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Stories of interest from the trail.

Road Trip: Switzerland of America

in Community/Fireside by

This is part two of Isaac’s road trip across the US to his new home. Isaac is SBM’s gear manager. Read part one to start at the beginning. -ed

Road Trip Part II

In the town of Fruita, Colorado stands the Colorado National Monument. Referred to as simply “The Monument” by locals, its striking red sandstone walls and spires stand watch over the city. It is no doubt a spectacular horizon that just begs to be explored. After indulging in a large, gluten-free Granny’s Pesto pizza from the Hot Tomato Café, I skedaddled up to The Monument while I still had some daylight left to set up camp. Luckily, I arrived just in time. Right as the gloaming gave way to darkness, it started raining and it did not let up the whole night. My Sierra Designs Flash 3 tent was very roomy with only myself inside and even as the rain saturated the ground beneath it, it kept the moisture at bay so I stayed nice and dry.

Tait Landscape copy

I had intended to do some rock climbing in the morning, but sandstone becomes brittle when wet and I knew the responsible thing to do was to let the rock dry out. So, I reluctantly abandoned my plans to climb and instead opted to continue on to see if I could find a drier area to explore. I did not have much luck finding a drier area in Colorado, but I did stumble across the Colorado Ski Museum in the quaint mountain village of Vail.

Ski Museum2

The museum had fascinating displays ranging from the history of ski bindings to an entire section dedicated to the 10th Mountain Division. The museum also has one of the largest (if not the largest) displays of snowboards. Considering that the museum only asks for donations to enter, there really is no reason not to stop and visit.

Point of Interest – Colorado National Monument

The Colorado National Monument was established May 24, 1911 and is located in Central Western Colorado’s Mesa County.

The Monument has one campground: Saddlehorn Campground. It is a spectacular campground, surrounded by juniper and pine trees with sweeping vistas of the red sandstone. The campground also has the nicest campground restrooms I have ever seen and a separate tents-only camping area so the RV generators do not ruin your outdoor experience.

Colorado Nat. Monument copy

There is plenty of hiking and rock climbing to be had in the park. Even the drive into the park is an adventure, with numerous hairpin turns and tunnels that skirt the huge red sandstone cliffs that fill this park.

Colorado is a truly spectacular state. Even with a thick cloud cover that blocked out the higher mountains, I could see why it is referred to as “The Switzerland of America.” Crossing the Continental Divide I realized that, just like the rivers, I too was headed toward the Atlantic now. It suddenly hit me that I was leaving the Great and Wild West and entering a whole new ecosystem, a whole new world. The impressive Rockies gave way to the high plains of eastern Colorado. As I continued eastward, the wind and rain increased in intensity, but it was to be nothing compared to the storms I would soon encounter in Kansas.

Trail Personalities

in Fireside/Trails by

You know they’re out there.

The human brain is driven to recognize patterns, to identify recurring themes in our external environment. A hiker’s brain is no different, and after countless hours on the trail a hiker begins to notice recurring personalities, different individuals with strikingly similar tendencies. My first three favorites today.


THE OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: In the world of obstruction, The Offensive Lineman reigns supreme. His sole objective, his primary focus in life, is to ensure that you are moving as slowly as possible towards your final destination. This individual, uncanny in his ability to ignore passive coughs, telepathic in his capacity to swerve in anticipation of your passing moves, relentless in his dedication to maintain the lead. Nature has not blessed him with speed, nor the humility to let you pass by, but it has blessed him with the heart of a lion. Pass carefully, or you could end up in a ravine on the side of the trail.

THE TELEPORTER: Halfway up the trail and your thighs feel like an angry gorilla has been tenderizing them like an overripe banana. Three quarters of the way there and you’re debating whether to pawn your hiking gear or sell it all on Craigslist. Ten feet from the top and your calves are locked into a shriek-inducing, toe-curling cramp. Once on top you collapse in a heap to enjoy the hard-earned victory over a grueling hike; but before your calves let go The Teleporter wanders into view, a frail elderly type no less than 133 years old, shuffling to a stop with a smile on his face. His pack is twice the size of yours, his walking stick is ten times heavier than your titanium trekking poles, and he smells of Ludens and moth balls. You have no idea how this man has arrived at this destination looking so rested and self-confident, but you suspect there is a technology involved that is unavailable to the young and arrogant.

THE UMBRELLA: In the world of spectator sports there is a special hatred for the umbrella. Most professional stadiums no longer allow them, but for amateur affairs it’s not unusual for an umbrella to appear on soggy afternoons, blooming like a flower from the seat in front of you at the stadium. One thing that most umbrellas have in common (aside from the fact that you will immediately die if you open one indoors) is that the human eye cannot see through them. On the trail, The Umbrella takes the form of an iPhone photographer. This individual usually arrives just moments before you and has settled down for a long photo-shoot in the middle of the most perfect photographic scene of the hike. In all cases The Umbrella loiters around long enough to snap 37 blurry, poorly composed iPhone pictures. In most cases The Umbrella leaves the scene after the alpenglow has disappeared into the night alongside your dreams of a National Geographic feature.

There are  more Trail Personalities to come. Next up: The Sponge, The Trail Statue and The Time Traveler.


Road Trip: People of the Mountains

in Fireside by

The spirit of adventure drives  us here at SBM. Many of us have moved across the state or across a region so we could enjoy the outdoors. Isaac Tait, our beloved Gear Manager has just relocated to the East Coast due to his wife’s school and work needs. So Isaac left the San Gabriel Mountains of So Cal where he grew up and learned to rock climb, mountaineer, ski and love the outdoors. He undertook a cross country road trip adventure and eventually arrived at a new home on the East Coast. We’ll chronicle his trip and all the adventures he had along the way.

