upon this rock


How do you choose a partner for the mountains? How do you choose a partner for life? Today I can see that, for me, these are not two questions, but one and the same.

My first date with Erin Smart was a trip to ski the south couloir on Colfax Peak, a satellite peak of Mt. Baker. We skied away from the trailhead at ten PM, and reached the summit soon after dawn. The steep descent allowed for no error; we had to trust one another to make good calls, and to provide rescue if we should fall in a crevasse or be injured. This wasn't a symbol for teamwork or trust--it was teamwork, and it was the definition of trust.

Climbing is often presented as this convenient and deep well of metaphor, a parable for our lives back in civilization. But I think that we find the mountains so enriching because they present the world as it truly is: complicated, violent, beautiful. And because we encounter that world as we truly are: small, weak, and full of longing. More and more, I choose partners who reject the rift between our experiences in the mountains and our experiences in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes.

My conviction has grown that the real value in alpinism and in wilderness travel of all kinds is not in metaphor at all. We love to draw parallels between the physical challenges of the mountains  and the moral, social, and political challenges of our daily lives. In this view, we reduce our time in the mountains to a mere allegory. But climbing a big mountain has intrinsic value, and I don't know any more elegant way to put it: traveling through a beautiful place makes you happy. Like any engaging human work it demands your whole person: balance, communication, strength, endurance, manual dexterity, courage, planning and organization, decision making; it improves you.  It's simply a good way to spend time, a fact that is easily lost in the the rush to assign symbolic meaning to a summit.


At the end of September I took my vows with Erin Gabrielle Smart. Anyone who has ever founded a powerful partnership, at home or in the mountains or both, will understand what I mean when I say that I have found someone who will never let me down.

To everyone with whom I have ever shared a rope, thank you for teaching me about partnership. I chose you because I trusted you, and because you inspired me with the trust you placed in me. We will keep doing wonderful things.

To Erin, I choose you because I trust you most of all, and because you, too, love the world as it truly is. We will keep doing wonderful things.

letter from the ptarmigan traverse


Dear Mike,

I remember the letter that came by horseback in the North Cascades, the letter that made me whoop with joy and run across the meadow and shriek with joy. I remember the letter I wrote to my father from the Appalachian trail, thanking him for the music he brought to our lives--I cried as I wrote it. I remember the letter I picked up Post Restante in Lyon when I was 17 and traveling for the first time; it was from my best friend Jacob, and for the first time in months I didn't feel alone.

Like many people, I have used the internet, email, and Facebook as an excuse to stop writing letters. Writing letters is roughly akin to exercise for me--I love it when I do it and when it's done, but beforehand the task seems overwhelming and somehow distracting from the really important stuff I am doing (like hanging curtains or sharpening crampons). So when I had the chance to simplify the process of keeping in touch, I went for it. I resisted email for a year or two, and Facebook for several, but I eventually got on board. What surprises me is that Facebook hasn't really taken with me; I haven't internalized it as a tool the way I have a cell phone or email. It turns out that I've been pre-occupied by what I have lost, which is to say the experience of writing and receiving letters. As a result, I've generally been disappointed with my experience on Facebook; this disappointment is proportional to the hope I felt that Facebook would help me feel connected to my many scattered friends (Geographically scattered, I mean. I love my mentally sharp friends just as much as my scattered ones). While guiding the Ptarmigan Traverse this week, I had a chance to think a lot about why that is, about what I have lost, and about how to find it again.


This summer you shared with me your principle of ruthless authenticity by which you steer your social, artistic and professional choices. I take this to mean striving to be true to your self even at the cost of lower social prestige and less economic success. It is perhaps a rephrasing of other social pop-wisdoms from recent generations: follow your heart; do what you love and the money will come; live intentionally, and so forth. But this principle emphasizes the notion of authenticity which somehow seems so threatened in our culture of mass production, instant gratification, and constant electronic communication. It is arguably a spiritual idea, in the sense that it prioritizes our essence--our innermost person--over material considerations. It implies that it's fundamentally bad for us to betray ourselves, to align ourselves with ideas and movements that don't represent our values. Nobody really feels good about being false, and everyone enjoys being his or her self.


So here is what I have realized with the help of your principle: I don't have to figure out what is wrong with Facebook, only what is wrong with me. Writing a long critique of Facebook and how it has changed social life is beyond my realm of expertise, but I do know what I like. I like holding a letter in my hands that you held in your hands a week or two weeks ago. I like waiting to hear from you, and then sitting down to read your thoughts scrawled out at length over cups of coffee or glasses of wine. I like seeing which words you chose and then abandoned and struck through with hard lines. I like getting a letter so good that I re-read it a second time, and maybe I even get on the phone and call you because it's so overwhelming, and I feel you reaching out to me--not to your audience of dozens or hundreds, but to me. And most of all, I miss sitting down to write a letter myself, trying to craft something that is wonderful and grand and funny and puts across my life in a way that my good friend will appreciate.


