Banff 2012: the death of the spectacular

I have in my possession an unpublished essay by Arne Naess entitled “The Spectacular- An Enemy?”  According to Bill Devall, he wrote it in the mid-80s after visiting Canyonlands National Park for the first time.  At the moment that binder is buried in a box under boxes down in the garage, so I cannot quote it directly, but memory recalls that Naess’ argument is that the spectacular and spectacularly unsubtle landscapes of the American West will evoke a sort of scenic elitism.  Among other things, such a view will lead to only the most visually obvious wild places being revered and protected.  This has de-facto been the case anyway, as by the time the National Park service was up and running, and certainly by the time the Wilderness Act came into being, most of the wild places left unspoiled were spectacular by default.  Spectacular places tend to have little value for industry, and as one example it has only been in more recent decades that we in America have seen Wilderness areas designated in less rugged, lower altitude places which might be valued by (for instance) the timber industry.

Naess’ argument is more relevant than ever in the age of digital HD.  The latest iteration of the Banff World Tour which came to town this week demonstrates that more clearly than ever.  As I’ve said in previous years, the task of contemporary adventure film makers is to go beyond visual pornography, to identify and then expound upon a narrative thesis.  It is too easy to get good cameras and software and rely solely on the wow-factor of time lapses, slow-mo, and synthetic saturation to lull an audience into remaining stationary.  Mountain in Motion was an especially boring and awful example, as was Petzl RocTrip China.  Both are among the worst films I’ve seen in five years of attending the Banff World Tour.

Thankfully, this year we also saw one of the best I’ve seen at Banff.

In Honnold 3.0, the Lowells and Peter Mortimer could have been forgiven for focusing only on the climbing.  Yosemite is after all the very definition of the spectacular, and the Owens River valley is up there as well.  To their credit, the stunning visuals and jam dropping boldness are held in reserve, and Honnold’s sardonic personality and the mental side of what he does is put front and center.  My own free soloing is well in the past, but my memories of on-sighting hundreds of feet off the deck in Eldo or the Red are burned into my mind.  This film gives a faithful, non-reductive portrait of the mental and emotional dimensions of free soloing, which is a formidable achievement.

Why were Big Up and Sender able to do this?  A large part of the answer is no doubt that they’ve been doing climbing films long enough and well enough to get over themselves and the awesome raw material they have at their disposal.  Big Up invented the bouldering film and pioneered many of the technical aspects of climbing films now taken for granted, and I still recall the scrappy, soulful Scary Faces, which focused on everyman climbers in Boulder and launched Mortimer’s career.  Being climbers themselves, and experienced enough to look beyond the visually spectacular to the subjectively spectacular, the makers made Honnold 3.0 an impressively well-rounded work.  Quite frankly, it saved the evening.

Banff will, in the years to come, begin to struggle for relevance. The market for visual porn will always exist, especially in the adventure community, but I do not think I was the only person that evening bored more often than was appropriate given the setting and ticket prices. The other issue is of course that with Youtube and Vimeo the need for festivals will continue to decrease, unless the bar (for entry) is raised. It is time to demand more thought outside the editing room.

Pimp your ‘Mid

As mentioned in my introductory post, some modifications were in order for the Megalight. Yes, you can buy one with these, but it can be more illustrative to roll your own.

First up, mid panel reinforced guylines.  In the grand scheme, as compared to (for instance) backpack straps, shelter tie-outs don’t receive much force.  The concern with light fabrics is not then absolute strength, but rips due to over-perforating the fabric.  For this reason I wanted an extra, laminated layer of sil on the inside to help spread the load.  Dilluting clear, 100% silicone caulk in mineral spirits works great for this.  Give each surface a coat, let dry for ~5 minutes, then stick on, clamp together, and let cure overnight.  For the tie-out itself I use 3/4″ grosgrain.  1/2″ would work but the wider stuff allows for light stitching over more area.  I bartack a loop into the middle, then sew each side right up against the bartack.  The idea here is to have force from any direction pull on both sides as equally as possible.  Then a double line of straight stitching down the middle, and a zigzag stitch along the sides (3mm wide and .9mm long, if you’re wondering).  The stitching around the edge of the patch is to keep it from peeling over time.  Seal the whole mess with more silicone solution, applied with a sponge brush.

Obviously I value strength over precision and neatness.  I made the patches out of the factory stuff sack, and as I didn’t have a pair of scissors in the garage and didn’t want to go upstairs to use the rotary cutter, made do with a box knife.

