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Spantik Expedition 2022: The Karakoram of Pakistan

December 17th, 2022

Since 2010, I had wanted to travel to Pakistan to visit the mighty Karakoram, home to the highest mountains in the world. However, at that time the political situation in Pakistan was challenging, and over the years, it gradually improved, with many expeditions resuming in the late 2010s.  Finally, the chance presented itself in August 2022, with a high altitude expedition to Spantik (7034m), which lies in the Hispar Valley of Nagar District in Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan. 

Spantik peak from South-West. Photo credit:

The opportunity to climb in the Karakoram, home to legendary 8000m peaks, K2, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum II, along with numerous 7000m peaks – both climbed and unclimbed – is what took me there.  I have been fascinated with high mountain ranges of the world, having visited and done expeditions in many of them, including the Himalayas, the Andes, the Rockies and the Alps, so it made sense to come to this region.  The peak I aimed to climb, Spantik, at 7,034 meters or 23,054 feet, is perhaps one of the most frequently climbed 7000m peaks in the Karakoram, but even then only sees a handful of expeditions per season.  The ideal time to climb is July-August, so with our climb running for 4 weeks in August, we anticipated an optimal weather window to get to the top.  The south east ridge of Spantik provided the perfect challenge for me, giving me a second attempt at 7000m (the first one was in August 2015 on Nun in the Himalaya in India) on a route that was not easy, but also not technical.  

On this expedition, I reunited with Luke Smithwick of Himalaya Alpine Guides, who as a western guide with deep experience living and climbing in this region, I trusted to lead the expedition.  Understanding how to maneuver the red tape, logistics as well as being skilled at climbing, is well worth investing in on a trip such as this – one that I do not get to do too often.  I’ve learned over the years that trying to self-plan this type of expedition is certainly possible since I’ve done it, but the incremental cost is worth the removal of the hassle and stress associated with planning such a trip and potential challenges that can arise while in-country. 

The team of 8 of us – 5 Americans (Ted, Cam, Chris, Luke and me), 1 Canadian (Charles), 1 Australian (Tony) and 1 Pole (Aga) – commenced our expedition in Islamabad, the bustling capital city of Pakistan.  Many international flights arrive in the middle of the night in Islamabad, as ours did at about 2am.  Four of us were on the same connecting flight from Doha to Islamabad, so it was reassuring to meet up with fellow teammates as we arrived.  Our driver bustled us over to the Hillview Hotel, which would serve as our headquarters while in the city.  

Our climbing team (left to right): Ted, Tony, Cam, Chris, Charles, Gary and Aga (Luke is taking the photo)

Islamabad is a semi-tropical city, so the heat proved to be stifling for those of us who don’t live in the tropics.  The heat made acclimatizing activities around town, such as short hikes, challenging, so we sought to fly as quickly as possible to Skardu, which would serve as a better acclimatization point for us, being much cooler and at nearly 2,500 meters or 8,200 feet.  The flight from Islamabad to Skardu was about 45 minutes and took us through the confluence of the Hindu Kush, the third highest mountain range in the world, and the Karakoram, the second highest.  We also got glimpses of Nanga Parbat, K2 and other 8000m peaks during the flight.

Skardu, the capital of the Skardu District in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, is a gateway city to the Karakoram.  Most expeditions start here.  Skardu’s semi-arid climate, with an average temperature of 31C (88 F) in August, was pleasant, with the exception of exposure in the mid-day sun in open areas.  From the pleasant Summit View Hotel in Skardu, we could easily walk the streets of the city, as well as visit local sites, such as Katpana Desert, one of the highest deserts in the world and covered in sand dunes that radiated back intense heat. Locals build dwellings in such places using adobe-like bricks that help to regulate the heat, and cultivate water ways, which allow for the growing of basic crops and an amazing array of flowers.

We stocked up on food, water and gear while in Skardu and met some of the locals, who would serve as the lifeblood of our team, helping to organize our transportation, porters, cooks and guides for our journey to Spantik Base Camp and beyond.  We piled into a convoy of colorfully decorated Toyota Forerunners, and began our journey to the village of Arandu, which would serve as our first stop on our way to Base Camp.  The five hour drive from Skardu to Arandu was extremely rough, taking us over unpaved roads pocked with boulders and overrun by streams.  It was normal for us to be vaulted several inches out of our seats for most of the journey.  The ride could not end soon enough, as we bolted from the vehicles and hurriedly made camp before the sun set.  

Normal meals were in a mess tent that sat all of us around a table.  Meals consisted of soup, rice, and various curry-style dishes with vegetables and meats.  We also had a yak and a group of chickens accompanying us along the way, providing fresh meat for our meals.  The trick during the trip, especially the trek into base camp, where our bodies were just adjusting to local conditions and camps were in well-traveled areas, was to remain sickness-free.  Unfortunately, most of us ended up with GI issues of some sort, mainly diarrhea and vomiting, during the first few days.  Fortunately, I was able to avoid the worst of it, which I credit to avoiding any cut fruit and vegetables, drinking boiled water only and keeping my hands relatively germ-free with frequent use of sanitizer.

The trek to base camp would take 4 days, going from Skardu to Arandu, then Arandu to Chongo Brangsa Camp to Bolocho Camp and then finally to Spantik Base Camp.  The first day of the trek included semi-arid highlands similar to the environs around Skardu, and provided us lots of intense heat.  I definitely did not bring enough water on this day, but was able to supplement using filtered water generously supplied by teammate, Cam.  I often train in a state of water and food deprivation, which probably helped as well, but was certainly not something I wanted to try to intentionally do while at altitude on this trip.  The 9.5 mile hike with 2300 feet of elevation gain, took us through a beautiful valley and past some buildings that were offshoots of Arandu village that we just left.  Finishing at 3400m or 11,154 feet, gave us a decent gain of altitude, but not too much, so that our bodies could adjust.  I typically don’t have issues with altitude until about 16,000 feet or so, and only if I ascended too quickly.  As I learned in Ladakh, going at a very slow pace, coupled with no more than 2500 feet in elevation gain per day, was the best way to acclimatize.  In my younger years I ruined expeditions by going too hard too fast, putting too much stress on my body, and vowed not to repeat those mistakes on this trip.