Part 1

With my car fully loaded, I bid goodbye to the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a bit odd to see them in the rising sun, not knowing when I would see them again – if ever. It is hard to leave your stomping grounds. I had experienced a lot of adventures, from dodging bobcats, backcountry skiing, lots of gear testing for Seattle Backpackers Magazine, rock climbing and even mountain rescue operations. These mountains had become my second home and while I was going to miss them, I was also looking forward to exploring a new backyard.

I was beginning my solo road trip from Los Angeles, California to Rockville, Maryland. Well, almost solo – my pet parakeet named Cheeky was buckled in the backseat to keep me company.

Cheakie copy

The first leg of the road trip went smoothly with only a few small thunderstorms in California, Nevada and Arizona. When I crossed into Utah, though, the skies really opened up and the rain came down in buckets. When the speed limit jumped to 80mph my little Honda Fit (with a 16’ canoe strapped to the roof) could barely keep up. The big rigs took the opportunity to pass me, sometimes going in excess of 100mph! I was glad to get onto the I-70 as the mountain passes slowed down the truck drivers significantly and the terrain became even more spectacular.

I pulled over numerous times to explore the Fishlake National Forest and San Rafael Swell area. The scenery was so spectacular that I never wanted to get back in the car. The saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” but I doubt they have earthworms as large as I found in Utah!

Giant Earthworm copy

Point Of Interest – San Rafael Swell

The San Rafael Swell is currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management. However, this spectacular region of Utah is also the scene of a heated political battle between those who want to utilize the area for its vast energy resources and those who want to protect it by designating it as a national monument.

San Rafael Swell copy

If you are planning on visiting the San Rafael Swell, the city of Green River, Utah offers camping, gas, food, and lodging. It is highly recommended that you visit the Swell with a high clearance (preferably 4wd vehicle) as the I-70 is the only paved road in the region. Flash floods, sand storms and rough roads are the norm, not the exception.

The region is a stunning maze of canyons, plateaus, cliffs and rivers and is often referred to as the “Sandstone Alps.” Rock climbing, hiking, and river sports are plentiful. If you would like more information, the Price Bureau of Land Management office is happy to help.

Green River, UT copy

My first day of driving wrapped up when I made it into Fruita, Colorado. I was excited to explore this state, as I had never been before. However, unbeknownst to me, I had just entered Colorado at the beginning of a rainstorm that would soon cause floods of near-Biblical proportions.

Trail Accident

in Fireside/Skills by

It can be funny when people fall down in cartoons and movies – hikers falling in the mountains? Not so funny. We tend to think it won’t happen to us even after reading riveting accounts of accidents in mountaineering literature. Think they only happen to climbers and backcountry skiers? Think again!

Sometime it takes an accident to shake the sense of complacency that befalls hikers who have never been injured in the mountains. That was me – I’d been lucky. Between my first hike in 1980 and September 2013 I’d never been injured other than a sprained ankle on my first-ever scramble with The Seattle Mountaineers.

Don’t ask me how I managed to sprain my ankle while standing perfectly still on a forested slope but I managed to do it and limped to the summit, determined to bag that peak since it was a “qualifying” scramble to graduate from the Mountaineers Alpine Scramble Course. I’ve also taken a few stumbles landing on my knees (so far no knee problems) never sustaining more than a scratch or a bruise that I didn’t worry about (other than keeping tetanus shots up to date). I’d also taken MOFA (Mountaineering Oriented First Aid class) four times between the mid-1980s and the year 2000 since I was a hike leader.

Yet complacency set in; as years pass without injury some of us tend to lighten the load in the pack, especially on a hot summer day on trails close to home and most of the time we get away with it. Hence, my friend Lola and I set out for an easy hike heading south from Snoqualmie Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. The weather was perfect with partial sun and a breeze.


Heading south, the trail traverses below the Snoqualmie Pass ski lifts and in late summer the deserted ski slope was a colorful pastiche of fireweed, goldenrod and tansy. After crossing the ski slope we passed a pretty tarn, always a spot for photography and the dark tarn was aglow with blooming water-lilies. We continued south and after a short descent took the designated spur to Lodge Lake. Lodge Lake is the site of the Mountaineers.

The Lodge burned down years ago. No trace remains today. Lodges have a tendency to catch fire – other Mountaineer Lodges have also burned down and, of course, the spectacular lodge that once graced Big Four where the Ice Caves Trail is located today (the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades) only a chimney remains.

Back on the trail we skirted more tarns and eventually reached Olallie Meadows which was tinged with fall color, the meadows dotted with tufts of fluttering cotton-grass and ripe berries just waiting to be picked. From there Windy Pass is just a hop, skip and a jump. Windy Pass is a prime berry-picking site as you can drive to it via a rough forest service road to access the PCT (a vehicle with high clearance strongly recommended).

After gorging on berries and the eye-candy of mountainous scenes we began retracing our way back to Snoqualmie Pass. That’s when it happened. One moment the forest was green; the next it was red. At first I couldn’t comprehend what had happened but found myself lying on the trail, having taken a face plant on a root, landing on my chin and left hand. There wasn’t even time to curse. Next thing I knew I was in a sitting position, blood running down my left hand and where else I wasn’t sure. Had I broken my teeth again? Falling on my face has been my worst fear since an accident in my teens when I fell near Granite Falls, landing on my jaw in rocks, breaking several teeth (that resulted in years of expensive dental work).

This time it was different. My finger felt like it had been diced by a knife and was dripping blood as I clawed at my face, feeling my mouth, trying to figure out whether or not my teeth were OK, unaware I was smearing blood all over my face and that blood was even dripping into my boots.

The rest is a blur; Lola bending over me, getting out her first aid kit, my mind a swirl. Mixed in with fear and shock was the realization that my first aid kit was pretty minimal, some supplies at home. As I sat there stunned Lola wrapped my finger in gauze; who knew one finger could bleed that much? I bled through the gauze as we started down the trail, still about ½ miles from the turnoff to Lodge Lake. More gauze was applied and I took an Advil from my pack (it is now standard practice that should you come across an injured hiker that you treat the injury from the victim’s first aid kit, not yours – each hiker should carry their own medications including pain pills, OTC or otherwise).

