Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday on Ice

Just in time for Christmas, my story on climbing Vinson in this week's issue of the Santa Cruz Weekly:

“This does not feel like Christmas,” I thought between forced gulps of hot chocolate. I looked over at my teammate Doug, hunkered next to me in our kitchenette dug out of the snow, nursing his frostbitten hands. My dad and the other climbers in our group, Wim and our guide Victor, huddled in our shelter trying to warm themselves.
We were at the base of Mt. Vinson-Massif, at 16,050 feet the highest point in Antarctica. In December 2005, in the middle of my senior year of high school, between the anxieties of college applications and prom drama, my dad and I had somehow decided to journey down as far away from holiday cheer as we could possibly be to climb this peak. 
I was a 17-year-old girl amongst middle-aged men, and while it wasn’t the first time I’d played that role—Mt. Vinson would become the sixth of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the continents, that my dad and I would climb—I still felt an underlying compulsion to prove I was good enough to be there.
The team had leisurely awoken that morning thinking we would follow a relatively easy plan. The goal was to tag High Camp and then come back down for the night, following the mountaineer’s maxim of acclimatization, “climb high, sleep low.” While normally it’s best get a pre-dawn start for a day of mountaineering, both in order to get the most out of daylight hours and to leave when it’s the coldest so that the ice is more solidly frozen in place, neither of those considerations mattered as much here: It never gets dark in December in Antarctica, and with the mercury hovering between 0 and –20 degrees Fahrenheit, we weren’t too worried about things thawing out.
Still, when the sun was shining and the wind was calm it could feel deceptively warm. Even though it looked like we would have good weather for the day, I casually threw some extra mitts and my fluffiest down jacket into my pack, just in case, along with the bag of food I was carrying up to leave for when we returned for our summit bid.
We rolled out of camp with the sun gleaming against the pristine snow that crunched underfoot as we made our way toward the base of the headwall. Once there, we made a stop to put on our crampons, spikes that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots to help gain traction in the ice, and then began to ascend the face that would lead us to High Camp, situated in the col between Mt. Vinson and its neighbor, Mt. Shinn.
Planting my ice axe into the incline ahead of me every couple of steps, I followed the slow but steady pace Victor set at the lead of the rope. I was giddy at the thought of being surrounded by the untouched peaks of this mystic land. Unconventional, perhaps, but not a bad way to spend Christmas day, I thought.
Cold Hard Tracks
Christmas back home was, of course, much different. The holiday season in Long Beach was announced by the appearance of colorful, tree-shaped light decorations floating out on the bay. Sometimes after the boat parade that went around Naples Island—for which we would deck out our kayaks, and ourselves, with festive strings of lights—I would paddle out to one of the platforms, just for the novelty of sitting on a floating Christmas decoration.
My brother and I often spent Christmas in Brooklyn with my mom and grandma, where the holiday fixation was on appetizing fowl. Be it pheasant, quail or duck, my mom would spend the better part of a day strategizing the sequence of events that would yield the best feast. Though we always ended up with a delicious meal, things rarely went according to plan.
Back on Vinson that dynamic was in full effect. After a couple of hours of climbing on Christmas morning, a smattering of clouds invaded the sky, blocking the warmth of the sun. We made a quick stop to adjust our layers to the lower temperature; while Victor and Wim each added a jacket, Doug and my dad said they thought they would be fine with what they had on. Feeling lazy about digging through my pack and readjusting, I convinced myself that my current garb would also suffice.
Yet as we began to climb again, the wind picked up and I soon realized that the thin gloves I had on wouldn’t be enough after all. I tried to shake off the burning cold by whirling my arms around, hoping that increasing the blood flow would be sufficient. It wasn’t. Because we were traveling in standard glacial travel style, with a single rope connecting the team, if I stopped to get my thicker mitts out of my pack, everyone else would have to stop with me. I knew that in this sport, seemingly small errors like this could result in dire consequences. If I made everyone stop, they could grow cold themselves due to the lack of movement, starting a chain of events that could end with frostbite or a fall. As part of a small team whose members were out to push their limits, I agonized that there wasn’t room for my previous laziness.
But my mind flashed on all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do, or at least not as well, if I lost my fingertips to frostbite. I may be a mountain climber here, I thought to myself, but back at home I needed those fingers if I wanted to keep playing the piano or the oboe or even be able to instant message with my friends. I convinced myself it was worth it to protect my hands.
Completely embarrassed, I called out to Victor.
“Why didn’t you change your gloves when I gave you the chance before?” he asked, clearly cross. But he stopped so I could throw off my pack and get out my mitts.
However, my punishment wasn’t complete; they weren’t at the top of my pack as I’d been hoping. I grew increasingly frustrated as I rummaged for the elusive mitts while the rest of the team waited impatiently. Victor gruffly marched up to me to aid my search by holding the bag of food and the jacket that had been obstructing my path to the gloves. By the time I finally found them I was almost to the point of tears. I apologized but still felt I would have to do something to make up for my mistake. 
