Norway: Lofoten Islands Ski Touring

Spring is happening everywhere else in the world but here in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. It is still quite wintery. I am up here guiding ski touring in the mountains surrounding the beautiful village of Kabelvaag. Almost all ski tours start and end at the ocean. Its been a great two weeks so far up here and a great break from the madness of Chamonix where I am living now.

Here are some photos so far from the season.


Flying from the South Pole station, 2 pilots and a flight engineer from Kenn Borek Air recently went missing during a flight through the Queen Alexandria Mountains. Days of bad weather made searching for the missing plane impossible, but yesterday the wreckage was spotted and was deemed unsurvivable. I spent six weeks in the Queen Alexandria Mountains while working out of the CTAM camp in 2010-2011 season. The above photo is a panorama of the range.

The plane crashed in what was estimated at 170 km/h winds. The pilots of KBA are the best in the world at mountain flying, and I can only imagine they did the best they could given the horrible conditions.

I feel a deep sadness for the loss of those three men and my condolences go out to their families. May they rest in peace.


El Cap: Mescalito

In late October Ben, Paul, and I decided to climb Mescalito; a classic El Capitan big wall route to the right of the Nose. It has 26 pitches and goes at 5.7 C3+. My first El Cap wall was with Paul, the Lurking Fear, which we did in a "shove," which is basically a push that takes longer than originally planned. 

Mescalito, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. Its not incredibly hard, nor is it incredibly easy. For its grade its quite sustained and there are very few pitches that give the leader a chance to relax. For us there was always something a bit tricky to figure out. In addition to that its a fairly steep and committing route. Almost every pitch is overhanging. Its steep enough that a rock dropped from the  top would land well out from the base.

All my El Cap routes have begun in the YOSAR site where Paul and other friends live.

Paul and Ben getting ready

We planned on 5 days to climb the route. Not a world record pace, but not to shabby either. To do this we fixed the first five pitches on day one and hauled all our gear. Day two we blasted off, and let me tell you, the feeling of commitment after doing the Seagull Pitch was palpable. In other words the pitch traversed so far to the right it was obvious that descent from that point would have been difficult at best. Of course there can't be thought of retreat, its just self defeating. 

(P.S. if any future Mescalito climbers are reading this have fun on the "5.6" traverse into the Seagull :-)

El Cap herself. Mescalito is to the right of the sun/shade line.

 I think there is a certain comfort in realizing that we were beyond the point of no return. All thoughts and efforts then turn upwards in the slow, inch by inch, struggle which is Big Wall Climbing.

Looking up from the base of Mescalito is quite intimidating

The days just flew by, the entire wall was empty except for Tommy Caldwell off to our left working on his new free route. It was very clear why he is the strongest big wall free climber in the world: work ethic. That guy worked well into the night on his crux pitch. In any case we had an amazing time. We short-fixed the entire route, each day only one person would lead. In this fashion the rope was always moving upwards and upwards. This method is simply when the leader gets to the top of each new pitch, pulls up the extra slack and fixes it to the anchor, then continues upward on the next pitch with a self-belay. In this way there is rarely three people at an anchor. Since nearly every anchor is on a bland and/or overhanging wall, this become a huge advantage for us.

Ben cleaning on day three
We had the distinct pleasure of climbing under clear blue skies and into the full moon. It was an absolute pleasure to be on the El Cap in such a ridiculous position. The moon was so bright I could hardly sleep each night, and all the other features, like the Sentinel and the Cathedral Group, which usually look so big from the valley floor, got smaller and smaller each day as we progressed higher. In fact even the far right side of El Cap, which I'd climbed in 2011 (Zodiac in 22 hours with "No-Pants" Ben), was eventually way beneath us. Proof that Mescalito is way bigger.

Ben riding the pig. Too much to explain here...definitely not the best job on the team.
Now we aren't exactly gumbies, but we aren't exactly pros either, at least in the world of big wall climbing. But all in all everything went very well, everyone seemed to deal adequately with "the fear." "The fear" generally sets in when you get up a little bit, maybe day one or day two, and the wall seems so impossibly big and way too much to climb. But slowly, as those final pitches get closer and slightly closer, "the fear" turns into the excitement of the moment.

Paul leading out day three. He took a decent fall on this pitch and ripped a screamer. Yikes!

