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Two Cracks Diverged on a Mountain

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.

-René Daumal

 

We were only two pitches off the ground, but it was already decision time. Overhead, a short roof loomed, with crack systems wending around either side. Each fissure shot in a different direction up the incomprehensible jumble of the North Howser Tower’s lower west face, in a remote basin of British Columbia’s Bugaboos. Two-dozen rope lengths above, we could make out the amazing dihedral that would take us to the summit ridge and the top of the mountain.

But conditioned to detailed topos and precise route-finding beta of more trafficked routes and climbing areas, I struggled with the simple text description that read, “connect cracks, trying not to get pulled too far left, for 10 or so pitches.” Of course we chose the left-hand crack system.

Two hundred feet after committing to the left-hand crack, a beautiful, (left-angling) splitter tempted us higher. We climbed it, but our excitement over the enjoyable pitch was quickly doused by the reality that we were indeed, off-route. We needed to get back right, but an incipient seam was all that rose above us. If we bailed now, we were looking at a heinous, semi-technical circumnavigation of the Howser Towers to get back to camp. Up was out.

After our attempts to free climb right were bouted, some aiding up and over a short bulge on micro-cams led us to a fixed piton anchor—a rusted antique from a route-finding error of a different era. One of the pins came out of the crack with less effort than it takes to pull bread from the toaster, and neither of us said much. Almost instinctively, Rob slotted a nut in a nearby constriction, I cut cord to replace the bleached webbing, and we began to rig the rappel. Nearly 60 meters of sideways slab swinging later, I scampered onto a ledge and peered up at the gaping chimney that would lead us up and out of the convoluted lower face. Two days later, we strolled back into Applebee Camp, having lounged on the summit that morning.

Last July, I stood contemplating a similar Frost-esque divergence, this time at work. By the graces of corporate reorganization, I was offered a choice—accept a new position that seemingly involved more spreadsheets than writing, or see what the outside world had to offer. For years I had dreamed of the chance to work for myself, make my own schedule and live on my own terms, and here it was. On the other hand, I enjoyed the reliability of a steady paycheck, and felt comfortable with my job and co-workers.

I thought back to the day in the Bugaboos, and the countless parallel experiences I’ve had in the mountains—pointed moments of decision where I’ve take what I know, what I want, and what I’m willing to give up, and chosen the best course of action. It took me a few days to make the call, but I think I walked out the door knowing in my heart that I wasn’t coming back. In the end, I had to know what it was like out there.

While major decision-making often feels much more complex in real life, it usually revolves around the same basic themes as decisions we make in climbing—the value we place on security, our fear of the unknown, and knowledge of our skills and competency. We choose a path in order to make upward progress. Sometimes we don’t know if path we’ve chosen is the right one, sometimes it dead ends, sometimes we fall, and sometimes we have to go down and reassess. But most of the time, we just have to put our heads down, try not to freak the fuck out, and keep climbing.

I still have the piton we removed from the crack, and it sits on top of my bookshelf, reminding me not only of a great adventure with a good friend, but of the innate human ability—my ability—to course correct, to think on the fly, to deal with the unexpected. I’ve had good days and bad ones since I pulled the occupational ripcord. There have been big checks with my name on them, and there have been times when I’ve stared for hours at a blank computer screen, gripped by the icy hands of fear and self-doubt. But the excitement and beauty of the unknown is why I go climbing, and it’s why I turned and walked out on a steady job that day. Did I make the right decision? Well, I’m still making upward progress, and for now, that’s reason enough not to bail.

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Rock & Ice #222

This past summer I attended a writing symposium with Rock & Ice Magazine in Carbondale, CO, led by climbing legend John “Largo” Long, R&I editors Duane Raleigh and Jeff Jackson, and my personal writing hero Andrew Bisharat. It was an invaluable and inspiring week, and I not only met a bunch of great people, but I got a chance to learn about the craft of climbing writing from a group of true masters. Luckily, the editors seemed to like my writing enough to both publish my short story in the magazine and make me a Contributing Editor—a true dream realized for me. I haven’t seen an online version yet, but check it out in issue #222.

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The Wind, it Howls

It began with a half-assed conversation somewhere. Sitting on the tailgate, most likely, hands swollen and sore and wrapped around some cheap swill beer. Patagonia. The place, not the clothing company. Scrubby plains and azure rivers rising into toothy granite spires caked in rime ice. Clouds whipped by the wind into a swirling meringue. Monster approaches, glaciers, splitter cracks, loose rock and incomparable summits. For months I chewed on the idea, like a piece of gum that never lost flavor. And then I began to train, like I never had before.

