Monday, June 27, 2016

Film Review: North Face

While mountaineering history is chalked full of stories of triumph and tragedy, there are a few that stand out. These stories are our collective heritage and they have built the foundation of our sport. And while some of these are inspirational, others are heartbreaking.  And some are so terrible that they chill you to the bone.

I had long avoided the North Face, a German film about one of the many early attempts on the Eiger's North Face. 


Because I know how it ends. The story of Toni Kurtz, Andy Hinterstoisser, Willy Angerer, and Edi Rainer is one of those stories that is told and retold.  Most of us have read the story in books like The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer or in Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer, or in any one of a number of other books or magazine articles that chronicle the tragedy.

In 1936, teams were lining up for a chance at the "last great problem of the Alps," the Eiger's imposing north face. Attempts on the face were a media sensation for two reasons. First, because it was a terribly dangerous wall that constantly resulted in fatalities. And second, because the whole wall may be viewed from the deck of a nearby hotel through telescopes.

After a number of failures two separate teams attempted the north face at the same time. They were composed of the Germans, Toni Kurtz and Andy Hinterstoisser and the Austrians, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainier. As the two teams moved up the wall they eventually combined forces, creating one team that didn't necessarily mesh well.  When the weather broke and tragedy struck, the team descended together, and ultimately died together.

And while the deaths were horrible, there was one in particular that stands out in mountaineering history. Toni Kurtz became stranded at the end of a rope, mere feet from his rescuers, as he slowly froze to death...

The North Face film is a dramatization of this ascent and the tragedy that followed.  And while some mainstream critics were not terribly enamored by the film, it is an excellent piece that was designed without the stupidity of mainstream American climbing films. There are moments in the film that could have been lifted from something like Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger, but don't seem Hollywoodish at all. For example, in Vertical Limit a cam begins sliding down a crack, threatening to pop out. This is something that simply doesn't happen. Whereas in North Face, a piton starts coming out, while the climber frantically pounds it back in. This is something that could happen, and as such, is absolutely terrifying.

There are a lot of differences between the North Face and Hollywood climbing films. The example above is only one of them.  The production values are another. The reality of the situation and the historical elements of the film are yet another. And then of course, there is the script...

Director Philipp Stolzl uses a wide array of elements to keep us in the mountain world.  Early in the film I thought that the sound of the pitons was rather odd. They didn't sound quite right when they were being driven in. But then I realized that Stolzl used the sound of the pitons as a static beat in the music, a technique that I've only witnessed one other time, in an a Academy Award nominated film called Atonement where they use a typewriter the same way. And while this little musical element may not seem significant, it provides the perfect example of the level of care put into the film.

The music and the beautiful shots of the mountain's norwand work together to build a framework that underlies a tightly written and intense script.  The characters are all engaging and real. The world, Germany under Hitler, feels dangerous and alive. And even ancillary characters throw out memorable lines.  Indeed, as climbers arrive in a train, a fieldworker makes the observation, "they come in a train and leave in a coffin."It is lines like these and the difficult and very real relationships between the characters that make a story tick...

The one criticism that I have of the story is something that served as a break from both history and reality. Late in the film, Toni Kurtz's girlfriend takes a train up to the gallery window on the Eiger. From there she climbs out on the north face and spends the night trying to be with her boyfriend.

I don't think anything like that happened. However, it is understandable that the filmmakers would like to raise the stakes by developing a love interest who has enough of a climbing background that she could spend the night out on the mountain. And while it is a little bit of a difficult moment to swallow, it does help to dramatize the death of the climber.

At one moment, a character in the movie explains that there is a legend about the Eiger. He says that a great ogre lives inside the mountain and devours anyone who gets close. In 1936 the ogre devoured Kurtz and his partners, creating another legend, one that very few climbers can forget.  The North Face is an incredibly well-produced film that tells what is ultimately a sad and tragic story about that ogre and his victims.  But it is also an important story. As I stated earlier, these stories are part of our heritage as climbers and mountaineers. And it is important for each of us to remember and understand these stories from our heritage...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Travel Safety in Developing Countries

Many of our guides spend a great deal of time traveling in developing nations. As tourists with expensive climbing and photography equipment, we are definitely seen as targets. Most of us who have spent significant amounts of time in South America or Asia have encountered some petty crime.

