Friday, May 30, 2008

Neacola Mountains, Alaska - May 10-16, 2008

Yeah, hard work pays off … in vacation time! I had put in some seriously long hours over the past 12 months, and the two-week trip to Alaska was the icing on a spring cake that included the trip to Kalymnos with Kristin. I managed to wrap in a work detour to Barrow, and the whirlwind came together as they always seem to do.

I went up to visit my friend Brian Litmans, who moved back to Anchorage about a year ago. Brian’s into the free-your-hell stuff, so we looked to put together primarily a ski trip. We tossed around a couple of options, including Little Switzerland, but we eventually settled on the Neacola Mountains just outside Lake Clark National Park. We went back and forth on the decision, but we settled on the Neacolas for a couple of reasons. First, we could find very little information about where we wanted to go. Second, we were almost guaranteed not to see a single person while we were there. And third, it looked sweeeet!

Background Research:

We looked around a bit and found some limited information.

These guys went in with Beckey to climb what he recently named Mt. Chakachmna. Apparently, it was Beckey’s second trip to that area, and I’m fairly certain I actually interviewed one of the guys he went with the first time for a job we had open several years ago.

These guys had recently flown in to the same area for a ski trip earlier this year. Their photos definitely encouraged us.

The AAJ also had a bit of information, but not much to go on.

In the end, we decided to land on the same glacier that Beckey’s group and the skiing group had landed on, because it looked like incredible terrain and a good jumping off point for other adventures. Here’s a couple topos of where we were.

We flew in with Doug Brewer of AK West in Nikiski, and he dropped us off just to the southeast of point 7530 – also known now as Mt. Chakachmna.

We got dropped off on May 10th under clear skies and calm winds – a beautiful setting – but we could already see the lenticulars forming over the summit of Mt. Spurr to the North. Hmmm … I wonder what it will look like in the morning.

Well, we woke up to about 8” of fresh snow, strong winds, and limited visibility. We wanted to go for a ski tour, but we couldn’t see anything, and the wind was howling, so we decided to hole up for the day. Little did we know it was only going to get worse. Over the next 3-4 days, we got probably 2.5-3’ of snow. We spent most of our time shoveling snow, building walls, drinking beer and bourbon, reading and playing cards.

On the 4th day (5th day?), the weather finally improved enough for us to head out for a tour to check out the surroundings. The weather cleared as the day wore on, and by 1-2 pm, we were headed up the couloir behind our camp, which leads up to a col on the ridge leading to the NE from the summit of Chakachamna. We took one run from halfway up the gully to check on stability and feel it out, and then once we reached the bottom we decided to throw the skins back on and point the tips back up the 2000’ run.

We topped out a couple of hours later in strong winds and decreasing visibility around 5 pm. The soft snow turned to wind buffed hardpack and ice at the top of couloir, and we bootpacked the last couple of hundred feet. We snapped a few photos and then I dropped in, side slipping for a turn or two before getting to the good stuff. Despite the worsening conditions, we had a great time skiing down through the rock towers, surrounded by the seracs of a remnant glacier and soaring turrets of granite. Fun!

The next day we woke up to even better weather.

The sun had hammered the south facing lines, so we went across to the other side of the glacier, where we hoped the conditions would be better.

We had made a quick tour over there in pretty bleak conditions on day three, and knew there were some great lines to be had and that the snow was fairly stable. Some of the shots from an excellent day.

That afternoon, Doug picked us up around 5 pm.

and we got the rare pleasure of checking out our lines from the air.

We considered sticking it out for another couple of days, but we were getting bad weather reports and decided to take our weather window.

All in all a great trip! We didn’t get to climb anything, because the mountains were shedding feet and feet of snow like a winter skin, but the skiing was incredible, and we had a great time.

This area has incredible potential! Especially if you have the time and patience to wait for the weather window. Drop me a line if you want any additional information – lots of climbing and skiing objectives to be had from that base camp and the surrounding glaciers.

Here are some more pics.

And yet more pics from Brian.

