Friday, August 15, 2014

(Almost) Wild Horses

“That’s only 47, there are three missing,” said Anna. We were riding around in the cool shadow of the rising sun, counting horses at the 7D Ranch in Wyoming. We’d just finished a patrol of the area surrounding the gate of a mountainside pasture, where the majority of the 50-horse herd grazed, nuzzled each other, swatted their tails, and watched us lazily.
We’d given ourselves 2 hours to wrangle the horses back to the ranch before breakfast. Anna, a 7D Ranch hand, knew immediately which three were missing, and that they are part of their own social group, so we knew if we found one, the other two would be close by. We chose a direction and headed off for the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.
I was fortunate enough to grow up riding horses. The ones I knew had lives very different from that of a ranch herd. At English style horse farms in Ohio, each animal has a stall that they live most of their lives in, with maybe an hour on pasture per day being social and an hour being pampered and ridden. Our attention was on grooming, stall cleaning, feed and supplement decisions, and horse show schedules. Sixteen year old me would have been appalled that ranch horses would be left out overnight, every night with hazards like mountain scree slopes, fast moving rivers, and even grizzly bears, and that they’d be moved as herds, with the potential to step in badger holes or hurt each other as they make their way from pasture to ranch every morning, and from ranch to pasture every night.
Now, as an almost-middle-aged ranch guest on a vacation with the in-laws, I guess I see things differently. Growing up, I was one of those straight-A students who would do anything to please anyone. I am earnest and introverted by nature, which makes it hard to know what ‘fun’ is even supposed to be or how to have it. Fast-forward a few decades and it’s still the same old me, craving to be different while needing to be the same. I tried sneaking out of the house and smoking cigarettes and piercing my body. Then it was about going climbing and avoiding a career and any other responsibilities. Now, as I settle into a real job, a house and marriage, we spend far more time working, training, cooking, cleaning and hosting than I care to admit. I sometimes feel too scarily like those horses in stalls; hygienic, regimented, predictable and comfortable.
The balance I now think I crave is to do work I feel good about, yet still take risks and be impulsive, even as my frontal lobe matures and tells me not to. So I’ve promised to forgive myself when the garden gets weedy, when a friendship goes untended, when a niece or nephew’s birthday party is missed or when a career opportunity gets lost, because I know that my instincts have me tending to each of these things most of the time. I have to actually work much harder these days to challenge my own nature and to more often be the missing herd animal, off with my friends finding the best grass and forgetting everything else.

As Anna and I continued our hunt that morning, transitioning out of the shadow and into the soft, warm morning light, we saw, way off in the distance, in a field of the freshest, greenest grass, within the fence line of the neighbor’s property, three horses. Anna noticed that the gate was open: they were our three missing ones, grazing where they weren’t supposed to be. We laughed as we trotted down to them, and pretend-scolded them as we wrangled them back towards the main herd.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Days You Remember - Passion

Mountain Hardwear has a great new series of one-minute inspirational videos. Each has a theme around the hashtag #daysyouremember. Well imagine my surprise when the most recent one!

Days You Remember | Passion from Mountain Hardwear on Vimeo.

It's not every day that documentation of a 'failed' trip becomes a movie about passion.

Many thanks to Freddie (who shot all of that footage included here) and Liv and all our friends down there for a a fun and unfruitful (in terms of summits at least!) holiday season in the Argentine Patagonia.

View the others, like 'Movement', 'Adventure', and 'Horizons' on the Mountain Hardwear blog or vimeo channel or Facebook page.

