Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Author: alalonde (page 1 of 14)

A New Focus

There have been a few recent changes in my life that has caused me to be increasingly interested in that ugly, hairy topic beneath all our noses: Will our luck run out and we end up all killing each other?

My wife gave birth to our daughter, Charlotte, almost two years ago. Soon thereafter we started attending Wasatch Presbyterian here in Salt Lake City each Sunday. Christianity is a somewhat divisive subject in the west, so I will lay out the caveat that I am not a Christian and have not been for a long time. But you don’t have to be a Christian to get a lot out of going to church. It of course depends on the church and community. We are fortunate to have a stellar Reverend who gives exceptionally uplifting and motivating sermons. These sermons have coalesced with my ongoing gratitude practice of the past few years to make me realize: So far I’ve had about as fairy-tale a life as a human being can have on this beautiful planet. It’s time to take advantage of that gift and give back to this world that has brought forth such beauty and wealth for so many people.

I’ve spent the last couple of years (and the past decade to a lesser extent) fairly immersed in Startup Culture. This has had its share of positives and negatives (for another post), but after watching yet another Andreessen Horowitz video about their predictions of some technology, it hit me: Why isn’t Silicon Valley taking on the issues that really matter? Why are the brightest minds in the world talking about a future of roaming self-driving fleet-owned cars, and not about the very real possibility of catastrophic climate change in the next 15 years? Or exponential technology increases causing ever more dangerous negative externalities to which we’re completely blind? Why wouldn’t we spend our time and money trying to avoid the sorts of risks that will lay to waste not only all these future developments, but everything human beings have ever done or will do? Surely even the tiniest of progress on this front would pay off handsomely even in the myopic arena of financial returns in our late-stage capitalist culture?

This has started me on quite a journey. I decided to take it upon myself to leverage this instant, infinite source of knowledge we all possess (hint: you’re using it now) and start to come to understand the state of the planet in 2018. This, of course, is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I started with the current global environmental crisis and loss of biodiversity and quickly expanded to several topics heavily discussed in the excellent Future Thinkers podcast: Exponential technology development, Super-intelligent AI, isolationism in global politics, and the utter unsuitability of modern capitalism on a planet with eight billion people.

The goal is to gain some intuition about a path forward. A path that is unique to me. A path that utilizes my unique talents and broad-ranging interests and expertise. A path that allows for reasonable comfort for myself and my family while providing deep meaning and a profound commitment to a better future for humanity. I’ve been incredibly fortunate these thirty-some years on this planet, now how can I do my part to give back?

Airport Refugee

Over the Christmas week, I had a truly wonderful time in Jamaica hanging out with my folks, brother, and Katherine. We got to know quite a bit about Jamaicans through many interactions with locals and generally had a leisurely vacation of swimming, snorkeling, eating and drinking in perfect weather.

But that doesn’t make much of a story.

On the way home, we happened to connect through Houston, which was in the throes of “Winter Storm Goliath” (Is there a non-sensationalistic, non-media reason to start naming these things?) I will just give you the play-by-play:

Sunday 1430: Leave Montego Bay on time, as scheduled
Sunday 1600: Pilot warns us of bad weather in Houston and the likely turbulent landing
Sunday 1640: Pilot attempts landing. I feel like I’m on an amusement park ride. Someone pukes in the back of the plane, setting off a rather unfortunate chain reaction. After a terrifying ten minutes of this, I feel G-forces pulling me down. The pilot has abandoned the landing and decides to go to Corpus Christi instead. I wonder how and when we will eventually get back to Houston.
Sunday 1730: Plane lands in Corpus Christi
Sunday 1830: Plane is still on the tarmac. Pilot informs us that another plane is in our way at the intended gate.
Sunday 1930: Still haven’t moved. Pilot informs us that they have “timed out” as per FAA regulations, and will have to deplane in Corpus Christi. Unfortunately we can’t because it’s an international flight and we have to go through customs.
Sunday 2100: We finally move to the gate, after the airline lines up enough personnel to manage customs and immigration. Pilot informs us that there is also a mechanical problem with the pressurization system.
Sunday 2200: Get through customs after waiting an hour. Wait another hour and a half for everyone to get their new flight itineraries. A TV showing The weather channel spews drama about the storm.
Sunday 2330: Get new flight itinerary: a 0930 flight from Houston to SFO then 1600 flight to SLC. Receive a hotel voucher and some meal coupons from United. We pack about 12 people into a small van to go to the hotel.
Monday 0030: Reach the hotel, get a room, go to bed. We inquire about the free airport shuttle and realize that it can only hold 10 people and there are 180 people on our flight. We decide to get up early.
Monday 0430: Get up and notice a discomfort in my right ear. It feels like I have water in it. I try and shake it out to no avail. We grab the next shuttle. There is a minimal wait. When checking in, we hear that the flight to Houston (which would finally finish our flight leg) has been delayed until 1000.
Monday 0600: Go through security and enjoy the free wifi. I am grateful that I brought my laptop and can get some work done.
Monday 1030: Board plane to Houston. Our SFO flight was delayed until 1100. We are scheduled to arrive at 1130.
Monday 1130: Arrive at IAH. Go to United Customer Service to get back in line with a whole bunch of really pissed-off people.
Monday 1230: Atmosphere is toxic. Hispanic family starts throwing racial slurs at African-American employee behind the desk. She calls the police.
Monday 1300: Line lemmings are annoyed that employee is talking with airport police rather than helping us get new itineraries.
Monday 1330: Get third itinerary of the trip. There is only one seat on the next flight to Salt Lake. Katherine gets it and I get a standby ticket. My ear is hurting more and more.
Monday 1700: Get a call from United customer service that a seat opened up on the later flight to SLC (2100). I get it, and relax.
Monday 1730: K boards the plane bound for SLC. I am second on the standby list. Everybody boards, and the gate agent checks the remaining seats — two left. I am pretty stoked, as I am finally headed home. The agent hands me a tag to gate check my roller bag and I walk down the jetbridge. I go to find my seat, and there is somebody there. It seemed too good to be true. The flight attendant tells me she has some “bad news.” I do the jetbridge walk of shame back to the waiting area and, on the way, note that my bag is well on its way to SLC. I feel rather light with only my computer bag. I don’t like not having any toiletries or a change of clothes.
Monday 1800: The gate agent prints out my boarding pass for the next flight. I feel pretty exhausted, so I go and buy a coffee and wander over to another terminal for the later flight.
Monday 2000: The flight is delayed three hours right off the bat. My stomach sinks a little. I decide to buy some tylenol for my ear, as it’s really starting to hurt.
Monday 2210: Finally get hungry again and realize all the restaurants in the airport just closed. Walk over to a different terminal to buy whatever food I can. All that’s left are some chips and yogurt parfaits. I munch on these snacks while watching a replay of a Premier League game.
Monday 2330: Walk back to the gate. Flight is delayed another hour. People around me are upset. I bite my tongue.
Tuesday 0115: Incoming flight finally arrives. Waiting area is notified that flight attendants are cleaning plane. We gather in excitement to board. Then are notified that pilots are “tired” and don’t think they can safely fly. I am devastated. But they will try and line ‘another’ flight staff up. I already know how this will end.
Tuesday 0230: Notified that the flight has been cancelled. A few people start running towards the customer service desk, fully aware that we are all competing for a limited number of seats to SLC the next day. I join them.
Tuesday 0330: The line moves faster than usual. I get to the counter and facepalm while waiting for itinerary #4 from the agent. She is visibly displeased and lets me know there are no open seats to SLC all day on any flight. She can put me on standby and give me a seat for a 1430 flight on Wednesday. I ask to be put on “priority” standby due to my situation. She doesn’t know how to do it and asks for help, then informs me that I am #15 on the standby list. I imagine myself strangling her. She suggests waiting in the airport and getting a “nice big breakfast.” The thought of waiting another six hours in the airport makes me want to cry. I demand a hotel room, even if it is for two hours. The standby flight is at 0920.
Tuesday 0400: I have received a taxi voucher to get to the hotel since the shuttle doesn’t run at 4am. The taxi driver gets off on the wrong exit and then seems lost. I see the comedy in the situation and am simultaneously amused and baffled at the incompetence surrounding me. I am quite hungry but ignore it.
Tuesday 0410: Walk into my hotel room, turn on the light, drop my computer bag, take off my clothes, pull back the sheets, set the alarm, and turn off the light. Simplest hotel stay ever.
Tuesday 0645: Alarm goes off. I dress and stumble back down the hallway, catching the airport shuttle right away. Check in and wait in yet another security line. I feel like a sheep. Baaaaa
Tuesday 0800: Get to the gate for the SLC flight and decide that I need to be the first person to talk to the gate agent. I am out of tylenol and realize I have a full-on ear infection, something I’ve never experienced as an adult.
Tuesday 0830: Gate agent arrives and I explain my situation. She doesn’t understand how they didn’t find an alternate connection and immediately puts me on a 1430 flight to Denver, then tells me that she will find a connecting flight to SLC later. This makes me very happy. I decide to wait out boarding to see how standby pans out.
Tuesday 0900: The flight is mostly boarded and three people on standby get seats. I think to myself, fuck standby.
Tuesday 0930: Get breakfast with a meal voucher, which covers the whole meal. It is my first real food in 15 hours. I feel like an airport refugee.
Tuesday 1330: The United iOS app says I have a seat, but I don’t have a boarding pass yet which makes me nervous. This flight is making me more paranoid than any other flight in my life. I talk to the gate agent and she checks the computer, murmuring something like “that’s strange.” I feel like I’m drowning. After an agonizing few minutes she prints out two boarding passes for me, IAH > DEN and DEN > SLC. I refuse to gain any hope for fear of it being dashed yet again.
Tuesday 1430: I board the plane and get a window seat. Nobody kicks me off, and the plane soon starts taxiing. I expect the pilot to suddenly become ill. No PA announcement comes on announcing mechanical problems with the plane. We take off.
Tuesday 1920: Flight takes off from Denver after a 20 minute delay. I am in agony from my ear. The pressure changes make it worse. I strongly regret not buying more tylenol in Denver.
Tuesday 2000: Touch down in SLC, 54 hours after leaving Montego Bay. It feels surreal. I can’t imagine sleeping a whole night with this ear pain, so K picks me up and we go directly from the airport to the clinic. They take care of me. It is over.

Trekking to Machu Picchu

Hiya everybody! K and I are back from our five-day trek in the Salkantay region of Peru. It was fabulous and we feel quite fortunate to have booked the tour with a respectable company hiring top-of-the-line chefs and guides.

As you probably know, we don´t typically hire guides for our outdoor adventures. When you´re traveling internationally, though, I think it can be worthwhile to pay somebody else to handle the logistics. This was certainly true for a hike to Machu Picchu, the most popular attraction on the entire continent of South America!

Man, was it ever worth it. The trip involved four bus rides, one train ride, a hotel stay, and three nights of camping. The food was absolutely outstanding — we were offered the entire range of Peruvian classics, from Chicha Morada (a drink made from a native variety of blue corn) to Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef) to Rocoto Relleno (stuffed roasted red pepper). I could easily dedicate an entire post to the food — each meal had at least three dishes (even breakfast), usually with a soup starter.

We went with Salkantay Trekking, mostly because of their superior website and above-average price (paying a little more for a reputable company seemed like a good idea). After a pre-trip briefing the night before the trip, we headed back to our hostel in Cusco and packed up. They gave us a good-sized duffle bag per person that would be carried by horse or bus between camps (score!) so we didn´t need to go super-light as on a typical backpacking trip. We woke up at 4am in order to be ready to be picked up by 430 — sure enough, Ramiro, our intrepid leader, was there to grab us. We picked up the other four people in our group, two Canadians and two Brits, and set off on a three-hour bus ride to Mollapata, the starting point of our hike. Along the way we stopped at a Restaurante “Turistico” (a sure sign of mediocre food) for a breakfast of eggs, fruit, bread and coffee.

The first day was a relatively easy hike up 8km or so to our first camp, at the end of the road. We had great views of Humantay (5,917m/19,400ft), a rather intimidating-looking glaciated peak to the North. Much of the walk was adjacent to a still-in-use aqueduct built by the Incas several centuries ago. It was a gorgeous path, smooth, flat, and gradually traversing a mountainside with the river raging one thousand feet below. Periodically we would stop to take a break and Ramiro would explain a bit of Inca history or to describe some of the flora along the trail. A native Cusqueñan, he was obviously quite proud of his heritage and eager to share the natural and cultural wonders of the region.