Of course I don't have to choose between letters and Facebook. But is that true? So long as I mistake Facebooking for the art and craft of staying in touch, then I will neglect the letters and lose that excellent part of the past. I know now that, even as an occasional visitor to Facebook, I spend almost enough time there each day to write a letter. I know that I won't do both, because I can only sit still in my chair for so long.


On the Ptarmigan, watching the terrain slowly unfold over long hours of walking, I thought a great deal about tools. We had backpacks filled with carefully chosen tools, things to keep us warm and happy and well-fed and safe in the mountain wilderness. My work as a guide routinely requires that I help people select tools: which ice axe, which boots, which backpack, which skis, and so on. When I am gear counseling I am reminded of the requirements proposed by American author, poet, and philosopher Wendell Berry in his essay Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.

2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.

3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.

4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.

5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.

6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.

7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.

8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.

9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Surely a letter and the postal service, when taken together as a tool, do not meet all of these requirements. But when I apply them to Facebook (as a replacement for letters and telephone, or even just as a replacement for email), and when I consider the work of staying connected to friends, it's clear to me that the time has come to start writing letters again. So at the risk of falling even further off the radar, as they say, I am committing once again to the written word, to growing that middle-finger callous that I have had since second grade, and to the fading US Postal Service.

Yours truly,


PS: Can you send me your address?


Core Shot: A rumination on the metaphysics of wilderness travel

Last Friday I found myself in the center of the Isolation Traverse with a core shot in my rope. If this first sentence is baffling to you, let me explain. The Isolation covers the rugged country between Eldorado Creek and Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park. It takes in six glaciers over roughly 20 miles of alpine and treeline country; it's a high traverse through a landscape virtually unchanged by humankind. And a core shot is a breach in the protective sheath of a climbing rope.

Like a bone or tendon, the core of a rope not meant to see the light of day. It should be protected by the tough nylon sheath that surrounds it; we care for the rope fastidiously, but rocks can be sharp. A core shot is not only tantamount to a physical injury to the climbing team, it's also a huge practical hassle; with a knot tied to isolate the damaged portion of rope, it gets hung up easily on rock protrusions and won't flow through carabiners, which is essential to certain maneuvers. At the crag, you might just go home or grab another rope. But we discovered the damage while descending Isolation Peak, a deceptively modest looking mountain at the heart of our itinerary. When I pulled the rope following the first rappel, I found the big, ugly white bleed in the rope. Unfortunately, we were now committed to a steep and somewhat loose buttress of rock, with a crippled rope. In the middle of nowhere.


It's hard to explain what draws a person toward mountain wilderness. The knowledge that you are far from help is a strange thing to crave, and so is the knowledge that you are visiting a place where people seldom go. These seem at first like utter abstractions, mere ideas that push us out into the empty corners of the map. But I don't know if they are simply abstractions. The frame of mind I enter in remote terrain feels different than the one I enter on day excursions. And feelings--especially strong ones--are not abstract. They are very real.

Consider the feelings that may arise standing at the top of a cliff. Though the ground may be flat as a sidewalk, the experience is different because of the adjacent void, which you see, hear, and feel. Your relationship to the potential of the place, which is to say the potential of falling, is not simply cerebral: "Logically I know the consequences of a fall in this location." It is far more than that, a sweep of emotion that may encompass freedom, fear, joy, nausea, or a host of others. Standing atop a cliff is also different for our sense of balance--without near objects to focus on, we may feel wobbly, which in turn makes us feel vulnerable. People who habitually work at heights adapt to this, ceasing to rely as much on visual cues for balance. They develop a new equilibrium.

To take this back to idea of wilderness travel: on a high mountain traverse we sense the potential at our feet, so to speak. Not just the potential for mishap and protracted suffering or death while waiting for rescue, though that potential clearly plays a role. I mean also the potential to get lost, the potential that we underestimate what the terrain will demand from us physically, the potential that we will be caught in poor weather and have to forge a retreat, the potential that we will meet wild animals, that the conditions will be poor, or that our equipment will be inadequate, or worse, our skills. We sense uncertainty sprawling out before us like the windy void that surrounds us on a rock spire. The emotions we feel in response to that uncertainty set wild traverses apart, because they are so robust and immersive. And the adaptation we make in response--like the improved balance of the high-rise steel worker--is perhaps easy to overlook.


