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Nun Expedition 2015: The Himalaya of Ladakh and Kashmir

January 2nd, 2016

Few places have inspired me over the years as have the majestic Himalayas.  I first traveled there in 2000 when I went to Nepal and trekked for four weeks, including Gokyo Ri to Everest Base Camp and part of the Annapurna Circuit.  I had been looking to go back ever since and in August 2015, I finally had the chance.  Ladakh is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is wedged in between the eastern Karakoram of Pakistan to the east and the mighty giants of the Himalaya in Nepal and Tibet to the west.  It’s a land not often visited by those traveling to India, many of whom prefer to head to the other attractions that country has to offer. Few mountaineers also travel there, often preferring to head to the more famous K2, Everest and other regions that surround it.  As a result, Ladakh is a paradise for those looking to trek, climb and explore without the crowds.

Our support crew on the way to the Nun-Kun Massif.  Nun (7,135m) is on the right.

Our support crew on the way to the Nun-Kun Massif. Nun (7,135m) is on the right (Photo credit: Luke Smithwick)

The opportunity to climb in a region where there are numerous unclimbed 6000 and 7000 meter peaks is what ultimately took me there.   The peak I aimed to climb, Nun, at 7135 meters or 23,409 feet is not one of them, but does not often attract expeditions.   The peak season to climb in the Ladakh and Kashmir region is July-September and we were only one of 3 expeditions planned for that season.  The West Ridge of Nun represented a logical next challenge for me in the mountains since it would take me above 7000 meters for the first time and give me a chance to climb a longer route and slightly more technical route that what I’ve typically done in the past.

Typically, I like to self-organize and lead expeditions with groups of friends, but opted to join a group that had organized a four week expedition to the region.  The convenience of having a group already set to go was fantastic, particularly since it was a last minute trip for me.  I had been planning a climbing trip to the Himalaya for quite some time, but when I decided to leave my job in July, I had the perfect window to do it.  I decided to join a trip led by Himalaya Alpine Guides, namely, Luke Smithwick, who splits his time living in Leh and Kathmandu and is a veteran at organizing trips in the region.

The group of 7 of us– 4 Americans (Luke, Peter, Evan and me) and 3 Australians (Shiraz, Francis and Anthony)– commenced our expedition in Leh, the small, but bustling main town in Ladakh.  Leh would serve as the perfect base for acclimatizing (being at 3,524 meters or 11,562 feet) and for re-fueling and resting in between parts of the expedition.  The flight from Boston to Leh (through Newark and Delhi) was  long one and the first few days in Leh served as a perfect time to recover from that and get the legs moving at altitude.  We hiked up the steep climb to the Leh Palace, built by the Ladakhi King Sennghe Namgyal in the 17th century.  Modeled after the famous Potala Palace in Lahsa, Tibet, the Leh Palace dominates the landscape of Leh and provides for a great overlook of the town.  We also visited the many monasteries in and around Leh, including Thikse Monastery, where we got to experience a sunrise puja, or Buddhist religious service, that included monks chanting and playing traditional instruments.

Biking the 7000 foot descent from the Khardungla Pass

Biking the 7000 foot descent from the Khardungla Pass

One of the highlights of the first few days was a 7,000 foot mountain bike ride descent from the top of Khardungla Pass at 5,359 meters or 17,582 feet (many claim it’s 5,602 meters or 18,379 feet) and back down to Leh.  The goal was to acclimatize by ascending the pass, but we quickly forgot about that part as we hurled down the windy, narrow road, passing and getting passed by the daredevil drivers that the people of Ladakh are.  It was all worth it, however, since you do not have the opportunity to descend 7000 feet at great speeds that often.

Camping at Mathu Phu

Camping at Mathu Phu

By the end of the first week, we were ready to kick-off our expedition with our first objective: climbs up two 6000 meter peaks, Golep Kangri (5,980 meter or 19,620 feet) and Stok Kangri (6,153 meters or 20,182 feet).  We’d take about a week to trek in, climb these peaks and trek out.  We hoped to use these peaks to acclimatize for the higher Nun.  The first day started in Shang Phu (about 12,000 feet), taking us past some of the most breath-taking views of the Ladakhi Himalaya.  The first day’s camp at Mathu Phu (4,240 meters or 13,864 feet) provided for a relaxing and stunning view of the valley we just climbed.

Ladakh is known for it’s intense sun and dry dust, which we got plenty of along the way.  Despite being so high in altitude, day time temperatures often soared to over 75 degrees and felt much warmer.  We wore buffs to keep the dust out of our respiratory system, which could lead to the infamous “mountain cough” later in the trip.  Applying loads of sunscreen and lip balm were part of our daily routine, as was using anti-bacterial cleanser before eating.  Staying healthy was a top priority and we needed to tend to the details.

Climbing over a couple of passes, including one at 5000 meters or 16,404 feet, we arrived at Stok Kangri Base Camp (4,983 meters or 16,350 feet), which was a collection of tents from climbers of many different nationalities,  surrounded by 20,000 foot peaks.  Stok BC would serve as our home for the next few days as we practiced necessary mountaineering skills for Nun (fixed rope climbing, etc.) and climbed Golep Kangri and Stok Kangri.

At the summit of Golep Kangri (19,620 feet)

At the summit of Golep Kangri (19,620 feet)

Golep Kangri is a less often climbed peak and a great challenge unto itself.  The first part of the ascent from base camp took us up a nice ridge line and finished in a scree field before we geared up to climb on the glacier.  We reached the glacier in the late morning and started climbing in the heat of the day, paying the price with soft snow and the threat of lightening that often blows in later in the afternoon.  The roped climb to the summit finished with a challenging 60 degree slope, which we climbed on belay, then made the final push to the summit.  By the time we reached the summit, we were all fairly tired and decided to descend after enjoying the hard-earned, breath-taking views from the top.  That’s when the fun began.

A lightening storm rolled in just as we were rappeling down from the summit.  I fortunately had made it to the bottom of the rope and managed to get off belay when a loud clap of lightening sounded over the summit, where the rest of the team was.  No one was hurt, but later on everyone reported that they could feel the hair on the back of their neck standing up and their ice axes vibrating with energy as they were on the summit.  We were fortunate to escape without a lightening strike.

At the summit of Stok Kangri (20,187 feet)

At the summit of Stok Kangri (20,187 feet) (Photo credit: Anthony Buckingham)

After a rest day in between, we set off to climb Stok Kangri at 2AM.   While it’s not fun waking up in the middle night when it’s dark and cold to gear up and climb, it allows for much more stable snow and weather conditions and overall safer and more enjoyable climb.  Moving by headlamp, we reached the glacier after a few hours and just in time to see a spectacular sunrise over the summits around Stok, including Golep Kangri.  We zig-zagged our way up a 45 degree face of Stok (which from a distance looked much more intimidating than it was), and eventually reached the final ridgeline to the summit.  We kept the ropes tight since the ridge was quite exposed.  In fact, an Israeli climber had sadly died on this exact ridge just a week prior.  We had spectacular conditions as we snaked our way to the summit, with the whole team making it to the top in celebratory fashion.

We made it back to Stok Kangri base camp by mid-afternoon and were greeted by our reliable and fantastic support crew.  Not enough can be said for how well organized and hard-working these folks are.  They come from the native populations of Ladakh and also from surrounding regions and countries, such as Nepal.   Our cook prepared a good variety of meals to sustain us at altitude, mainly made up of Indian dishes and traditional rice and lentil beans (dahl bat), which is the staple of the region.  While I typically don’t eat rice and beans (or any grains), I waived my usual dietary restrictions for convenience and just to be able to consume enough calories to keep myself going in the mountains (and to experience the full cuisine of the region).  Loss of appetite due to effects of altitude was a major monkey wrench in past expeditions I’ve been on and I wanted to make sure I avoided lack of caloric in-take being a reason for not being successful this time.

The trek out of Stok Kangri brought through a spectacular canyon, where we were surrounded by towering rock faces that glistened in the sun and echoed with the sound of a raging river we walked next to.  Our vans greeted us in Stok village and we made the journey back to Leh to re-group for the push up Nun.

While in Leh, we were able to shower and sleep in a real bed after not being able to for a week– always a nice treat.  We quickly surrendured these luxuries and set off for Kargil, where we would begin the expedition up Nun.  Kargil is in the heart of the Muslim section of Jammu and Kashmir (Leh is in the Buddhist section) and only a few short miles away from the Line of Control (LOC), which is the cease-fire line agreed upon between India and Pakistan in 1972.  Kargil was the epicenter of a conflict and nearly all-out war between the two countries back in the 1999 and has always been a focal point of Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir.  The history of conflict between Pakistan and India is a long and complicated one, with Kashmir at the heart of it.  Both sides have nearly a million troops on both sides of the LOC.  While we saw lots of military activity (mainly trucks being shuttled back and forth), not once did we feel unsafe our entire time in Jammu and Kashmir.  In fact, it was quite the opposite whereby we could walk the streets of places like Kargil and on the glaciers of mountains that straddle the two countries with no problems.  The biggest inconvenience we faced were the numerous permits required to travel in the region and endless (and mindless) passport checkpoints we had to go through.