As we climbed on, the weather worsened. Once we got to High Camp we hastily made a cache for the gear we would leave up there and then started back down. Now in near-whiteout conditions, we were thoroughly miserable. A layer of the freshly blown snow accumulated in between some of our boots and crampons, reducing the purchase of our feet on the slope and causing us to stumble from time to time, pulling and catching each other by the rope that served as our lifeline.
Peak Experience
Mountaineering started for my dad, and thus for me, when he climbed Mt. Whitney with a friend from work. I can imagine my dad taking his last few steps to the summit: euphoric from the endorphins, adrenaline and altitude, hardly able to believe how far he had come since that morning as he looked down at the valleys below. Standing on top of a summit triggers just the right emotional cocktail to make it the most addictive experience I have known. 
After Whitney and some other California peaks, he felt ready to take on something bigger. He suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to his friends, but they couldn’t take the time off. So he brought it to the family dinner table one night. 
My older brother and my stepmom both reasonably declined. But, more than climbing a mountain, the thought of going to Africa seemed incredibly exotic and exciting to me. As an animal-lover, I reasoned that if I climbed Kilimanjaro with him, which I knew nothing about, I could probably convince him to take me on a short safari afterward.
“Yeah, I’ll go!” It came out without much thought, unknowingly launching the biggest obsession of my teenage years. 
Eventually, that obsession would turn into a world record. After success on Vinson, my dad and I only had one peak left to complete our Seven Summits quest: Mt. Everest. I took a gap year before college to train and prepare, and we reached the summit of Everest that spring, making me, at the age of 18, the youngest person at that time to have climbed the Seven Summits, and the first to climb them all with her dad.
I felt depleted when we got back to camp after our long Christmas day on Vinson; it took all of my willpower to help out with the chores of collecting snow to melt for water and cooking the dinner I was too tired to eat. As I laboriously cut up garlic with my pocketknife to throw in with the frozen salmon patties—our holiday dinner—Victor looked at me and said, “I bet you’ve never had a Christmas like that before, have you?” I wearily shook my head. Smirking, he added, “Somehow I don’t think it’ll be the last, either.”
After dinner I used the satellite phone to call my mom and brother. I was so exhausted, and there was such a lag in the connection between us, that it was hard to communicate anything at all. Even if I didn’t really know what I was supposed to say, how I could possibly describe what it was like to be there right then, I liked the thought of them being able to hear me. I tried to imagine them sitting cozily around a tree, well fed and warm and protected from the chilly streets of New York, as I looked across the expanse of ice in front of me that led to the bottom of the earth.
My dad and I then called my stepmom, younger brother and sister back in California. She asked how we liked our presents—we’d forgotten! Before she’d left us at the airport, she had handed my dad and me each a small package, which we’d stashed away in our sleeping bags. We hung up the phone, got into our tent and opened them. I uncovered a pair of earrings, two small silver hoops. They seemed so out of place here, but I looked forward to going back to my other life, where I could envision wearing them.
Mountain High
A day or two later we returned to High Camp, the point of departure for our summit bid. I had still not recovered from our hard Christmas day and was nauseated from the altitude. After we’d set up a tent, but before we’d finished all the chores of setting up camp—most importantly, cutting out blocks of ice to build into a wall for protection from the wind—Victor suggested I get inside my sleeping bag to boil some water for tea while the rest of the team continued working. A bit surprised at getting out of the dirty work but not about to complain, I obeyed. I had never loved my sleeping bag more than I did when I crawled into it then.
“You were moving quite slowly—I think you were getting a bit hypothermic,” Victor said later, explaining why he had let me off easy.
When we woke up the next morning, Victor suggested we start up toward the summit: The weather was good, for now, and we had increasingly little time before we had to be back at basecamp in order to get our ride back out. If we missed it, we would most likely have to stay an extra two weeks. He promised that if we felt we weren’t strong enough, we would turn around and rest and try again the next day.
I thought maybe I would feel better once we’d gotten started, but pretty quickly I became sure that I wasn’t going to make it. I felt on the verge of vomiting with every step. But I kept marching along, distracting myself with an internal debate over whether I had yet reached the point at which I should just tell the team I needed to turn back around. I would pick out an objective just within sight—some distinctive rock or feature of ice—and tell myself that all I needed to do was make it there, that then I could decide whether or not I wanted to keep going. But upon reaching every target, I would just decide to postpone the decision again by picking out a new one. My whole existence was pared down to figuring out ways to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t really sure right then why it was actually so important that I did, but I figured that if a previous self had been willing to go through all of the pain and effort this mountain had required so far, then it wasn’t something I should give up on easily.
Far sooner than I expected, Victor told us that we were probably halfway there. We continued on.
We did make it to the summit that day. I trudged up, planted my ice axe into the ground, and rested my forehead on it. My dad came over and let me lean on him to rest instead.
"Good job, honey-bear," was all he could say as I quietly cried into his shoulder.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Snake Dike

