The Expedition Equation

For me, a good expedition is the solution to a complex math problem. The equation consist of multiple unknown variables and it is up to the expeditions planner, the mathematician, to balance the calculation.

The first variable, A, is the most obvious one; the objective. What actually is the goal of this expedition? Sometimes this can be straightforward; a clean aid climb the Muir Wall Route on El Cap. Other times it is far less defined; explore the Mariposa Valley, and see if the inspiration to climb stikes. People often assume that this is the most important variable, though this is rarely the case. More often than not it is the next two that most define the others.

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See anything inspiring to climb? Lots to do in the Mariposa Valley, Argentina,  Northern Patagonia.

B, Timing. What time of year will your trip happen? Often these expeditions coincide with other life events. Maybe there is a slow time of the year at work. Or, maybe you are trying to link up with a friend who has their vacation booked for a specific few weeks. Life has a way of setting some serious parameters on this variable. In many cases it proves advantageous to work with, rather than against them.

C, Partners. I am fortunate enough to have a lot of great climbing partners. Many of them I would be pleased to go on an expedition with. Still, not every partner is suited for every trip, every time. Why choose a strong, fair-weather rock climber who complains of the cold to go on a winter mountaineering trip with? You’ll be better off to save their talents for a trip they will enjoy more, not to mention your two’s climbing belaytionship!

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Always match the right partners to the right objective. Arrigetch Peaks, Alaska

The forth and final variable of this simplified equation, X, is the place holder for all of those other smaller variables that, while important, are not individually as important as the big three. This includes but is not limited to; trip cost and duration, climbing difficulty and discipline, pre-trip training and commitments, etc.

So, A+B+C+X=one great expedition. With so many variables, this equation is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the other hand, it is a complex problem, and often takes multiple attempts to solve correctly. On the other hand, all these variables offers you countless opportunities to have a grand adventure. So, pick a single variable as a starting point, and see where it takes you. Before long, you might just find yourself on one great expedition.

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Summertime climbing fun in the magical Lofoten Islands.

 

Ode to the Weekend Warrior

“For one year I traveled. For one year I climbed.

From the high latitudes of Norway’s Northwest coast,

To the incredible peaks that Southern Patagonia hosts.

Bigwalls in Yosemite Valley,

snorkeling off a boat in Hawaii.

Cold nights spent under the Alaskan sky,

for a year I was able to spread my wings and fly.”

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Watching a new day dawn from above the clouds.

While it is nice to have one’s wings, what are they without a nest to return to? As my year proceeded I went from admiring every plane takeoff and landing to dreading even the thought of another hour of travel. While I was still enjoying my time spent at the destination, I knew it was time to stop. To take a break from living out of a duffel bag (or three). To have a routine again. To eat and train well. To make some money. To become excited about the journey once again.

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Okay, so sometimes it’s five duffel bags.

Now, and for the last four months, I have been living the life of a Weekend Warrior. No. That is not true. Let me try again. For the last four months I have been living the life of a Sunday Climber (and even that might be giving myself too much credit). Work, school, and training take up all of the weekday hours. Saturday is reserved for meal prep, homework, and spending time with my wife. This leaves Sunday; one day a week for me to go play on the rocks and in the forest. To do the thing that I quite possibly love the most in this world. Yet still, even with this seemingly all-consuming passion and desire, the same desire that has taken me to the far-flung corners of the globe, I still struggle to get out the door many Sundays.

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Sunday cragging in Eastern Finland.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to complain. I feel that I am one of the few, lucky people on the planet who has the opportunity to spend each day doing exactly what it is they want to do. I want to be doing what I am doing. I want and need the break; the time to prepare mentally, physically, and financially for the next adventure. I enjoy what I do when I am at home. It is only that with all of responsibilities that come with the Monday through Friday work week, I often struggle to find the motivation to climb, and especially to try hard.

This is a very different struggle to that I face on climbing expeditions. On an expedition you miss things and people. You often pine for the easy life, for a shower and a warm, dry place to sit and rest. Even the though the struggles can be intense, you always know that they are temporary. They don’t feel as long-term, and they aren’t. Not like now. In addition, expeditions are simple. You are there to climb, and climbing is everything. There is none of this balancing act that makes up all of our daily lives. 