Incan aqueduct

Incan aqueduct

By noon we had reached Soraypampa, a tiny settlement in a wide valley flanked by huge mountains on all sides. The company had set up semi-permanent structures for our tents as well cook tents, helping to keep out the bitter chill of the area, at around 3800m (12,500ft) The six of us saddled up around a table in one of the tents for lunch and were pleasantly surprised with a multi-course meal with plenty of tea to keep us hydrated. Then, we were allowed a few hours’ rest before setting off on a hike up to Humantay Lake to aid with acclimatization. K and I happily napped, and woke up with plenty of time to start hiking.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

The hike was a gradual uphill, and after an hour and a half we crested a hill to the base of the lake, at a lofty 4,270m (14k ft). Humantay towered above us and occasionally sloughed off pieces of its glacier with a roar, creating a dramatic atmosphere. We hung out for a half hour or so before it started to get chilly. The hike down seemed long but went quickly. After a few minutes’ rest we were announced that “happy hour” was ready. This was really just a euphemism for afternoon tea, as we were served various biscuits, cookies, and occasionally something more ornate like a savory pie, along with coca or another herbal tea.

Happy hours were generally the most social times of the trek, as we had a couple of hours on a daily basis to get to know our trekking partners. We talked about travel, national identities, and the usual subjects when people from differing nationalities gather (in our case all anglophones). Typically by seven dinner was served, and we gorged ourselves on traditional peruvian delicacies, especially impressive given the rustic environment. The trek served as an excellent and unexpected introduction to Peruvian cuisine!

That night was quite chilly (the coldest of the trek) and we were back in our tents by 8, as the plan was to rise by pre-dawn to get a head start on a big day, with 22km (14 miles) of hiking.

“Room Service” arrived punctually at 5am — a worker serving coca tea tent-side. We quickly packed up, ambled over to the dining tent for breakfast, ate, and were on the trail by 6:30. The day’s trek would be the hardest of the trip, involving an 800m climb up and over Salkantay pass at over 4600m (15,100ft), then back down the other side, dropping another 1800m to the next campsite. The clouds started to clear up just in time to reveal the massive Salkantay (6300m/21k ft) dominating the Eastern skyline. This time, the glacier was less than a couple kilometers away. We stopped a couple times along the way for snacks and were joined by 100+ tourists (mostly North Americans, seemingly). Luckily the path was quite large, more like a road, so it never seemed too bad. It just certainly wasn’t a wilderness experience.

By 10am or so we reached the pass. Ramiro explained the locals’ tradition of creating an offering for the Apu, or mountain, at the top of each major pass, and we all stoically placed the small stone we had each gathered at the trailhead. He tucked a coca leaf beneath our stones and we all said some words. There were hundreds of cairn-like piles of rock at the pass summit.

At the Pass!

At the Pass!

With that as our climax, we began the knee-jarring descent, and by noon reached the next town, where we stopped for lunch. It was another delicious meal, but by the end, it was lightly drizzling outside with no signs of slowing down. So we all hunkered down in our raincoats and distracted ourselves with music or an audiobook. For the locals, of course, it was just another few miles in the rain. No biggie. During the hike, our environs almost imperceptibly changed from alpine tundra to jungle. The clouds would flow in and around the lush green mountainsides making for a gorgeous last few hours on an old Inca road. We made it to camp by 5pm or so for a long 11 hours of walking. The evening was similar to the last — hours of cheerful talking around a neverending spread of snacks, dishes and tea. Not too shabby for a quasi-backpacking trip!

Once again, after another tremendous night’s sleep (well, for me anyway) we rose pre-dawn for breakfast. The day’s hike would be another pretty one, starting on a road and then crossing a swollen river to a nice smooth path on the other side. In their usual enterprising fashion, a few of the locals had set up rest areas along the walk to sell snacks, water, and access to a real, flushing toilet . By noon we had reached another trailhead, which began the disjointed part of the trek. We were bussed to the nearest local town for lunch. Pretty much all the tour groups, maybe 60-80 people, were gathered on a second-floor deck for lunch. Our cooks showed off a bit with ornate centerpieces for each plate (Mr. Potatohead carved into a gourd, a shark crafted out of a potato) and we all stuffed ourselves silly. The rest of the day would involve nothing but sitting on a bus or bathing in hot springs, so there was no need to hold back.

Nom nom

Nom nom

At this point we said farewell to our new British friends, Rachel and Ruby, as they had signed up for the four-day version of the same trek. They were off to Machu Picchu Pueblo that evening while we had an extra day in Santa Teresa (1600m). We enjoyed the natural hot springs with Matt and Ashley and were back to the camp spot by dusk. There we were sold, err, shown, a promotional video for a newly-established zipline operation nearby, which, of course, we had just enough time for the next morning!

The morning broke rainy again, so we delayed the zipline until 730 for the clouds to burn off. For those not in the know, a zipline is basically a thick steel cable suspended over a canyon. One wears a full-body harness and is attached to the line with a pulley, and you zip down the line, hopefully with enough momentum to pull yourself up the last bit at the other end. This one wasn’t too steep, but the longest was over 900m long (half a mile!) making for a nice long ride. It was fun, though my thorough desensitization from heights and exposure may have detracted from the experience. Doing a superman (where the pulley attaches behind you so you can ‘fly’) was pretty sweet though, as it did feel a bit like flying.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful — we took a bus to Hidroelectrica, the ‘town’ at the end of the rail line to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and walked the rest of the way along the tracks. At one point we got a great view of the watchman’s hut way up high above the valley. This really piqued our excitement as Machu Picchu promised to be quite the grand finale!

Machu Picchu at last

At last, we woke up at the earliest time yet — 4am, in order to be at the gate for the road by 4:30 so we could be first in line to hike up to the park entrance.  MP is incredibly popular, and most of the tourists take the bus, but if you maintain a fast pace you can beat the crowds to the gate and be some of the first people in.  This really is worth it, as by 11am you’re walking in single file queues to get anywhere.

This is exactly what we did, as Ramiro set a blistering pace up the steep trail.  We made it to the park gates at around 5:45, beating the first bus by 10 minutes or so — very satisfying when you’ve busted your ass walking up 1,800 vertical feet!  Sure enough, our group was the first in.  We headed straight in, and Ramiro gave us ten minutes or so to take it all in before starting the excellent tour.

