What happens when the object of our dreams becomes reality? No longer a part of our imagination, the dream breaks free from the chains of the subconscious ego and enters our consciousness to become a part of us. The North Ridge of Mt Tom, an island in the sky.
Learning to live again—it is a day by day process. And with each day there are challenges and opportunities. Grateful for this day and where it led us—deeper into the freedom of the hills. East Chute of Basin Mountain.
Obsidian at Panum Crater near the shore of Mono Lake on the Eastern Side of California’s Sierra Nevada.
Into this magical maze I climbed. Alone, on an uncharted route, fear and joy raged within me. The mountain pulled me into its depths, through a gauntlet of loose rock bands and steep alpine ice—moves to scary to reverse. I was committed to the ascent. I came to a gateway no wider than my arms reach with granite walls towering hundreds of feet above me. The mountain allowed me to pass and on the other side I found a hidden paradise where countless possibilities stretched beyond the horizon. Somewhere on the East Face of Basin Mountain.
I have always valued physical endurance. The human body has the capacity to accomplish a stunning array of feats under its own power. But endurance is not a right waiting for us to call it into action like the Fifth Amendment. We have to work for endurance. It is something that we earn after years and thousands of hours of movement. Read More
I started skiing this season. It started as an innocent endeavor—I wanted to have more access to the mountains in the winter so that I could climb more. But, as many skiers warned me, skiing is awesome. Now it is a minor addiction. As a result of this new passion, I am watching more skiing flicks. The latest is Valhalla by Sweetgrass Productions. And no, it is not Valhalla Rising, the Danish adventure film about a Norse crusader. This Valhalla is about love, hope, freedom, and good times—pretty much the opposite of Valhalla Rising. The vikings in Valhalla Rising would eat the skiers and snowboarders in Valhalla.
Valhalla is a narrative-driven skiing and snowboarding movie. What does this mean? It means that the director took cool footage of skiing and snowboarding powder, and then added a 70s-esque fictional story. Cool idea. The narrator of this story promises profound realizations about the experience and spirituality of what we do, but the package falls apart on delivery. Having said that, the cinematography and the core concept of the story are good.
Here are some highlights. Naked skiing and snowboarding. Female and male get equal nude coverage and they pull some impressive stunts. There is a psychedelic scene that reminded me of a scene from Blueberry, a French-American western starring Vincent Cassel. But Valhalla’s version was overcooked. And then there is a ton of slo-mo powder footage, and you can’t have too much powder.
This is another corporate sponsored movie. It is not as bad as Mount St. Elias, which I reviewed here. But it does push Patagonia’s worldview and lifestyle branding.
Despite what I believe is weak integration of a narrative into a ski movie, by using this narrative-driven approach the director, Nick Waggoner, did something very different from serving up the usual cut and paste documentary. And in the process he tried to explain the spirituality of this activity and way of life in a way that doesn’t need a degree in Philosophy to understand. The movie is only an hour long, and it is worth your time.
Right now you can stream Valhalla on Netflix.
Mount St. Elias is a documentary that follows three ski mountaineers (Austrians Axel Naglich and Peter Ressmann and American Jon Johnston) during their attempt to climb and then ski down Alaska’s Mount St. Elias from the summit at 18,008 feet to sea level.
If you can look past the multi-million dollar Red Bull propaganda that is Mount St. Elias, then you will see stunning footage of a beautiful, difficult mountain and radical skiing on that mountain.
For me, the movie is divided into two halves. The first half consists of the Austrians failing to communicate with Johnston and then mocking him for being safety conscious. The confrontations are so absurd that I wonder if they weren’t scripted. This culminates when Johnston asks if Naglich will abandon him on the mountain during their summit bid if Johnston can’t go on. Naglich says, bluntly, that he will abandon Johnston on the mountain without a second thought. And Naglich and his team do just that when Johnston is too fatigued to continue. The moral of this story: if Alex Naglich comes knocking at your door with an offer to go climbing or skiing, you should say, “No.”