As we straggled back to Snoqualmie Pass, I averted my face from other hikers, ashamed of having hurt myself and didn’t want hikers asking about my blood-spattered clothing. I was also angry with myself for being what I considered “clumsy” and not being as well-prepared as I should have been for an unexpected injury. We all know, of course, that accidents happen to other people (yeah, right).

As we approached Snoqualmie Pass I saw how the light had changed, gilding the peaks with gold, intensifying the purple and golden colors of the meadows and managed to take a few photos with one hand. At Snoqualmie Pass we went into the convenience store and bought a few first-aid supplies, including OTC pain medications.

Lola thought I’d need to get stitches since my finger was still bleeding. I didn’t want to because that would mean going to an emergency room and that would cost money. I vehemently believed I could take care of it at home but Lola insisted that I should at least have the finger looked at.

When I got home I called my partner, Bob, about the accident. When Bob came home a he looked at my finger (which was still bleeding) and said I needed to get stitches. So off we went to our local emergency clinic where the physician took one look and said I needed stitches. The details are still blurry though I remember how kind and gentle the physician and her assistant were as they cleaned the wound, gave me a shot to numb the nerves in my fingers and stitched it shut (who knew a hand had so many nerve endings?). The hilarious thought occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to wash dishes for several days (it’s odd the things that come to mind when you are in such a state). They said I’d need to return in 7-10 days to get the stitches removed and was advised not to immerse my hand in water, to clean it daily with an antiseptic ointment and keep it bandaged. As a freelance writer I struggled to finish an article but in a day or two was typing again with 7 fingers, somewhat slower than I was accustomed to.

First Aid SAR kit

Another curious after-effect from my fall was a sense of vulnerability; a feeling of frailty and lost of trust in my abilities – I knew I had to get back on the trail as soon as possible. Two days after the fall, bandages and all, we hiked at Mount Rainier and I began to re-establish trust in my abilities at the same time keeping in mind that no one is immune to an accident. That’s why they’re called accidents.

Fast forward; the stitches were taken out about a month ago. Since the accident we went to REI and bought beefier First Aid Kits in addition to a few extra supplies.

The tip of my finger is still partially numb; I may have permanent nerve damage. The laceration was close to the bone and may have severed nerves though Bob insists that I might heal completely over time – the body is in charge and will do what it can to keep it going!

Lesson learned: Keep your First Aid Kit up to date (REI has several kits to choose from). Take a Mountaineering Oriented First Aid (MOFA) Class or equivalent. At the very least be prepared for the unexpected; don’t become complacent. Keep your first-aid kit and skills up to date and be careful out there. Last but not least don’t rely on cell phone coverage in the mountains; think twice about hiking alone and always let someone know where you are going.

Backpacking Pickles

in Fireside by

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.”

Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume


Tom Robbins certainly has it right about the beet – what other vegetable bleeds red blood when sliced? But this summer I was reminded of the sheer persistence of the humble pickle.

You see, I absolutely love the sour-tang-crunch combo of a pickle atop a piece of sharp cheddar on a crispy cracker, my very favorite trail lunch. Years ago my sister and I would pack pickles on backpack trips, double and triple bagged in a fruitless effort to manage the exuberance of the juice from these tiny, seemingly innocuous strips, only to finish the trip with pack, clothing, yes, even sleeping bag reeking of pickle. I turned my back on pickles for two decades, for better-behaved fare like peanut butter, energy bars and macadamias.

This year, packing lunch food for an early-season hike, I opened the fridge to be confronted with the label of our favorite mega-jar of dill slices. Hmmmm, I thought, surely my years of experience with packaging and sealing and storing of trail meals would give me a new edge over the exudations of pickles – perhaps I could restore my lost favorite trail lunch to my repertoire. Experimentation ensued.

First, I laid out the pickle slices on several layers of paper toweling to drain the juice for an hour, then triple bagged them using the latest and greatest zip loc bag technology. But no, just a few hours later upon unzipping the top of my pack, that telltale vinegar and dill aroma vented forth – I didn’t need to look to know that the juice had oozed out of its triple-bags and over all the contents of my lunch sack (not to mention my socks).

Undaunted, before my next trip I drained the juice from the pickles, and THEN hauled out the old Seal-A-Meal vacuum sealer and sealed them up tight. Or so I thought. Yet again, as soon as I pulled the sack with my lunch out of my pack that afternoon, it was as if the force of vacuum itself could not daunt the positive energy of the pickles – pale green juice had spread through the vacuum bag and again permeated the lunch.

So last week I tried one last time. I wrapped the pickles in several layers of paper toweling, and THEN slipped them into triple zip locs. Upon arriving at our lunch spot I eagerly pulled out the sack…sure enough, no leaks, no pickle-iferous coating on my sandwich and apple. Was this victory? Down within their zip locs, within pale-green-sodden paper toweling, my pickle slices were limp, subdued, vanquished. The flavor was still there, mostly, but it was a pyrrhic victory – I had succeeded in conquering the pickles, but at the high cost of their exuberance (and essentially any remaining crunch). I was immediately struck that victory at such a cost was not worth it.

Next time, peanut butter.

Flash Floods at Crestone Peak

in Fireside by

You never think it is going to be you. Not really.

We started early. Long before the sun wove its rays through the sky. Seven of us, adventure ready, headlamps on, layers donned, heading up towards Broken Hand Pass hoping to summit Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Colorado. We’d been having a series of intense mountain storms every afternoon, so an early start was mandatory.