Friday, February 21, 2014

You Can't Always Get What You Want: A Patagonia Photo Journal

I returned a few weeks ago from a climbing trip to Argentina with Liv Sansoz and
Freddie Wilkinson. This photo journal below is cross posted from Mountain Hardwear. Liv also wrote a great report about our trip here and Mountain Hardwear compiled some of our team Instagrams here
In El Chalten, Argentina, life for climbers revolves around the meteogram, or weather forecast. The first topic of conversation at any time of day is the weather. Climbers download the chart to their phones daily and decipher it with the thought and care of a neurosurgeon. Will there be a window for climbing? When? For how long?
[Mate. Required when waiting for a weather window. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
This was my third trip climbing in the Argentine Patagonia. In the first two visits, over a combined time of about 11 weeks I’d climbed for about 8 days, picking off several of the sub-peaks of Fitzroy. From afar they create a breathtaking skyline, and up close, those sub-peaks exist in a shadow beneath Fitzroy’s greatness. Climbing those other peaks, I realized, felt like some kind of flirtatious dance, like I kept seeing her, locking steps with her, but could never really touch her. And when I thought of it that way I became obsessed. I wanted to climb Fitzroy and only Fitzroy. The obsession became so engrained in my psyche that all my internet passwords included some form of her name by the time we left for this trip.
[The one and only Fitz Roy Massif. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
I tell everyone I go to Patagonia for the amazing splitter granite, and it’s true, it is unmatched. This year we arrived just in time for Summer Solstice, trading photos over Instagram with our friends up North who were praising the return of light and lamenting the long darkness and cold, while we snapped shots of lupine in bloom and green, green grass. I think those long, energizing days account for as much of the reasoning that draws me back again and again. Sure, the place has changed since my first trip in 2005. There are infinitely more climbers and trekkers around, the roads are paved and there’s a bus station, (uber slow) wireless internet has arrived and established its attention-sucking influence, and there are even landscaping services and nannies! But that splitter rock and the capacity to ‘find summer’ in a plane flight remain, and will likely make it only more popular as an alpine rock climbing destination over time.
[El Chalten rest days. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
As nice as long days were for our psychological wellbeing, the weather this year just did not cooperate. We’d wake up and look up the forecast with hope, and then our shoulders would slump and our moods would sour as we saw more of the same: cold, wind and precipitation, day after day after day. Eventually the ‘meteo’ just became relative, and the best of the bad started looking good. So we’d pack our gear and head up and try to climb.
[Weather slogging. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
At one point we even deployed our own new tactic: Tortuga Style. With conditions so cold and snow so deep and cracks so icey and wind so maddening, we thought that if we intentionally brought extra clothes and food and an especially posh bivy set up (read: a two-man tent and two sleeping bags for the three of us, plus extra fuel for the stove), and if we purposely paced ourselves more slowly, it might increase our chances of getting a big summit despite the bad conditions. It seemed brilliant and fool proof – perhaps in the same way that a somewhat less terrible forecast seemed manageable while looking at a meteogram on a computer screen from the comfort of our cabana.
[Janet Wilkinson and Liv Sansoz climb Tortuga style. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]
So, in the end, although we got a couple good attempts on her flanks, we didn’t get to climb Fitzroy. We did soak up plenty of summer sunshine, logged hundreds of miles of walking and some nice pitches of climbing too, enjoyed some intoxicatingly beautiful bivy spots, and had lots of laughs with each other and with friends old and new. Although I realize that I now should probably change my Internet passwords, the obsession remains.
To be continued…
[One of the many beautiful bivies. PHOTO: Freddie Wilkinson]