Go freakin' get some!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Barrow, Alaska - May 7-9, 2008

For the last year, I’ve been working with several groups representing Inupiat Eskimos on the North Slope of Alaska. For thousands of years, the Inupiats have relied on the subsistence hunt of bowhead whales and other marine mammals in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of the Arctic Ocean.

In April of 2007, Royal Dutch Shell put forth an exploration plan proposing to drop two large mobile drill rigs and dozens of associated support vessels directly in the middle of the Inupiats’ subsistence hunting grounds during the fall whale hunt. Map. In some places, whale meat makes up as much as 50% of their annual diet, and the proposed drilling activities threatened to disrupt the fall hunt and jeopardize the safety of the Inupiat whaling crews.

Last year, I represented the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope in a challenge to Shell’s exploration plan. We argued that the Minerals Management Service illegally disregarded the potential impacts to subsistence activities in approving the exploration plan. Here's our main brief. In August, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction setting aside the exploration plan as Shell was mobilizing its fleet and moving ships into place. A Reuters article --- NY Times Article.

This month, I was lucky enough to travel to Barrow to meet with members of the North Slope Borough and ICAS. We won the first round of litigation, but the pressure to extract oil and natural gas from the Arctic is increasing. I wanted to travel to Barrow to meet folks face to face and learn more about their traditions and practices.

On the day I arrived, one of the whaling crews landed one of the first bowheads of the season, and before I had been in Barrow more than a few hours I found myself at the edge of the pack ice helping to prep the whale to be hauled up out of the water.

For the next several hours, I watched as dozens of family members arrived on snow machines and we started the long, slow process of hauling the 30 ft. whale onto the ice by hand.

Once we got the whale out of the water, they started processing the whale meat, which will be distributed to the family and other members of the community who need food. Using traditional tools, the whale meat was cut into smaller chunks and staged on the ice before being loaded up into sleds and towed off towards the village.

Some of the meat was boiled on site for folks to enjoy. Yum. Maktak.

At the same time, scientists from the Borough’s Dept. of Wildlife collected data and tissue samples from the whale.

They send people out to every whale that is landed and have assembled an impressive database of information on the bowhead whale over many years. The Borough’s scientists, who probably know more about the bowhead than anyone else in the world, provided invaluable assistance in the court case, explaining how whales react to underwater noise associated with drilling and icebreaking activities. I got a chance to meet the scientists in person and learn more about the whale and its annual migration from the Bering Sea through the Chukchi and into the Beaufort and back.

I came away from the trip with a much better appreciation for the culture and traditions of the Inupiat. The whale hunt provides the very foundation for their diet, family, psychological health and the maintenance of their history and traditions.

I look forward to offering my help as they face continuing threats to subsistence activities from the oil industry.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kalymnos - March 15-April 2 - Honeymoon 2008

“Then Poseidon and Apollo joined to work erosion of the wall by fury of rivers borne in flood against it.” H.A. Guerber, The Myths of Greece and Rome

Thank the gods for creating Kalymnos! Endless walls of limestone rise up out of the sea, and great caves carved over millennia look out over the Mediterranean. Waves of rock rise from the arid landscape and seem to break down upon you. Gravity stretches surrealistic tuffas towards Earth while the wind whips the foam off the sea and waves crash on shore. “Cling, clang” goes the goat bell – “baaahhhh baaaahhhh.”

Honeymoon 2008. Catchy moniker, excellent annual tradition, but “words all fail the magic prize.” How can I describe the magic? Quote liberally from Greek myth? Talk of the mystery – the history – the ancient ruins? Oh yeah, and the sheer joy of the climbing. How can I weave it all together into a passable account?

Ain’t no way its gonna happen. Think writing can transport you to a foreign land as if you were really there? Think again - and start making your plans. If you’ve ever clipped a bolt you need to visit Kalymnos.

Destination sport climbing. Originally, I was skeptical. No real mountains? No gear? No glaciers? No alpine starts? Am I really going to take two weeks of precious vacation time to clip bolts? For awhile I refused to consider it an option. Then, in 2005, Kristin talked me into it by suggesting Thailand as an adventure. Oh yeah – good times. So why not try it again? Limestone – bolts – sun – water – seems like a pretty good combination. Fast forward to March, 2008, and we’re packing for Greece.

