Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Status Report

- by Bill Urbanski

Thank you to all those loyal readers of The Urban Opus.  Currently, The Urban Opus is on hiatus, but will resume publication soon with the conclusion of the TR story on Mt. Marcy, along with trip reports from Wyoming's Triple Crown - the Grand Teton, Devils Tower, and Gannett Peak, journal entries from Denali, and much more.

In the interim, please visit www.AdventureTravelBuzz.com, where I have been blogging along with my good friend Patrick Gensel from CampTheSummit.com.

Friday, March 4, 2011

No. 14 - Highpoints in History - Part 1

 - by Bill Urbanski    

       Several weeks ago I wrote about a winter ascent of Mount Marcy, the highest point in the state of New York.  Deteriorating weather and other circumstances prevented our party from descending past Lake Tear of the Clouds.

      This was disappointing for me because Lake Tear of the Clouds, in addition to being the source of the Hudson River, also holds a unique place in American presidential history.  It is the site where then Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt learned that he was about to become President of the United States.

Artist Rendition of McKinley Assassination
      The story begins on September 6, 1901 when anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two shots at point blank range into the chest of President William McKinley, who had been shaking hands with well-wishers in the Hall of Music at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

      McKinley was taken immediately to a nearby hospital where emergency surgery was performed.  One of the bullets glanced off McKinley harmlessly. The other entered McKinley’s body through his rib cage, lacerated his stomach, and lodged somewhere in the muscles of his back.  It was never found.

      Astonishingly, state of the art medical technology – the X-Ray – had been on display at the Pan American Exposition, but it was not employed in the search for the rogue bullet.  Surgeons simply sutured the stomach, abandoned the bullet, and hoped for the best.

      Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was in Burlington, Vermont, about to speak before the Vermont Fish and Game Club when news reached him of the shooting.  Without delay, he boarded a boat on Lake Champlain and began his journey to be by the side of the stricken President.

      In the days following surgery, McKinley’s condition improved, and on September 10th, Roosevelt departed to join his family on vacation in the Adirondack Mountains. 

      The Roosevelts were staying at the Tahawus Club, a hunting and fishing club nestled in the foothills of Mt. Marcy, which at the time was known as Mt. Tahawus, a Native American word which roughly translates as “cloud splitter.”

      Roosevelt never could resist a physical challenge – ever since his days at Harvard when, as legend has it, he was told by a doctor that due to a weak heart he should find himself a desk job and avoid strenuous activities.

The Matterhorn
       The following summer (1881) and at the age of twenty-two, Roosevelt was honeymooning in Europe.  He found himself in the shadow of the Matterhorn, that most iconic of alpine peaks which had seen its first ascent just sixteen years earlier.  Despite having virtually zero mountaineering experience, Roosevelt decided he had to climb it.

      He was particularly drawn to the Matterhorn because it possessed “a certain somber interest from the number of people that have lost their lives on it.”  Indeed, four members of the Whymper party (the first successful summit team) were killed on their descent.

      If this or the majesty of the mountain itself were not enough, Roosevelt received the final push from two British mountaineers who were staying in his same hotel.  Roosevelt would later write to his friend and frequent guide William Sewall that he was determined to prove to them that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”
Roosevelt at 22, after climbing the Matterhorn

      Twenty years after the Matterhorn, Roosevelt again found himself in the shadow of a mountain of note, Mt. Tahawus.  Once again he was determined to climb.  Tahawus was no Matterhorn, so this time his wife Edith and children Kermit and Ethel wanted in on the adventure.  The Roosevelts set off on September 12th with a number of guides.  They hiked part way up the lower slopes and overnighted in a cabin with the intention of making a bid for the summit the following day.

      But the morning of the 13th was filled with rain, fog and generally miserable weather.  Edith turned back.  With several guides, she trekked back down to the Tahawus Club.  Undeterred by sloppy conditions, the ever-ebullient Teddy pressed on, hiking through the rain and fog and reaching a clear summit at about noon.

