A website dedicated to the blissful pursuit of the backcountry experience, wherever mountains rise,

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ski Mountaineering Camp in the Sawtooths

Skinny Mini (photo by Lindsey Clark)

In the last days of April, 2011, I attended a ski mountaineering camp with Sawtooth Mountain Guides near Stanley, Idaho in the Sawtooth Wilderness with my friend Brent Hutcheson and five other participants, one of whom was a professional freelance photographer and writer.  The trip was featured as the cover story in the December issue of Sierra Magazine with the tag: How To Not Die Doing This! The camp lasted four days, and included clinics on avalanche rescue, backcountry travel, improvised sled construction, self-arrest, anchor-building, rappeling, belaying, and skiing on belay.  We stayed in cozy backcountry yurts at treeline near the base of Thompson and Williams peaks, supported by three highly competent, intelligent, and friendly guides. The yurts, warmed by wood stove, had no running water or electricity, but light and radio communication was supplied, at least for a few hours a day, by remote solar panels.  Lucky for us (or unlucky, depending on your perspective), a late winter storm hit just as we broke trail, dumping upwards of eight to ten inches of new snow, the catalyst for at least three significant avalanches that our group would later trigger (the largest one would take me for a ride). Happily, they were just surface slabs and ran at relatively low angles, so that nobody was buried or injured.  At no time did we feel our safety had been compromised, as our guides were rigorous in their stability assessment, route selection, and spacing, and they exuded confidence.  Indeed, we were well cared for: firewood was cut, coffee brewed, breakfast and dinner prepared for us every morning and evening, and at the end of each day's tour, where we would debrief in the comfort of the yurt, snacks and warm drinks awaited us.  We hiked more than a thousand vertical meters a day, skiied some of the most aesthetic and challenging lines in the Sawtooths (in mid-winter powder conditions!), and learned a great deal about managing danger in the backcountry.  It was a poor man's heli trip without the helicopter, and without the hand-holding.  More photos (courtesy of Aaron Teasdale):


Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Patagonia

 (November 27, and December 4, 2011)

Hey Dad/Phyllis:

We are here in Puerta Natales after a long bus journey from El Chalten/El Calafate, and after having endured a ridiculously inefficient border entry process.  But we got lucky again with lodging as we have most of our trip, landing at a very clean and quiet hospedaje hosted by a sweet old lady, Maria who doesn't speak a word of English!  We are paying $12 USD per night, breakfast included!  Puerta Natales is a strange place, beautifully situated on a sound several hours south from the main event, Torres del Paine Parque Nacional.  It is a small, dilapidated town of ramshackle buildings with security bars on the windows, lots of brick and plywood and corrugated metal.  But it is relatively well organized, and clean, unlike some of the towns we've visited in Argentina, where zoning and building regulations are apparently non-existent.  Unfortunately, we may not get the opportunity to explore the town further, as we arrived late last night (about 11:30, just as the sun was setting!) and our bus to the park administration, where we will begin our four day trek, departs this afternoon.

. . . . . .

El Calafate, AR, December 27-28:

We spent two days here, mostly due to bus availability and scheduling, but partly because we wanted to see the Puerto Moreno glacier.  We stayed in a clean but otherwise charmless motel near the bus station and rented a car nearby for 24 hours.  It turned out to be a great decision, as we were able to explore places that we would not have been able to see with a tour bus, and we could make our own time.  We arrived to the glacier early, beating the crowds, and were rewarded with near perfect weather conditions.  It was an awesome sight, a massive 200 ft wall of ice perhaps 4-5 miles wide, and perhaps 50 miles long, just kissing, at its midpoint, the peninsula of land we stood upon.  A maze of well constructed boardwalks offered a variety of vantage points for contemplating the huge mass of ice. The glacier was not static, but was constantly shifting and melting, uttering forth animal-like sounds that echoed across the two lakes it formed a millennia ago.  It sounded something like a whale screeching and a car wreck all at the same time.  We witnessed at least three calving events, with one piece the size of an office building (perhaps 150 ft high) shearing off, crashing, and splintering into a thousand pieces, creating a tsunami like wake that radiated across the water for hundreds of meters, or until it reached land, where it would crash with the force of a large ocean wave.  Amazing!