And it is with this in mind that my sincerest admiration and respect goes out to all you Weekend Warriors. You all are the real heroes of this climbing game. You all who have the motivation, the skills, and the discipline to get after it on the weekends. You all who make the tough sacrifices, drive the hard bargains, and strike the balance between those pressing obligations and the pursuit of something personal, selfish, and beautiful. It is you who inspire me to be a better climber. Thank you all for setting the bar high, for giving me something to strive for, and for encouraging me to make the most of that brief stretch of time between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

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Another weekend ends. Photo by Henri Arjanne.

 

Nyt: suomeksi!

On kiva matkustaa, mutta jos ei voi palata kotiin, se on arvotonta. Viime vuonna minä menin joka paikkaan. Norjasta Alaskaan, Jossesta Havaijille, mä menin. Se oli niin onnellista, mutta olin väsyin lopuksi. Oli vaikeaa mennä joka päivä, koko ajan. Mä halusin taukoa.

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Uusi päivää, uusi lentoa.

Nyt ja vimeiset neljä kuukautta, Minulla on ollut tuo tauko. Arkipäivisin teen töitä, menen kouluun ja reenaan. Lauantaisin, mä teen ruokaa, teen läksyjä, ja rentoudun mun vaimoni kanssa. Ja Sunnuntaisin? Sunnuntaisin on kiipeilypäivä. Vaikka mä rakastan kiipeilyä, niin kun sunnuntai tule, miksi on niin vaikeaa mennä ulos ja kiipeillä?

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Olhava viikonloppu.

Ehkä olen laiska, ehkä olen kiireinen. Mä en tiedä oikeasti, mutta tiedän, että se on vaikeaa. On vaikeaa tasa painoilla työelämän, kotielämän, ja kiipeilyelämän välillä. Ja minulle sen pitäsi olla helppoa. Minulla ei ole lapsia, ja minun työnantaja on ymmärtäväinen.

Kun minä ajattelen tätä, olen inspiroidun. Te inspiroitte minua. Te inspiroitte minua olemaan parempi kiipeilijä. Te inspiroitte minua käymään kiipeilyalueilla lähellä minua. Te inspiroitte minua menemään kiipeilemään ja yrittämään kovaa. Kaikille teille Viikonlopun Sankareille, Kiitos paljon.

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Viikonlopun Sankareita Suomessa

 

Training While Traveling

The rain pattered down on my hat brim, each droplet flashing briefly in the light from the streetlamp before smashing into the earth. Dead leaves and old foil food wrappers crunched beneath my running shoes. Occasionally, the headlights from a passing car would blind me before carrying on down the road. It was a dark, cold, evening and there I was, running laps around a Wal-Mart parking lot in Southern New York. “Is this really worth it?”, I thought. Of course whatever the answer, it didn’t really change anything. I had made a commitment and I planned to stick to it. Anyways, I was already wet. What good would it do to stop now?

‘Tis the season for travel, and with all that fun and routine-change training often goes out the window. After almost a year on the road, here are a few tricks I learned to keep you training while enjoying that summer holiday.

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An evening training session with one of the greats. Rocky Balboa and I in Philadelphia. Photo by Henna Jylhä

Before You Go

Choose a training-friendly destination. What do real estate and training have in common? They both share the old mantra “location, location, location”. Think about this in both a big-picture and small-picture sense. Big picture would have you favoring national park visits over exploring the urban jungles. Can’t do that? How about focusing on the small picture then. Look for hotels that have a guest gym or an Airbnb located close to a large park or running trail.

Bring the right tools. A set of running/climbing shoes and a pair of shorts can take you far. This is one of those times when less is more. Do your homework as to what options are available to you, and prepare accordingly.

 

On the Go

Make a daily/weekly plan. This is one of two tips that made the biggest difference in my training. Make a schedule of vacation events and activities that you plan to participate in, and schedule your training time around that. Try to get it on the schedule at least 24 hours in advance so you (and others) can be ready for it. This might require some early morning workouts, but just think of the additional training effect you’ll get.

Consult the locals. Check out the local climbing gym, seek advice from a city running clubs, visit the area’s outdoor store, and search around on the web. These places are normally filled with people eager to help visitors see the best of what their home has to offer.

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Those locals often know the best places to train. Deep water soloing at a secret venue on the coast of Hawaii.