Mid panel tie-outs attached to guy lines with a loop of shock cord, which damps the loading during gusts.

Linelocs are awesome, BD ought to make them standard.  Fortunately the stock stitching is easy to rip, and DIY Gear Supply sells what you need (and has fast service).  Same zig zag stitch as above.  It’s been a topic of discussion elsewhere, so I’ll say right now that I’ve never had linelocs slip or fail.  Given that it’s the same concept as a plaquette-style belay device (like a Petzl Reverso), I think they’re proven.

Linelocs have many benefits.  One is that they make it easier to pitch a mid locked down at ground level.  You do this by staking the main corners much further outwards than you would think necessary, setting the center pole low, and tightening the corners to tension the whole thing.  Linelocs also make it easy to deal with the inevitable sagging of silnylon on wet nights; just reach out from inside and tighten things up.  No need to get out of the sleeping bag or get more than a hand wet.

And as a final bonus, Camp Wind Mit’ns.

They’re windshirts for your hands.  I got a pair this spring, and won another in the post-Classic raffle.  15 grams a pair (claimed) and tiny in your pocket.  Not durable, but great for adding a bit of warmth when powerstretch gloves aren’t quite enough.  I wear a medium or large glove, normally, and the size 1 (smaller of two offered) fits perfectly over a heavyweight liner.

Money for something

Most readers will be familiar with the Andrew Badenoch/77Zero/Fatbikerafting the Arctic/Kickstarter debacle. For those who are not, the short version is as follows. In January Badenoch, with no endurance or wilderness palmares that I’ve been able to dig up, went live with a funding proposal for a scandalously ambitious loop trip from Seattle to the Arctic coast and back again. His proposed time frame was March through late autumn, and the advertised product (and thus according to Kickstarter rules raison d’etre, as Kickstarter prohibits “fund my life” projects) was a documentary film. Badenoch got a late start due to poor planning, suffered from mis-managed logistics in British Columbia, and pulled the plug on the trip in mid-summer, having not made it beyond pavement. In spite of regular Facebook and Twitter activity over the summer, he made no plain statement of failure until recently. He has intimated, but not said outright, that be plans to have another go next year. Googling and perusing Badenoch’s websites and social media feeds will reveal the details, and answer whether my characterization here is fair.

In the past few weeks Badenoch has had a rough time of it.  Considerable internet speculation and abuse culminated in a brief article at Outside and a prominent excoriation at BikeSnobNYC.  The future of his project is very much in doubt.

There were many questions concerning Badenoch’s plan from the beginning, though none of them were asked very loudly.  I was on the verge of asking them here several times over, but always rejected the subject as bad style.  I don’t intend to do that again.

The first major question concerns Badenoch’s experience and route choice.  Kickstarter notes in their guidelines “If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn’t share key information, backers should take that into consideration.”  Badenoch listed nothing about his own cycling, packrafting, or wilderness accomplishments.  There are few people alive today with the experience to evaluate his proposed route as a whole, and most of them communicated skepticism privately.  That being said, it doesn’t take much research to question the practicality of lugging any sort of bike across ANWR, along the Iditarod from the Yukon to the Happy in high summer, or across Prince of Wales Island from north to south.  I’d argue that his trip was more ambitious than Skurka’s 2010 Alaska-Yukon loop, and it is worth noting the Skurka, whose solo experience is almost unrivaled, almost got broken a few times in the process of completing one of the most impressive mental and logistical feats in recent memory.

I do not think that Badenoch’s ignorance of what he was getting into, and subsequent bailing, was what earned him so much grief.  I don’t even think it has much to do with his tendency to be overly intellectual and obfuscatorially verbose, but I’m a sympathetic audience there guilty of many of the same things.  I think the reason Badenoch got so much shit was that he pushed the bounds of what crowd-sourced funding should be.  In the age of GoPro, Youtube, and the first worlds inundation with leisure time, you need a very good reason to ask other to pay for your vacation, however eccentric and ambitious.

Photo by USGS. Go here for a truly huge version.

I find it easiest to think through with myself as an example.  I would like a new camera.  I would like other things more, so I haven’t bought a new camera this year.  I live near Glacier, hike there more than most, and know more about it than many.  So what could I offer others, in exchange for some of their money, which I would use to buy a camera, that would provide for a justifiable, equitable, and moral exchange?  Prints of nifty pictures?  A photo book, electronic or paper?  A photo project based around a project, such as one I’ve been thinking about anyway, like visiting and documenting all of the park’s shrinking glaciers next year?  Is there a way in which my position as neither a scientist nor a pro photag might make this valuable to others, or would I be merely selfish and sneaky in even contemplating such a thing.