The trip started as planned. Walk out the front door, catch a bus, hop on the Max train to the airport, fly to Frankfurt, fly to Athens, take a subway to Syntagma Square, take the subway back to the airport the next morning, catch another plane to Kalymn…..screeeeeeccchhh. Hold it right there.

Trip recommendation #1. Don’t book a flight to Kalymnos! Fly to Kos, and take the ferry – or just take the boat from Athens. They built the airport on Kalymnos on the top of a mountain on an island with no trees. The area is notorious for the meltemi winds that blow from the north under the control of the ancient Greek god Boreas. When the wind blows, the planes sit on the runway. The wind blew just about every day we were there.

We ended paying extra to catch a flight to Kos, which left Athens at 7 pm. The plane was packed with people who all wanted to get to Kalymnos that night, and the ferries weren’t running. The plane lands, and dozens of people rush to the street to catch one of the few taxis so they can rush to the dock to catch a ferry that may or may not be running.

The taxis leave, and we’re sitting on the curb with a Greek family from New York who are moving to Kalymnos with their baby and twenty duffle bags in tow. Two guys in a dump truck drive by and with a New York whistle this guy flags down the truck and in we go. Ok – insert plane to Kos, dumptruck from airport to dock.

Then what? Turns out one of the locals is running a covert and highly illegal ferry operation on his boat the Anna Maria. Problem is he only has room for so many people before his boat will sink to the bottom of the Med. By the time we get there, he’s already left for the first 1.5 hour round trip. By the time he gets back, we’re waiting – with a lot of other people.

The Anna Maria pulls up to the dock and people jostle for position. I can’t bring myself to elbow through the crowd – Claude Remy and his 80-year old father, mothers with children, a local guy and his cat, a doctor and nurse and several cylinders of gas, dozens of duffle bags, dirt-bag climbers from all over Europe. The gunnels are sinking quick. F@*# it. We decided to wait.

We weren’t the only ones shut down. We chatted up a few Austrians out on holiday. At 20 and 22 years old, these kids were in the prime of their drinking careers. They quickly found the closest bar and came back armed with half a dozen large bottles of Heineken. An hour and a half later, they were stupid drunk and stumbling towards the Anna Maria with a couple more bottles in hand. Just don’t miss the boat!

Lucky for us, though, they had a pre-arranged room and a ride from the dock on Kalymnos to the studio apartments in Massouri on the other side of the island. We tagged along and lucked out, finding a free ride and a nice room at midnight without any prior reservations. Ok – insert covert ride on Anna Maria from Kos to Kalymnos, midnight ride in sedan from dock in Pothia to Massouri – and we’re there!

Trip recommendation #2. Book your room ahead of time! Don’t be a dumb ass like us and wing it. Nobody mans the desk at midnight, and most business is conducted by cell phone and internet. Lock a place up for at least the first couple of nights and then you can shop around. Don’t expect to walk into town and walk from place to place to find your room.

The next morning we woke up, looked out the window, and saw blue sky, walls of limestone, and the Med. By sheer luck, we got set up in a beach-front studio apartment in the middle of town that was clean with a well-stocked kitchen, great views of the water and a decent pre-season price. Woot!

Thus started a 12-day run of the most incredible sport climbing I have ever done. The west coast of Kalymnos is lined with cliff after cliff of clean, steep, featured limestone. Since it all started in the mid-90s, mostly European climbers have developed dozens of sectors and put up close to 1000 routes ranging from 3rd class to 5.14d. No matter how good a climber you are, you will find more than enough to keep you happy for two solid weeks or more.

We fell into a delicious routine of waking up to eggs and tea and maybe some stretching on the front porch. Then we’d hop on our trusty pink scooter and putter off along the coastal roads looking for the next towering wall of limestone to explore. We’d park near an old gravel road and walk off up the hillside on a well-marked trail, shooing away goats and brushing our hands over limestone boulders as we anxiously made time to the base of the routes. 20-30 minutes later we’d pull up to a crag with 10-30 3-4 star routes.