      Biographer Paul Grondahl described the mood of the Vice-President as he gazed out over the vast Adirondack wilderness from its highest point:  “Roosevelt, rarely at a loss for words, was uncharacteristically humbled by the magnificent view. ‘Beautiful country. Beautiful country.’”

      On the other side of the state in Buffalo, at precisely the same hour, the scene could not have been more different.  The deeply devout President, barely audible, began to mumble the Lord’s Prayer.  Infection had taken hold of his body.  Sepsis had set it.  McKinley knew the end was near.

      Grondahl:  “President McKinley’s room fell silent.  He clutched his wife’s hands.  There was nothing more that medicine or his powerful friends could do.  McKinley’s breathing had grown weak and shallow and his life seemed to be slowly seeping out. ‘It’s God’s way,’ he murmured almost inaudible.”


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No. 13 - Oscar Predictions

 - by Bill Urbanski


Hollywood's Kodak Theatre - Oscar's Home
        It is that time of year again.  On Sunday night, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will be presented at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.  I’m something of a movie buff, so you can bet I’ll be watching.

      Every year for the last ten years or so, I’ve made an effort to see all of the movies that are nominated.  Yes, ALL.  I never do see all, but I do try and I end up seeing most, or at least a high percentage of the overall nominations.

      I concentrate on the “big ones” – those nominated for Best Picture, and those with nominations in acting and writing categories.  So that’s where I limit my predictions. 

      I won’t be voicing my opinion on Best Makeup – haven’t seen any of the films nominated – nor will I chime in on Best Editing.  I have seen four of five films in the Editing category.  It’s just I don’t understand how Academy members vote on this one without knowing what ended up on the cutting room floor.  I mean, you gotta be able to compare, right?   But I digress.

      Without further ado, here’s how I see it:

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Melissa Leo, The Fighter -- not as dominating as Mo’Nique in Precious last year, but after leaving the theater, she’s the one character you’re talking about (Well, maybe there are two.  See supporting actor below).  

2nd Place: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit – good performance, but newcomers rarely take home the top prize.

No chance: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom – only ‘cause I haven't seen the movie and I hate movies about animals – That penguin movie a few years ago was just tedious.  Have you seen Operation Dumbo Drop? More like Operation Dumbest Movie Ever Made.

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Christian Bale, The Fighter – punch drunk drug addict equals Oscar gold, period.

2nd Place: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech – solid performance by a gifted actor.

No chance: Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right – very little depth in the character, so no real opportunity for an actor to shine. 

Best Actress

Winner: Natalie Portman, Black Swan – she is at the top of a weak overall field.  Plus, I kinda have a crush.

2nd Place: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right – psycho ballerina always beats lesbian alcoholic. It’s a rock-paper-scissors thing.

No chance: Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole – still haven’t forgiven her for making me sit through The Hours back in 2002.

Best Actor

Winner: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech – cashes in on goodwill and momentum from last year’s performance in A Single Man. Stellar showing again this year puts him far ahead of his competition. This one’s a lock.

2nd Place: Jeff Bridges, True Grit – closest we’ve had to a repeat since Tom Hanks in 1995, when it was almost a three-peat. 

No chance: Javier Bardem, Biutiful – couldn’t understand a damn word he said.  May have worked for Leo as Gilbert Grape; not happenin’ here. Capiche?

Best Picture

      This one’s as close as it gets, between The Social Network and The King’s Speech.  This is Affirmed/Alydar stuff.  Too bad we’ll never know exactly how close.  Hmm... wait a second. Wonder if Julian Assange has any interest in visiting the folks over at Price Waterhouse?

      The two films have split some of the precursor awards, with King’s taking top honors at Screen Actors and Directors Guild; Social winning the Golden Globe.

      The King’s Speech is a well-crafted and superbly acted film.  In the end however, Academy members will be swayed by the impact Facebook has had on American society and the world as a whole.  The Social Network will prevail.

