Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sunset Memories

The golden light of the late afternoon shown on the Sunset Slabs at Mt. Erie, changing them from dark gray to red.  My five-year-old daughter stood near the edge of the cliff, a rope threaded through her ATC and a belay line attached to her harness. It was to be her first rappel.

“Daddy,” she pleaded. “I’m scared. I don’t want to do it.”

“It’s no different than getting lowered,” I said. “Besides, someone’s watching you.”

“Who’s watching me?”

“Just someone…”

She quickly scanned the trails, both above and below, that lead to the crag. “I don’t see anybody.”

“You have to look further,” I pointed at a distant figure. “Look way down the hill and check out that house.”

She peered down into the trees for a long moment. And then there was a sudden intake of breath as she saw him. “Is that…?”

“Yes. It is,” I said. “And he’s watching you.”

She stepped to the edge of the cliff and smiled. “Daddy, I think I’m ready to rappel.”

And as my daughter made her first rappel ever, a smiling Ronald McDonald statue stared up at us from the driveway of the house far below.

Holly climbing at Sunset Slabs.

The fact that a house on the drive below the Sunset Slabs has a Ronald McDonald statue is a quirky element of the area, but it doesn’t define it. No, the Sunset Slabs are defined by something else, and it’s not the grand views of the lakes below or the San Juans in the distance. Instead, the area is defined by memories and experiences.

Generations of climbers touched rock for the first time at the Sunset Slabs. Guide services, climbing clubs, friends and families have all used this gentle climbing area as a place to introduce the sport to beginners. Those who had their first climbing experiences at the Slabs will never forget them. And as such, the ghosts of those experiences populate the place; both the reminiscences of those terrified first moves of a route, as well as the memories of the triumphant finishes.

At the end of her rappel, my daughter’s feet touched the ground.  “Off rappel!” she called.

“Good job,” I yelled back down, glowing with pride. I knew that now we were part of the experiences that defined the crag. My daughter and I each had a moment there that we would not forget.

She looked up, smiled and asked, “can we go to McDonald’s now?”

--Jason D. Martin

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Weekend Warrior - Videos to get you STOKED!!!

In Mammut's latest video series "Climbing the Classics" they pair first ascencionists and classic climbers with up and coming phenoms to repeat some of the great climbs throughout the world. On this episode, Mirko Caballero joins Tony Yaniro to repeat Tony's 1979 send of "Grand Illusion," the 5.13b (8a) roof crack near Lake Tahoe.

It's getting closer to that special time of the year - Film Season! We're already starting to see film trailers rolling out for this fall. Teton Gravity Research has a great one for their latest, "Almost Ablaze." Check it out!

14 of the best climbers in the world converged on the Romanesque bridge of Puente la Reina. The bridge is historically a meeting point for pilgrams traveling along the "Camino de Santiago." The climbers, instead of passing over the bridge, held an awesome psicobloc (deepwater soloing) competition along the arches supporting the bridge.

Have a great weekend! - James

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Learning the Ropes on Denali

Denali has a reputation for being a horrible place to guide. For the last two years, I had been hearing epic stories from fellow guides about Denali. Most stories revolved around backbreaking heavy packs and sleds, frostbitten nobs, chucking pounds of poo in massive crevasses, freezing your butt off while waiting out storms, guide and ranger drama, high mountain hook-ups, crevasse rescues and heli-evacs. 

It always sounded pretty exciting.

On a morning in March in Chamonix—between sipping espresso and getting my pack ready for a mission—I glanced at an email from my boss at the American Alpine Institute. The subject line read “Denali Scheduling.” And the body of the email got even better: “You’re slated for Team 4 on Denali, I’m booking flights now let me know if these days will work.” I immediately wrote him back, confirming the dates with mixed emotions of excitement, anticipation, and intimidation.