I’m a huge fan of authentic media shot in the moment [though the Banff edit was scrubbed a fair bit], but Badenoch’s project just didn’t measure up when it came to salient details.  A comparable project, with more credibility and conceptual beef, would be appropriate for crowd-sourced funding.  Giver beware.

Pretty damn Pam

:40 til 1:30 really needs viewing a few times over.  Let’s assume it is way, way, way harder than Ms. Pack makes it look.  Phenomenal climbing.  Dig the taped rope while you’re about it.

The 6-year sock roundup

An inevitable part of moving, beyond surliness and interrupted internet access (and thus blog posts) is a reexamination of all your possessions. Or perhaps it is really a first examination, carrying something up the steps in a shopping bag does not rate for introspection compared to carrying everything in an endless train of boxes. The inevitable angst of moving is not so much in the simple amount of stuff, discouraging though that is, but in being faced so baldly with how many of the intimate details of our lives go unexamined.

Part of my sorting was to collect and then go through my immense pile of socks. A few of them are over five years old, but most have accumulated during that manageable chunk of time since we moved to Arizona in 2006 and made adventuring a serious second full-time job. What follows is a partial discussion of what got binned, what I’ll but more of, and why.

The relevant meta is that I’ve increasingly come to believe that wool or nylon socks as primary insulation is an inefficient system. As secondary insulation, where warmth is won via moisture buffering and protection from abrasion, they excel, but if you’re piling on thick wool to keep your feet warm there are other methods you ought to examine. Either neoprene for the wet, or foam boot liners for the cold. I dislike the thick, loopy construction of insulating wool socks. They hold moisture and the interior structure exacerbates maceration via texture. This bias is reflected below.

The best (the socks I kept, and will buy more of):

-DeFeet Wooleators are the number one sock. An excellent combo of performance characteristics and durability. We received several pairs as gifts back in 2008, and only one has died in the intervening years (holes in the achilles). Impressive.

-DeFeet Activators are the best bargain going if the ankle height works for you (15 bucks for 3 pair). Impressively durable, and great for liners in Hydroskin socks or in hot weather.

-Patagonia Ultralight ski socks are excellent knee high socks for colder weather and ski boots. They stay put, are not as thin as Smartwools, but can stand more than one season.

-Injinji originals and lightweight socks (in coolmax, not wool) are pretty good durability wise, and I find the toe separation fantastic for serious mileage. The thin ones wear a bit fast, but are the best solution available at the moment.

-Bridgedale Coolfusion were a sleeper success.  Good padding without being sponges, fantastic durability.  A win.

The worst:

-Smartwool toe socks stick like glue when wet, and get holes super fast.  Fail.

-Darn Tough full cushion are 2/3 sock and 1/3 plastic bag.  Horrid breathability.  I did the 2008 Coyote 2 Moons in them, but only because I forgot other socks.  I’ve been unimpressed with the lighter Darn Toughs, which I have killed easily, and not liked enough performance-wise to take advantage of the warranty.  Save your money.

-Smartwool UL ski socks work great, but wear through the heel in 2/3 of a winter.  All the thicker knee-high smartwools sagged, which is intolerable.  Smartwool generally is falling behind the curve, with products that never seem to be better than average.

The average:

-Thicker socks from Smartwool and Thorlo stay in the quiver as sleep socks, for wearing to work, or padding around the house.

And now for something also geeky, but otherwise completely different:

Why I picked a MegaLight

The search for an ideal main fleet shelter continues. I was never entirely happy with the Shangrila 2: lack of broadside wind stability and the need for two poles. What floor space it does present is quite useable (and Golite is foolish if the rumors of it being discontinued are true), but there isn’t all that much.

Ergo a traditional, square mid. This one.

This Megalight canopy is 25 oz seam sealed and with the fire tags removed.  The included (burly) carbon pole is 11.6 oz.  It adjusts from 64.75″ to 76.5″ (at minimum insertion of the adjustment piece.  You could get another centimeter by pushing strength further than I personally care to).  Pitched as above the mid is 68″ tall, and 104″ corner to corner, which makes the factory specs very generous.  It comes with 8 crappy, generic aluminum stakes, a nice sil stuff sack, and a link for using two trekking poles as the main support (something I doubt would work well in significant conditions).

Work on the tieouts is good, but not outstanding.  Any denser stitching would foster tears in the fabric under load.  Box stitching over a greater area would be ideal.

