Lonely Summits

Night in the Illilouette Valley

Pushing through the day and into the night, climbing to lonely summits with the world and the stars swirling all around, speaking with ghosts who flitter in the wind, learning from the wrinkles of sage trees that burst from the fragrant soil that now lives under my fingernails and with fingers pressed to nostrils I inhale forgotten memories, rubbing the gritty soot of fires past between my hands, savoring water that trickles through moss and rock and teems with small moving things, calves strain high on exposed granite slabs glittering with life and radiating warmth, lost and bleeding in a maze of manzanita and thorns that fills the horizon, feet ache while eyes find eden in moonlit meadows, lungs spasming while wading through another freezing creek and bare feet find slippery cobbles below, Venus rises and birds sing under the stars and to what I do not know but the owl gave me a ticket to the symphony and the night crawlers ushered me down the isle to a decomposing seat, a bed of grass under my body and how I came to this spot I do not know but somewhere out here is the center of everything and so I stride deeper into this wilderness.

Yosemite Swimming Holes

In the Spirit of John Muir, we scramble up mossy gullies, stumble into hanging valleys that we have known only from the banks of the Merced, plunge into pristine pools carved by the masterful hand of nature, wander up never ending slabs of granite, stuff our unharnessed bodies into chimneys and cracks, wade through manzanita, are rewarded with glorious view after glorious view until we risk saturating our eyes and souls and becoming accustomed to having our breath taken away, run in solitude through miles of pines and ferns and wildflowers, and hitch a ride from a Swiss who can’t help but stare at El Cap rather than the road.

Altra Superior-1

AltaRunning makes running shoes that have zero heal lift and wide toe boxes. Their goal is to create a shoe that better complements the natural anatomical position of our feet, and thus prevent injuries. They make a range of shoes, from light trail shoes like the Superior (not quite minimalist) to maximalist shoes like the Olympus.

The basic idea behind Altra emerged from the back of a family running shop where they started melting off outsoles and removing the heel lift to cure the injuries of runners who were coming into the shop.

Pros: Lightweight; protection for those who don’t want to go minimalist, but want to get close; good uphill traction; stable; comfortable, especially for people with bunions.

Cons: Durability is not the best; downhill traction could be better; the outsole platform on the back sometimes kicks up debris.

Price: $110

Foot Protection

The removable rock guard on the left and the insole on the right.

The removable rock guard on the left and the insole on the right.

The Superior out of the box doesn’t offer tons of padding or protection. Which is why I bought it. But for the trails where you do need extra protection from sharp rocks, the Superior ships with a second set of insoles that are made of rigid plastic. I like this modular approach because I don’t always want or need the extra protection (and decreased sensitivity) that a rock plate offers, but I have the option to use it if the need arrises.

The rubber toe guard on the front of the left shoe started to peel with less than 100 miles on it. I think Altra needs to use a stronger glue.

The toe box has a thin membrane of water and grit resistant material that offers some added protection from moisture and fine grit. But the result is a hotter toe box.

The upper is thin, yet abrasion resistant.


Yes, the tread has a cool foot-like pattern. It is also really good going uphill. Note the recessed areas where outsole has been removed to expose the foam.

Yes, the tread has a cool foot-like pattern. It is also really good going uphill. Note the recessed areas where outsole has been removed to expose the foam—the result is more flexibility but less protection.

The aggressive tread of the Altra Superior sticks pretty well on snow.

The aggressive tread of the Altra Superior sticks pretty well on snow.

The uphill traction is really good on the Superior. The downhill traction definitely leaves something to be desired, but it is pretty good.

I was surprised with the stickiness of the rubber. It is almost like wearing a pair of approach shoes. For anyone who is trail running in the mountains or over terrain that involves boulder hopping, this is a big plus.

The aggressive and sticky tread also does well on snow.


The toe box is pretty wide—wider than most running shoes. But it could be wider.

The toe box is pretty wide—wider than most running shoes. But it could be wider.

Stability and comfort—this is where the Superior really shines.

The tight, narrow toe boxes of so many shoes throws of my balance when moving over uneven terrain. The wide toe box of the Superior allows my toes to spread out, which allows the feet to do their natural thing. Whenever I switch from the Superiors to another shoe with a more “standard” toe box, I can feel the instability that other shoe causes by compressing my toes—and as a result my knees suffer.

I believe that this—and comfort—is the big selling point of Altra shoes and the Superior in particular.

The Superior also has a chunk of outsole that extends from the heel. I believe the purpose of this is to add stability during descents, which I think it does, but maybe that is a placebo effect. Sometimes this extra piece grabs sand and rocks and tosses them up and into the shoe. I think Altra calls this a Trail Rudder.


The thin, but padded sole has good flexibility.

The thin, but padded sole has good flexibility.

A stable shoe is a comfortable shoe. Three things make the Superior very comfortable for me:

  1. The zero lift heel. This means the heal and toe are at the same height. Which is as it should be. When we are barefoot, the heel and toe are even with each other. Our shoes need to be this way too.
  2. The wide toe box, which I talked about above.
  3. The near minimalist sole. I bought the Superior because I wanted a shoe that felt like the moccasins that I made, but offered a bit more protection for trail runs and hikes.


At 8.7 oz, the Superior is really light. Unfortunately, the weight savings means that the Superior is not a durable or protective as a heavier shoe. But going lighter always means sacrificing a bit of comfort and security—that’s the name of the game.


The Superior is a very sensitive shoe. Not as sensitive as my Five Fingers, but more sensitive than my Brooks Cascadias.


Note that the Altra does not use metal grommets. Instead, the eyeholes for the laces are sewn.

