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Removing Russian Olive Trees: Collaborative Trainings in Escalante, UT

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Training 56 Youth in Conservation & Safety

Canyon Country Youth Corps (CCYC) is a youth Conservation Corps that trains up to 56 individuals every year on various conservation and restoration techniques. CCYC works across Utah completing projects that help the restoration of riparian areas and pinyon-juniper forests. In a collaborative effort to remove Russian Olive (an invasive tree) along the Escalante river, CCYC works with a Watershed Partnership and three other Conservation Corps of the Four Corners region. This collaboration has been in place for the past 8 years.

picture of team to remove russian olive

For 8 years, CCYC has collaborated with other corps to equip individuals for this conservation work

Invasive Russian Olive Trees

Russian Olive was originally introduced to the region as a riverbank stabilizer; it does the job well, too well. Unfortunately, it became an invasive species to the area, particularly on rivers. This means it was able to out compete native plant species. As a result of Russian Olive establishment, the river banks have become super-stabilized. This is not good for a healthy, moving river which is supposed to have bends, curves, braiding, slow parts, and fast parts that change over time.

Russian Olive also shades the river. This extra shade along an entire river, especially a small river like the Escalante, results in significant water temperature cooling. This is detrimental to native fish populations who require a specific temperature range for mating and spawning. With all the negative effects of Russian Olive and no forseason circumstance of Russian Olive being outcompeted by native plant species, mechanical and chemical removal has become necessary. This is where four Conservation Corps working together comes into play.

Remote Backcountry Work

The four Conservation Corps have divided and conquered Russian Olive all along the Escalante River. The Escalante River has some pretty remote sections requiring crews to work in the backcountry.

Teams often travel to extremely remote locations

This work can be a toll on the Crew Members and Leaders throughout the season as they work 8 days in the backcountry every other week cutting down thorny Russian Olive trees with chainsaws in the chilly fall weather. Running several Conservation Corps crews in the backcountry for several months requires an extensive training period.

Safety First

Safety is always the number one concern. The four Conservation Corps go through first aid training and become familiar with their first aid kits, chainsaw training, and herbicide application training. Crews also go through an emergency response training which includes meeting a heli-tech crew and talking about the process of a heli-evac and the requirements for clearing out a landing pad for a helicopter.

Emergency response training includes understanding heli-evac processes

The hope is an emergency evacuation will never be necessary. However, the extensive trainings aid the crews in feeling more prepared for safe living and working in the backcountry. They are given advise on how to stay positive and supportive with each other through a long season. And on a technical level they learn valuable skills on chainsaw work, herbicide application, riparian restoration techniques, and backcountry evacuation procedures.

8 Years of Conservation & Friendships

8 years later the large collaboration between the Watershed Partnership and the four Conservation Corps is coming to a close. This was a long, slow process, but fortunately the Escalante River has gone through initial treatment of Russian Olive. Following years will be dedicated to re-sprout treatment. Sadly, it means this year was the very last cross-Corps training. The work will slow down significantly and all four Conservation Corps will no longer be needed. It is a bittersweet end to a large collaboration where the Conservation Corps of the region where able to gain a network of friends, colleagues, and fellow explorers.

Written by Natalya Walker

Teaching Wilderness Medicine in the Khumbu

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Tragedy and Purpose

In September of 1999, legendary mountaineers Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, and David Bridges traveled to Tibet with the goal to ski down the 8,103 m (26,291 ft.) Himalayan peak Shishapangma.  They were part of the 1999 American Shishapangma Ski Expedition. The goal was to be the first American team to ski from the summit of an 8,000 m peak.

Bridges, Anker, and Lowe (left to right)

Unfortunately, tragedy struck on October 5 as they were searching for a route up the mountain.  A large serac broke loose 1,800 m (6,000 ft.) above them, resulting in an avalanche striking all three of them.  Anker survived with multiple injuries, and immediately began attempts to locate and rescue his friends. With the help of others, Anker searched for his teammates for the next two days. Unfortunately, they were unable to locate Lowe and Bridges.

Lowe was survived by his wife Jennifer and their three sons.  Following this tragedy, Anker spent a great deal of time with Jennifer and her three sons.  During this time, the two fell in love and were married in 2001 (Jenni Lowe-Anker wrote more on this in a memoir, it is also discussed in the film documentary Meru).  Together they formed the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.  The Khumbu Climbing Center, or KCC, is a result of this foundation and where many of their efforts are focused.

The Khumbu Climbing Center

Located at around 3,960 m (13,000 ft.) in the Khumbu Valley, Phortse is a humble pastoral village that is home to generations of Sherpa climbers and to more Everest summiteers than anywhere else on earth.  Phortse lies off the traditional beaten path to Everest and is often overlooked, as it lies perched among the clouds resting in the shadows of the sacred Himalayan peaks. But if you look across the gaping gorge of the Dudh Kosi River as you ascend to the Tengboche Monastery, you will see a terraced knoll with stone structures scattered about.  It is there that the Khumbu Climbing Center found its home.

Khumbu Valley with Photse visible

Phortse (left mid flat area) with Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam in background

The KCC was founded in 2003 with the mission statement “to increase the safety margin of Nepali climbers and high-altitude workers by encouraging responsible climbing practices in a supportive and community based program.” For 2 weeks each winter, technical climbing skills, English language, mountain safety, rescue skills, mountain geology, and wilderness first aid are taught to students.  Prior student experience ranges from novice climbers/porters to Everest veterans, and to even the famed “Ice Fall Doctors” who painstakingly and courageously find a way through the Khumbu Icefall each climbing season to open the path towards the sacred summit of Sagamartha (Nepali name for Everest).  To date, over 800 students have benefited from this annual vocational training aimed to improve both their quality of life through better employment opportunities and their ability to stay safe as they work high in the Himalayas.

In addition to the annual training that occurs, the KCC has also offered specialized courses over the years including advanced technical rescue and advanced mountain first aid.  The KCC is dedicated to the village of Phortse and over the past years and with countless help, has tirelessly worked to build a permanent building in Phortse.  This building, which is nearing completion, will serve as the home to the KCC and will allow for expanded instruction, will provide access to both visiting Nepali and international climbers year round, and will also serve as a community center, library, and medical clinic for Phortse.  It is but one way that the KCC demonstrates their dedication both to the Phortse and all high altitude workers of Nepal.

Discovery, Reunion, and Collaboration

On April 27, 2016, climbers Ueli Steck and David Göttler were on an expedition to Shishapangma when they spotted two bodies that had partially emerged from the glacier.  Suspicion was high that they were those of Lowe and Bridges.  Shortly after, Anker’s phone rang with news of the discovery and after a description of the bodies, their clothing, and equipment, Conrad and Jenni were convinced that it was indeed Alex and David.

In response Anker said, “It’s kind of fitting that it’s professional climbers who found him. It wasn’t a yak herder. It wasn’t a trekker. David and Ueli are both cut from the same cloth as Alex and me.”

Regarding this discovery, Jenni Lowe-Anker said, “I never realized how quickly it would be that he’d melt out…I thought it might not be in my lifetime.”

Meanwhile in New Mexico, Dr. Darryl Macias, an emergency medicine physician who specializes in mountain/wilderness medicine, was returning home from teaching a wilderness medicine and dive course in Hawaii when he received a phone call.  “Ueli Steck found them!”

Dr. Macias and David Bridges were very close friends and climbing partners that had traveled the continent and Europe together.  Part of Dr. Macias’s desire to focus on, teach, and promote wilderness medicine was inspired and spurned by the death of his close friend David.  Soon after, Anker and Macias contacted each other along with others close to Lowe and Bridges.  Plans were made to travel to Tibet to lay the two to rest, with Dr. Macias serving as the expedition physician.

Shishapangma expedition to recover Alex and David

While emotional, the trip was a success and the group was able to locate Alex and David and lay them to rest according to local custom and practice.  During this trip, Dr. Macias learned about the KCC, its mission/purpose, and was invited by Anker to come and teach at the KCC.   With great enthusiasm, Dr. Macias accepted the invitation and traveled to Nepal in January of 2018.  He traveled there with two other physicians from the University of New Mexico International Mountain Medicine Center, Dr. Jake Jensen and Dr. Hans Hurt, to provide much needed medical education to the amazing group of high altitude workers that call Nepal their home.

(For more on Dr. Macias’s experience dealing the loss of a friend, his journey and experience into wilderness medicine, and his experience at the KCC see his MEDTalk. He starts at 1:31:00.)

Albuquerque to Phortse

Prior to departing, we (Macias, Jensen, and Hurt) discussed what topics we felt would most pertinent for the course. We knew that we would only have 8 hours with each group of 8-10 students, and wanted to ensure that all the information taught would be beneficial.  While we knew we could cover topics such as acute mountain sickness, high altitude cerebral edema, high altitude pulmonary edema, and hypothermia, we also wanted to teach more commonly encountered conditions.  We reviewed the current literature to make an updated list of the most common complaints encountered during expeditions and treks.  Ultimately, we created a small booklet full of illustrations and diagrams that was written in simple English for each student to keep. The booklet contained topics we wished to teach, along with extra topics we knew we wouldn’t have time to cover.

After traveling halfway across the world from Albuquerque to Kathmandu, we met with a small group of other KCC western instructors and flew to Lukla together.  Lukla is often referred to as the gateway to Mount Everest, as most expeditions into the Khumbu region start there.  It is also home to the world’s “most extreme and dangerous airport” as it lies perched on the side of the steep valley amongst 6,000 meter peaks.  From there we began our 3-day trek to Phortse, stopping in Phakding and Namche Bazaar along the way to acclimatize.  We also enjoyed great views of Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and countless other peaks, often sipping “chiya” at quaint tea houses.  Our arrival to Phortse was a humbling one, as many locals were waiting at a stupa, which marks the entrance into the village.  We were warmly welcomed with cheers, hugs, and khatas (long flowing silk fabrics to adorn the neck) to mark our newfound friendship.