We spend time in cities as well as in open camps near the mountains. Each of the two environments have their own circumstances. In order to be safe and avoid theft, one must "follow the rules" in each of these environments. Following is a list of precautions that should be undertaken in any foreign environment:
  1. Many guides make a photocopy of their passports and carry it around the city. They put the passport itself in a hotel safe that they feel comfortable with.
  2. Use a money belt or money necklace. If you don't feel comfortable with the hotel safe, carry your passport in the money belt/necklace.
  3. When you first arrive in a country, be sure that you know what the currency looks like. One of our guides was once given change in play money shortly after he got off the plane in Bolivia.
  4. If you elect to wear a small backpack around the city, place luggage locks on the zippers. In crowds, wear the backpack on the front of your body so that you can see it. People will often try to open zippers when you are still. In extreme cases they may even attempt to cut open the bottom of the pack with a knife.
  5. As ATMs become more popular throughout the world, it has become easier to obtain money in developing countries with a debit card. This keeps one from carrying massive amounts of cash or hard-to-convert travelers checks. If you do choose to go this route, talk to your bank first. They may give you a list of "safe" ATMs in a city. If you don't have such a list, make sure that you use an ATM attached to a bank and be sure that you are aware of your surroundings before putting your card into the machine. Do not use a machine if there are any suspicious characters around.
  6. Beware of fake police and fake taxis. If someone flashes you a badge and then wants to see your money, be suspicious. If a taxi doesn't have appropriate documentation in the window, be suspicious.
  7. No matter how much you trust it, do not leave expensive items out in your hotel room.
  8. Do not wear expensive looking jewelry in public.
  9. You may choose to wear a "decoy wallet." In other words, you have a wallet that distracts a potential thief from going for the real thing. Never put your wallet in your back pocket. Even zippered pockets can be opened or cut by experienced thieves.
  10. Women should try not to respond to local men that approach them for no apparent reason in foreign countries, especially in patriarchal cultures. Even a curt "no" may be construed as the start of a conversation.
  11. Be wary of new romantic relationships with people in developing countries.
  12. If you pay for your hotel room in advance, be sure to obtain receipts.
  13. Beware of circumstances where people need help or are trying to help you. In other words, if somebody is trying to hand you a baby for some reason or is trying to help remove bird dung from your shoulder, be suspicious and watch your bags closely.
  14. Do not wander around a city in a developing country at the middle of the night while intoxicated.
  15. When camping underneath the mountains in a developing country, hire a cook. If you can, try to get one from a local outfitter. The cook will double as a camp guard while you are in the mountains.
  16. Be sure to bring all of you gear inside the vestibule of your tent at night. Do not leave anything of value outside.
  17. If you use animals to carry gear on your expedition, be sure that they are loaded appropriately. Don't let them put a sleeping bag on one animal and a tent on another so that they can charge you for more animals. In addition to this, make sure you know how many animals you hired. Sometimes locals don't keep track and round up in their estimations.
On AAI trips, the guides will always orient you to the particular dangers of a given city or camp. If you elect to climb in foriegn countries without a guide who is "in-the-know," then be sure to research the tourist oriented scams of your destination before you leave.

Traveling and climbing in developing countries can be incredibly exciting. But the excitement dissipates when something is stolen. Always keep your eyes open and be smart. This is the best way to keep your vacation on the right track.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 20, 2016

Down vs. Synthetic

On big expeditions a good sleeping bag is perhaps the most important piece of equipment that you carry. A sleeping bag does a great deal more than to simply keep you warm at night. It becomes a means to keep water bottles from freezing and provides a way to dry out damp clothing and boots. And indeed, in an emergency it might be the last shield between you and hypothermia or even death.

So what kind of sleeping bag should you invest in? Down or synthetic? Synthetic or down?

Advantages of a Down Sleeping Bag:
  1. Many would argue that nature does it best. Down (either goose or duck) tends to be significantly warmer than a synthetic alternative. Ounce per ounce, down tends to be approximately three times warmer than synthetic.
  2. If you take care of it, down retains its shape and loft. With proper care a down bag can last a lifetime.
  3. Down tends to wick body moisture away which can make for a far more comfortable night's sleep.
  4. Down is far more compressible and lightweight.
  5. The nature of down is that it keeps you warm in the cold and cool in the warmth.

AAI Guide Justin Wood enjoying a book in a down bag on Denali.

Disadvantages of a Down Sleeping Bag:
  1. The largest disadvantage to a down bag is how poorly it deals with water. A wet down bag is close to useless. Those who elect to use down in a wetter climate need to have all of their systems dialed. In other words they need to be very good at protecting their bag from the elements.
  2. Once wet, down bags don't dry easily.
  3. Down can be difficult to clean. If it is improperly cleaned it may break down and lose its loft. Be sure to read and follow all washing directions on your down bag.
  4. Some people have allergic reactions to down.
  5. Down is expensive.
Advantages to a Synthetic Sleeping Bag:
  1. Synthetics are more weather resistant and dry more quickly.
  2. Synthetics are easier to care for.
  3. Synthetics are hypoallergenic.
  4. There is a lot of variety out there and it tends to be less expensive than the alternative.
Disadvantages to a Synthetic Sleeping Bag:
  1. Synthetics tend to be heavier and bulkier than down.
  2. Many synthetics don't pack down as tightly as down.
  3. Synthetics tend to breakdown and perform poorly over time.
  4. Some of the lower end products may not fit well.
So which is better? Most guides use down bags, but they know that they have to be hyper-aware when it comes to getting them wet. If you don't think that you can do this, then a synthetic bag is the way to go.

