south on I-5 for about an hour, chatting, and abusing iPhone internet, we slowly came to the realization that alpine climbing could be very good with the previously dismal forecast.  The rain that had previously been the bane of my existence was going to be followed by rapidly lowering freezing levels on Sunday and then sun on Monday.  

Kicking ourselves for not realizing this earlier, we pulled over, grabbed some coffee, and debated alpine objectives.  Settling on the north face of Mt. Hood, we headed back to Bellingham to grab our alpine ice gear.  

The plan was to rock climb Saturday and Sunday, then head to Hood for the high pressure on Monday.  We arrived at Vantage Saturday morning to find good weather and lots of people.

Chad on Ride Em Cowboy 
George and Martha
Most of the day was cloudy but late afternoon brought clearing skis and beautiful light.  Conditions made it hard to stop climbing.  We decided to end the day on Sunshine Arete, a 100 foot tall bolted arete. 

It was hard to stop climbing

Sunday dawned clear and cold.  We climbed a couple pitches in the sun and then bolted for Mt. Hood.  After gathering the necessary supplies, we drove to the Tilly Jane snow park and turned in around ten.

Prepping in Targets parking lot. Photo: Boe Trosset
Getting up at O'Dark thirty is never fun but we managed to start moving by two am. The rain followed by low freezing levels produced great conditions.  Travel was fast and easy. After a couple hours of hiking in the dark, sunrise on the Eliot Glacier was a most welcome sight.
Hard to beat the views on the north side of Hood Photo: Boe Tosset

We continued up the glacier and reached the base of the route around 8 am. The lower coulior, or gully,  was easy snow up to the first ice step...

Our route is the righthand gully.
Low on the route, below the first ice step.
After leading the first ice step and belaying Chad and Boe up, I began to feel the altitude.  As Chad was feeling strong he led the next block of simul-climbing.  This involved allot of steep snow and 50 degree ice.
Approaching the second ice step.  Lots of calf burning 50 degree snow/ice.
Chad took us to the top of the second ice step, which was by far the best climbing on the route. Feeling better, and not willing to let Chad break any more trail, I led the next simul-block which put us right below the summit.
Chad on the second ice step.  Photo: Boe Trosset

High on the route
We topped out right around noon and began the long downclimb of the Cooper Spur.
Mandatory summit shot.  Chad, on right, looking like an alpine gangster.

While it appeared short and easy, the descent was longer and steeper than anticipated.
After a long and uneventful descent we made it back to the car just before five and started the long drive back to Bellingham.  While the forecast may have been bad for skiing, it turned out to be great for climbing.

--Dustin Byrne, Instructor and Guide

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Climbing Events March & April 2013

3/8 - 3/10 -- Kirov, Russia -- UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup - Lead and Speed & Speed World Championship

3/9 -- Boise, ID -- Buck Off Climbing Competition

3/9 -- Crystal Mountain, WA -- Dynafit and Crystal Mountain Nachtspektakel

3/22 - 3/24 -- Mt. Baker, WA -- Splitfest (Splitboard Festival)

4/5 --Seattle, WA -- NWAC Snowball Dinner and Auction

4/5 - 4/7 Las Vegas, NV -- Red Rock Rendezvous

There are at least 4 Alpine Institute Guides in this video, Andrew Yasso, Paul Rosser, Tom Kirby, and Ben Gardner. Who do you know?

4/13 --Seattle, WA -- The Rain City Send Climbing Wall comp at UW

4/6 -- San Angelo, TX -- Angelo State University Climbing Competition

3/15 - 5/4 -- Bay Area, CA --
  • Friday, March 15th, 2013 • Concord Diablo Rock Gym • 5pm-10pm
  • Friday, April 19th, 2013 • Oakland Great Western Power Co • 5pm-10pm
  • Saturday, May 4th, 2013 • Mission Cliffs in San Francisco •

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hot Rappel Devices and Your Rope

I started climbing like a lot of people do, in the Boy Scouts. But int he Boy Scouts you don't really climb much. Instead you focus on rappelling.

We often would rappel a steep 150-foot face ten or twelve times a day. Most of the time we would go from the top to the base in a matter of seconds, in two or three long Hollywood jumps down the face. At the base, the belay device would be smoking hot; so hot it would be difficult to remove from the rope.

The question then is, can a hot belay device damage a rope?

A couple of canyoneering guides took to the road to find out.


In review, the team pulled a rope through a tube style device with a car going 30 miles per hour and were only able to bring the device's heat up to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Two hundred degrees is not hot enough to damage the rope. The guide in the film then did point out that on a hot day in the desert, it might be easier to bring the temperatures up higher.

The team then completed a second experiment to see at what temperature the rope would get damaged. They found the following:

Kevlar Canyoneering Rope - 840 degrees Fahrenheit
Nylon Climbing Rope - 460 degrees Fahrenheit
Polyester Semi-Static Rope - 490 degrees Fahrenheit

The likelihood of a device damaging a rope from heat is pretty small. the guide in the video does come up with a scenario where it could happen, but his scenario requires a lot of stars to align. There is no evidence that something like this has ever happened.

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

This weekend's videos both speak to the psyche behind being in the mountains.  Getting up early, hiking in the dark, enduring through the cold, fighting through the fear, and pushing ourselves to our limits without going over the edge.  All part of the games we all play out there.