Entering Phortse

Shortly after arrival, the preparation began for the biggest group of students that KCC has ever had.  We assisted in teaching advanced climbing skill updates to the Nepali instructors and gave them a medical refresher course, as it had been years since many of them had received any form of medical training.   This also gave us a chance to test out our teaching strategies using various scenarios, demonstrations, and discussions prior to students arriving.  Based on their feedback, we made minor adjustments and added a few additional topic ideas to benefit the students.

For the remainder of the course, we taught students basic first aid in groups of 8-10 each day.  We began with personal safety, scene size-up, and going over the MARCH algorithm.  Other topics included wound care, blisters, orthopedic injuries, altitude illness, hypothermia, frostbite, and GI issues.  We opted for topic discussions, demonstrations, scenarios, and hands-on activities, eliminating standard PowerPoint presentations.

Jake Jensen and Hans Hurt teaching scene size up and safety

We found that many students understood English, though with variable fluency. With each class we taught we learned more Nepali, making our teaching even more effective.  At times our Nepali words were not perfect, making for many laughs (the Nepali word for knee is very close to a very different part of the male body). However, they understood us, and appreciated our efforts to use as much Nepali as possible.

Darryl Macias teaching how to splint

Each day to start we would have the group introduce themselves to us.  We would ask where they were from, what their medical training background was, and what their experience was working in the Himalaya. Through this, we found that only around 10% had had some form of medical training in the past.  This number was lower than the number of students that had climbed or been on expeditions to Everest and other 7,000 meter (~23,000 foot) and 8,000 meter (~26,000 foot) peaks.  This solidified the importance of our medical course, as for many it was the first formal medical education they had ever received, and it may be the only training some students ever receive.

Darryl Macias and Jake Jensen giving a lecture

Our main focus in teaching was in line with the mission statement of the KCC.  We continually emphasized safety and self-care during every topic we taught. Overall, our instruction was very well received and students did exceptional during the test day, demonstrating that safety was of the utmost importance in caring for ones-self and others.

We enjoyed our time in Nepal, and were glad we could contribute to the cause.  We were all humbled by the experience, and developed a deeper appreciation, respect, and love for the people, culture, and landscape of Nepal.  We all looked forward to a chance to return, unsure when that would be, and discussed how we could improve their education, preparation, and discussed the idea of teaching a Wilderness First Responder course to the more advanced individuals if we were presented the opportunity.

Macias, Jensen, and Hurt in Tengboche with Ama Dablam and Everest in background

We even recorded a podcast for the Wilderness Medicine Society, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine Live! where we discussed our experiences (starts at 20:03). We all looked forward to returning, but weren’t confident when we would have that chance…

The Return

As plans were being laid for the 2019 KCC course, Dr. Darryl Macias and I were contacted by the directors of the KCC.  We were happy to hear they were pleased with our efforts the year before and asked us if we would return.  We jumped at the opportunity, happy to take what we had learned the year prior to improve the education provided.  We would also take with us Dr. Nicole Mansfield, our current Wilderness, Austere, and International Medicine Fellow.

In addition to teaching a one day basic medical course to ~90 students, we were also asked if we could provide a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course to ~24-30 of the local KCC instructors who also serve as guides throughout Nepal.  Many of them had approached us the year prior with great interest in a WFR course and we eagerly accepted this invitation to provide them with additional instruction.  While there have been other Wilderness First Responder courses taught in the Khumbu Valley, this would be the first aimed to educate the local population that call it home.

Plans were made regarding how we could improve the education to the basic class and a curriculum for the WFR class was developed.  We created an online video library for the WFR students so they could start their learning prior to arrival.  We also began gathering the supplies that we would need to teach.  It was during that time that we realized that it would be best if we could provide them with a medical kit that would match their level of training.

After reaching out to many individuals and groups, we were thrilled when Adventure® Medical Kits responded and stated they would assist us by providing medical kits to the 24-30 local Sherpa guides that we would be teaching a WFR course to.  These kits, the Mountain Series Explorer, will be the perfect kit for this group.

The Explorer medical kits in the hypobaric chamber

The contents of the kit are excellent and is ideal for the WFR training that this group will receive. This donation will go a long ways to ensuring that this group doesn’t just have the knowledge, but also the tools to care for others in a wilderness/remote environment should the need arise.

Darryl Macias in the hypobaric chamber, supplementing kits with extra gloves and gauze. 

In addition to that, we also received additional funding from another source and will be able to provide very basic medical supplies to the ~90 basic class students and will also be able to add some supplies (survival, fire-starting equipment) to the kits provided to us by Adventure® Medical Kits for the WFR students.

Jensen kids making small kits for basic class students

Things have been extremely busy as we search out the equipment we will need to teach, record videos, refine lesson plans, and gather personal gear, but all in all this year is shaping up to be a fantastic one at the Khumbu Climbing Center, and we cannot wait to arrive and provide this much needed education to this amazing group of individuals.  Stay tuned for a follow up on how things went!

Packing the Explorer medical kits and other supplies

About the Authors

Jake Jensen, DO, DiMM, FAWM

Jake Jensen is an emergency medicine physician who completed a Wilderness, Austere, and International Fellowship program with the University of New Mexico. He enjoys teaching wilderness medicine at all levels and has also practiced and taught medicine in Haiti, Chile, and Nepal with plans to continue teaching nationally and internationally in the future.   He has a very loving and supportive wife who puts up with his antics, travels, and hobbies.  He also has 4 adventurous children that love the outdoors, help him pack for his trips, and look forward to when they can travel more with him.  In his limited spare time he enjoys backcountry skiing, mountain biking, backpacking, and simply sitting around the camp-fire.

Darryl Macias, MD, FACEP, DiMM, FAWM

Darryl is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of New Mexico International Mountain Medicine Center. He has been involved in wilderness and international emergency medicine development in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, and has lectured internationally. He is involved in mountain rescue and expeditions, but also enjoys taking his family on crazy trips throughout the world, seeking new adventures in life. You can hear his lively Wilderness and Environmental Medicine LIVE! Podcasts on iTunes and SoundCloud.

More Information

For more information on the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and the Khumbu Climbing Center, click here.

To learn more about discovery of Alex Lowe and David Bridges on Shishapangma (also where quotes from Conrad Anker and Jenni Lowe-Anker were found), click here.

Below are the links mentioned above in the blog post along with a few additional ones. Highly recommend you take a look/listen at these.

Dr. Macias’s MEDTalk regarding his story of loss, journey into wilderness medicine, and what the future holds.  Starts at 1:31:00.

Link to the Wilderness and Environmental Live! Podcast where we discuss our experiences during our first trip to the KCC. Starts at 20:03.

Link to the Wilderness and Environmental Live! Podcast where we have a discussion, with the authors, regarding a recent paper that was published regarding the knowledge of porters in the Khumbu Valley when it comes to recognition and treatment of altitude illness. We also branch off and discuss other aspects of medicine and their well-being. Start at the beginning.

Link to The Mountain Dispatch, a biannual newsletter put out by the UNM International Mountain Medicine Center where we discuss last year’s trip to KCC.

Gasoline Geysering on the San Juan River, UT

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Spring of 2018, Canyon Country Youth Corps (CCYC) was asked to work with the Bureau of Land Management on remote sections of the San Juan River, removing and treating the invasive Tamarisk and Russian Olive. The remote work location required CCYC to break out rafting gear and hire a river guide to ensure the CCYC crew could float the lower San Juan safely with all the chainsaw gear, gasoline, and herbicide needed.

Gasoline Geysering

The Southwest gets very hot during the spring, especially with several days without cloud cover. This can create difficulties when working with machines and flammable fuels. Gasoline evaporates as it heats up, which creates pressure in a closed fuel tank, even when mixed with two-stroke engine oil. This pressure buildup in a hot chainsaw has caused a problem known as “geysering.” This is where a literal geyser, or small fountain, of gasoline shoots out of a chainsaw when pressure is released, like when removing the fuel tank cap. This gasoline geysering is exactly what happened while CCYC was working remotely on the San Juan River, a day down river from the put in, and a four day paddle to the take out.

Gas in His Eyes

It was the morning of the second day of work when a Crew Leader walked over to the Field Coordinator and Field Boss and calmly explained, “Will has gas in his eyes and says it’s hard to breathe.” The Crew Leader was advised to inform the River Guide, who was Wilderness First Responder trained.

The field staff grabbed their water bottles and hurried over to Will, who was found shirtless, leaning over a rock and splashing river water over his chest, shoulders, face, and mouth. He claimed his shirt was soaked with gasoline, his skin was tingling, and his eyes were burning severely. When his chainsaw geysered, he was wearing safety eye protection, but the gasoline reached his eyes anyway.

The Field Boss told Will to stand and put his head back, and they started pouring clean water over his eyes and eyelids. Another Crew Leader was advised to retrieve the large Adventure Medical Kit, knowing it contained a large irrigation syringe and eye drops. The Field boss continued pouring clean water over Will’s eyes and eyelids. Just moments later, the River Guide arrived with the Adventure Medical Kit and took over.

The River Guide used the large irrigation syringe to squirt clean water over and directly into Will’s eyes in an effort to wash out all traces of gasoline. Will said his skin was still tingling, especially in the direct sunlight, but his eyes remained the first priority. The CCYC backcountry communication device was on hold, ready to send an evacuation request. CCYC protocol is if loss of life, limb, or eyesight are at risk, an emergency evacuation is organized, which, on a remote section of river, would require a helicopter.

30 Minutes & 2.5 Liters

The rest of the crew waited anxiously; they rinsed Will’s shirt, they checked the chainsaw, and they waited for updates. To many people’s surprise, it took about 30 minutes and 2.5 liters of water for Will to claim the stinging was still present but less severe and his vision was not blurry. The whole crew breathed a sigh of relief. The River Guide advised Will to hold off on work the rest of the evening, to wash his skin with soapy water, and to sit in the shade.

Will rinsed his eyes again after dinner, and then applied saline eye drops. Will confirmed he was feeling better after the end of the day, and an emergency evacuation was not necessary. Thank goodness for the Adventure Medical Kit and for the River Guide who took over when necessary!

