Jan 30, 2011

Book review: Into Thin Air

I finished Jon Krakaur's novel, Into Thin Air tonight. I tore through it in seven days, turning pages during lunch breaks, every time I sat down on the subway and until I couldn't keep my eyes open in bed each night. This book was perfect for me, covering areas of great interest: mountaineering, pushing limits, wilderness survival, natural beauty and respect for mother nature.

Krakaur takes time to introduce the members of his expedition, from the experienced guides and Sherpas, to the clients who's experience ranged from minimal to impressive. He takes a few chapters to accomplish this, but I would not say that the book has a slow beginning. His description of the mountain goddess "Sagarmatha" (Everest) and the personalities and backgrounds of the climbers involved, is both stimulating and crucial for the readers appreciation of the 1996 tragedy that unfolds.

This book had my heart pounding. Had my mind switched into survival mode. My eyes; nearly tearing up at times. Thinking: oh shit! with each unfortunate twist of fate. I imagined myself climbing the mountain, fighting the cold, concentrating my efforts on the summit and deliberating the decision to push on to the top of the world or turn back and head down the mountain. Krakaur did such a great job of communicating the mental, emotional and physical anguish of the expedition, that I could not help but feel the anguish myself. So, bottom line: I loved this book.

Jan 28, 2011

Everest and climbing

I've been tearing through this Jon Krakauer book: Into Thin Air. It's a first person account of the 1996 disaster on Everest in which eight climbers died when caught in a sudden storm. The idea of climbing Mt.Everest is extremely interesting to me. It's actually exhilarating to read about the close calls, extreme environment and physiological demands put on the climbers. Reading it has sent me to the internet to research the areas Krakaur describes; the Khumbu Icefall, the Hillary Step and the Balcony on the South Col route for example. It's great to be able to pull up images and topographical maps of the areas I am reading about. I've also watched a few documentaries about Everest and some interviews with medical staff from the expedition, though I'm saving the movie based on Krakaur's book until I've finished reading.

I'm excited to get to the climbing gym tonight and take on a few bouldering problems. I'll meet my friend Chris at Grand Central Terminal and we'll head to Brooklyn for our weekly gravity games. Hopefully they have changed the holds on some of the walls to provide new challenges. Although, I hope that my new favorite 5.9+ route; the "suspended obelisk" is still there. It's a great confidence booster to be able to pull yourself up off the ground for the start of this climb.

Jan 24, 2011

Winter backpacking video

Tonight I spliced together bits and pieces of some footage I took during this past weekend's backpacking trip. Set to the tune of Jim Reeves singing The Blizzard, I think it came out alright. I wish I had taken more footage. Some clips from inside the shelters would have been neat, and I flat-out don't have footage of two of the guys in the group (Sorry!). But, anyway, here is what I came up with in the end:

Jan 23, 2011

Trip Report: Hiking the AT in Harriman State Park

I'm alive! I mean, I'm back! It was an excellent trip, even with a nasty cold. The entire trip was VERY COLD and windy and I didn't get too much sleep but it was exhilarating all the same. It was amazing to snowshoe over peaks, admire the views, and be surrounded by silent wintry wilderness. I spent three days snowshoeing with a full pack and two nights sleeping in stone shelters at sub freezing temperatures. I ate well and was prepared for the elements except for my sleeping configuration. Anyway, let's get on with the details shall we? (And by the way, here's the complete photo gallery for this trip [237 images])