The third day of the trek into Base Camp, took us from Chogo Brangsa Camp to Bolocho Camp, at 3,820 meters or 12,376 feet.  The trek was a gorgeous one, running parallel to the Chongo Bramsa glacier most of the way, requiring scurrying past some steep and unstable points along the moraine. A slip in one of these spots would have meant an unwelcome journey downward. The 10 mile, 2600 foot elevation gain day was much cooler than the previous day, allowing for a more comfortable trip. 

Immediately upon leaving Bolocho Camp, we got directly on the Chongo Lungma Glacier, one of the biggest glaciers in the Karakorum.  This day was probably the most difficult of the four days heading to Base Camp, not because traveling 7.8 miles and 2200 feet of elevation gain was difficult, but rather because of the terrain, which took us up and down ice, moraine and big crevasses that were open on the glacier.  I have traveled on glaciers in the past, but normally it is on top of snow pack and roped up.  On this section of the Chongo Lungma glacier, we did not need to travel roped, but there was no snow pack providing a clear highway for us to navigate. Instead, we descended up and down and over crevasse fields for most of the distance, with the middle section providing some relief with a clear walk on ice and snow.  After a few hours, we reached Spantik Base Camp, which sat perched at the top of a large moraine field at 4300 meters or 13,492 feet.  The last mile or so to the Base Camp was the steepest, requiring us to dig deep to get to our first camp for the climb.

Spantik Base Camp is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever camped at in my life, with a 360 degree panorama of massive 7000+ meter peaks all around us and a never-ending view of the Chongo Lungma glacier and the long, 26 mile valley we just trekked to get here.  High above sat Camp 1, barely in view at the snow line.  Above that sat Camps 2 and 3, and the summit of Spantik, about 7 km away. Further of the valley, the Chongo Lugma glacier extended more deeply into the mountains, contorting itself around twists and turns – terrain I could never imagine ever attempting to travel into or ever wanting to go near.


Spantik Base Camp

Our camp at Base Camp was set for the longer-term, as we would be on the mountain for another 1-2 weeks, using Base Camp as the place to recover as we did rotations up the mountain.  The way to acclimatize on big expeditions, is to climb high, sleep low, which meant for us climbing to Camp 1, spending a night, descending to recover, then climbing back to Camp 1, spending another night, then going to Camp 2, then descending all the way back down to Base Camp for recovery.  The final rotation would be all the way back up to Camp 1, then 2 and finally to Camp 3, where we would spend the night before making a final attempt at the summit.  

We did manage to get to Camp 1 (5100m or 16,521 feet) and spend the night, then return to Base Camp.  However, that proved to be our last day of sunny weather for the next several days, as clouds and a storm settled in.  We sat in Base Camp for 2 days weathering harsh winds and several inches of rain.  We thought after one day the storm would subside, but it kept going for a second day.  Watching the weather closely, we say that in the evening of the third day, the storm would finally subside giving us an opportunity to get back to Camp 1.  

We started off for Camp 1 around 3-4pm in the afternoon.  The climb to Camp 1 was only 1 mile, but it was a steep 1 mile and 3000 feet of elevation gain.  It was mostly rock, but had slick snowy spots after 2 days of the storm.  In fact, the snow line had dropped significantly since the first time we were at Camp 1, with several inches of new snow at Camp 1 when we arrived.  Further up, we could see there was even more snow, with an estimated several feet, possibly up to six feet of new snow.  We will never know the true amount, but it was significant enough that we knew it had buried all the fixed ropes and most certainly put avalanche potential at an extreme level.  On top of that, we also found the high altitude tents we had left at Camp 1, to be in tatters.  They were ripped apart by the fierce wind, snapping poles, ripping the fabric and completely destroying the structural integrity of the tents.  At that very low point, we knew the expedition was over.  With no high altitude tents and crippling avalanche conditions, it was impossible for us to continue.  Our only choice was to descend.

We decided as a group that we would go down immediately and Luke radioed ahead to let the team in Base Camp know that we’d need to alert our porters to come meet us as soon as possible at Base Camp.  The porters, after dropping us off at Base Camp, had all dispersed back to their regular life, many of whom went to do mining jobs deep in the mountains.  It would be at least 3-4 days before they would all assemble back together to allow us to leave Base Camp, which is why we wanted to get word to them as soon as possible.  The descent do Base Camp was dark and wet, with slick conditions.  Unfortunately, my Gortex did not hold up very well (one of the key lessons I learned on this trip is that it was time to upgrade some equipment, including my jacket) and I was soaked all the way through.  We got back to Base Camp in the dark around 8pm, and I simply stripped off all my gear, dried off the best I could and got into my sleeping bag. 

The next 3 days entailed waiting for the porters to arrive so we could trek out.  During that time, we had lots more rain, which meant a lot more snow up high, adding to the already record totals for August.  We spent a lot of time talking, reading and writing in our journals.  I actually got bored for the first time in years.  It was rather nice. It was particularly nice being cut off from the internet and the constant flow of communications that prevents us from being really present with where we are and whom we are with.   We interacted with the other teams in Base Camp, who were in similar situations to us.  On the travels into Base Camp, we had met one party (a Spanish party), who had one member summit.  However, the mixed Austrian, French, Australian and Pakistani team in camp with us, like us, did not summit.  While we had been comfortable in our larger tents in Base Camp during the storm, they were at Camp 2, constantly having to dig themselves out of snow to ensure their tents did not collapse.  It sounded like a frustrating situation, being stuck in a tent for 3 days.