The entire crew was surprised at the amount of water and time necessary for Will to feel relief in his eyes. It was an adrenaline-filled morning; however, the entire crew learned a valuable lesson on the dangers of gasoline geysering and how to respond if geysering occurred again. The biggest lesson learned was how to prevent gasoline geysering and injury. Gasoline containers and chainsaws must be placed and stored in the shade when not in use. A STIHL chainsaw fuel tank can be checked through the translucent sides. If a tank is over ½ full do NOT open the tank. Instead, wait for the chainsaw to cool down, then open the fuel tank. When opening a fuel tank, a sawyer must not stand or lean directly over the fuel tank and must instead face away until pressure is released.

Thankfully, Will recovered just fine after the gasoline geysering incident, and the entire crew was able to continue their work on the San Juan River and enjoy floating to the take out. Without a doubt this was one of the most memorable trips for the CCYC spring season.

About Canyon Country Youth Corps

Canyon Country Youth Corps (CCYC) is a youth conservation Corps that trains up to 56 individuals every year on various conservation and restoration techniques. CCYC works across Utah completing projects primarily on riparian restoration removing Russian Olive and Tamarisk, which are common invasive species in Utah that crowd and destroy river banks.

As a result of Tamarisk and Russian Olive establishment, the river banks have become super-stabilized. This is not good for a healthy, moving river, which are supposed to have bends, curves, braiding, slow parts, and fast parts that change over time.

Tamarisk and Russian Olive also shade the river. This extra shade along an entire river results in significant water temperature cooling. This is detrimental to native fish populations that require a specific temperature range for mating and spawning.

With all the negative effects of Russian Olive and no foreseen circumstance of Tamarisk or Russian Olive being outcompeted by native plant species, mechanical and chemical removal has become necessary. This is where Canyon Country Youth Corps comes into play. Throughout the spring and fall seasons, CCYC works along various rivers using chainsaws, hand tools, and herbicide to remove and treat Tamarisk and Russian Olive.

Written by Natalya Walker

Backcountry Lemonade: Trans-Sierra Backcountry Skiing

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Old Man Winter Strikes Again

After 9+ months of planning, our Trans-Sierra backcountry skiing trip hung in the balance. Our intention was to tackle the High Sierra route, traversing from Shepherd Pass and ending up at the Wolverton trailhead in Sequoia National Park five to six days later. Unfortunately, the report from Eastern Sierra Avalanche seemed to get worse by the day.

After a dry December, January, and most of February, it appeared that Old Man Winter wasn’t completely asleep after all, and the largest storm of the year dropped 7 feet of snow right before we were set to depart.

Backcountry Skiing packing list

Sorting and resorting our gear, which included packing the Ultralight/Watertight Pro medical kit

Adapting to the Weather

After circling the wagons, our team of 4 decided to make the most of the following week and use the hut reservations we had made for Pear Lake in an effort to salvage some decent skiing. We left the Wolverton trailhead under blue bird skies and made our way into the cirque just below Pear Lake for one night of camping before we moved into the seemingly luxurious winter hut.

dinner at camp 1

Camp 1 at Emerald Lake

Despite having to adapt our plans from the more ambitious (and coveted) traverse trip, we had a phenomenal time. The skiing wasn’t amazing, but the people were and so was the terrain.

backcountry skiing

Skiing in past many signs of recent avalanches

Skiing up from our camp and looking out over the snow laden Sierra is an experience that any backcountry skier should seek out. Venturing out into the Tablelands of Sequoia brings you into some surreal scenery that is reminiscent of the European Alps.

mountains at night in snow

Camping under the moonlight

Backcountry Skiing Safety: The Right Training & Gear

As with any backcountry skiing trip, the risks need to be respected and calculated as much as possible. The knowledge that comes from Avalanche Trainings is useful but there is also a practical experience that must also be drawn from when making decisions in the mountains. Travelling with the proper gear and equipment (beacon, shovel, probe, first-aid kit, repair kit, etc.) is also essential.

skier assessing snowpack

Assessing snowpack

After the four days in the backcountry, we returned to the trailhead sunburned, sore, hungry, and tired. We were refreshed by the beauty of the Sierra once again and were already discussing plans for the following year. There is something about getting away into the backcountry that is good for what ails all of us. With the conditions at hand we made the best of the situation and created “backcountry lemonade” from the lemons the backcountry (and Old Man Winter) through our way.

backcountry noridic skiing

Looking out to the Tablelands and the Kaweahs

About the Author

As the General Manager of Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, Graham brings diverse experiences from many corners of the outdoor industry globe. With his guiding career, he has also filled operational and management roles for several leading adventure based companies in North America and South America. His love of travel and adventure is infectious and immediately evident as he assists SYMG guests in creating their perfect journey into the mountains he calls home. The backcountry skiing trip early this Spring is a popular touring option that ventures into the backcountry of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

Hip Hop in the Backcountry: Developing Soft Skills as a Leader

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Bonney Pass Part 1: 19 Hours & Counting

Its 8pm and we have been moving since 1am. Four of us are staring down the last steep section of Bonney Pass in the Wind River Range. Camp still looks so far away, everyone is exhausted, injuries are becoming big problems, and everyone is sharing in the feeling of defeat after having to turn around 500 feet short of the summit of Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s high point.

Our view from the top of Bonney Pass, with our camp far in the distance, almost too small to see

I rig up another anchor, put Ben on belay, look at Jenny, and without missing a beat we start rapping “I’m just pillow talking with a fish,” the silly lyrics of the song we have been parodying since the 2nd day on the trail. We all crack a smile and gain some energy; camp doesn’t look so far away anymore.

Leadership Training: Not What I Expected

I’ve been told by many people that I’ve got an intense personality. I am incredibly goal oriented and have a tendency to get a little bit obsessive about my goals. When I first joined the New Hampshire Outing Club my freshman year of college, I yearned to be like the senior hardcore leaders, who casually would grind out back-to-back death marches in between major school projects and studying. I signed up for Leadership Training (LT) for the club and got excited about the new skills I would learn. I thought they were going to teach me how to train harder, pack lighter, and fix every medical issue in front of me. Instead when I got to LT, I sat in a circle with my other soon-to-be leaders, and we talked about personal feelings and group dynamics – aka “soft skills.” That was far harder for me than any death march I had been on to date.

Soft Skills: More Important Than You’d Think

As I gained experience, I realized why the soft skills at LT were so important. When leading a trip, your first priority is getting everyone back safe and hopefully happy. Emotions and feelings play a big part in your physical nature and vice versa. When you have a group of people, creating trust, acceptance, and motivation will drastically help get everyone home safe and happy.

For the #BeSafeGannett Expedition, I was lucky enough to start gaining insight into the “soft” side of many of the members. Through the time we spent training and general preparation, I got an understanding of individual tendencies, confidences, humor, and ways to motivate. It’s the soft skills that helped me understand when to take a break, when to push a little bit longer, and what specifically to say (or not say) to get an individual home safely. It was even more exemplified as team members were understanding and acting on my above actions to make impacts on an exponential level.

Rap & Wildflowers

Silly little things can help out with forming group dynamics. Being into hip hop, I taught “trap arms” and rap lyrics to one team member (who was more likely to listen to Wicked soundtrack than wu-tang clan), while she in return taught me about wildflowers and the awesomeness that I would have overlooked. This strengthened a bond and helped create trust, respect, and understanding of each other (it also inspired me to take some super sweet pictures).

soft skills can get you to look at the wildflowers

Noticing the wildflowers can help you take some sweet pictures

20 Questions X 20

That wasn’t the only, nor the biggest, interaction which drove positive group dynamics. Right at about mile 5 we started playing 20 questions. By mile 10, we had to create a whole set of rules based around the reality of said object and in which realm said things were considered real.

We passed a lot of time and miles by playing “20 Questions”

Yeah, we nerded out, and that created a set of inside jokes we could lean on and utilize when we needed a quick pick me up during the remaining 50 miles of the trip.

Bonney Pass Part 2: Down in Time for Dinner

By 9 pm we had finally made it back to camp. Chelsea, being the caretaker she is, had dinner ready in minutes. We were totally worked, super gross, had been defeated by our main objective, and still had a 25-mile trek to the trailhead. A backcountry thanksgiving dinner, busting out a few bars about fishes, and some sentimental words on how well everyone did put everyone to bed with a smile and motivation to trek out in the following days.

P.S.

Some trail jokes will follow you all the way into the front-country. After our return from Gannett, I came home one day to find a fish-shaped pillow. My pup loves pillow talking with this fish! Just one more reason to appreciate soft skills.

My dog Cocoa pillow talking with his favorite fish

About the Author

Joe Miller is an alpinist residing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He serves on the Pemigewasset and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue teams. Joe loves everything about the outdoors and can be found taking full moon laps up Cannon Cliff, ice climbing classics in Crawford notch, and slaying powder on his splitboard. Joe started working at Tender Corporation in 2015, as he loves the proximity to the mountains. When not outdoors, Joe lets his inner geek flag fly; he can be found holed up with his dog and cat, tinkering with electronics and computer systems.

A Few Words on Paddling Safety

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

It is too easy to be prepared – a few words on paddling preparedness. Whether you’re stand up paddle boarding in the Dominican or canoeing in Canada, practicing good paddling safety is easy to do and prepares you for whatever comes your way.

paddling safety gear

What paddling safety equipment do you regularly pack?

Accidents Happen

On a recent trip, I was reminded of the importance of paddling safety. I should have known better as I passed a group of less than thrilled women wading without their kayak. I was paddling to the Atlantic on a janky stand up paddle board (SUP) that I rented from the Dominican Resort we were staying at. As I approached the breakers, I watched a few Scuba instructors pull a sunken Ocean Kayak Fenzy from the bottom onto an old wooden skiff. Apparently the drain plug was missing in action… scary.