We really weren’t on the trail for most the time up the pass. Scrambling and traversing was perhaps just a precursor to the rest of our day, but spirits were high; bodies felt good. We made it to the lake by 7 a.m. and launched ourselves up the “red gully” a pretty straightforward and fun ascent of Crestone Peak.

It was an awesome scramble, probably one of my favorites and before we knew it we were topping out on Crestone Peak, wind rushing over the lichen spotted rocks near the summit. The vertigo was intense. It was only 8 a.m.

After a descent of roughly 400 feet we all stopped to collect ourselves. Three members of the group were going to continue down and back over to Broken Hand Pass. My friend and I decided to join another couple in climbing the class 3/4 traverse to summit Crestone Needle.

our group at the summit of crestone needle
Our group at the summit of Crestone Needle

The traverse was tricky but fun. There were moments of anxiety as we realized we were off route and intimidated by the sharp rock spines that separated us from the Needle. We found our way to the Black Gendarme, the final pitches before the summit. Had fun pulling the crux 5.2 move, crossing a short knife edge and climbing some exposed class 4 with solid foot and hand holds. It took us twice as long as we predicted to summit the Needle due to a number of reasons, but our spirits were gloriously high when we reached the summit. The sky was still clear and all we had was a class 3 descent to Broken Hand Pass. We should be home in an hour or two…

Crestone -5.2 crux move

At this point we paused (though probably not long enough) because we heard the descent was really tricky to find. We pulled out all our beta and talked to a few other climbing groups, a few of which were headed down different gullies. We gained a ridge line, following cairns and then stopped to figure out which gully we should proceed down. “West,” it said. So, after double checking a compass, we headed down the west gully from the ridgeline.

At first, the descent was an easy class 3 and all the time we had a pair of climbers descending below us. One member spotted a cairn but in hindsight it was a mistaken pile of rocks. Slowly the difficulty increased. Looking back, it was like we were in a slowly heating kettle, but not noticing the temperature rising around us.

Class 3 soon became class 4, with definite class 5 moves.  It was becoming obvious that we were not only off route, but dangerously off route. The other group was always below, just within sight. Soon they were crossing East at a notch into another gully. At this point we had one final pitch of class 5 down climbing in order to reach the notch and cross over into the other gully. Everyone had their game face on. Slipping meant serious injury at best. Everyone was sincerely hoping that next gully over was the right one.

scrambling the red gully on crestone peak

But it wasn’t. By now storms were building and we’d already descended almost 1500’. I am not sure about the others, but in my head I was uneasy going back up. We were caught in a catch 22. We needed to go up and try to find the route, but needed to get down quickly due to incoming storms. So we continue down, down class 4 that turned to more class 5. Swallowing our fears and focussing on each step, every handhold, every movement. And we’d all heard the stories and trip reports: Don’t descend the wrong gully. People get cliffed-out. People get caught in storms. People die.

We were writing our story in the land of “epics.” And not at all sure how it was going to end.

But everyone in the group kept their composure. We made every move forward at this point as a group. We kept focus and didn’t voice the fears. As my legs turned to dead weight I clung to something my husband is always saying to me about running.

When you think you can’t possibly keep going, you can. You can go far further than you think.

We picked our way down the mountain. I ran out of water. Small clouds hovered and we all pulled out our rain gear as small sprinkles fell from the sky. Finally, we reached a level shelf. It was so close to the bottom that I felt I could just dive into the lake down in the valley. We each took a side of the shelf to look for our next step down. But there wasn’t one. We came back one by one, “nothing over there,” “it just drops off…” But the worst was my friend, “Well, I found a sling…the other group had climbing gear and rapped off the side.” Not good. Not good at all.

The sheer cliffs on each side left us with a disparaging feeling. At this point, we all had a glimpse of hopelessness on our faces. In my head I kept thinking, “We are those people. Those people who got lost on a fourteener.”

off route on the descent

At this point I found the best looking “weakness” in the cliff band and decided to down climb for a better look at what was below. But it led to another worse looking crack system. Maybe it was my refusal to believe we really were stuck. Maybe it was my last ditch attempt at hope or due to the fact I was dehydrated and out of water, but I still wanted to try going down. One guy said no. And all it took was a glance at another friend’s face to know I was being unreasonable. We climbed back up a ways and took a break.

We took stock. A huge storm was sweeping over the peaks adjacent to us. We had to keep moving but I was out of water. One guy pulled out a Lifestraw that I used to drink out of the small pools of running water we frequently came across. Soon we found a runoff collection from a snow field large enough to re-fill reservoirs. We tossed in some iodine tablets for good measure, pulled out some layers, and came to terms with the very real possibility that we might have to bivy for the night. At this point we decided to call my husband, (since we happened to have cell coverage) and share our general location and warn him we were prepared to spend the night. Feeling completely powerless and fully recognizing my mortality, I did the only thing I knew to do, pray.

We had two gullies to choose from. The one we had descended and a band of grass and rock that arched up to the west. I am still not sure why we went for the latter. Logic would say backtrack the way we came. But we chose the band of grass and rock heading west, desperately hoping it ended somewhere good. By now my legs were screaming, my breath coming quick and short. I needed to keep moving, I needed to be fast, but I couldn’t.

When I was half way up the ridge, David yelled from the top, “I see the ‘red gully’ and a clear descent to it!” But the storm was charging over us. Our time had run out. While the descent to the gully was class 2, it had begun to hail and was slippery. I began simply sliding down the grassy, flower patches (flower glissading?) to move more quickly. Quick was necessary. We knew the storm patterns from the last couple days. Hail that turns to torrential downpour. And that is exactly what it did. Just as the last one of us got off the mountain and into the valley the hail faded into sheets of rain and the gullies we’d been scrambling, climbing and descending in all day erupted into full on raging waterfalls. I’ll never forget the sight of the peaks, like fountains roaring down from above.

It was a flash flood at 14,000 feet. And we’d missed it by minutes.