Have a long-distance training buddy. One of the biggest motivating factors for me is my training partner. While understandably difficult to always have with you on vacation, you can still stay connected through the wonders of technology. Did you snap a pic of that awesome sunset you saw on your evening run? Send it to your pal. Take gym selfies, be goofy, have fun. Whatever you got to do to keep the motivation going.

Modify existing group/family activities. Going on a casual family hike? Why not take along a few extra gallons of water and turn that walk into some serious training. Going to the pool? How about sneaking over to the lanes and putting in some laps while the others soak in the sun.

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Carrying some water uphill on a hike in New Jersey. Photo by Henna Jylhä.

Try to slow down. This was the second big lesson I learned when it comes to training while on vacation. We often want to see and do a great many things while traveling in an effort to make the most of our time. Unfortunately, this “on-the-go” style of travel will wear you out in a hurry. Consider dialing back the itinerary a bit and giving yourself a bit more time to train, relax, and enjoy your surroundings.

Stay Motivated. It is easy to slip too deep into “vacation mode” and let your training routine go by the wayside. Do what you can to keep motivation high. Set a photo of your big objective as your phone background. Text your climbing partners and see what they are climbing. Stay focused on the long-term goal and the joy that it will bring you.

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Talk about motivation! Staring down the big objective while working out on the hangboard. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

In the Mountains (special tips for when actually on expeditions)

For my personal training, this is always the crux. Oftentimes there is a long period between leaving home and actually getting on the rock. This is a critical time and one where it is all too easy to falter.

Get out of the tent! Yes, the weather is shitty. Yes, its cold and wet. Yes, you can’t climb and the views are bad. Still, doing nothing is a sure way to let all those previous months of effort slip away. You don’t have to even train seriously, just get out and move your body.

Don’t over-train. On the flip side, when the weather in town is good and conditions in the hills are bad, it’s easy to push too much on those “casual” trail runs. Be sure you will have enough time to fully recover before heading into the mountain. Moving your body, staying healthy, and being well rested are all equal priorities while waiting to take to the hills. Do not to compromise your goal just for the sake of sneaking in one more training session.

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Dont worry, Mom. No overtraining here. Just trying to remember how to rock climb while waiting for snow to firm up.

The Conflict of Adventure

Most of us live in cities, only to rush into the forests the moment the weekend arrives; conflict or balance? Many of us own thousands of dollars  worth of the most technically advanced gear available, just so that we can go into the woods to “live simply”; conflict or balance?

All parts of life are ripe with these conflicts (or balances), and climbing is no exception. Last week I was smacked in the face with one, the Conflict of Adventure.

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Shot Tower and surrounding peaks. We hope to make the first free-ascent of the 1600′ (490m) West Ridge. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Gray.

This summer, I will embark on another large, exploratory climbing expedition deep into the Alaskan wilderness. As a group of four, we will spend approximately three weeks attempting to establish new rock climbing routes in the isolated Arrigetch Peaks, a sub-range of the infamous Brooks Range mountains. Our trip to these peaks will involve an 8-hour drive down a dirt-road, a flight on a small bush plane into the depths of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, and two days of off-trail hiking through grizzly country, all just to reach the base of these mountains. Needless to say, this place does not see so much traffic and was chosen as our destination specifically for its adventurous characteristics.

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Battleship Peak. The only established route on the peak climbs the obvious, gaining ridge. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Gray.

Over the last couple months, I have spent an increasingly long amount of time researching, planning, emailing, calling, questioning, and trying everything I can think of to locate even the tiniest granules of helpful information about this area. During one of my many middle-of-the-night, cross-Atlantic phone calls to previously unknown climbers who have visited this region before, the man I was speaking with was hesitant to share all that he knew because, in his words, he didn’t “want to give away the keys to the castle”. In short, he was worried about spoiling that unknown that I so fiercely desire.

Why is it that while I crave the Unknown, so much so that I am willing to travel to another continent for an opportunity to experience it, I am simultaneously trying to shatter it by collecting page after page of information that makes it “known”?

I feel, that as climbers, this tricky balancing act occurs on almost every route. Whether it is a first ascent on a remote peak, or a flash attempt at your local crag, we all want to have enough information so that we feel; a level of safety, a level of comfort, and a chance of success, whatever the goal may be.  It is only after this, that we are ready and willing to step into the Unknown.