A few waves in, I had forgotten about the sunken kayak and was having a blast. On the next set, I saw a decent-size wave coming and started paddling hard. Before I knew it, I had out run the wave and gotten too far ahead of the breaker. The board started to nose dive, and I was swiftly bailing out. I jumped off, thinking I was clear of the sandbar, but I quickly hit the bottom in waist-deep water and got a pretty nasty cut on the bottom of my left foot.

As I paddled in, I pondered the fastest option for access to a medical kit. There was an overwhelmingly large line at the rental stand, and after seeing the quality of the boats, I could only imagine the medical kits.  I opted for walking all the way back to my room for a Mountain Series kit that I had packed in my checked bag. I had to walk a quarter mile back to the room barefoot, as I had left my sandals with my wife back at our chairs in the opposite direction. By the time I got back, my feet were black and the wound was covered in sand. Not good.

Are You Prepared for “What If”?

While my foot did not fall off (and I miraculously made a full recovery before happy hour started), it could have turned out much worse. And I could have been more prepared. What if it was worse? What if the bleeding was not easily controlled? What if I was not at a resort but on a remote lake, solo, deep in the Maine wilderness? Would it have been the same outcome?

Even minor injuries, left untreated, can become major issues in the backcountry

My point is accidents happen, and they can happen to anyone venturing into the outdoors. While experience helps, the outcome can be the same whether you’re a seasoned pro or a newbie who just rented a canoe for a short paddle. Think of all the times growing up or in present day when things could have gone bad but didn’t. Could you have easily been prepared if they had gone wrong? Let me help with some scenarios where a little paddling safety gear would go a long way.

Scenario 1: Family Canoe Trip

It is Memorial Day weekend and you decided to take your kids out for a paddle near the public campsite you rented. You rent a canoe from a teenager who barely got off his phone long enough to hand you the old life jackets and warped plastic paddles. It has been misting off and on all day, so you leave your bags in the car.

Ask yourself: How far do I have to go to reach my medical kit?

You paddle up the quiet, tranquil creek until you reach a large tree with a rope swing. Your overzealous teenager’s canoe reaches the bank before you get there. By the time you paddle up, he is halfway up the steep approach to the swing. Before you even realize what is happening, he is screaming and running back down the sandy slope to the water. As he gets closer, you see the swarm of angry bees converging on his head and shoulders. You think to yourself “at least he’s not allergic.” As the swarm dissipates, you can start to see noticeable swelling. Do you have some diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help with swelling? Do you have some acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain? What if he got a large cut on his foot on the run back to the water? While this was likely not life-threatening, having a small medical kit would have made the paddle back much more comfortable for your teen.

Scenario 2: Post-Work Paddling

One more example for good measure. It’s a beautiful summer day in Banff, and you unexpectedly get off work early. You rush home, grab your SUP, and head down to the canoe club for a late afternoon paddle on the Bow River. You paddle a few miles up the gentle current, when you spot an osprey in a tree near the bank. You do your best to quietly paddle over and pull out your iPhone to snap a picture.

Even stand up paddle boarding has its dangers

As you use your second hand to zoom in, you lose your balance on the board and plunge toward the chilly water. In an effort to save your phone, you hold it above your head as you hit the shallow water.

Good news: you save the phone. Bad news: you hit your head pretty hard on a submerged rock. As you run your hand through your hair, you realize it’s bleeding a lot. By the time you get your board on shore, you can feel the blood running down your neck. You take your now-soaked shirt off and tie it around your head. By the time your back to the dock, the blood is soaking through your shirt.

Thankfully, the dock is near the center of town, and you have quick access to a medical kit/professional attention. What if you had been farther up the river? What if you had been in a more remote area? A half-ounce QuickClot gauze pad would have gone a long way.

Paddling Safety Made Easy

Accidents are bound to happen, but this should never stop you from exploring, adventuring, or just enjoying the lake with your kids. In this day and age, it is extremely easy to be prepared. While my preference would always be to have a full Mountain Series Kit in my dry bag, it’s not always practical. However, there are some other fantastic options out there that allow you to keep your paddling safety gear fast and light.

For the past 5 years, I have had a Watertight Pocket Medic kit stowed in the front pocket of my PFD. While I seldom took it out, I knew it was there, and it gave me the peace of mind when paddling out.

Recently, I upgraded this to the Ultralight/Watertight .3 Medical Kit. This kit weighs just over two ounces and can be a huge help when things go south. I couple this with a half-ounce QuickClot gauze pad, which is key for controlling bleeding.

I currently carry the Ultralight/Watertight .3 – it’s compact & waterproof

An even better option, which I think I will switch to, is the Ultralight/Watertight .5. While this kit adds an entire ounce (joking – it’s an ounce, get over it), it includes some key medicine such as diphenhydramine and aspirin. Bonus: the price comes in at just under twenty bucks.

Overall these Ultralight/ Watertight kits are perfect for stowing in a life vest, so you’ll forget they are even there until you need them (in which case, you’ll be glad you have it). When considering the weight, price, and stow-ability of these medical kits, there is really no reason to not be prepared by adding one to your paddling safety gear.

About the Author

Andrew Piotrowski is an all-around adventurer residing in Southeast Pennsylvania. He can commonly be found trad climbing in the Gunks, paddling the Chesapeake Bay, or trail running and backpacking in the Catskills. Andrew grew up running and kayaking but fell in love with the mountains on a few trips to the Adirondacks. Since then he has focused on alpine climbing and mountain running objectives in the Sierra’s, Bugaboos, and White Mountains. Andrew’s favorite training partner is his dog Calvin, who has helped him to log countless training miles. When not outside, Andrew enjoys Canadian Lager and gardening.

Walking 60 Miles on Blisters – What I Learned

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018

We asked Ben Pasquino of Team Tender what he learned from the #BeSafeGannett Expedition. He had some first-hand experience with painful blisters he wanted to share.

Let me preface this with, I should have listen to Joe Miller about my boots. Always listen to your team leader when he tells you to break in new boots before setting out on a seven day journey into the backcountry. Here’s some other lessons I learned:

Don’t Ignore “Minor” Problems

You know that point where you realize that there may be an issue (physically)? Yea, I realized that at mile 2 of our 60 mile round-trip hike into the backcountry of the Bridger Wilderness.

As we walked out to Photographer’s Point the first 5 or so miles of day one, I realized I had a hot spot on the back of both my heels. Knowing that this would be a long hike and there were bound to be hot spots, I thought nothing of it. That was my first mistake: ignoring what I saw as a minor issue.

Photographer’s Point was when I first noticed the hot spots on my heels

So I kept on moving, thinking that my heels would be fine. I had been running multiple miles in training for this and had never gotten a blister on my heels. It couldn’t be happening now. About 12 miles in, we reached Little Seneca Lake, and there I realized I had a much bigger problem than just hot spots.

I took my shoes off to rest my feet, and that was when I got my first look at the blisters, or what had been a blister before it popped and my heel rubbed raw. That was another clue that this trip was going to be much more difficult than I anticipated.

Gluing Blisters Works – But Brace Yourself

Let me give you some context for what happened next. In preparation for this adventure, I took a Wilderness First Responder course back in New Hampshire through SOLO Schools, and we spoke about applying tincture of benzoin to a popped blister, or flap, to glue the flap of skin back where it belongs and protect the area. They said it would hurt pretty badly, but let me be the first to tell you, it hurts more than just “pretty badly.” It hurts like hell, and I know, because I had to do it twice.

gluing blisters

Getting ready to apply some tincture of benzoin from my Ultralight/Watertight .7 kit

I pulled the tincture of benzoin out of my Ultralight/Watertight .7 and borrowed some GlacierGel from my teammates. After painfully reattaching the flap of skin over the blister with the benzoin, I covered the area with GlacierGel to protect the blister from further damage and minimize the pain.

In the morning, we hit the trail again. As you can guess, it was slow hiking for me.

Healing Is Slow

We made it to the Titcomb basin on the second day, and thankfully we had scheduled 4 nights there. I took advantage of the 2 full days of rest for my heels to recuperate, wearing flip flops all day long while we took lifestyle pictures and instructional videos for our social media and webpage. I knew that letting my heels dry and allowing a scab to form would give me my best opportunity to make the push up Gannett. The blisters definitely needed the full two days.

The blisters took some time to scab over

The morning of Gannett, I left camp about 30 minutes before my team did to get a head start, and we met up at the base of Bonney Pass. We ended up finishing that day about 21 hours later and coming so close to the peak that we could almost throw a rock and hit it, but the decision to turn back was the right one for the team.

It’s a Long Way Home

The next day we turned back to make our way halfway out of the back country and the feeling of, “oh I may have an issue” quickly became, “I definitely have an issue, I just need to make it out.”

I still managed to have some great moments on the hike out though. We stopped at one of the most beautiful swimming holes that I’ve ever been to, just on the other side of Island Lake. It was an amazing feeling to just go for a swim and clean ourselves off from the long week’s grind.

The last day was a bit of a haul, as the team made the decision to trek the entire 15 miles (ish) out of the backcountry and get to a point to where I wouldn’t have to wear boots anymore. They also helped me by sharing the load of my backpack and encouraged me to continue moving.

Smile & Learn

I made it out, obviously, but that day was absolutely exhausting. I was able to smile at the end, and I am still able to smile about the experience. However, I did learn a lot. Two things especially stood out:

  1. BOOTS… always go for a couple hikes in them before putting them to the ultimate test. I only wore them around the office a couple times prior to the hike.
  2. The key to controlling the blisters and hot spots is simple… PREVENTION! As soon as you start to feel it, even if (really especially if) it’s mile 2 of a 60 mile hike, apply GlacierGel or moleskin. If worse comes to worse (and do know that it’s going to hurt like hell) you can always use tincture of benzoin to glue the blister shut and back to the skin, but trust me – you don’t want to reach the stage where this is necessary.

Having said all that, I can’t wait for the next adventure and to learn how to be more prepared for anything that gets thrown into the mix.