Our porters arrived after 3 days, which allowed us to trek out the same way we came in, making camp at the same spots.  Conditions surprisingly had not worsened on the glacier or the moraine, so it was largely smooth sailing to the village of Arandu.  In Arandu, we had lunch in one of the houses of a local, then took a tour of the small village.  Small children, mainy boys (girls typically followed the cultural norm of staying in the background) followed us around seeking gifts and candy, some of which we did oblige.  Chris, a doctor back home, provided medical care to an old man who had a wound on his arm.  In these villages, medical care is fairly infrequent, so doing what we could while there meant a lot to the villagers.

The jeep ride back to Skardu was equally as rough as the way in.  We decided not to spend the night at hot springs along the way, instead going directly back to our hotel, where we took a well appreciated shower, which was great after 2 weeks in a tent.  Laundry also was a priority. 

Our expedition at this point turned into a trek, with one week to go.  We headed to the Hunza Valley, which was its own kingdom for centuries and had a very distinct culture of its own.  The ride to get there took us back on the wild roads of Pakistan, with a stop at Juglot, where we observed the confluence of the three highest mountain ranges in the world — the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush — at the point where the Indus and Gilgit rivers converged. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight to see these mighty mountains come together.

The confluence of the 3 highest mountain ranges in the world. Photo credit: Luke Smithwick

Further along we stopped in Gilgit, the capital city of Gilgit-Baltistan.  We visited the Hotel Serena, which by far was the best hotel we visited while in Pakistan, with a restaurant that served high quality food, including a great burger as well as traditional Pakistani food.  It was a welcome respite, so much so that we not only had lunch there, but returned for dinner.  In Gilgit, I was able to get a straight edge razor shave, removing my beard I had grown out for the past two weeks.  

While in Gilgit we visited the Kargha Buddha, a large, 50 foot Buddhist carving in one of the local cliffs that dates back to the 7th century.  Buddhism was the religion of the area at the time, stretching into Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India and beyond.  Many Buddhist cultural artifacts still survive in this part of Pakistan, including ethnic and linguistic commonalities between the people and languages of the region and present day Tibet and India. 

The immensity of the situation Pakistan found itself in started to dawn on us while we were in Gilgit.  There, we saw local television and got alerts from the US embassy about flooding that was occurring in the country.  The massive rains we were experiencing the past two weeks was certainly causing high rivers where we were, including some washed out bridges and flooded homes, but the lower part of the country, which was much flatter, was bearing the brunt of the rains with massive floods.  One third of Pakistan was under water and hundreds were dead, along with thousands more displaced.  The immensity of the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history dawned on us.  While we could not climb a mountain – not a big deal – people’s lives in Pakistan were being turned upside down.  We started to understand how fortunate we were not to be experiencing the flooding other parts of the country were and that we were safe.  News had spread back home, with the story being a top one on many national outlets, so we made sure to reach out to our family to assure them we were okay.  We were fortunate that the area of Gilgit-Baltistan was largely unscathed, with the same being true in Islamabad. 

We assessed the situation with our team, including local Pakistani authorities, and determined it was safe for us to continue our journey in Hunza.  The rain continued the entire time we were in Gilgit, and followed us to Passu, a small village along the Karakoram Highway.  Riding the famous Karakoram Highway brought us to the wilds of Pakistan, as well as exposed us to rain-induced landslides.  The Karakoram Highway is built where no highway was ever meant to be built in the midst of giant mountains that are constantly eroding and exposed to seismic activity.  The highway itself is an engineering feat and one of the lifelines of Pakistan, connecting remote villages that were cut off from the rest of the region for centuries.  While riding the highway, we witnessed the absolute fury of the Indus river and its tributaries, all of which were puffed up from the massive amount of rain that had fallen.  Rockfall was everywhere, often forcing us to stop and cross over the other side of the road. 

We spent the night in a cold, but well kept hostel in Passu.  The highlight of the stay there was the Yak Grill Passu, which served a simple yet exquisitely tasty menu of nothing but yak – yak burgers and yak steaks to be precise.  We had multiple meals in between rainy and cold excursions to explore the local trails as well as to fetch some famous apricot cake at a local Glacier Breeze Passu

In the morning, we decided to continue our journey on the Karakoram Highway, trying to reach the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa National Forest, but not long into our journey, we were stopped dead in our tracks by massive rockfall on the highway.  After long deliberation, we decided it was not safe to continue, and best to turnaround.  We weren’t necessarily worried about being hit by a slide (although that certainly warranted concern), but rather being trapped higher up in the valley by a slide that took the highway out.  With limited shelter and food options in that part of the country, we would have been stuck.

We drove to the local village of Sost, where we stopped for tea and further deliberations.  After a couple of hours, we decided to head to Aliabad, a village in the heart of Hunza, famous for its forts, apricots and walnut cake. Along the way to Aliabad, we stopped at the home of Hussein Ali Khan, the world’s leading expert on snow leopards.  He opened his home to us, serving us tea and lunch while showering us with his knowledge of the rare, elusive snow leopard.  He and his son shared footage that they’ve captured over the years of the animals, which showed these majestic animals in their surrounding native habitat. Hussein spent years educating the local population on snow leopards with the home in preserving their habitat and ultimately their survival.  Snow leopards have been a fascination of mine for years, so it was a special treat to be able to visit with Hussein.  I have never seen a snow leopard in the wild (only in captivity) and hope that someday I will in this part of the world.

After a 2 hour trip, during which we visited Lake Attabad (formed from a massive landslide caused by an earthquake in 2010), we reached Aliabad,  a charming town in the heart of the Karokoram surrounded by 7000m giants, including Ultar Sar (7400m) and Rakaposhi (7800m).  We got a view of the latter in one of the valleys, with the longest stretch of continuous vertical terrain in the world from valley floor to the summit, going more than 6km in distance and rising over 5000m.  Even with the cloud cover, it was an amazing site to behold.