Winner: The Social Network

2nd Place: The King’s Speech

No chance: Toy Story 3 – Stupid to even be here. It’s animated!  They have a separate category for that.  Makes as much sense as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but don’t get me started.

Last Two:  Best Adapted Screenplay - Winner: The Social Network. Best Original Screenplay - Winner: The King's Speech.

Enjoy the movies!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No. 12 - Oh How Sweet It Is

Carl driving the first load of buckets to the sugar bush
- by Bill Urbanski   

      “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.” – P. Connors

      On Sunday, in Northeast Pennsylvania at least, that long and bleak and dark winter finally showed signs of breaking.  Urbanski Farms is once again abuzz with life, and with temperatures above freezing, it is time to tap the trees.

       Every year at this time since 1976, the Urbanski family along with the occasional volunteer or curiosity seeker has trudged into the sugar bush to drill holes into maple trees, string lines of plastic tubing, and hang five gallon plastic buckets.

David - aka volunteer labor / curiosity seeker
       The ground is sometimes snow covered, sometimes muddy and sloppy.  The work is always tedious.  But the payoff is oh so sweet – pure Pennsylvania maple syrup.

      It all starts by tapping the trees and collecting the sap – the lifeblood of the tree.  The sap contains sugar which is a product of photosynthesis from the previous summer.  Sugar concentration in maple sap is higher than that of other trees, and nature’s special blend of amino acids gives it that distinctive flavor so many of us love.

Ben drilling a tap hole
      Sap “flow” is at its peak at this precise time of year – when temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night.  This temperature fluctuation is critical for sap flow.  It causes a change of pressure within the tree which in turn causes the flow.  By piercing the tree with a spile or tap, just inside the bark line and into the actively growing cells of the tree where the sap is present, the sap can be captured.

     Tapping produces a small wound which will heal over in 3-5 years, but ultimately does not harm the tree, provided or course the tree is healthy and mature enough.  And so the same trees can be tapped year after year.  Typically, trees need to be 10-12 inches in diameter before they are mature enough to be  tapped.  Older and larger trees can accept multiple taps.

Ed placing multiple taps on one of the larger maples on the farm
Ben cleaning a tap hole before placing the tap
       Five gallon buckets are placed below the taps, while larger containers catch the flow from tap lines – multiple trees strung together with plastic tubing.  When the buckets fill, a crew of laborers is dispatched into the sugar bush to collect.

     Larger commercial sugaring operations use vacuum systems to aid in collection, bringing the sap to massive collection tanks or even directly to the sugar house for finishing.  At Urbanski Farms, we rely on gravity and human muscle, and a few time-honored and trusted Farmall tractors.

Ben eyes up line #9, hanging and waiting for a driller
     The sap is transported to the sugar house where it is pumped into a 200 gallon tank.  From there the sap feeds directly into the evaporator, where it is boiled down into syrup.

      Our evaporator has a capacity of thirty gallons and is fueled by a wood fire burning beneath.  As water is boiled off, the specific gravity of the liquid increases and sugars are caramelized, and when the sugar solids reach 66%, it’s time to draw off the finished product.  Final filtering, bottling, and labeling are done in the farmhouse and once cooled and sealed the syrup is ready for the public.

      At Urbanski Farms, making maple syrup is a labor of love, with an emphasis on the word labor.  It is also a cross generational enterprise, with workers ranging in age from eight to eighty-two.

coils and coils of tap lines
        On weekends when the sap is flowing, when the buckets are full and when the evaporator fire burns non-stop through the night, the farm is special place to be.  More particularly, the sugar house is a special place to be.  Steam and sweet aromas fill the air, along with music, and the laughter and fellowship of family and friends.

      Stop on by if you’re in the neighborhood and see for yourself.  Syrup is available for sampling and for sale.  But be forewarned.  Bring a pair of boots.  We may just put you to work.