My team supported me the whole journey

About the Author

Name’s Ben Pasquino, 35 years of age, and I’ve been pushing my limits for my entire life. It just made logical sense to try my hand at mountaineering for the #BeSafeGannett Expedition. Previously an NCAA swimmer, I became an ultra-marathon runner after college. A CrossFit athlete and coach for nearly 5 years, I’m no stranger to hard work and following training regiments with an end goal in sight. I’m also an avid hunter and fly fisher.

My First Time Mountaineering (and Other Firsts from Expedition #BeSafeGannett)

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

I’m not a mountaineer. I want to start off this post telling you that, because if there’s one thing this mountaineering experience taught me, it’s that you are stronger and more capable than you think.

The First Time I Heard of Gannett Peak

The first time I heard of Gannett Peak was about 9 months ago. Sometime around Christmas, I got called into a meeting, having no clue what we’d be discussing. The people around me start talking about awesome trips, mountaineering expeditions, and this remote mountain Frank (my boss) hiked in Wyoming, called Gannett Peak. Then they pulled up some images on Google. Wow.

Google image results for gannett peak

Some Google image results of Gannett Peak

This is where I need to pause and give a bit of background on me: I’m a 23-year old 100% New Englander. I was born and raised in New Hampshire, and I grew up hiking the White Mountains with my dad. The 4,000 footers have been my summer romance almost since before I can remember, and recent years have seen me moving deeper into winter hikes as well (Mt. Jackson = best winter day hike).

My point is that I’m a huge outdoor lover and hiker, but my glacier, rock-climbing, and mountaineering experience at this point were non-existent (though I did at least get some wilderness first aid training in last year). I’d never summited or attempted to summit anything higher than Mt. Washington (and that one was in the summer). I had never done anything that felt close to mountaineering, and I was not a mountaineer.

So I’m sitting in that meeting, staring at pictures of remote, gorgeous, breathtaking mountains, mountains like I have never seen before, and my mouth is watering, because it looks like hiking heaven. Not, of course, the kind of hiking heaven I pictured myself in, as I had no outdoor aspirations beyond finishing my 4,000 footer list and re-hiking all my favorites until I was over 80. But as they talk about Gannett Peak and decide they want to send a team up it, this crazy but totally impractical idea starts to go through my head though: I wish I could go on this mountaineering expedition.

That’s the moment Frank says, “Hey Jenny, would you be interested in going on this trip?”

Against my better judgment and all reason, I said yes.

My First Time in Utah

So flash forward through 9 months of training with my amazing team members (Joe, Chelsea, and Ben), and I’m stepping out of an airplane and standing in Utah for the first time. We’re headed to Wyoming (obviously), but we flew into Salt Lake City.

Taking my first step out the airport into SLC (I’m in the back)

At this point, I’ve already encountered a bunch of “firsts”:

  • First time holding an ice axe
  • First time successfully self-arresting with an ice axe
  • First time carrying more than 30 lbs. on a hike
  • First time tying an alpine butterfly, tying a retraced figure eight, and walking as part of a rope team.
  • First time wearing crampons (I hadn’t historically needed more than micro-spikes.)
  • First summer where I hiked more with other people than with my dad
  • First time working out more than 10 hours in a week

Regarding all of the firsts still ahead of me, I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I was nervous and even a bit afraid of what lay ahead, as my complete lack of anything to base the upcoming experience on made me wonder if I would like mountaineering, if I had trained enough, and if I would let my team down.

My First Time in Wyoming

We grabbed a rental car and started driving towards Pinedale, WY, which eventually brought me to Wyoming for the first time. The first hour or so of driving, the state did not look at all what I expected it to look like. As the miles passed, the landscape slowly transformed, and a mountain range appeared in the background. THIS was why I had said yes.

My first view of the Wind River Range as seen from the car – mountaineering lies ahead!

The First Day on the Trail

A bunch of firsts happened for me during Day 1 on the trail, though I’m glad to say they were all good ones, overall.

My First Time Hiking with 45 lbs.

I’m 5’1” and not what you’d call built or even muscular, so needless to say when Joe said something along the lines of “everyone is going to carry at least 40 lbs., probably more,” I was internally thinking, “I am not physically capable of this.”

Training tip: take the thing you fear the most and make it your focus. Instead of avoiding it, face it head on. During training, I spent hours walking on rolling terrain with my hiking pack full of my sister’s workout weights, slowly building up how much I was carrying.

We put together our packs at our hotel in Pinedale and weighed each of them. Mine weighed in at 45 lbs., which may not sound so bad until you realize that’s over 35% of my bodyweight.

All our packs stuffed full and ready to hit the trail the next day

Difficult does not mean impossible though! My hours of training 100% paid off, and any worries I had about carrying the weight were gone by the time we made camp after our first day on the trail. I was tired and had a headache (more on that below), but I felt strong and excited for what lay ahead, not weighed down by what was on my back.

Day 1 on the trail we had the heaviest packs – they got lighter as we ate!

My First Time above 10,000 ft.

I broke my elevation record with almost every step I took on this mountaineering expedition, but a few times were especially noteworthy, and this is one of them. Altitude was one thing I hadn’t been able to train for, and it definitely did affect me, though thankfully not for long.

The first day on the trail, I immediately experienced shortness of breath, which lasted the first mile or so before my body seemed to adjust. We went about 10 miles that day, and in the last couple miles I experienced an increasing headache, which Chelsea and Ben also experienced. Although I continued to have an above-average struggle during the first mile of each day after that, I’m glad to say the headache never returned.

My First Steps in the Wind River Range

Western hiking is not the same as Eastern hiking, from the trails to the terrain. We started down the trail through a pine forest (not at all an unfamiliar sight to me), but after a few miles we emerged into a giant natural clearing absolutely covered in wildflowers. I’m a wildflower nut and (no pun intended), it was a field day!

I took a moment to enjoy the wildflowers (without my pack)

We passed through that field back into the woods only to come across an even bigger, more beautiful meadow. And so the hike went – although eventually we left the forest behind for good and passed into more open, rocky terrain, I will never forget stepping into those first few meadows or how, no matter how far along the trail we were, we never went far without being able to see the trail wander off in front of us. (In NH, you hike blind to what’s ahead of you 80% of the time.)

The First Day in Titcomb Basin

Two days of steady hiking brought us into Titcomb Basin, where we would camp for the next several days and from which we would launch our Gannett summit attempt. If you’ve never been to Titcomb Basin, you should go.

I jumped for joy when we made it to Titcomb Basin!

Looking one direction from our campsite, I could see Upper Titcomb Lake, Fremont Peak, and the Wind River Range fading off into the distance. The other direction, we were surrounded by rocky peak after rocky peak, almost all of which had snow on them somewhere.

The view from our campsite looking back towards Titcomb Lake

Cradled among these peaks, I could see Bonney Pass. I can’t say this was my first time seeing the pass, as we’d been staring at the mountains ahead of us the past two days, and I’m sure I saw it at one point – I just didn’t know what it was. From the perspective of a girl on her first mountaineering trip, all I can say is it looked steep. Really steep. I won’t say impossible, because I refused to close that door as I stood there, but it was certainly a lot steeper and snowier than I had imagined.

The view from our campsite looking towards Bonney Pass

My First Time in the Backcountry for Over 3 Days

We spent 3 days at our camp in Titcomb Basin. The day after we arrived we took as a rest day to review our skills, then the next day we went on a side adventure as we waited for the weather to clear up (more on that below), while the third day was our summit attempt. By this time, I was completely covered in a strange mixture of sweat, Natrapel bug spray, and sunscreen that I could no longer smell.

I had never been on such a long backpacking trip before, and needless to say I was rather dirty (as were my companions – I think Joe and Ben wanted to see who could be the dirtiest). I wasn’t sure what I’d think of being in the wilderness for so long, but I can safely say I loved it.

Spending 7 days in the backcountry proved refreshing and invigorating!

The deeper we want into the wilderness, the more my excitement grew. The views were amazing, but more than that there was something refreshing about being completely surrounded by nature, getting plenty of exercise, and spending all day outdoors, completely tech-free. I obviously prefer using toilets to tree stumps, but the trade was worth it on this trip, and I suspect I’ll find it worth it on any lengthy trips to come.

My First (Mini) Experience with (Real) Rock Climbing

Our second day in Titcomb Basin, Joe, Chelsea, and I decided to warm our legs by attempting to summit Fremont Peak, the third highest peak in Wyoming. The mountain was almost completely bare of snow, and the route consisted of what seemed to be a never-ending talus field.

Having spent some time in the Presidential Range of NH, I was not unfamiliar with rocky routes. However, this was by far the rockiest route I’d ever been on, as well as the most time I’d ever spent on a talus field, navigating my way through scree. Definitely watch your footing!

Chelsea and me scrambling up Fremont Peak’s rocky slope.

We must have been over two thirds of the way up when we ran into some dangerously-loose terrain. Joe went ahead to see if he could scope out a better route and came back with a sturdy but more technical option. In college, I tried my hand at the rock wall a few times, but most of my experiences with rocks came from the White Mountains, where I’d never gone on a trail above a class 3 scramble.

Fremont Peak was the longest I’ve ever spent going through a talus field

Joe said the route he found was great, but had one class 4 spot. If you asked any real rock climber, I’m sure they tell you that me pulling my way up and over that small cliff (which I successfully did!) was not rock climbing, but it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten!

My First Time above 11,000 ft.

Around that time, Chelsea checked her watch and said we were above 11,000 ft. My record was broken! We pressed on for another fifteen or so minutes only to run into a cliff – literally. Since we didn’t bring any rock protection, we headed back down to camp to do final preparation and get to bed early for summit day.

Right before we went to sleep around 5 pm, I also experienced my first hailstorm in a tent – we were glad the hail didn’t get any larger than it did!

The hail came out of nowhere and lasted 10-15 minutes

My First Time Bivvying (& Being Above 12,000 ft. & Being Belayed Down a Couloir)

We hit the trail at 1 am on summit day. Titcomb Basin was pitch black, lit only by our headlamps. We turned off our headlamps for a moment over our rushed breakfast and saw the most amazing view of the Milky Way I have ever seen.