Billboard of the ayatollah Khamanei and ayatollah Khomeini

Billboard of the ayatollah Khamanei and ayatollah Khomeini

Kargil proved to be an interesting town (despite being a dry town), with many markets and winding streets.  The cuisine is very similar to that of Ladakh, with a bit more spices and heat.  It was my first time in a Muslim-majority area and I found the people just as friendly and open as those in Buddhist Leh.   Most of the Muslims in Kargil and the surrounding area are Shi’a and as a result, have a fondness for the ayatollahs of Iran.  As an American it was a bit strange to see billboards with the ayatollah Khomeini  and the current ayatollah Khameini on it, but at the same time, very interesting to talk to the locals and understand their reverence.

We set out of Kargil on a dusty road to the village of Tongol, which would be the last village we’d see before the long climb up Nun.  We spent the night in a bunkhouse run by a local, who helped coordinate the young and strong boys (and most were boys, perhaps no older than 16 or 17) from Tongol to serve as porters for the expeditions that pass through.  The porters, wearing no more than flip-flops in some cases and carrying massive loads that weighed close to 100 pounds, easily climbed up the very steep slopes comprised of clumps of grass and scree rock to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) for Nun (we decided to skip Base Camp given our well-acclimatized state).

ABC was nestled in between several 20,000 foot peaks surrounding the main peaks of the Nun massif– Nun and Kun.  We would leave behind the comforts of a mess tent, and single tents (now having to share 3 people to one tent) at ABC, as well as those services of porters, requiring us to carry our large loads up the final stretch of the mountain.  Stripping everything down to the bare essentials was key since any extra weight– no matter how small– would slow us up and jeopardize our chances to summit.   We were forced to make choices of whether to bring a tooth brush, an extra camera battery and an extra base layer of clothing.

Puja at ABC

Puja at Nun Advanced Base Camp

The Sherpas held a puja for us at ABC on the cold and early morning we left to begin our final ascent.  It was an interesting ceremony with short prayers, incense, throwing of rice, gifts of food and shots of chhaang, an alcoholic drink brewed from rice by the locals throughout Tibet, Nepal and Ladakh.   The ceremony was designed to deliver us luck and success on our climb.  We were wrapped in khata, traditional scarfs that represented purity and compassion, and began our climb up the scree field towards the glaciers of Nun.

The climb up to Camp One required us to ascend fix ropes a good part of the way, including a more technical section of about 50-55 degree ice where we needed to do more front-pointing and make greater use of the ice ax.  It was a very long day, but we finally got to Camp One, which sat on a large snowfield looking up at the summits of Nun and Kun.  The temperature was noticeably lower at 5500 meters or 18,044 feet, so we nestled ourselves 3 people to a

Our climbing route up the West Ridge of Nun.

Our climbing route up Nun.

tent and settled in for a beautiful and peaceful night in the mountains.

The climb from Camp One to Camp Two was the crux of the West Ridge, requiring us to climb up some rock faces and steeper slopes that approached and at times exceeded, 60 degrees.  Our Sherpa support team had fixed the route all the way to the summit, which allowed to climb with greater safety.  The stamina required by the Sherpas to fix the line to the summit was absolutely incredible.  High altitude mountaineering is difficult enough with a fixed line, but climbing while fixing the line, is truly a Herculean task. Sherpas are among the best athletes on the planet.  Put any of the Sherpas who climb on expeditions at sea level in the western world to run a marathon or complete a similar endurance event, and they would easily crush the competition.

The climb to Camp Two (6,050 meters or 19,849 feet) was perhaps the longest of all the day we had, requiring much energy as we climbed higher and higher.  Camp Two sat in a sheltered area below some seracs, which were a bit sketchy as they made noises and occasional cracking sounds.  We were reminded that the glacier indeed is alive and we needed to be mindful of staying safe even while in camp.

Among the seracs at Camp Two (6,050 meters)

Among the seracs at Camp Two (6,050 meters)

We were at 6,050 feet at Camp Two, which was the first of three nights we would spend above 6,000 meters.  At this elevation, the body is literally consuming itself as it struggles to get enough oxygen in to keep vital organs functioning.  The body is burning calories just sitting.  To complicate matters, Camp Two is where my appetite started to wane.  Actually, it was a combination of the effects of altitude and the monotony of the food that we brought with us.  It’s not practical to carry a lot of heavy food items and fuel to cook it, so basic beans and rice coupled with an unappetizing assortment of biscuits was what we had to deal with.  As a result, I consumed less than optimal.  Otherwise, I felt strong– stronger than I ever had at altitude.

The start of the day for our push to Camp Three started off with a few high, ominous clouds.  We did not think much of it as we downed some cold cereal and then pushed off. The start of the climb up the 50 degree slopes started off clear, but clouds quickly moved in.  After about 2 hours, we were fully encased in clouds and a stiff, cold wind blowing. Visibility was down to nearly zero.  Unfortunately, this occurred on a section of the route that was not fixed and we were relying on wands to find the route.  We had to re-group the team that had spread out over the course of a quarter mile for safety reasons, and stopped since we had lost the wands and hence, the trail.  We couldn’t see what was around us and didn’t want to wander into a crevasse or down a steep slope, so stopping and waiting was our best bet.

The Sherpa team was ahead of us, having forged forward to set up Camp Three.  We were hoping they would turn back to come find us, but that did not happen.  We stood in the howling wind for over two hours, during which time our Indian liaison officer (who we were required to have with us by the Indian government), caught up with us.  He was very fortunate since he was alone and could have easily gotten lost (or worse) in such treacherous conditions.

After about 3 hours of standing and waiting, I reached a point where I needed to get moving or I knew not so good things were in store.  I was wearing all my down and my core was warm, but since I had not eaten a lot due to loss of appetite, I did not have sufficient fuel to fuel my extremities and my feet started to get really cold.  I wiggled my toes and kept moving my feet, but I knew if we didn’t get moving I would risk frostbite.  After some debate, Peter, one of the Americans on the trip, decided to do some route-finding while we had him roped up.  Finally, he successfully managed to spot a wand, which we followed.  We then caught the next one, then the next one, until we finally saw the tint of orange through the white-out conditions and eventually stumbled into Camp Three (6500 meters or 21,325 feet).

Climbing in the Himalaya of Ladakh

Climbing in the Himalaya of Ladakh (Photo credit: Anthony Buckingham)

I had expended all of my energy at that point and was eager to get fluids and food as well as take my boots off in a warm tent.  When I finally did so, I saw that my toes were slightly discolored– a very pale white color.  I was a bit surprised and relieved at the same time.  I could still feel my toes, although they were slightly numb, particularly the big toe on the right foot.  As they warmed up, they began to get a sharp tingling session, which continued for several hours.  After much thought and debate, I decided at that point I would not attempt to go to the summit.  I knew doing so risked, at a very high probability, of getting severe frost bite.  It would have been easy to say, “Screw it, I’ll be okay,” and have gone for the summit.  The harder thing was to say, “No, no summit is worth risking losing body parts over”.   I know had I gone for the summit, I could have been looking at a situation where I would have gone home with no toes.  It simply wasn’t worth it– not with 2 kids at home and for how active I am.  Not for anything.   The summit attempt was over for me, and I was fine with that.  I had made it to 6500 meters– the highest I’ve ever been (or slept)– and done so feeling strong up until this point.  I know had we not gotten caught in the white-out for 3+ hours, which turned a 3 hour day into a 6 hour day, I would have not had frost bite concerns and enough energy to get to the summit of Nun.  Knowing that and making it to this point, coupled with the successful climbs of Golep Kangri and Stok Kangri, was a success for me.

Nearly 4 months after the trip as I write this, I have no regrets over my decision and know it was the right thing to do.  I had numbness in my toes for several weeks following the trip, lost my toenail on my big toe and experience a high level of sensitivity to the cold in my toes– moreso than I did before the trip.

From the summit of Nun

Curvature of the earth as seen from the summit of Nun (7,135 meters or 23,409 ft) (Photo credit: Luke Smithwick)

Half the team decided not to summit and the other half decided to go for it.  They had an alpine start at 12 am, and successfully made a 12 hour round-trip climb to the summit of Nun.  They had great conditions, albeit very cold temperatures.  The view from the top, and indeed, from Camp Three where I remained, were spectacular.  It was one of the only times where I could see the curvature of the earth at such a high altitude.

After three nights at 6000+ meters (2 of which were at 6500 meters), I was eager to start descending.  We also were very fortunate with the weather (except for the journey from Camp 2 to Camp 3) and we did not want to push our luck much further by spending more time higher up.  A secondary attempt at the summit wasn’t possible in any case since we did not have enough food or fuel to spend another day.  So we began the descent.

The original plan was to push to Camp One and spend the night there, but it was decided to keep pushing to Advanced Base Camp. That decision made for an extremely long day, which included a descent of 3000+ feet over several miles of glacier and down climbing on rock in the blazing sun of the day.  By the time we rolled into ABC, I simply threw down my pack, took off my boots and collapsed in my tent, as did the rest of the team.

Camels on the dunes of Nubra

Camels on the dunes of Nubra

We spent the next day in ABC, then hauled ourselves down to the village of Tongol on the next day, where we caught our rides back to Kargil.  Getting to Kargil and having real food, a real bed and a real shower worked wonders to bring us back to life.  All of us still had several days left before we were to head home, so we made plans to go explore the Zanskar Valley, which is a high desert mountainous region on the flanks for the northern Himalaya.

