Chris Wright: Looking Forward to an Unclimbed Wall

Chris Wright is an IFMGA mountain guide and alpinist who splits his time between obsessions with climbing, skiing, and eating. He recently received grants for his upcoming 2014 expedition and talks about his mindset around the climb. 

The norht pillar of Teng Kang Poche. CREDIT: David Gottlieb

The north pillar of Teng Kang Poche. [photo: David Gottlieb]

It’s been almost 10 years since I woke groping for my harness, ensnared in a dream where I was rolling off a ledge with nothing underneath me. But instead, I landed on the floor in the shabby doublewide I shared with at least half a dozen friends during the first summer I lived in Oregon. I was 22, fresh off my first big wall climb of The Nose, where we made every mistake imaginable and slept hanging from bolts. I’ll always remember that climb as one of the most formative I’ll ever do. In a way, it embodied the spirit of alpinism completely. We went up with no assured outcome, uncertain most of the way that we, two clueless guys, could actually climb El Cap.

I now wake up in a bed most mornings, not shaken by dreams, but haunted by Teng Kang Poche: the menacing north pillar I’ll be attempting with Scott Adamson. 6,000 feet tall, it’s two El Caps stacked on top one another, just surpassing 21,300 feet. Instead of bolted anchors and dry stone, we’ll be expecting snowy slabs, icy cracks, and ephemeral smears. The valley below will have no visitor center, no Camp Four or cheap beers, just a small Sherpa village and a few yaks.

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22-year-old Chris Wright at El Cap

So now I wake up thinking about getting ready for our endeavor. Mark Twight wrote, “To attempt the impossible demands a high order explosion of confidence, sustained by the diesel-fueled physical capacity to back up that hubris.” From now until September, it’s about training mind and body, forging the climbing machine in the fire of work. I was reminded last year on Pangbuk North that when it comes down to it, the only thing you can do when it gets hard is to be as fit as possible.

I’ve heard the wall described as unclimbable. I’m aware that strong parties have tried and failed. I know it will be hard. We could probably increase our chance of success if we were willing to go with a bigger team, take bolts, and bring the mountain down to us. Instead, I’m going to continue to wake up every morning for the next five months and build myself up, so that when Scott and I stand beneath that mighty pillar, we know that we’ve done everything to rise to its challenge.

Regardless of the outcome, we can’t say how grateful we are to both the Mugs Stump Award and the Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award for their support of our expedition. I hope we can live up to the incredible legacy of these grants, and it’s an honor just to be in such fine company. It should be a great opportunity to test out some new Brooks-Range ultralight down sleeping bags too!

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40 Miles of Adventure: The Grand Traverse

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There is no other race like it in the United States. It combines the endurance of an ultramarathoner, the strength of a downhill skier, the mental determination of a Nordic racer and stamina of an Iditarod sled dog. You must be ready to start the race at midnight and not finish until the next afternoon; it can take as long as 17 hours.  Don’t come straight from sea level either, because you’ll be climbing more that 7,400 feet throughout the 40 miles.

We’re talking about the infamous Grand Traverse, the oldest and largest backcountry ski race in North America. This year’s race kicks off on Friday, March 28 in the iconic ski town of Crested Butte, Colo. and treks through 36 miles of the Elk Mountains to the finish line in Aspen. As always, the Grand Traverse begins at midnight to ensure racers hit the highest point of Star Mountain (12,303 feet) before the day’s warmth can trigger unstable conditions. (Shameless plug: We recommend layering in our Hybrid Down Sweater.)

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“The race provides that sense of adventure that backcountry skiers desire,” says race director and past Grand Traverse winner Bryan ‘Wick’ Wickenhauser. “People tend to get in a mindset that it’s just another skimo race, but it’s not. Usually skimo races take place entirely on resorts, but this one is 40 miles and 36 of those are in the backcountry.”

