Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alaska: 2 weeks and counting

Well... I'm down to 15 days before I head off to Alaska. I'm on the cusp of the a 10 day comprehensive mountaineering 101 course for which I've worked very hard physically and mentally over the last 4 months. And though my thoughts have dwelt on it frequently during that time, never more so than now. And it is now that I begin to wonder... I wonder whether I will be up to the challenge, small though it is on the far grander scale of mountaineering accomplishments in the world. 

I imagine the conditions at Denali basecamp (hot and mildly squalorous) and the conditions out away from that area on the rest of our training days (pristine). I imagine as best I can what must be the sheer scale of the place, something for which I've been told one can't really prepare. I dunno... I've seen some big mountain ranges in my life, but they say the Alaska Range is on a whole different level--and the Andes and Himalaya on levels far beyond that. 

I'd like to think I can comprehend it, but I'm looking forward to being profoundly stupefied every morning as I peek from my tent door, out into a brightly lit white otherworld, to watch the sun rise over such spectacular scenery as to make a man cry, a view that fills my vision in every direction. And then absorbing as much of those incomprehensibly beautiful sights as my brain can take... filling up my memory with those images, soaking them up like a sponge, bulging with portent like a water balloon reaching its bursting point. And then letting it all flood over me as I stand, feet and boots and crampons crunching and squeaking on hard ice among such glittering and majestic cathedrals of ice and rock, stunned that I am fortunate enough to be in such a place, able to see with my own eyes such sights. And I look forward to being humbled by their presence, their permanence, their visual power, their might and ferocity.

So perhaps in setting out to write this entry, I've answered the questions in my head that inspired me to write it: it seems a bit odd having a raft of nagging thoughts in my head this close to departure, and after training so hard. Questions like "Did I train hard enough? Is there something I could have done better? And have I forgotten anything? Should I have started sooner? Am I ready? Am I REALLY ready??" 

I dunno... I think no matter how hard I train for anything unknown, I'll always wonder whether was enough. It's just human nature in part, I think, to have those thoughts when one heads off to experience things they've so far only read and dreamt about. But as I posted elsewhere today, it's an honest, and truly intoxicating cocktail: 3 parts excitement, 2 parts anticipation, and 1 part terror: all shaken--over ice.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

OMG! The gear just keeps going!

Heart-stoppingly expensive mountaineering boots: check. Unnecessarily overbuilt lightweight stainless crampons: check. Extraordinarily pessimistic -20 degree down sleeping bag: check. Dangerously pointy down-gear-seeking ice axe: check….

Today it was puffy pants. Yesterday, it was some heavy duty training/hiking boots. Day before that, it was a box full of expedition mittens, a climbing harness, my helmet, some compression dry sacks, expedition GoreTex gaiters, and some other miscellaneous (but equally important) climbing gak. The day before that, it was mountaineering socks.

Tomorrow brings merino wool underwear, lightweight gloves (for days when the midweight gloves I already have are just too much), a warm, puffy midweight insulator jacket with hood... And that’s before we even get to all the piles of First Ascent clothes! Baselayers, insulating layers of various weights, softshells, hardshells, and allllll the accessories and pointy bits I bought before that. And more is on the way. Wow.

Seems like a never-ending procession of stuff that just keeps flowing in. Man, it’s like Christmas around here every single day. I love it! To put it like one of my fellow climbers from our upcoming Alaska trip: “I’m excited to learn all the new climbing techniques, but one lesson I’ve already learned: Climbing is expensive!”

Amen, brother. Though in fairness, another climber from our group put it another way when he wrote: “At least every year after this, you buy less and less gear, cuz now you have most of what you need.” True also. So, am I a cup-half-empty person or a cup-half-full person? Unequivocally the latter.

Maybe it sounds like I’m complaining. I’m not. The real truth (as anyone who knows me will attest) is that I find half the fun of getting good at something IN the gear itself, and in getting to know every detail about it you need to make your life better (or in the case of mountaineering, safer). That’s true of my music gear, my sound reinforcement gear, my automotive gear, my ski, biking, hiking, home theater and everything else gear… and although climbing is much cheaper on an item by item basis than, say, amplifiers to power a 20 kilowatt sound system, HOO BOY is there a lot of it, and it sure adds up. :-)

Of course, there’s a much easier and quicker way to say all this: Bryan is a gear whore.

So what’s left?

Well, let’s see: photochromic goggles and glacier glasses capable of Category 4 protection (ouch!), a pair of very insulated sleeping pads for crashing out on the ice every night, more socks, footbeds for inside said heartsoppingly expensive boots, lightweight waterproof trail running shoes, (and in the middle of it all, oops, boots finally arrived... too small! Send ‘em back and get the right ones!), ropes, carabiners, an ascender, a belay device, avalanche transceivers so I can be found in case I’m swept off the mountain by a mammoth white thundering snowslide… it’s endless.
But the really comical bottom line of it all is this: as crazy as it sounds for me and my fellow climbers to VOLUNTARILY spend (waste...?) tons of money to pay someone to take us someplace so harsh and inhospitable that it might kill you--to teach you to do things that can also kill you--and THEN go out and buy the piles and piles and piles of sinle-purpose gear necessary to prevent being killed in such a place, if possible...

Even in the face of all that, I simply cannot WAIT to put it all (and myself) to the test