Maitreya Buddha at the Diskit Monastery in the Zanskar Valley

Maitreya Buddha at the Diskit Monastery in the Zanskar Valley

After an 8 hour car ride from Kargil to Leh, we re-stocked our supplies in Leh, got the necessary permits and headed off to Zanskar. We arrived in Nubra as the sun was setting, and were able to catch camels wandering the surreal 10 mile stretch of desert dunes that surrounded the village and sat in between towering snow-capped peaks.   We camped among the dunes and then the next day visited the Diskit Monastery, home to one largest statues of the Maitreya Buddha, before heading out to explore one of the many remote valleys of Zanskar.

We found a beautiful spot about a one hour drive in from the main road in Nubra.  It was one of the most peaceful spots we had visited with a quiet, remote village which gets very western visitors.  We camped the night, then visited a couple more monasteries before heading back to Leh.  We celebrated a successful trip in Leh on our last night together, devouring mass quantities of Indian food at fantastic restaurant we discovered in town.

I had the opportunity to explore Delhi on the way back to the US since I had a day’s layover in the city.  The craziness of Delhi was in sharp contrast to the quietness of the past month in Ladakh.  The city pulsated with life, overwhelming the senses with its marketplaces, palaces, temples, traffic and sheer number of people.  I explored Old Delhi, particularly enjoying the spice market and taking a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets, visiting a J’ain temple and the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, along the way.  I also got to experience street food, visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace and the India Gate memorial for the Unknown Soldier.  The day in Delhi gave me a taste for what the rest of India must be like and as I boarded the plane to head home, I vowed I’d return to one day to explore the rest of the sub-continent.

Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in Delhi

Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Palace in Delhi

I returned from this trip feeling a strong sense of accomplishment and very relaxed– more relaxed than I have from similar trips I’ve done in the past. The main reasons for that were that I truly had disconnected from the busyness of life and tendency to be “always on” through technology.  Having a sporadic internet connection, and no internet connection when climbing and outside of Leh, allowed me to disconnect with technology and reconnect with the outdoors and with humanity.  I love technology and the benefits it can bring to society (which is why I work in high tech), but I also hate it since we tend to replace relationships and time spent exploring with dependency on devices.   It’s about seeking a balance between being over-connected and over-reliant on technology and benefiting from what technology can add to our lives.

One could spend a lifetime exploring the Himalaya and not see it all

One could spend a lifetime exploring the Himalaya and not see it all (Photo credit: Anthony Buckingham)

I also think think a big reason for my state of relaxation after this trip was due to the sheer beauty of Ladakh, in terms of both the landscape and the people.  My return to Himalaya reminded me of why I love this region so much: the sheer grandness and enormity of the mountains– the highest on earth– and simpleness and friendliness of the people who inhabit the region.

Nowhere else on the planet can you find mountains so high, so majestic and still untouched.  The beauty of the Himalayas are soul-touching and life-transforming.  One could spend a lifetime trekking and climbing in the mountains of the Himalaya and not see it all.  With regions such as the Karakorum of Pakistan, the high plateau of Tibet, the Dolpo and Mustang regions of Nepal, Sikkim in India, Bhutan, and so many other areas, I certainly plan on returning to explore more.

The people of Ladakh are a tapestry of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, all contributing to the uniqueness of the region while living peacefully together.  Buddhism flourished throughout the region for centuries and still plays an important role in everyday life and helped to shape the landscape.  Islam came later and became the faith of the majority of people in eastern Jammu and Kashmir.  Other faiths, such as Christianity, and Hinduism played lesser roles, but also contributed to what

The people of Ladakh

The people of Ladakh are a tapestry of different backgrounds

makes Ladkh unique.  The people don’t have immense material wealth, but have great wealth with their connection to their community, their landscape and their spirituality.  While suffering certainly exists as it does in every corner of the earth, happiness dominates, whether it be in the open marketplaces, community celebrations or in temples, mosques or monasteries.

As time passes, Ladakh will evolve and change.  Technology, climate change, and the impact of modern economic development all will have their impact and transform Ladakh.  However, the magic of Ladakh will never go away as long as the mountains and the people remain.

To see more photos of my Nun Expedition,  visit: http://tinyurl.com/glov6v4

 

2014 in Review: Obstacle Course Racing, Triathlon, CrossFit, Climbing and More

January 1st, 2015
CMC for blog

Sandbag carry, Civilian Military Combine (CMC) 2014

Some years are better than others and when it comes to fitness, 2014 was definitely a great year for me—one in which I achieved my goals I set out to do and had new adventures. Perhaps the most exhilarating was my deeper exploration of the sport of obstacle course racing (OCR). I first started with the sport in 2013, but took things up a notch in 2014. I completed seven OCR races in 2014, including qualifying for and competing in the OCR World Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other highlight races of the year included the Civilian Military Combine and the Vermont Spartan Beast—a 16.5 mile event on the slopes of Mount Killington, VT that included 18,000 feet of elevation change (can you say shredded quads?).  I also completed the Spartan Boston Sprint and Spartan TriState New Jersey Super, earning the Spartan Trifecta along the way.

Obstacle course racing has been a natural extension of my triathlon and endurance sports background, allowing me to push new boundaries and further fuel my passion of integrating variety into training and competing. I’m a firm believer of true multi-sport training, focusing on different sports that will enable you to enjoy the outdoors, get fit and push your physical and mental development. OCR does this in a great way, mixing trail running and a variety of movements—climbing, crawling, throwing, etc.—all while forcing you to stay focused mentally.

spartan certBeyond competing as an athlete in the sport of OCR, I also decided to pursue my certification as a coach, specifically with the Spartan organization. The Spartan SGX coaching certification, which I achieved in the fall, complements my United States Triathlon (USAT) Level 1 coaching certificationCrossFit Level 1 trainer and CrossFit Endurance trainer credentials. The Spartan SGX coaching certification focuses on preparing athletes with the skills they will need to compete in the sport, including physical training, nutrition, mental preparation, and skill development specific to OCR.

My love for other sports and dedication to coaching athletes in other sports also continued in 2014, particularly with triathlon and endurance sports.  In addition to re-certifying as a USAT coach for my 12th year of triathlon coaching in 2014, I completed my 18th half Ironman race at the New England TriFest in Vermont, opened the season for the third straight year at the South Beach Triathlon in Miami and completed PR’d my half marathon time at the Earth Rock Run Half Marathon. I also continued to have swimming, biking and running, coupled with CrossFit, serve as the foundation of my training. The early morning swims at Walden Pond continued, including swimming deep into October—the latest in the season I’ve ever gone!

Gary Ice Climbing

Climbing a frozen waterfall, New Hampshire

Winter sports also remain at the center of my fitness training, with lots of ice climbing, skate skiing and alpine backcountry skiing being done last winter. I managed to get 15 days of skate skiing in at Great Brook State Park (which is laudable I have to admit given the short amount of time snow lasts these days in the Greater Boston area). I also had a goal of skiing down Tuckerman’s Ravine headwall (finally), but multiple attempts were foiled due to extreme weather. I did manage to climb in many of my favorite spots in New Hampshire, including Champney Falls, the Flume, Frankenstein cliffs, Arethusa Falls, as well as in Huntington Ravine. There’s still nothing more exhilarating than hanging off of a fat, frozen waterfall on a bluebird-sky day in the middle of the winter!

So, I look back at 2014 as perhaps one of the best years of my life for fitness. I plan on making 2015 even better with a slate of events and activities planned around obstacle course racing, triathlon, running, biking, swimming, CrossFit, ice climbing and mountaineering (Karakoram finally perhaps?).  I also look forward to continuing to evolve as a coach, working closely with my athletes to help them achieve their goals and improve performance.  Stay tuned!

Three Ways to Revolutionize Your Athletic Performance in 2013

January 1st, 2013

2013-Wallpaper-HD-10As you can imagine, I often get asked by athletes what are the best ways to improve performance. In fact, no question gets asked more, especially this time of year as the new year brings an opportunity for athletes to assess what they’ve done in the past and where they should be going in the future, all with the hopes of improving performance. It’s a very complex question to answer and obviously depends upon the athlete, but I thought I’d share some thoughts that any athlete can take and apply immediately to not only improve, but revolutionize their performance:

  1. Include power-based principles in your training. High intensity training makes a lot of sense for any athlete, including endurance athletes, and will help boost performance more than logging additional miles at a slower pace will. In a previous post entitled Four Power-Based Principles for Endurance Training, I outlined how endurance athletes can incorporate high intensity, constantly varied, functional movement along with interval training, technique drills and mobility to improve performance. Incorporate these ideas into your training in 2013 and watch your performance not just improve, but improve dramatically.
  2. Eat a Paleo diet. Nutrition is the foundation for any athlete. You can have the best training program in the world, but if you eat like crap, you’ll perform like crap. Starting a diet is a common New Year’s resolution, so make eating lots of lean meats, lots of vegetables, some fruit, little starch and no refined sugars not just your resolution, but your lifestyle. Perhaps nothing will revolutionize your performance as much in 2013.
  3. Train your mind. Training your mind should be taken as seriously as training your body. Sharpen your mental skills on a daily basis, practicing relaxation, visualization and positive thinking. Familiarize yourself with mental exercises you can do or work with a coach that can help you. A big part of mental training is goal setting, so make sure you set achievable goals not just an annual basis, but monthly, weekly and even daily. This will let you celebrate your progress and correct areas where you can improve.