Friday Paul swung by my place and gave me a ride to Harriman State park. There, we met up with Jay. With Paul's car parked at Lake Tiorati, the three of us drove over to the Anthony Wayne Recreation Center. Snowshoes were a must for this hike, so we strapped up, checked the map, and set off on our way to West Mountain Shelter a mere 3 miles away through the white forest. The snow was deep; averaging about 16” in most places and the snowshoes made for easy going, except for the occasional ice covered boulder section. The temperature was around 20°F but I was layered up nicely and fell into a comfortable and steady pace. I felt good and my pack was well adjusted as I continued crushing snow, maneuvering around trees, over logs and up through the boulder-strewn hills. When I stopped to look around, the woods were absolutely silent. All I could hear was the sound of my own huffing and puffing. As I scanned the landscape, puffs of steam coming from my nose and mouth billowed forth then evaporated into nothing.
Pressing on, we snowshoed up West Mountain. Passing a white blaze painted on a tree, Jay pointed to it with a trekking pole saying “AT”. Having just read a book about the Appalachian Trail, I looked at it, wide-eyed, with great interest and respect. I thought to myself: Wow, I'm glad to be hiking along this historic trail! (I've read a lot about the 2100 mile trail) When we reached the long exposed ridge-line of West Mountain the wind was whipping fiercely. The side of the ridge exposed to the wind, had turned to ice covered snow that shimmered in the sunlight and crackled loudly under foot. The protected side of the ridge consisted of deep fluffy, drift snow. The apex of the ridge showcased plumes of white powder that spun and twirled like disturbed air rolling off the trailing edge of a an airplane wing. It was a spectacular site. Though beautiful, I had to drop my pack and pull out my wind shell. Once I had it on the strong winds could not penetrate and I was warm and toasty once again. Comfortable and confident, I pushed on.

Along the ridge-line of West Mountain we trudged. All round us, tree branches were glazed in a spectacular coating of ice. As the wind blew, branches clacked and tinkled together, like natural mountain wind chimes. The west-facing sides of trees were completely coated in a thick layer of ice. Looking off to the west, Bear Mountain stood prominently before us and we could see the Hudson River winding through the valley. Marvelous. This ridge was a beautiful, yet deadly cold place so we pressed on, marching through the deep snow that sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds. Before I knew it, we rounded a corner and saw a sight for sore eyes: West Mountain Shelter. We approached it from the rear and as we rounded the corner of the entrance a Nut Hatch chirped and few out into a nearby bush.

West Mountain Shelter is a three sided, rock, lean-to with two fire places. It looks out over the Hudson River and The Timp (neighboring mountain). Jay and I were the first to reach the shelter and we were both pretty stoked. I dropped my pack and put on another layer to retain my body heat. The evening temperature was around 10°F and the sun was setting quickly. Moments later Paul arrived and the three of us made the shelter our home away from home for the night. I rolled out my reflective tarp, laid down a blanket that had been left in the shelter, and then my closed-cell foam pad. On top of this I laid my 20°F down sleeping bag. Boldly, I unzipped several layers and tossed a fuel canister in my shirt, next to my base layer. The chill of the metal fuel canister was shocking but soon warmed to my body temperature and became useable. (Isopro fuel is difficult to use in low temps, so you have to warm it up)