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Practice Trip

As I prepare for another trip with Liv Sansoz this winter, I look back on our first ‘practice trip’ this past spring. We’d been trying to plan something for 18 months, but because of our hectic schedules (lives of professional 30-somethings!), injuries (lives of active people!) and other plans, a trip had eluded us. Finally, Liv just suggested we climb in her home mountains around Chamonix. Perfect!
The ‘practice trip’ is a ritual many mountain climbers undergo. The point is to learn climbing compatibility, but that’s not all. It is also about learning and working with each other’s personalities, daily rituals, dietary preferences, sleep and work schedules and more.
Day 1. She picks me up at Geneve airport from my Boston redeye, with a smile and a hug. What climbing partner doesn’t make their friend take the bus?! Walking to her car, we look like twins, each lugging one end of my duffel bag, wearing jeans, same-colored Mountain Hardwear puffies and Sportiva Raptors. We even drive the same type of car (Golf TDI). Of course we talk about the weather forecast and mountain conditions, which are both shit, on the ride to her house. Her house in Les Houches is comfy and cute. I get my own room. After a nap she feeds me a delicious fresh vegetarian meal and we go cragging.
Day 2. We knew May in the Alps could be hit or miss, but we had no idea just how ‘between season’ it was. The extended weather forecast is terrible, and all of the peaks are mid-melt. There’s no safe alpine climbing to be found, so we go to a multipitch sport crag call La Maladière instead. We start late and get lost on the approach. We rappel in 6 pitches, and have a 10 pitch climb out. Of course, a “wall of hate” races in from the north when we’re halfway up and about to start a steep, traversing pitch. We stop at the belay, consider our options and make a decision. We’re going up.
Suddenly, we’ve replicated the dynamic necessary for serious mountain climbing. We kick it into high gear and the natural division of labor needs no words – lucky thing since English is Liv’s second language and ‘merci’ is the extent of my French! Though we are both undoubtedly scared, there is no panicking or arguing through hail, wind gusts, rain, thunder and lightning. We are like a well-oiled machine, using any tactics necessary to BE SAFE, GET UP and GET OUT.
Day 3. Conditions are still crap for alpine climbing. Besides, with yesterday’s storm survival we’d basically accomplished the primary purpose of the trip, proving to each other that we’re compatible in stressful, high stakes situations. What to do? Road trip south for Spanish sport climbing heaven!
When she is the driver, Liv moves her seat all the way forward and upright. In her sweet, soft French accent, she explains it is so that when she goes fast, she can brace her knees to the sides, like a racecar driver. We stop at a natural food store and load up on local, organic vegetables, brewers yeast, whole grains and all types of healthy goodness. Liv hardly ever drinks alcohol or caffeine either. She is undoubtedly a good influence on me. We take turns driving through the rainy night and are climbing in the sun the next morning.
Day 4. You may recognize Liv’s name from her amazing sport climbing career. She’s a couple years older than me and was one of my heroes as I learned to climb during college. In recent years, her focus has shifted to mountain activities like skiing, alpine climbing, ice climbing…and the insane (to me!) world of flying and free fall sports.
Come to think of it, why in the world would she want to climb with a gumby like me?! Perhaps because she has no shame or ego, two more admirable traits of hers. We are both at about 5.11 sport climbing fitness when we arrive, and we just go to work, getting scared on the spaced out bolted climbs of Siurana and Montsant, taking huge whippers in Margalef.
In the morning and at night and on rest days, we both work on our computers. There may be nothing more comforting for me on climbing trips these days than when that kind of rhythm is possible. The reality of life for many middle-aged climbers is that a work-life balance means working when not climbing on most trips. It’s not all fun and games like it might have been when we were true climbing bums in our 20s, but the reward of having work that we love and still have the adventure lifestyle is worth the sacrifice. By the end of 4 climbing days, we’ve both gotten stronger by almost two number grades.
Day 11. Our last stop on my short European vacation is Lake Annecy. She organized a weekend of parapenting training with friends to try ‘stunts and acrobatics’ with the safety of the lake below. I want to tag along and check it out, since more and more of my friends are into this stuff. Her dad is there too, operating the rescue boat (which, lucky for the ulcer I’d certainly get from watching a falling incident, isn’t needed). I get to take a ride (!!!!), and love it. And I also get to see Liv in her prime –learning new skills, assessing risk, using good judgment, and laughing and having fun through it all.
That was all I needed to see. I’ll follow this girl anywhere in the world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ice Climbing: I love it because I kind of hate it

Power Puff Girls, circa 2001
Typical college kids, we woke up bleary eyed November 1, 2001, after one of the infamous Ravin’ and Misbehavin’ Halloween parties in Dover, New Hampshire. Bayard and Josh were psyched to go up north for their first ice climbing day of the season and dragged me along for my first day of ice climbing ever.
I can’t remember how we procured gear for me or how Marc Chauvin ended up joining our motley crew. I do remember following that first pitch up Standard Route on Frankenstein Cliff. It was 500 feet of pure slush and both hands were soaked after my first two swings. My feet were buried at least 6 inches with every kick. Still, we climbed to the top. We laughed and suffered and laughed some more. It was weird, uncomfortable and memorable. I was *not* hooked on ice climbing afterwards. And that has kind of been my relationship with ice climbing ever since.
The contrariness abounds in this sport: How cumbersome it feels to wear boots and crampons the first few times out, and thus how liberating it is to transition into rock climbing again in spring; How miserably cold and then hot we often get several times over one ice climbing day; How terrible the screaming barfies feel but amazing for those moments after they subside.
Marc, Bayard and Josh, Frankenstein, 2001
I’ve learned to love ice climbing because I live in New Hampshire and it’s what people do. Winter is long and the ice is good. I do treasure 'hero ice' days when I can lead all day with no fear…and soloing long easy gullies deep in the mountains…and the extraordinary fall or spring conditions that allow for a link of Cannon’s Black Dike followed by sport pitches at Rumney in a day. Catching up with old friends at the plethora of ice climbing festivals each December through February and teaching newbies little tricks to make the silly sport just a little more tolerable and fun and safe is actually kind of a fun way to spend those long winter weekends. 
Still, it's funny to me to spend time at a sport I am not entirely passionate about. But I guess it is not my only love-hate relationship. I never know if my dread in anticipation of black fly season in New Hampshire or my joy at its end is a more strong emotion. And although I certainly complain about the humid nastiness of July here, I also might just love my little summer swimming holes more than life itself.
As I settle into my 30’s I am learning that life is defined by that contrariety. Think of your complex feelings about your career, creative endeavors, family and closest friends. They are certainly not perfect relationships, and probably sometimes frustrating, confusing and downright difficult. But what would life be without them? Ice climbing is that to me. The more I do it the more I realize I love it because I just kind of hate it, and that's ok. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Shabin Life, Part 1: The Mama Mouse