The difference between actual and the “useable” listed dimensions highlights one of two difficulties in comparing one mid to another.  The other is the degree of caternary cut, on both the horizontal edges and the vertical sides.  Some is necessary, least great fabric tension still allow flapping edges, but generous cat curves make it difficult to lock the edges to the ground, and steal height when that obstacle is overcome.  This after Kevin Sawchuck told me he sold an MLD Supermid in favor of a Megalight when he discovered that the advertised peak height was with the middle edges several inches off the ground.

I picked the Megalight because I worried that Golite and Oware had too little cat curve, and MLD too much.  Plus MLD has a wait, doesn’t include a nice center pole, and is more expensive.  I can see myself adding some linelocs to the Mega, and probably a jack for the wood stove I’m building.  Otherwise, the yard pitch looks good, I like the circus tent colors, and we’ll see how it goes.

The Shallow Abyss

The progression of adventure films generally, and for today of climbing films in particular, has nothing to do with harder, faster, or higher.  It has to do with saying things, with better bringing into focus the import such pursuits have on our lives, and by extension, the world at large.

This being the case, Abyss is the bleeding edge of climbing film progression.

There’s a lot to dislike, or at least ridicule, so let us be charitable and stay not too far off topic.  Is cleaning alpine granite difficult?  No.  Certainly not if you’ve gardened out a new crack in Appalachia.  Nor for that matter is developing any new boulder problems under any circumstances, when the process is held to any larger standard.  Does slapping massive amounts of chalk on holds while brushing on rap make them easier to grab?  Only in your mind.  Obe Carrion needs to personally apologize to the world climbing community for making absurd verbal encouragement from your spotter acceptable, and what the hell is up with those massive tic marks?  At least the rarified scarf/beanie/tank combo seen in Park Life didn’t make an appearance.

Abyss asks serious questions about the internal and community processes surrounding discovery and “first ascents,” and should therefore absolutely be taken seriously.  The camera and editing work is gorgeous, and the mix of rock porn and narrative holds immense promise for more substantive films to come.  Unfortunately after asking such good questions, the answers presented degenerate in coherence and quality as the film goes on.  As Jon Glassberg concludes after Ben Spannuth’s climactic sport route ascent, “What’s important is contributing something to the community that will last forever.”


In the aforementioned case of the heavily vegetated southeastern US, such delusions might be forgiven.  Uninitiated climbers rarely realize how much cleaning went into routes like Roadside Attraction at the Red.  In areas with that much moisture, anything not very steep will be heavily vegetated.  For the dirt-encrusted new router first-hand knowledge of this process should bring about something akin to that gleaned from placing your first bolt.  Neither bolt holes nor a hand crack stripped of dirt and vines are permanent in any larger sense, but both acts are large enough on a human scale to command respect.  In contrast, alpine granite covered only by lichen, and subject to the heavy weathering of an 8 month winter, are more like slot canyons.  Evidence of past climbers is all but totally erased season to season, which paradoxically makes Spannuth’s bolts all the more egregiously egotistical.

In the first 15 minutes of the film the auteurs seem to hint that all evidence points towards them being far from the first climbers at Abyss Lake, but as the minutes march forward the chest-pounding rhetoric becomes more elevated, and the phrase “first ascent” flashes continually in the upper right corner.  Spannuth’s route might be hard and steep enough to think that no past climber had ever top-roped it, but claiming first ascents on small boulders in the face of reasonable evidence to the contrary seems self-deluded.  As I’ve written before such an attitude is less a matter of factual absurdity than it is a problematic view of the world.  The necessary reach of any individual vision, which the film rightly identifies as the limiting factor in discovery, is small.  Recognizing your vision as included there is the first and best step towards broadening it.

In the final analysis, Abyss misses the mark.  As several climbers hint at, and Chris Shulte makes most clear, the best thing about climbing undiscovered-to-you problems is the potential for unalloyed personal growth.  With no chalk and beta to point the way, and no number to tell you beforehand whether you can or cannot do it, great things are not just possible, but probable.  In a world increasingly defined in great detail, online and on video, having such an experience in a five star location will only become more rare.  Why not then embrace the process, and in the film more fully celebrate the joy of such moments?  Dispense with the grades and let viewers decide on difficulty by watching climbers struggle.  Dispense with claims of first, middle, or last, and let viewers decide whether the place is worth visiting.  Stop updating, and share with the world stoke, rather than a one-dimensional resume.

LT11 is a young company, and it shows.  I hope they stick around long enough to age well.  I’d like to watch.