It took me two years working at the Institute to get this gig. I had intended to come home to the States and work in the Cascades like usual. But Denali was bigger. In Athabaskan, “Denali” means “The High One.” And with a massive elevation of 20,322 feet, the peak definitely lives up to its name. It’s the third largest of the seven summits, trailing only behind Everest and Aconcagua

It’s said that people climb Denali as a warm-up for Everest, as it’s closer to the North Pole so the air is even thinner. On Denali, an elevation of 20,000 feet allegedly replicates the feeling of 22,000 feet in elevation on most other peaks. Measured from base to summit, Denali has a vertical gain of 19,000 feet making it the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level. Then there’s the modest Mt. Everest, rising from the Tibetan Plateau with a base to summit distance on the south side of 13,000 feet and 17,000 feet on the north side. Not only is Denali the largest peak in North America but it’s known to have harshest environment of any of the seven summits—horrendous weather, high winds, and temperatures that down to negative forty. Don’t forget to factor in the windchill and altitude. Its reputation only fueled my excitement.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being a little intimidated. After all, I would be starting off my guiding season with a twenty-one day expedition to a massive objective. I had never even been to Alaska and I’d never been higher than Mont Blanc’s summit of 15,781 feet. Also, I had never felt the frostbite inflicting rawness of a negative forty-degree day. Alas, I wouldn’t be alone. I had two trusty lead guides, Ben and Quino to show me the way.

I spent two weeks before the trip stuffing my face and working out super hard. A fellow Denali guide said I needed to be “fit and fat” for Denali guiding. I think I took him a little too seriously because I ended up putting on almost 10 lbs. After spending a week in Talkeetna, food packing, trip prepping, drinking gallons of IPA, stuffing my head with burgers, and watching out for grizzlies around town, Day Zero had arrived—it was time to meet the climbers.

We had a diverse group from all over the world. A few hilarious Britts, a classy Russian, a hopeless romantic Italian, a couple woman-eating Aussie’s, and a Hong Kong-born American. I knew it was going to be a great group right off the bat. I was ready to fly out onto the glacier and get these people up this behemoth of a mountain.

As a female guide, I’ve grown accustomed to encountering people and cultures with diverse ideas about the role of women. I know what I look like—I bleach my hair and my teeth, I wear mascara off—and sometimes on—the mountain, I get pedicures, I wear lots of pink, and do my best to look and smell nice in most situations. In a lot of ways I’m a girly girl. This doesn’t always go over well with some of those who get me as their guide after they’ve been expecting some macho mountain man with big muscles and a beard. It seems as though women have to dress and act like men to get respect in many male-dominated occupations—but I want to prove that you don’t have to.

I’m constantly dealing with pervy, chauvanistic comments, skepticism, and superiority complexes. Being the lighthearted person that I am, I blow douchey comments off my back left and right and throw it back in people’s faces in a joking manner. They seem to like that and it seems to be working. I let my actions, work ethic, and skill speak for themselves and I’ve never had a trip end the same way it started with this kind of behavior. It’s actually a pretty awesome, empowering feeling.

When we flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the summit success rate hovered around twelve percent, which was extremely low for this time of year. The weather had been horrible and we were hoping for it to clear up for our trip, but there was a massive low pressure cell hanging out over the Aleutians and waiting to pound down on us. On Day One we flew on and trudged our way from Base camp up the Kahiltna to Camp 1—we trekked five and a half miles with our heaviest loads and gained a thousand feet in elevation. There’s nothing like carrying a fifty pound pack and pulling a sixty pound sled in the stifling heat of the day.

A massive storm rolled in on our fourth day. We were stuck there for three days in hurricane winds and frigid temperatures. Snow drifts covered the tents every hour and three feet of new snow had rapidly fallen. Ben, Quino and I took turns getting up through the night to dig out tents so clients wouldn’t die a cold, asphyxiation-induced death. On top of this, we had really disappointed clients who wanted to move up as we saw desperate Russian groups passing our camps in a heinous, white-out storm. We only had a contract for twenty-one days to summit, with cache days, acclimatization days, training days, and rest days. We were losing days sitting in this storm, days that would have to be made up for if we wanted to make a summit bid.