What a breathtaking place — an ancient city perched on the rib of a mountain, surrounded on all sides by huge mountains, with a thousand foot drop into deep valleys to the North and South.  Clouds swirled around us, occasionally lifting to reveal incredible vistas. We snapped pictures and soaked in the mystery of it all – quiet, majestic yet serene.



Ramiro started off with a brief history of the Incan Empire — Construction of MP began in the last few years before the Spanish invaded, and it was never completed. About 60% of what you currently see there was rebuilt — something I at first disliked, but about which have come around. The original ruins, while certainly authentic, would be much less impressive without the completed walls. Moreover, it is trivially easy to distinguish between the old and new, as the original construction is of a masterful quality.

Thus, we set off for the most interesting structures in the city. I won’t delineate each and every room of the visit, as my memory wouldn’t do them justice, but the tour was superb. Of special interest was the famous Inti Watana stone, serving as an astronomical clock and calendar. We were lucky enough to visit just after sunrise on June 22, the day after the winter solstice, on which the stone cast the second-longest shadow of the year. Later on, Ramiro brought to our attention a large carved rock which almost perfectly matched the silhouette of the mountainous eastern skyline — magnificent!

The tour lasted for a couple hours, hitting the most interesting spots in the city before winding back around to our original point. I was greatly inspired by the surroundings and couldn’t stop taking pictures, which I’ll post when we get back home. We said an emotional farewell to Ramiro, who by that point had assumed a bit of a fatherly figure after shepherding us around for five days, and went back to the entrance area for a break. There we said goodbye to Matt and Ashley, who were off to hike Huayna Picchu (the mountain in the background of all the classic MP pictures), and headed back in to tour the grounds by ourselves. We spent most of the day lounging around the upper terraces, reveling in the spectacular surroundings and general lack of people, before heading back down to the city for another look. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long as the hoards of people became a bit too much, and we reluctantly headed back down in the early afternoon. After another hour of descending we had a rather mediocre lunch in Aguas Calientes before doing a bit of shopping and coffee shop lounging, and were on the train back to civilization by 6pm.

What a great trek! We are enormously fortunate to have had the right combination of good company, a small group, an amazing guide, and excellent food, all for a rather moderate price. I wholeheartedly recommend Salkantay Trekking for your tour if you are headed Machu Picchu way — of course, ask for Ramiro!

Climbing the Nose Part Four: Chasing Legends

Continued from Part Three

Sometime before dawn I was roused by shouted voices from below:

“Off belay!”
“Off. Belay!”

…silence. I fell back asleep, barely aware of the pre-dawn light sneaking around the rounded aréte of the Nose. At this point in the route we were facing southwest with a spectacular view up-canyon: pitch 24 or something.

A few minutes later I was again awakened, this time by the jingling of climbing hardwear. Jim Donini’s face popped up over the ledge. No f’ing way, I thought. He used the bolted anchors about five feet above, trying not to step on me all curled up in my mummy bag in the fetal position.

“Off belay!”

Christ, I thought. Guess I might as well get up.

“Got any coffee? Man, that’d be a lifesaver!”
“Well, yeah, actually I think we might. Would have to get out the stove, though.” I was excited to help out a couple old climbing legends, so I grabbed my jumars, packed up my sleeping bag, and jugged back up to the upper ledge, about 20 feet above. We set up the stove and started boiling water. It was clear that we had packed way too much water at this point, so we elected to leave a gallon jug for some other unfortunate party.

“Coffee’s ready when you are.” We only had two of those Starbucks Via packets left, which only allowed for two small cups. I had a taste and offered some to Jim. He was stoked.

“Ahhhh…you have no idea how good this tastes.” They’d been on the move for 20+ hours. Soon George was leading up the next pitch and Eric and I were packing up the haul bag. We would end up having to wait, an ominous sign of the day to come.

The next 5-6 hours were spent hanging out with Jim at belays talking while he urged George on. Come on, George, climb faster. They were plodding on, drawing from a lifetime’s experience of huge pushes in the mountains. We talked about climbing in the good ol’ days, a few of the routes he had put up in the valley, even their experience on Latok I. It was probably the coolest possible way to endure waiting for hours at belays. By Camp VI, two pitches above, we had run into Zach and Lara again. They had stayed there the night before and had elected to let the two septuagenarians pass. I was feeling surprisingly good at this point, so I elected to take the next block of leads. It was noon. Six hours to climb two pitches. Eric was not in a good mental state, kind of freaking out about the forecasted weather but at least with a couple of friendly folk to help pass the time.

Free climbing the start of the famous Changing Corners pitch

Free climbing the start of the famous Changing Corners pitch

The next pitch was awesome, starting with a hand crack and continuing to really thin pin scars in a corner. This is the famous Changing Corners, or the crux free climbing pitch at 5.14a. As an aid pitch it seemed quite easy, but maybe there was a bunch of fixed gear or something. Zach had led the same pitch before me, but it became clear that I had climbed it significantly quicker, so they graciously offered for us to pass. I was a bit fed up with waiting at this point so this was great news. Eric and I started to get in the zone, and with efficient belay changeovers and mostly-free lead climbing, we made quick time up the next few pitches. These pitches are some of my fondest memories of the route — with a ton of classic, moderate free climbing, and due to a light haul bag, a minimum of suffering.

By late afternoon I was at the top of pitch 30 and had caught up to Jim and George. I asked if he would fix a line to the top for us, since the last pitch is just a bolt ladder and we were running short on time. He agreed, and we had pretty much done it. Eric elected to go first, Zach next, and Lara and I jugged two lines simultaneously to get over the final roof to the slabs on top. It was over! I honestly didn’t feel a whole lot of relief or satisfaction or anything, just business as usual breaking down the belay, shuttling gear, and so on. Eric was almost ecstatic with relief but it was all rather matter-of-fact for me. Yup, we had done it.