After a mile or so of trekking to the base of the pass, we started up the steep slope of ice and snow. In the pitch black, we ended up veering too far to the right and getting off route. We came up off the ice field onto some rocks on a ridgeline, with a steep upward slope to our right and steeper downward slope to our left, where we were relatively sure the correct route up Bonney Pass was. After a quick discussion as a team, we decided our best course of action was to bivvy until there was enough light to see if we could lower ourselves down the slope to the left.

Though rather rocky, our bivvy perch had a great view!

Needless to say, it was cold. We were above 12,000 ft. (the highest I’d even been up to that moment!), sitting in the pitch dark on a windy, rocky ridge. I pulled on my extra layers and pulled myself into my Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Pro Bivvy. Straight up honesty here: This was the first time the whole trip I was truly scared. Something about not knowing where I was, sitting in the pitch dark, and losing feeling in your feet just sucks the sense of adventure right out of you. My bivvy kicked in though and my feet regained feeling as the light increased.

Packing tip: ALWAYS bring a heat-reflective bivvy or blanket, even on day trips – we would have been in a real pickle without ours!

With the light, Joe could see that we were just a steep couloir away from the route, so he took out the rope and got to work belaying us down. Having never been belayed before, I managed a not-so-graceful decent that involved smacking the rocks once and some nervous tears. Not all firsts are fun, but I’m happy to say that the 3 other times I got belayed that day, I quickly found myself moving from being nervous to totally enjoying it!

The second time I got belayed was on the side of Gannett – super fun!

My First View of Gannett Peak

Back on the right route, we soon found ourselves on the top of Bonney Pass, where I saw my first view of Gannett Peak (which was blocked from view the whole way in from being so deep within the range). Wow.

This was our first view of Gannett Peak

This was the moment all my enthusiasm that I’d lost while bivvying came rushing back in. Mountains are definitely my happy place, and all I can say of Gannett Peak is that the view is worth the wait.

My First Time on a Glacier

I didn’t realize I was on a glacier for the first time till I’d probably been on it several minutes, as the Dinwoody Glacier at first just looks like the other side of Bonney Pass – a field of snow and ice on a steep slope! Once we had made the initial descent down the back of Bonney Pass though, Joe stopped us so we could rope up.

After reaching the top of Bonney Pass, we headed down the Dinwoody Glacier

On our way up to the Gooseneck Glacier, we had to jump over one crevasse, skirt around another, and ascend a steep snow bridge over two large crevasses. Needless to say, those were all first for me.

Our rope team on the Gooseneck Glacier

If you followed our expedition, you know that shortly after reaching the end of the Gooseneck Glacier, we ran into a hanging snowfield that was quickly deteriorating. Joe sank up to his waist after just a couple steps, and he’s not a short guy. As a team, we came the difficult conclusion that we needed to turn around, especially as our current speed meant we’d be cutting it close to make it back to camp before dark.

Gannett Peak descent

Joe and Ben starting the descent of Gannett

Looking back on that moment, I’m glad to say we all know we made the right decision. It would not have been safe to continue with the glacier and snow in the condition it was in, and we made it back to camp just in time to gobble down our Thanksgiving-themed dinner as the last rays of light disappeared. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

My First Time Mountaineering – It Won’t Be My Last!

I won’t go into the details of our hike out and other happenings from this mountaineering trip (though you should definitely check them out on our trip report!). But despite not reaching the summit, I walked out of the wilderness two days later and felt like I was glowing, despite having rather sore feet. I think if you’d asked me if I wanted to go do the whole trip again, I would have said “Give me 24 hours off my feet and eating burgers and ice cream, then YES – LET’S GO!”

What made my first time mountaineering so amazing? Obviously it didn’t hurt that I spent seven days in one of the most beautiful, remote places I’d ever been, but I think it was more than that.

Team Tender – from left to right, Joe, Chelsea, Ben, and myself – in Titcomb Basin 

I had an amazing, supportive, and fun-loving mountaineering team. I can’t convey how truly great they were, but I want to share at least one thing about each of them.

  • From rapping in the backcountry to belaying us down couloirs to making us stay ridiculously hydrated, Joe was everything you could ask for in a trip leader. If you’re headed out on a “first,” it’s vital you trust the experienced members of your team. Joe took his role seriously and always made sure to put our safety first, while also helping us have a good time.
  • The best tent-mate award goes to Chelsea! Not only was she an amazing backcountry chef who made sure we all had the nutrition we needed, but she also had a positive, can-do attitude perfectly coupled with a realistic look at our current circumstances, helping us to make smart decisions as a team when it counted most. If you’re going to sleep in the same tiny enclosed space with someone for seven days, make sure you pick someone as awesome as Chelsea! (Plus, she liked to go to bed early, so we both got waaaay more sleep than the boys did.)
  • Let’s just start with the fact that Ben has the best vision of anyone I’ve ever seen – he could spot wildlife or other hikers from miles and miles away! From reminding me to get all the points of my crampons in the snow to helping us lift the bear bags into a tree, Ben added a steady presence and relentless good humor to our team that made him a pleasure to travel with.

So here’s to first time adventures – I hope my story has encouraged you to pick one of your own! You will in all likelihood have to work harder and prepare more than you ever have in your life, but difficult is not impossible, and with a lot of preparation and a solid group of people, there’s not much you can’t accomplish.

That was my first time mountaineering, but if I have anything to say about it, it definitely won’t be my last! After all, there’s a whole lot of world out there, and Gannett Peak is definitely still waiting for me…

my first time mountaineering

My first time mountaineering on Gannet Peak is an experience I’ll never forget

About the Author

Jenny Hastings fell in love with hiking from spending hours in the White Mountains with her dad. She spends most weekends in the summer and quite a few weekends in the winter out on the trails. The #BeSafeGannett Expedition was her first experience mountaineering, and she was excited to rise to the challenge with the training and by developing her technical skills. She’s always looking for a new summit and ways to spend more time outdoors, whether on the trail or reading in her hammock.

Lessons from Gannett Peak: #BeSafeGannett Expedition Report

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

This July, four of employees headed into the Wind River Range of Wyoming to attempt to summit Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming. Joe Miller, Ben Pasquino, Chelsea Miller, and Jenny Hastings had the opportunity to put themselves and some of our products to the test at one of the most remote places in the USA. 

Team gear check before flying out for Wyoming – we carried a lot of important gear!

Day 1: Elkhart Park Trailhead to Little Seneca Lake
11.7 miles 1959 ft. elevation gain

Day 1 leaving the trailhead we were all smiles for the adventure ahead!

We set off from the Elkhart Park Trail head at about 8 am with big smiles on our faces. The terrain on our first day was pretty rolling and not too strenuous. As primarily East Coast hikers, we were thankful for switchbacks (we don’t find those often in the White Mountains); however, we were also quickly affected by the altitude. Ben, Jenny, and I found ourselves a little short of breath, dizzy, and with nagging headaches. Joe, who hiked Mt. Whitney in June, found that his prior trip above 10,000 ft. helped him acclimate quicker this time around.

Our first view of the high peaks came at Photographer’s Point, about 5 miles in. Those of you looking for a beautiful day hike in the area, we would highly recommend the trek to Photographer’s Point.

Photographer’s Point gave us our first breathtaking view.

After a quick break for lunch, we continued on through beautiful fields of wildflowers and past gorgeous lakes. We camped for the night at Little Seneca Lake, where the boys enjoyed some fishing, and Joe caught a Rainbow Trout.

Our first day was not without issues. A few miles in, we discovered that Ben had some pretty nasty blisters. This gave us a chance to break out our Ultralight/Watertight .7 and apply some blister treatment. Ben glued his skin back together with some tincture of benzoin (warning, he also discovered this hurts pretty badly) and bandaged himself up with some GlacierGel and Duct Tape. Take it from him, folks: definitely make sure your boots are broken in and fit well before undertaking a multi-day hike.

Ben patching up his blisters using his Ultralight/Watertight .7 medical kit

Day Two : Little Seneca Lake to Titcomb Basin
7.7 miles 1093 ft. elevation gain

We broke camp at Little Seneca Lake a little later this morning and made our way up mountain passes to Island Lake. From the pass above Island Lake, we got a great view of Bonney Pass, which would be our gateway to Gannett Peak. At Island Lake, we stopped to fill and treat our water using Aquamira. The water in the Wind River Range was pretty clear, so we didn’t need to filter out sediment. We only needed to kill any potential bacteria.

We drank a lot of Aquamira-treated water!

Hiking past the lakes and ponds on our way to Titcomb Basin, we encountered lots of bugs. On this trip, we all relied heavily on Natrapel. Natrapel is a Picaridin-based formula that will repel bugs for up to 12 hours and won’t damage any gear or synthetic materials.

Chelsea applying some Natrapel to keep the mosquitoes away

We also all had treated our gear with Ben’s Clothing and Gear, a Permethrin treatment, before we hit the trail for extra protection. One of the guys at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, WY informed us that the bugs were especially bad this year! Our insect repellent really helped though, and we were easily able to deal with the legendary bugs of the Wind River Range. As we trekked further into Titcomb Basin, the trees began to drop away, the sun became more intense, and we began to see more and more snow and rocks. At this point, we all transitioned into our glacier glasses and pulled out our brimmed hats.

We pushed as deep into Titcomb Basin as possible before setting up camp for the day. Joe found us a beautiful campsite sheltered from the wind and conveniently close to water. Make sure to look up camping regulations where you’re going – in the Bridger Wilderness, we were required to be 200 ft from trails and lakes and 100 ft from creeks and streams. We took a little longer getting up camp this evening, as Joe and Ben took some time building up a rock wall to block the wind.

Our camp at Titcomb Basin, where we built a rock wall for wind protection

We wanted to invest in this space because we were planning to spend a few nights here. We spoke to a few climbers coming down Gannett Peak and got all good news (the snow bridge over the bergschrund was still in good shape) and were advised by multiple people to start early. As the sun set in Titcomb Basin, we sat in awe of our surrounding and couldn’t believe we were finally here.

