How to Actually Climb a Mountain, Actually

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Last weekend, I accomplished another life goal of mine– I climbed Mt. Rainier.

Having just moved to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, it was not immediately clear to me why anyone would consider this important enough to put on a list of goals.  But then, one day, as I was driving to work, I saw the mountain.

From 60 miles away.

Oh, snap. There it is! Photo credit: Marc Smith (flickr: marc_smith)

Especially after climbing Kilimanjaro, I knew that I wanted to spend more time in the mountains.  Considering that for the last 18 months, I’d been living within spitting distance of the premier glaciated mountain in the lower 48, it was doing time.  I always wished I would find myself without an excuse.  And then I did.

So for the last 8 months, I learned how to climb a mountain.  I learned it from reading books, talking to instructors, drawing on past experience, and, in a few cases, present experience.  I learned it searching the internet, highlighting manuals, peppering experienced mountaineers with questions (it was a long car ride, sorry MM!), and– most importantly– I learned it on the mountain, particularly Mt. Rainier, which I have now made the 2.5-hour drive to on more early Saturday mornings than I care to remember.

Climbing mountains is not an unusual thing to see on bucket lists.  There’s something appealing about dreaming about Everest.  But if you read this blog much, you’ll know that I get antsy around too much dreaming (it’s the “books about heaven” thing).

So I’m going to give you an antidote.  I’m going to tell you the basics of actually climbing a mountain.  Things like what to wear, what to buy, what to know, and what to learn elsewhere.

This is just an intro.  I’m a beginning mountaineer.  I’ll say many times here that this article doesn’t cover close to everything, but it covers enough to get you started.

And that’s the question here.  If you actually want to climb mountains, what will you do with this info?  Read it?  Skim the pictures? (they’re good, I promise)  Bookmark it for “later”?  Continue dreaming?

Or will you start tonight? Read More

Volcanoes and Ancient Philosophy

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A panorama from Disappointment Cleaver

The weekend before last, I tried to achieve a life goal of mine– #21, Climb Mt. Rainier.  I didn’t.

Here’s what happened.

On the night before we started climbing, everything looked good.  I had been training for months.  Practice climbs, classes, reading mountaineering guides in my free time.  The usual.  I had a team I trusted and liked.  We were all in shape, healthy, and eager to go.  Our bags were packed, gear checked, double-checked, and we even left on time.  Most fortuitously, after we reached base camp on the first afternoon, the rangers said that even though there was some avalanche danger, they were optimistic about the weather– a gift, given five days of storms, high winds, fresh snow, and no one summiting.

Unfortunately, neither did we.

One the second day of climbing, everyone gets up between midnight and 5 AM to try and reach the summit and make it back to base camp before the heat of the day and the weather changes.  We were on the trail by 2:30 AM.  I’m not a morning person, but I wake easy for alpine starts.  We set out across the Cowlitz glacier up towards the imposing Cathedral pass in the dark of night.

A few hours later, we were nearing the base of a giant rock formation that splits two glaciers– the Disappointment Cleaver.  One group– some firefighters from Seattle– had been ahead of us the whole time, and as we crossed the snowfield to the cleaver, we watched their headlamps bobbing up, and then, down the side of the cleaver. We met them at the base– the bottom of the lower part of the rock, on a 45-degree snowfield that bottoms out a few hundred feet below into an enormous crevasse.  It wasn’t the sort of place you’d normally want to spend more time than necessary, but the other group had kicked out little seats for themselves in the snow and were resting up. “How was it up there?”

“Eh, no way up.  You can try; we’ve got no idea.”

I looked up.  They pointed a way not to go.  ”Well maybe I could try below that shelf.  How long are you guys going to be here?”

“Dunno.  We don’t know if we’re going to make it up there.  And here is where the rangers said there was avalanche danger.  Not sure we’d want to be coming through this mid-morning.”

Oh yeah.  Avalanche danger. Read More

Bucket List Update: Mountaineering, Marathons, and Lýðveldið Ísland

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Lest you think I just sit around and read productivity books all day (cf. this and that), I figure I should post some of progress on my own life goals list every once and a while.  Since I got back from Africa, here are the goals I’ve been working towards– the ones that I’m most excited about right now.

 

21.) Climb Mt. Rainier

I am hard pressed to think of a family vacation growing up that didn’t involve either the open water or mountains.  It seemed like my dad’s definition of a relaxing time necessarily involved covering vast changes in elevation on foot.

And while I’ve wanted to climb mountains for years, after Kilimanjaro, I got the bug bad.  Something about staring down on the sunrise over the savanna maybe ;)

I’ve started training for Rainier– training referring more to learning mountaineering skills than, say, spinning classes.  That doesn’t mean you don’t need to be in shape for Rainier– at 14,400, it’s nothing to scoff at.  But an unhurried ascent, good body temperature monitoring, and plenty of water are more important than an olympian circulatory system.

A few weeks ago, I made my first technical climb– Humpback Mountain in the Cascades.  While it’s only a few minutes off I-90, the summit is a lot closer to the moon than it is to Seattle.

On the summit of Humpback Mountain

Next up is snow camping and glacier travel.

A friend of mine is a mountaineering instructor and he’s guiding me through the learning process here.  This is really ideal.  The small group we’ll climb Rainier with will ultimately be more flexible, more fun, and way cheaper than the guided mountaineering tours.

Tracking towards July 2012.

Read More

[How-to] Fire Poi: My Story Becoming a Fire-Spinner

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The author spinning traditional Maori fire poi

The author spinning traditional Maori fire poi

“Does anyone know what lung fire is?”, Eugene Kozlenko bellowed to the crowd surrounding him.  A few chuckles could be heard, but most people were silent.  It was 10 PM on a January night, and we were cold.