Massive exposure below the last pitch, #31

Massive exposure below the last pitch, #31

As it was about 8PM by this time, we elected to bivy once more on top before heading down the next morning. We had plenty of water and ample food so it wasn’t so bad. I borrowed an emergency bivy from Eric which ended up being key, as it rained pretty steadily that night for several hours. We awoke soaked and still exhausted and stumbled down the Yosemite Falls trail (don’t do this! Take the East Ledges) with our junkshow of a rack and haul bag. It was a gorgeous morning and we watched the clouds part from the top of El Cap to unveil a brilliant, sunny day. We gawked at the Falls with the tourists and meandered back down over the course of the day, exhausted but satisfied, with the promise of (yet another) pizza at Curry Village awaiting us.

With so much time, I feel like it was no big deal, but supposedly only one of five people who start the Nose actually end up topping out, so maybe there’s something to it. It was a grand adventure and certainly one of the highlights of my climbing career. Perhaps the Salathé next spring?

Climbing the Nose Part Three: Ego Check

Continued from Part Two

We packed up camp fairly leisurely, again faced with the same dilemma: Do we pass or wait it out?  It was a tough decision — on one hand we were clearly moving substantially faster than either of the other parties, but we could also afford to take an extra day.  They also had a portaledge, so we could probably coexist on some of the bivy spots if need be.  It seemed that we might be fast enough to do the Jardine Traverse, a short (chipped) pitch to shortcut a few of the normal pitches before converging again after the King Swing. However, laziness ruled and we again opted to wait it out — we would have an easy day climbing to El Cap Tower (P15), fixing the next two pitches to the top of Boot Flake, and sleeping on the plush ledge.

The climbing went pretty quickly — It was still my block to lead and I ended up freeing about half of the terrain from Dolt to El Cap Tower, three pitches total.  The hauling had already gotten noticeably easier, which was a huge relief.  We were in great spirits, until I was astonished to find one of the parties still at El Cap Tower!  It was almost noon!!

I fixed the line for Eric and chatted with the lady stuck belaying on El Cap Tower — a nice, long, flat ledge, maybe twelve by five feet. (‘Tower’ is probably a misnomer, as the actual tower is a couple dozen feet below and not at all flat, hospitable, or even easily accessible.) She was quite friendly, despite their predicament of being so far behind to start off the day. They had shared the ledge the night before with the other party of three — five people total, cozy!

El Cap Tower

El Cap Tower

It seemed that the other party had undemocratically elected to go first, slow as ever, while they patiently waited. Her partner, Zach, had just proposed to her the day before — he had arranged a friend to line up a bunch of rocks in El Cap Meadow to read “Will you marry me?” We ended up spending quite a bit of time with them over the next few days on the wall, and they were great company.

I led the next pitch, Texas Flake, after Zach and Lara had finished it.  The route tunnels behind a huge detached flake roughly the shape of Texas, with one bolt for a 60-foot section of chimneying.  I started up it in earnest, taking my time so as not to get winded.  Near the top it started to get wider than the length of my leg, which is my least favorite type of chimneying, with a good 20 foot runout as a bonus.  I whimpered to Zach about ten feet below the top and he offered to drop a line as a top rope: I obliged.  After talking to a few people it turns out I climbed it facing the wrong way.  Go figure.

The next pitch was brilliant, a bolted rising traverse connecting to Boot Flake, a 5.10 hand crack behind a terrifying loose flake, seemingly just perched there defying gravity.  At the top we got word that the party of three were bailing — woohoo!  I guess you can’t expect to climb El Cap if you can only climb four pitches a day.  We were all excited to finally get some breathing room.

Saturday, May 25

Saturday was yet another perfect climbing day — clear and cool, almost too cool.  We rose early, jugged and hauled our lines, and did the King Swing.  It was Eric’s block of leads, so he got the big badass swing.  Imagine running sideways on a vertical granite face 1200 feet off the ground, swinging back and forth, back and forth, until getting enough momentum to latch a hold — then climbing a crack while back-cleaning all your gear and facing a huge pendulum fall the whole way!  Exhilarating.

For the last few days we had been passed on a daily basis by parties doing the Nose in a Day (NiaD) — An impressive feat requiring 31 pitches of climbing in under 24 hours, with the bonus of not having to haul.  At around Camp 4 (pitch 20) an older guy came motoring up, no big deal, until his 14-year old daughter joined him!  What!?  They had started at dawn, and she didn’t even have jumars!  And to top it off, she was wearing Hand Jammies!!  Relieved of any remaining ego, we let her pop, Jim Herson, lead the Great Roof ahead of us.  We chatted with the kid while she belayed and regaled us with stories of climbing the classic Valley routes many climbers spend their lifetimes dreaming about.

Me leading Pancake Flake Photo by Tom Evans

Me leading Pancake Flake
Photo by Tom Evans

By this time it was getting late in the day, and got wind (ho ho!) that a quick storm was forecast for Sunday evening around 8PM.  This had pretty much set Eric off, and left me a little antsy as I had brought zero rain gear due to the original forecast.  Jim sensed our anxiety and offered to fix our rope for the time-consuming pitch.  We obliged and skipped to another ultra-classic hand crack, the famous Pancake Flake.  After one more pitch the sun had set and we had made it to the spot we had hoped to be a day earlier: Camp 5.

It was kind of a let-down: Two sloping ledges separated by exposed 5.7 climbing.  We had grown accustomed to nice, flat bivy ledges.  Eric was hell-bent on continuing to climb throughout the night, while I was keen on catching a quick night’s sleep at the last remaining good bivy site.  I told him he was welcome to lead the next pitch, a thin seam leading to the Glowering Spot.  He spent the next hour plus slotting tiny nuts and stepping on camhooks, and by the top of the pitch he was mentally and physically exhausted.  He fixed the lead line and rapped while I dug through the haul bag, cooked up some Tasty Bites, rapped down to the lower bivy ledges, and snuggled up against the cold granite, too tired to worry about slowly sliding down the ledge and off into the abyss.  I slept like a rock.

Continued in Part Four: Chasing Legends

Climbing the Nose Part Two: Cruising to Dolt

Continued from part one

(Edit April 2016: Follow along with Google’s “street view” of the Nose!)

Standing at the bottom of El Cap is pretty intimidating.  Hell, sitting in El Cap Meadow, half a mile away, and staring up at the wall is pretty intimidating.  It is an immense piece of stone.  In the Meadow, if you look straight above you, then slowly tilt your head forward until you are at the horizon line, El Cap takes up about 70% of that space.  It is the biggest piece of rock most anyone attempting to climb it has ever seen.