We decided to move regardless of weather on Day Six. Turns out it was a sunny and beautiful—but freezing—morning. The clouds broke, a blanket of new snow covered the glacier and the surrounding peaks, and temperatures were in the single digits. We broke trail, carrying our massive loads to Camp 2 at 11,200 feet.

Denali’s big storms are usually the worst between Camp 1 and just above Camp 2. I was antsy to get to Camp 3 at 14,200 feet. It’s above the cloud layer and it’s south facing. I had heard it was the “party camp” where everyone waits to get on the higher mountain. It sounded like the promised land. And a good spot for our team to be waiting to make the final push up to the highest camp at 17,200 feet.

After arriving at Camp 2 we got four beautiful days that were probably the most productive of the trip. We cached around the infamous, Windy Corner, moved camp to the party camp at 14,200 feet, retrieved our cache, did fixed line training, and cached atop the fixed lines at 16,200 feet. We had made up for all but one of our lost days—but we missed our summit window. The day we cached above the fixed lines a couple hundred people summitted then the weather shut us down.

We waited at Camp 3, partying with the locals for eight days while waiting for a window to move. The first couple days were fun. We made a pull-up pit where we’d run from the tent do as many pull ups and upside down sit ups as we could, run back to the tent then, test our blood oxygen levels and pulses. This became a natural place for guides to hang out, talk weather, tell jokes, talk smack, and pull tough. I saw my buddy Lucas De Bari up there with his mom getting rad. I didn’t know the little guy could grow a beard. We also witnessed the superhuman Killian Jornet pulling off the newest speed record of base to summit and back in 11 hours and 48 minutes in a white-out. Beating the previous record by five hours! 

Seeing all these people crushing super hard on their shred sticks of course made me crave powder and steep lines—after all, the Messner, Orient Express, and the Rescue Gully were right above Camp 3. These lines screamed at me for eight days while I watched friends and rangers shred the crap out of the new fallen snow. Although it was painful to watch, I was happy to come here guiding first—it could serve a little recconassaince mission for when I come back with my board next year. After all, a girl’s gotta eat. And I was working hard for my money.

We ended up at the camp for eight days with an insta-frostbite forecast of negative twenty-degree temps, fifty mph winds, and possible new snow at 17,000 feet—so we called it. We descended in a storm, breaking trail through eighteen inches of new snow and high winds. It took two days to get out and we managed to catch a flight back to Talkeetna upon our arrival at base. We went directly to the local bar, the Fairview, and shut it down. It was a blurry night.

The summit rate this year is currently thirty-percent as opposed to last year’s sixty-eight percent. Our team was really dissappointed but they understood our predicament. I was disappointed as well but I know I’ll be back next year.

Although guiding Denali was extremely demanding physically, it only really felt like work when I was changing the CMC (Clean Mountain Container or poop bucket), hauling poop on my sled, or melting water and cooking dinner for seven hours until 1:30 a.m., and then waking up just a few hours later to get breakfast ready. There was a lot of hauling, set-up and break-down, breaking trail, wiggling fingers and toes to prevent frostbite, and digging and more digging through layers of snow and ice. But my days primarily revolved around keeping everyone happy while moving along safely and efficiently up the hill. When you’re in charge of a group of people, you tend to forget about your own discomforts thankfully. For all the anticipation I’d built up around this trip, it was pretty mellow and a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get back to Denali next year to guide and shred.

--Liz Daley, Instructor and Guide

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bolivia Update - Part 2

Greetings from Bolivia!

It has been a terrific trip so far. Five climbers and I (and our wonderful Bolivian guides and staff) have been having a great time seeing the mountains of this amazing country. This post will be admittedly brief, as we only have one day in town before heading out tomorrow to Illimani - one of the tallest peaks in the country!