And it’s not a forgiving race. It’s pitch-black at the start and freezing cold, but you’re excited. The sense of camaraderie is palpable. But suddenly, you’re in the middle of the woods and it’s dark and the sun won’t rise until you’re above tree line. Wick, who will be doing his 16th Grand Traverse this year, remembered the race nine years ago. “I couldn’t see anything in front of me and I had full vertigo. I thought I was sliding in an avalanche,” recalls Wick. “But I was on flat ground. It was nuking wind and there were ground blizzards everywhere. I went into full survival mode.”

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It’s not a predictable course, either. Two years ago, there was so little snow that racers had to run the first nine miles, many sprinting in ski boots. However, this year the snowpack has been great. But with a foot of snow on Wednesday night and more snow expected on Thursday and Friday, they’re a little worried about snow stability. But fingers are crossed, skis are waxed and Oskar Blues beer is chilling at the finish line in Aspen. All are ready and excited for the renowned race to begin.

“It’s a bucket-list event,” says Wick. “It’s a search for powder and adventure, and that’s really what skiing is all about.”

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The Access Fund Education Summit: Climbing Etiquette and Education

Dr. Kevin Tatsugawa, a Brooks-Range ambassador, attended the Access Fund Education Summit in November. This is his report on his experience.

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All climbers have a story of their first climbing experience. Back in the day, it revolved around a more experienced friend literally “showing one the ropes.” Climbing used to be an activity that was typically reserved for the outcasts – the counter-culture hippies and dirtbags of the outdoor world – at least that was my experience.

I still remember the first time I went climbing. Having recently learned basic knots and how to belay, I began climbing with friends who were more experienced than me. They taught me about placing protection, setting up anchors, and how to lead climb. Until one day, my training was over and I found myself guiding and instructing other people about climbing and climbing etiquette.

Today, with the advent of indoor climbing gyms, climbing is quickly becoming a popular activity with urban youth. Today’s best climbers no longer seem to be mountain men or mountain women, rather gym rats who spend more time pulling plastic than they do rock.

Today’s beginning climbers no longer learn about rock climbing from a mentor, rather they have a coach or instructor who teaches them the basics of climbing in the gym environment. They progress through the grades and pull down harder than most people ever thought possible a decade or two ago. But gym-climbing protocols does not always directly translate to climbing in the outdoors, especially in terms of social etiquette and environmental issues.

Back in the day, there were so few of us that environmental issues were hardly, if ever, addressed. The number of developed crags and boulder was nowhere near the number today. It would take time and energy to access the obscure canyons and walls, which meant that the general public was minimally affected by the environmental impact. Even on the crags or boulders that were more accessible, there were fewer climbers.

However, with our numbers swelling nowadays, we need to be more vigilant about our environmental impact. In our hyper-connected society, one person’s indiscretions can have a long-lasting impact on other climbers, a local crag, or even governmental policies on public lands.

What is the solution to this burgeoning problem? Is anyone doing anything to address these issues? The answer is yes. There are organizations such as the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club that have organized themselves to deal with these issues.

The Access Fund hosted an Education Summit last November to discuss a plan to educate neophyte climbers who are transitioning to the outdoors. Climbing industry representatives, land managers, educators, researchers, volunteers from local climbing organizations, and Access Fund staff presented and exchanged ideas. We talked about the evolving climbing population, the importance of climber education, ways to modify behavior, potential collaborative partners, and how to reach our young climbers.

Climbing is a fun activity and no one wants to take that away. We, as a community, just need to take care of our limited and very valuable resource – the crags and boulders. Most of the major issues identified at the Education Summit are remedied by slightly altering our behavior at a crag. They include:

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-Stay on the trail when accessing boulder and crags
-Be mindful of other climbers, land managers and the public
-Pick up your trash
-Keep dogs on a leash, or better yet leave them at home when climbing
-Avoid crushing vegetation with crash pads and when spotting others
-Remove tick marks from the rocks when leaving a boulder or crag
-Be mindful of how our noise affects others

What else would you add?

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