Archive for the ‘mountaineering’ Tag

Adventuring Death Valley: Extremes   16 comments

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth a repeat. Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from Saratoga Springs in south Death Valley.

More than for most parks, appreciating Death Valley begs you to stop and smell the creosote.  Camp out and take a stroll out into the desert as evening is coming on.  Listen to the silence, perhaps broken by a coyote’s howl.  Wake early and experience day-break from the salt flats as Telescope Peak catches the sun’s first light.  Get off the beaten track and take off on foot up a canyon.  Have an adventure!

LAND OF EXTREMES

One of the main reasons I love this place is all the extremes.  The most obvious one, exemplified by the image above, is the extreme of altitude.  On my first trip to Death Valley as a freshman in a college group learning about its natural history, I found out how much I love extremes.  The instructor, who taught my 200-level series geology course, was also very much a biologist, birder and ecologist.  We learned about how the plants and animals are so perfectly adapted to the harsh realities of desert life.  It’s fascinating how everything here seems to work together as an integrated whole that reflects the park’s extreme heat and aridity, along with its extreme terrain and geology.

You have to be exceptionally clever to survive in Death Valley: coyote.

One day, with our teacher pointing out hawks and rock formations as we went, we drove the van up and out of the desert.  The narrow Wildrose Canyon Road leads to the high country of the Panamint Range, ending at the Charcoal Kilns.  These large stone beehives, perfectly preserved in the desert air, are ovens once used for turning trees into fuel to run smelters during the mining era of the late 1800s.  They’re lined up symmetrically in a forest clearing with views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada (image below).

We hiked from the kilns, heading up to snowy Mahogany Meadows, which lies in a saddle at the crest of the range.  While named for its mountain mahogany, the ancient pinyon pines here are especially impressive.  I remember wondering how we could have, in a few short hours, gone from toasty desert conditions to this other world, a cool, snowy forest.  From the meadows, which are perched at 8133 feet elevation, we peered down into the below-sea-level depths of the valley.  Talk about extremes!  We had a huge snowball fight.

The Charcoal Kilns with snow-capped Mt. Whitney and the Sierras in the distance.

CLIMBING TELESCOPE PEAK

The place impressed me so much I returned with friends a couple years later, again in March.  The three of us were set on climbing Telescope Peak, at 11,043′ the highest point in the park.  It had been a cold, snowy winter, with late storms that left deep powder mantling the high Panamints.   Though just a few inches lay at the Kilns, a couple feet of the white stuff greeted us at Mahogany Meadows, our planned campsite for the night.  And what a cold night it was!

We had an MSR camp stove with us, the kind that was euphemistically called a “blow torch” because there were just two settings:  off and rocket-blast.  It could also accept any kind of fuel, so when we realized we had forgotten to pack extra camping gas we had an idea.  Hiking back down to the car, we backed up onto a curb and tapped a small amount of gas from the carburetor.  Yes I’m old enough to have had a car with a carburetor; and no we didn’t have a hose to siphon from the tank with.

Magnificent old-growth pinyon pine: Mahogany Flats, Death Valley N.P.

After the kind of night where your body burns many calories just keeping warm, we woke just before dawn to find a half-foot of fresh white stuff.  We didn’t know it then, but tapping that unleaded was very smart.  It allowed us to eat a pile of hot oatmeal with raisins that morning, and we’d need all the energy we could get that day.

Telescope Peak is just under 7 miles one-way from Mahogany Meadows, with about 3300 feet of elevation gain.  Without snow it is a difficult but straightforward hike.  Years later when I repeated the ascent in much kinder conditions it was like I was climbing a completely different mountain.

What makes Telescope more difficult than it might seem is the necessity to hike over two large peaks (Rogers and Bennet) before tackling the main ascent.  Up until then I’d never really hiked a distance in deep fresh snow, but struggling that day through hip-deep drifts up steep slopes made a life-long impression (not least that snowshoes were a great invention).  By the time we reached the base of the mountain it was mid-afternoon and we were spent.

Descending into Death Valley.

DEATH VALLEY DATES

It was the dates that saved the day.  With only a PB&J each for lunch, it was lucky that we’d packed Death Valley’s famous dates for trail snacks.  Those dates, which you can buy at Furnace Creek where they’re grown, powered us up the steep, final icy slope to the summit.   A stupendous view, so different than any other in the park, greeted us.  But turning west, where the mountain had blocked our view on the ascent, one glance convinced us that summit time would be ultra-brief.  A compact but dark and angry storm was rapidly approaching from that direction, with lightning bolts shooting out of it at regular intervals.  It was headed straight for us.