Note that the Altra does not use metal grommets. Instead, the eyeholes for the laces are sewn.

Altra Superior Inside

The inside without the insole. There are no burrs, so the Superior can be worn without the insole. However, the lining is tearing away from the seam in places.

Overall, the craftsmanship seems pretty good. However, on the inside, the lining is pulling away from the seam in a couple of places. Also, the rubber toe guard started to peel just a little with less than 100 miles on the shoe. Having said that, it is a lightweight shoe, not a mountaineering boot, we have to expect and accept some durability issues.


Altra is making shoes that offer a lot of obvious anatomically correct features that are difficult to find in other brands. They aren’t trying to force our feet into their notion of what is anatomically “correct.” For minimalists on the trail (whether hiking or running), the Superior 2.0 is a great shoe.

But with a shoe that is this different, users should expect an adjustment period. You will need to adjust to the feel and you will probably need to adjust your stride (unless you are already using minimalist shoes).

I definitely recommend trying on a pair of Altras.

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush on the trail to Tungsten Peak outside Bishop, California.

View of Ljubljana from Grajski Grič (Castle Hill). Ljubljana Castle sits at the top of Grajski Grič.

A few years ago I travelled to Slovenia to trace my family’s heritage. This search—to find more information about my family’s origins and to locate distant family members—took me to the province of Prekmurje in Northeastern Slovenia and the small towns of Sotina and Rogašovci, which are in the hilly Goričko region of Prekmurje, both of which are a stone’s throw from the Austrian border and a short drive from Hungary.

I’m writing this post as a brief introduction for anyone traveling to Prekmurje and Goričko. Think of it as a step up from a Lonely Planet guide. If I’m missing anything (which of course I am) or if I have something wrong in the descriptions of the geography and history of the area (probably), then please let me know in the comments (or contact me privately) and I will update the post to keep it relevant. Read More

The Palisades of the Sierra Nevada.

The winter was very short here in California’s Sierra Nevada—too short, and too dry. But before the snow disappears for the season, we headed into the Palisades area for what might be our last winter excursion into the mountains for the season.

Camping at the second lake provided excellent views of Temple Crag and the tops of the Palisades. The lake was still frozen and we heard booms and cracks through the night. I love to hear the sounds that ice makes as it contracts and expands, and the lake put on a gentle concert for us to fall asleep to.

Rock Creek Trail and Bear Creek Spire

In the Eastern Sierra, the trail that starts in Rock Creek presents some amazing views. Here, you can see Bear Creek Spire in the background (it is the peak on the right).

Ahh, the Hot Spring

Eastern Sierra Hot Springs.

Hot springs renew and mountains inspire. This wild hot spring in Long Valley, California has a view that is almost too good to be true.

Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes.

The Eureka Dunes are located in Eureka Valley, which is inside the boundaries of Death Valley National Park. Here are some interesting facts:

  • The tallest of the dunes rises about 700 feet above the valley floor. Which is highest in California and among the highest in North America.
  • The Eureka Dune Grass, the Eureka Evening Primrose, and the Shining Locoweed grow only in the Eureka Dunes.
  • Two species of beetles are found only in the Eureka Dunes.
  • Some of the flora and fauna here are endangered, so tread carefully.
  • The Eureka Dunes are booming dunes. When a sheet of sand avalanches down the side of a dune, it causes a low booming noise, similar to the sound of a distant airplane propeller. If the avalanche is big enough, vibrations can be felt throughout the slope.
  • Sand snowboarding, sledding, and driving on the dunes are not permitted. It is a hiking only area, which is good because the landscape is extremely fragile.
  • Walking on the dunes barefoot feels good.

To get to the Eureka Dunes, if coming from Big Pine, you have to drive over a gravel road with bad washboards for about 10 miles. They are jolting to say the least. But the beauty of the dunes and the surrounding valley and mountains make the drive worth it.

North Ridge Mt Tom

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.

East Chute of Basin Mountain

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

Obsidian at Panum Crater near the shore of Mono Lake on the Eastern Side of California’s Sierra Nevada.

East Face of Basin Mountain

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.

East Couloir 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


Movie Review: Valhalla

Valhalla by Sweetgrass

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 Film

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.

Movie Review: Maidentrip

Maiden trip movie poster

Maidentrip is the story of then 14-year old Laura Dekker and her solo sailing voyage to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world.

Much of the footage was shot using fixed cameras on Dekker’s boat, Guppy. The director, Jillian Schlesinger, edited the film to focus on Dekker’s personal growth and experiences through this extreme coming of age ritual. The director did not give much screen time to the arguments and controversy that surrounded the beginning of Dekker’s voyage. Some of the previous attempts at breaking the record for the youngest person to sail solo around the world met in disaster after storms or collisions left the sailors stranded on dead boats. The Dutch government tried to ban Dekker from embarking, believing this was a foolish project and fearing for Dekker’s life. The issue went to court and Dekker was allowed to sail. I believe that the director’s decision to focus on Dekker and what the journey meant for her was a good choice. It made for a good story, a story that will give viewers meaning and inspiration in pursuing their own adventures.

However, this editing decision also skirts away from a persistent issue in not only sailing, but also climbing and other activities. How young is too young? Just because a child wants to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to allow it. Touching a hot stove and learning that it is hot is one thing, but sailing the world’s oceans, solo and at 14, is a bad place to learn important life lessons and to mature in your outlook on life.

Overall, it is a good documentary and will be worth your time. Right now you can stream it on Netflix.

Reef Flip Flop Review

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

Gear Review: OtterBox Armor

Otter Box Armor Review

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


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