** Click here for a link to Channel 16's story on us last year.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No. 11 - American Mountaineering Museum

- by Bill Urbanski

Patrick Gensel under the Iconic Arch on Washington Ave.
      When many people think of Golden Colorado, they instantly associate it with Coors beer.  The brewing company was established by German immigrant Adolph Coors in 1873, and today, the facility in Golden is the largest single brewery facility in the world. 

Bill with Adolph Coors
        I first visited Golden on my way to climb Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain.  A steady rain caused a one-day delay in my climbing plans, so I needed to find a way to kill some time.  I did as many tourists do – I took the tour of the Coors Brewery.  I spent the night with friends and when the weather cleared, I climbed the next day.

      Last August, I once again found myself in metro Denver with some time to kill, as I waited on a late afternoon flight back east after climbing Devils Tower.  I returned to Golden, but this time I discovered a tourist gem, much more worth my time than some silly brewery tour.  I paid a visit to the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum

Main Exhibit Hall as Viewed From Above
       The museum opened in 2008 and, as its website proudly informs, is the “first and only museum in the United States dedicated to the heroism, technology, culture and spirit of mountaineering.”  It is named for Brad Washburn, a pioneer and legend in the field of mountaineering and cartography.  Washburn also served as director of the Boston Museum of Science for more than forty years.

Patrick Examining the Portaledge Display
      As you enter the museum’s main hall, be sure to watch your step.  A mock up of a glacial crevasse must be crossed.  Once you’re safely across, you will find exhibits on climbing gear, mountaineering history, mountain climate and culture, and much, much more.
      The centerpiece exhibit is a scale model of Everest, constructed in 1990 under the watchful eye of Mr. Washburn himself.

Mount Everest Scale Model
       Nearby the model of Everest is an interactive touch-screen exhibit.  Touch a region of the world, and pictures and descriptions of mountains will be displayed.

      This exhibit is a particular and personal source of pride for me, as photographs I have taken during my travels are actually a part of it.  A visitor can touch an icon for US state highpoints, and find on several states the attribution, “photo by Bill Urbanski.”  

Two of My Photographs on Display in the Museum
        Also housed in the same building is the American Alpine Club library.  It is one of the world’s largest libraries dedicated to mountaineering research and education, with over 20,000 books and video in its circulation.  I can say from personal experience, the staff is dedicated, knowledgeable and friendly. 

Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum
      So if you find yourself in the Denver area and you have some time to kill, drive on over to Golden, but skip the brewery tour.  Instead, spend an hour or two or three exploring the true gem of the city – the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum.  You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

No. 10 - Fireworks at Five AM

 - by Bill Urbanski

       Five AM, and it’s five below (F). I’m standing in a small clearing in the middle of the woods.


     “Pop! Crackle! Bang!”

      Reverberations echo in my ears and the 10,000 or so faces shivering alongside me are instantly lit by fireworks exploding above our heads.  Rock music blares from surrounding speakers.  The crowd cheers and bounces to the rhythm, in just as much an effort to keep warm as to enjoy the music and the moment.

      At one end of the clearing a makeshift stage has been erected, in the middle of which is a large tree stump with a door.  As a backdrop, a ten by twelve foot painted plywood sign announces to all in attendance: “Weather Capital of the World.”

    On any other day of the year, this clearing would likely be, well clear. But today is no ordinary day.  It’s February 2nd – Groundhog’s Day, and today I’m standing at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

      I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time, and for years had considered making a trip to the sleepy little hamlet in western Pennsylvania to observe and to take part in the festivities surrounding this most curious of American holidays.

      My girlfriend Cheryl, who was just as mischievous and spontaneous and, well as crazy as I was, did not hesitate when I proposed that we drive four hours to see a rodent pop out from under a rock.

      “Let’s go. Sounds like fun,” was her immediate response.

      We left Columbus on the evening of the 1st and drove to Brookville, the closest town to Punxsutawney where we could find a hotel.  We got in well after midnight, and managed just a few hours of sleep before it was time to push on the final twenty miles to Punxsutawney.

      Gobbler’s Knob is actually on the outskirts of town, not in the town square, as depicted in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.   And on February 2nd, the only way to get to the Knob is on foot or by shuttle bus.