Lowering out in the Stovelegs

Lowering out in the Stovelegs.
Photo by Tom Evans

And there we were, on the morning of May 23rd, gazing up the wall.  We had 5 gallon jugs of water and 4 days of food in the bag (firmly secured 400′ above), along with sleeping gear, warm clothes and bare cooking supplies.  It was time to commit.  I was amped.

We quickly jugged up the multiple fixed lines, the last of which we had fixed ourselves (in case someone took it down while we were at the base), and were at a happily barren Sickle Ledge within an hour.  It was Eric’s block to lead, so I hunkered down with my GriGri and watched him take off free-climbing the gradually steepening corner above.   We linked the two pitches (5 and 6) and I started a combination of jugging and free-climbing, as the terrain was quite low-angle.   Eric hauled while I tended the pig, freeing it from the occasional constriction while he pulled from above (and to the right).  At some point I had to lower-out the bag with a 50′ thin line we had brought along for just this purpose.

Me on Dolt Tower

Me on Dolt Tower

The Nose is probably not the best wall for the aspiring Wall Climber.  It has quite a bit of traversing, which normally isn’t a big deal, but quickly becomes logistically difficult when you’re so dependent on vertically-oriented ropes.  Haul bags must be lowered out so that they don’t cut loose and swing violently, smashing your water jugs and other stuff in the pack.  When jugging (ascending the rope with mechanical devices), you have to lower yourself out for similar reasons.  I’ll leave the detailed instructions out of this post, but suffice it to say we had done substantial research and a bit of practice to figure out these techniques, and still learned the majority of it on-route.

We made pretty quick work through the Stovelegs — Eric performed the first pendulum of the climb, a fun one where you had to jump over a 2-3 foot corner in the middle of each swing.  After pitch 10 or so, he was utterly exhausted from all the hauling (the leader has to haul too) so I took over the lead.  He had just aided an amazing-looking 5.9 hand crack which seemed like a bit of a shame, so I freed about half of the next pitch before things got wide. Here I ended up bumping a #4 for probably 60 feet, then bumping a 170° tipped-out #3 the rest of the way.  (Two #4s are nice here!)  After a long pitch I emerged on top of Dolt Tower, our planned first bivy.  Hauling was extremely strenuous and I soon had much more compassion for Eric’s state — he had dragged that thing up five pitches!

Mattress pad

My “mattress pad”. Notice the orange fixed line in the foreground, for staying clipped into while sleeping

Most parties don’t bother with a portaledge on the Nose due to the quantity (and quality!) of good, natural bivy ledges on the route.  Our original plan was to sleep at El Cap Tower (p15) and Camp 5 (p25), climbing the route in three days.  It became clear pretty quickly that this was a bit ambitious.  Fortunately, we had supplies to last 4 days, and could probably stretch them to five if necessary.  

We had topped out right before dark, and were pretty psyched to have had such a great day of climbing covering so much stone.  We busted out the dried mashed potatoes, (pre-cooked) sausages and cheese and had ourselves a tasty feast while soaking in our surroundings.  We had also squeezed 4 King Cobras into the pack, one for each of us at each bivy, so we relaxed for a bit sipping suds (Worth the weight? Hell ya!)  It was pretty majestic to be hanging out in such a cool location, with great weather and relative comfort.  Our friend Joe, who we had shared a site at Camp 4 with for a couple days, was soloing Zodiac at the time, so we scanned the wall to the East to see if we could see him.  There seemed to a couple parties on the route so it was hard to pick him out, but sure enough, he ended up topping out a few days later!

I had neglected to bring a mattress pad, since I didn’t really own one that was small enough to jam into our haul bag.  So I made one from the tag line.  It wasn’t very comfortable.  Luckily, you are so exhausted it doesn’t really matter.  We slept soundly until being wakened by the sun peeking out over Half Dome in the morning.

Continued in Part Three

Climbing the Nose Part One: Casting Off on a Sea of Stone

I took a long-overdue extended trip to Yosemite Valley last summer. It was something I had been thinking about for awhile, and this time I had a partner in mind — someone who could also take the time off from work and would have ample psyche for similar (big) goals. Around early Spring I called up Eric and mentioned my plans — he was pretty excited from the get-go and we planned for four weeks in the Valley: mid-May through early June.

On May 14 we took off from Salt Lake in my car, filled to the brim, and squatted camping in Tuolumne, planning to arise early to wait in line to get into Camp 4. The plan was to stay in Camp 4 for our allotted week, then go big-walling, then find camping outside the Park. We were in line by 6am and got a spot quickly. Once we were moved in I said, hey, let’s go climb the Central Pillar of Frenzy! Eric was a bit surprised, but it was only five pitches, so we gave it a go. It was a stellar warm-up to Valley climbing — technical and a bit stout with excellent cracks the whole way up.

Eric leading the crux pitch on Middle Cathedral

Eric leading the crux pitch on Middle Cathedral

We spent the next week or so ticking off multi-pitch routes: E Buttress of Middle Cathedral, Glacier Point Apron, Reed’s Pinnacle. After a particularly strenuous day of cragging we decided to focus on what we had come here to do: El Cap!

The Nose and Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face were the two big routes we had our eye on. At first we had planned to do Half Dome, the smaller of the two, but the weather was still quite cool, so we set off for El Cap instead. We spent a day or so packing the haul bag, shopping, and cleaning up camp on our last day at Camp 4. The next morning we packed the pig (haul bag) to the base of the route — a rather horrendous endeavor as it weighed well over 100 pounds, even though it’s only a quarter mile walk!

We were disappointed to see two parties on the first few pitches — not only that, but they were hauling and moving incredibly slow. We had heard that the fix-n-fire method was the way to go on the Nose: climb the first four pitches to Sickle Ledge, rap down some fixed lines, and haul the pig(s). The hauling was supposedly easier (hauling a heavy bag sucks no matter what, though) and cleaner directly to Sickle.

Our options seemed to be either wait a day and let them get ahead, or push forward anyway and hope to pass. The latter seemed unlikely, so we opted for the former, and hauled the bag up a pitch to avoid any bear encounters overnight. While Eric hauled, I ran into Jim Donini at the base of the route, who had just come down from a little practice session on the route with George Lowe and Hans Florine. Distinguished company! They (Jim and George) were practicing to set the record for the oldest team to climb the Nose in a day. We chatted a bit — he was pretty beat up after getting walloped by a haul bag from another party so they bailed mid-day. Soon after, we retreated back to Curry Village for pizza and beer, aiming for an early start the next day to beat any other potential parties to the route.