My husband Freddie, Tagger the dog-child and I live in a 12-foot by 12-foot cabin we built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We have electricity but no running water. We have an outhouse with no door on it. We have lived here full time since 2007. We have a great life.
I’ve diagnosed myself with pre-nostalgia as we prepare to break ground on a ‘real house’ this spring. This is the first ‘Shabin Life’ entry that I'm writing as self-treatment.
At home in the Shabin
Part 1: The Mama Mouse
The Shabin was actually supposed to be a shed when we built it. The south wall has a 4’x6’ hole meant for a sliding door, to allow access for a small tractor. In those first years, I loved sitting in the open doorway with a cup of coffee, squinting into the morning light, or watching the bats flit around hunting mosquitoes at twilight.
But the unsealed slider setup had one major problem. The mice. I hate mice in my living space like Browns fans hate the Steelers. I hate their uncanny ability to sniff out the smallest crumb of food, leaving behind a pointy little turd in mocking gratitude, and I hate their graveyard shift working habits, taking over as we sleep, noisy and unafraid.
One night, I remember waking several times to faint scratching and chewing noises in the kitchen corner below the sleeping loft. I woke in the morning to find one of the ends of the paper towel roll had been thoroughly razed. I didn’t think much of it (if anything, I thought, we were finally winning our battle and the mice were having to eat paper towels to survive!), made my coffee, and went on with my day.
That afternoon, I was digging through one of the milk crates stacked in the mudroom corner, looking for an external hard drive. Suddenly, a gray flash of fur popped straight up in the air, out of the crate, between my legs and darted behind the greywater bucket, deep into the kitchen corner.
I jumped too, and then simultaneously chuckled at myself for being so startled, and felt embarrassed for living among mice.
As my heart rate normalized, I leaned over to continue digging. I heard a faint peeping noise and stopped again to listen closer. I looked toward the kitchen corner, thinking the mouse had returned, but saw nothing. I looked down again, picked up the drive, and right beneath it was an empty checkbook box filled with white fluff that looked like shredded paper towels…and…8 hairless, pink, hours-old mice. Their eyes were sealed shut and their bodies writhed in rhythm as if they were one being. Exposed to the cooler air and brighter light, their peeping got louder.
I stood straight up. Then leaned over to look again. They were beautiful.
After a few moments, feeling suddenly resolute, I picked up the entire crate, opened the door, set it down on the porch, went back inside, opened the fridge, grabbed two beers, stepped back outside, and yelled for Freddie who was out working on the land.
I handed him a beer and pointed into the crate. We laughed, looked, laughed again, looked again.
What were we going to do? We obviously couldn’t let her raise these newborns in the Shabin with us. But I couldn’t bring myself to kill them just because she chose to make her home in our already cramped quarters.
I stood with my back to the open door. Freddie was standing opposite me, and his expression suddenly changed as his eye caught something moving across the Shabin floor inside. As I turned to follow his gaze, mama mouse hopped over the threshold, inches from my toes, and crawled up into the crate between us.
Her fur was silky and her body smooth and soft and so delicate. I was reminded of the caged gerbils of my youth, who taught me to be responsible and gentle. How could I have loved those critters so dearly, yet despise with such intensity their wild cousins?
Then we watched in stunned silence as she ever so gently gathered one of the pinkies into her mouth and crawled, a bit more prudently, out of the crate, and shuffled back over the threshold into the Shabin, directly into one of the other stacked crates.
She was going to relocate her entire family before our eyes!
Suddenly, Freddie jumped into action. He grabbed the crate with the checkbook box and the other 7 Pinkies and walked around the corner to the woodshed.
“Grab the other one!” he called over his shoulder.
I obliged and Mama stayed in, along for the ride with Pinkie #8. I placed Mama’s crate on top of the nest crate. We decided it was the best we could offer her, to leave the two crates there for the night in hopes she would relocate the whole family -- out of the crates, yet also out of the Shabin -- to somewhere safe and more permanent. 
The next day all that was left was the nest of shredded paper towel and the checkbox. She had moved them, and, we imagined, all was fine.
That winter we put a panel of insulated wall with a window into the sliding door hole, and accessed the Shabin via a ‘normal’ door on the west wall. The winter system seals us from the varmints, or vice-versa, and we have never reinstalled the summer sliding system again.
Freddie takes the first watering can shower of the year. 3/14/2012

What's your best mouse story?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

WANTED: Alpinistas

Emilie Drinkwater, India
“So, are you bringing insulated pants?” Kirsten asked as we sifted through gear the afternoon before a climb this past summer.