Things that have been great so far include:
  • The food!
  • The weather
  • The company, both among the American climbing team, and among the Bolivians we have been privilidged to work with
  • The climbing conditions - super good snow, great travel conditions, good cravasse conditions
  • And many other things!
Enjoy these pictures I took from this last section (Part 2 of 3)

Chris smiling big on our first alpine climbing day

Nick, equally psyched

The beautiful ridge of Pequeño Alpamayo in the Condoriri Range. What a great climb!

Looking over At Huayna Potosi, where we would find ourselves later in the week

Rock (choss) section. Pequeño Alpamayo in the  background.

The beautiful Cordillera Real de  Bolivia

Practicing crevasse rescue at 16000 ft. on a rest day!

Hauling the backpacks out of the crevasse

As we finished our time in the Condoriri, we (mostly the Aymara-speaking Bolivian guides, Sabino and Mamerto) started chatting with a local lady, whose daughter was a happy, entertaining young lady!

Huayna Potosi at sunrise, from the base refugio and reservoir

On the summit of Huayna Potosí

Me and my Bolivian friend Willie (and his mom to the side). 
It has been a real treat making friend with people here.

I hope this blog entry finds you all well, and we´ll keep in touch as we  get back from our last stint in the mountains this weekend!

--Mike Pond, Instructor and Guide

Friday, July 18, 2014

AMTL Part 3: Big Wall Climbing and Climbing in the Picket Range

I just returned from a Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership Part 3 course. It began with four days of big wall aid climbing and then moved into the Northern Picket Range in the heart of the North Cascades for an alpine climbing expedition. The aid climbing section started with one day of rain so we headed to Leavenworth to get the basics of ascending ropes. The following three days were hot so we headed to the Index Town Walls and practiced our aid climbing techniques on classic routes such as City Park and Iron Horse. Day 3 was the hottest of all so we found a mossy crack in the shade of the Index Inner Walls and practiced setting up a big wall camp and crawling into to it to sleep.

Day 4 was spent prepping for our trip into the Picket Range. We spent the day learning how to create solid trip plans and tracking down route beta and planning menus. The following day we headed into the North Cascades. It was everything a Pickets Range trip should be, tiring, wet, amazing, scary, beautiful and of course bushwhacky (ok thats not really a word, but you get the idea). This is a very physically demanding trip and I was with two advanced guests so it really felt a lot more like climbing with friends than it did guiding. We started out with the intention of traversing the range from north to south, but after a couple of days bad weather and an unfortunate incident of a dropped and unrecoverable ice axe we shortened the trip and exited via Access Creek.

We parked at the Ross Lake Dam TH and took the boat shuttle from the dam to Little Beaver. The 17.5 miles to Whatcom Pass was done over two days. Our plan of climbing Whatcom Peak via the North Ridge was changed when we saw that it was still covered in a lot of pretty sloppy and wet looking snow. We traversed around the east side of Whatcom Peak the following day via the Whatcom Glacier and summited the peak from the south side. Good snow coverage and nice conditions made this pretty simple. On the way to Perfect Pass from the summit we noticed the change in the weather. We did manage to cross most of the Challenger Glacier with no issues and negotiated the last of the crevasses just as the visibility dropped to near zero. We spent the night at low point between the base of Challenger's East Ridge and Eiley Wiley Ridge.

The following day was not any way improved on the weather front, but boredom and a little spirit of adventure lured us out of the tent and to the summit of Challenger. I am not sure I would have been comfortable doing this without the GPS but it was fun and we got to tag our second summit of the trip. Upon returning from the summit we packed our camp and headed down the Challenger Glacier and into the Luna Cirque. We set up camp on the moraine at the bottom and watched as the clouds lifted and the weather cleared.

The next day we moved camp to Luna Col and enjoyed an amazing sunset and the incredible views that this spot has to offer.

The next morning we made the climb to the summit of Luna Peak. This route is not talked about very highly by any of the guidebooks, but I did not find it that bad. Although there is some loose rock it certainly not the worst the pickets have to offer. Not completing the ridge to the true summit would be a mistake for almost any party, and I highly recommend it.