On the wall there are little victories such as finally getting to a belay anchor that isn't entirely overhanging. Or the feeling of getting into a well made porta-ledge. We had two porta-ledges so each night one of us had the bachelor pad, which ultimately meant they had to make dinner the other two. Life on the wall is definitely challenging. Bodily functions become a chore and everything has to be clipped to something at all times. We all lost something on the route, perhaps an unnecessary part of ourselves. In my case I lost a watch. But that is just karma; I found the watch at the base of Higher Cathedral rock in 2011.

Passing off the lead rope at a belay. Off I go...see you guys tonight.

Then on day five at around ten pm we topped out on what, for me, was the most challenging El Cap route I'd done. More than that is was an incredible little adventure with my good friends in the blue skies and full moon of the Yosemite fall. I'll never forget it.
Ben jugging the final pitch
To summarize big wall climbing to the lay person: it is very labor intensive vertical camping with periods of intense fear interspersed with tedious tasks. Movement happens slowly and everything you do back on solid ground takes three times as long here.

To summarize big wall climbing for my fellow climbers: Mescalito changed my perspective on the solidity of rusty 1/4 inch bolts and old-as-hell rivets.


Schralptastic in the Rockies and Roger's Pass

Dylan Taylor, Ben Mitchell, Cece Mortenson and I are busy preparing for a ski mountaineering expedition to the northeast corner of Afghanistan where the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains meet. Planning the trip is still giving us lots of surprises but we are plugging along. We'll only know how it goes once the trip is over. There are so many unknowns. What we do have for certain is a solid team of committed friends with a good plan and intentions.

This is an image from the guidebook to the Wakhan, "Peaks of Silver and Jade"

In the meantime I'm taking my ski mountaineering exam with the American Mountain Guide's Association. Its my last guide's exam and I'm very excited to pass this and be finished with the guide's training process so I can move on with real life. With that goal in mind I'm up in Canada skiing as much as I can with good friends and other folks who are also taking exams.

Heading up to Pope's Peak through the larch forest in the Rockies

Skiing down from Pope's Col. 
The next day Mike Madden and I skied the Young's Peak traverse, a Roger's Pass classic.

 Mike Madden 
Skiing out the Asulkan Valley underneath tree triangle


Tortured rocks and the vast yonder

Recently I returned from another fantastic season working in Antarctica. Our team consisted, at any one time, of three geologists and two mountain guides. Tim Burton, with almost a decade of Antarctic experience and bottomless well of "dad jokes" was the default lead mountaineer on the trip, and I was his humble second.

G097 Team: Mike, Tim, Chris, Christine, Fawna, Tim, and myself

Our area of study was the formidable and notorious Fosdick Mountains which are a sub-range of the Ford Ranges, which all lie within Marie Byrd Land in western Antarctica. We five were the only humans in a land area the size of the state of Washington. We lived self-supported out of three Scott tents, an Endurance kitchen tent, and a bathroom tent. All of our travel was accomplished on Skandic 550 skidoos that we used to traverse over 800 miles each in transit to and from mountainsides and for camp moves.
Tim traversing in front of Mt Lockhart's icefall

To say this was an experience of a lifetime is an understatement. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of this amazing geologic research. The geologists, Christine Siddoway, Fawna Korhonen, Mike Brown, Chris Yakymchuk, and Tim Ivanic, come from a fairly specialized type of geologic background and their interests were twofold: uncovering the igneous and metamorphic petrological history of the Fosdicks, and also of correlating the structural history of the range with the geochemistry to create a higher resolution framework of how the Fosdicks formed.

Chris and Tim investigating the rocks

Chris considers the migmatite at Mt. Iphigene

That is a mouthful, but here is my layman's explanation. The Fosdicks are composed of metamorphic rock, which is rock that was originally something else and was subsequently heated and/or squeezed enough by the pressure of overlying rock or the compression/extension/faulting of the Earth that the original rock became altered to its present form. The fancy term for what the Fosdicks are made of is "migmatite," or more specifically, a "migmatite core complex." Simply put, migmatite means rock that was melted. This melting can occur because of either or both heating or structural deformation (stretching, compression, ect). What the rocks look like today is a result partly of what they were originally composed and how the original rock's chemistry was altered by the mechanical and temperature forces enacted upon it by the tectonic-scale action that it experiened.

Tim, Fawna, and Chris look at some paragneiss on Bird Bluff South

Our team of geologists are a heavy-hitting "dream team" of their specific kind of Earth science. The entire project is funded by the National Science Foundation (thanks U.S. taxpayers, myself included!) and these grants are given only to those at the top of their field and who have demonstrated a long history of being able to get it done, scientifically.