At some point I decided to figure out if I could make this trip happen and maintain gainful employment, and so I asked. What evolved from there was one of the most eye-opening climbing trips of my life (despite how relatively little climbing actually took place), and from it came a creative project that I am incredibly proud to have had a hand in. Below are links the three pieces we produced for Black Diamond over the course of a month in El Chaltén—the Alpinism 2014 Digital Catalog and two multimedia stories, one that showcased our experience climbing in the Fitz Roy massif, and the other profiling the legendary alpinist Rolando Garibotti. Getting to work with Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann, two incredible photographers, as well as my good friends and climbing partners Sam Piper and Luke Holloway was a real treat, and I’m already scheming ways to get back to those incredible mountains. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Alpinism 2014 Digital Catalog

The Window

Make it Really Big: Rolando Garibotti and the State of Adventure in Argentine Patagonia

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Black Diamond Apparel Digital Catalog

A pretty cool work project recently went live – the 2013 BD Apparel Digital Catalog. In addition to working on the product copy, I wrote and narrated an essay, set to a slideshow of awesome images from Andrew Burr, shot during a great weekend of ice climbing last winter in Joe’s Valley, UT. Although this project was fairly rushed and I would have liked to have a little more time to tweak some things, I’m fairly pleased with how it turned out. Getting psyched to swing the tools again in a few weeks! Click on the picture to check out the catalog, or click HERE.

Climber eating cheese sandwich in small village of Cuba before heading to the crag.

Short essay on The Adventure Journal

I recently had a short piece published on the great blog/online magazine The Adventure Journal about our trip to Cuba last winter, specifically about some of the pretty rugged food we encountered in Havana. Kind of a funny experience to go on a climbing trip and get a story published about eating, but I’m really happy with how it turned out. Check it out below:

Declination: Don’t Go to Cuba for the Food

 

[Emily Polar photo]

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The Man Who Quit Money

A short review I wrote of Mark Sundeen’s new book, The Man Who Quit Money, is in the latest Mountain Gazette. Sundeen is one of my favorite writers, and I also had the chance to attend a reading he did here in SLC at the King’s English Bookstore. It was a great chance to get an inside perespective on the story from both him and Daniel Suelo, who the book is about. A highly recommended read if you get a chance.

Check out the review HERE.

Verbenone in action

Barking up the Endangered Tree

It’s a cool July morning, and I’m hovering outside Pearl St. Bagels in Wilson, Wyoming when a guy in an authentic samurai suit saunters up.

Over the last twenty minutes, a fuzzy group of outdoorsy types has slowly assembled, clad in cut-off shorts and softshell jackets with daypacks and coffee mugs in tow, and the divergent newcomer is greeted with a mixture of muted giggles and wide-eyed confusion.

At first glance, the coffee-chugging, bleary-eyed congregation looks more like a group of friends ready to head out climbing or backcountry skiing, but the nonchalant vibe belies the mission at hand. The folks gathered here (samurai included) are skiers, climbers, and assorted lovers of the outdoors, but today’s schedule doesn’t include powder, warm rock, or the promise of biting trout. This rough assemblage is TreeFight, and we’ve come to help protect the whitebark pine of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from total devastation by the mountain pine beetle.

Interpreting the what-the-hell stares coming from nearly everyone, the stranger finally introduces himself as Ed. “I heard there was a fight,” he says.

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Led in part by local writer, filmmaker, and photographer David Gonzalez, TreeFight began as an idea for a short film after a friend pointed out large stands of dead trees on the high slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Gonzalez dove head first into the subject, devouring any information he could find and partnering with scientists who shared his fears—that the loss of the whitebark in the greater Yellowstone area could have drastic and possibly devastating effects on everything from wildlife to snowmelt.

Gonzalez talks about the whitebarks with the subdued reverence of any passionate activist, calling the trees ‘magical,’ and admitting to his recent obsession with photographing them at every opportunity.

Also along for the fight is Nancy Bockino, the head ecologist for Grand Teton National Park and Gonzalez’s scientific counterpart. While Gonzalez organizes, promotes, and documents, Bockino provides her expertise gleaned from years of studying and combating the beetle’s effects—during the summer months, she hikes the park nearly every day to survey and mitigate the insect’s effects.

I’ve come to Jackson to see for myself what’s happening to the whitebark pines that Gonzalez speaks so passionately about, and to see whether I, or anyone for that matter, can help do something about it.

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The pine beetle epidemic that’s been sweeping the Western U.S. and Canada for nearly the last decade is old news. Dendroctonus ponderosae, more commonly known as the mountain pine beetle, is a native insect the size of grain of rice that attacks a tree in large numbers, tunnels into the bark, and kills the tree from within. Beetle outbreaks have occurred on smaller scales in the ‘30s and the ‘70s, usually lasting around three years, and traditionally, most of the beetles are seasonally killed by long spells of sub-zero temperatures. But through warmer winters and recent drought cycles, directly attributed by many to climate change, this genocidal pest has been reproducing, and killing, in unprecedented numbers—approximately 10 million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine have fallen victim in Colorado alone, and forecasts remain grim throughout the West.