We shoved a few more dates into our mouths and prepared for a quick exit.  As I took one last look around, I noticed something strange about my two partners.  We’d all taken our wool hats off to shed heat during the climb, and now their hair was standing straight up, just like in High School science class when you touch that electrified ball.  I heard a faint but very distinct buzzing all around, and growing louder.  It was the first time I’d ever experienced something like that, but it was clear what was taking place.  We were about to see what lightning was like, up close and personal.  That is, if we didn’t get the hell off that mountain but quick!

The two white substances in Death Valley: salt and snow.

The return hike was long and exhausting (those two peaks were again in the way).  We had been going hard since sunup, and the Death Valley dates continued to provide critical energy.  We disagreed on a return route and ended up splitting up.  When Gene and I finally pulled into camp at dusk, Mel was sticking his head out of the tent, puking up dates.

Although on paper Telescope Peak shouldn’t even be in the top 50 hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it sticks out in my mind as one of the toughest, #3 or even #2.  Even after all these years.  We didn’t relish another frigid night at 8100 feet.  So we quickly struck camp and hiked in the dark a few miles more to reach the car.  Then it was down, down, and back to summer.  That warm air felt so good!  Parking at the sand dunes we grabbed sleeping bags and headlamps and stumbled a couple hundred yards into the dunes to crash under a huge night sky.  The stars must have been spectacular that night, but darned if I can remember ever seeing them.

Thanks for reading.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas!

Evening draws near in the dunes at Mesquite Flat, Death Valley National Park.

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Respecting the Sherpa   19 comments

Stupa and Ama Dablam:  Khumbu, Nepal

Stupa and Ama Dablam: Khumbu, Nepal.  Click on pictures to see and download high-res. versions.

A Chinese climber has apparently climbed Mt. Everest from the Nepal side, the first to do it since a tragic avalanche last month killed 16 climbing Sherpas.  The avalanche occurred on the notorious Khumbu Icefall portion of the main route on Everest.  After the accident, Sherpas all agreed to go home and grieve for their fallen comrades instead of continuing to work.  All the companies guiding climbers withdrew out of respect for the Sherpas’ decision.  The Chinese woman used Sherpas contracted privately.

She also reportedly used a helicopter to leapfrog the Icefall.  She maintains that only her cook and other staff were flown to Camp II.  If she is lying about that then she breached climbing etiquette big time.  Most climbers would not consider her summit of Everest genuine.  It just would not count.  But that is a minor quibble compared to the main question.  Should she have climbed at all, at least from the Nepal side?  What do you think?

The highest mountain in the world, Sagarmatha.

The highest mountain in the world, Sagarmatha.  The west face is so steep that little snow and ice can stick to it.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

When you trek through the Khumbu region near Everest, as I did in 2010, you have the time to absorb and appreciate Sherpa culture.  Or you do if you’re paying attention.  It helps if you choose to diverge from the main trekking routes, on trails like that running along the east side of Gokyo Valley to Khumjung for example.  The pictures below are from that area.  The little boy lives on that farm with the blue roof and stone fences.  You see more wildlife on trails like this as well (see photo of the tahr below).

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

A lone farmstead in the Khumbu region of Nepal's HImalayan Mountains lies in spectacularly rugged country.

A lone farmstead in the Khumbu region of Nepal’s HImalayas lies in spectacularly rugged country.

Drying chilies on a windowsill in a Sherpa home.

Drying chilies on a windowsill in a Sherpa home.

For me this little Sherpa boy makes me think of the tragedy that killed 16 Sherpas last month on Everest.  He is in the doorway waiting for his father to return.

This little Sherpa boy makes me think of the tragedy that killed 16 Sherpas last month on Everest. He is in the doorway waiting for his father to return.

Khumbu has elements of the past, before Everest became a commodity.  Sherpas are an extremely proud yet humble people.  In fact, the two opposite qualities coexist more gracefully in Sherpas than in any people I’ve come across in my travels.  But Sherpas in the Khumbu are in the midst of change.  Many are making real money while most Nepalis, especially in rural mountainous areas, continue to struggle.  There’s a reason many of the abused workers in Dubai are from Nepal.

This increased wealth has effects both good and bad.  Children are receiving better educations than children ever have in that region.  The negative effects are more subtle.  They mark the slow change (destruction?) of a culture into something more like the developed world.  Homogenization continues across the world, and the Khumbu is one place where some of its earlier stages are very obvious.  I pray that it at least remains roadless.

A trekking Sherpa leads his charge down to Gokyo from Renjo La in Khumbu, Nepal.

A trekking Sherpa and his charge head down to Gokyo Lake from Renjo La in Khumbu, Nepal.  He is on the cell phone making sure there is room in a tea house.

At base camp for Island Peak, night before summit day.  Sherpas hauled these tents.