As you sit down to map out your goals (and hopes) for 2013, incorporate these principles into the foundation of your approach. 2013 should and can be the year that you revolutionize your athletic performance.

Expedition 2012: Patagonia, Land of Extremes

December 26th, 2012

Patagonia is the place of legends: the towering, iconic mountains, raging rivers, deep blue glaciers, wild winds, and miles of open, expansive wilderness. There’s a reason the company Patagonia took its name from this corner of the earth. A trip to Patagonia is a dream for most climbers and trekkers, as it was for me. So when the opportunity to go climbing with a couple of friends came up, I jumped on it.

The plan came together nicely: Mike Coote, a climbing friend of mine from Boston, and Marco Perez, a good friend from Peru, who I’ve climbed with in Peru and Bolivia, planned a three week trip where we would explore the classic corners of Patagonia and try to get on the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap while climbing a peak. We would begin at the southern tip of the South American continent, in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and then head up to Chile to Torres del Paine National Park to do the Paine Circuit, one of the top treks in the world. Finally, we would go to Argentinian Patagonia in Glacier National Park, where we would get onto the Patagonian Southern Ice Cap and climb a peak.

Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Despite it’s cruel weather, Tierra del Fuego is an off-the-beaten track prize for any explorer. It’s a place of jagged peaks, remote glaciers, wind-torn forests and bogs. The largest of South America’s islands, it’s split politically between Chile and Argentina, with the border running almost exactly halfway through the island. We chose the city of Ushuaia in Argentina as our starting point. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and was founded for two primary reasons: as the main port and launching point for trips to Antarctica and as a stronghold for Argentina to repel Chilean claims to territory. The competition between the two countries over Fuegian lands has been fierce over the years, with the most recent borders being re-drawn in the middle of the Beagle Channel, giving Chile the former Argentinian claims on the prized island of Navarino. Argentina, determined not to lose any more of it’s territorial claims, incented people to settle in Ushuaia. As a result, Ushuaia has developed rapidly and lost it’s remote, end-of-the-earth feel as a city, having it replaced with tourist shops, a large port hosting cruise ships destined for Antarctica, and a burgeoning population cultivating the outskirts of the city.

The surrounding wildness, however, preserves Ushuaia as the perfect place to experience Tierra del Fuego. The first place we chose to explore was the harbor, which serves as a habitat for species that can only be found in sub-Antarctica climates, such as the penguin. The harbor, as it often does, shuts down due to the severe wind, but we managed to get out on a boat in a relatively calmer window. We cruised the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin’s famous vessel, the Beagle, which sailed the straights in 1832). We passed Alicia Island, one of the main islands in the harbor before reaching Isla de los Parajos (Bird Island), where we observed the king cormorants, who make the island their home and resemble penguins from a distance.

King cormorants on the Isla de los Parajos (Bird Island)

King cormorants on the Isla de los Parajos (Bird Island)

We circled the Les Eclailreurs lighthouse, symbolically the lighthouse at the end of the world as well as the southernmost lighthouse in the world, and then visited Isla de los Lobos, home to many of Tierra del Feugo’s sea lions and fur seals.

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse: The Lighthouse At the End of the World

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse: The Lighthouse At the End of the World

We then toured Bridges Island, which contains more wildlife and vestiges of the indigenous population, the Yaghans, who used to dwell on the harbor islands. The Yaghans, in fact helped give Tierra del Fuego it’s name. Ferdinand Magellan, the first European explorer to visit this part of the world was said to have seen the bonfires of the Yaghans from a distance on his ship and hence gave the land it’s name, Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire”. The Yaghans, as with other indigenous populations in South America, were killed off by disease, with the last of the estimated original 3000 Yaghans dying in the early 20th century.

Bridges Island

Bridges Island

Martillo Island, on the outer banks of the harbor, served as our final port of call on the exploration of the harbor. Martillo Island is home to Estancia Haberton, contains more than 50,000 acres of lakes and forests that serve as home to colony of an estimated 3000 pairs of Magellanic penguins and 16+ pairs of Gentoo penguins. Among the Magellanics and Gentoos, also is one King penguin, who normally is only found in Antartica. The locals believe that the King got lost and is taking refuge among his cousin species. The King is much larger than the other penguins and was easy to spot. While the Gentoos mainly stayed on their above ground nests, the Magellanics had the run of the island and were very curious of our presence. They approached us, curiously gawking asking us what we were doing there, often retreating to their underground nests if we got too close.

A curious Magellanic Penguin

A curious Magellanic Penguin

We decided to spend the rest of the time in Tierra del Fuego exploring Tierra del Fuego National Park. Part of the original plan was to climb one of the local peaks, Cerro Alvear or Cerro Olivia, which is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego. In what was to become an all too familiar theme, the high winds, rain and clouds, forced us to change our plans. Tierra del Fuego was particularly raw, with colder temperatures compounded by moisture and wind chills. Climbing in those conditions, particularly up the rocky faces and scree slopes of the Fuegian summits, was not safe nor enjoyable. Instead, we set out to explore the beauty of the lower confines.

The Martial Glacier served as our first stop and was the first of many glaciers we would see in Patagonia. To reach the glacier, we climbed through blasting winds and a rain/snow mix, where we got views of the glacier snaking its way up the peaks as well as panoramic views of the Beagle Channel in the background. Laguna Esmeralda (Emerald Lake) served as our next destination—a short 4 hour hike across Fuegian bogs and forests—where we reached the emerald green, subalpine lake that rested at the base of Albino Glaciar. The final point of exploration was the Senda Costera in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, from Bahia Ensenada to Bahia Lapataia. The four hour walk took us along the coast, visiting the homelands of the native Yaghans, who used to eat the plentiful mussels along the beaches and build homes in the chilled forests.

Laguna Esmeralda with views of the Albino Glaciar

Laguna Esmeralda with views of the Albino Glaciar

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Our entry into Torres del Paine National Park began in the gateway town of El Calafate in Argentina, about 350 miles north of Ushuaia. The environment is noticeably warmer in El Calafate, with more greenery. El Calafate still retains the wild Patagonian weather, particularly when traveling westward to the town of Puerto Natales in Chile, which served as our base for entering Torres del Paine. Along our journey to Puerto Natales, we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is one of the few glaciers on earth that is not receding, but in fact, advancing. The glacier is also one of the few in the world that you can easily access and watch icebergs calve off into the lake. Perito Moreno cuts Lago Argentino, Argentina’s largest lake, into two by spanning a three mile stretch from one shore to the other, all while standing an impressive 240 feet above the surface water (ice depth reaches 558 feet) and spanning 20+ miles towards the South Patagonian Ice Cap. Standing in front of Perito Moreno is one of the most breathtaking experiences one can have.

Perito Moreno Glaciar

Perito Moreno Glaciar

Puerto Natales is a dusty, remote port town in Chile, mainly serving the many tourists who venture here every year to enter the National Park or take one of the many ships that explore the maze of fjords and islands along the south Chilean coast. Our plan was to hike the Paine Circuit, one of the classic treks in the world. The full circuit was closed due to landslides, leaving the shorter, more scenic “W” circuit as the main option to travel. We stocked up on 5 days of fuel and food, got great info from our friends at Erratic Rock, a local hostel run by an American expat from Oregon, loaded up our big backpacks, and headed into the park.

Mike guarding the gear at Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales

Mike guarding the gear at Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales

Fires ravaged the park in 2011, scorching 2 million+ hectares of land. While it’s not known exactly how the fires started, it’s largely attributed to someone’s lack of care with a campfire. Consequently, camping was only allowed in designated spots and campfires forbidden.

Day one began with a boat ride across Lago Pehoe, where we got dropped off at a very windy spot at the northwestern part of the lake. We climbed 4 hours north to campsite at the Grey Glacier, all while getting views of the Paine Grande massif, including the appropriately named Cerro Castillo (Castle peak) and Cerro Catedral (Cathedral peak), both of which resembled their namesakes. These peaks captured my imagination as I stared in wonder at the massive walls jetting out 7000-8000 feet straight up into the air and thinking about the climbers who had scaled these monsters with sheer athleticism and advanced technical skill in the past.

Cerro Castillo and Cathedral along the Valle del Frances

Cerro Castillo and Cathedral

We set up camp in a meadow situated between Paine Grande and Lago Grey. We got our first glimpse of the Chilean refugios (huts) along the circuit, which were surprisingly luxurious compared to the huts of the White Mountains in my native New England or even the huts in other mountains I’ve visited in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nepal.

A short walk brought us to Glacier Grey, whose snout forms the northern end of Lago Grey. We watched the unstable, 600 foot thick wall ice calve off into the lake as the sun set. Strong winds send the huge icebergs across the lake and scour the glacier, hardening the ice. Glacier Grey stretched all the way to the South Patagonian Ice Cap, the main engine for feeding the glaciers, along with immense amounts of moisture and wind.