Got up to Yosemite last weekend for some last chance climbing in the valley before winter really settles in. It was such a beautiful time to be there: the sun was out, the temps were climbable (probably hovering around 40 degrees during the day) and it felt like we were the only people in the park. The main event was climbing "Snake Dike" (5.7 R), the notoriously run-out route to the top of Half Dome, Yosemite's most iconic formation.  

We woke up at 5am, had breakfast, packed up and quickly got going on the 6-mile approach to the base of the route. We passed waterfalls and enjoyed some stunning views along the way--I was so happy to be in the valley again. After only minimal trial-finding delays, we made it to the base of the route around 10:30am. 

The start of the route

I admit I started feeling intimidated by the climb once we started racking up to get going--I can't say that I particularly enjoy long run-outs, and on this route there is up to 75 feet between bolts. But once I saw how easy the climbing was (the super long run-outs are mostly 5.4) and felt the solid granite, I relaxed and enjoyed it for the adventure that it is. 

Blake on the third pitch

Me leading up the notorious run-outs

My calves were burning after the long hike and eight pitches of friction-y climbing, but at the top of the route we still had the "endless third-class slabs" to walk up to the summit. 

Anne on the endless slabs

It got so windy as we neared the summit! The valley decided to give us just a little taste of the alpine experience : )

Battling the wind

On the summit of Half Dome

After the summit we descended down the other side and made the nine-mile hike back to camp. I was so ready for dinner and my sleeping bag by the time we made it back. 

After all of the easy, poorly protected climbing on Snake Dike, we decided to climb something hard but well-protected the next day on our way out of the park. The perfect fit: top-roping "The Generator Crack", a heinous offwidth that can seemingly only be climbed through pure struggle, blood and bruises. It was a colder day, just around freezing, but we quickly warmed up through the physical effort. 

Trying to figure out what part of me will fit into the Generator Crack

Just a tight squeeze to go

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Climbing in The Grotto

I got to go on a day trip to The Grotto at Table Mountain last weekend with my friend Laurel (my training buddy for the Golden Gate Headlands marathon and fellow adventurer on various other exploits). Down in a pit surrounded by basalt columns, The Grotto offers some great climbing in a beautiful setting. Having last gone there about a year ago when I felt a bit daunted by the prospect of trad leading anything, I was happy that I felt really comfortable leading the two 5.8 cracks. We also threw up top-ropes on a fun 10b hand crack and an 11b finger crack. I didn't mange to take any photos this time, but here are some from my last trip there:

"Table Manners" (5.8)

"Table Manners" from above

"AC Devil Dog" (5.10c)

View from the top of a route

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fall in Yosemite

Picnic in El Cap Meadow

"Moby Dick"

Lots of Granite

Sunset in Tuolumne Meadows

Cathedral Peak

The view from Cathedral

Descent from Daff Dome

Descent from Pywiack Dome (with Cathedral in the background)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tibet: Murder in the Snow

I started an internship with the Santa Cruz Weekly newspaper after the summer road trip. My first cover story came out today on Tibet: Murder in the Snow, a documentary that that relates to my past mountaineering experiences. It will be coming to Santa Cruz as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival. 

I've pasted it below, or you can read it on the Santa Cruz Weekly's site here.

Luis Benitez paused when he saw me coming down and leaned into the axe planted in the snow above him.
“Hey Sam, how’re you feeling?”
“Good . . . tired,” I replied, my voice weak.
“I’ll bet you are,” he said, and laughed. “Why don’t you go back to base camp, get yourself a coke, go to college, find a hot boyfriend—how ‘bout a junior—and forget this scene for a while,” he said.

That was one of the first conversations I had coming down from the top of Everest in 2007. Benitez, an experienced guide, was headed up for his group’s own summit bid, what would be his sixth summit of the peak. After our meeting he continued on to the top of the world, but once he got there, instead of the usual euphoria he felt something less pleasant.

“I felt pretty disillusioned,” he told me over the phone a few days ago as he walked his dogs around his Colorado neighborhood. 

Benitez’s discomfiture stemmed from an event that had occurred about seven months before, while we were both on Cho Oyu, the 26,906-foot Himalayan giant 19 miles west of Everest. While I was high up on the mountain making my summit bid, Benitez was back at base camp, where he witnessed a tragic event unfold, an event recounted in the film Tibet: Murder in the Snow, which will screen Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Del Mar and feature a post-film discussion with Benitez. The film features first-hand footage taken by Romanian mountaineer Sergiu Matei.

On Sept. 30, 2006, Benitez and about 100 other mountaineers heard gunshots coming from the Nangpa La, a 19,050-foot-high mountain pass between Tibet and Nepal visible from camp. Still used for commercial trade, it and other passes like it historically provided the gateway for Tibetans into Nepal, allowing for the settlement of the well-known Sherpa communities in Nepal’s high Himalaya. It has now become known as the “poor person’s refugee gate.”

“Many wealthy Tibetans can buy their way out of the country,” Benitez says. “But [poorer] Tibetans can’t do that . . . their only choice is something like this pass—they can’t afford bribes, they can’t afford permissions.”

The Chinese border patrol had opened fire on about 70 Tibetans who were making an attempt to flee by way of the pass. Even with crude weaponry and aim, they managed to lodge a fatal bullet into the back of Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun hoping to escape into India in order to freely practice her religion and realize her dream of meeting the Dalai Lama.

I didn’t hear about the incident until I returned to base camp, and even then I only heard a few scattered details. “There was a body on the pass, but don’t worry, it’s been cleaned up now,” I was told. It was only after I returned to the states that I realized the irony that while I, a 17-year-old Westerner, stood on the top of a mountain under which, by some Buddhist legends, the instructions on how to save the world from chaos are buried, Chinese officials prodded the lifeless body of a 17-year-old nun who had made a desperate attempt for a better life, taking photos with her body and the summit in the background.

The event created a rift in the mountaineering community. Some of the guides, people from the Western world running a business for Western clients, didn’t want the information to get out for fear they wouldn’t be able to get permits to return the next year. The Chinese government, they reasoned, would have no reason to let climbers into the country in the future if it meant having witnesses who would report on incidents such as this one.

Benitez says he was appalled when he learned that no one else planned to report the shooting. After he wrote an anonymous article for the website, a couple of other guides found out and, Benitez says, “came down on my head for speaking out. It was a cussing and screaming match.” Then they told him that the Chinese government had his name, that he’d better get out of there.

After Benitez was safely home, British journalist Jonathan Green picked up his story. “He told me that if we did the story, you’d have to name names [of who tried to cover it up], you’d have to call the whole thing out. I knew if I did it was going to change my career. I felt that something was broken [in the mountaineering community], so I chose to collaborate on the article.”