Aliabad is home to Cafe de Hunza, a fantastic coffee shop that serves up local specialities, including walnut cake, jams and Hunza tea, which when served with honey is heavenly.  The shop served as a great refueling stop, before we climbed to the Altit Fort overlooking the surrounding mountains and valley.  The fort served as the home to the hereditary rulers of Hunza, an independent kingdom established almost a 1000 years ago and lasting several hundred years.  The fort had a Lord of the Rings feel to it, with its medieval towers and huge, mountainous backdrops.  The Altit Fort is guarded by Salahuddin, who also serves as a tour guide and sports one of the most well known mustaches in all of Pakistan.  

We explored the meandering streets of Aliabad, stopping at the various shops, including some of the best gemstone shops in the surrounding area.  The Karakoram is known for its gemstones – from garnet to rubies and all sorts of stones in between.  To this day, you can still find tourmaline, topaz and other gemstones in the mountainsides, including in moraine fields.  I was on the hunt for some emeralds, which are rarer in this part of the Karakoram, for my wife.  I did find some nice emerald cuts from a local shop.  Half the fun in shopping in Pakistan is interacting with the locals, understanding their history and perspective, and making a truly human to human connection that you would not get to make otherwise.  I left the shop with not only some gemstones, but what I felt like a deeper bond with the people and a better understanding of their lives.

The next day we departed Aliabad and Hunza, making our way back to Skardu.  The long, 5 hour dusty ride brought us back at the end of the day.  The next day we hiked 3.6 miles and 2600 feet up to the famous Mansoor Rock, a wafer thin rock that projecting out into thin air over the nearby valley.  We each took turns daring gravity, before we headed back down the lush, apricot-covered valley below.  

We enjoyed a final farewell dinner with our Pakistani crew, who served as guides, cooks, porters and companions during our trip. We could not have done the trip without their hard work and support. They carried hundreds of pounds of gear for us, led us through tough terrain, cooked and cleaned, fixed broken gear, and provided good laughs. Serving on an expedition is a good job in Pakistan, but certainly is a tough one and our crew did an amazing job.

Our flight out of Skardu brought us back to Islamabad, where we had an extra couple of days to explore.  We spent a day visiting the Faisal Mosque, the largest mosque in Islamabad dedicated by the Saudi king, as well as the Pakistan Monument, the Pakistan Museum, and the Pakistan Museum of Natural History.  Each of these provided us glimpses into the complex, diverse and ancient history of Pakistan and the surrounding areas.  As a fan of history, I appreciated learning about this fascinating part of the world.

Our expedition crew. The Pakistani guides porters and team made all the difference.

The final stop on our last day in Pakistan, took us to Magallah Hills National Park, which is a well-preserved park with leopards, foxes, jackal, deer, pheasants (which is what The Monal, a beautiful restaurant serving amazing food within the park, is named after) and other rich wildlife that lived among its plush canopy.  We hiked a few miles in the park, which allowed us to explore its beauty amidst the high humidity.   Magallah sits right outside of the district where government buildings and foreign embassies sit. 

We had one last celebratory lunch and coffee at our favorite shop, Loafology, and one last celebratory dinner at our favorite Afghan restaurant near the Hillview Hotel, the Kabul Restaurant, where we ate piles of delicious kebabs, rice, and other delicacies from the region, for an amazingly affordable price.  Our flight departed at 2am in the morning, as most international flights do, and at the busy airport we said our final goodbyes as a team before we went our separate ways.   

This trip definitely did not go as planned, but that is what often happens when you go on expeditions to the highest mountains in the world and parts of the world that are dealing with different stages of economic development and myriad of challenges.  While we did not reach the summit of Spantik as we had planned, and indeed, did not get past Camp 1, we still had an amazing experience.  We did get to see the beauty of the Karakoram, from it’s pristine, majestic peaks, to the local villages that define its culture.  Yes, our timing was unfortunate with the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history which unfolded while we were there and resulted in conditions that ended our climb, but our summiting meant nothing in comparison to the human suffering the country went through.  It was a stark reminder that we climb to explore not just the mountains, but the local country and people, who we must always respect and make part of our journey.  We grow not just by reaching the highest points on the globe, but through the human connections we make.  

I walk away with a whole different perspective of Pakistan than I had before I had arrived.  The images we see on western media of a war-torn country full of fanatics hiding in caves and chanting death threats to western peoples, is not the Pakistan that exists in reality.  The Pakistan I got to know is fully of beautiful people, who simply want the same as all of us want: a life full of peace, prosperity and love.  Not once did I feel threatened as a westerner, as an American or as a visitor the country.  On the contrary, I felt safe and welcome.  

Certainly Pakistan is dealing with it’s share of challenges from climate change that is drying up its water supply and flooding its country to overpopulation that threatens its future stability and viability as a state, and ethnic and religious tensions and bigotry, that is causing inherent internal conflict, and bringing it in conflict with nations in the outside world, who do not have the historical and cultural depth to understand the complexity.  It’s incumbent upon all of us to understand Pakistan, and indeed other cultures. Not doing so is a missed opportunity.

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:


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, 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.