Day 3: Rest Day in Titcomb Basin

We decided to spend our first full day in Titcomb Basin as a rest day because the weather outlook looked better later in the week, and we were grateful for one more day to acclimate. On our rest day, we brushed up on our rope and glacier skills. We practiced tying alpine butterflies and retraced figure-8s, moving as a rope team, and making snow anchors with pickets. We also packed our summit packs to make sure we had all of our gear ready for the trek up Gannett Peak. Shortly after, heavy rains pushed us inside our tents, making us glad we opted for a rest day, rather than a summit bid.

After our short rain break, we took some time to test and photograph a few of our amazing products. Ben practiced using the Survive Outdoors Longer Rescue Flash Mirror to signal for help (he successfully signaled Joe, then Jenny and I ,from over a mile away while we were hiking back to camp at one point), and Jenny took advantage of the Adventure Bath Wipes to feel a little more human after some sweaty, dusty days on the trail.

Ben catching the sunlight with the S.O.L. Rescue Flash Mirror – it’s bright!

At this point, hikers started trickling back into the basin after their days on Gannett Peak. We met one very experienced mountaineer who not only gave us great beta on climbing Gannett Peak, but entertained us with tales of his world-wide adventures. One of my favorite parts of spending time in the backcountry is meeting fellow hikers; it’s always fun to trade stories, and they often inspire my future trips.

Both Grizzly and Black Bears make their home in the Wind River Range. Throughout our trip, we stored all of our food and toiletries (including sunscreen and insect repellent) in bear proof Ursacks. We chose these over bear canisters for our trip, as they were lighter and more convenient; however, often you can rent bear canisters from the US Forest Service if you don’t own any (in the White Mountain National Forest, you can borrow them for free). Responsible food storage in the backcountry is important both for your safety and the safety of the bear. On Day 1, we were able to hand our bear bags in trees (at least 10 ft. off the ground); however, in Titcomb Basin, we didn’t have any trees to use. While in Titcomb Basin, we hung our bear bags off boulders, roughly 200 ft. away from camp. Throughout our time in the Wind River Range, we also carried bear spray in case of any threatening bear encounters. It’s vital to do all of your cooking and cleaning away from your camp; this way bears and other critters won’t be attracted to the smell and will hopefully leave your camp alone. While we didn’t end up seeing any bears, we were glad to have been prepared.

Day 4: Freemont Peak and Titcomb Basin
5.91 miles 2047 ft. elevation gain

As the weather for today was still a little iffy, and the weather for the next day looked beautiful, we decided to push Gannett Peak off for one more day. We were very lucky to have a lot of time out in the Wind River Range, which allowed us to be flexible and wait for a good weather window.

Joe, Jenny, and I decided to get up at 5am for a 6am start up Freemont Peak (the third highest peak in WY). This peak is traditionally approached from Indian Basin, but we figured we’d give it a shot from Titcomb. We scrambled up scree and talus over 3rd and 4th class terrain to just over 12,000ft before heading back down. We ran into a wall (literally) when we encountered some 5th class climbing. As we didn’t bring any rock protection with us on this expedition, we scrambled back down, happy to have warmed up our legs and lungs for our push up Gannett Peak the following day.

Jenny and Chelsea on their way up Fremont

Back at camp, we rested up and hid from the sun, which was very strong at 10,000 ft. (remember to pack sunscreen – we were glad we did!). Shortly after second dinner (more on that ahead), I noticed some ominous clouds rolling into the Basin. We hastily put all of our gear under our tents and strung up our bear bags as thunder echoed around us. Shortly after we were safe in our tents, the rain quickly transitioned into hail! Our tents held up just fine, and Jenny and I stayed unaffected, if a little exhilarated, by the hail. Joe and Ben had opted for an ultralight, floorless tent (they used the S.O.L. All Season Blanket as a base).

The boys’ floorless tent worked great overall, but definitely let in some hail!

While their tent held up great and they were grateful for the reduced weight during our 40 mile round trip hike into Titcomb Basin, the hail ended up bouncing up into their tent and off their faces. They were certainly glad it was only pea sized! The hail subsided after 20 minutes or so, and we turned in for the night around 5 pm to prepare for our 12 am wakeup call.

Day 5: Gannett Peak Summit Bid
16.5 miles 5935 ft. elevation gain

On summit day, we got up at midnight for a 1 am start. We put on our crampons on a snowfield close to camp and were able to leave them on for the rest of the day. We got a little off route in the dark, navigating by our headlamps, and ended up scrambling most of the way up Miriam Peak before realizing we weren’t headed in the right direction. We pulled out our Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Pro Bivvies and waited for a little bit more sunlight to figure out our next move.

Joe in the Escape Pro Bivvy, looking at our route as the light increases

Once the sun had come up a little more, we realized that we were only one snow field over from Bonney Pass. We rappelled down from our bivvy perch to the correct snowfield and finished our ascent up Bonney Pass around 7 am. From the top of Bonney, we got our first view of Gannett Peak and its gorgeous hanging snowfield. To climb Gannett from Titcomb Basin, you have to ascend about 2,000 ft. up Bonney Pass, then descend 1,000 ft. to the base of Gannett Peak before making your final 2,000 ft. climb to the top. On the return trip, you have to climb back up Bonney Pass before making your final descent back to camp in Titcomb Basin.

We saw our first view of Gannett Peak from the top of Bonney Pass

Once at the base of Bonney Pass, we roped up to make our approach to Gannett Peak over the Dinwoody and Gooseneck Glaciers. On our way up, we had to hop a crevasse and cross a bergschrund on the Gooseneck Glacier.

Our rope team on the Gooseneck Glacier

By the time we were partway up Gannett, the snow on the glaciers had begun to deteriorate. Joe, who was leading our rope team, was post-holing up to his waist, and in the soft snow we were moving very slowly. About 500 vertical ft. below summit, we decided the snow was in too bad shape to continue and that we needed to turn around. At this point, it was already 1 pm and we had been moving for 12 hours. While this was a very hard decision, we knew we had to make it back over Bonney Pass and back to camp safely.

Gannett Peak descent

Descending Gannett Peak, shortly after we decided to turn around

By the time we got back to camp, it was nearly 9 pm – we had had a 20-hour day out in the mountains.

Turning around is always a hard decision, and not getting to the summit was definitely a disappointment for all of us. A number of factors kept us from getting to the summit, and we’ve learned a lot about glacier travel and how to increase our possibilities for success. In this case, our goal of getting out safely was paramount to our goal of summiting Gannett Peak.

Day 6: Titcomb Basin to Island Lake
7 miles 643 ft. elevation gain

We had a slow morning after our 20 hour day on Gannett Peak. We ended up packing up and leaving our camp in Titcomb Basin around 11 am. We quickly stopped at Mistake Lake, which the boys had heard often was full of Golden Trout. After an hour or so of fishing (and scaring marmots away from our bags and snacks), we packed back up and continued to Island Lake. At Island Lake, we stopped to refill our water in a stream, and Ben saw some enormous spawning Cutthroat Trout. The boys pulled out their rods and started fishing. Ben caught a beautiful trout before we headed on towards our campsite for the night.

Joe and Ben getting in some fishing at Island Lake

Just over the pass after Island Lake, we found a gorgeous camping spot by a peaceful pond overlooking the mountains. While our other campsites were stunning, this was one of my favorite campsites of the entire trip. Jenny, Joe, and Ben took a dip and had a blast jumping off rocks into the water. As this was a glacier-created lake, it dropped off rather quickly, making it great for jumping into. I opted to stay dry and warm.

Jenny enjoying a dip in a rather chilly lake.

That night we watched the sunset from a nearby rocky outcropping and used our head nets to keep the bugs away, especially over dinner.

 

Ben’s InvisiNet Xtra head net helped keep the bugs off us at night.

In the Winds, our dinners consisted of completely dehydrated freezer-bag meals compiled by yours truly. In this method, I used easily rehydratable ingredients which would cook quickly when we added boiling water. For a base, I used quick cooking carbs (instant rice, instant potatoes and couscous) with freeze-dried chicken and freeze-dried vegetables. We mixed it up by adding different spices. Some favorite meals were Alfredo couscous, Thai peanut rice noodles and Thanksgiving dinner. Keep an eye out for a upcoming blog post containing our favorite recipes!

Enjoying some couscous alfredo!

We ended up eating in 2 shifts. Our first night, I cooked up a large dinner all at once, but we struggled to eat it all. While we knew that we needed the calories, we filled up fast after a full day on the trail. We found it worked best for us to spread dinner out by having it in two courses. That way we could eat right when we broke for camp, then a little later before we had to put up our bear bags. Nutrition is such a personal thing when in the backcountry; you have to do what works best for you.

Day 7: Island Lake to Elkhart Park Trailhead
12.5 miles 1586 ft. elevation gain

When we began our final day in the Wind River Range, we weren’t sure that it would be our last day. We thought we’d go about 7 miles, set up camp, spend some time fishing, and head out the next day. As we began our hike, we realized that we were making very good time. At about noon, we ran into a US Forest Service Backcountry Ranger. While talking to her about other campers wildlife encounters (side note: when we were headed up Gannett Peak, we ran into a party that approached Gannett from the East on the Glacier Trail. They told us that they had been stalked by a Mountain Lion that morning! While it ended up prowling off, it was definitely a scary morning for them.), she mentioned off-handedly that we were only 6 miles or so from the trailhead. Taking into account Ben’s worsening blisters and our growing desire for a burger, we decided to push out that day. After Photographer’s Point, Joe (the fastest hiker in our group) decided to go on ahead and drop his pack at the car, that way he could come back and take Ben’s pack to alleviate the weight on his painful heels. We made it out by about 4 pm, excited for a meal in Pinedale.

One of the many things we learned on this trip was how important it is to take care of injuries and discomforts early. If addressed early, you can prevent little issues from becoming big issues. This kind of prevention ranges from taking care of your nutrition and making sure to eat well before you end up crashing (guilty) to noticing hot spots and blisters early in the trip. When you add 60+ miles and 50+ lbs. to small injuries, they turn into bigger problems. We were so grateful that we went into the backcountry with well stocked first aid kits. Joe made sure that not only did we have small personal first aid kits, but that we also knew everything that was in our group first aid kit.