      The local public schools are closed for the day and school buses are used to shuttle revelers the mile and a half from a mall parking lot to the Knob.  The road is otherwise closed to traffic.

      Cheryl and I disembarked our shuttle at 4:30 AM and found ourselves in the middle of a huge outdoor party.  Thousands roamed the vicinity.  Satellite trucks ringed the Knob.  Floodlights lit the nearby barren trees which served as backdrops for live news shots.  Reporters were on hand from local stations and major networks and of course, The Weather Channel.

Bill Murray reporting live in Groundhog Day
       We mingled with the mostly college-aged set, and searched for a good vantage point from which to view the stage.  A bonfire kept those warm who were lucky enough to be near.   All others were forced to rely on their own heavy coats, blankets or the huddled warmth of a close friend.

      As the appointed hour drew near, the temperatures climbed slightly, and the dawn began to break.

      Then, just when we thought the scene could not be more surreal, a small army of men clad in top hats and tuxedos emerged from the woods and took to the stage.  These men are “The Inner Circle,” a group of fifteen or so dedicated followers of Punxsutawney Phil.

      The tradition at Gobbler’s Knob dates back to the late Nineteenth Century.  In fact, 2011 marks the 125th celebration.  The date itself coincides with Candlemas Day, an old European celebration roughly marking the mid-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.  Tradition told that a sunny Candlemas Day meant a longer winter.  Hence, when Phil sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter is forecast.

      Seven twenty-four AM. Phil’s handler knocks on the door to the stump using a silver-tipped cane.  No answer, so he knocks again.

      “We want Phil. We want Phil…” the boisterous crowd is now chanting in unison.

      Phil’s keeper opens the door, reaches inside the stump and pulls out the plump, furry creature, holding him aloft to the rapturous approval of the masses.

Phil and his handler greet the crowd

      Phil is placed on top of the stump and the Inner Circle crowds around.  Those who are fluent in Groundhogese are closest.  Murmurs are heard in the crowd as Phil makes his pronouncement to his handlers.

      And then, with the requisite ceremony and solemnity attendant an Habemus Papam announcement, the proclamation is read aloud.  Phil, we are told, has seen his shadow – six more weeks of winter.  The crowd groans and laughs its disappointment.

      Three hours of standing in near zero temperatures is wearing thin Cheryl’s normal cheerful spirit.  It takes a little convincing but she agrees to stand with me at the end of the line of people waiting their turn to pet the rat, and to get a personalized photograph.

Phil, his handler, and Bill

      Shortly after eight, I take the stage grinning for posterity.   Cheryl snaps the shutter, and we race for our yellow shuttle.  A hot cup of tea and a hearty breakfast in a heated restaurant await us down below.  With bodies warmed and spirits renewed, we climb back into our car and leave Punxsutawney behind.   

            Happy Groundhog’s Day!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No. 9 - Decision Time on the Mountain

- by Bill Urbanski   

      Decision making is a critical aspect of mountaineering, just as important as having the proper gear and the proper training.  Making the right decisions on the mountain can mean the difference between success and failure, and in some circumstances, between life and death.

       1967: decisions made by members of the Joe Wilcox party on Denali in the midst of an arctic hurricane resulted in seven deaths - one of the worst disasters in North American alpine mountaineering history.  Wilcox’s story is recounted in Forever on the Mountain.

Siula Grande - Simon Yates decided to cut the rope
      1985: in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson dangled from the lip of a frozen cliff, held only by the rope attached to his climbing partner Simon Yates, who desperately clung to the icy slopes above.  Losing ground from his belay, and fearing that Simpson would drag them both over the edge and to their deaths, Yates made what in the abstract is an unfathomable decision; he cut the rope.  The rest is mountaineering lore and history as told by Simpson in Touching the Void.