According to Benitez, the release of the event had the feared effect: it caused permitting and logistics to become much more difficult on Cho Oyu. He says the release of Green’s article in Men’s Journal, which denounced the climbers who chose to remain silent about the event, also fractured the mountaineering community—not just about whether to continue to fuel “summit fever,” the term invoked when mountaineers seemingly put their own glory ahead of helping their fellow man—but also over what would be the best course of action for the greatest number of people in Tibet.

“I get it,” Benitez says, “we provide work and revenue to Sherpas and the Tibetans. It’s a loss of income to them. It affects their livelihood. But to me, the bottom line for it all was a question of human rights.”

The net effect of publicizing the event is unclear. Benitez says the Chinese government “still calls it normal border management to this day.” What’s more, China built a new garrison port to catch refugees going over the pass. Attempts to get the incident recognized as a crime against humanity were stalled because it “was not a genocide,” says Benitez.

But Benitez says filling in the knowledge void about China’s relationship with Tibet is still important. He equates the average Chinese person’s level of knowledge about the treatment of Tibetans to what residents of the 13 colonies were told about the Native Americans. “They’re told [by the government] that they’re bringing infrastructure, health care, religion—isn’t it great?” Benitez says. “They don’t hear about border shootings or mass killings due to religion. It’s all perspective.

“This is the first time in 50 years that Westerners have seen and spoken out about it. It’s a sticky subject for climbing and human rights because we don’t know what to do with it.”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Guinness Book 2012

The new Guinness Book of World Records came out mid-September, featuring me on page 123 as the youngest female to climb the Seven Summits (Johnny Collinson is now the youngest person). I must note, however, that it also includes Robert Scull II as the youngest to do both the Carstensz and Kosciuszko lists—I, and I think Collinson as well, climbed both Carstensz and Kosciuszko at a younger age than he, so that’s not accurate. Not that I think having climbed Kosciuszko, the day-hike in Australia, should be a deal breaker for anything.

There’s a photo of me on the page from a shoot I did with Guinness Book in Tahoe last winter—right after Tahoe had gotten it’s biggest snow dump in decades.

In other news, my dad and I were both accepted into this April’s Boston marathon. Should be fun.

My dad, Nick, and I after the Big Sur marathon last May, where I qualified for Boston

Friday, September 23, 2011

End of Trip Report: Squamish, Smith Rock

After about a month of recovery I’m finally ready for my end-of-trip report 
: )

We were well rewarded for enduring the rainy weather we got in Alberta—Squamish (in British Columbia) was a summer paradise. We got in a bit of everything: cragging at the Smoke Bluffs, awesome bouldering, a day of sport-climbing at Cheakamus Canyon, and multi-pitch routes up the Stawamus Chief—the 2,297-foot high granite dome that is Squamish’s biggest attraction.  

Starting out a climb at the Smoke Bluffs
The high density of single-pitch trad climbs at the Smoke Bluffs made it a great place to practice crack climbing. I loved falling into the rhythm of jamming my hands and feet up the crack, pausing every few moves to place gear.

Squamish’s bouldering scene was great fun, too. It felt liberating to be able to independently roam through the forest at the base of the Chief and work on a project. My favorite sends were “Bo Jo Jones” (V3), “Easy in an Easy Chair” (V4), and “Swank Stretch” (V5). Here's me our last day in Squamish on "Bo Jo Jones", looking a bit tired:

But our biggest project was “The Ultimate Everything”, one of the routes that goes all the way to the top of the Chief. It was ten pitches of pretty fun climbing—the last pitch, a hand-sized crack traverse to the top, was probably the best. 

Standing on top of the Chief after "The Ultimate Everything"
 Of the places we visited this summer, Squamish is the one that I most want to go back to. Not only is there SO much climbing left to do, but the campground had such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Maybe next summer?

Smith Rock
 On our way back down the coast we stopped in Oregon to check out Smith Rock for a last couple of days of climbing. It was still too hot there to be thoroughly enjoyable, but we had some fun climbing up the cracks in the Basalt rimrock. Matt and I also climbed “Wherever I May Roam” (5.9), a well-bolted five-pitch climb with tons of little knobby holds. It was a decent climb, but I’d love to go back to Smith Rock sometime when it’s not as hot. 

Matt starting up a climb

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rain, rain, rain

The past while has been largely characterized by rain and a bit by disappointment. We did have one clear day about a week ago, in which Matt and I decided to go for Sisyphus (the 22-pitch 5.10d sport climb up Ha Ling peak in Canmore). Matt was at the top of the third pitch, getting reading to belay me up, when I heard a loud fluttering and saw shadows whiz past. My first thought was that we were under an attack by some rather angry birds; I carried this thought so far as to think to myself that we should tell the guys at the climbing shop in town and ask if they knew if this was a common nesting site or something. But then I realized that I was in fact right in the middle of a shower of bowl-sized rocks—just protected by a small roof over my head. The rock-fall lasted about fifteen seconds. Matt and I didn’t say anything for a few more seconds afterward—I think we both paused in a split between kind of wanting to carry on but thinking that the wise thing to do would be to retreat. I called up to him and we decided to rappel back down.

The next day we started to drive west. We made a stubborn attempt to climb at Lake Louise again in the not-so-good weather, and spent a few days just hanging out reading and playing cards.

On Wednesday we did a hike to the Walcott Quarry at the Burgess Shale—one of the world’s best fossil sites, where even imprints from soft-bodied creatures from the Cambrian explosion (about 505 million years ago) can be found. It is an amazing place to witness the evidence of some of evolution’s early experiments. There wasn’t space on the tour for me to go into the quarry itself, but I found quite a few intact trilobites on the trail below it, where pieces of shale collect after sliding down the hill.