After the first rappel, unfortunately, I needed to lower Michael a full rope length. The knot won't flow through a munter hitch or belay device, the normal ways of braking the rope. Typically one would execute a knot pass with a cordalette, and things would be pretty straight forward. The problem on this day--in the middle of the wild North Cascades, remember--was that all of my cordalette was used up on the anchor. I could find no other acceptable anchor, so I wracked my brain for another solution. And from some dark recess of my mind, it came: an arcane technique that involves muscling the carabiner out of a fully-loaded munter hitch (If you do it wrong, it could probably break your finger). When I remembered this trick, I knew it would work. I got Michael down the 60 meters with our damaged rope, and then made a pair of rappels myself.

The intensity of that hour is irreplaceable for me. Two humans  surrounded by the mountain solitudes, the sun beating down on them, stuck on a mountain with a broken rope. The blue sheath moving through my hand, the weight of another human on its far end, the texture of the lichen on the rock edges as I inspect them for hidden sharpness, the stretch of the cord on the anchor, the smell of hot metal from the belay device. Like lines in a beautiful love letter, these details move me: this is why I am here, for these feelings.

My sense of balance in relationship to the wilderness has grown, as I think it grows in each person who travels these places. The sense of depth and potential that surrounds us brings out strengths that may lie dormant in the city. In the wild mountains, your skin may be broken and your core exposed, but we tie a knot around the damage and find a way to carry on. Because it's not about cheating death, but rather about feeling alive.

I'll end with a favorite quotation from Rene Desmaison, the celebrated French mountain guide, in his book La Montagne à Mains Nues:

"White clouds slide through the sky. The great slabs of granite rise toward the blue. The slender ridges of ice, fragile and glinting, tear apart the winds up high. The glaciers sprawl right down to the forests of larch. The immortal mountains, sovereign, reign over your hearts, even in the depths of those somber cities. Because you can't forget, isn't that right? If even once you have seen, from the summit of a mountain, the sun emerge from the earth. If even once you have seen the great wheel of stars in the night sky. If even once, inside a wood cabin, terrified by the storm, you have heard the long lament of the wind. If even once, holding onto the mountain with all your strength, you have felt that your life depended only on your two hands.

Your two bare hands, gripped desperately to the rock. "

The Mount Logan Craft Fair

Expedition climbing always involves breaking things. You can't fiddle with a boatload of modern, lightweight gear for two weeks without fatiguing a few pieces of plastic, tearing some fabric, or just plain forgetting something vital. In the sprawling glacial desolation of the north, I like to channel MacGuyver every chance I get. Not only does it provide much needed entertainment, but it also gives me the feeling of self-sufficiency I sometimes lack in the suburban world.

I just spent two weeks on Mt. Logan in the Yukon. It's a really big mountain--there's no other relevant way to put it. Picture Denali smeared over twice as much horizontal distance, and you start to get an idea of how logan is shaped. The King Trench route is a mild, gradual climb up a series of glaciers to the vast summit plateau--you can ski to within 15 minutes of the top. With twenty days worth of food and fuel, we were dragging big sleds and carrying big packs, and the skiing remained fairly utilitarian. But in the thousands of strides from the US, into Canada and Kluane National Park, and on up the Trench, setting up camp after camp--something had to break. My answer to this the Mount Logan Craft fair, which I share with you in hopes that you will be inspired to go somewhere with barely enough stuff, and enjoy the visceral satisfaction of fixing what is broken and replacing what is missing.

To start things off with a bang, the fuel pump broke on one of our MSR Whisperlite stoves. If you know this stove, then you know the fuel pump shaft is held in by a little plastic cap with locking flanges...very small locking flanges. So these both broke all at once, leaving me with a pump that could not be pumped. But I quickly realized that this little plastic cap doesn't seal in pressurized fuel--it just provides a stop for the fuel pump shaft when the shaft is pulled up. So I zip tied the thing down and presto, functional fuel pump for the remainder of the trip. (Please don't try this at home--always follow the manufacturer's directions and don't blow yourself up--MacGuyver would never do that).

Next I discovered that I forgot one of my insoles. No problem: the foam from my removable Cilo Gear backpack pad, custom cut and laminated using athletic tape, provided the perfect working replica. I may stop paying money for insoles from here on out, as this one performed quite well.

Then the cup on my thermos broke. So I lined it with a plastic bag and secured the whole mess with athletic tape. A hitch in the coffee system is potentially a trip-ending catastrophe, so I was particularly relieved by this fix.

Of course no Craft Fair is complete without a little sewing. My well-used softshell pants blew a seam, so I had to spend some quality time with needle and thread.

On the flight out, I couldn't help looking around the endless rivets of Paul Claus's 1957 DeHavilland Otter. This plane has been the workhorse of the St. Elias range for decades, flying countless climbers and skiers into the incredible mountains south and east of Chitina, Alaska. What an incredible piece of engineering, to be serving so reliably for over fifty years. With thousands of moving and electronic parts, this thing is flying up to eight souls through the air, ten-thousand feet above the earth, above a vast wilderness of ice and rock. Hopefully, no MacGuyver required...