      June, 2010: I found myself pinned down for three days by a storm at 17,200 feet along the West Buttress Route on Denali.  With no appetite, my body began to consume itself, and with no clear weather window in the forecast, our team decided to abandon its summit bid.  My Denali journal remains an unpublished work, but I do intend to share excerpts in a future blog post.

Mt. Marcy - in the clear an hour before our summit
      January 22, 2011: I stood atop New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy.  Once again, it was decision time on the mountain.  While the environment may not have been as extreme as those described above, the potential adverse consequences of making a wrong decision were just as real.

John, Patrick and Bill at Marcy Dam
    Along with my four climbing partners, I had gained 3200 feet over seven and one half miles to reach a stunningly beautiful mountain top.  We used the popular Van Hoevenberg Trail to reach the top of New York, but I had hoped to descend via a  different trail on the opposite side of the mountain which would allow us to pass Lake Tear of the Clouds and enjoy some different scenery on our way back to Marcy Dam, 2.3 miles from the trail head.

      It was 12:30 pm. The temperature was five below (F), and winds by my estimation were fifteen miles per hour.  This equates to a wind chill of twenty-five below.  Conditions were terrific during our five-hour climb, with mostly sunny skies, and temps remaining steady in the minus five to zero range.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Phil approaching the summit in a frozen world
      But at the summit things were different.  Clouds were moving in. Visibility was sketchy.  It appeared the weather was deteriorating.  A decision had to be made whether to take the alternate decent route, or to simply retrace our steps on Van Hoevenberg.

      Beyond the obvious consideration of weather, here are the other factors that went into our summit decision on Marcy:

Alternate Route towards Mt. Skylight - weather moving in
Route Finding:  Having done variations of the proposed alternate descent before, I knew that cairns existed to mark the path from summit to tree-line.  But my past Marcy climbs were done in the summer; this was winter.  So it was important to take the time to scout the beginning part of the route.
      I was relieved to find that the hefty cairns were not buried beneath the windblown snow.  Snowshoe tracks were also visible.  However, the tracks appeared to evidence just two climbers and they did not appear to be very fresh.

Distance and Time: The alternate route would add another two to three miles of trail to our descent – meaning at least ninety extra minutes.  Departing the summit at 1:00 pm meant that under ideal conditions, we would be lucky to reach Marcy Dam by sunset.  No one had issues hiking from Marcy Dam to the trail head with headlamps; the problem was we could not be confident we would reach Marcy Dam by sunset.  

Trail Condition:  The single factor that caused most concern was the possibility that the alternate descent trail was not broken.  Having seen five- and six-foot drifts in the woods along Van Hoevenberg, the prospect of breaking trail through similar drifts on the windward side of Marcy was not appealing.  Breaking trail in those conditions would be a physically grueling endeavor.

Team Fitness and Possibility of Retreat:  Finally, the team as a whole had to be given consideration.  We all had been exerting ourselves for six hours.  Fatigue would increase regardless of the direction of our descent.  A thousand feet down and past a point of no return, there was the possibility of losing that alternate trail, in virgin snow, in fading light and falling temperatures.

     All things considered, the risks of the alternate descent far outweighed any reward, and the decision was made to forgo the scenic route and to retrace our steps via the Van Hoevenberg Trail.

      In the safety and warmth of the Adirondack Loj Visitors Center, I spoke with a park ranger.  I was advised that the alternate trail we had considered was indeed not broken, and what’s more, those trails that were broken on the windward side were drifting over.

      In retrospect therefore our summit decision was the correct one.  But it is important to note that it would have been just as correct even if we found that our intended trail was open.

      Decisions on the mountain can only be made with the information available at the time of making them.  So do your homework.  Learn as much as you can about the mountain.  Assess your situation carefully and thoroughly.  And when it comes time to make that most important of calls, do so only after you have acquired as much information as possible.

      If you make decisions in this fashion - if you do it right - you will never have any regrets.

      Sure I'm disappointed my team didn't get to experience a more scenic route on Marcy.  I'm disappointed that I didn't summit Denali last June.  But do I have regrets - absolutely not.  I know the correct decision was made in both cases.