After the hike, we continued our drive west . . . into Squamish, where we are now. Even though it had been raining here for the past two weeks here too, when we arrived we were welcomed by spots of blue showing through clouds that looked far friendlier than any we had seen for awhile. Looking at the Chief, the huge block of granite that is Squamish’s main attraction, made my hands start to sweat in anticipation of climbing again. Even though the rocks were still wet, we checked out some of the bouldering at the base of the chief as soon as we arrived. Yesterday we climbed some single-pitch cracks, then nearly dry.

Today is all-out sun, and the forecast looks pretty good for the next few days. It’s a relief to be able to climb again . . . and to be able to dry out 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning to Fall

We have continued exploring the sport-climbing crags around Canmore; we’ve revisited Grassi Lakes (a couple of times), and checked out Bataan, Cougar Canyon, and The Back of the Lake at Lake Louise.
We hiked up the steep hour-long approach to Bataan with high expectations—our guidebook calls it “the finest sport crag in Canada”. Most of the climbs here are in the 5.11 to 5.12 range, but we decided to start on a wall called “Sweet Hereafter” that has some 5.10’s to warm up on. 


After watching Matt I lead “Jaws” (10b), I pulled the rope to lead it myself. Halfway up the route—at about ten meters—I started thinking about how how terrible it might be to take a fall. And then I started to notice, or at least imagine, that some of the rocks felt a bit loose. I started to freeze up as I felt my nerves take over. I slowly and ungracefully finished the route, thinking through every move and the commitment that I was willing to take on it.
Once back on the ground, Matt II asked me what had happened. I shrugged and told him I didn’t really know.
“I think you need to take a fall,” he said.

We went to the next wall over and Matt I led “The Candy Man” (11b). Even though I had never attempted to lead a route that hard, once he had lowered down and pulled the rope I knew that it was my turn.
I clipped the first three bolts without a problem—I then decided that I was high enough to practice falling.
“Okay, I’m going to take a fall!” I shouted down to Matt a little too loudly. I climbed to just above the bolt and then let go. I felt the tug on my harness and then realized how ridiculous I was being—it’s really okay to fall when sport climbing (most of the time). Now I can’t believe I actually hadn’t let myself fall before this. 

Climbing at Bataan

 Nick, Matt, and I spent a relaxed afternoon at Cougar Canyon the next day. Nick went fossil hunting up the river while Matt and I climbed—Nick didn’t find any fossils on the ground that day, but I found an old coral halfway up a route.

That evening we met up with Gene and then went to Lake Louise the next day. The lake was gorgeous, and we got to climb on quartzite, which felt very different from the limestone of the other crags—it was more polished, with lots of little ledges for hand and footholds rather than the pockets left over from dissolved corals.
We got a lot of attention because the climbing was right along a very popular hiking trail around the lake. While I felt a bit like a tourist attraction, and answered many questions about the process of climbing, it was kind of fun to get cheered on by a small crowd while I was at the top of a route.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Canmore, Alberta, Canada

We drove through Montana and into Alberta in order to meet up with Nick on July 3. Right in the Canadian Rockies and just outside Banff National Park, Canmore is ideally situated for climbing—plus, we have the luxury of being able to stay in a house that belongs to friends of Nick’s family. Nick also brought some salmon, halibut, and lingcod that he just caught while on a fishing trip in British Columbia. Life is good.

Grassi Lakes

We spent our first two days here sport-climbing at Grassi Lakes. This area has several fun and scenic bolted walls; some right beside glacial lakes that are the color of the Caribbean Sea. Ha Ling Peak loomed above and we eyed up its route called “Sisyphus Summits”—with up to 21 pitches, the longest sport climb in Canada. I am feeling more confident now leading 5.10’s. I think my favorite climb at Grassi Lakes was “Graceland” (5.10d), a steep and blocky route.

Matt on the first pitch of "Velcro Highway"

Yesterday we went into Banff to the Borgeau Slabs to climb some multi-pitch sport routes. Matt and Matt climbed “Velcro Highway” (5.11a), while Nick and I climbed the four-pitch route “Walk of Ages” (5.10b). We swung leads; Nick led the first pitch (5.9), I led the second (5.10b), Nick the third (5.10a) and I led the last (5.10a). It was great fun—and it was Nick’s first multi-pitch route.

"summit shot" on Walk of Ages

In the car on the way back from the Borgeau Slabs we saw a Grizzly bear with three cubs--it was amazing! Check out the "wildlife sightings" page.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


From Boulder we drove to Lander, Wyoming. I was not familiar with Lander before we arrived, but I was excited about climbing peaks in the nearby Cirque of the Towers, hoping for routes similar to the one we had taken up Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park.  However, after speaking with a guy at Lander’s climbing shop, we were convinced that due to the unusual amount of snow they had received this past winter the towers would be inaccessible without crampons and ice axes (which we don’t have with us).

            But Lander turned out to be a sport climber’s paradise—within an hour from town there are said to be close to two thousand bolted climbs. We spent a day exploring the crags at an area called Wild Iris—it’s higher elevation provided a refuge from the particularly hot day below. We spent the next day at the Main Wall of Sinks Canyon. Matt I challenged himself on some 5.12b’s and Matt II on some 5.11’s. While I can cleanly climb routes of higher difficulty on top-rope, by leading mentality is not quite at the same level as my technical ability—I was quite happy with the 5.10c that I did (although I admit that I hung on the last quickdraw for a particularly long time while I contemplated the moves I would have to make on the more run-out jaunt to the anchor).