After returning to camp we packed up our stuff and headed out Access Creek. I had not been down Access Creek before and did not find it that bad. Yea, there is some bushwhacking, and yea it sucked a little bit at the time, but once again, its not the worst the Pickets have to offer. We did not find a good log crossing of Big Beaver Creek so a little crotch deep wading was needed to get across. Attempting to put on my pants, socks, and shoes, with a badly sprained ankle while a billion mosquitos took advantage of my bare skin was probably the low point of the trip for me. Yes somewhere in the Access Creek drainage I managed to roll my ankle to the point that it made lots of crunching and popping sounds. A bunch of athletic tape and some over tightened boots managed to get me the 2 more miles to a campsite on the Big Beaver trail.

The following day with a badly swollen ankle we hiked the 18+ miles to the car.

And now some photos of the trip.

More photos of the trip can be found on my website here: http://www.alasdairturner.com/blog

--Alasdair Turner, AAI Instructor and Guide

Monday, July 14, 2014

Film Review: Whiteout

There's a place where people party like it's 1999. There's a place where murderers use technical ice tools. And there's a place where people make really dumb mistakes in a really cold environment. And no, that place is not called Vertical Limit...but the ludicrocity certainly seems Vertical-Limit-like.

No, instead, it is film called Whiteout.

U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is an isolated law enforcement officer. She works at a U.S. base in Antarctica. And she is a mere three days away from retirement when everything goes awry. There is a murder, the first murder on the continent. There is a wacko who wields an ice tool. There is a doddery old doctor (Tom Skerritt) who is far too easy to peg as being involved. And then there's the weather, which performs as a character in and of itself.

The piece opens with a Soviet plane going down over the arctic. Somewhere on-board there is some kind of valuable cargo, cargo that someone from a U.S. Antarctic base would be willing to kill for fifty-years later. The rest of the movie is a somewhat fast-paced ride into the antarctic wilds as Carrie Steko peels back the layers in order to find the murderer.

Unfortunately, the first time we meet Beckinsale's Steko, she is stripping down to take a shower. Apparently the filmmakers believe that the best way for an audience to take a female protagonist seriously is to get her to show some skin first. The filmmakers are, of course, wrong. An introduction to a strong female character like this is completely undercut by sexualizing her before we really get to know her.

The film just goes downhill from there. We know who the killer is because there are so few characters. There are no real surprises throughout the entire piece.

The story, which was originally a graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, isn't too bad. Instead, it was the way that the story came together that made the entire experience bad. Brothers and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber and Chad and Carey W. Hayes, took the graphic novel and created clunky dialogue and completely ludicrous situations. Director Dominic Sena (Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds) didn't help.

It would have been good if someone in that very large crew had gone outside into a cold environment at least once...

Most of the shots in the film are like this. They look like they are all inside a studio.

There was one wonderfully ludicrous sequence that took place as the arctic winds rose. The team engaged in a pitched battle with ice tools and handguns while clipped to fixed lines. The winds were so extreme that individuals not clipped to the lines would be blown out into the whiteout.

It was odd that so many of the characters were so versatile in the action sequence wearing all of their "extreme" gear -- which in Kate Beckinsale's case, included a stylish fur-lined hat. And while they weren't moving like martial artists in the climactic scene, they were moving a lot more effectively than most mountain guides.

If you're looking for a good film suspenseful film about the cold places in the world, this isn't it. If you want to watch Antarctic schlock, check-out John Carpenter's classic The Thing. If you're looking for a great film about life in Antarctica, then try Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World.

It might be best to just avoid Whiteout.