Co-PI Christine has spent a dozen seasons working in Antarctica, ten of those in Marie Byrd Land, and five in the Fosdicks. She has probably spent more time in Marie Byrd Land than any other human, alive or dead. So for me it was a great opportunity to learn from her experience and to hear all sorts of crazy strories like the time one of the grad students fell into a 60 foot deep crevasse unwittingly and got pulled out unscathed. Or when the Air National Guard used to open the back hatch of the LC-130 and let her hang out the back on a harness to get better pictures of the rock outcrops while they buzzed the mountain at close proximity. For better or worse the US Antarctic program, like American society in general, has become much more conservative and a lot of the independence that groups used to enjoy is harder to come by now.

Hmmm...mystery tea!

The trend in recent years is for larger projects, staffed camps, in other words, less of the do-it-yourself kind of Antarctic science that typifies the smaller programs and the old school Antarctic scientists. That said there are a number of projects each year that get dropped off with a few thousand pounds of gear, a satellite phone and HF radio, and then picked up two months later. We were one of those groups.

Building camp at Mt. Lockhart next to the icefall.

2006 was the last time anyone visited the Fosdicks for an attempt at a full field season and a now-infamous storm destroyed their camp, and has been the fodder of myth and legend for the years following. So Tim and I certainly had our work cut out for us in terms of keeping everyone safe and building a solid camp in a good location.

The Endurance tent
Tim is impossible to summarize, at once a proper British gentleman, a trickster, and ultra-talented camp chef and baker, a sewer of suites, and a million other things. It would be impossible to work with a finer person and I look forward to any adventures with him.

Tim and the jacket he handmade from an old Scott Tent.

The story of our season can be told from many angles, but it would be pretty uninteresting to go through facts of the season. What is more inspiring perhaps is to communicate what it felt like to live in such a truly alien and remote place, in the company of the best individuals I could hope for, and in the midst terrain as stunning as exists on the planet.

Bird Bluff and lake. Note people in foreground for scale.

Last year G097 (our team's "event number") had planned for a five-week season in the field in the Fosdicks, but through bad weather, bad scheduling, plain bad luck, they never were deposited in the field and had only a few day trips via Twin Otter airplane to check out the mountains and do some science. They spent forty days at Siple Dome, a.k.a. "Simple Doom," which is the closest thing in Antarctica to a small regional airport. No actual science happens there. There are two staff there who groom a skiway that Hercs and other skiplanes land on. But it is in a completely flat, white place, entirely unsuitable for studying large metamorphic mountains. Last year was a bust in terms of field work. This year was G097's comeback and our plan of getting out the Fosdicks, always the crux, was different.

Chris and Carlysle at Siple Dome while the Basler refuels

The emotional roller coaster we all went through in the planning and deployment phase of the season was pretty unreal. Fixed-wing operations, who are partly responsible for coming up with a plan of getting us out there, came up with the following plan: Chris Yakymchuck and myself would land in the Fosdicks with basic survival gear in a small Basler aircraft, and with us would be traveling the US Air National Guard (ANG) pilot would get out, drive up and down the proposed section of glacier that he was planning to land his much larger, Hercules LC-130 on, then the pilot and the airplane would depart, leaving Dr. Kakymchukky and myself alone and desolate until a later point in time when the said Herc pilot would gallantly come back and deposit the remaining team members and 13,000 pounds of remaining gear.

Basler Boy's camp

As is said, plan for the worst, hope for the best. Chris and I packed roughly a month's worth of survival rations, some books, and not much else aside from our tent and a skidoo to drive the Herc Pilot on. 

Reversing time for a second here, our team arrivedon October 17th in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the rough launching point for some of the most famous and infamous Antarctic expeditions, such as Robert Falcon Scott's fated South Polar Journey in 1911 and Shakleton as well. McMurdo is the largest base on the continent and exists solely to support science for the US Antarctic program. It is a 5-8 hour flight due south of Christchurch, New Zealand, which is, and has been, the launching point for many a Antarctic expedition.

Our team of Fawna, Tim, Tim, Chris, and I rendezvous in Christchurch then head to the "ice" on October 17th. We land and pack 10-12 hours a day for 9 strait days after which all of our gear is handed over to the cargo department and our only remaining job is to think of things we forgot and to wait for good weather that the airplane can use to fly Chris and me into the Fosdicks. The rule rather than the exception is for flights to be delayed, especially early season, especially to the Fosdicks. Over a week went by where Chris and I awoke at 5 am to get on the flight only to have our pager go off and say that the flight was cancelled due to weather.