At base camp for Island Peak the night before summit day. Sherpas hauled these tents.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

While I try my best not to judge the actions of others (the Chinese climber gets to make her own decisions), I believe the decision by the Sherpas at base camp on Everest was the right one.  I think every climber true to the sport should respect that decision.  Either that or climb fast and light without Sherpa support.  While there are plenty of people in the world at a fitness level sufficient to summit Everest, very very few have the ability to do it unsupported by Sherpas.

She did not respect the decision of the climbing Sherpas.  She took the easy way out.  Climbing Sherpas make good money (for Nepal).  It is a competitive job, and there are always plenty of trekking Sherpas who await their chance to get in on the action.  I don’t blame those that hired on with the Chinese woman.  They don’t make the kind of money that climbing Sherpas do.  Most climbing Sherpas can easily afford a season off.  They are working of course, trekking the lower trails instead of climbing.

Taboche and prayer flags, Khumbu region, Nepal.

Taboche and prayer flags, Khumbu region, Nepal.

A mountain is slowly revealed through the clouds in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

A mountain is slowly revealed through the clouds in the Khumbu region of Nepal.

The ubiquitous yak.

The ubiquitous yak of the Himalayas.

It’s true that the Chinese climber may have hired Sherpas who disagreed with the majority decision to pull off the mountain.  But I suspect she hired Sherpas who don’t routinely climb on Everest. It would have been a simple thing for her to hire perhaps one climbing Sherpa plus a small team of strong trekking Sherpas, eager for their chance at the “big bucks”.  Was that disrespectful to those mourning for the fallen?  I know what I believe, but I would like to hear your opinions.

Thanks for reading and commenting.  If interested in any of these images, just click on them.  Then click “Download Options” for pricing.  If you want to work a deal or have any other questions, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest!

Two Himalayan Tahr descend from the high country in the Khumbu of Nepal.

The setting sun's alpenglow hits the spectacular western face of Nup Tse in Nepal.  Everest is just left out of frame.

Setting sunlight hits the spectacular western face of Nup Tse in Nepal. Everest is just left out of frame.

The Cascades II: Mount Adams   3 comments

Mount Adams viewed from Hood River Valley in Oregon.

Mount Adams viewed from Hood River Valley in Oregon.

This is part of a series I’m doing on the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest.  Part I, which is an overview of the geology of the Cascade Range, is worth checking out, especially if you’re something of a geo-nerd like me.  I was going to start the tour with Mount Hood, the closest one to my home.  But this past weekend I summited Mt. Adams in Washington.  So I’ll start there.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Mount Adams, at 12,281 feet (3743 meters), was named for America’s second president.  It is one of the larger volcanoes in the Cascades.  If Mt. Rainier was not close by, Adams would get more attention.  As it is, the second-highest mountain in Washington is a popular climbing & hiking destination.

The way this mountain was named is an interesting story.  Native Americans named it Pahto, brother of Wy East (Mt Hood).  The legend is that in the competition for the beautiful La wa la Clough (sometimes also called Loowit – St. Helens), Pahto won.  Wy East grew angry and pounded Pahto over the head, accounting for the flat stubby summit of the mountain.  Wy East’s anger also caused the landslide that led to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.

The east side of Mount Adams is rugged and gouged by glaciers.

The east side of Mount Adams is rugged and gouged by glaciers.

First sighted by Lewis and Clark (and misidentified as St. Helens), Adams has always been one of the more remote Cascade peaks.  For a time it appeared as if the Cascades might be renamed the President’s Range, and many of the individual peaks are named after U.S. presidents.  In the case of Adams, named for the second president, it was to be Hood that received the name.  But a mistake by a mapmaker put the name Adams quite a distance to the north and east.  Instead of the error being discovered and fixed, it happened that the location was occupied by a little-known but large mountain, and it was retained.  Now THAT’S a coincidence!

Mount St. Helens lies to the west as viewed from the summit of Mount Adams.

Mount St. Helens lies to the west as viewed from the summit of Mount Adams.

 

SURROUNDING AREA

Although Rainier has more extensive glaciers and subalpine meadow areas, Mount Adams has arguably a more beautiful surrounding area.  To the south, the only paved access route to the mountain traverses a gorgeous valley.  The White Salmon River, which runs down the valley, is a fantastic whitewater rafting or kayaking trip.  Apple orchards and scattered forest populate the valley.  The tiny town of Trout Lake greets you as you draw closer to the mountain.  It is a bulky mountain too, totally unlike the spire of Mount Hood across the Columbia River to the south.