The Rack

The Rack

The next day dawned clear and cool, and by 8 or so we were on the first pitch. We had discussed leading in blocks for efficiency, and the first four were mine as they contained some of the more technical aiding on the route. I set off full-on aid-style, happy to have offset mastercams for the copious pin scars. The climbing was enjoyable on perfect rock, and I soaked in the sun and warm granite, very happy to finally be climbing again after so many rest days. We moved pretty quickly (well, relatively anyway) without needing to haul, and were at Sickle by 12 or 1PM. One of the parties we had seen from the day before was still on Sickle — I think they had spent the night there, and were in the midst of passing the party ahead. We talked to them for a little while before rapping straight down to our haul bag.  They were a team of three from LA, and, like us, were fairly inexperienced wall climbers. We took our time working out a haul system (1:1) and had the pig up at Sickle by 4PM or so. The two parties ahead hadn’t made much progress, and we were a bit worried about their pace. After getting (more) pizza and beer and driving back to El Cap Meadow at around dusk, they were both still around the Stovelegs! They had climbed about 3 pitches in 6 hours.  The Nose is a 31-pitch route.  At this point there was nothing we could do, so we headed back to the Sand Flats for a good night’s sleep before committing to the wall the next morning…

Part Two

Casting Light on Wasatch Front Air Pollution

The Wasatch Front of Northern Utah is a special place to live. In many areas of the country, mountain views of the quality (and quantity!) that we regularly enjoy come at a very high premium in terms of real estate and general cost of living. Our unique topography, however, leads to a rather nasty side effect in the coldest months of the year. For up to a few weeks at a time, temperature inversions trap cold air down in the valleys. This by itself is not such a big deal, but the vast majority of air pollutants also get caught in the bottom layer of air; the air we see, hear, and at its worst, taste.

The previous winter (2012-13) was the worst I’ve experienced in my seven years living in Northern Utah. We had 49 days [1] where the PM2.5 level was 15 µg/m³ or greater. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter of 2.5 µm or less — particles which can only be seen under an electron microscope and can get deep into your lungs and even your bloodstream [2].

On those red air days, if you’re waking up with a sore throat and acrid-tasting phlegm, you’re experiencing respiratory irritation from these particles. Can’t seem to get rid of that nagging cold? It’s likely the air pollution.

This winter (2013-14) has been just as bad, if not worse. People are getting pissed. Today thousands of people are rallying at the state capital building. We demand action. So what do we do?

Here are some obvious, pragmatic solutions. To start with, all could be required solely on the ‘mandatory action’ days, potentially only a few days a year:

  1. Ban idling. I don’t even mean turning off your car at traffic lights. I’m talking about people sitting in their nice, warm car for 15 minutes in a parking lot while their spouse is inside running errands. Put on a coat, and turn the damn car off.
  2. Speed limit caps. I imagine the twice-a-day traffic congestion up and down I-15 is a bigger issue, but reducing the speed limit to 55mph isn’t going to hurt anyone. Again, this could only be on red air days.
  3. Eliminate most point source pollution by turning off refineries, mining operations, etc. on red air days. To me this seems like a no-brainer. Sure it will hurt their bottom line. But not as much as packing up and moving elsewhere, another possibility. This could help pay for large industry’s negative externalities [3] they’ve been getting away with over the years.

Less pragmatic, unrealistic, but oft-mentioned solutions:

  1. Reduce or eliminate driving. Sorry, but for the vast majority of people, there’s really no viable alternative to driving to work. Sure, we could carpool more, increase public transportation usage, and reduce trips, but not driving often just isn’t an option. [4]
  2. Move the refineries out of the valley. I am all for this, but I suspect that the cost of doing so would kill them, putting thousands of people out of work. Plus, where would they go? The problem isn’t just localized to the Wasatch Front.

A final point for refocusing debate around this issue: Is there anything more important than public health? It’s frustrating that we get so caught up on economics while ignoring the most fundamental right of all. Without our health, we have nothing.

[1] http://www.airmonitoring.utah.gov/dataarchive/woodburnsummary.pdf
[2] http://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=particle_health.page1#1
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality
[4] I, admittedly, could pretty much stop driving to work, with an extra half-hour added to my commute each way via bus.

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Five: Lava!

Continued from Part Four

Day 12: Lava Falls and its aftermath

We got a nice, early start from our pretty mediocre campsite — on the river by 8:40, probably a record. Most of the day went by rather slowly. It was oppressively hot and everyone jumped in the water to cool off — but only for a few seconds since the water was still freezing. The hot/cold dichotomy was quite strange, but the cold water very welcome. Without it the trip would be much less comfortable.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon we pulled over right before Lava Falls, the other grade 10 rapid on the river. And holy shit, did it look scary. Brown, opaque water chundered through massive holes and drops across the entire river. A recirculating 20-foot-wide hole right down the middle looked disastrous, and any sneaks would line the boat up for a huge ledge drop, certainly flipping even my beefy 16-footer. Remember, we were floating the Grand with one sixteener and two 14s, so the big water looked especially intimating for our group. However, we were highly confident, having not had any mishaps thus far, even with our moderately experienced group.

So, we scouted on river right, and like usual, picked the obvious line right away before deliberating over the myriad other options, only to circle back to our original plan after 20 minutes. We all planned to run it far right, plow through a couple massive wave trains, and pull back left before running into a massive boulder just below. Easy…

I said ‘@#$% it’ and elected to go first again. The typical group indecision in these situations tends to annoy me, so I pushed off first and hoped for the best. The run-up to the rapid took an eternity, but soon enough we were lined up right where we wanted to be, if not a little bit left. (Just writing this and re-living the situation is elevating my heart rate!) We slid down the entrance, picking up speed, then hit the first of the massive waves ever so slightly turned left. Immediately, the distinct, familiar separation between river and boat disappeared, and the impact of the wave swept Cam, Zac and I several feet upstream (or up-boat, which were one and the same at this point). I managed to hold onto one oar, which was the only thing still attaching me to the boat, while floating back on the edge of the rear tube by our gear. Cam was swept off the boat, but desperately kept a death-grip on the rope threaded through the rings on the tube. I would have been swept off myself, were it not for the oars, but I quickly scampered back into the rower’s seat to try and straighten us out. The wave had punched us to the left, and we kept spinning until we were careening completely backwards into the next big wave. By the time I got the oars back into their locks it was too late.