For the second half of the movie Johnston leaves the expedition. Naglich and team are now free to pursue their “summit or die” tactics without a wimpy American crying that the climbing and skiing are too dangerous or that he is too tired. The second half of the movie goes something like this: Austrians drink Red Bull, Austrians don’t fear, Austrians send.
Despite these drawbacks, the Mount St. Elias does have some really good cinematography thanks to all of that Red Bull money. The film shows, through fantastic imagery, that Alaskan mountaineering is really big and really committing. Loads of aerial footage brings perspective to the size of the humans and the size of the mountain they are climbing—it is HUGE. At one point, the entire team holes up in a snow cave as a raging storm buries the entrance, threatening to trap them inside.
However, maybe the budget was too big. Mount St. Elias dwells on an earlier attempt to ski the mountain and during which two climbers, Aaron Martin and Reid Sanders, fell to their deaths. The film went overboard in recreating, and recreating, and recreating, hypothetical scenes of what happened to Martin and Sanders. The often repeated clip of a dummy rag dolling down an ice face was morbid and disrespectful. Did they create this clip to emphasize the danger of Naglich and team’s ascent and descent? Or was it done to emphasize that Naglich and Ressman were successful where the Americans—again, the weak and wimpy Americans—died? To drive home the point that Austrians are strong and crushing American mountains, the summit team unfurled an Austrian flag on the summit. For me, this action completely ruined the awesome aerial shot of the team standing on the summit of Mount St. Elias.
The translation is also horrible. Often the subtitles and dubbing don’t say the same thing. But, if you can sit through the poor translation, Red Bull propaganda, Austrian nationalism, and big egos, then Mount St. Elias will reward you with beautiful images of an otherworldly mountain.
And one last important note: this was not the first time someone has skied Mount St. Elias, which the movie implies. Wild Snow, an excellent backcountry skiing blog, delves into the history of skiing Mount St. Elias and debunks Red Bull’s propaganda.
Right now you can stream it on Netflix.
A good pair of flip-flops is an essential piece of gear for anyone who travels a lot or is active in foot-intensive sports like climbing, running, or biking. After you send the climb or finish the run, it’s nice to pull off your tight, sweltering shoes and slip your swollen feet into a comfy pair of flip-flops.
Not all flip-flops are created equal. Many of the cheap models offer no support, have thongs that cut into your skin, and fall apart.
The Reef Fanning flip-flops (the leather version) are the best flip-flops I have ever owned. When I bought them at REI, I cringed at the price. But a year later I am happy that I bought the pair, and my feet and bunions thank me daily. Read More
Note: OtterBox has replaced the Armor with the Preserver. The Preserver retains some of the same design features as the Armor, though it appears to be stronger and better sealed that the Armor. I called OtterBox about the problems I had with the Armor and they sent me a Preserver as a replacement. So far, I really like the Preserver. A review for the Preserver will be forthcoming.
Adventure and electronics don’t play well together. And that’s why we have to find good cases to protect the gadgets that we carry into the backcountry with us. The more important the gadget, the more important the case that we put it in.
Ultimately, we are the first line of defense against broken gear. But we aren’t on watch all the time and bad stuff happens. For a phone, the case is the last defense against rocks, water, mud, sand, and, most importantly, ourselves. This means that the case must be absolutely bomb proof.
While the OtterBox Armor is tough, it is not tough enough. Worse still, it is not as tough as OtterBox claims. Read More
In mid-November I hiked the South Face of White Mountain in California. The route is 14 miles round trip and follows a closed gravel road to the summit. Car to car the hike took 6 hours and 15 minutes.
At 14,252 feet, White Mountain is tallest peak in the White Mountains and the third tallest in California. The summit is #30 on the list of the highest summits in the entire United States. White Mountain rises about 9,000 feet above the Owens Valley. The White Mountains are the driest tall mountains in the United States, and as a result they have a very unique and fragile ecosystem. The ancient Bristlecone Pine trees, the oldest of which is over 5,000 years old, are found throughout the White Mountains. The gravel road that hikers drive to the trailhead meanders through some of the Bristlecone groves. Continue Reading. There’s More!