Just as I was about to fire up my stove to heat water for coffee, a Husky poked it's head around the corner of the shelter; it was Juno. Juno belongs to Ken who hiked to the shelter with Brian. Our group was now complete, consisting of 5 guys and a dog. Ken tossed me a Thermarest pad that I had agreed to buy from him and I added it to my cushy sleeping area in the shelter. With everyone settled in, we started making dinner. We were all eating freeze dried meals. I boiled water for my pasta primavera and threw on another couple of layers. I was really cold at this point and began hopping in place from time to time to get my body temperature up. I needed to get a hot meal inside of me. As soon as my water was boiling, I made my pasta primavera and started more water for my rice & chicken meal. I sucked both meals down and then took a hike by the light of the moon.
The moon was big, nearly full, and visibility was great without using headlamps. A good way to get your body temperature up, is to do some physical activity. So, Jay and I hiked back along the ridge-line to a scenic overlook and braved the blowing wind for a few minutes before running back to the shelter. Back at the shelter, I made a hot cup of Gatorade, slugged it down and got ready for bed. I changed my socks, adding a hand warmer to each sock while doing so. Next I stripped down to my base layer stuffing hand warmers down each leg so that I had a hand warmer on each calf and each quadricep. (A bit over-kill? Not hardly!) Next I threw on a wool sweater, my balaclava (insulated face mask/hat that covers your neck) and got into my bag, pulling the draw string down to a tight circle around my mouth and nose. I slept pretty well and didn't start shivering until 5 am.
At around 5:30 I was cold and had to pee. My bladder was full. When your bladder is full, your body has to work to keep that stored urine warm so it's best to get rid of it. As quickly as possible I unzipped my bag, jammed my feet in my boots and stumbled out into the blowing wind. The beauty and wonder of the bright full moon were wasted on me at this particular moment because priority number one was blasting a steamy yellow hole in the snow, with the force of a fire hose! A few shakes later, I turned and was bounding back to my sleeping bag like a drunken ninja wearing big unlaced boots. Checking my thermometer, it was 6°F!
Saturday morning we were up and at em' pretty early. I think it must have been around 8:00am or so when we were all melting snow for drinking water and eating breakfast. I've always been partial to peaches & cream instant oatmeal and enjoyed a couple bowls and a cup of coffee in the morning sunlight. The plan for the day was to hike to Fingerboard Shelter, a good 9 miles away. We all decided we'd see how we felt at the half way point, which was Brien Shelter. Eager to get moving and generate body heat, Jay and I set out about 15 minutes in front of the group. A quick check of the map showed a 500' drop in elevation in a little less than a ½ mile of ground. It was a very steep decent over ice-covered boulders, which was difficult to do on snowshoes! I developed a kind of controlled sliding motion, sort of like skiing but more like sitting on your ass and carefully maneuvered my way down through the steepest sections. This is difficult to do with a 40lb pack on your back.
When we reached a fairly level area I pulled my map and saw that we were at Beachy Bottom Creek. Seeing the creek, I filled an empty bottle and dropped a couple of iodine tablets inside to purify the water. As I was twisting the lid back on my bottle, I caught site of Ken and Juno coming up a slow grade. Ken filled his bottle and then we all set off again. We followed the red & white blazed trail and came to the Palisades Parkway which was odd to see after being alone in the wilderness for so long. As we stood at the side of the parkway, wearing 40lb packs, snowshoes, face masks and one of us with a Husky, I looked at the people passing by in their cars. They looked at us with interest. They looked warm. They looked comfortable. I heard a little voice in my head saying “Stop! Take me with you!”

We crossed all four lanes of the parkway, and were back in the woods again. We crossed a quaint snow covered wooden bridge over a trickling creek and began our accent up Black Mountain. The contour lines on my map were so closely stacked together that they almost made a solid brown line. For the next ¼ mile my calves screamed, my quads burned and my lungs heaved as I pushed myself nearly straight up the side of the mountain. I stopped every 20 feet to catch my breath and took a rest with my knees locked. Though while taking these breaks, my snowshoes faced up hill stretching my calf muscles in a very un-relaxing way. I pushed on. I topped out. I was pooped.

At the top of Black Mountain, we took our bearings and figured that we had about another mile to go before reaching Brien Shelter. At this point, we were all in agreement to stay the night at Brien. The temperature was around 14°F. Onward we trudged through what seemed like a maze of Mountain Laurel. I'd never seen this bush before. It does not loose it's green leaves and pops out against the white snow with great contrast. Pushing through the laurel, it whipped and snapped against the sides of our packs as we inched closer and closer to the shelter. Before we knew it we were descending straight down on to our shelter. AMEN!
Brien Shelter looked pretty nice. Half delirious, I chose a top bunk right off the bat. In my head, I was thinking: Boy this is great, hot air rises! (What hot air was I thinking of?) I froze on that top bunk. The fact that I am alive and writing this is a wonder to me. It was early afternoon when we got to the shelter. We were happy with our time, but hanging out at a shelter during the winter is not a whole lot of fun. There's only one thing you can do at a shelter during the winter and that is try to keep warm! I set up my sleeping area, laying down my reflective blanket, my pads and my sleeping bag. As I laid the bag down I wished each individual down feather the very best of luck in it's lofting and insulating efforts. (Don't let me down guys!)
Right in front of the shelter was a large pile of boulders, probably 60' tall. I needed to create some body heat so I made it's peak my goal. I convinced Jay to come along and boulder to the top with me and before I knew it, we were standing on top of the hill looking almost straight down on the shelter. A good little work out. I climbed back down, cooked dinner, threw on my microspikes and climbed back up to eat my dinner on the hill. It was great. As I inhaled steamy sporkfulls of hot beef stroganoff, a pilated wood pecker rattled the branches above my head. After a few minutes of introspection I felt myself getting cold again, so I climbed back down to the shelter.