While we were decently sure the worst was behind us, the adventure was far from over. We headed back up Broken Hand Pass, barely moving, with lightning crashing around us. There was no place to shelter, so we kept moving. My legs didn’t even hurt much anymore. They just wouldn’t work… partially from the wet, cold and certainly from exhaustion. But at the summit the clouds moved off and sun warmed our soaked limbs. We were pretty certain of one thing, we’d be sleeping in our tents that night.

I am not sure how long it took us to descend the pass back down to South Colony Lakes. Our group back at camp had been watching earnestly for us, and we heard cheers and whoops as we came into view. They’d made us a hot dinner: chicken broth, potatoes, stuffing, gravy. Perhaps this will be the most memorable “thanksgiving” dinner I’ll ever have. Tears were plentiful as all the frightful emotions we’d controlled all day flowed free.

I am still processing all that happened, all that could have happened or maybe should have. In the end, we don’t know how far we hiked that day, but we’d spent 16.5 hours on the trail and according to my altimeter ascended AND descended over 12,000 vertical feet.

Crestone summit of the needle

There are a few things I know, other than God’s favor, that saved us up there that day:

1. Team work – There were four of us in our “lost and cliffed-out” group, one being a guy. Maybe it was the natural group dynamics, but the guy was put in the lead a lot. He didn’t stress about this, but also made sure to address each one of us, asking our opinion on route finding, terrain, etc. before making the next move. There was an unspoken rule that we all needed to be okay with the route we chose.

2. We didn’t freak – Sure, we all wanted to. At each separate moment where we lost route or became cliffed-out again I could feel the panic creeping up my throat. The temptation to sit down or start crying was very real and powerful, but we held onto our composure. We didn’t think about the what ifs: “What if we fall? What if we never find a way down? What if that storm gets here before we get off the mountain?” All those thoughts wouldn’t have served us at all, but only slowed us down.

3. Survival gear – Looking back I’d like to upgrade much of my survival gear in my day pack, as I was borrowing from others. Items that made a significant difference:

  • Lifestraw – When I ran out of water, I used this to suck water out of small puddles.
  • Iodine Tablets – Once we found pools large enough, we refilled our hydration systems. And while the Iodine probably wasn’t necessary (the water was melting directly from snowpack) it still gave peace of mind.
  • Space Blanket – I certainly had one, which made the possibility of spending a cold night on the side of a fourteener slightly less freaky. Now I’d probably upgrade to a space blanket bivy sac.
  • Poncho – A $1 plastic poncho saved my pack and dry layers from the rain as I draped it over the top of everything.
  • Rain Jacket and Shell Pants: While I had a jacket, I certainly wished I had shell pants, as my legs were wet and very cold after the storm hit.
  • Food – I did not bring enough food, but thankfully much of the group did. From now on I am going to add Energy Shots, Peanut Butter Packets, and small forms of high calorie energy to my pack.
class 4 scramble to summit crestone needle
Class 4 scramble to summit crestone needle

Buried in the Sky – Interview with Peter Zuckerman

in Community/Fireside by

About a year ago, we published a book review for Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2′s Deadliest Day. Since then the book has won a dozen awards including the National Outdoor Book Award. I recently spoke to Peter Zuckerman, co-author of the book to find out more about his experience with the Sherpas and the Pakistani climbers as he collected information during the writing and research for Buried in the Sky. Here is an excerpt from our interview.


 What do you think made this book successful?

First, I think it was very deep research. When I worked at newspapers, I had this feeling that if we missed a question or didn’t answer something, well, we were on a deadline and given the time I had, I just never got to find the answer. But with a book you don’t have that excuse, you know, you’re ‘writing the book on the topic.’ It seems sloppy if you’ve left something unanswered.

Going in with the attitude that “the information is out there and if I can’t find it, at least I have to show that I’ve done everything in my power to find it.” That was a strong point in the writing of the story. I’ve read a lot of mountaineering books and I’ve found them really confusing because there is so much going on all at the same time, it’s hard to keep everything straight and tell it in as straight-forward a way as possible. I really strived to keep the actual event chronological and keep it divided by character. I think that helped a lot.

What made you go back to the beginning of Chiring’s life? The disaster was an interesting read, but for me the cultural history was a much more compelling part of the book.

That’s what I was hoping. I think people who are less familiar with mountaineering, the things they find most compelling are the action sequences. And when people have read a lot of those in climbing, then this is a whole new aspect of that.

Part of what drove me to write this is I feel like there are plenty of stories of a climb up a fixed rope to a mountain top, and it’s a good story, but it’s been done. If I was going to write it, I wanted something that added to the literature that wasn’t really there before.

The reason I focused on Chiring and Pasang’s lives, it keeps us from making broad generalizations about a culture that we don’t know about. I didn’t want to paint with a broad brush.  When you’re writing about a culture, you’re never going to capture a whole culture in a couple chapters, but you can capture who someone is and their experience with the culture. To tell it through someone’s life was more interesting, I thought.

Did you consider telling it through Amanda’s friend, Karim’s point of view? (Karim died on K2 during the disaster.)

Yeah, we thought of that, and it would have been a little harder. So much of what happened to him is unknown, it has to be pieced together through photos. But it would have been really hard to piece together, for one, because there would have been no one to interview. Part of me wanted to do it from the Pakistani climbers point of view, partly because there is hardly anything written about them at all. But the reason is, the information is harder to get, the research is more dangerous, and I’m particularly worried that no one relates to “high altitude porter” the way they do to “Sherpa” so there were many things.

You were in Nepal for six months on one of your trips. Where were you for most of that time?

I spent most of it in Rowaling, which is where Chirring is from. To get there, you start in Kathmandu, get on a bus, drive for a day and a half or so on a really scary road, overnight somewhere in the middle. Then it’s about an eight-day trek – well, for me it is, I am an out of shape Westerner – you wobbled over some bridges made from chain link fence. Chirring was my guide from Kathmandu to his village over those eight days.