Coming face to face with the Unknown on Offline, in Bohuslan, Sweden

Coming face to face with the Unknown on Offline, in Bohuslan, Sweden. Photo courtesy of Rami Valonen

For more stoke-inducing photos of the Arrigetch Peaks, as well as a trip report to the area, click here!

The (Hypocritical) Environmentally Conscious Climber

Recently, I read an article about one of the world’s most prolific climbers, Alex Honnold. In the article, a small blurb discussed Honnold’s carbon-neutral lifestyle and the charity that he began to help accomplish this. On the whole, I find that most climbers view themselves as part of an environmentally conscious group of people. We love the outdoors. Many of us often refer to nature as our “sanctuary” or “where we feel at home”. Yet, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “each man kills the thing he loves”. I find a striking hypocrisy between our love for the outdoors and our treatment of it. Unlike Alex Honnold, the more I learn to appreciate climbing and nature, the more of an environmental burden I become. Not only do I feel this rings true for me, but for many climbers.

How can this be? Well, I’ll use myself as an example. At first, I was just a young top rope climber. I didn’t need much gear. I hitched rides to my local crag and my minimal kit of rope, webbing and carabiners sufficed. As time went on, I wanted to lead climb, then ice climb, then aid climb, all requiring a special assortment of gear.  More gear purchased = more natural resources eliminated. On top of this, I was yearning for harder challenges, taller cliffs, different landscapes. Before long, I was flying across the country, then the world, to climb. As my appreciation grew ever-more for these environments, so did my carbon footprint. What did I do to help sustain it?

Nothing.

Sure, I helped out with a couple of crag clean-ups here and there and threw a few dollars towards the Access Fund but all and all, I did, and still do nothing. Take, for example, my trip to South America last winter. The carbon emissions for my flights alone are equal that of about 9,000 miles (14,500km) driven in one of those massive, 4×4, American pick up trucks that I am so fond of picking on. Most of the folks driving those aren’t leaving the state, let alone flying to foreign continents. For me, it is time to consider changing my habits. Below are some simple places of where I can begin.

  • Taking our rented kayak for a walk as we cross Finland

    Kiia-Riikka, taking our rented kayak for a walk as we cross Finland

    Borrow more. Everyone knows that “sharing is caring”. Do you really need three crashpads for those two weekends a year you boulder? Could you borrow one from a friend, or rent it from a local outdoor shop?

  • VOTE! I am convinced that “voting the environment” is one of the most important steps you can take to care for the outdoors. Policies that our leaders make are far reaching and have a lasting effect on our wild places.
  • Carpool. Yes, this is a no-brainer, but a good reminder. Don’t know anyone heading your direction? Post on local Facebook cragging groups and see if you can drum up some interest.
  • Lend more. About those “big cams” that you use all of 3 days a year. Maybe you could offer them up to your peeps so that they too can go get spanked on the local “wide pride” test piece, without having to buy their own large chunk of metal?
  • Tear-Aid used to repair a punctures Therm-a-rest.

    Tear-Aid used to repair a punctures Therm-a-rest.

  • Fix your own gear. These days, there are multiple companies who have entire products lines devoted specifically to repairing your gear. One of my favorite repair products on the market now is Tear-Aid. This is what duct tape wants to be when it grows up. It is air-proof (for leaky mattresses), waterproof (for punctured hydration bladders), and stretchy (for fixing those swanky new waterproof stretch shells).
Old Jacket, new zipper.

Old jacket, new zipper.

  • Send your gear back to be fixed (not replaced). Many outdoor companies offer bomber warranties on their products, especially apparel. Unfortunately, many of these companies will just replace your existing product with a new one versus repairing the current one. Some companies that actually repair their products are: Western Mountaineering, Marmot, and Chaco. Also, many local cobblers and sewing shops can repair soft good issues faster and cheaper than having to send the product back to the manufacturer.
  • Reuse broken or worn out items. The second of the “Three R’s of the Environment” is Reuse. Try to get creative and see what you come up with. Below are some of my favorites:

    Crampon Pouch made out of an old pant leg.

    Crampon Pouch made out of an old pant leg.

Ice screw protectors. Left one made from foam mat and duct tape, right made from old bike tire inner tube.

Ice screw protectors. Left one made from foam mat and duct tape, right made from old bike tire inner tube.