It was now 6:00pm but I was so cold that I just wanted to get into my bag and shiver myself to sleep. Stuffing hand warmers into my socks, down my pants and scattered through my bag I kept warm for about an hour. The rest of the night was spent catching 20 minute snippets of sleep! I tossed and turned and debated getting up and going for a jog, and then tossed and turned some more. Each time I woke, I popped my head out of my bag and looked out into the woods. I wondered what time it was. I could see no difference in light or darkness from the last time I looked. I remember thinking to myself: It cold be 9:00pm, or 11:30pm or it could be 4:00am... man I'm freezing! The sound of 4 other guys snoring away, was very upsetting. Bastards! I wondered if Juno was awake; even if she was awake, she wasn't suffering like I was.
When I popped my head out of my bag, the last time, I noticed that the woods looked a little lighter than before. Yes! I was elated. The fact that morning was here meant that the sun would be doing it's job soon and I'd soon be getting warmer. Slowly we all got dressed and began the ritual of melting snow for water and boiling water for meals. I had a couple bowls of instant oatmeal, a few glugs of chunky slush water and quickly packed my gear. I wanted to get moving right away and generate more body heat. My body was slowly warming up, but my toes were frozen solid. Jay was ready to go, so we strapped on the snow shoes and made plans to rendezvous with the rest of our group at Lake Tiorati. Off we went.

The hike out, went quickly. Jay and I passed a group of about seven hikers who were out without snowshoes. They seemed to be having a hard time of it. We exchanged hellos as we watched them post-holing their way through the snow. Poor bastards. About 20 minutes later we spotted Lake Tiorati Drive through the woods and made a B-line for it. Taking this road knocked a good 1.5 miles off of our hike out. About 20 minutes later the rest of the group made it out and we all agreed that the trip was a great success. Some of us were quite comfortable, some of us weren't, but we all had a great time. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. If you're interested, click here to view a gallery of all of the snapshots I took on this trip (237).

I have to work the next five days. During that time, I hope to loose this cold I've earned. While the cold fades, I'll be planning a trip for this coming weekend. I'm hooked now!

Jan 21, 2011

I'll be on the AT

I'm off for a backpacking trip along the AT in Harriman State Park. I'll be back on Sunday night. While you're snug as a bug I hope to be in the same shape, albeit in a rock shelter or in my tent over the next two nights. Despite a head cold that came on at the last minute, I'm still excited to be out there in the wintry wilderness! I'll leave you with a little Robert Frost.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Jan 20, 2011

Climb on

Last night, my buddy Chris and I met for a late night of climbing at Brooklyn Boulders. We had hoped that less people would be climbing but that was far from the case. There seemed to be more people there last night, than any other night I've ever been there. Just the same, it was a good night of climbing.

We have a new strategy for climbing these days. Instead of starting off with easy top roping routes (5.7's and 5.8's) we jump right into the 5.9's. This way we still have power and strength needed for the smaller holds and maneuvers instead of getting to the harder climbs thoroughly exhausted. That being said, we banged out a few hard bouldering problems right off the bat. It felt great to nail the inverted V2 routes and put a positive spin on the night. Add to the positivity, the fact that we both bested the 5.9+ route on the inverted obelisk and we were both stoked! The inverted obelisk hangs from the ceiling like a giant stalactite, it's bottom at head height. You start off clinging to the bottom of it with all your might (liken to a booger on the outskirts of your nostril, if you will). Then you pull your self up with your arms and get your footing. lastly, you stand up and scale away. Feels great to conquer it. Great night for climbing, though my hands are beat today.