Needless to say, we loved our Explorer medical kit!

After coming back from a trip like this, where we broke into our medical kits often for blister treatment and treatment for the effects of altitude, it is very important to revisit your kit and refill anything you used on your trip. Nothing is worse than getting out in the backcountry and realizing that you never restocked the piece you need.

Thank you to everyone for following our trip – we truly appreciated all the support and interest! If you have any questions about our trip or how to prepare for something like our trip, please feel free to reach out to us!

About the Author: Chelsea Miller

I’m always scheming my next adventure. Whether it’s this weekend’s hike or an after-work mountain bike ride, I’m constantly daydreaming about my next chance to get outside. I love trip planning, maps, and lists; after ticking off NH’s 48 4,000 footers, I know the trails of the White Mountains like the back of my hand. The opportunity to plan a trip to the Wind River Range was unbelievable. I’ve hiked and climbed all over New England and taken a number of trips across the country and the world to hike and climb.

Mt. Whitney via the East Buttress 5.7 Route: Our 28-Hour Summit Day

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

This past June, I summited Mt. Whitney via the East Buttress 5.7 route with my friend Joe Miller (whom you may know as a member of #TeamTender). This ended up being by the far the hardest trip of my life……so far. Read more about this grueling but amazing epic below.

Worked, Sore, & Likely Dehydrated

The old saloon doors swung behind us as we made our way through the crowded bar. We had just limped our way around the dusty streets of Lone Pine California looking for a bite and a beer, and we decided on Jacks Saloon. It was June 8th, and we had spent the last 32 hours working our way up and down California’s Mt. Whitney. We were excited to have just summited the highest peak in the lower 48 states but were absolutely worked, sore, and likely dehydrated from the unplanned 28.5 hours tent-to-tent adventure. It was not long before I started nodding off mid-conversation, and before I knew it was lights out back at the motel. The next day we slept in and started our drive back across the desert to catch a red-eye east. As we drove I could not stop thinking about the exhausting but totally rewarding epic we just had.

2 Days Earlier

On June 6th, we left Whitney Portal around 6am and started our approach up to Upper Boy Scout Lake. The approach starts off really mellow with a series of sandy switchbacks and creek crossings, but after a few miles starts to get steep as you approach the famous Ebersbacher ledges. This is a series of exposed scrambles that can be a bit spicy with heavy packs. In one section you have to cross a no more than six inch wide section with a steep fifty foot drop and lots of open air staring you down. Per usual, Joe effortlessly walked across showing zero sign of fear or even mild discomfort. I, however, can remember wondering what the climb ahead would be like if we were already running into this type of exposure.

After a few miles and some poor talus field navigation, we arrived at the Upper Boy Scout Lake. This beautiful alpine lake area is spectacular, covered with scattered pines and surrounded by the Eastern Sierras. We set up camp next to a stream, well protected by a large boulder wall. Outside of some overly friendly Marmots, we ended up having the entire area to ourselves. We had an early dinner and were sleeping before the sun went down. The next day was summit day.

Our camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Our base camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Summit Day

We woke up before sunrise, sorted gear, and made an attempt to eat. Not sure if it was the early start or the altitude, but I struggled to stomach a Clif Nut Butter bar. We made our way up a short talus field and then to a series of endless moraines on our way to Iceberg Lake. I will never forget seeing the route for the first time when we rounded the last moraine before the lake. Mt. Whitney and the needles towered over the entire valley.

Our plan was to do the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, which has been rated anywhere from low fifth class to 5.8.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, I spent countless hours reading the guide book and scanning trip reports on Mountain Project. The consensus was that we would need around a half day to complete the route, and we packed accordingly. As we passed Iceberg Lake, we ran into a guide and his client. We chatted with them about the route and made our way to the base of the wall.

The First Pitch

I agreed to lead the first pitch which is supposed to go at a straightforward 5.5. I took a few seconds to decide on the correct start and opted for a steep, left-facing corner. I traversed left out onto a large flake and started working on placing some gear. However, as I transferred my weight, the entire flake started to pull off the wall. As you can imagine, this was terrifying and made for an exciting first pitch. I gingerly traversed back to the start and opted for going straight up the corner.

About a quarter of the way up the wall it was apparent that I was on the 5.8 alternative start rather than the easy 5.5 corner. The corner had a few amazing lay backs and airy moves, and while I usually have no issues on 5.8, the altitude had me breathing excessively hard. I felt my legs starting to shake towards the top of the pitch. The constant grind of the Ice Axe on my pack on rock did not help with the nerves. Finally, I reached a small ledge and built an anchor to belay Joe up.

Joe scaling a rock wall

My climbing partner Joe, nailing it as usual

Gaining Altitude (and Ice)

Joe easily led the next pitch, and we were starting to feel pretty good about our time and even joked about being back in camp for lunch. That’s about the time that we began to start running into some scattered patches of snow and icy cracks. The third pitch looked easy enough, but the icy cracks made everything harder and made for some serious slow going.

Throughout the next couple pitches, we both found ourselves digging out snow and ice before placing gear.  After some route-finding misfortune and many leads by Joe, we arrived at the Peewee. The Peewee is a massive, ominous-looking block that is easily recognizable from a few pitches away. Once we arrived there, we felt a lot better knowing that we were on route. We took a few minutes to eat, and I broke out my Adventure® Medical Kits Hiker kit to take some pain killers for a mild altitude headache. That is when I realized that I had less than five ounces of water left and only a couple ProBar Chews. We looked at the guide book, picked our route, and Joe set off to lead a problematic-looking hand crack.

When the 4th Class Talus Field Becomes 5th Class Climbing

The guide book said to go left after the Peewee, but we must have went a little farther left then recommended. Instead of reaching the easy 4th class talus field, we ended up turning the planned 8 pitches into sustained fifth class 14 pitches. Throughout the upper pitches, we kept expecting to hit the talus field. I must have asked Joe “How’s it look up there?” or “Is it fourth class?” fifty or so times. But each time we ran into more fifth class climbing. Each time we regrouped at the belay and got back after it.

Mt. Whitney – 14,505′

After 14 hours on the wall, we finally reached the summit around 8:30 pm, just as the sun was setting over the High Sierra. After some high fives and obscenity-laced proclamations, we celebrated, threw off our climbing shoes, and snapped some pictures. I was ecstatic to have just finished my longest and most technical alpine climb.

We were running on empty from the lack of water and food a few pitches back. We were so desperate for water that we filled a hydration bladder with snow and shoved it in our jacket hoping for it to melt as we made our way down. Our celebration and sense of accomplishment was short lived when we started to scout our decent route.

On the summit of Mt. Whitney

Pumped to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney as the sun set!

Rerouting Our Descent

Our plan was to descend the Mountaineer’s Route, which is a steep, class three snow gully that dumps you back at Iceberg Lake. We walked over to the top of the route and quickly gave it a collective “nope.” The snow which had been melting all day in the sun had now frozen and was looking more like a W2 ice climb. It would be extremely dangerous to descend frozen at night, and arresting a fall would be nearly impossible.

We were left with only one option: to descend the standard Mt. Whitney Trail which leads back to Whitney Portal. For us, this meant hiking back down to the trail junction and then hiking back up to clean up camp at Upper Boy Scout. Since we did not plan to use this route, we had little knowledge of it and had written it off as merely a hiking trail. This ended up being more than 14 miles and meant dropping from 14,505 feet to around 9,000 feet at the trail junction, then back up to 11,350 feet at camp, and then back down to the parking lot at 8,375 feet.

Besides running on no sleep, food, or water, things were going pretty well.  Then around 1am we ran into Mt. Whitney’s famous “chute.” This is a large, steep, and exposed 1,200 foot snow gully. During the day, this route could be easily glissaded, but for us it was frozen wall of ice.

Bivvy at 11,200′

After a few hours, we reached the bottom and desperately searched for water and a flat spot to bivvy. We found some glacial runoff, filled our bottles, and made our way down towards a large rock garden. We found a bivvy spot and began setting up. At this point we had been on the go for more than 19 hours, and the temps had dropped into the low thirties. I put on every layer I had, laid down a Survive Outdoors Longer® Emergency Blanket as a tarp, and then got in my S.O.L. Escape OD Green Bivvy (Joe had the Escape Pro Bivvy). We were extremely fortunate to have the bivvies, as they were key in preventing almost certain hypothermia.

After a few hours of nodding in and out of consciousness, we were disturbed by large swaths of hikers making their way to the chute. For the next 6 hours, we made our way back down, up to our camp, and then down again to the car. We answered the question “how was the chute and did you summit” many times as we passed weary eyed hikers making their way up.

32 Hours Later

We arrived back at Whitney Portal looking worse for wear and settled for the comfort of a burger and cold beer at the Whitney Portal Store. My pants were ripped, my hands looked like raw meat, and I was pretty sunburnt, but overjoyed to have completed the climb. Joe was an absolute monster and just put his head down and pushed through the pain and fear.

This trip solidified the adventure partnership that Joe and I have built over many years of exploring. We pushed each other and ultimately worked in sync to keep it together when things got hard. I am sitting here on a dock over a thousand miles away from Mt. Whitney, but I can’t stop thinking of the beautiful Sierra’s. Now it is time to figure out what’s next.

About the Author

Andrew Piotrowski is an all-around adventurer residing in Southeast Pennsylvania. He can commonly be found trad climbing in the Gunks, paddling the Chesapeake Bay, or trail running and backpacking in the Catskills. Andrew grew up running and kayaking but fell in love with the mountains on a few trips to the Adirondacks. Since then he has focused on alpine climbing and mountain running objectives in the Sierra’s, Bugaboos, and White Mountains. Andrew’s favorite training partner is his dog Calvin, who has helped him to log countless training miles. When not outside, Andrew enjoys Canadian Lager and gardening.