WAM! We were pummeled again, but the wave wasn’t large enough to halt our forward progress, and we kept spinning counter-clockwise. At this point Cam was swimming, and we headed sideways into the huge boulder creating a pourover on either side. I’d like to say I deftly maneuvered past it, but in reality we slid a few feet up the water channel pushing up against the boulder, and it spit us river left back into the main current again. Zac and I hooted victoriously, having made it through the big stuff upright. We quickly spied Cam downstream and river left, and were thankful that he had abandoned ship, creating space between himself and the boat before we got anywhere near the boulder. After seeing that we had made it, he starting side-stroking upstream towards us, all while staying in the swimmer safety position. After 30 seconds or so he reached us, and we pulled him back in.

The other two boats had a much more elegant, and dare I say skillful, passage through the rapids, without any mishaps. We rendezvoused just downstream to tell our tales, and played around on an exceptionally cool beach where there were pockets of water trapped beneath the sand. The water beneath made the sand jiggle like jello, and he bounced around like kids, ecstatic from the successful rapid passage and anomalous jello-beach.

After a couple miles we made camp on river left, and had by far the biggest party of the trip. I must have laughed until I cried on three separate occasions throughout the night, and we all bonded with jubilation.

Day 13-15: Wrapping it up

The next day was laid-back but productive. We passed the time playing river frisbee and scrabble. Kevin had brought a gc_scrabble travel Scrabble kit, so he and Zac and I played a spirited game. Soon Falco docked his kayak and joined us. It was a bit challenging keeping the boat in the main current while playing, but I managed to do minimal rowing, and we covered 26 miles before camping at Granite Park, mile 209.

Day 14 brought us past Diamond Creek, and I was happy that the trip wasn’t yet over. We ran a dozen or so fun rapids, up to grade six, before setting up camp in a tight gorge right at the end of the rapids. There was talk of starting the night float early and not worrying about finding another camp the next night, but I wasn’t too excited about the idea as it would entail copious flatwater rowing. Blech.

It ended up being the last night, and it was the hottest yet, probably 90 degrees still after dusk. We stayed up fairly late chatting, reluctant to start the next day’s float.

The next day was long, boring, and exceptionally hot. Graham and Travis rowed like a bat out of hell to try and make the 43 miles before dark. I was far too lazy and didn’t see the rush, so Shawn and I mostly stayed together, even bumming a ride from an outfitter for 5-6 miles. After a long day, the sun went down around nine, and we pulled out the GPS to track our progress so we wouldn’t miss the takeout and take an unwilling ride down Pearce Ferry rapid. It was rather unnerving floating in the dark with absolutely no visibility, but it only took a half hour or so before the roaring of outfitter truck engines greeted us. Docking was a bittersweet moment. We all moved into go mode as quickly as possible, but it was emotionally difficult to so abruptly switch back into real life after so many days on the river. Skipping dinner hadn’t done much for team morale, either, but nevertheless we de-rigged, loaded the trailer, and packed up to find a campsite nearby.

A Grand trip indeed!

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Four: Finally, Some Hiking

Continued from Part Three

Days 8-10: Deer Creek and Madkat
The river had finally turned the color we had been expecting the entire trip — an opaque, muddy brown that would stay with us all the way to the take-out. We had breakfast and packed up at an unhurried pace — might as well wait out the rain so we could dry out some gear. We floated 16 somewhat uneventful miles until right before Deer Creek, one of the better-known scenic highlights of the Canyon. Once again, another Thunderstorm forced us into the big group tent, thankfully after the Pork Loin was sufficiently slow-cooked on some coals on the fire pan. We all ate together in the floorless tent, and some debauchery led to a relatively late bedtime for the group. It was interesting to see the group settle into a predictable schedule of early rising and sleeping, following the daylight hours as much as possible.

In the morning we were interrupted by another group wanting to stay at our site — who gets to their day’s destination at 10 am? (Certainly not us!) We shipped off shortly thereafter and rowed across the river to Deer Creek, a spectacular waterfall shooting out of a narrow slot in the canyon wall three hundred feet up. A hiking trail switchbacked up the cliffside a few hundred yards up from the falls, until it reached the rim and traversed above the raging creek. The knowledge that a slip into the water-filled slot canyon would be certain death made the hike a bit more exciting. We considered doing a longer hike and I enjoyed a bit of rare solitude hiking around the open country upstream.

gc_zacLater in the day we pulled into a flooded slot canyon on river left. Soon the canyon dried up and we tied off the boats to explore. While not a well-known destination, Madkat canyon was probably my favorite hike of the entire trip. It started out in a tight slot canyon with swirling waterslides and polished sandstone, and soon opened up into a stunning amphitheatre. The open area had a distinctly spiritual feeling to it, and it seemed like a perfect natural setting for a musical performance or religious ceremony. Jon and I wandered further upstream in the spectactular canyon, whose walls extended upwards for a thousand feet, until we decided it prudent to head back down to the rest of the group.

Day 11: Havasupai
We set up camp last night in a tight constriction in the Canyon (mile 160.5), with some higher sandy areas and some excellent traversing boulder problems above. Havasupai canyon was coming up the next day, and we were excited to do another longer hike, so we rose fairly early and knocked off the quick float pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the creek had been blown out recently, and rather than the famous turquoise blue hue we were greeted by a dull grey color, the result of the mineral-blue combining with red-brown sediment washed into the water.

Nonetheless we headed up the creek, and underestimated the length of the hike. It was about three miles to a few waterfalls, and we lost the trail to where there was rumored to be excellent swimming higher up. After some deliberation, and a lack of interest in swimming due to the clouds above, we elected to head back down before it got too late. As it was, we almost ran out of daylight as some arguments about chosen camps broke out. We settled on a barely-adequate shelf of terraces and quickly ate and passed out. Tomorrow was going to bring the biggest rapid of the trip, Lava Falls, so we solemnly headed to bed in anticipation of the whitewater downstream.

Next: Lava!

« Older posts

© 2024 Pockets of Blue

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