Pièce de résistance. A knife made from old Ice ax pick, blue jeans, animal horn, and love. Thanks Antti

Pièce de résistance. A knife made from old ice ax pick, blue jeans, animal horn, and love. Thanks Antti

  • Be a conscientious buyer. When the time inevitably comes that you do need to buy something, be sure to do your homework and try to find a quality, long-lasting product that will best suit your long-term needs. Consider the following questions:
    1. Can I buy this product used?
    2. Is this product made from recycled material?
    3. Can this product be repaired or parts replaced easily?
  • Sell unloved gear. Gear was made to be used. Help save on resources and put some extra cash in your pocket by selling what you don’t use anymore. Chances are there is someone out there who will use it, love it, and give it many more adventures.
Climbing on Store Blåmann in a hand-me-down jacket. Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

Climbing on Store Blåmann in a hand-me-down jacket.
Photo by: Lauri Hämäläinen

  • Last, but not least: Explore locally. Some of the best days out I have ever had involved good people in a comfortable environment. Spend some time in your own backyard exploring the local potential and growing your appreciation for whats right around the corner. Try to pick project routes close to you. Not only will you spend less time driving, but be able to take advantage of prime conditions.

Smash and Grab or Swing and a Miss

A few years ago a friend of mine stumbled across a style of climbing called the “Smash and Grab”. This concept is mostly aimed at those 9-to-5 climbers hoping to tackle bigger objectives than their limiting schedules might otherwise allow for.

In its grandest form, Smash and Grab can involve such shenanigans as last-minute plane ticket purchases, big mountains, and new routes. For most of us though, it takes the form of long drives and meaningful, classic climbs.

My first date with the Smash and Grab had humble beginnings. After watching the weather and ice reports for weeks, my partner and I finally spotted favorable conditions for some classic ice routes in the North East of the U.S. Driving from my then-home in Virginia, we raced through the night, driving the 12 hours in a single push. Over the 3-day weekend we were able to climb two of the most classic, test-piece, Adirondack ice climbs, and still make it back to work on Tuesday morning.

With enough patience and flexibility, Smash and Grab trips can often be extremely successful. Reader bewared though, it is still risky business. With such little margin for error one’s trip can quite easily become a “Swing and a Miss”.

This past December I had not one, but two Swing and Misses. The first was a trip to one of Europe’s premier ice climbing destinations, Rjukan, Norway. Unfortunately, while the destination for our trip was extremely flexible, the timing was not. Trying to work around a long weekend, courtesy of Finnish Independence Day (“Findependence” Day, anybody?), conditions all across the Nordic world proved unfavorable for skiing or climbing. To top it off, inaccurate weather forecast and a bone-headed call, made by yours truly, in which we bailed from the one climbing area with good ice, assured near-maximum time spent hiking and scouting with minimal climbing. Thankfully, on the last day, I did manage a few good leads.

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Climbing Gaustaspokelse (WI4) at Krokan. Photo courtesy of the talented Rami Valonen.

My second Swing and a Miss occurred just two weeks later in Northern Sweden. For two years now the long, isolated ice routes at Stora Sjorfallet have called to me. Finally being in Finland for a winter, visiting this area became top priority.

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Nastan Alpint (Almost Alpine) WI3, 400m

As my friend and I drove the 12 hours north and west, the temperature, as if playing games with us, steadily rose, and continued to rise to above freezing, where it remained for the duration of the trip. Thus, poor ice conditions were abundant. The final nails in the coffin included an overambitious agenda and a lack of ice climbing fitness. In short, it was too warm and we were too weak.

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Being that we were there for the winter solstice, the sun never really rose. This was sunrise, sunset, and everything in between.

Overall, these trips were hard ones for me. There was frustration. There was disappointment. You win some, you lose some. Yet, interspersed, there were still some magical moments. Watching moose walk down the approach trail at Stora Sjorfellet gave me pause to reflect on my enchanting surroundings. The soft, warm, winter sunlight casting long shadows on the blue ice of Krokan reminded me how much I have missed winter in the North. Are these moments enough to make these trips “worth it”? For me, it is hard to know. At least they help ease the burden of the long journey home.

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The boys, heading home.

 

 

 

The Approach

“But I did a lot of good approaching!”, my friend said in a much more upbeat voice. Our conversation up to this point had mostly been about our less-than-ideal summer climbing season. “Good approaching”, huh? The thought alone was enough to make me smile.