How much trekking on a given day, 6-7 hours every day, like regular trekking?

I would say so, yeah, but I was stopping along the way to talk to people and figure out where people were. Then the interview process took a lot longer than I thought it would. I would ask a question that I didn’t realize made no sense to them. A basic question like “how old are you?” would be translated from me, through Chiring who would translate it into Nepali, then to the local translator, who would ask in the local Sherpa language, and then there would be a discussion between the subject and the local translator, they’d go back and forth for a while, then between the local translator and Chiring and then he would say, I can’t quite get you an answer, but he was born during the Buddah’s moon festival in the winter.

That’s awesome!  Were you travelling alone?

I had Chiring with me for most of the time, and a translator along the trek. Then we picked up local translators. Initially my plan was, I was going to Kathmandu, interviewing people there, then going home.  In the US we tend to have sit-down interviews. And reading other mountaineering books, that sounded like what other people did. But especially in southern Asia, sit-down interviews just didn’t really work. I got so little usable material.

Just the concept of writing a book was hard for them. They’d say, “what do you mean you’re writing a book?” So it wasn’t really working, so I thought, ok, I’ll just go trekking with the characters. Then I can talk about certain things along the way and nudge conversations in certain directions, try to get them talking. Finally, that’s what eventually worked. But I don’t know if I just do it differently from other journalists, but I feel like everyone else conducts an interview, gets their content and goes on. Maybe everyone else is just way better at doing it than me, but it feels like, I did this interview, I thought I got all this great material, looked through it, found most of it was unusable, then this little part over here, it turns out that that is the important part and I need to go ask a bunch more questions.

The part that I didn’t ask many questions about, that I didn’t think mattered during the interview, it turns out that matters a lot and I should have asked all these other questions. But I had to digest it first. Then I figured it out.

Can you give me an example of that?

Yeah, you can even see this in the book, because I would have done more research in certain areas if I could have. Like in Pakistan, there’s a character Shaheen and a guy who rescues him named Nadir. All of the Westerners I talked to hardly mentioned them. Nobody mentioned Nadir. The Sherpa climbers either, and the Pakistani climbers mentioned him but that was after I’d done all the other interviews. Then I realized that Shaheen getting sick was a key moment in the whole disaster because he was the translator for the lead team. Without him the lead climbers couldn‘t talk to each other. The Sherpas didn’t want to talk about this because, I think they resented the Pakistanis and they wanted to be able to order the Pakistanis around. But they had to respect Shaheen, but they didn’t really want to do that. So I didn’t know any of this until I talked to the Pakistani climbers. And so it became a huge thing when he got sick. And I would have liked to get everyone’s responses to that, but it wasn’t easy to do at that point.

Then one of the most dramatic parts of the whole rescue is, Shaheen gets sick and there is this cook Nadir who is in base camp. He hears Shaheen is sick, and none of the Westerners want to go up and rescue him. Something was lost in translation and they didn’t realize he was up there dying on the mountain. So Nadir has to beg Westerners to let him borrow their gear. He is literally wearing mismatched boots, doesn’t have much experience climbing and climbs for two and a half days straight to rescue Shaheen singlehandedly off the mountain. That’s an incredibly heroic thing to do. Almost nobody knew that had even happened. To me that was one of the most dramatic and important rescues of the whole disaster. It really shed light on the problems of the climb because the Westerners weren’t interested in rescuing this guy, or didn’t understand the need. Nobody realized he was the lynchpin of the lead team being able to work together.

But I didn’t figure that out during the interviews. I didn’t know to ask the Sherpas about Shaheen. I’d never heard about the guy.

There isn’t a single moment in all these interviews where anyone said “I made a mistake” it was always “someone else made mistakes.” People told stories that conformed to that view for themselves and for their friends.

There were parts where people remember in perfect detail, and other moments where they just don’t.  There were moments where I was thinking “this guy must have been really sick and out of it at that moment.” It must be like war or like a car accident. Different people will see different things and it doesn’t mean that both of them are actually right.  But when you put it all together with all the photos and all the video and gather all the information, statements, look at the skid marks on the ground, you can get a pretty good idea of what happened.

There are definitely areas in the book where I say “Nobody really knows what happened at this point.”


Peter Zuckerman is the co-author of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2′s Deadliest Day. It is newly available in paperback and as an audio book. It’s the best outdoor book I read in 2012.

BuriedITS Paperback

The Perseid Meteor Shower 2013

in Earth/Fireside by

Editor’s Note: On the nights of August 12 and 13, 2013 the Perseid Meteor Shower will reach its peak. Last year Cheryl Talbert witnessed this phenomena from the High Sierra and has shared her experience with SBM. Sounds like a good couple of days to be away from the glow of the city and high in the mountains above the treeline. Mark your calendars. We’re requesting the days off now!


Flashes of Brilliance in the High Sierra

There are a few times in one’s life when the planets align and something spectacular happens that you know you may never experience again. In our case, the brightest of the planets literally aligned across the midnight sky during the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and our little backpack quartet, my husband John and I and our friends Dick and Steve, found ourselves fortuitously under a clear sky next to Purple Lake in the central Sierra on that exact night. The Perseid is a phenomenon that occurs when the Earth passes annually through a stream of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. NASA’s Meteroid Environment Office had predicted meteor rates ‘as high as a hundred per hour. Steve was on the ball and knew that this would be a good one. So what remained was for us to Seize the Day (or in this case, the night), get up and brave the chill to see the show.

The extravaganza did not disappoint. John and Dick chose the continued warmth of their sleeping bags over the starshow, so it was up to Steve and me to represent. We situated ourselves head-to-head on our backs down by the lake shore on our Therma-Rests© (squeeeeeak, creeeeeak) with a clear view of the sky at a few minutes after midnight. The smoky backdrop of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, one of the first times in my life I had seen its entirety.