      Making correct decisions on the mountain means being around to make more decisions the next time or on the next mountain.  And as alpinists are fond to say, the mountain will always be there.

** For a complete photo set on Bill's climb of Mt. Marcy including a summit panorama video, click here.

Summit Shot - David, Phil, Patrick, John and Bill

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No. 8 - Highpoint Adventures

 - by Bill Urbanski 

      On Sunday, after hiking seven miles through the snowy and icy and sometimes steep trails of Ricketts Glen State Park, I returned home to find a message from my friend Aleya.  I knew she was enjoying a much different environment, nearly half a world away; she was in Hawaii.  What I didn’t know is that she was about to step foot on top of Mauna Kea, which at 13,796 feet is Hawaii’s highest peak. 
Aleya on the Summit of Hawaii's Mauna Kea

      Hawaii stands out for me as it is the only U.S state I have not visited. But I plan to rectify this problem in the not-so-distant future when I too will stand atop Mauna Kea’s summit.  In doing so, I will finish off a list I started checking in 2002 – U.S. state highpoints.

      I was introduced to “highpointing” by my brother Steve, who had become intrigued with the idea of reaching the summits of all fifty states.  He purchased Highpoint Adventures by Charlie and Diane Winger, a highpointing guidebook, and together we spent several years cris-crossing the country in pursuit of higher ground.

      Along the way, we met many other highpointers and even discovered that there was an actual club – a national organization if fact – dedicated to this peculiar pursuit.

      The club’s origins can be traced to October of 1986 when the late Jakk Longacre, an avid outdoorsman and hiker from Missouri, placed an ad in the bulletin section of Outside Magazine seeking other would-be highpointers.  To Jakk’s delight a handful of folks actually did respond, and a year later, the first official club meeting was convened atop Michigan’s highest point, Mount Arvon. 

Official Highpointer Club Logo
       From its humble beginnings – eight persons attended that first meeting in Michigan – the club grew steadily, and today boasts over 3000 members nationwide and even has some international members.

      The club is dedicated to the promotion, education, and conservation of all things highpoint.  A newsletter is published quarterly, a club mercantile sells guidebooks and a variety of state highpoint related merchandise, and a foundation was recently established to provide financial aid to further promote the goals of the club.

      The club also keeps meticulous records and interesting statistics.  As of the most recent club newsletter, and according to club records, 398 persons are considered “48 Completers” – that is to say they have successfully reached the summits of the 48 contiguous United States.  The current count of “50 Completers” stands at 214.

      I became a highpointer and remain a highpointer because I aspire to have my name added to that list of 214, but by no means is such an aspiration a pre-requisite for club membership.  Many members have no expectation or even intention of completing 48, let alone 50.

      Highpointing is as much about the joys of travel as it is about one day peering out over the Alaskan range from the lofty summit of Denali. This country, the United States of America, is a wondrous and beautiful place.  Highpointers by necessity get to see parts of it that the casual traveler would never even consider.  And trust me, I can say from experience that getting out there to see and experience the beauty and diversity of this nation is an end in itself.    

      I encourage everyone to learn more about the club by visiting the club’s website, highpointers.org.  Consider joining the club and/or donating to the foundation.

      Mark your calendars too.  This July from the 14th to the 16th, my good friend Stony Burk and I have the honor of hosting the Highpointer Club’s annual convention, which will be held in Bellefontaine, Ohio.  The event will be held on top of Campbell Hill – literally – the state’s highest point.

      I’ll be writing more on “The Ohio Konvention” in a future post, but you can register for the convention right now by following the links on the club’s website.  Don’t delay.  Spots are filling up. Operators are standing by.