Then we’d climb. The walls start out low angle, and as they rise up from the Earth they start to steepen and arc over head. The first bolt is almost always less than 10 easy feet from the ground. The rest are drilled almost on top of each other. Friendly bolts, route names painted in blue, soft grades, steep rock, lots of features. This is an ideal place to push hard, because you won’t get hurt unless you do something really stupid.

Ok, well you won’t get REALLY hurt.

The first couple of days, we ended up on the same routine as a large group of Spanish and Portuguese climbers on vacation for Easter week. They traveled en masse, with crying babies, non-climber family members, and lots of kids. But they were nice, and damn strong. Even the weak ones were climbing 5.12, and the strongest of the strong would send 80 meter 5.13s up the roofs of huge tuffa-lined caves.

They would tie in as their friends reminded them - “tranquilo, tranquilo.” A few moves to the first bolt, then the rock would kick back and they’d stare up through the holds trying to figure out the moves. A couple of deep breaths and they’d near the crux. Then everyone on the ground would change their tune – “VENGA! VENGA!” Now a throw for the thank god jug, or a sketchy move off a rounded pinch. Almost always, they’d stick the move or take at the bolt – we saw very few whippers.

At the end of the day, we’d pack up our rack of 15 draws, hop back on the pink scooter, chug a few Red Bulls, readjust our lycra tights, lube up our gri-gris, change the batteries in our boom box, and then drive back to town to hang out for the evening with the rest of the sport climbers.

Greece – Ouzo – partying – you’d think there would be lots of partying right? Not so. At least not this time of year. We showed up early in the season, and a lot of places weren’t open. Folks would head out for a late dinner, but the social scene was mellow. Most evenings we would head to the Glaros Bar for a beer with Steve and Sue. Classic characters those two. They set up shop here a long time ago before the climbing scene developed and have been here since. They keep information on new routes, hand out bolts and drill bits to developers, and keep track of the climbing scene on the island.

Trip Recommendation #3. Go hang out at the Glaros Bar and chat up Steve and Sue. They’re entertaining as hell. Steve hails from the UK but has been in Greece for years. He’s got a cynical, biting, self-deprecating sense of humor that he weaves through endless tales of motorcycle racing, climbing with the Spokane Mountaineers, and managing drunk Danish tourists. Go meet him – its worth it. He’ll even go climbing with you, but you may end up in one of his not-so-flattering stories!

Anyway, he’s worth talking to just to get a better sense of the climbing history on the island. We got to meet a couple of vets that had been developing routes for awhile – Hans, the Remy Bros., Christian. Climbing is relatively new to the island but already has a pretty rich history of personalities and stories.

So we kept this up for the next two weeks. Eat, sleep, climb, drink beer, talk shite, drive around on a scooter, repeat repeat repeat. Sounds awful huh?

Out of the 12 days we were there, we took two full rest days. One we used to explore the northern reaches of the island – go explore the cape out beyond Emporios with the solar powered antenna on top. Catch an afternoon drink and some mammoth calamari at the dockside cafĂ©, and then ride back to town during the sunset gazing up at the routes you want to climb the next day.

The other rest day we used to check out a parade in Pothia, the main village on the island. The Greeks were celebrating the beginning of the war of independence from Turkey in 1821. All the kids on the island dressed up in garb and marched with the military. Locals packed all the streetside cafes, and the Nescafe flowed like wine from the chalice of Dionysus.

In the end, the trip offered everything you can ask for from a climbing vacation. A new culture, the mystery of the history of the island, spectacular routes in a fabulous setting, the intersection of old and new, east and west, Red Bull and Vodka, lycra and polypro. Destination sport climbing at its finest. Go find out for yourself! And let us know how it went.

Oh yeah, and whatever happened to the Poseidon of that earlier quote at the beginning of this tale? He used to live here.

The Christianity took over with promises of eternal fun and happiness!

Now Poseiden's had a change in his job description and you can find him here.

But he still gets to enjoy these.