--Jason D. Martin

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Route Profile: Cosmiques Arête, II AD

The French Alps are renowned as the birthplace of alpinism; there are few, if any, ranges in the world that feature a higher concentration of superlative routes and peaks.  Among the most renowned peaks in the region is the Aiguille du Midi (3842, the North face of which looms high over the town of Chamonix; its hanging snowfields, steep couloirs and striking rock faces give viewers and climbers alike a distinct of grandeur.  In spite of appearances, the Aiguille du Midi can be a fairly approachable peak; climbers are able to take a cable car (the Vallée Blanche) up to the Plan du Aiguille hut and Gare du Télépherique, which whisks climbers to the summit of the peak.

Climbers descend the Aiguille du Midi.  AAI Collection
Starting from the summit station, one has easy access to some of the finest climbing in the Alps via a short downhill walk to the base of the routes.  One of the best climbs in the vicinity is on the Cosmiques Arête, which features staggering exposure, outstanding views and pleasantly varied terrain.  From the South side of the base of the Cosmiques Ridge, climbers move up a snow slope that narrows and becomes a short section of rock slabs as you gain the ridge proper.  From there, follow the ridge crest as you move left, right and over the rock towers that dot the climb.  A short section of steep climbing on a face leads to several easier, highly enjoyable pitches, and eventually back to the summit station!

A climber stands in the Col du Midi, with the Cosmiques Arête in the background.
Tim Connelly.

A climber moves up into the rock sections on the Cosmiques.  Tim Connelly.

An AAI guide brings clients up through a blocky section of the Ridge.
Tim Connelly.

Dawn Glance moves through one of the steep sections on her way up the Cosmiques.
AAI Collection

A climber, silhouetted on the ridge's knife edge, is dwarfed by the terrain.
AAI Collection

If climbing this route, or any other route in the Alps seems like something you want to look into, check out our programs and private guiding options!

--Casey O'Brien

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: Flying Off Everest by Dave Costello

What is the greatest adventure you could ever dream of?

Many might say something like climbing Mt. Everest, climbing Denali, or maybe climbing an obscure route in a place like China. Others might say skiing some secret hidden peak. And others might want to kayak or surf or paraglide somewhere that's "out there." A few hardy souls might even want to combine sports to fulfill a dream.

There are those who think outside the box when it comes to great adventure. And then there are those who think way outside the box. Dave Costello's Flying Off Everest chronicles one such adventure.

Sano Babu Sunuwar and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa -- two Nepali friends -- decided that they should climb Mt. Everest, paraglide off the top, and then kayak down a river to the ocean. Babu was a strong whitewater kayaker and a paraglider, whereas Lakpa was a mountain guide who'd climbed Everest before. The problem was that Babu didn't know anything about climbing. And Lakpa didn't know anything about boating or flying. The result...?

The pair set-off to complete a world class adventure with no real sponsors, no money, and limited skills.

And while others had previously flown off the top of the mountain, both Babu and Lakpa believed that it had never been done before. So when they heard about others with a similar idea, they started to get their expedition together, kind of...
In March 2011 Squash Falconer and Rodrigo Raineri were poised to be the next paragliding pilots to fly from the summit of Everest, comfortably backed by corporate sponsorships and the resulting media attention. Lakpa and Babu had just decided to beat Falconer and Raineri to it, though, over several bottles of Carlsburg beer and dal bhat at the Pokhara Pizza House, even though they had no plan, or money for that mater, to do it. They didn't have any corporate sponsors. They didn't even have the basic gear they would need to complete the expedition. Neither of them actually owned a tandem wing capable of flying off Everest, and they still had no boat they could paddle together to the ocean, even if they did manage to find an ultralight wing and somehow, climb and fly off Everest with it.
And though it was touch and go on the mountain with Babu fighting mountain sickness and both of the men fighting the fear that their paraglider wouldn't arrive in time, they were ultimately successful. They paraglided off the top of the peak and didn't crash. Indeed, they were so successful that they nearly blacked out after being swept up even higher than the top of the tallest mountain in the world into air that was so thin a person acclimatized to lower altitudes would have quickly perished.