            We easily could have entertained ourselves for quite awhile here, but we continued on in order to meet up with Nick in Alberta tomorrow.
            After only a couple of hours of driving from Lander, the Tetons came into view, and I felt that tingle that comes with witnessing something beautiful. They looked more jagged than the rest of the Rockies; I thought they had a somewhat similar aesthetic to the peaks I had seen in Patagonia. As the peaks in Patagonia are the youngest in the Andes, the Tetons are the youngest in the Rockies—perhaps the similar looks comes from the fact that they have had similarly relatively less time to erode away.

            After a night in Grand Teton National Park, we continued on to Yellowstone. We stopped to watch Old Faithful erupt and to observe the many bison that lazed along the road. In the afternoon we went on a hike and caught sight of a black bear. And the copious amount of snow that may have prevented my schemes of peak-bagging allowed for a particularly striking wildflower season this year.
            I knew that Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S., but I didn’t realize exactly how important it was for the precedent of species preservation. Even after it was established as a national park, poachers were allowed to nearly wipe out its bison population, and did wipe out its wolf population. It wasn’t until bison were fully protected in Yellowstone that a population had the opportunity to thrive on a small sliver of land—Yellowstone was the only place that North American bison were never fully exterminated. 

            The wolf population was rehabilitated after Canadian relatives of Yellowstone’s original population were introduced to the park in 1995. It’s amazing that in such a short while Yellowstone is now considered one of the best places to be able to see wolves in the wild.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rocky Mountain National Park

On Saturday Matt, Kevin, and I got a taste of alpine climbing on Spearhead, in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s 12,575-foot summit stands above an 800-foot granite face; while it looked intimidating from a distance, once we made the 6-mile approach (made particularly long by the unusual amount of snow still left on the ground), the north ridge revealed the obvious moderate route up to the top.

Because the approach took us longer than we had expected it to, we quickly racked up at the base and got on the wall—Matt led the first pitch. After the first pitch, the climbing was particularly easy, so we decided to simulclimb up to the start of the last pitch. This was really my first experience simulclimbing—it was so efficient, and nice to not have to deal with managing the rope or taking the time to belay on every pitch. Kevin took the lead, placing nuts and cams for protection; I was in the middle and would unclip the gear from the rope in front of me and clip it into the rope behind me; Matt followed behind and pulled out the gear.
We had nearly perfect weather (only a bit blustery as we got higher), and we had amazing views of Glacier Gorge below us the whole way.

Matt led the final pitch, which went through a trickier squeeze slot onto an exposed ledge. At the top of the route, I thought of this quote from Enos Mills, known as the father of Rocky Mountain National Park (which was established in 1915), “Few experiences can put so much into one’s life as to climb a mountain summit, and from among the crags and snows and clouds look down upon the beautiful world below.”

We finished the route around 4pm, then scrambled down the fourth class descent back to the snow. The snow was now very slushy, which made for faster travel but for very wet feet. We made it back to the car around 8:30 pm—about a 12-hour day.

We took a more leisurely day on Sunday—all four of us went cragging at an area called Jurassic Park. It had beautiful views and a lot of fun, slabby sport routes.

We’re now back in Boulder—Matt and Kevin went to climb the famous Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon, while the other Matt and I decided to stay in town (to blog, etc). Kevin has to head back to California this afternoon, while the two Matts and I plan to drive up toward the Wind River Gorge in Wyoming tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Life on the Road

The last few weeks moved just as quickly as I supposed that they would. Some of highlights of what’s gone on since then include: a surprise meeting with Namgel Sherpa and Thundu Sherpa (Namgel came to the summit of Everest with me and Thundu went with my teammate Wim), Stanford graduation and moving out of my co-op, a train ride with my family from San Francisco to Colorado, my brother’s wedding in Telluride, and reaching the summit of a fourteener with my dad (Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan mountains). Whoa.
            Now onto summer, and the previously mentioned sweet climbing plans. I’m going to spend the whole summer with some friends in a Honda CRV, visiting some of the best rock-climbing spots in the western US and Canada. Trad, sport, or bouldering—we’re going to dig into it all, and experience life on the road.
Matt, Matt, Kevin, and Nathan—the initial crew—met up with me in Telluride after they had road-trip across Nevada and Utah. They were intent on climbing along the way but were somewhat held back by the heat. More from them later.
 On Tuesday the five of us started to drive towards Boulder . . . but once we realized that we were going to drive right past Rifle, one of America’s best sport-climbing destinations, we had to stop. We climbed some of Rifle’s easier routes while we gawked at the number of people there climbing 5.13’s. Even if most of the routes were too hard for me, it felt so good to be climbing again! Maybe we’ll have to return at the end of the trip . . .
We made it into Boulder on Wednesday (yesterday) morning and met up with a friend who showed us some really nice boulder problems near the Flatirons in Chautauqua. 

Today Nathan had to go back home—after dropping him off at the bus station the rest of us headed into the grand Eldorado canyon. Kevin and I warmed up our trad skills by climbing “The Wind Ridge”, a really fun three-pitch 5.6 on the Wind Tower, while the Matts climbed Blind Faith (5.10) across the way. An amazing place . . . there’s so much more here I want to climb!
Tomorrow we’re heading to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Castle Rock

I’ve handed in my senior thesis and there’s just a week and a half left of classes before finals period. Time feels to be going too fast. I’m excited for the summer (and for sweet climbing plans, details to come), but I’m going to try to savor these next few weeks as best I can.