El Chalten, AR December 22-26:

We arrived in El Chalten after a long day of travel that included a 6-7 hour plane ride connecting at Ushuaia, Argentina, the bottom of the world, and a four hour bus ride, made more arduous by Aerolineas Argentinas' decision to strike that day, delaying Lucas' flight (independent of mine; I flew LAN Chile) by 5 hours, which I spent with some discomfort at the unfairly priced airport terminal coffee shop.  Most of the travelers there, I noticed, were a bit older, perhaps your age.  They traveled in groups and looked as though they were arranged with local tour guides.  We stayed in a refugio (or backcountry lodge) our first two nights with one such group.  There were maybe 15 of them, all German, with one 24 year old girl from Savannah, Ga traveling alone, and a middle-aged couple from Australia.  El Pilar Refugio was fantastic...a humble little house that looked like it started it's life as private hunting lodge and then added a wing or two as it became more popular as a commercial affair.  You would have absolutely loved it!   It was hosted by a young couple, both thoughtful and gracious, who cooked and cleaned and waited on us, and offered information and advice (and backcountry instructions!) on adjacent wilderness areas.   Well appointed, with a warm fireplace, abundant reading materials, a good stock of Argentine wine, and located at least 45 minutes by gravel road north of town, El Pilar was the perfect place to begin our trek to the Fitzroy massif.                                             

The next day began with threatening rain and cold winds.  We started out through lowland  lenga forest and climbed slowly upward, reaching Mt. Fitzroy after several hours and a series of seemingly endless switchbacks.  As we emerged from the ridge, we could barely make out the forms above us, as most of it was obscured by cloud.  The clouds were in constant movement, but as soon as the vapor on the leading edges appeared to dissipate, they were replaced again by new clouds, never allowing a clear view of the big towers.  The scene was made powerful still by its sheer size, by the three partially frozen lakes at the base of the towers, by the hanging glacial cirques above them, and by unrelenting winds of tropical force that threatened to topple us over at each step. 

After relocating to a hostel in town, and collecting some additional gear, we made plans for our first overnight hike, to an adjacent valley at the end of which stood another glacier, a large lake, and looming above it, one of the most difficult alpine climbs in the world, the impossibly jagged peaks of Cerro Torre.  We spent Thanksgiving at a tiny cerveceria with new friends, Jamie, an urban planner from Seattle, a young couple from Holland, and a team of Argentine mountaineers who had just completed a six day crossing of the Glacier Viedma.  Good beer, good food, and good times!  

We set out in the morning and camped off-trail in the soft gravelly sand between the lateral moraines leading to the glacier.  At sunset we got our best view of the peaks, but only for a few precious minutes, as the clouds were again unfriendly to us.  I did manage to fire off a few good shots before it was all over, however.  Sunrise was equally moody, and it soon started to rain.  We persisted though, and after negotiating a river by zip line (I fashioned a seat/harness with two carabiners and some webbing I had in my pack), we hiked for several hours around the lake to a huge peninsula jutting out parallel to the face of the glacier, not more than a hundred meters away now.  The sun shone briefly, allowing enough time for a quick dip in the ice cold water, some photography, and a chance to dry off.  Only a few minutes later it would begin to snow!   Along the way, we met a young German who had just walked upon the glacier and was shocked to learn of our swim!  Ha, Imagine!  He later accompanied us back across the river and to our camp where we celebrated our adventures with wine and cheese.  Despite our disappointment at not seeing the towers clearly, it was still an incredible day!

Puerta Natales, Chile (Nov 28-Dec 3)

Having slept in from our first good sleep of the trip, we organized our bags and scheduled bus service to the park through Maria, mostly with gestures and hand signals.  After some last minute shopping for supplies and groceries, we departed for the national park at 2:30 in the afternoon and arrived to the trailhead sometime around 6:00pm.  Despite sore knees (both Lucas and I traded the use of trekking poles to minimize the pain), we were intent on arriving at camp that evening so that we could rise before dawn to hike a short trail and view the Torres at their most resplendent, before an alpine lake with the morning sun illuminating the 1,000 meter pinnacles of granite.  After a rather grueling climb and a fitful sleep through a long night of high winds and cold temps, I arose at 4:00 am and made it to the lake just minutes before sunrise.  I scouted for shots and set up my tripod in just the right spot, and as I was securing my camera in place, the sun began to creep over the ridge and paint the tops of the great peaks.  It was a spectacular sight, first pink, then orange, and finally after 2 hours of filtering through a swarm of fast-moving clouds, light bathed the four towers a pale yellow, casting long shadows through the litter of giant boulders surrounding the lake, and reflecting images of the them on it's wind-whipped surface.

The next day required an extremely challenging down-climb given our alternating knee problems, and a long, hot overland hike to our next camp, Los Cuernos, nearly eight hours away.  There we met up with our colleague from El Chalten, Felix (the engineering student from Munich who had walked on the glacier) set up camp in a beautifully exposed site next to the lake, and had dinner in the refugio with two other companions from the previous day's bus trip, the French couple, Pascal and Geraldine.  It was a stunning setting, at the base of three huge crowns of rock rising nearly 8,000 ft straight above our tents, split by a series of waterfalls forming a stream that cascaded down and through the campamento, where the rustic refugio beckoned, serving up hot showers, a warm meal with new friends, and cheap Chilean wine...It proved to be well worth the effort.