The purchase of a sleeping bag is a big financial decision, but that shouldn't be the deciding factor. Instead, it should be based on where you think you're going to use it and what type of conditions you think you're going to encounter the most.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/16/16


--Saving grizzly bears in the North Cascades is widely supported among Washington state voters, according to survey results released Monday, June 6. That includes voters, like those in Whatcom County, who live around the ecosystem. California-based Tulchin Research conducted the survey May 19-22 of 600 registered voters in six different parts of the state, including east and west of the Cascades, where the mountain range seems to separate the state politically. To read more, click here.

--Climbers on Mount Baker photographed a recent debris flow across Boulder Glacier on the volcano’s eastern flank in early June — but the barrage of ice and rock was more a geologic curiosity than a real threat to most people. Such debris flows occur occasionally and are not a concern to anyone except mountaineers, a Western Washington University geologist said. But observers will notice what resembles a river of gray on the 10,781-foot summit that’s about 30 miles east of Bellingham. To read more, click here.


--An adult cow moose with three-week-old calves was found shot dead inside Denali National Park Wednesday morning, the National Parks Service says. The moose was discovered near the Denali Post office, NPS wrote in a press release. Park officials determined that it had been killed one or two days prior. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Here's an interesting article about innate sexism in action sports and in the promotion of women's action sports...

--So there's been a lot of news recently about people messing around with animals and dangerous natural features in Yellowstone National Park. A fishing guide named Hank Patterson has created a funny and poignant video for those who would visit Yellowstone:

--Children under 14 would be required to wear helmets while skiing or snowboarding under a bill the New York State Senate has passed. But the legislation could die in the state Assembly, where every year for the past 15 years similar bills have died without being voted upon. To read more, click here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/9/16

Important Recall Notices:

--WARNING: Petzl has reported that a third party has been selling "modified" Petzl ASPIR harnesses on ebay. These harnesses have been modified in a way that makes them EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. If you own a Petzl ASPIR harness, click here to learn more.

--Black Diamond Equipment has issued another recall. They are recalling the Easy Rider and Iron Cruiser Via Ferrata lanyard sets, Index Ascenders, Camalots and Camalot Ultralights. This is in addition to previously announced recalls of select carabiners and nylon runners. To learn more and to see if your equipment has been affected by this recall, click here.


--A 24-year-old man is missing after he fell into a waterfall hole while sliding down Asgaard Pass near Dragontail Peak in Chelan County. A group of people were "glissading" on the snow on Aasgard Pass on Sunday night when the man, who was in front of the others, slid over the edge of a waterfall house and into the rushing water, the Chelan County Sheriff's Office reports. Glissading is a technique for sliding down a slope of snow or ice while using an ax for support. To read more, click here.

--The Skamania County Sheriff’s Office says a climber on Mount St. Helens had to be rescued after he slid 100 yards down the mountain and fractured his ankle. The sheriff’s office says 19-year-old Andrew Maris was climbing up the mountain with his three brothers on Thursday afternoon and had started his descent ahead of the others. To read more, click here.

--Teams began clearing the road to Artist Point last week. To read more, click here.

--Here's an interesting article about a day in the life of a law enforcement ranger.

--There is no climber more iconic than Fred Beckey. That is actually not a controversial statement. Fred is what many climbers strive to be. And now, with the old bold climber in his 90s, a documentary film is slated to come out about him. Check out the trailer below:


--A rock climber has been rescued after falling in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains near Donner Summit. The 33-year-old from Truckee fell Friday on Snowshed Wall, sustaining major injuries. California Highway Patrol officials say they were able to extract the climber with help from Truckee Fire personnel. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

Can you help identify these two vandals in Grand Canyon National Park?
Photo: National Park Service

--ISB Special Agents and US Park Rangers of Grand Canyon National Park are seeking information about two people who may have vandalized rocks near the Yavapai Geology Museum. On May 22, 2016, a visitor at the South Rim of the park observed a couple spray painting graffiti, and was able to capture images of the people and the vandalism. To read more, click here.

--Joshua Tree National Park needs your help to secure grant funding, and all you have to do is sign up on the National Geographic website, and then start voting from a list of 20 national parks, historic sites and monuments. To read more, click here.