Obviously, flying off Everest was only part of the adventure. The pair finally got a kayak and embarked on the next part of their expedition.
After giving his quick introduction to whitewater safety, Babu clambered into the back of the two-man kyak and prepared to paddle a boat that was nearly twice the length of the kayaks he was used to into a Class IV big-water maelstrom with someone who had no idea how to even swim. 
Though it often feels like a comedy of errors, the pair ultimately succeeds on their adventure and are awarded the status of National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year.

Costello's tale takes us beyond the adventure. It also takes us into the lives of these two Nepali men, into their careers and into lives of their families. We get to know these men and we get to know the world of high adventure that they both live in.

There is one question that Costello's book never addresses head-on. And that is, "why?"

This is the age old mountaineering question and we all answer it in our own way. But Nepal is different. Most of those who climb in Nepal do it as a job. This is also the case with raft and kayak guides. The planning of grand adventures tends to be something of a hobby for those who come from developed nations. So why would two Nepali men attempt something like this?

We can extrapolate reasons from the text. The pair appear to be just as excited about a great adventure as those from North America or Europe. But they also appear to believe that an adventure like this might make them rich, which is not at all the way that an individual from a first world country would think. It would have been interesting to dig a little bit deeper into these motivations and to find out why they believed that they would find fortune at the end of their adventure.

Costello's book is well-written and engaging. He does an excellent job of bringing us up into the high Himalaya and down into the churning waters below the great range. This is a book about one of the great multi-sport adventures of our time and we are right there with the participants, terrified of crashing a paraglider in rarefied air or of drowning in the white waters of a raging river. But we're also there to feel satisfied as we watch two people push the bounds of human experience with almost nothing. It makes us feel like no matter how few resources we have and no matter how little skill we have, that we can always find a way to put together a grand adventure...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, July 7, 2014

AAI Guide and Program Coordinator Help With Washington Golden Eagle Study

I am a reluctant bird nerd. This is a recent development. I grew up in a neighborhood in Texas famous for birding, but the hobby was reserved in my mind for retired winter Texans escaping the Great White North. But I love natural history, and birds are the easiest and most reliable wildlife to observe, so gradually I have found myself growing to love the little creatures. 

Juvenile golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Jim Watson.
But I am also a planner. All of my weekends for the rest of the summer are planned out. That’s why I’m a Program Coordinator for the American Alpine Institute - I love to be able to look forward to what’s ahead, and I love it when all the details fall into place.

So when one of AAI’s senior guides, Alasdair Turner, called me last Thursday morning and asked if I wanted to help him and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) band and radio-collar golden eagles in the northeastern corner of Washington, I actually hesitated. I would have to take off work on a moment’s notice, make the six-hour drive that night after work to meet them in the morning, and I was already planning to do some climbing in Mazama that weekend.

And then I snapped out of it. We were talking about golden eagles. Of course I wanted to help.

Golden Eagle Crew with the giant net. Jim Watson.
So my partner Chris and I packed up our things and headed out to a beautiful lake in Eastern Washington, where we met Alasdair the next morning along with Jim Watson, WDFW’s statewide raptor researcher, and three others who jumped at the chance to help out just like we did. Jim has been studying raptors for over forty years, and his love of the animals is obvious. Alasdair got involved four years ago when he responded to Jim’s call for an expert climber to volunteer with his research. It’s a rare chance to be able to work with wild golden eagles - they’re best left alone, and they’ve been known to abandon a nesting site when people (often climbers) accidentally or on purpose get too close to a nest early in the breeding season.

After wavering back and forth over the drizzle, we bushwhacked through wet brush around to the back side of the lake, where we found ourselves unexpectedly navigating canyons and talus fields beneath tall cliffs. We could see the eyrie in a formidable-looking cliff, and through our binoculars we could make out the brown lump of a young bird in the nest. His feathers were mostly developed, but we could still see wisps of white down beneath the dark brown adult plumage. The parents were absent - probably off coursing the open hillsides for ground squirrels, marmots, rabbits, and the occasional fawn. Across the way on another cliff we could see an old nest - golden eagles often build multiple nests and rotate through them. 