Jan 19, 2011

Furry: My Story

Today, my sister Mary, emailed some of my "earlier work" to me, which I read with great interest. Though my penmanship, spelling and writing style were fairly similar to what they are today, I would estimate my age to be six years old when I wrote this. I can picture myself propped up at the kitchen table with a dull pencil in hand. My mind churning out millions of ideas for an action packed, adventure story and settling on a dark and sad story about a family of bears. Below, I give an overview of this fine piece of work, so you might want to scroll down and read the story before you read my synopsis.

Reading the story this morning (26 years later) I was transported back in time, imagining my little brain developing such a masterful story line. I began the story, innocently enough with a playful scene: Furry's difficulty in learning to eat ants and the unfortunate "heepings of dirt" that came with that. Perhaps learning a life lesson in his youth. And at this point in the story, life for these bears seems to be fine. But then, out of the blue, Mother bear is slaughtered by a rather excessive barrage of gun fire. Yes, it took 5 shots to bring her down. The same could not be said for poor Bushey, who's life was snuffed out with a single shot, preceded by the "klick" of a fateful round being loaded into the chamber.

At this point, Furry realizes his best bet is to stay inside the cave. Having seen what happened to his mother and brother, he holes up and waits out the hunter... (I chose not to describe the scene where Furry sits in the dark cave, shaking, rocking back and forth, while he watches his family being field dressed) It is now abundantly clear that Furry will be on his own. Though I'm sure the prospect of eating ants and "heepings of dirt" does not bolster his confidence in being thrust into self reliance. But, he pushes on with life, as bears do.

And so it happens that one day, he encounters a large, menacing, black bear and flees to the safety of a nearby tree only to find that, contrary to popular belief, his long nails prohibit him from climbing. (The timing of this discovery could not be worse!) His whining, "whining like heck" actually, scares the other bear into thinking that Furry's mother (now stew) would come to Furry's rescue. And so the story ends with long nailed Furry, with elevated hear rate, alone in the wilderness. His fate at the hands of mother nature.

Jan 18, 2011


Looks like I've got my meals planned out for this weekend's backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail. I'll be eating warm breakfasts & suppers with cold lunches. I figure: I'll be hiking during the day anyway and won't want to stop to break out the stove. The Mountain House freeze dried meals I'm eating are pretty good actually. I'm looking forward to trying a couple new meals this weekend. Yep, considering these meals have a shelf life of 7 years, they pack good flavor, lots of valuable carbohydrates and (here's the best part) they weigh next to nothing. The average meal weighs a whopping 2.5 oz.

Book review: Disgrace

Two people have suggested that I read J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. And so, I finally did. I tore through it in five days which is to say; I liked the story. Spoiler alert: there isn't a happy ending. It's quite unsettling in fact. But, you might have gathered as much from the title and synopsis on the jacket.

Disgrace is set in South Africa and tells the story of an aging professor, David Lurie, twice divorced, who has an affair with one of his young students at Cape Technical University. The affair quickly turns sour, is publicized, and facing sexual harassment charges, he resigns from the university. Disgraced and with no real plans, he leaves his home to live with his daughter Lucy, in the country. He is unfamiliar and judgmental of her folk/hippie way of life. Nevertheless, he stays with her and helps to sell flowers at the market, lend a hand at the animal shelter and tend the garden on his daughters plot of land. Helping at the animal shelter David develops empathy for animals; dogs in particular. However, trouble (another disgrace) soon falls upon them. Three strangers beat David badly, rape his daughter and rob their house. In a final act of indignity, the men shoot the dogs in Lucy's kennel. The police are notified and they investigate, however it is clear that they will not be helpful in bring justice to David and his daughter. His daughter becomes pregnant as a result of the rape and is forever changed by the events. In the end, so is David.

