Describing Clichés: On Hope and Inspiration in Nepal

Kevin Tatsugawa is an assistant professor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and also a Brooks-Range Mountaineering product ambassador. A few months ago, he took off to Nepal for a trip that made him think about what the word “inspirational” really means.

This blog is about a trek to Nepal. Ang Tshering Lama (a Nepali guide and my friend) and I co-led eight of my students from Westfield State University on a 14-day trek to the Langtang area this past winter.

I am a university professor and springtime is also graduation time. I realize that the term “inspiration” is often used to describe awe-inspiring feats in the outdoor adventure world. But, sometimes I think that the overuse of this word leads to the perception that some sublime feats are mundane and cliché, rather than noteworthy and uplifting. How many truly inspirational feats can one person accomplish or experience in a lifetime?

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In my humble opinion, most people lead productive, constructive lives in a tough, unforgiving world. My students embodied this every day in the Himalayas – as tough and unforgiving an environment as one will experience. But, sometimes people can rise above their circumstances to reach levels they never thought possible – inspiring themselves and others along the way. Events and achievements unfolded in just such a manner in Nepal.

On our trip, no world records were set. No firsts ascents were achieved. No “last great lines” fell to our prowess as climbers. However, something deeper and more personal happened. Personal altitude records were set, since most of them had never been above 10,000 feet, and doubts and fears were overcome daily.

2014-02-07 16.39.59Did they suffer more than a world-class alpinist putting up a first ascent on an 8,000-meter peak? No. Did they face howling winds, horizontal snow, and freezing temperatures? Aside from one blustery day, no. Still many of them struggled with the high altitude, exhaustion, illness, minor injuries, and uncertainties.

They all managed to overcome these personal hardships with positive attitudes and few complaints. And at the end of each day, they managed to leave a positive impression on me and filled me with hope that they could meet the next day’s challenges in the mountains.

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Thus, in a few days when I watch the same students that I led in Nepal accept their diplomas, I will be filled with hope, not inspiration, with each step that they take across that stage. Hope for their future and the future. Hope that they will fulfill the potential that I saw in all of them as they toiled up that mountain.

I find my students inspirational when I reflect upon all of the challenges they overcame to make it to that graduation stage – much the same as when I climbed the mountains in Nepal with them a few months ago. And like school, although each step they took up the mountain was probably not inspirational, the trip was exciting and breathtaking.

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Play safe out there!

Dr. Kevin

 

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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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