Icefall Camp at Mt. Lockhart

We then came up with the plan that if we were unprepared Murphy's law would ensue and the flight would go. That line of reasoning led to a number of fun nights of drinking, including the very fun and very infamous McMurdo Halloween party which is about as debaucherous as parties come.

So a number of hungover mornings later Chris and I were sitting at our usual perch in the Galley sipping bad coffee and wondering when the cancellation page would buzz the pager. But no! Not today, the eighteenth day of our tenure here....Today we would fly! We rushed, said goodbyes to our newly acquired friends and old ones alike, knowing that when we returned they would be gone home and we would be different, bearded people.

Basler refueling at Siple Dome on the way to Fosdick Mountains

The next chapter of our Fosdick saga goes like this. The Captain of the LC-130, Carlysle, met us at the McMurdo airstrip. It was my first meeting, but I new that the fate of our season hung on his shoulders. Would he like the snow conditions in the Fosdicks? Or we he call off the whole mission! We shook hands, he was a gentle, easy going dude and said to us, "So I hear you guys didn't get out there last year, huh?" Chris said no, we didn't get out there last year. Carlysle replies with a wide grin, "we'll hook you up!"

Chris looking out the Basler wondering something

Chris and I kind of glanced at each other, our worries eased a bit knowing that Carlysle was on our side. Then he mentioned that he'd never done an open field landing before, this was his test run. I think he was as excited to prove himself a capable pilot as we were to get out and do geology.

In any case we got flown out over hundreds of miles of flat white nothing and then in the distance the Ford Ranges began to pierce the ice like teeth. One after another, until we came to the Sarnoffs, then our home for the next few months, the Fosdicks. The Basler pilots flew in low and circled the landing site a few times before the final approach and rough landing. Brian, the pilot said he wouldn't land here again.

We drove the skidoo out the airplane and Carlysle got on. My job now was to drive him two miles out the runway that the Air National Guard had proposed, which amounted to nothing more than a line drawn on the map that seemed free of crevasses. As it was Carlysle's first time doing this, I was a concerned as I steered around sastrugi to make the ground feel smoother to him, when in fact it seemed too rough perhaps for the large LC-130. We drove out and once back at the Basler Carlysle told me, "all good! We'll see you on Monday." I was a little dumbstruck, maybe because I figured the plan would not, could not, work out. But fate had other ideas.

...to be continued


Turning the heat up

Our Fosdick Mountains team is still in McMurdo playing the wait-for-good-weather game until we can get an aircraft in to the field site. The Fosdicks are roughly 750 miles from McMurdo across the Ross Sea. They are a coastal mountain range and are thus subject to severe storms and long stretches of bad weather. What has come to be known affectionately as "The Great Storm" pinned down the G097 crew in 2006 and ruined most of their camp. The most famous "casualty" of that storm was a Skandic skidoo that was carried a few hundred feet by the winds.
Overview of Fosdick Mountains (satellite imagery from Polar Geospatial Center).  We will be working mainly on the north side of the range.

Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish's B470 crew invited us out to help them collect infrared images of seals as they haul out of the water through holes in the sea ice. 
The Fosdick crew in infrared while out helping G470 collect imagery of pupping seals

Seals hauled out.       NMFS 15478  
Detail of Weddell Seal and blowing snow. NMFS 15478
Weddell seal and blowing snow with Royal Society Range in background. NMFS 15478
We've been keeping busy in Mactown but the time is coming for us to get out! I remain optimistic. Every day for the last week Chris Yakymchuck (phd student) and I have been scheduled on the Basler aircraft for put-in to our camp. But each day we've been cancelled due to weather. We've been coming up with a variety of ways to increase our chances of good weather. This morning Chris shaved his head to appease the weather gods. Photos soon to come and we'll find out how that worked tomorrow, our next shot to leave town.