Usually I try to feature short, quick videos that get your blood pumping a little faster.  But sometimes I find a gem, something that takes its time to seep deep, down into you.  White Noise is a 20 minute biography of Xavier de Le Rue, one of the worlds best big mountain, backcountry snowboarders.  So sit back, expand this one to full-screen, and enjoy.

Have a great weekend! - James

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

When I opened up the first page of Cheryl Strayed's enthralling Wild, I was disappointed. The book was supposed to be the memoir of a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-nineties; but on the map at the beginning it only showed that she hiked part of the trail. She hiked a bit low down in California, a bit high in California and then all of Oregon. My first thought was, why should I read a book about someone who only hiked part of the PCT.

Over the years I've met a lot of people who have trekked from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Indeed, we have employed at least four guides since I've been here who have made the journey. The trail's length and the endurance it takes to hike it are things to be admired. The trail stretches 2,663 miles and most people take five months to hike it. Strayed walked 1,100 miles on a 100-day expedition, which is nothing to scoff at.

But what I found truly engaging about Wild was not the adventure travel narrative. Instead it was the journey within the journey. As such, it didn't matter that she hadn't hiked the whole trail. That's not what the book was about.

Cheryl (it's hard to refer to her with her last name after reading such an intimate book) started the trek in an extremely dark place. She had hit the absolute rock bottom in self-destructive behavior. Her mother had recently died, which resulted in a profound grief that ruined her youthful marriage and lead her down a dark rabbit-hole of one-night stands and drug abuse. She knew that she needed a change. She needed to find a way to deal with her grief while building herself back up; so with little knowledge of wilderness travel, she decided to hike a large portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The young woman didn't really understand what she was getting herself into. She had never been backpacking before and she had no idea how to pack her pack or how to select boots for the trip, or even how to light her stove. 

The result?

Hamburger feet. A massive pack she could barely lift nicknamed, Monster. Painful calluses on her hips from her waist-belt. An irrational fear of animals. Dangerous dehydration. And minor epics too numerous to count.

Often times Cheryl's ignorance is funny. And sometimes it's a little bit scary. But it's always entertaining.

We've seen this comic novice backpacker part before though. Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods covers much of the same ground on a different trail. His book deals with his own comic ignorance on the Appalachian Trail. And while this aspect of Wild is entertaining, it's not the heart of the book. No, the heart comes from a deep place where nature helps to heal the emotional wounds that we suffer in this life. This core of the memoir is what removes Wild from the standard aventure narrative and elevates it to the highest level of outdoor literature.

Cheryl writes eloquently about the history of the trail and about the people who helped it come into being. These include proponents like Catherine Montgomery in 1926, Clinton Clark, who took up the cause in 1938, and then Warren Rogers who saw the trail dedicated in 1968. In the following passage, she writes about how these people understood what nature means to the human soul.

It didn't matter that everything from my cheap knock-off sandals to my high-tech-by-1995-standard boots and backpack would have been foreign to them (the trail's founders), because what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that compelled them to fight for the trail against all odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long distance hiker onward on the most miserable days. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even getting from point A to point B.

 It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel that way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.

There are dozens of beautiful and heartbreaking moments in Wild. We cry for Cheryl's mother. We cry for Cheryl's ex-husband who tries to deal with her grief, but can't handle it when the grief turns to adultery. We cry for a horse that has to be put down and is done so sloppily. We cry for Cheryl's drug abuse. And finally we cry for Cheryl... We want her to survive, not just the trail, but her grief. We want her to learn what she needs to learn from the wilderness, and we want her to bring her knowledge back with her.

I often found myself both angered with and enamored by Cheryl. From a technical perspective, it drove me nuts that she hiked over a thousand miles and never figured out how to take care of her feet, or really pare down on her backpack. From a personal perspective, it drove me nuts that she was attracted to a guy that brought her into a dangerous drug culture. And it drove me nuts that she treated her ex-husband -- whom she truly loved -- so poorly. But on the other hand, I found myself falling in love with her as she came to terms with her mother's death and with her personal quest to find value in herself and in her life through self-imposed wilderness therapy.

I went into the women's restroom. As I brushed my teeth before a flourescently lit mirror above a bank of sinks, a woman said, "I like your feather," and pointed to it on my pack.

"Thanks," I said, our eyes meeting in the mirror. She was pale and brown-eyed with a bumpy nose and a long braid down her back; dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of patched up cutoff jeans and Birkenstock sandals. "My friend gave it to me," I mumbled as toothpaste dribbled out of my mouth. It seemed like forever since I'd talked to a woman.

"It's got to be a corvid," she said, reaching over to touch it delicately with one finger. "It's either a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void," she added, in a mystical tone.

"The void?" I'd asked, crestfallen.

"It's a good thing," she said. "It's the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive."

The wilderness is the void, and the adventures that we take there are what shape us. This is implied throughout the cannon of outdoor literature; but few books take us simultaneously so deeply into the crucible of the backcountry as well as into that of the human heart. Wild is a funny, adventurous and heart-wrenching tale that reminds us of something that we already know. That wilderness and our adventures there can heal us and give us hope.

--Jason D. Martin