Camp Corsa review

The Camp Corsa is light.  10oz flat in 70cm. It self-arrests and belays pretty well. If that is all you need in an axe, which is to say you’ll carry it a lot, use it occasionally, and climb with it hardly at all, then the Corsa will suit you well. If you plan on climbing with it, which might include cutting steps or self-belaying in any position other than piolet canne, you will want a different (real?) ice axe.

Fixing any of the shortcomings of the axe would require adding weight.  See the difference between the pick and adze of the Corsa, above, and the Black Diamond Raven.  The short Corsa pick doesn’t self-arrest any worse, but the lack of length and thickness does mean that the Corsa hardly works in piolet ancre.  Rather than locking, the pick shears out.  The adze is also useless, save as a hand rest or for digging catholes.  The lack of heft in the axe is part of the problem, but the shape shows that for Camp this part of the tool is largely vestigial.  You could clip in to the head of the Corsa, but if you’re ever in that position you’ve done something wrong.

A good rule of thumb is that if you’ll be wearing a harness, you should have something else in hand.

The spike of the Corsa, again compared with the Raven, is meant to save weight. For dragging while glissading it works dandy. For plunging in softer snow the simple design is quite adequate. When plunging in harder snows you’ll have to work pretty hard, in conditions where the Raven penetrates easily.  Sharpening the aluminium helps, but that job will dull quickly.  No clip in point for the Corsa, obviously.

The Corsa claims to be the lightest certified ice axe on the planet, and as of this writing that is the case.  It fulfills its spec admirably.  The question to ask is whether the weight savings are for you worth the price and performance compromises.  While fine for most of what I do, my answer on the last count is no.  I’m selling the Corsa, and will replace it with another Raven.

Heavenly creatures

A cliche title for a (by my previous standards) cliche outing.

Ali and Ranger Megan had an idea; climb Heaven’s Peak from Camas Creek. Perhaps there would be no bushwacking. Why not? M came home from work Saturday night with a nasty headache which had not abated by our 0430 wakeup, so I went by myself. We/I were to meet them at Arrow Lake no later than 0900.

Camas Creek, one of the Night of the Grizzlies locations, is something of a hidden gem; just over the ridge from the McDonald Valley, strung with trails which are rarely trodden.  I’ve packrafted there, and walked across its frozen lakes, but had never been beyond Arrow Lake, nor been there in summer.

It’s nice, and wild, with overgrown trails and a healthy population of Devil’s Club (including right in the Arrow Lake campground).

Megan and Ali are both park geeks: longtime employees who have explored corner after corner and have endless stories to tell.  Ali has apparently been a reader since the wolverine trips this winter, and kept unnerving me by referencing content here (“That tarp looks bigger in person..”).  Hi Ali!  Now quit procrastinating and get back to work (she’s in Bozeman for grad school).

They had competingly awesome hats: Megan with NPS beanie at left, Ali with the hat that wears you at right.

I started over Howe Ridge at 0640, and made camp by 0901.  By 11 or so we had left the trail near the bend between Arrow and Camas Lakes, and were beginning 2000′ of relentless elevation gain up a gully, in perhaps 3/4 of a mile.

There was no brush, just plenty of chances to drop rocks on each other. Going back to help Megan over a bulge Ali brushed a microwave-sized boulder, which leaped out of the loose dirt and would have done some serious damage, had Ali not pulled a ninja move; turning and catching it like a shortstop in kickball. It busted into four chunks, one of which stayed put and the other three Meg was able to dodge.

Damage was a split thumb nail, a lot of blood, some new holes in a very well-used Patagonia windshirt, and further elevation of Ali’s badassedness.

The gully petered out into steep veg slopes near the crest, which was gained very abruptly. A good goat trail led up another 2k to the summit.

The views were absurd.

I have mixed feelings about climbing peaks generally, and the route, lacking totally though it was in bushwacking, was a mixed bag.  The ridge was cool, the gully only somewhat entertaining.  But the chief virtue of summits, being able to see stuff and link experienced terrain into a more coherent whole, is one which Heaven’s fulfills in spades.

Our camp is obscured by that green bump on the descending ridge.

We succeeded in not getting blown off the ridge, and headed down.  The gully was not any faster in that direction.

We made camp by dark, ate, talked, and went to sleep.  The next day Megan had a house to go buy and Ali had class on Tuesday.  I finished coffee and stretched sore legs, caught a few fish off that log pile in Trout Lake, and was home not long after noon.

They may be the mountains, but they’re also just what we do on the weekends.