Marie Byrd Land Awaits

Another season in Antarctica has begun again. The addictiveness of this place is palpable. From the moment I got the invitation to join the Fosdick Mountains geology expedition last spring, my excitement has only increased. Marie Byrd Land is on the opposite side of the Ross Ice Shelf from McMurdo Station and the transantarctic mountains. It is a barren land. The Polar Plateau flows towards the ocean and cuts through a variety of micro ranges. The Fosdicks are a sub-range of the Ford Ranges.
Drinking beer in Christchurch The Fosdicks are the site of perhaps the most notorious storm in recent United States Antarctic Program history. Five years ago their camp was overtaking by an unusually strong storm with near-hurricane force winds approaching 100 knots. The winds were so strong snowmobiles were thrown through the air, tents were destroyed, and it took all they had to huddle inside of their best shelter, a ninety pound canvas tent called a Scott tent, and hold the walls in from collapsing. It is a story that is retold every year in the survival school here. The snow is too hard to dig down adequately for snowblocks, so we've decided, upon the recommendation of the legendary mountain guide who was with the Fosdicks crew in the "Great Storm," to bring a chainsaw to cut down.
Getting to the Antarctic Terminal in Christchurch, New Zealand Our project is under to co-leadership of Dr. Michael Brown, the principle investigator, Dr. Fawna Korhonen, co-P.I., and Dr. Christine Siddoway, co P.I. Christine has arguably spent more time in Marie Byrd land than any other person, since her first trip to Antarctica in the late eighties as a grad student.
First sighting of the continent This season we have two halves. The first includes myself and Tim Burton as mountaineers, Fawna, Chris Yakymchuck (PhD student), and Tim Ivanic (Curtain University, Australia). We are all packed and ready to launch for the Fosdicks as soon as the weather and availability of aircraft allows for our departure. The plan this year is to put in an advance team that includes Chris Y and myself with a Basler (a retrofitted DC-3 twin engine aircraft) to the north side of Bird Bluff (named for the massive snow petrel rookery that lays their eggs there each austral summer). Then two LC-130 ski equipped aircraft flown by the New York Air National Guard will bring in the remaining three team members and the remaining thirteen thousand pounds of gear. We have a total of seventeen thousand pounds in total, which includes skidoos, twelve drums of fuel, tents, climbing equipment, cooking and survival gear, and food for two months for five people. It is a staggering amount of gear and it took five of us nine long days to pack and prepare all that gear. The support staff who run McMurdo station, where our project is based out of and supported from, have done an amazing amount of work to support our project as well. Everything from building and preparing skidoos, to preparing cargo loads, to checking and repairing field gear. The field area demands that we camp on glacier near the mountains that the geologists are most interested in sampling. We have moderate amounts of over-glacier travel with skidoos and large payloads to accomplish in order to build camps in the variety of locations in which me might work. Tim and I have spent considerable time preparing out five sleds (think Santa sled not kiddie sled) to be appropriate to handle the loading and packing needs of our travel. While establishing new routes over the glaciers, we will rope the skidoos together and the riders to the machines in order to prevent certain death in the event that one punches into a crevasse. The ultimate goal of our travel choices are to avoid at all costs a crevasse fall. This we accomplish by careful route selection and a fair degree of conservative choices. We have hundreds of pounds of one-inch nylon rope that we've spliced together and prepared specifically for use with our skidoos and sledges.
All of the geologists have been trained in the basics of glacier travel and crevasse rescue in the case that Tim or I punch into a slot and need rescue. Most of our time will be spent either at outcrops mapping and collecting samples, traveling to and from sites, or sitting in the kitchen tent during bad weather. We have two, two-burner stoves, ten cornish game hens, two stovetop ovens, a bunch of baking supplies and a deep reservoir of cooking talent. It will be a memorable season now matter what happens. The logistical complexities of our five-person project are just a small piece in the bigger picture of the many, many projects going on this year in the United States Antarctic Program. All of this is under the direction and funding of the National Science Foundation. Our project, unlike many of the larger projects that now seem to dominate the "landscape" of Antarctic science, is small and old school. Get dropped off, do a bunch of science for a while, get picked up. We have no support staff. We do everything for ourselves once we are out there. It is a good feeling to know that simple projects like this still happen. Luckily the only tools we really need for the science work are rock hammers and Brunton compasses. The "outcrops" we are sampling and mapping are really 500-800 meter granite peaks that make the rock climber in me drool uncontrollably. But the most efficient way to access the rock is to stroll up the base of the cliffs. There will be some ropework involved; specifically roped glacier travel and perhaps some fixed lines to help the geologists access certain parts of the outcrops. The Fosdicks are located on the coast, which combined with a variety of other factors make it magnet for bad weather. The season is going to be a great one with many adventures, follies, and successes ahead of us. The landscape here is no different than it ever was. It is a surreal wash of ice and rock with a few living things scattered about the perimeter. Snow and ice rule the world here, as does the wind. Seeing the tenuousness with which life exists gives one pause to reflect on the value of these brief yet beautiful lives we lead.