But unlike lodgepoles and ponderosas, which usually reside in heavily forested, lower-elevation areas and tend to regenerate (relatively) quickly, the whitebark pine occupies some of the harshest, most exposed terrain in the mountain landscape (often above 8,500 feet) and can live up to 1,500 years. Now, as the climate continues to warm, the beetles are able to head higher and attack the less numerous and more critical whitebarks with equal fervor. Around half of the whitebark pines in the US are found within the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and recent estimates peg up to 40 percent of those as already under attack by the pine beetle.

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In the trailhead parking lot at Teton Pass, we shoulder our packs and make sure all the necessary battle tools are accounted for.

“Did you bring the hatchet?” Gonazalez asks.

“No, I think I left it in my office,” Bockino says.

Gonzalez scratches his head and shrugs. “Well, we do have a samurai sword.”

The group’s harem of dogs grows by the minute, and it’s a full-blown pack by the time we hit the trail. Lingering rain clouds hover over the Jackson valley as we quietly make our way up through the swaths of yellow, pink and purple wildflowers. In winter, Teton Pass is home to some of the West’s most easily accessible backcountry ski turns. But in the mid to late summer, it’s a prime battleground for protecting the whitebark pine against beetle infestation.

For now, the TreeFighter’s weapon of choice against the pine beetle is verbenone. When a tree has reached optimal beetle density, the bugs emit a pheromone that essentially tells those shopping for a new home that there’s no vacancy. Verbenone is a natural organic compound that mimics this pheremone, and a packet of it stapled to a live, healthy tree will ideally tell the beetles to keep moving, saving it from the certain death that accompanies the determined insects.

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Midway up the slope, Gonazalez and Bockino hunch next to a tree that appears to be green and healthy, and Gonzalez carefully shaves away the outer layer of bark with a hatchet. The wood hasn’t been stained blue from the outside, and he hesitates to probe further. But closer inspection reveals a more grim prognosis. We find dozens of beetles in the bark, and the tree is absolutely littered with pitch tubes, rust-colored sap blobs that are the first indication that a tree has fallen prey to the beetle.

Bockino drops the chunk of bark like a doctor who’s just lost a patient on the operating table. “Yea, it’s a goner.” I half expect her to say “we did everything we could…,” but she’s already back on the trail.

As we crest the summit of Mt. Glory, our view is simultaneously overtaken by the jagged, snowy panorama of the Tetons, and much closer, large red slashes of whitebark pines that have succumbed to the beetle’s voracious appetite. The contrast is impossible to ignore.

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Whitebarks can and do grow at lower elevations, but are often in competition with other faster-growing species for nutrients and sunlight—not good for a tree that can take up to ten years just for its seeds to germinate. But at altitude, their hardy nature thrives in the thin, rocky and exposed soil where other trees can’t survive.

Their long lifespan and utility to the ecosystem—mainly through their highly nutritious seed cones—are what set them apart from other species of pine, and why Gonzalez feels that the whitebarks are worth the effort to protect.

“A 120-year-old lodgepole is huge and old,” Gonzalez says. “A 120-year-old whitebark is just getting started.”

The whitebarks seeds contain around 56% percent fat, making them an essential source of nutrients to species like the grizzly bear, who consume mass quantities of them in the fall to fatten up before hibernation. Grizzly bear researchers worry that a decrease in available whitebark seeds will lead the bears to lower elevations in search of food, and inevitably increasing human encounters.

And in a puzzling twist of evolution, the whitebark has come to rely solely on one species, the Clark’s Nutcracker, to pick and distribute its seeds. The tree’s flared canopy and cones that are located at the very top also evolved to facilitate the process. No one is certain how this all-the-eggs-in-one-basket strategy came about, but the whitebark isn’t the only source of food for the Nutcracker, and some scientists fear that if whitebarks become too scarce, the bird will abandon the tree for more convenient and readily available sustenance, and effectively render the whitebark infertile.

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The next day, after weeks of non-stop scouting, organizing, editing, and promoting for TreeFight, Gonzalez needs a break, so we go climbing at the Rock Spring Buttress. This hulking granite cliff sits high above Jackson Hole Ski Resort, and ironically enough, is where Gonzalez was headed when he first learned about the whitebarks a year ago.  As we wander up the steep climber’s trail, through dense underbrush still damp from last night’s rain, fresh storm clouds begin to roil over the Tetons, and Gonzalez periodically gives a pensive look back down the valley. “I don’t know, we might get stormed out,” he says. “But you gotta at least go up there and give it a shot, right?”

I think he feels the same way about the trees.