--A black Labrador retriever died and one of its two owners showed signs of heat sickness last weekend while hiking a 7-mile desert trail where pets are not allowed in Joshua Tree National Park, according to a park news release. To read more, click here.


--The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing, ending a contentious debate over a ski area’s liability when a skier is killed by avalanche inside a resort boundary. The ruling delivered Tuesday morning found resorts are p--rotected from avalanche-related lawsuits under the Ski Safety Act, which was created in 1979 and amended in 1990 and 2004. The act shields resort operators from liability when the death or injury of skiers and snowboarders can be attributed to difficult-to-mitigate threats, such as terrain and weather. To read more, click here.


A Czech mountaineer died after falling about 1,500 feet while skiing down Denali, officials said Sunday. Pavel Michut, 45, fell while doing a ski descent of Denali’s Messner Couloir, a steep gully that connects the basin with the upper mountain of the famed Alaska peak, the National Park Service said. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released a plan yesterday that lays out a vision for the future of outdoor recreation, a commitment to conservation, clean energy and water, and collaborative stewardship of America’s public lands and waters. Included in this plan is the goal of doubling the outdoor recreation economy in ten years! To read more, click here.

--There are still ski resorts open in North America...and yes, you could go skiing in-bounds this weekend. To learn more, click here.

--Drones are illegal in both US and Canadian national parks. But that doesn't mean that the footage isn't awesome. This is not an endorsement of breaking the rules, merely a link to a video.

--Speaking of drones, check out the following video for footage of a climber's drone crashing, from the drone's perspective. To read more, click here.

--This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board supported a proposal to add five new sports to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Climbing, skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball, and karate are all in the package under consideration. The final decision will be made in August, when the IOC meets in Rio de Janeiro. To read more, click here.

--A 7-year-old Japanese boy who disappeared nearly a week ago after his parents left him on the side of a mountain road to discipline him was found unharmed on Friday, the Japanese authorities said. To read more, click here.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/2/16

Important Recall Notices:

--WARNING: Petzl has reported that a third party has been selling "modified" Petzl ASPIR harnesses on ebay. These harnesses have been modified in a way that makes them EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. If you own a Petzl ASPIR harness, click here to learn more.

--Black Diamond Equipment has issued another recall. They are recalling the Easy Rider and Iron Cruiser Via Ferrata lanyard sets, Index Ascenders, Camalots and Camalot Ultralights. This is in addition to previously announced recalls of select carabiners and nylon runners. To learn more and to see if your equipment has been affected by this recall, click here.


--There was a large rescue mission on Guye Peak over the weekend. Check out Seattle Mountain Rescue's blog to learn more.

--The Methow Valley is a climber and skier's paradise. A Canadian company has filed for permits to conduct exploratory drilling for copper on Flagg Mountain, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land. In response, the Methow Headwaters Campaign proposes to secure a “mineral withdrawal”from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This action would prohibit mining on the Methow watershed’s federal lands—approximately 340,000 acres in total. To read more, click here.

--The western region mountains were greeted with plenty of snow and lower than expected freezing levels from late November through early January that created strong snow bases. This created a banner year for ski resorts. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Two hikers were killed in a fall over the weekend in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Tragically, one of the hikers was trying to save the other, when they were both killed. It appears that the party was scrambling somewhere above Pine Creek's Fern Canyon when the incident took place. To read more, click here.

--We often forget that most of the bees in the southwest are killer bees. Don't mess with swarming bees or beehives: A 23-year-old Louisiana man died after being attacked by bees Thursday morning as he and a friend were hiking within Usery Mountain Park in Mesa, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office said. A medical exam determined the man had been stung more than 1,000 times. To read more, click here.

--Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road is open...


--See where all AAI teams are on Denali this week... To read their dispatches, click here.

--Twelve-year-old Romanian climber Dor Geta Popescu reached the top of Denali last week, and can now join Alaskan Merrick Johnston as the youngest women to reach North America's tallest peak. To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--In a tragic turn of events, authorities recently found the body of a woman who got lost on the Appalachian Trail. It appears that she was lost long enough to starve. To read more, click here.

--New Hampshire Fish and Game officials say they rescued an injured Massachusetts rock climber from Humphrey's Ledge in Bartlett Sunday. Officials say 33-year-old Philip Giampietro of Boston lost his handhold at about 10:40 a.m. while climbing the steep ledge and fell 30 feet before the rope stopped his fall. To read more, click here.

--A rock climber was flown to a Vermont hospital after suffering severe injuries in a 60-foot fall from a cliff on Pitchoff Mountain on Monday afternoon. State Police identified the victim as Kyle R. Ciarletta, 22, of Eagleville, PA. To read more, click here.