This book is kind of like a train wreck. It was not easy to digest, but with sympathetic curiosity I continued to turn the pages. The ending is very dark and final; true to life in my opinion. And the way that dogs are treated in this book is clearly a metaphor for the way people treat eachother in life. It's an interestingly grim story of harsh reality, brutality, severity.

Jan 17, 2011

Backpacking this weekend

Well, I'm all set for this weekend's backpacking trip at Harriman State Park. Friday afternoon I'll rendezvous with 6 or 7 other guys (and a Husky named Juno) at the park and snowshoe about a 2 miles into West Mountain Shelter. We'll set up in the shelter (if there's not enough room, I'll pitch my tent in the snow) and make dinner. I'll be re-hydrating some freeze-dried pasta primavera and vegetables. It should get pretty cold that night, possibly down to the single digits but I should be fine. My bag is rated to 20°F and I have a thermal liner that will add another 20°F of warmth. Add to this the fact that I will be layering up before I hop in the sack and I think I'll be fine. In the morning we'll snowshoe 10 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) to Fingerboard Shelter. Awesome tidbit of info: West Mountain & Fingerboard Shelters are the oldest shelters on the AT! Saturday night will be the same routine: set up shelter/tent, reconstitute food, goof off with new friends and cocoon-up for the night. Sunday morning we will backtrack about 2 miles out of the woods.

I loaded up my pack this evening and it weighs a total of 35lbs. That's not bad at all. However, my water bottles were empty and I hadn't thrown in any luxury items (a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, candybars etc). Nonetheless, I'm sure I'll be able to keep pace with the guys I'm going with. I'm in pretty good shape. HOWEVER: In the event that I freeze to death (Hatchet Jack style) I am posting my route below. Who is Hatchet Jack? A mountain man from a favorite movie of mine: Jeremiah Johnson

Go ahead click it, it's honkin' huge I tell ya:

Jan 16, 2011

My alcohol stove

I first heard of alcohol stoves a couple of weeks ago while browsing the forum at backpacker.com. “Alcy stoves” burn denatured alcohol and are meant specifically for boiling water. You cannot easily control the flame on an alcy stove, the way that you can with canister stoves, so they're not ideal for cooking food where regulating heat output is important. However with thoughtful construction, ideal flame propagation can be achieved to boil water as quickly as possible. Other pros that come with using an alcy stove are: They're tiny, light weight (less than 1oz!), reliable and have a simple design. In fact, they're so simple in design that I made one myself. Special thanks to zenstove.net for the detailed instructions & tips!

The Theory:
The theory behind the side burning stove that I made is simple. The stove consists of an inner and outer fuel chamber that are connected by weep holes on the bottom of the inner chamber. When initially lit, the alcohol burns in the inner chamber. This action, essentially, pre-heats and primes the stove. The burning alcohol in the inner chamber heats the fuel in the outer chamber, vaporizing it and forcing it out the 24 jets drilled in the side of the can. The escaping vapors are then ignited. When a pot of water is placed on top of the stove the inner chamber is extinguished leaving the 24 jets to burn and heat the pot above.

The Construction:

The stove consists of these three pieces, from left to right: a bottom (20mm tall), the inner wall (40mm tall with a 47mm Ø and three fuel ports/weep holes) and a top (with 24 evenly spaced, .6mm Ø jets, placed 15mm from the top). For the top piece, Use a can-opener to lightly cut the bottom out of the can.

The bottom 20mm piece must slip over the 30mm top piece, sandwiching the inner chamber wall between the two. This requires some dilating (stretching) of the bottom piece. To do this, use an unopened can and force it into the bottom piece several times. It helps to polish the unopened can before doing this. After dilating the bottom piece, smear a light coating of J-B Weld along the inside of the bottom piece.

After the J-B Weld has set overnight, you can then polish the stove if you wish. I opted to polish mine by removing the paint with sandpaper and then shining it up with steel wool. I may even get some aluminum polish and put a nice shine on it, but I'm sure it's going to get beat up pretty good in my pack this summer.