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

Peru Expedition 2002: Cusco and the Cordillera Blanca

November 29th, 2009
I’ve been fortunate enough to have have had some really great experiences in my life– from expeditions to triathlon races– many of which I’ve written about, but never have posted online (mainly because they were written prior to the widespread use of blogs or common occurence of writing to the web). I figured now is a great time to share some of these stories on Ascending Higher, particularly as we’re waiting for the snow to arrive and searching for some inspiration to plan out some exciting adventures for 2010. I’ll run them as a series of posts, starting with a narrative I wrote about my trip to Peru in July-August 2001 during an expedition to the Cordillera Blanca. I’ll then follow that with write-ups of my climbing trip to the volcanoes of Ecuador in December 2000, my expedition to the Cordillera Real of Bolivia in July-August 2004, trek to Everest Base Camp in March-April of 2000, as well as recaps of my experiences at bike rides (Harpoon’s Brewery to Brewery) and triathlon races (Eagleman, Ralph’s CA Half). I would love to hear your comments and experiences, so please comment on any of the posts!
This first post was written in August 2001, soon after my arrival back to the United States after my trip to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru in July-August of that same year. I spent the first week with my wife, Leslie, acclimitizing along the Inca Trail, and then the remainder of the trip on an expedition with Roger Wall, Marco Perez, Jaoquim our cook, and lots of burros and chickens (the chickens unfortunately did not survive the trip).

Peru Expedition 2002: Cusco and the Cordillera Blanca

Winay Wayna on the Inca Trail, Peru

Acclimitizing on the Inca Trail: Incan ruins at Winay Wayna

A few days of trekking through the Sacred Valley in the Department of Cusco, Peru brought us back five centuries into the heart and soul of the Incan Empire. My travel partner (who is now my wife– we weren’t married at the time), Leslie, and I could only leave to our imaginations what the ruins at Sachsayhuamán, Tambomachay, Pisac, Ollataytambo, Winay Wayna, and of course, the most mystery-shrouded of all, Machu Picchu, were like before the Spanish conquistadors transformed them. Workers chiseling out the next stones to be placed perfectly into the city structures, gilt Incan walls, quinoa terraces tended by local farmers, guinea pigs (still a local delicacy) nesting in the stone houses of the locals—all probably were very typical at the apex of Incan society. These idyllic scenes have vanished, replaced by tourists swarming over what was once a sacred temple, Quechuan natives dressed in traditional clothing clutching puppies, begging tourists to take their picture in exchange for a sole (the Peruvian currency), and the Machu Picchu Sactuary Lodge, catering to those who pay $200+ a night to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu without the inconvenience of the morning hike on the Inca Trail. The government has even approved the building of a ski gondola from Aguas Caliente to the top of Machu Picchu so more money can be creamed from the curious but coddled visitors to the world famous archeological site. While the concept of a gondola is in blatant contradiction to the true spirit of Machu Picchu, the demand for such a structure and the government’s desire to profit from it can only be attributed to tourists, like us.

Year after year, thousands hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on what is arguably one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. We chose not to hike the Inca Trail for this very reason. The frat party atmosphere at Winay Wayna, where all trekkers —Inca Trail bound or not—must pass to access Machu Picchu (unless bussing it up from Aguas Caliente or hiking in from another remote route from Vilcabamba to the west) proved our decision to steer clear to be the correct one for us.

Despite the taint or overcrowding and overcommercialism, the Cusco region of Peru is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled. The environment varies from the tropical jungle ecosystem of the Manu Preserve in the Amazon Basin to the high alpine rock and ice of massive peaks that climb above 6,000 meters (approximately 19,700 feet), such as Nevada Veronicá. Unfortunately, most tourists who come to Cusco do not venture outside of the Sacred Valley or beyond the Inca Trail. The reason for this is the accessibility of these sites, and the shroud of mystery that still covers most of department beyond Machu Picchu. The jungles beyond Machu Picchu are a remote area, with the forgotten city of Vilcabamba (also known as Espiritú Pampa), just recently having been uncovered for visitors. Few venture to travel that far, however.

For us, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley represented not the culmination, but the point of embarkment of our journey. Leslie and I parted ways in Cusco as she prepared to meet a group to trek in the Cordillera Blanca and I readied myself for a climb in the same range. My decision to climb instead of trek was one I had made before traveling to Peru. While it meant parting ways with Leslie, it would only be for a short time and would allow me to pursue an activity I am passionate about—challenging myself on climbs at altitude—and one I cannot pursue where I live in a Boston suburb.

I flew from the former Incan capital city Qusqu (now the modern Peruvian city of Cusco) to the Peruvian capital, Lima. In the seasonal gray gloom of that city, I met up with Roger, my good friend and climbing partner from New York City. Roger and I had climbed Mount Baker in Washington State together and have ice climbed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as rock climbed in the Gunks of New York together, so we comfortable with one another’s strengths and limitations. Choosing compatible partners is crucial to any expedition, but does not mitigate the other factors that can derail an expedition — as we would learn.

The elusive Artesonraju with Alpamayo in the background

The elusive Artesonraju with Alpamayo in the background

After an unexpectedly pleasant, but tiring eight-hour bus ride to Huaraz, the climbing mecca of the Andes, we were at last in the Cordillera Blanca. I stepped out of the bus feeling strong and invigorated as I inhaled the cool mountain air and absorbed the views of surrounding peaks. After picking out one of the many taxi drivers who cruised the area for business, we were shuttled through the wild streets of Huaraz to our Swiss-style hotel, the Hotel Club Andino, where we met Marco Perez, who would be leading us on our climbs over the next 21 days.

With 13 years of experience climbing throughout the Andes, Marco is one of the most knowledgeable and reliable Peruvian guides around. We were lucky to have him, particularly since we only found him at the last minute. Roger and I had debated the use of a guide and decided that since we did not know these mountains and were uncertain of how best to arrange the logistics and support for our expedition, somebody like Marco would make our trip much more enjoyable. Our expectations were exceeded.

The Cordillera Blanca, a range of twenty 6,000-meter peaks, represents the finest climbing in the western hemisphere—a climber’s playground. It is ideally suited for the serious climber — whether looking for the challenge of a famous rock face, La Esfinge (The Sphinx, otherwise known as Torre de Paron), or the second-highest mountain in the Andes, Huascaran Sur (6,768m), or just seeking a scenic spot to practice mountaineering techniques on glacial moraines. Most climbers looking to check off big-name peaks come to attempt Huascaran or Alpamayo (5,947m), both formidable climbs. We opted for lesser-traveled peaks.