Glaciar Grey calving icebergs into Lago Grey.

Glaciar Grey calving icebergs into Lago Grey.

We retraced our steps the next day, hiking 7+ hours until we reached Campo Italiano, a main crossroads to Valle del Frances and the eastward arm of the “W” trek. Campo Italiano reminded us why its so important to act responsibly in the mountains, with its overuse and transient population.

The next day provided us with one of the highlights of the trek, bringing us the Valle del Frances, sandwiched in between the Paine Grande massif to the west and the Cuernos Massif to the east. We observed avalanches breaking down the impossibly steep slopes of Paine Grande until we finally reached a high point overlooking the peaks on both sides. The Cuernos (“Horns”) are a series of sharp towers that rise vertically straight upward from the valley floor. These are some of the most coveted prizes in the big wall, elite climbing circuit, so I felt privileged to be in their presence. The approaches alone to the walls would be a challenge enough for most, but to spend days scaling the walls—particularly in the harsh conditions of Patagonia—is quite an impressive feat.

Wind ripping across Los Cuernos

Wind ripping across Los Cuernos

We exited the Valle del Frances and finished the 7 hour day in the rain at the Los Cuernos campground. Our tent and clothing got drenched in the pouring rain as we made our usual evening dinner of pasta with tomato sauce and tuna. Los Cuernos had a refugio where we were able to take some shelter from the harsh conditions and socialize with others who were also passing through.

The fourth day brought us along the rolling forests on the north side of Lago Nordenskjold, around the famed Torre Massif, ending at Campo Torres, a beautiful campsite at the base of the Torres. The Torres are four sister towers (Torre de Agostini or Torre Sur, Torre Central, Torre Monzino or Torre Norte and Nido de Condor), the most famous peaks within Torres del Paine National Park. The Torres are legendary big wall peaks in the climbing world and are considered some of the most difficult in the world to climb. Stories of week-long blizzards in the summertime and 70 mile an hour winds picking up haul bags during ascents of the Torres are quite common.

Sunrise over Las Torres

Sunrise over Las Torres

We settled for watching the sunrise over the Torres in a fortunate brief window of clear whether. The alpenglow from the sunrise lit the rock on fire with color. Watching the sunrise over the Torres was a highlight of not on the trip, but of the year, and indeed of my lifetime.

We ended the trek on the fifth day with a long walk from Campo Torres to Hosteria Las Torres, where we began to renter civilization. The large hotel provided a nice refueling spot as we awaited the buses that would take us back to Puerto Natales for our departure to our next leg of the journey—Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park, Argentina

The starting point for visiting Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy and other classic peaks in Glacier National Park is El Chalten, a small, backwater town about 2.5 hours south of El Calafate. El Chalten, as was the case with Ushuaia, was established by the Argentinian government mainly to fortify its claims on its western Patagonian border. El Chalten thrives on tourism, with the town of about 1000 people comprised mainly of hotels, restaurants and guiding companies.

We arrived in El Chalten around 10pm, just was the sun was starting to set. The night was clear and beautiful, which would turn out to be the only day that would be so for our entire stay in El Chalten.

Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy & other climbing classics of Patagonia on the only clear night we had

Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy & other climbing classics of Patagonia on the only clear night we had

We decided that we would try to climb Gorra Blanca, a relatively remote peak that normally takes 4-5 days to climb. Gorra Blanca is a glaciated peak that sits on the eastern edge of the South Patagonian Ice Cap. The peak was not challenging technically or because of altitude (the highest peak in Patagonia, Fitz Roy, is only about 3500 meters), but rather because of one thing: the Patagonian weather. Since the peak is directly exposed to the westerly flow of weather off the Pacific and onto the Ice Cap, it gets notoriously windy, foggy and rainy/snowy once crossing over the higher passes. Our planned route was going to take us over the Marconi Pass, across the Marconi glacier to the edge of the ice cap, where we would set up a camp (or go to a nearby refugio on the Chilean side) for a summit attempt. The biggest risk, aside from walking head first into an 80 mile an hour wind, was getting pinned down in white out conditions on the middle of the glacier. Since we did not have a GPS, we would rely on a map and compass. We also needed to make sure we brought our snowshoes and a shovel to build a walled space for our tent. The shovel could be our lifeline on the glaciar.

Climbers heading up Gorra Blanca

Climbers heading up Gorra Blanca

Aside from our rope and other climbing gear, we also packed enough food for 5 days, one additional day of food than we thought we’d need. We monitored the weather on a site called windguru.com, which we were told was the best site for Patagonia. The site did a somewhat reasonable job estimating wind, cloud cover and precipitation, but was far from accurate. The only way to understand the weather in Patagonia was to experience it.

With our packs fully loaded and weighing a lot more than any of us were used to carrying (estimating about 20-25 kilos), we retired to bed at our hostel in El Chalten, ready to leave the next morning. The entire night the wind howled, ripping down the valley and blasting El Chalten. Our hostel in particular seemed susceptible with its shoddy construction, letting wind in through all the cracks and absorbing the wind in it’s porous nooks and crannies. Upon checking the weather first thing in the morning, we saw that Marconi Pass was being blasted and was receiving substantial rain. The same was expected to the next day. We decided to postpone our start until the next day, preferring to sleep in a bed rather than spending an assured night with 3 people crammed into a tent in the rain and wind. Leaving the next day would also presumably allow us to avoid that days bad weather since the first part of the climb was mainly in forests and along what we assumed were rocks not exposed to the wind.

The following day proved to be equally windy, but we headed out. We got dropped off by a taxi at the starting point at Puente Electrico at Rio Electrico. We knew it would be windy, but we did not expect full-on hurricane force winds at the start. We struggled to get to our feet and move up the path head first into an estimated 75-80 mph winds. It took all we had with the heavy packs to remain balanced. We huddled together, backs to the wind, and checked the map. The map showed that once we turned a corner, we should be protected by the winds blasting in from the west by a large rock formation and trees. We prodded along. Fortunately, our prediction held true and we proceeded to head up the path towards our goal, Campo Playita, about 5 hours away.

Camping at La Playita on Lago Electrico.  The wind, rain and clouds hammer Marconi Pass and our planned ascent route up Gorra Blanca

Camping at La Playita on Lago Electrico. The wind, rain and clouds hammer Marconi Pass and our planned ascent route up Gorra Blanca as seen in the background

The climb up to Refugio Piedras Fraille was relatively flat, with on and off again rain—the typical weather pattern of the lower elevations in Patagonia. We arrived at Fraille, where we met another group who had just climbed Gorra Blanca. They had been fortunate enough to take advantage of the window of nice weather they were presented, which corresponded to the night we arrived in El Chalten and into the next day. They told us that the climb is a “lot further than we thought” and quite taxing. Crevasses did not seem to present an issue, except at the beginning, where there was a gap between the forward moraine and the start of the glacier. The real challenge was as we expected: the weather, namely the role it could play in route finding. While they were fortunate enough to summit and climb out in relatively calm weather, they did indicate weather forecasts were not looking like those conditions would repeat themselves. For that reason, they had decided to head out, abandoning their original plans to go onto the ice cap.

After an extended break in Fraille, we moved on towards La Playita camp, nestled on the shore of Lago Electrico, where we would spend the night. La Playita was an estimated 3 hours away, but it would take us about 4 with our heavy packs. The path was a lot more challenging than we expected, taking us over large moraine fields and through a river crossing that required us to get our boots soaked. Towards the end of the hike, the rain came down at a very steady clip, soaking us and all our belongings. I had lined my pack with plastic, so my sleeping bag and other items inside remained dry. However, I had not put on my gortex pants, so my shoeller shell was pretty wet. Arriving at camp tired, we set up camp and covered ourselves in gortex head to toe. Making dinner with 3 people jammed into a 2 person tent is challenging, but we made it work.

Taking shelter in the tent after getting beaten down by Patagonia's weather

Taking shelter in the tent after getting beaten down by Patagonia's weather

The rain pelted the tent all night, with the wind behaving itself. We awoke to the rain subsiding to a sprinkle, but with the mountains completely covered in clouds. We could hear the wind ripping through the higher elevations. We were told that the conditions at La Playita are indicative of what you could expect to find in Marconi Pass. A party in the tent next to us had spent 3 nights in their tent waiting for the weather to subside. Their original plan was to head to Lautaro, a remote peak that normally takes 8 days to climb. With 3 days gone and an additional fourth day planned to stay in La Playita due to the current weather conditions, they would need to modify their goals.

Similarly, we decided to modify our goals. The Lautaro party also had a satellite phone with them that was reporting in weather forecasts. They were told the weather was expected to continue to be stormy today and for the next 3-4 days. Given that forecast and the fact that we only had about 5 days left on our trip, we decided to head down and turn our sites to some of the other peaks that would be more sheltered from the weather (or so we hoped) and not require lugging a heavy pack. While we did not mind climbing in bad weather, it was the combination of the possibility of being trapped in bad weather for day son the glacier with limited food and summit possibilities, few views and little time for anything else, that sent us down. This decision turned out to be the correct one since a few days later we learned from other people who had been in other parts of the range, that they experienced terrible weather. In fact, one party who had gone across the ice cap, reported not being able to see anything and having to make dangerous river crossings up to their chests, including one where 3 members of the party were swept away by the fast currents. They had to be pulled out and continue their journey completely soaked and cold.