The Klickitat River drains the east side of Adams, and proceeds through a beautiful forested area, ending on the drier east side of the Columbia River Gorge.  You can drive this route from Hwy. 14 on the Columbia up to Trout Lake.  It is a wonderful route, very scenic.  The Klickitat River is a fantastic whitewater trip.  In fact, doing both the White Salmon and the Klickitat (both one-day trips) is a great way to spend a long whitewater weekend.

Looking down the spine of the Cascade Range from high up on Mount Adams in Washington.

Looking down the spine of the Cascade Range from high up on Mount Adams in Washington.

The east side of Adams is covered by the Yakima American Indian reservation.  It’s worth obtaining a permit to hike through the beautiful Bird Creek Meadows on this side.  This is one of the finest flower meadows in the Cascades.  A recent forest fire has impacted both the south and east side though.  You can camp in this area at either Bench Lake or Bird Lake.  I think this area along with Adams Meadows on the north side are the finest subalpine meadows at Mt Adams.

A fantastic rugged backpacking trip can be had by traveling north from Bird Creek Meadows.  You will travel off-trail and cross an icefield.  There are some potentially serious stream crossings too.  But your reward is camping in pristine meadows, likely seeing no other person.  In Avalanche Valley, there is a spring that is amazing.  Its flow is so great that a river pops into existence and begins flowing across a lovely meadow.

Viewed from the summit of Mt Adams, the Klickitat River winds its way down through the forest.

Viewed from the summit of Mt Adams, the Klickitat River winds its way down through the forest.

GEOLOGY

Adams is like other Cascade strato-volcanoes a young cone with most of the eruptions occurring in the Pleistocene.  The volcano is characterized by long periods of dormancy.  In fact, the last eruption was some 1400 years ago.  It is not extinct though.  As mentioned, it is a bulky mountain.  It’s second in volume only to Shasta in California.  Several overlapping cones cover the summit and account for its flat nature.  Though it is no Rainier, the mountain does have its share of glaciers.  In fact, Adams Glacier on the NW side is the second largest glacier in the Cascades (Carbon Glacier on Rainier is the largest).

It is the only volcano in the Cascades whose summit has been subjected to mining activity.  In 1929 Wade Dean filed claims, built a mule trail to the summit, and conducted small-scale drilling for sulfur.  There was not enough ore found to make it economic, and that was that.

Mount St. Helens looms to the east of Adams.

Mount St. Helens looms to the east of Adams.

CLIMBING ADAMS

Mount Adams is a fairly straightforward climb, at least on the south side.  The South Spur trail starts from Cold Springs, trail #183.  You need to stop at the ranger station in Trout Lake for information and a $15 climbing permit.  The mountain attracts great amounts of snow, so unless you want a long approach, you’d do well to wait until June at the earliest.  You can climb it with ice axe and crampons, but might not need them.  No rope is needed.  Although it can be done in one long day, we opted to camp at the so-called Lunch Counter.  This is a flattish area at about 9000 feet (2743 meters), popular for camping and yes, lunch.

Descending from the summit of Mt Adams with Mount Hood, Oregon in the background.

Descending from the summit of Mount Adams with Mount Hood, Oregon in the background.

It was a beautiful evening.  Next morning, since I had skis and the snow had frozen hard overnight, I slept in to 6 a.m.  My companions started ahead of me.  The climb from the Lunch Counter ascends steeply to the False Summit (aka Piker’s Peak) at 11,700 feet (3566 meters).  From here it is a slight drop then on up to the summit.  I was on top before noon.  What a view!  I skied over to the east side of the summit crater and peaked down the steep east-side route.  The descent was perfect!  I haven’t skied for a long time (because of the broken ribs), so was tentative on those first few steep turns.  The snow was firm yet forgiving, and soon I was carving telemark turns down the mountain.  My friends had a great time glissading down from the False Summit.  Glissading is sliding on your butt.

Night falls on the eve of summit day at the Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, Washington.

Night falls on the eve of summit day at the Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, Washington.

Mount Adams is a great volcano which offers hiking, camping and flower photography, not to mention horse-back riding, whitewater rafting & kayaking.  In the winter, it makes an excellent, uncrowded cross-country skiing destination.  Climbing Adams is a great physical challenge.  It’s perfect for novice climbers who want some safe practice with crampons and ice axe.  But realize that altitude can be a factor, depending on your body’s particular reaction to it.  Since it is high up, weather can change rapidly and violently.  Storms and lightning are very real hazards, and people have died on this mountain.

Stay tuned for more on this series.  If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them.  If you end up in a gallery and are having trouble finding the image, simply contact me.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission, sorry.  Thanks for your interest and thanks for reading!

Sunset from the flat Lunch Counter on Mount Adams.

Sunset from the flat Lunch Counter on Mount Adams.

 

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