After stocking up on food, obtaining the services of a cook and porter, Joaquin, and making final gear checks, we were off for the Llanganuco Valley, one of the many beautiful valleys in Huascaran National Park. We climbed to 4,665 meters in about 3 hours, gaining spectacular views of the Huascaran Massif, Yanapaqcha (5,700m) and the Huandoy Massif (6,395m) along the way to our destination at Pisco Base Camp. Pisco Oeste (5,752m) was our planned first summit attempt and we were to spend three more nights in this valley, slowly advancing until our summit bid.

Already at base camp, I noticed the altitude in a way I had never experienced before in my other high-altitude excursions in Nepal and Ecuador. Most people experience some form of altitude illness when they arrive at high elevations, whether it be loss of appetite or a headache, but these symptoms usually fade with proper acclimatization. However, my extreme shortness of breath and elevated heart rate were atypical. On the way to moraine camp, while climbing over large boulders and scree fields, I felt fatigue and began to cough. My condition was worrisome enough to Marco that he ordered me to descend to base camp to rest. I did not object, knowing full well the consequences of staying at moraine camp. My condition could worsen, perhaps to a state of pulmonary edema, a life threatening condition that causes excessive fluid buildup in the lungs. Altitude can kill. The only cure for severe altitude sickness is immediate descent, and the evacuation of a sick climber over the Pisco moraine in the middle of the night would have been nearly impossible. So I descended.

Back at Pisco base camp, disappointment overwhelmed me. This was supposed to only be our acclimatization peak and I was already falling apart! After months of preparation it came to this. I was in the best physical shape of my life, training every day (with active recovery included), aerobically for 1-2 hours, lifting weights 4-5 days a week. Now, all that effort had been crushed by a simple lack of oxygen. It hadn’t just been physical preparations that now seemed for naught: Roger and I had had difficulties pulling together the logistics of our trip , both of us having made sacrifices to get to this very point. Two other climbing partners had pulled out of the expedition when one ripped up his knee climbing in California and the other refroze once frostbitten toes when caught in a storm at the top of Grand Teton. Yet we two had still managed to make it here — and for what?

Huandoy Massif, second highest peak in the Cordillera Blanca

Huandoy Massif, second highest peak in the Cordillera Blanca

Roger and Marco had camped at Pisco moraine camp and continued on the next day for an early morning ascent of Pisco Oeste. After their ascent, they met me at Pisco base camp. I was happy for Roger and Marco when I heard that they had summited Pisco Oeste. I wanted them to push on with our original plan without me to Chopicalqui (6,345m), but, not wanting to fracture our team, Roger and Marco, decided that we should all descend back down to Huaraz, rest, and then head out for our next summit attempt. If we descended at this point and followed that plan, our chances of summiting a 6,000-meter peak would be slim. I had a hard time accepting this, especially since this was my second attempt at climbing a 6,000-meter peak (the first was a trip to Chimborazo, Ecuador that was thwarted by bad weather). Nevertheless, I reluctantly accepted, but silently vowed that one of us would push on to summit a 6,000-meter peak if the circumstances did not prohibit a safe attempt.

We decided the Santa Cruz Valley offered us the greatest range of options. This valley is home to some of the classic mountaineering climbs: Alpamayo, Quitaraju (6,040m), Artesonraju (6,025m), and what has been described as one of the hardest climbs in the world, the spired, avalanche-riddled Taulliraju (5,830m). I held out hope that perhaps we could at least get on Artesonraju or Quitaraju, which had been part of our original aspirations, but I knew that would be a long shot. After a first bout with sickness at altitude, it is hard to shake off. My lungs still festered with a lingering cough as we trekked past one gorgeous alpine route up towering peaks after another. After much discussion as a team and soul-searching for myself, we decided we would climb, but not to 6,000 meters this time. We would stay together and maximize our enjoyment of the mountains, the real reason we were in Peru.

Focusing on Millishraju (5,510m), a glorious snow-covered peak sandwiched between Taulliraju and Nevada Paron (5,600m), we moved forward with high spirits. We camped in an isolated valley at the base of a moraine that leads to Millishraju, our best campsite of the expedition. The next morning, after sucking down hot tea, bread and fried eggs—the classic breakfast of Andean expeditions— we got an early start for the summit. The moraine challenged us, as we pushed ourselves onto the glacier. The route brought us over a long snow climb, peeking out over huge sections of hanging glaciers and past large crevasses. After pushing ourselves hard for several hours, the summit loomed in the passing clouds ahead. I felt very strong. When we reached the summit, I was intoxicated with joy. There I stood—surveying the second-highest mountain range in the world, ist glaciers, rock, ice, and the blue skies that set them off like celestial palaces.

The towering summit of Piramide de Garcilaso

The towering summit of Piramide de Garcilaso

I looked forward to edging down the valley, to the point of departure for our next summit attempt. I felt once again like a king, picking among his castles, as I looked upon the unbelievable variety of mountains. We needed to plan carefully, however, since I could suffer a relapse of altitude sickness higher up and because Roger had experienced a relentless, altitude-related headache on the climb up to Millishraju. So we set our sights on Curuicashajana (5,510m), an imposing granite peak bristling with slabs of glacial ice. Curuicashajana would be enough of a challenge for climbers in our condition.

With the assistance of two burros, and reliable Joaquin, we moved camp to the base of Curuicashajana. Stuffing ourselves with freshly butchered chicken carried from Huaraz, we sat around camp the night before the attempt on Curuicashajana, admiring at the burst of stars that filled the clear Andean sky. The weather was perfect for our pre-dawn start.