Regrouping in El Chalten, we watched weather conditions and decided against an attempt at a couple of other peaks that we were considering: Cerro Solo and Vespiangni. Instead, we decided to complete a 3 day trek around Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy, which would let us experience all that the park had to offer and get us great views of the peaks.

Hanging glaciar over Lago Sucia as seen from Laguna de los Tres

Hanging glaciar over Lago Sucia as seen from Laguna de los Tres

From El Chalten, we headed towards Laguna de los Tres, about a 4 hour journey. Along the way we passed what normally would be spectacular views of Fitz Roy, but the clouds prevented us from seeing. We passed the glacial lake, Lago Capri before reaching Camp Poincenot, where we set up camp for the night. We made the 1+ hour climb up to Laguna de los Tres, where we were greeted by a stiff wind, snow and clouds. The view of Fitz Roy was obscured, but we did get great views of the deep glacial lake, Lago Sucia. The final part of the journey included hiking to Piedras Blancas, where we saw the Piedras Blancas glacier, a hanging glacier that left a field of boulders, many of which serve the local climbing community.

A relaxing view of the Piedras Blancas glaciar

A relaxing view of the Piedras Blancas glaciar

The next day, we attempted a hike to Lago Sucia, but the trail abruptly ended at a very difficult, if not near impossible river crossing, forcing us to turn back. Instead, we took the 3+ hour journey to Laguna Torre, where normally fantastic views of Cerro Torre could be had. Because of the clouds and wind, the views were obscured. However, we did get spectacular views of Glacier Grande, Cerro Solo and the surrounding peaks. The camp at Campo di Agostini was our last camp of the trip.

Reflections on Climbing in Patagonia

Patagonia is a land of extremes. It’s got the most extreme weather and the most extreme climbing terrain of anywhere I have ever been. I’ve always read about the weather in Patagonia, particularly the wind, but it was another thing to experience it first hand. The wind is just relentless, with gusts merging with sustained winds, which easily bite into your core. Clouds seem to form out of nowhere in a matter of minutes. One minute you see blue skies, and literally minutes later that same sky is shrouded in clouds and snow is falling. While precipitation is not voluminous in short spurts, it is more sustained over days. The combination of the wind, clouds and the rain/snow is what makes Patagonia famously known for its weather and climbing in this part of the world extreme.

wind blown trees

It really is as windy in Patagonia as they say it is

The topography of Patagonia makes the climbing extreme. There are very few peaks that don’t represent an extreme challenge (ED or TD is the normal rating on most of the peaks). The big wall climbs in particular are daunting. Patagonian climbing is designed for the extreme climber, mainly for experienced rock climbers who are comfortable climbing difficult (5.10+) climbs, many of which require multiple days, long approaches and dealing with unpredictable and harsh weather. There are of course less difficult climbs in the lower valleys (mainly as day outings) as well as upper elevations for those willing to search them out, but for those climbers looking for less technical routes in a classic alpine mountaineering setting, Patagonia is not the best place to climb. Those climbers would be better served in places such as the Cordillera Real of Bolivia, the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, the volcanoes of Ecuador, the Khumbu of Nepal or other similar regions that offer a greater variety of climbs with more predictable weather.

As a student of mountaineering, I found it exhilarating to be in Patagonia. I stood among the giant peaks of the mountaineering world where legends were made– from Lionel Teray and Guido Magnone’s first ascent of Fitz Roy via the Southeast Route in 1956 to Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s speedy 13 hour ascent of Cerro Torre in 2012. While I did not climb what I had hoped in this trip to Patagonia due to weather (and joined the long list of others who had done the same before me), I left Patagonia with a newfound respect for any climbers who climb in this part of the world. I’ve always said technical mountaineering at altitude is the toughest sport in the world, and climbing in Patagonia without the altitude but the harshest weather on earth, falls into that same category. Climbers who venture off to climb Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy, the Torres or any of the smaller towers surrounding these classics are true warriors. Those who succeed in climbing them are in another level above that.

Rolando Garibotti retracing the controversial first ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre.  Torre Egger in the background.  Photo: Rolando Garibotti

Climbing in Patagonia is extreme: Rolando Garibotti retracing the controversial first ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. Torre Egger in the background. Photo: Rolando Garibotti

The great Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is an extreme adventure in itself. While not technically challenging, it requires strong route finding skills and a willingness and ability to deal with harsh winds and weather conditions. A traverse on the ice cap requires at least an 8 day journey, including pulling heavy packs, crossing raging rivers up to your waist and of course traveling head first into the wind and rain without seeing where you are headed.

The best advice I can offer to anyone looking to climb in Patagonia, whether it be across the ice cap or up one of the classic towers, is to pick a single objective and give yourself plenty of time (2-4 weeks) to achieve that objective. Be willing to wait for the right window in the weather. Patience and luck are your biggest allies.

Reflections on the People, Environment and Future of Patagonia

The Argentinians and Chileans who inhabit Patagonia are an adventurous, hardy type of people. Many come from the big cities, such as Buenos Aires, and have decided to look for greater economic opportunities in Patagonia, as well as enjoy the rugged and beautiful terrain of their country. While both countries are developing countries, they are better off than many of their neighbors that I have visited, such as Bolivia and Peru. The standard of living was higher, with better roads, more reliable transport and greater access to natural resources, including the purest water on earth.

The Patagonians very much view themselves as stewards of their environment. The locals in Ushuaia, for instance, who have lived there for decades, resent the expansion of the cities to accommodate political ambitions and even resent the greater impact of tourism. They prefer to see the Ushuaia of old—one that had a more contained population and blended more seamlessly with the local environment. Throughout Patagonia, particularly within Chile, there was a strong resistance to altering the environment to fuel the energy needs of the northern part of the country. Patagonia is blessed with one of the best systems of river in the world, which many would like to harness for its hydroelectric potential. Dams and power lines are regular parts of conversation, most of which has not come to fruition due to the desire to preserve Patagonia’s natural resources. I fear in time that this will change as population growth and economic ambitions will outweigh the desires of the Patagonians.

Patagonia sin represas! (Patagonia without dams!)

Patagonia sin represas! (Patagonia without dams!) Local Patagonians debating the future of the region

Climate change also presents a serious challenge to Patagonia, particularly its vast array of glaciers and the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. While some glaciers in Patagonia are defying logic and advancing, many are retreating. Just like in other parts of the world, the impact of human-induced greenhouse gases present the biggest threat to the future of Patagonia. The signs of this threat are not as drastic as I observed in places such as Nepal, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, but nonetheless are altering the landscape and the culture of the region.

The future of Patagonia not only lies with the people who live there, but people like me, who have visited this region, and will use the lasting impressions of its beauty to influence my actions on a daily basis and the conversations I have with my kids, family and friends on the importance of protecting this land and others like it around the world.

Four Power-Based Principles for Endurance Training

November 11th, 2012

The idea of high intensity training in endurance sports is not a new one. Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to explore it in greater depth by completing the CrossFit Endurance Trainer Seminar, and in the process becoming a CrossFit Endurance Trainer (this is in addition to my CrossFit Level 1 certificate, which I completed back in June). The new view that CrossFit Endurance provides is that high intensity should be the mainstay of any endurance athlete’s training. While the debate rages on among the CrossFit Endurance community and the traditional endurance community (who CFE refers to as “LSD”– “long, slow distance”), the seminar reinforced my belief in the importance of strength, flexibility, power, speed coordination, agility, balance and accuracy for endurance athletes.

Overhead-squat1 (1)

Too many triathletes, runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes overlook the importance of high-intensity workouts as part of their training, often seeing it as not necessary or a detriment even to their longer distance training. This couldn’t be more mistaken. This type of training is not just reserved for traditional “power athletes”, such as weightlifters, wrestlers or football players. Instead, it should be a core, foundational element of every athletes’ training, including endurance athletes.

Every triathlete, runner, cyclist, swimmer or other endurance athlete should apply four fundamental, “power-based” concepts to their traditional endurance-based training to maximize performance results:

  1. High-intensity, constantly-varied functional movement. Include 4-5 high intensity workouts (the exact number will depend upon the athlete) focused on weightlifting, gymnastics and/or monostructural movements. CrossFit provides a great structure for these type of workouts, but is not the only way to complete these type of workouts. That stated, athletes should place some sort of structure, either with proper research and understanding on their own or with the expertise of a coach, to ensure these workouts are organized safely and effectively for their goals.
  2. Long and short interval training. There is a tendency for many endurance athletes to just want to log miles and not worry about interval-based training. This is not only detrimental to performance, but also an easy way to burn out. For example, triathletes should undertake two workouts per sport (about 6 workouts), with about 4 of them being interval-focused and the other two being a longer distance tempo or time trial-paced workout.
  3. Sport-specific technique. Practice proper technique each and every time you undertake any sport. This seems obvious, but is often overlooked, with sloppy technique leading to inefficiencies, injury and burnout. Each of your workouts should include a technique drill as part of the warm-up or at the onset of the workout. For instance, before heading out for a run, include one or more Pose method running drills to remind and reinforce proper running technique.
  4. Mobility, mobility, mobility. A great limiter for many endurance athletes is lack of mobility. Include one or more mobility drills into your workout, ideally as part of your warm-down. Mobility drills do not need to take a lot of time, but they do need to consciously viewed as part of the workout or they could get overlooked. Which mobility drills you select will be a function of your greatest limiters or weaknesses.