Kirsten Kremer on Aguja Mermoz
This question is not easy to answer. Kirsten and I have a history dating back to a fateful Christmas weather window in 2006 when we had two unplanned bivies in three nights in Patagonia’s Fitz Roy group. Bringing insulated pants is our *wink, wink* way of saying that we may not get the climb done in a day. Bringing those pants meant that I was willing to consider an open, 'unplanned' bivy the following night.

Behind that question about insulated pants is my main answer to why I think more women don’t alpine climb: It is heavy. It simply is hard for women (especially smaller framed ones) to climb technical terrain with a forty+ pound pack full of days of food, fuel, sleeping bags and tents.
There are so very few women active in the alpine climbing world, and I can’t help but think that the heaviness of it is just the tip of the iceberg. We also can’t pee with one hand while belaying or while laying down in a sleeping bag...many of the highest mountains in the world are in countries where women are not recommended to travel without men...and the prime age for cutting edge alpine climbers is their 30's - how many of my 30-something climber girlfriends are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant right now? Most. Then add in the psychological aspect that requires a lot of women to "need a bit more space to put themselves first," as Sarah Hueniken said so eloquently, and there's a lot of reasons to go sport climbing (don't get me wrong, I LOVE sport climbing!).
Ladies in the Karakoram, photo Freddie Wilkinson

I love that alpine climbing brings together every discipline of climbing, added to the adventure of travel. Certainly, if that was all there was to it there would be more women AND men doing it. But it is also fundamentally dangerous, time- and money-consuming and requires a degree of self-confidence, athleticism, fortitude and willingness to suffer that the majority of us probably do not possess in that magically perfect combination to make it all feel fun. 

Three women competed in the Ouray Ice Comp this year, compared to a maxed out men's lineup with many on a waiting list. I serve on a climbing grant committee for a grant initiated in memory of two women climbers, and only one all-women team applied to it for funding this year. Why am I pleasantly surprised that two women teams and one solo female (along with several unisex teams) were in the Piolet D’Or listing of the most significant ascents in 2011 – shouldn’t there really be more? 

Caroline George on the Aguille du Midi
On that same trip with Kirsten with the insulated pants question this past summer, our ladies team was constantly embarrassed by the way life works in base camp on a major expedition: Tea served on a silver tray in bed in the morning, meals cooked for us, a whole supply chain from the city could provide us with anything at our beck and was a weird colonial-military way of operating. Not to mention the bureaucratic craziness of the permit process. It all left us feeling like little girls in a man's world. Is it simply because the other three men on our team had each been on a dozen plus expeditions like this so weren’t as struck by it or are women just more naturally averse to such top-down militaristic feeling arrangements? 
I read a great article about how some of the most talented businesswomen may be transforming the economy by saying 'no' to typical patriarchal corporate structures and starting their own businesses instead with their own management structures. This isn’t about Title IX-type equality measures, it’s women bucking the system and creating something better.  
Sarah Garlick and me, St. Exupery photo Kirsten Kremer

Chicks with Picks is an example of the positive impact some good public relations can have on a manly sport. I regularly meet women now while out rock climbing who got into it by ice climbing in those programs - that was unheard of just a few years ago. And because of that growth there are now more boots and tools and clothing lines available for the ice climbing chika than ever before. It's awesome and it's a great start. 
If alpinistas really want it, the innovation can happen - in terms of how expeditions are planned and managed, how equipment is designed, and perhaps even how many  hands are required for us to pee. A few small changes and who knows, maybe I'll stop going for day-and-a-half climbs armed only with insulated pants and finally choose to bring the entire kit for a big multi-day mountain climb like the big boys do. 
Emilie and Kirsten, Peak 6135, India
Aguja Guillament, photo Kirsten Kremer

Sarah Garlick and I headed into the Wind River Range, 2002

Kirsten and her insulated pants, morning after a bivy