To me, bouldering is really about savoring the good stuff. Topping out on a boulder problem feels good, but it’s not exactly on the same level as reaching a summit after weeks of masochism. Bouldering is about working particular hard moves and savoring the movements of climbing; it’s a little bit less about the goal than about the process.

On Saturday the Matts and I took a daytrip to our local classic bouldering scene, Castle Rock. Some of the formations here seem too good to be true—the honeycomb pockets in the sandstone, formed when water seeps through and dissolves mineral grains, make for perfect climbing holds. We went to a less-visited area that we hadn’t explored before—the Klinghoffer boulders. Here Matt I topped out on “Right Hand Man” (V7) while Matt II and I worked on the awesome "Klinghoffer Traverse" (V5).

A fun afternoon, it set the perfect pace of how I’d like to experience the rest of the quarter.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good Times in Big Sur

The 3:30 am wake-up call last Sunday morning was a bit jarring. But nerves mixed with excitement propelled me out of bed and my dad, Nick, and I got ready to catch the bus that took us to the starting line. We ate a small breakfast on the bus of granola, fruit, and chia seeds (recommended by the Tarahumara Indians in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. It’s a really fun read, and based on how the marathon went, the seeds may have actually worked).

We had to take the early bus because by the time we got to the expo the day before, where they passed out the tickets, that’s the one that still had space. The race didn’t actually start until 6:45, so we had some time to kill. Runners huddled along the sides of the buildings in an effort to get out of the breeze. We sat down and tried to keep warm. Around 4 am, my dad went out on a scoping mission—he came back a few minutes later, whispering, “Quick, come with me!”

He led us to the Safeway that had just opened its doors—hundreds of runners were pouring in the stay out of the cold. People lined the aisles: sitting and chatting, lightly stretching, inspecting the foods, reading the gossip magazines. The lucky ones got there early enough to occupy the few plastic yard chairs they had on display. I couldn’t stop laughing!

The time went faster than we thought it would, and soon we had to briskly walk over to the starting line. They had different corrals for different predicted finishing times. Although when I started training I had an idea that it would be cool to run Big Sur fast enough to qualify for the prestigious Boston marathon, I got busier and didn’t train as much as I would have liked to—I thought that I was going to be kind of slow. “What do you think, corral B?” my dad asked (corral B was fro 4:00 to 4:30 predicted finish). But, almost on a whim, I said, “no, let’s go for A instead!”

At that moment I set the goal to run it under four hours. I started out feeling great—there was so much excitement and energy coming off from the other runners. My dad split off after the first mile or two to go at his own pace, a little faster than Nick and I. But as we kept running I felt increasingly motivated by the views of the Pacific beside us and the crowds and musicians that cheered us on from the sidelines. Big Sur is notorious for being a difficult, hilly course. But, to me, the up-hills felt tough but doable, and they were totally worth it for the speed I picked up going back down them.

I kept on going, still feeling surprisingly good. I must admit that I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of those energy gels—they’re just so artificial. But I used them for the first time on this race, and they truly are amazing. As soon as I started to feel like I was lagging a bit, I just pulled another one out and it gave me an instant burst of energy. I had five or six over the course of the race.

Around mile ten I caught a glimpse of my dad ahead of me. I smiled and made it a goal to catch up with him. Luckily I was on a downhill section, so it didn’t take me too long. It was really fun to run with him. I kind of expected that he would pass me again, or at least that we would continue to run together, but he told me to go on if I was still feeling good. A part of me was worried that I was going to crash before the end, but I was still enjoying myself so I kept going at the ~8:11 pace I had been running.

The rest of the race went surprisingly fast. At mile 21 they handed out fresh strawberries that tasted sweeter than I thought a strawberry possibly could. Around mile 23 I started to slow down quite a bit, but I knew that I was so close, that it would almost be over. Approaching the finish I tried to sprint, but my muscles spasmed and cramped up, so I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted to. I crossed the finish line at 3:38:15, beating the Boston qualifying time for my age group/sex by two minutes! I finished 4th out of the 71 other women in my age group, with an average pace of 8:20 minutes/mile.

It was a really great run, and I’m so glad that my dad came up to run it, too, after having run the Boston marathon only two weeks before. A fun weekend!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting Ready for Big Sur

My dad and I are getting ready to run the Big Sur marathon on May 1! This will be my second marathon, but my first big road one (I ran a trail marathon in the Golden Gate headlands last year, with about 30 other runners). My dad, on the other hand, is a marathon veteran. While I was already to the point of tapering down my mileage, after peaking with a 20-mile run a couple of weeks ago, he ran the Boston Marathon yesterday. He finished in 3:32:17. Congrats!

It feels strange that I won’t run more than eight miles before then, in order to give my body a chance to fully recover from the long runs I’ve already put it through. It’s a gorgeous route, although unfortunately a big portion of it has changed due to a collapse in part of highway one after our big rain. It’s now an out-and-back race, rather than a straight shot from start to finish. Still, the route hugs the coast the whole way, moving us along rolling hills. I’m excited for it!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Leading in Yosemite

We left for another weekend in Yosemite on Friday evening, with our fingers crossed that Congress would come to a budget agreement so that the park would not shut down with the rest of the government shortly after we got there. Thankfully, they did.