These principles of course, should be applied in addition to other core aspects of a well-balanced program, including nutrition, mental skills training, race strategy, etc.. If you’re wondering how to do this or would like more info, feel free to reach out.

Stepping Away from “The Grind”: Skiing, Climbing & Family Fun

February 21st, 2010

The importance of taking a mental break from “the grind” (I always hated that expression since nothing in your life should feel like “a grind”, but use it since it illustrates the point well) shouldn’t be overlooked. Often times we get caught up on our every day routine– including our dedication to our training– that sometimes we forget to take a step back and spend some time doing other things. I always recommend making sure you build in quality active recovery into your training and your life. Active recovery doesn’t just mean giving your body a chance to recover, but also your mind. Giving yourself a mental break during the course of your training is absolutely critical in keeping you fresh and energized for continuing to build for future performance.

This past week, I took a bit of time away from my usual routine and spent a week in the White Mountains of New Hamsphire skate sking, downhill skiing and ice climbing with some friends I haven’t seen in a while and my family. In fact, the best part of the whole week was getting my 4 year old and 2 year old on skis (both nordic and alpine) for the first time — the big smiles they had on their faces the whole time was most rewarding to see as a dad (especially a dad who has high athletic hopes for his kids!). Here’s a funny video of my two year old, Marco, enjoying his first time ever on skis:

As I always like to tell my athlete’s: retain the playful outlook and ambition of a kid and you can do anything!

I did manage to get 4 days of skiing and 3 days of ice climbing in– a great way to vary up my training from the normal swim, bike, and running I do the rest of the time. Skate ski conditions were absolutely fantastic at Bretton Woods (it never seems to stop snowing there), but alpine conditions left a lot to be desired at Black Mountain (lack of snow and warm temps definitely took their toll).

The ice conditions, however, were fantastic. One day of ice was spent on Silver Cascade, a relatively easy 4-5 pitch alpine climb in Crawford Notch. Normally it’s not possible to climb the ice in Silver Cascade due to sheer volume of snow, but we hit the conditions just right with little snow, so we went for it. Here’s a glimpse of the start of the climb:

The rest of the week I reconnected with some ice climbing partners that I hadn’t seen in a while and got some steeper routes in. Cave Route in Frank’s Amphitheater was fat, so Frank Ferucci, Paul Segal and I jumped on that.

Gary on Cave Route

Gary on Cave Route

Finally, towards the end of the week, Paul and I hooked up with Laura Russo and Ed Medina (who I hadn’t climbed with since 2002 or so– hard to believe), both of whom were getting on ice for the first time of the season. Champney Falls (a large waterfall gorge off of New Hampshire’s famous Kancamagus Highway) seemed to be the best place to go to get their legs under them and to work on some more vertical ice to help build up strength. We had a great day climbing for several hours, ascending several hundred vertical feet of grade 4 to 4+ ice. Good news: Laura and Ed had a great time and I could feel myself getting stronger as the day progressed– all in all, my strongest day out for the season.
I’m looking forward to getting more skiing and climbing in as the waning days of the winter approach. Late February and March, with the longer days and deep frozen conditions, represent some of the best days of the winter to be out. Get out and climb, hike, ski or do whatever sport that you enjoy and that allows you to take a step back from your normal routine. You’ll feel re-energized and ready to continue to take your training to the next level.

Ascending Athlete #7: Marek L. Biestek

February 6th, 2010

I’ve started a series called “Ascending Athletes”, which features people achieving great things in their lives and/or impacting the lives of others through athletics. I’m featuring athletes of all backgrounds, sports and skill levels. Everyone has a story to tell– whether a recreational or beginner just starting to work out or a hardcore athlete who is competing at an elite level. The goal of the Ascending Athlete series is to capture these stories and inspire others to seek similar challenges and rewards. If you would like to share your story or would like to nominate someone as an Ascending Athlete, please let me know. For more information about Ascend Sports Conditioning, visit our website.

Marek L. Biestek

Marek Biestek

Marek flying high

I met Marek L. Biestek through Jessica Valenzuela and the auspices of the social media networks. Marek is yet another great example of an Ascending Athlete taking his athletics to the next level through kiteboarding, as demonstrated through his kiting adventures and avid support for Just Kite It dot com, a content website and community dedicated to the kiting lifestyle, launched on January 13, 2010. Marek is also the General Manager and Principal of a startup hedgefund in New York City, MSMB Capital Management LLC.

Marek was kind enough to answer a few questions and help explain what makes him an Ascending Athlete:

Why are athletics important to you?

Fitness has always been important to me since my mid-teens. I think everyone knows or at least accepts the fact that athletics has a positive impact on one’s life mentally, physically and emotionally. Getting a great workout in, whether it’s at the gym, or an outdoor individual/team sport is very rewarding at the end of the day. It helps you get a great night of sleep, feel better about the physical shape you are in and makes you feel successful in different ways than a career and money do. Some people are happy with a sedentary lifestyle, but I can’t comprehend how sitting in front of a television and snacking could be enjoyable when there is wind and snow to tend to outside. Staying athletic during your life will also extend your enjoyable life by many years, make you happier, and keep you on less on those pharmaceutical grade supplements your doctor might otherwise recommend.

What sports do you participate in?

I have been snowboarding for probably seven to eight years and kiteboarding for almost three. I was very much into mountain biking for at least a decade but less so in the past five years. I enjoy running and weightlifting at the gym when I can’t get out to something more active.

What is your major athletic goal(s)and/or events you are participating in for this year? Why have you chosen this goal(s)?

My main goal for this year is progressing at kiteboarding to an expert level. I’d like to start to comfortably doing kiteloops and riding unhooked and doing unhooked tricks. I love the sport and would like to maximize my potential while doing it. It is easy to get complacent in terms of progression at any sport once you are over the learning curve. When you begin learning kiteboarding, you are forced to try to get up on the board and ride with many failures in between. Once you have acquired riding skills, the push to get to the next level doesn’t feel as pressing as you aren’t constantly failing. I sometimes have trouble with hesitation and taking things to the next level. Imperfect riding conditions in my area do not make it easy to progress, but they are a challenge rather than an impasse. My secondary goal is to begin training for a distance running event, beginning with a half marathon, eventually leading up to a full marathon within the next 1-2 years.

What are some future goal(s) or event(s) you’d like to participate in?

My future goal at some point is to complete and Ironman. It will take some great challenges in terms of training and time management but it will happen somehow. I intend to start small with some half-marathons, then marathons, triathlons, etc. Once I can complete a marathon in 3 hours I will continue to raise the stakes, and hopefully this happens within 3 years from now. If I happen to progress in kiteboarding much more rapidly than I think I can, I would love to enter some sort of amateur competition, perhaps something local.

Marek always seems to be flying!
Marek always seems to be flying!

What impact has your athletics had on the lives of others?When someone accuses me of not being able to sit still and it is in reference to sports, I take it as a compliment. The direct impact of my athletics on some of my friends has been their conversion into the same passions I share. I have never been a kiteboarding, or snowboarding instructor but I have mentored some of my friends when it comes to these sports. It is a nice feeling to be asked, “When are we going snowboarding (kiteboarding)?” after it was me who was the first to ask them “When will you try snowboarding (kiteboarding)?”

Sports have also had a positive impact in the people around me in terms of motivating them to be more active in their lives. Sometimes it’s not anything they may say, but small changes that you notice in the way they behave around you. It may be as simple as talking about it or actually enjoying a sport that they before did not really think was for them.

Name one interesting fact or story that makes you unique and interesting

Ever since I was little I was a thinker and a problem solver (maybe more of a problem creator at first). I always was curious about figuring out how the world worked. For example, whenever I received any new toy as a child, instead of playing with it, I picked up a screwdriver and I took it apart to figure out how every little piece inside fit together to make the package work. My room looked like a five year old’s mechanics garage. Anything new and exciting grabbed my attention and still does to this day. For some reason when the automatic transmission failed in my car a few years ago, I refused to have a mechanic fix it and instead I got a hold of all the parts required for a manual transmission that I retrofitted into my car in 25 degree weather in the middle of the winter in my yard (which I eventually broke and I had to fix as well, luckily in the summer). I guess some people might think that is a little extreme (especially my neighbors with me making noise at 3am outside) but despite the cold weather, I found the challenge quite fun and a few weeks later one of my friends had me convert his transmission from automatic to manual.

Kiteboarding and snowboarding are an extension to me of my own curious personality to the partially adrenaline driven interest of pushing myself to the edge of what I can do. It’s about being in control and making a calculated bet on the next decision, whether it’s approaching a jump on the snow or kiting in 40 knot winds, knowing that majority of people out there would not be comfortable doing such things…outside of course…us kiters and snowboarders…

Thanks to Marek for his spirit of adventure and for sharing his story!