As we set out, it was bitterly cold. Temperatures had fallen overnight. Since none of us had been up this peak before, we needed to negotiate an uncharted, steep moraine before reaching the glacier. The moraine proved to be a challenge in itself, with large clumps of grass obstructing our pathway as we scrambled over rock slabs. After three hours of climbing 610 vertical meters (2000 vertical feet), I stopped for a photo break as Marco and Roger plowed ahead. The sun was just beginning to send its intense equatorial rays over the Santa Cruz Valley, casting perfect light over the monstrous slopes of Piramide de Garcilaso (5,885m) and Artesonraju. I took several photos of this magnificent sight before turning to Quitaraju. Its massive western face dropped away precipitously, with its sharp ice flutes capturing the sun’s rays along the way. I thought about the climbers who were probably summiting at that very moment on the other side of Quitaraju. It was probably the first 6,000 meter peak for some of them, and they were fortunate to have such glorious weather.

Moving forward in the cold air, the strength I enjoyed just the day before quickly began to leave my body as we rose above 5200 meters (17,000+ feet). I plodded on, frustrated. After another half hour of battling with my lungs, I stopped and waved Roger and Marco onward, shouting to them that I would be going down. I could not jeopardize the safety of my partners nor my own. Obviously, the mountains would not permit me to go any farther.

I made my way back to base camp. After a near glissade down the moraine on the slick clumpy grass, I was relieved to be in this safe spot. I spent the day recounting the adventure we were on, step by step, contemplating the decisions I had made along the way. Were they the right ones? What if I had just toughed it out? I had no answers, but that did not stop me from torturing myself for my choices. This is the most difficult struggle in the mountains—the one with the mind. The mind says, “go for it”, while the body says “no more”. I reminded myself that the losers of the struggle die. I had chosen what was best for me.

When Roger and Marco returned to camp, they said they had diverted from the summit of Curuicashajana, opting instead for a traverse over the rock-glacier line right below the summits of Curuicashajana and the majestic Rinríjirca (5,810m), in the direction of Taulliraju. It took them a solid 12 hours to complete. Both were utterly exhausted. As they told their epic, part of me wished I had been with them, but the other part was very happy that I had not.

We packed up camp and made our way over the high pass of Punta Union (4,760m), to other side of valley. It took us two days to hike out, going from contorted icefalls at the head of Punta Union, to bog-strewn pampas leading to Vaqueria, our departure point. The bumpy ride in our colectivo (mini-van) over another high pass at 4,700 meters was an adventure in itself. A flat tire, wet snow, blaring Peruvian pop songs, and a driver with the terrifying habit of letting go of the wheel, kept us occupied during the three-hour ride back to Huaraz.

In Huaraz, we said goodbye to Marco and Joaquin. Both had been excellent resources for us. We promised to keep in touch, for I was already planning my return to the Cordillera Blanca for next year’s climbing season. There is simply too much to do in this mountain range, and I had only begun. Next year I would return wiser and more seasoned. We would ascend more slowly, give our bodies more time to acclimatize, and plan for high camps above the moraines if we decided to attempt any peaks that do not have frequently climbed routes. This experience had taught me two such important lessons. I would put them into practice next time. We had, with varying degrees of acceptability, successfully addressed the other issues ahead of time to maximize our chances for success this time around.

No matter how much planning for success you may do, it’s never enough. Many things have to come together for a successful summit attempt: logistical planning, physical conditioning, weather, nutrition and hydration, health at altitude, technical climbing experience, teamwork, meshing of personalities and styles with partners, and a good dose of luck. The mountain decides whether you make it or not. I kept this in mind throughout the expedition. It would have been very easy for the mountains to become an all-consuming passion, seducing me into “summit fever,” which casts caution aside. I avoided taking uncalculated risks and as a result, lived to plan my next adventure.

Five Keys to Improving Your Ice Climbing Skills

March 18th, 2009

The conditions continue to be great for climbing up in northern New England, so I’ve delayed my long weekend training for the upcoming triathlons to take advantage of some ice. We ended up back at the Flume, hoping to catch a climb at the Pool called Swain’s Pillar, a 4+ climb, but unfortunately it is exposed in the sun and got baked out (not to mention the riverbed was exposed). It would have been a great climb had it been in since you need to be lowered to it and climb up a nice ice pillar. As a result, we hiked around to the main crag at the Flume and climbed some grade 3 ice (which is normally grade 4, but given the warm temps and soft ice, it was more like a 3). We found an ice cave along the way (see videos below).

While climbing (and often times battling) up the climbs this weekend at the Flume, I got thinking about what it takes to improve your ice climbing skills. I think it boils down to five main things:

1. Natural ability– okay, this is something that is out of your control, but there’s no doubt if if you are a natural athlete and a natural climber, you will be a better climber. There are things you can do to fine tune your natural ability, which is where the next four come into play.

2. Practice, practice, practice– I firmly believe how you progress is a function of how often you go. The more you go, the better you become. This seems like a no-brainer, but climbing is one of those things that takes coordination and planning to do, so you need to be focused in terms of when you’re going to go. If you go once a week, don’t expect to see much improvement. Twice a week is much better, allowing the muscles a chance to adapt and you to work on your skills.

3. Rock climbing– You will only get better at ice climbing if you rock climb. With rock climbing, you cannot make your own holds, and you are forced to think about your moves and get your body into the right sequence. These skills are directly transferable to ice climbing, particularly on harder, more sustained and/or mixed routes.

4. Strength training– Climbing itself will allow you to become stronger, but you need to supplment it with a regular regiment of strength training. You don’t have to load on the weight, but rather work on more power movements that simulate climbing. It’s not about bulking up, but rather building explosive power.

5. Mental skills– Climbing more than any other sport perhaps, is a mental game. The reasons should be obvious– you’re dealing with a number of conditions that aren’t natural for humans all at once– being up high, ice in your face, getting balance and moving upward, often times extreme cold and wind, among other things. This requires you to tune your mind to deal with the adversity and remain focused.