I had a fantastic time, and I feel I made huge progress in gaining confidence leading trad (the type of climbing where the leader places protection such as cams and nuts into cracks and crevices along his way). I’m a pretty new trad climber—the couple of pitches I had previously led on trad gear were overwhelmed with feelings of angst, uncertainty about how well I had placed my gear, and an inability to think about anything other than the prospect of falling. In other words they had not been very fun, and I subsequently found myself always just following what the more experienced leaders had led with no motivation to push my own leading abilities. But somehow, at the base of Pat and Jack Pinnacle on Saturday morning, I felt a surge of confidence. Even though the first pitch of the route, “Golden Needles”, was a little wet and slippery, I actually felt excited about the prospect of leading it. And once I was on it, even though I took a long time carefully placing gear and thinking through each move, I enjoyed the whole thing.

My sudden eagerness to lead carried through the next day, and Matt “The Norg”, and I decided to do “Munginella”—a 5.6, three pitch, four-star route on Five Open Books. I led the first and third pitch, and felt totally psyched about the easy but sustained climbing. Being on lead now felt thrilling and liberating, rather than scary and inhibiting. And on the belay ledges I got to enjoy incredible views of Half Dome across the way.

Now it’s back to the books, while I scheme and dream about what I’ll lead next.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Spring Break in Bishop

I spent most of spring break around Bishop, CA. Situated in a valley with the Sierra Nevada to the east and the White Mountains to the west, Bishop offers some amazing scenery as well as world-class climbing. This was my first trip to Bishop, and I certainly found it lives up to its reputation. Unfortunately we didn’t have the best weather—a couple of storms came through—but even the worst day still allowed for a short bouldering session in the morning before the rain hit, and we had a day of perfect sun in Owens River Gorge.

Our first climbing ventures were at the Happy Boulders. We spent a couple of hours there before sunset on the day that we arrived, and a couple of hours the next morning before it started to rain. The boulders here formed from a huge volcanic eruption about 760,000 years ago that spewed out ash over an area more than 2,200 km2. This rock forms all kinds of cool pockets and flakes that make for really fun bouldering.

While the rain was a bit of a disappointment because it limited some of our climbing time, it led us to explore the town of Bishop itself, and to tour a fantastic photography gallery that displayed the work of the late Galen Rowell. His photographs featured some of my favorite places in the world, including Yosemite, Nepal, Patagonia, and Antarctica. I bought one of his books, Inner Game of Outdoor Photography. Maybe I can learn to emulate some of his techniques. You can see some of his photographs and books here:

The weather the next two days was quite a bit better—we spent them sport climbing in the Owens River Gorge. The Owens River carved out this steep gorge through the volcanic tableland (on which the Happy Boulders sit). It is at the center of a still heated debate, as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought the land in the early 1940s for the water rights and constructed the Long Valley Dam in 1941, leaving the gorge completely dry from 1953-1991. In a way this led it to become one of the first sport-climbing areas in the country. As the gorge already had a history of notable human impact when it became a popular climbing spot, its climbing pioneers felt less controversy over the ethics of drilling bolts into the rock. The genre of sport climbing relies on fixed bolts, which are more secure than traditional climbing gear (such as cams and nuts) and allow the climber to more safely try difficult routes on which he is more likely to fall.

Our last day we tried out what is probably Bishop’s most famous climbing area: the Buttermilks. The rock here was quite different from the Happies or the gorge. The area was a glacial moraine coming off from the Sierra Nevada—the climbing is on large granite boulders that were once glacial debris, dropped off from the higher mountains. It felt like a huge, beautiful playground. We left with still so much to explore—at all three areas we went to as well as the other quality sites around Bishop!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Weekend in the Valley

I had a really great time in Yosemite Valley last weekend. It’s still a bit early in the season—which did us well in that it kept a lot of the crowds away. But while there was still snow on the ground, the temperature felt perfect hovering in the low 60’s during the day. And it was completely blue skies on Saturday.

I’ve taken a few trips to Yosemite by now, but I still find the valley completely breath-taking. I can’t help but glue my forehead to the window on the drive into the park. It’s no wonder that it holds such an immense role in the history of US national parks (as well as the history of climbing).

The first step towards the everlasting protection of Yosemite, as well as the first precedent of the preservation of land for public use, was in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that created the Yosemite Grant.

This paradigm allowed for the designation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872. The renowned John Muir—explorer, naturalist, and activist—advocated for Yosemite to receive the same official recognition, which it did in 1890.

I think the establishment of these national parks was vital to the ethos of the west—the concept of wilderness and a boundless frontier. While these concepts are somewhat loaded, and have undoubtedly changed, I’m glad that we have pretty accessible places to go to today where we can at least pretend to be in the wild.

Saturday morning Matt, Brian, Anne and I headed to the Manure Pile Buttress. It’s not as unappealing as the name might lead you to believe—while it did once serve as the loading zone for horse dung, since 1965 when the route ‘After Six’ was put up by Yvon Chouinard and Ruth Schneider it’s become one of the more popular climbing destinations in the valley. Matt and I originally intended to do another route in this area called ‘The Nutcracker’, but we ended up climbing ‘After Six’ instead. It’s five pitches (or rope-lengths) of really fun, easy climbing that got us 600 feet up off of the valley floor. I had an excellent time while climbing, and enjoyed belaying from its scenic ledges as well.

We spent Sunday playing around on single-pitch climbs at the base of El Capitan. These routes didn’t take us as high, but it was fun to be able to look up at the rest of El Cap and all of its 3593-foot-high slick granite grandeur (I will admit to imaginations of how cool it would feel to be up there myself). We climbed ‘La Cosita, Left’ as well as ‘La Cosita, Right’ and the first pitch of ‘Sacherer Cracker’. It drizzled a little, which made the rock a bit slippery, but it was overall a fantastic day. After the four-hour drive back to Stanford I felt ready to go back to studying, but already excited for my next trip up off the valley floor.