To learn more about Ascend Sports Conditioning, our mission, focus and dedication to helping people ascend to new levels through athletics, please visit www.ascendsportsconditioning.com

Ascending Athlete #6: Nate Furman

January 19th, 2010

I’ve started a series called “Ascending Athletes”, which features people achieving great things in their lives and/or impacting the lives of others through athletics. I’m featuring athletes of all backgrounds, sports and skill levels. Everyone has a story to tell– whether a recreational or beginner just starting to work out or a hardcore athlete who is competing at an elite level. The goal of the Ascending Athlete series is to capture these stories and inspire others to seek similar challenges and rewards. If you would like to share your story or would like to nominate someone as an Ascending Athlete, please let me know. For more information about Ascend Sports Conditioning, visit our website.

Nate is his favorite place in the world- hanging mountainside.

Nate in his favorite place in the world- hanging mountainside.

Nate Furman

Adventure is a way of thinking and a state of mind. It’s about leaving your cell phone behind, loading up your pack and heading out in the wilderness for mental and physical challenges and an opportunity to connect with the outdoors and share those experiences with others. It’s also about keeping that magic connection alive and well in your everyday, “real” life upon your return from your adventure. Very few people have the opportunity to make adventure their life pursuit. Nate Furman is one of those people. Nate is a Professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont where he teaches outdoor education and actively pursues his own outdoor adventures. I met Nate through ASC, when he reached out to me to help him take his performance to the next level and to make some of his athletic goals a reality. Nate is one of those athletes you just sit back and say “wow” to what he’s accomplished already and what he hopes to do. From competitive mountain biker to hardcore climber to passionate educator who inspires others, Nate epitomizes adventure and what it means to be an Ascending Athlete.

Nate was kind enough to answer a few questions and help explain what makes him an Ascending Athlete:

Why are athletics important to you?

Because doing stuff outside is awesome!!!!! Athletics are one of the few things that combine challenge with bliss. I mean, my work is challenging but only rarely is it blissful. Visiting my family out in California is awesome, but as long as we don’t talk politics it’s not that challenging. Athletics, on the other hand, is right on the intersection of joy and challenge. It’s so much fun and it’s so hard. Athletics have been a place where I’ve been able to establish relationships, and maintain those relationships meaningfully. For me, the social circle gained through athletic participation has always been the most important social circle I’m involved in. It’s the place that inspires me to challenge myself.

In addition, the memories I have of athletics are etched into my brain so much deeper than other memories. I can barely remember the time I graduated college despite the pomp and circumstance. But I can easily recall any of the mountain bike races I’ve ever competed in; how I was feeling, what place I came in, who I competed with, etc.

So for me, getting the best out of life means getting after it through athletic pursuit…and probably not on a treadmill.

What sports do you participate in?
My favorite place on the planet is hanging from a hand jam, looking up at the sky and then the glacier below. I’m fairly addicted to rock climbing; mountaineering and ice climbing are pretty fun, too. The adventure and camaraderie that’s in it is just so much fun.

Climbing expeditions have taken me to Alaska, Peru, Canada, Greenland, Chile, Argentina, and now Vermont! Climbing is a great way to see the world; you get to meet people who are incredibly passionate and about the same thing that you are, and often become instant friends despite language barriers. I’ve climbed with Germans, Japanese, Brazilians, French, Swedes, Peruvians, Chileans, Argentineans, Indians, Thai, Nepalese, Australians, and some folks from a small island off the coast of Europe…I think they call themselves British. The opportunity to share stories (if we can communicate) or just each other’s company is a wonderful way to experience people from different cultures.

I dabble in a bunch of different sports. I was a fairly competent cyclist back-in-the-day, and still love to go for long rides with my wife, either on roads or trails. We participate in races from time to time, most recently the Hampshire 100. I tend to participate in activities that my friends like, so depending on the day and the partner, that might be skiing, running, or kayaking.

What is your major athletic goal(s)and/or events you are participating in this year (2010)? Why have you chosen this goal(s)?

I’m hoping to pass the AMGA Rock Guide Exam in Red Rocks this April. It’s a five day test where examiners assess your technical guiding abilities. I hope that I can get in good enough shape so that the physical challenge isn’t all that challenging.

I’m toying with the idea of doing a triathlon in the Fall. We’ll see what Gary thinks.

But mostly, what I really hope to accomplish, is to climb the Nose on El Capitan (VI, 5.10, C2) and the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome (VI, 5.10, C1) in a day in June of 2011. I love climbing long, classic routes, and enjoy doing them in a day. It’s so much fun stepping up to a long route with some water, some food, a rain jacket, climbing gear, and going for it.

I need to get a lot better to have a shot at this!

What are some future goals and events you’d like to participate in?
There are so many things that I want to see and travel to. Right now I’m dabbling with the idea of a ski tour across Greenland, and maybe a bike tour circumnavigating Iceland. I’ll be headed to Alaska in June and the Bugaboos in July, and can’t wait to get on some of the long granite routes that are up there.

What impact has your athletics had on the lives of others?

My relationship with my wife is blessed with time together being active. She loves to run and ski and bike, and she’ll tolerate a little climbing from time to time. The ability to have adventures with her is the highlight of my life. As I write this I’m in Salt Lake City and I can’t wait to get out to Vermont so we can go skiing together.

Nate thinking big

Name one interesting fact or story that makes you unique and interesting.

My career has always revolved around sharing the outdoors with others. I just completed my PhD at the University of Utah, and am now working as faculty at Green Mountain College. I get to continue sharing the outdoors with undergraduate students, as my job allows me the opportunity to teach future outdoor leaders in the Adventure Education program. It’s a beautiful career, and I’m blessed to have it.

And I have six toes on one foot!

Thanks to Nate for sharing his story and for inspiring others to improve their health & well-being while helping others in the process– he truly is an Ascending Athlete!

To learn more about Ascend Sports Conditioning, our mission, focus and dedication to helping people ascend to new levels through athletics, please visit www.ascendsportsconditioning.com

Five Things to Do to Get the Most Out of Your Ice Climbing Season

December 21st, 2009

ice climberFinally, we’ve gotten enough cold temperatures so that ice can finally form here in New England, and we can at long last start giving serious attention to the ice climbing season. Every year the season flies by (it’s only about 12 weeks long– at least here in New England), so making the most of the time is key. Here are five things to do to get the most out of your season:

  • Climb with a plan- Most climbers I know are recreational climbers and just head out on the weekend with no real plan. They’ve probably mapped out a climb or two they’d like to do, but that’s about as far as they’ve taken it. That’s great if you’re content being recreational climber, but if you’re looking to improve over what you did last climbing season or even in the course of the current season,you need climb with a plan. View the ice climbing season as a ‘season within a season’ and plan out specific climbs you’d like to send, then break down the season week by week to progressively build up your workout schedule and skills to achieve those goals. Periodization applies to climbers, just as it does to triathletes or other endurance athletes.
  • Work on your weaknesses- Often times we’re content just to climb and stick with what we’re good at. You could have the best swing in the world, getting sticks every time with you tools, but when it comes to landing solid feet, you’re just not quite there yet. Take the time to work on your specific weaknesses, perhaps for a set period of time while you’re out climbing. If you don’t, you’re weaknesses will remain weaknesses.
  • Learn a new skill- Set a goal to learn at least one new snow or ice skill that will serve you well with the type of climbing you like to do. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive skill set that requires a multi-day class (although doing so is great)– it could be a small skill; something that will add tools to your tool box for the type of climbing you like to do. For instance, if you’re into alpine climbing and you’ve never learned how to build a V-thread, set some time aside to do so.
  • Explore a new area- No matter how long you’ve been climbing, there’s always someplace new to explore. I’m not necessarily talking about some far away place, but rather right in your backyard. For instance, if you live in New England, there are hundreds of ice climbing routes in a several different areas, each offering their own challenges and little slices of beautiful terrain. Pick one that you’ve never been to before, and go check it out.
  • Connect with the climbing community- One of the best parts of participating in sports is the enjoyment of doing it with others. It motivates you and gives you people to share learning and experiences with. Climbing is no exception to this, with a vibrant community. One of the unique challenges of climbing is that it requires partners to do (unless you’re a solo climber, in which case think you have other things on your mind), and staying tied into that community so you have climbing partners is key. I’m a huge fan of online networking to link up with folks, but nothing can beat being face to face. A great place to do this (and knock off one or more of the other items I’ve outlined) is at an ice climbing festival. Whether it’s the Mount Washington Ice Festival, Ouray Ice Festival, Festiglace du Quebec, or numerous other festivals around the northeast or the US, make it part of your plan to meet at least one new partner.

Enjoy the winter & take advantage of the ice while it’s here!

ASC Gets More Social

December 20th, 2009
Join the conversation with Ascend Sports Conditioning

Join the conversation with Ascend Sports Conditioning

You’ve probably noticed some changes on the Ascend Sports Conditioning (ASC) website and blog the past few days. Specifically, we’ve added several links to our presence in the social universe, namely Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. We’ve also added (and will continue to add) links to other blogs and sites that cover triathlon, climbing and adventure sports, which you can find on the Ascending Higher blog roll. There are so many great sites out there and people writing great articles on training tips, that we’ve tried to highlight the best of the best.

So, take a second and do the following:

Also, if you haven’t done it already, subscribe to Ascending Higher, Ascend Sports Conditioning blog.

Tell you friends, too!

We’ll look forward to you joining the conversation!