During the days between then and now, I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on what constitutes a “good” approach. A good approach can be a silver lining to a failed climbing mission, or the icing on the cake to a successful one. Much like with climbs themselves, they need to have good flow, good positions, and a little bit of undefinable something that sets them apart from the hundreds of other approaches that are merely a means to an end. Below are some of my personal favorites.

Bohuslan, Sweden:

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On approach to Hallinden. Photo by Rami Valonen.

Every cliff I have ever visited in Bohuslan has had a mellow and laid-back approach (which is good, because the climbing is anything but casual). The hikes are short, usually flat, and generally offer views of a beautiful and iconic Swedish countryside.

 

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Farm country and granite. Not a bad view from Vettekullen. Photo by Rami Valonen.

 

Aosta Valley crags,  Italy:

It is not everyday that you get to start your approach by walking down winding, centuries-old streets of a middle-European village.

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A beautiful morning for a stroll. Photo by Marc Daviet Photography.

As we worked our way though the village, over the river, and then up the mountain, the eye-catching landscape unfolded all around. Castle ruins lay below and the majestic, sun drenched, snow-capped Alps lay above. Navigation proved to be challenging during the last half of the tiring approach, but that could have been because of the distractingly good views.

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Mountains above, valley below. Photo by Marc Daviet Photography.

 

Higger Tor, England:

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While the hike in is only but a few minutes walk, it packs a punch in regards to scenery. Located in the north of the Peak District National Park, this classic gritstone approach offers “brilliant” views into the Burbage Valley. Sheep pastures and dry stacked stone wall fences cover the lush, green rolling landscape.

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Stone Mountain, North Carolina:

One of my favorite walks that ends at one of my favorite places. A meandering approach up a gravel service road leads you into a picturesque Appalachian valley. Stone Mountain stands proud above with its base only a few hundred yards (meters) away. It could just be the rhododendrons in bloom, the deer that are almost always to be seen in the valley, or the nervous excitement that comes with climbing at Stone. Whatever it is, it makes this one of the finest approaches I have had the pleasure to make.

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The Great Arch. Photo by Kneil Place.

Hits From the Blog: A collections of memories from El Chalten

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. While I don’t think that Charles Dicken’s now cliché line was written to describe climbing in El Chalten during the shoulder season, it seems to fit my experience almost to perfection. Overall, my five weeks in El Chalten have been frustrating ones. Opportunities were missed, and many more never appeared at all. Most of my days have felt wasted. Maybe it was just a string of poor luck (even by Chalten standards), or maybe it was time to pay the penance for having such success in the Turbio. But, between those long hours of bad weather, self-pity, and defeat, were moments of joy, amazement, and fellowship. Below are a few of the most memorable ones.

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The view from Paso de Cuadrado overlooking the Northern Fitz Roy Glacier.

The Wind:

The sound of the Chalten Massif is wind. Traveling across the entire Pacific Ocean without a hint of land to slow it down, this “Broom of God”, slams itself into the these golden granite pillars with its full and uncompromising force. More than once I have been reduced to first compromising, then pleading with the wind for only a few moments of calm. Neither of which proved effective. While being knocked off of one’s feet and tossed about quickly became commonplace, one night in particular stood out from the rest.

Tess and I checked the weather forecast obsessively, as climber protocol dictates in this town. We saw a brief but steady two-day “weather window” coming up. Pressure was high, winds were low, and precip was none. Time to take for the hills. We set off for the Colmillos, a cluster of three under-loved spires, hoping to attempt a new route on them. After a lengthy and involved approach, we gained the glacier that guarded our objective. Nearing nightfall, we set up our tent and settled in for the night.

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The Colmillos. The right ridge of the center peak remains unclimbed.