The French Valley, the crown jewel of the park, was our next destination, preceded by a short two hour hike to its base at Camp Italiano.  The three of us, Lucas and Felix included, each found a space to set up our tents. I discovered one, still uninhabited, by a choice location next to the river.  After some meticulous site clearing, rock arranging, and stream engineering for mosquito control, I set up my tent and invited all parties for dinner.  Our plan was to save the valley for the morning, again rising before dawn, so we could both rest our weary bodies and enjoy the scenery under the best light.  We did, and we did, and we found the valley worthy of its reputation.  It was dominated by a huge wall of terraced rock, dripping with seracs and snow fields, and caked by layers of ice several hundred feet thick, all glowing pink from the rising sun, periodically but slowly self-destructing before our eyes, with thundering icefalls and avalanches that resonated for miles.  Above that was a huge unglaciated cirque that was guarded by towers of different shape and size, including one that appeared like a shark's tooth, probably a thousand feet and a half in height with, at this hour, an unusual and very dramatic shadow cast across the whole of it's face.  It was again, spectacular!

Later that morning, we broke camp, and began what would be a four day journey home.  But first a three hour hike to another lake, followed by a 30 minute catamaran crossing, an hour's walk along a dusty road, lunch at the world's most scenic hotel, a quick dip in the frigid lake, and finally a sunset bus ride back to Hospedaje Maria and Puerta Natales.  (the hotel, Hosteria Lago Pehoe, was actually a sad disappointment, as it's magnificent location on an island in the middle of the lake with an uninterrupted view of the whole Paine massif belied it's poor maintenance, its mediocre food, and terrible service)

We came to Patagonia with certain notions, based mostly on postcard images of Torres del Paine found on the web and our travel books, and little else. (I had yet to read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia).  Sure, we expected to see big mountains and big forests and big open spaces.  We expected to see glaciers.  And we expected rain, lots of it.  What we found was an immense landscape, mostly dry, mostly uninhabited, and nearly inhospitable, with scrubby vegetation (at least until we reached Chile), scatterings of bright red or yellow flowers, some rivers, and not just a few scenic massifs, but dozens, if not hundreds, as big or bigger than Torres del Paine itself.  We saw not a few glaciers, but rivers of ice, and massive ice fields as big as Long Island.  We saw not just plains, but vast stretches of land as far as the eye could see, much like the Great Plains in the States, but with an unending line of mountains on the horizon.  While water seemed relatively scarce, we saw huge lakes nearly the size of the Great Lakes, that required a full afternoon to navigate around.  The water was mostly aqua-marine in color, with large quantities of minerals reflecting in the sunlight.  Rivers and streams were fewer in number, but where you encountered one, it contained the clearest and purist water, so that you could drink from it directly; and many times we did.  Most of Patagonia's water seemed to be locked up in alpine lakes and glaciers, of which they are in abundance.  While large trees were uncommon (at least in Southern Patagonia), there were scattered forests of lenga trees, evergreens with small deciduous-like leaves, mostly dwarf in size, and windblown, twisted and gnarled in fantastic shapes by the powerful winds.  And despite repeated warnings of wet weather, we saw little in the way of downpour, but instead sleet and snow, fog and cloud, sun and rain, and hurricane force winds, all within a few minutes time!  As they say in Colorado, if you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.  It is certainly no less true in Patagonia.  It was the biggest landscape either of us had ever seen.  It was vast and wild and pure.  It was incomparably beautiful, and we were lucky to see if only a small piece of it.  

See you back in the states! 

Love, David


Canyoneering in Zion National Park

November 12, 2011

Hey Dad, 

Still here in Zion treating myself to a nice homemade breakfast at the local coffee house--beautiful little place owned and operated by a young married couple from Illinois.  Everything fresh and baked in house, good coffee, good photography, good music...perfect little joint!  Im planning to leave around lunchtime for points north.  Yesterday I did a 7 hour hike through Echo Canyon in Zion National Park with the guys I met here, one of whom is an expert climber/canyoneer.  He treated us to a spectacular climb and hike through a massive canyon with multiple slots and rappels, the first one of which was easily 400ft as we used most of a 200m rope!  We meandered through steep undulating walls of rock, waded through streams and pools, and negotiated over, around, and sometimes inside, water filled holes of various size and depth, often on belay or self-belay.  We exited the canyon late in the afternoon at Observation Point and Weeping Rock, down hiking on a steep zig zag trail to the parking area, with the green floor and red walls of Zion Canyon and the winding Virgin river below us, the whole thing peppered with the colors of fall: yellow, magenta, and pale green.  It was one of the best days of my outdoor life and I will not soon forget it!!!  I am so lucky to have come on this trip, to this class, with this group of people, and in this special, special place!  A little side note: Bill our guide, knows only 8 other people who have entered Echo canyon in this manner.  That would make me the 11th person to do this rappel, and on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of this century, ha! 

I will send some photos soon. Hope you guys are having a good weekend!

Love, David

Winter Solstice in GTNP

Lake Jackson and the Grand Teton, December 21, 2011, the shortest day of the year