View of the canyons near the eyrie. Hillary Schwirtlich.
Alasdair geared up while the rest of us positioned ourselves where we had a good view of the valley. He planned to hike to the top of the cliff and rappel down from natural anchors to the nest, carrying a comically large net and a cloth bag with a padded board to hold the bird. We were there in case the bird took one look at the man climbing into his nest and jumped. We’d have to keep an eye on where he landed and make sure someone could get to him. 

Chris watching Alasdair rappel into the nest. Hillary Schwirtlich.
Which, of course, is what happened. Before Alasdair could catch him in the net, the bird hopped to the edge of the tangle of sticks that was his home, spread his wings and jumped.

I can’t imagine the landscape of that eagle’s mind at that moment. Soaring powerfully and masterfully through the air - this is something only a tiny fraction of life can do, and golden eagles are made for it. And this bird was realizing that he could fly and feeling how it felt to fly for the first time in his life. It’s not something I will soon forget. 

Jim Watson directing the group. Hillary Schwirtlich.
Eventually after a long, slightly shaky glide, he came to land on a talus field. Alasdair chased him down at lightning speed and brought him back to where we were at the base of the cliff. Then we assisted while Jim gathered all the data he needed. He banded the bird, measured the beak and the feet and talons, which were so terrifying when flexed, I found them hard to look at. He took a blood sample and measured the amount of fat under the wings, weighed him and measured the length of his tail and wings. Then we helped to put a radio transmitter on the young bird - a feat involving letting the bird spread its wings, which seemed impossibly long at such short range.

Jim Watson banding the eagle with Anne Marie's help. Hillary Schwirtlich.
All in all we found a healthy, feisty, well-fed bird - a good sign, given that the species is a candidate for listing on the Washington state endangered species list. Their numbers have been declining in recent years, and although the reasons are unclear, encroachment by humans, habitat change and a decrease in prey availability (especially jackrabbits, which use to be wide-ranging across the state and are now all but nonexistent) are suspected. Lead levels in the birds have also been high, sometimes even reaching levels suggestive of toxicosis, possibly as a result of ingesting spent bullets. Jim’s research, which started in 2004, has been centered around tracking and monitoring the species so that steps can be taken to maintain a healthy population of golden eagles in Washington State.

After the data was collected, Alasdair climbed back into the nest and replaced the bird, and we hiked out. Alasdair, Jim, Chris and I then headed to another eyrie farther west in a drier part of the state, where we repeated the process, dodging cactus and rattlesnakes on the way. Rappelling into the nest was more complicated this time, and Alasdair had to deal with less-than-ideal anchor placement, a nest that required some maneuvering to get into, and loose rock at the top. It was a situation, he said, not many climbers would feel comfortable in. Once again, the bird jumped and landed on a talus field below, and Alasdair and Chris chased him down. 

At the second site. Two nests in the middle of this picture. Jim Watson.
I held the bird this time, and although younger, he was feistier than the previous eagle - Alasdair named him “Mr. Bitey.” But after putting a falconry hood over his eyes, he instantly fell asleep. He had the birdy smell of a chicken, and had the weight of a small newborn baby, even though he was much larger and a couple months old. Then Mr. Bitey was placed back in his nest and we were on our way.

The tail feathers of the second bird were less developed. Jim Watson.
The wingspan of an adult golden eagle can reach 6 - 7.5 feet. This guy still has some growing to do. Jim Watson. 
Chris and I stuck around in eastern Washington, but the rest of the weekend was just icing on the cake compared to helping Jim and Alasdair with the golden eagles. Jim got in touch Tuesday to let us know both eagles have fledged. Those young birds are soaring over cliffs and hillsides, learning to hunt, and one day hopefully building eyries of their own.

One thing is for sure - if I was on the fence before, but I am definitely a bird nerd now.

The author having a really,  really good day. 
--Hillary Schwirtlich, American Southwest and International Programs Coordinator