As the evening progressed, an unexpected wind sprang up. Steadily increasing, but not forecasted, it was easy to ignore from the cozy confines of our sleeping bags. Though, at some point, I noticed my head was wet, really wet. So wet, in fact, that it cut through the dense, sleep-filled haze and reached cognitive thought. Sitting up, I surveyed the scene. The tent door, which had been left slightly ajar, was now fully open. The vestibule, which covered all of our gear, was missing, and the tent was steadily filling with rain being blown sideways. “Tess. We’re f**ked”. And with these words we began to take action, dragging our near 50kg (100lbs) of soaking gear into the already cramped tent. Sitting amidst the chaos, with the tent fabric slapping our faces, a sudden, strong gust was too much for our tent anchors to handle. Boom! The tent, with the two of us and all our gear, were blown backwards and completely upside down, sending us for a short ride across the glacier. As quickly as it had begun, the ride was over and we righted ourselves. The remainder of the evening was spent pressing and leaning against the windward side of the tent. Minutes crept along and formed hours. As fatigue overwhelmed us the storm slowly abated, leaving us to fall asleep in sad, wet sleeping bags amongst the mounds of gear.

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Hiking out after the beatdown.

Connecting the Past and Present:

A solid built man with short, salt and pepper hair and a warm smile greeted us. We shared no common language and I felt mildly intimidated, maybe even a bit silly, to be sitting before him. This man, Leo, had been a member of the first two climbing expeditions into the Rio Turbio Valley. Upon hearing about our trip there from a mutual friend, he asked to meet with us and see pictures from our journey. What could I offer a man who had spent nearly three months exploring this remote region?

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Racking up at the base of the Piritas. Photo by Tess Ferguson

With the help of our friend Julia, a skilled translator, we began. As the images from our trip played across the computer screen, conversation began to flow easily. Questions were asked both ways. “Is the puesto we built still standing?” “What drew you to first explore there”? Every photo helped to erase the 15+ years that had separated Leo from the Turbio, and each new snapshot brought more memories, more stories, and wealth of information. Tess and I were both astounded by the stories that were shared; Falling horses, land slides, floods, epic whippers, exploded boats, and drill impalements topped the list. It all made our adventure seem like child’s play. “The Turbio is wild”, he said. “If I saw a dinosaur walking around back there, I would just think it was normal”.

While Leo’s climbing expedition days are now over, it is clear that his adventurous spirit remains. When asked about the potential for climbing in one of the other Turbio drainages, he had serious doubts. From his view high on the wall, he had scrutinized the rock in the neighboring valley and recalled that the cliffs did not appear to be of high quality. After a moment of silence, he added with a smile, “but the valleys to the west, the one’s accessed from Chile, look to have amazing potential”.

The North Pillar:

The saying goes that “Fitz Roy is the mountain to climb, and Cerro Torre is the mountain to have climbed”. Being the two most iconic features in all of the dramatic Patagonian landscape, their pull draws people in from across the globe. My first (and only) taste of alpine climbing in El Chalten was on Fitz Roy’s north pillar.

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Cerro Torre on the left, Fitz Roy on the right, and a condor in the middle.

The forecast promised three to four days of stellar weather; an unusually long stretch for this time of year. Tess and I had become fast friends with one of our housemates, Adrian. With his flight home quickly approaching, he realized this window would be has last opportunity to climb. Plans were discussed, and after much vacillating it was decided that the three of us were to attempt the Mate, Porro, y Todos Lo Demás route.

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Adrian and Tess approaching Fitz Roy

The following morning we began the long and involved approach. Steep hillsides gave way to rock scrambling. Scrambles turned to snow fields, snow fields to glaciers. Crampons on, crampons off. Again and again. Over ten hours later, we reached the bivy spot; a small rock outcrop positioned 200 meters below the start of the climb and two-thirds of the way up a 700-meter snow gully. It was the most stunning place I have ever spent a night at.

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A room with a view.

Pre dawn, we awoke and prepared. Leaving everything we deemed “unnecessary” at the bivy site, we continued up the ever-steepening snow gully to the start of the climb. While the weather was good, climbing conditions were less than ideal. As the sun rose, I found myself leading a steep mixed pitch on what should have been clean rock. Three rope lengths later we were finally able to ditch the ice climbing gear and lace up our rock shoes. Adrian began to lead. On the wall, the cracks were choked with snow and ice. It seemed as if every hand, foot, and gear placement had to first be cleared of frozen precipitation before it could be utilized. The going was slow, and just barely possible. If it wasn’t for the vision and skill of Adrian, the only direction Tess and I would have gone was down. Pitch by pitch, Adrian moved the rope up the wall. It was an impressive show. For me, just to see what is not only possible, but often required, to climb such a route made for an eye-opening experience. To save time and energy, Tess and I jugged many of the pitches.

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The view up from our second bivy site, high off the ground.