For the last several years I thought that I suffered from serious depression. I was not alone in this belief. My close friends and family observed my regular, inexplicable descents into the lonely and dark spaces of my mind. The topic of medication came up more than once, but I hated the idea of being medicated. The depression and associated lethargy were getting worse with each passing year, and so I started to reconsider the idea of seeking out professional help and medication. Continue Reading. There’s More!
This is not my usual gear review. Normally, I write the review after at least a few months of heavy use. This time, however, I returned the gear before I was able to use it because I quickly realized that the Koflach Degree just does not fit my foot type. I had heard a lot about the Koflachs of old, still performing well after decades of use, so I was bit a disappointed.
I just went through a long process of ordering and returning various sizes of the Koflach Degre, talking to dealers, talking with a Koflach rep, and reading all the internet reviews for the Koflach Degre that I could find. I learned a lot of information that is not publicly available and I consolidated the sparse and diffuse information available on the internet.
So even though I decided not to use the Koflach Degre, I believe that other people will benefit from the information I have to share. And hopefully this will help you to make a quicker and easier decision if you are thinking about buying the Degre. Continue Reading. There’s More!
On July 3rd Jim and I completed a new route at Fountain Bluff, and we believe it is the longest climbing route in the Midwest. The route is a 1,400 foot traverse of Fountain Bluff in Southern Illinois. We climbed it in 12 pitches. Neither of us are good at rating things, but we gave it a 5.8 R, which is basically the rating for any ground-up trad route we have climbed at Fountain Bluff.
The idea for this route evolved slowly over the last several years.
Fountain Bluff has a unique style of rock climbing. To be honest, it is not for everyone. The rock quality is highly variable. There are long stretches of “vertical vegetation” – that is, climbing up vines and what-not. A couple of years ago, when my friend Chris still lived in the area, we invented a term for it – Mississippi River Valley Alpine Climbing. Continue Reading. There’s More!
There is a great book, known throughout the climbing community, that goes by the title “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.” It is the classic how-to book for climbers and continues to make its presence known in ever-increasing edition numbers. The 7th edition occupies a prominent place on my self.
The subtitle, The Freedom of the Hills, is an amazing statement, for in five simple words it embodies what climbing and merely being in the hills are for me—freedom.
Freedom is a powerful and loaded word; perhaps most infamous for the carefree way in which contemporary marketers, politicians, and revolutionaries kick it around like a well-worn hacky sack. Continue Reading. There’s More!
Ernest Shackleton made perhaps the most remarkable and famous open boat voyage in recorded history. And for that he is one of my heroes… someone whose tale I look to for inspiration when I am deep in the throes of life and exploration.
Shackleton had set out to make the first crossing of Antarctica. However, Shackleton and his crew of 27 men never reached the cold continent. Their ship, the Endurance, became locked in the pack ice.
For ten months the ship and the crew drifted with the pack ice, until the immense pressure of the shifting ice crushed the Endurance. With the Endurance lost, they camped on the pack ice for almost four months, until the ice became too unstable, living off seal and penguin meat. Continue Reading. There’s More!
Gaston Rébuffat is one of my climbing heroes. I admire him for his list of ascents (including great north faces of the Alps), his style, his approach to the art of the climb, and his life in general. He comes off as a sincere person.
This edition of Starlight and Storm includes a wonderful and in-depth introduction from David Roberts. Jon Krakauer is the series editor, but he makes no real contribution to the book other than a boilerplate that the publisher cut and pasted into several other titles in the series. Yet for some reason Krakauer’s name is in a larger font size than Roberts. So, for those of you who are not fans of Krakauer, fear not, he has not ruined this great book! Continue Reading. There’s More!