Against the inky blackness behind, Billions and Billions of stars (thank you Carl Sagan!) and the bright reflections of the crescent moon between Jupiter and Venus. Then, sometimes faster than we could turn our heads,  ZIP. “Wow, did you see that?!” ZZIIPP – ZZZIIIPPP- ZZZZZIIIIIPPPPP! Emanating from every quadrant, they sped across the void in multiple directions. Within a few minutes we easily saw a dozen, and then a dozen more over the next few. NASA’s forecast of a profligate night’s display was definitely delivered.

After an hour or so the flashes spread out, leaving us to notice the chill in our extremities. It was time to go back to our respective tents and down cocoons. Still, the experience was an extraordinary reminder of the gifts that the universe can provide if only one stops to watch and be amazed.

John Muir Trail 5: Thousand Island Lakes to Happy Isles

in Fireside/Trail of the Week/Trails by

Editor’s note: Follow the author’s adventure along the John Muir Trail with part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. 

The morning sun was warm on our backs as we stood high in the sky atop the aptly named, huge stacked-granite mound called Cloud’s Rest at 9926’ and looked down 1100 feet to the top of Half Dome and over a mile down to the Yosemite Valley floor below.  Today we would finish our journey along the northern John Muir Trail among the masses of humanity in the Valley, having started 13 days and 144 miles earlier in Bishop.

The last five days had been among the most stunning that we’d experienced along the entire John Muir Trail, the bones of the earth laid bare under our feet with only the occasional veneer of splendid lakes, tumbling rivers and meadows resting lightly on top.  From our high perch we could see it all.  (Follow this link to learn more about the Geology of Thousand Island Lakes and the Tuolumne Country.)

We’d left Gladys Lake five days earlier, eager to see the succession of huge below Banner and Ritter peaks, some of the most photographed country in all the Sierra. From Gladys we followed the precipitous, rocky path down successive cliff-lined benches holding glistening Rosalie Lake and Shadow Lake. Then, descending around a rocky knob, suddenly there was Garnet Lake before us; reflecting the perfectly blue morning sky and Banner Peak (12,936’) close in at its opposite end – a perfect spot for a snack and a dip in the warm sun, soaking up the rays and the sublime view.

Above Thousand Island Lake, Banner peak (12,936') behind
Above Thousand Island Lake, Banner peak (12,936′) behind

But Thousand Island Lake called from just 2.6 miles further on, and we wanted to secure camps there early, so we packed up and wound through the rolling granite terrain past two more small jewels of lakes (appropriately named Ruby and Emerald) before arriving at the bridge crossing the outlet creek for Thousand Island Lake. We hoped to camp on the northwest side somewhere along the north shore trail that led all the way into the moraine fields below Mt Davis and Banner Peak at the lake’s far end.

We readily found camps on a promontory jutting out into the lake about halfway down, with fabulous views across the lake’s many white granite islands to the peaks and their resident glaciers. There was just enough time for us to don daypacks and hike quickly up to lake’s end, passing a large climbers’ camp among the rocks at Banner’s foot, before the now-daily ritual of dark clouds, lightning and rain drove us back and into the shelter of our tents.   During the night, a group of campers under the trees above us to the north hollered “BEAR!” and scattered loudly (might I guess, somewhat drunkenly?) through the trees; but we never saw the bruin and quiet was soon restored.

Rising early the next day we were treated to a fabulous display of pink, orange, and salmon light playing off the faces of Davis and Banner and their snowfields. This was a place well deserving of its vaunted reputation. But we had a date with Yosemite Park, and a resupply pickup to be reached at the Tuolumne Meadows post office two days out.  Turning resolutely uphill and away from the lake basin, we ascended through conifer, meadow and glacier-strewn granite boulders to a broad forested flat shown as Island Pass (10,205’) on our map, and then turned our sights to the Sierra Crest at Donohue Pass, about 5 miles ahead.

Sunrise glow on Mt Banner and Thousand Island Lake from our camp
Sunrise glow on Mt Banner and Thousand Island Lake from our camp

This was a lovely section, with cheerful creeks and small waterfalls tumbling through the mixed forest-meadow country flecked with white rock. We climbed gradually, then steeply along Rush Creek draining from the base of Donohue Peak directly ahead, before finally turning abruptly southwest and scaling a boulder-strewn headwall to the wide, barren pass at 11,056’.  Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park at 13,120’, was foreshortened above us to the southwest.  The view north stretched far down along Lyell Canyon with Tuolumne Meadows far beyond. The Divide here actually shed water in three directions: into the Tuolumne River watershed to the north, the Merced to the west, and the Mono Lake basin to the southeast. Our footsteps from here on would be in Yosemite National Park.

The trail down from Donohue was a very steep slip-n-slide down switchbacks covered in pea gravel. Midway down we crossed the upper reaches of the Lyell Fork draining from the glacier above at a lovely little lake with meadows all around, a perfect rest and snack spot. Then it was back to the pounding descent, over a trail bed paved with smooth rocks that had been manhandled into the cliffside and now starting to erode away. Trail crews with hand tools were chipping away at the old rocks and wrestling in new ones. Soon we could see the long meadows and meandering water of the Lyell Fork far below, and looking back, the full majesty of Mount Lyell and Lyell glacier above. We made short work of the last part of the descent into the broad and flat meadow country of Lyell Canyon, finding an unused flat spot near the Ireland Lake trail junction to make our camp.