At the top of the 16th pitch, which we reached hours after darkness had returned, we found a sloping ledge; home. Sharing only one sleeping bag, and wrapping the tent body around us, we shivered through the sub-freezing night. In the morning, with the rock above looking even more ice and snow covered than the previous day’s, we made the decision to descend.

Hour after hour of rappelling ensued. Single piece anchors were standard, and eventually the snow was reached. Down Down Down. Reversing each step painstakingly, trying not to become a statistic. At sundown, we were still hours away from our only reasonable bivy spot. Up the snowfield to the pass. Down the sketchy slabs and rock scrambles. Finally, we arrived at the camping spot. The largest dangers were now behind us and all that remained for the next day was four hours of hiking. As the packs were dropped, both mental and physical relief swept over us. Laughs were shared as bleary eyes and shaky hands tried to pass a warm cup of gruel back and forth. By the end of the second mug, sleep was overtaking us. As a light rain fell, we cuddled together under the tent fabric, and were ohh-so-grateful for the two sleeping bags we got to share that night.

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Hiking through the Fitz Roy glacier’s maze of ice.

A Town Alive

Over the last month, the large majority of my time has been spent in and around El Chalten. I have developed a love/hate relationship with this town. While there are many qualities that I find less than desirable, one of my favorite aspects is the feeling that overwhelms this place when good weather is on approach. Below is a short narrative about such occurrences.

Like most tourist towns, El Chalten is a melting pot. Trekkers, tourist, and climbers all gather here in an attempt to fulfill whatever it is that drives them. While the objectives might be different, one hope is shared, and that is for the weather. Every visitor to El Chalten wishes for a fine forecast. Be it just to see, to hike by, or to climb these peaks, favorable conditions must be had. These weather windows can be hard to come by, and many a visitor have spent upwards of a week here to never even see the granite monoliths.

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The view of Fitz Roy on a rare, clear day.

The climbers take this to the extreme. At least twice a day (and often much more), the weather report is updated. During the long periods in which the weather is insufficient for climbing, a general malaise falls over this group. Lots of eating, drinking, and mindless chatter often ensue. When the report of promising weather finally does arrive though, watch out. Roused from their semi-hibernation, the change in the climbers can be drastic. The war rooms are filled. Lengthy and heated discussions ensure. What day is best head out? What routes are to be climbed? Teams are picked. Decisions are made. Kits are packed. The town comes alive and a nervous energy, a buzz, can be felt everywhere. People walk faster. Empanadas, the climbers’ fuel of choice, are sold by the hundreds. In twos or threes, they head to the hills. Those who remain are often anxious, waiting for the return of their friends. Who will summit, and more importantly, will everyone come home okay?

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Adrian and Tess considering if the weather will hold.

As time passes, fate unfolds in the mountains. The window closes and our climbers return. Doors open. Eager faces look up to see who has come home. “How did it go?” they casually ask, really meaning “Did you summit?!”. No matter the answer, no matter the outcome, congratulations and praise are handed out in earnest. Even to attempt a climb here is something to be proud of, and every safe return is cause to celebrate.

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Tess heading home, summitless but safe.

 

The time is (almost) now.

Months of training, thousands of euros, and countless hours of research and consultation have come down to this. Tomorrow I depart from Finland for my 10-week climbing trip in Argentina.

Yesterday’s massive gear packing session and today’s expedition mullet cutting finished all the necessary pre-trip preparations. While this is one of the longest and most involved trips I have ever done, it has been one of the easiest and least-stressful to plan for. Coincidentally, it has also been the trip that has required me to get the most outside assistance; aka, to ask for help.

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New shades, new mullet.

Most (but not all) of the gear.

Most (but not all) of the gear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I won’t bore you with a lengthy list of those fine individuals, companies, and organizations who have selflessly given their time and expertise to help me reach for my dream, I will say that I am extremely grateful for not only for what they have done but for what they have taught me.

Asking for help has never been my strong suit. It makes me feel uncomfortable and for this adventure, I have had to do more of it than ever. Yet, during these trials I have come to realize that by involving others, they become part of the experience. Sharing this experience with them has allowed our bonds to grow deeper, my appreciation bigger, and our relationships stronger.

My sincerest thanks to all of you.

I will do my best to post updates on here and Facebook as time allows, though these occasions will be minimal.

Here we go!