“It’s pretty much what it sounds like”, Eugene continued.  ”And it’s a good reason not to try this at home!”  A few more chuckles.  Mostly, there was anticipation.  Anticipation for what we had all come out for in the first place.

In a moment, Eugene’s friend and classmate Alex Davis would step into the center of the crowd with a lit torch, take a swig from a gas canister, and vaporize it through the torch, spewing a ten foot beam of fire into the freezing air.

That would be followed by another performer twisting, spinning, and rolling his flame-tipped staff around his body to pounding trip hop and trance.  The audience was getting a little warmer– they were forgetting about the cold, but the performers’ art could be felt from the far side of spitting distance.

For the final act, five performers came out at once.  Each one held two chains– one in their right hand, one in their left– and at the end of each two-foot chain was a monkey’s fist knot, dunked in oil, and presently lit on fire.  The music started and each one started spinning the chains around their body– loops, figure eights, weaves, and every sort of fluid motion.  Sometimes they would hit them with their feet to reverse their direction; others let the poi chains wrap around their arms– then quickly unwrapped them in the opposite direction.

“Alright”, I thought to myself as a piece of flaming wick shot off and Read More

[How-to] Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

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A few days ago, I returned from a three-week vacation to Tanzania, where, among other things, I accomplished a life goal of mine: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I'd like to share some of these experiences here for those who are interested in doing a similar trek-- or just want to hear a bit about scaling the tallest mountain in Africa.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is not for everyone.

Specifically, the signs at the entrance to the park say it’s not for those with heart or lung problems, but I think it’s mostly not for those who don’t really, really want to climb it.

Best alarm clock of all time.

As the tallest mountain in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain from base to summit, Kili makes a lot of mountaineering lists.  Unlike many of the mountains on those lists, Kili is not a technical climb– you don’t need to know crevasse rescue techniques, or ice climbing or glissade or ice axe self-arrest– frankly, all you need to know how to do is to walk.

The main issue is that you need to walk a lot at a very high elevation.

And I don’t know if you know what it’s like to be up so high, but it’s not quite like it is down here.

Altitude

Have you ever been on the ocean for a few days?  You know how everything gets damp and salty and there’s water and salt everywhere and it contaminates everything and there’s nothing you can do about it?  (It’s the same with sand in deserts)  That’s what the elevation is like on Kilimanjaro.  Instead of there being salt and it’s everywhere, there’s oxygen and it’s nowhere.

Especially your lungs. Read More

[How-to] On Learning to Unicycle

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Photo credit: Stefano Corso (flickr: pensiero)

This is an essay on learning how to unicycle.  It’s more philosophy than how-to guide, so be forewarned/get excited.

(i) A Thousand Falls

The simplest advice I can give to learn how to ride a unicycle is this: fall off a unicycle a thousand times.

Of course, there’s a bit more technique to it, but this is the gist.  Fall off, get on, try again.  Repeat ten-hundred times.

I, like most people I know, learned how to ride a bike at a very young age.  And although I don’t remember the specifics, I’d imagine I fell off hundreds of times before I got it quite right.  That’s quite a few skinned knees.  Yet I have zero recollection of it.

But that’s the nature of kids, isn’t it?  They dive in with confidence and just keep trying.  Setbacks fade fast.

I think we forget that as we grow older.  No longer do we forget failure with such alacrity.  We’re a little less bold in how we approach our endeavors.  But I accidentally found a blast from that past, and it has one wheel and a seat.  Never since childhood have I failed so frequently at something and kept going.

And never has it felt so great to finally learn!  Finally being able to balance is great, but even the process leading up to it is exciting.  Your progress isn’t linear, so the entire process is you improving slowly, but also in leaps in bounds.  You’ll spend a few hours of unicycling time going just inches before bailing.  Then you’ll upgrade to feet.  Later, you’ll clear ten feet.  And a few days after that, a hundred.  And then you’ve got it.  At some point, you just stop falling off.  Crap, it feels wonderful.

(ii) Blue-Collar Failures

One thing that stuck out to me about falling off a unicycle was that it was a pretty objective measure of failure.

And we don’t have that a lot.  Or at least, I don’t.

In a lot of projects I work on, motivated waxes and wanes; excitement fades away, and perfectly good ideas are never brought to glorious execution.  It’s easy to rationalize these abandoned dreams.  Failure becomes less tangible.  It looks less like defeat and more like procrastination.  It’s not a knock-out blow to the head; it’s a dull sense of regret and a light flurry of rationalized excuses. Read More

[Profiles] John Goddard: Patron Saint of Bucket Lists

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This is part of a series of posts I’m running called “Profiles in Awesomeness”.  In it, I talk about the disgustingly prolific and ridiculously accomplished thinkers and doers whose lives and philosophies can inspire us and teach us how to accomplish our own goals.

This is my first profiles in awesomeness post, and I think an appropriate subject is John Goddard.  Here’s why.

When John Goddard was 15, a friend of his dad’s told him he regretted not doing all the things he wanted to when he was John’s age.  John, struck by the comment, got out a yellow legal pad and scribbled out 127 things he wanted to do before he died.

He was a pretty ambitious 15-year old.  Heavy hitting items include:

  • Circumnavigate the globe
  • Climb Cheop’s pyramid
  • Climb Kilimanjaro, Rainier, the Matterhorn, and Everest
  • Milk a poisonous snake
  • Hold breath underwater for 2.5 minutes
  • Explore the Amazon, Congo, and Nile rivers from source to mouth

Etc, etc, for 127 items.

Now here’s the ridiculous thing.  While most 15-year old boys could have compiled a similar list, most of us wouldn’t dedicate the rest of our lives to achieving every single one of them. Read More