Heading down the Lyell Fork in early morning
Heading down the Lyell Fork in early morning

Mist was rising from the river in the rising dawn light the next morning as we quickly passed the last five miles to the Tuolumne Meadows complex and the Tioga Road.  Oh joy of joys, hamburgers, fries and free wi-fi at the Tuolumne store, calls to the kids, and a trouble-free pickup of our final resupply. Here we would part company with Dick who would stay on the John Muir Trail and head up to Cathedral Lakes that afternoon; John, Steve and I had decided to explore more of the Tuolumne country via the high camps at Glen Aulin and May Lakes before circling back to the John Muir Trail at Cathedral Lakes trailhead.

Skirting busy Lembert Dome and following the Tuolumne River, much of the trail to Glen Aulin was from cairn to cairn up, over, around and down broad granite slabs and domes. As we neared the High Camp, the river was rushing strong and we crossed over sturdy bridges first to the south side and then the north, before skirting a significant waterfall and joining the PCT headed northward at the junction to the camp. We stood silent for a moment looking at the PCT sign with distances to landmarks far to the north, before heading over one more bridge to the sturdy tent camp and well-appointed campground. From a perch atop a ridge just west of camp, we watched the sunset paint an orange-salmon glow on the striated domes and walls of the Tuolumne River canyon below, as a ranger talked about the landmarks around us and the storied history of the park.

The way from Glen Aulin to May Lakes camp was short, forested for much of the way before breaking out to switch up the side of a large granite-slab wall to the bench where lower May Lake rested, right under the multi-spiked summit of Mount Hoffman. Passing the white canvas tent cabins of the High Camp we found a lovely, spacious campground near the shore just beyond. Our date that afternoon was with the summit of Hoffman at 10,855 feet elevation, where my father’s ashes had been scattered years before.

Slabs along the Tuolumne River heading toward Glen Aulin High Camp
Slabs along the Tuolumne River heading toward Glen Aulin High Camp

The trail headed northwest along the inlet stream before cutting back nearly straight up the southwest ridge, sometimes on a well-defined path, sometimes straight across the slippery scree. We finally scrambled the summit haystack to the dizzying 360o view. Alas, the black clouds were blowing in again, so after some photos we backtracked the slippery scree down to the creekside trail and on to the lake. This night, a friend treated us to a gourmet 3-course dinner in the High Camp dining hall where we could wait out the rain in comfort before retiring to our tents in the now-crowded campground.

It was just 3 miles from May Lakes down to the Tioga Road where we caught an early shuttle back east to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and the John Muir Trail. This section climbed gradually through forest for 3 miles before breaking out into the open and presenting us with the vista of sharp-spired Cathedral Peak, 10,911’, with Cathedral Lake resting just below in a broad grassy bowl. From there the trail crested Cathedral Pass and wound almost level through boggy tree-less flats with forested ridges on both sides. The Sunrise High Camp was perched partway up one of the ridges, and we climbed steeply through and past its dining hall and tent cabins to crest a ridge and descend past the Sunrise Lakes, the first two small and marshy, the third larger with perfect spots near its shore for our camp.

Determined to make it all the way out the next day, we started on the trail before dawn, headlamps nearly unnecessary with the almost unearthly glow of the white granite under our feet. Reaching the junction for Clouds Rest, we took the turn off the John Muir Trail once more, and with little effort found ourselves climbing the stacked bare slabs to the top by 7:30 in the morning. From there it was almost 6000 feet down, with little respite from the grade but mostly protected under trees, joining the Merced at the wide pasture and ranger cabin at Little Yosemite Valley, and soon reaching Nevada Falls.

Suddenly the hordes, oh the jarring hordes! From the Nevada Falls overlook and bridge, the trail down was paved and brutally steep, though still a lovely passage along the dripping cliff wall switching back and forth along the west bank of the Merced. The last mile we were drawn along with a solid mass of sneakered humanity, until we were dumped out at the Happy Isles Visitor Center. We stood dazed by the sign marking the start of the John Muir Trail, people of all nationalities flowing by, before shouldering our packs one last time to find our shuttle back to civilization.

From Cloud's Rest with Half Dome and the Valley far below
From Cloud’s Rest with Half Dome and the Valley far below

The Geology of the Thousand Island Lakes and Tuolumne Country

in Fireside by
Thousand Island Lakes and Tuolumne Country
The Geology of the Thousand Island Lakes and Tuolumne Country
Photo by Jonathan Fox

As recently as 2000 years ago nearly all of Yosemite National Park, including the promontory of Cloud’s Rest where we sat, had been covered by a 60-mile-long, 2000 foot thick glacier that extended from Mt. Lyell, Yosemite Park’s tallest peak to our southeast, all the way down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River to our northwest. Only the tips of the highest peaks in the area protruded from the top of the ice.

The lovely meadows of the Lyell River canyon that we traversed 3 days ago had been formed from silting in of a huge lake that formed when the glacier ice finally receded. The veneer was indeed young. The story of the characteristic, multi-textured granite domes and slabs we’d walked through during this segment of our journey was still being debated by geologists. There are only a few places in the world like it. Ancient rock, some 250-350 million years old, had been transported to the Sierra Nevada area by a wheeling, offshore plate that brought successive chunks of sedimentary seafloor and island arcs to slam up against the edge of the North American plate near the Utah-Nevada border, making what is now land from California northward.

As this plate subducted farther and farther under the North American plate, magma bubbled up in successive, massive blobs through cracks and dikes in the older rock above it 80-90 million years ago, heating and mixing in different combinations with the older rock it extruded through, and then slowly cooling into massive and varied granite formations.

The so-called Tuolumne Intrusive Suite alone includes over 400 square miles of exposed granite, and much more is buried below. When cataclysmic uplift raised the Sierra Nevada crest 4 million years ago, the ancient rock and the newer granite were pushed way up, and erosion plus the effects of multiple glaciations scoured the deep valleys, contoured the domes and vertiginous cliffs and smoothed the slabs all around us, finally backing away to leave the meadows, rivers, slabs and domes, erratic boulders and rock-strewn lakes that our journey had taken us through.

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