Certainly there are other things that you can do to improve your ice climbing skills, but at an individual level, these are the main five.

It’s Fun to Explore from Your Armchair Sometimes

February 25th, 2009

Last night I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s World Tour 2009, in it’s local stop at the Regent’s Theater in the Boston area. Attending the film festival is an annual event for me. It’s absolutely fantastic and reminds me of why I love adventure and the outdoors. Sometimes it’s fun to explore the outdoors as an armchair warrior. You get to kick back and see what crazy, fun and inspirational stuff people out there are doing. There were a number of films shown worth mentioning, but my favorites were “Psyche: Patagonian Winter“, by Andy Kirkpatrick and Ian Parnell, two British climbers who attempted to climb Torre Egger during the winter in Argentina’s Patagonia. Below is a short trailer.

Their story reminded me of my expeditions to South America, and the harshness of climbing at altitude. I never attempted anything quite as difficult as Torre Egger, but had similar experiences that they had with severe weather, being grounded at camp, dealing with health issues, among other things. One of the things that struck me most was their positive attitude throughout their experience. Mountaineering, like triathlon and other endurance sports is very much a mental game and having a positive attitude makes or breaks your experience.

Another of my favorites was “The Last Frontier: Conservation and Exploration in Papua New Gineau”. Below is a short trailer.

This film in support of Rivers in Demand, told the story of a group of American kayakers and conservationists, led by Trip Jennings, who kayaked one of the world’s last unexplored river’s in New Britain, Papau New Gineau. Besides the amazing white water and scenery, what made this film so special was the emphasis on local cultures and the importance of saving those cultures and the world’s critical ecosystems. I should also point out, another cool thing was that the kayakers in the film were using tents supplied by Nemo Equipment, owned and operated by my friend Cam Bremsinger. It was great to see the tents in the footage.

If you have an opportunity, get out and see these films, and explore some of the great film, literature, and other art coming out of the Banff Centre up in Canada. You’ll carry the inspiration into your own workouts and every day life.

The Case for Winter: Multisport at it’s Best

January 28th, 2009

gary-ice-climbingI’m a huge fan of the winter. It’s a great time to diversify your workout routine, get outside and explore. I have many friends and colleagues who don’t like winter, mainly because they choose to hibernate. (Hibernation is for bears). I also have many friends (and some clients), who continue to do the same activities they do in the summer, except they do it indoors on a machine. Don’t get me wrong– it’s important to continue to train your sport year round depending upon what your goals and objectives are (I myself spend lots of time on my bike trainer and in the pool during the winter), but at the same time, it’s important to supplement those workouts with other activities to challenge your body in new ways, vary up your normal activities thus making it more interesting, as well as take advantage of the conditions are around you. There’s no better opportunity to do so than the winter.

If you’re a triathlete, a runner, a cyclist, a swimmer or any other type of endurance athlete, here are some ideas for winter outdoor activities that you can do:

1. Nordic skiing– There’s possibly no better exercise in the winter for endurance athletes. Nordic skiing is a low-impact, full-body workout where it’s easy to manage the intensity levels. I prefer skate skiing since I like the motion and the speed, but classic cross-country skiing is also fantastic. In the winter, I substitute some of my runs with cross country skiing. I also continue to run in the winter, but find skate skiing a good way to break up the routine as well as give my body a break from the pounding of running.

Skate skiing- hight intensity and fun!

Skate skiing- hight intensity and fun!

2. Hiking/snowshoeing– Winter hiking is much more fun than the summer. Not only do you not have the black flies, but there are also fewer people around, not to mention that hiking in the winter is much easier on the body since the snow pack is soft (not hard, like the rocks you typically hike on in the summer). Winter hiking is an aerobic endurance workout, but also an anaerobic endurance workout, especially if you are carrying a pack going up steep terrain. I will often intentionally load up a heavy pack, find a steep mountain (typically in the White of New Hampshire) and feel my hear rate go up and my glutes burn up as I take steps up the peak. While you can choose to go hiking up a mountain, you don’t necessarily need to be gaining vertical height in order to go hiking in the winter. There is great hiking in many cities, mainly in parks. In fact, my wife (in the photo) and I went out for a snowshoe today in Great Brook State Park, which is right outside of Boston. We got a great workout on relatively flat terrain.

Leslie snowshoeing-- great winter workout for endurance atheletes
Leslie snowshoeing– great winter workout for endurance atheletes

3. Backcountry skiing– One of the best (and most fun) winter activities is backcountry skiing (skiing at a resort is okay if you conditions in the backcountry aren’t good). Backcountry skiing develops your aerobic endurance (since most of the time you need to skin up what you’re going to ski down), as well as your strength and balance on the run down (particularly in the backcountry where there are more obstacles you need to manuever around). Living in New England, it’s a bit tough to find great backcountry ski conditions, and when you do, it’s a limited window, so I don’t go as much as I’d like. However, when I do, it’s always a fantastic adventure, and one where I come back exhausted and exhilirated.

4. Ice climbing– “What?!”, you say, “ice climbing?!”. Yes, ice climbing. And, no, it’s not as dangerous as you think. Of course, you need to understand the basics of climbing and how to safely climb. Once you have mastered that, ice climbing is a fantastic aerobic endurance (yes, aerobic), as well as anaerobic endurance workout. Ice climbing develops core strength and balance, as well as forces you to sharpen your mental skills and stamina (many claim that ice climbing is 80% mental). In the winter, I try to ice climb once a week, not only because it’s a great workout, but also it gets you outdoors and to places you wouldn’t otherwise see (such as the ice-filled ravines of Mount Washington, NH).

Climbing at Echo Crag, NH- great aerobic (yes, aerobic) workout

Climbing at Echo Crag, NH- great aerobic (yes, aerobic) workout

I’ve listed just a few activities you can do in the winter– there are certainly many others. What winter outdoor activities do you like?