Can’t wait to get back to the mountains

Life in the flat land means that climbing may be a rare occurrence. Preferring alpine environments means it’s most certainly rare. I haven’t been in the mountains since August of 2013, and I’m eager to return. Our next trip is planned for January 2015 which seems quite far away (and, well, it is). But my thoughts as of late have drifted to the views of the setting sun from 10,000 feet up, or the rhythm of the rest step up a glacier, or the sense of uncertainty crossing a crevasse or navigating in the dark. 

January 2015 holds the potential for quite a trip. More on that to come…

Don’t eat alone in the mountains….or, what to eat when you’re climbing

Mountain food is a highly personal subject. I haven’t done quite enough climbing to have a 100% set opinion on this, but I’ve done enough to a least have a sense of my opinion.

First off, check this out. This guy was alone in the mountains and started to choke on some food. As he was losing conciseness he managed to use his ice axe and a fall down a slope (into a rock) to perform the heimlich on himself. Simply amazing. 

That being said, I expect to be able to avoid this sort of thing because I don’t climb alone. Many do, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I just prefer the company and the added safety provided by another human being by your side. But of course, we still have to bring food with us. So what do we bring? 

Thus far, it’s been combinations of snack foods and small meals. It’s ranged from gummy bears to nuts and granola bars and energy bars to bagels with peanut butter and summer sausage and cheese and crackers. On the two “big” climbs I’ve done (Adams and Shuksan), we were given good advice from our guide that we failed to heed: bring with you into the mountains things you’d normally like to eat. For example, he told stories of guys who would bring a wrapped Chipotle burrito into the mountain. Or cold pizza. To us, this sounded insane. The extra weight alone seemed daunting. But we came close. The night before the Shuksan climb we stood in the supermarket (stocking up) and even parroted back those words of advice from our guide, and thought about getting small pizzas to cook the night before and bring with us. But, we elected not to do this. Fail. 

Overall our choices haven’t been bad, just overall subpar as far as quality. After 8 or 9 hours of climbing up a glacier (half of that in the dark) a power bar does perfectly fine for me. But at camps and prior to the alpine zone, the idea of having a small (cold) pizza sounds pretty ideal. In fact, the other member of our team on Shuksan had a Subway sandwich that he brought with him. Brilliant! 

In the future, we’re going to do better with this. Snack food is still a must. I remain steadfast in my opinion that sitting on a glacier during a short rest stop is the last place I’d want to try and eat that pizza…a handful nuts and dried berries does the trick. But at longer rests and at camp, bigger and better food is a must. 

One thing that’s come up a few times is coffee: apparently a lot of people need to drink their coffee in the mountains. That’s fine. To me, though, the idea of drinking anything that increases your need to urinate seems counterproductive. The chance of having a few hours without the ability to get to a safe place to urinate is high enough that plain old water seems like the best path. 

Just a kid….but more than age

This  kid became the youngest person, at nine years old, to climb the highest peak in the Americas: Aconcagua. At 22,837 feet this isn’t a small accomplishment and is impressive no matter the age of the person climbing. But for a nine year old, it certainly does stand out. To have the patience, physical and mental stamina, and skills to be able to do this (even with a guide) is impressive for anyone, and even more so for a nine year old.

Aconcagua

Aconcagua

It reminds me of the other young American alpine phenom, Jordon Romero.

But one important item to note: there’s nothing one can say to literally detract from the accomplishments of these, well, kids. But one thing I’ve learned about climbing is that there is little in the way of predictable variables. By this I mean that young or old, tall or short, different levels of fitness, it’s hard to look at those variables and predict someones ability to undertake such a serious climb. Sure, one could look at someone of advanced age and say that it’s probably a good idea to avoid high altitude alpine climbs, but then one can easily point to the 80 year old Japanese man that just became the oldest to climb everest (and the many others in the 70′s and 60′s before him who have done it). Or the cigarette smokers who seem to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with ease because their lungs are already use to a more oxygen deprived state Or perhaps a coworker in my office, easily 50-60 pounds heavier than he should be and obviously not in the best of shape, who summited Kilimanjaro. Or, finally, the many (many) beautifully in shape marathon runners and body builders who fail to reach the summit of Everest, or any other big mountain.

The bottom line is that there are simply elements of someone’s ability that just can’t be assumed or guessed based on the most common factors we might consider. By any stretch of the imagination, a 9 year old shouldn’t be able to pull this off. Spend some time at a elementary school and look at the 6th graders, and think, do any of them seem like they could do it? I know at 9 I certainly wasn’t able.

The key take away here is that those unquantifiable qualities like determination and stamina and mental toughness are often far more consequential in the end than physical shape, or size, or anything else.

I don't necessarily think this images does the mountain much justice...but an interesting look nonetheless.

I don’t necessarily think this images does the mountain much justice…but an interesting look nonetheless.

Crevasses are terrifying

Crevasses are terrifying. To both the uninitiated and the seasoned climber they are giant holes in the ice that can be hidden, covered by snow, hundreds of feet deep, and can range in size from small enough to step over to big enough that you have to route find your way around it.

The reality of course is that with proper training and the appropriate gear the risk can be very much (though not completely) mitigated. For example, on my last climb on Mt. Shuksan, we ran into a number of different crevasses. The level of danger (and psychological terror) was increased due to the fact that visibility was extremely poor, so the first few we came across we didn’t see until we were right up on it. Our guide (who was leading the rope’d group) changed his tact a bit as we found more and more of them. Thankfully he had his GPS, without which I have no idea how he would have been able to find a path that would have been both around the crevasses and on target for the summit pyramid.

a crevasse on Mt. Shuksan

a crevasse on Mt. Shuksan

 

Just a small step over....

Just a small step over….

This particular crevasse (above), the second one we encountered, was just small enough for us to step over.

daylight's first crevasse

daylight’s first crevasse

This one, though, we had to go around. The of fog lifted in time for the photo, but we literally walked right up to this one without seeing it.

Big Shuksan crevasses

Big Shuksan crevasses

Crevasses in the distance. Luckily we didn’t have to get close to these.

Hiding

Hiding

Finally, as I said before, they hide. This one was just a bit too wide to step over, but was super long…we probably deviated 30 minutes from our path to get around this thing. Of course we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us, so it was a “best guess” as to which way would get us around the shortest side of it.