      Until next time, I offer you the sage advice of Highpointer Club founder and guru, Jakk Longacre – Keep Klimbin’!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

No. 7 - 2011 - A Look Ahead

- by Bill Urbanski

     Last Sunday, I took advantage of a crisp January morning to ice climb at the Rock Cut along State Route 309 near Dallas, PA.  This is a gem of a spot for ice climbing, especially around these parts.  It is so easily accessible – ten minute drive from my house, parking just off the highway, and a short three-minute scramble approach leading to an 80-foot wall.
Ice Climbing at the Rock Cut

Friends from my local climbing gym were already there and had just finished setting up top rope anchors when Patrick and I arrived.  We dropped packs and donned crampons while Mike, Jim and Daphne played on the lines they had just set.

Patrick and I jumped in and we all took turns running variations on the two routes for the next several hours.  It was a good bit of clean winter fun.

I am new to ice climbing, and so Sunday complicated things a bit for me – at least for the next few months while shimmering shafts of ice still decorate walls such as those found at the Rock Cut.  Ice climbing ads yet another activity to an already ambitious and over-crowded adventure schedule for the coming year.

I set the bar pretty high for myself last year, visiting twenty US states and the District of Columbia, and climbing in such exotic locales as Denali, Joshua Tree, New River Gorge, The Gunks, and Devils Tower, Wyoming.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to top 2010 for quantity and quality of adventure.  But I sure am going to try.

Aside from ice climbing, I’m back at it indoors too, honing muscle and technique at the Wilkes-Barre Climbing Gym.  I’ve also resumed in earnest my running schedule.  With so much time last year spent climbing I neglected running, and for the first time in five years, my yearly mileage total dropped below 1000.  I will not allow that to happen in 2011.  2010 also marked the first year I did not run at least one marathon since 2004.  Again, not gonna happen in 2011.

I expect to add a half this year as well.  The Lehigh Valley Half Marathon in May looks inviting.  It’s a race I’ve been interested in running for some time, but it always seemed to conflict with the Boston Marathon.  This year, with Boston out, Lehigh will be in.

The Grand Teton
My top mountaineering objective for 2011 is the Grand Teton in Wyoming.  A successful summit will allow me to complete the Wyoming Triple Crown, which includes the Grand, Devils Tower and 13,804 foot Gannett Peak.

Gannett Peak from Bonney Pass after summiting in 2007
While I still haven’t worked out the details with my climbing partners, I may very well end up returning for a fourth run at Gannett and a second shot at the Tower.  I may try to hit a Colorado 14er or do some climbing in Moab or Yosemite – so much to climb, so many choices, so little time. 

From July 14th through the 16th, my good friend Stony Burk and I play host to the Highpointer Club’s annual convention which will be held in Bellefontaine, Ohio – more on that in a future post.

Then there are all the other usual suspects that eat up time – farm work, house work and work work.  Maple syrup season is right around the corner; new vines have been ordered for the vineyard, and of course there’s the tending to all the other regular crops.  Oh yeah, and there’s that climbing wall / fireplace chimney project.  I suspect much of the soreness I can expect to endure this coming year will have as much to do with stone masonry as it will with climbing.

I’m excited at the prospects for the coming year.  Aside from the planned ones, there will certainly be as many if not more unplanned adventures ahead, ones I haven’t even considered.  Life never fails to surprise, presenting new opportunities, new experiences, and new adventures.

I wish everyone a happy, healthy and productive 2011. Stay strong, stay active and be ready to take it all on, no matter what comes your way.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No. 6 - 2010 Year in Pictures

- by Bill Urbanski

    I resisted the urge and finally decided -- I'm not doing resolutions, period.  I tried last year, I think for the very first time, and it was a miserable failure.  Here's a prime example from my 2010 list: "No. 5: Drink more Yoo-hoo."

    Well, Yoo-hoo turned into "Woo-hoo!" instead. There was a whole lot of excitement for me in 2010.  It truly was a year of adventure.  So before I look ahead to 2011, I'm going to take a moment to look back at 2010 - in pictures. Here are my top 20 pictures from 2010.

20 - Looking down 1300 ft. through the glass box floor at Willis Tower in Chicago in November.

19 - Whiskey Rebels (Billy O'Banski and Seamus MacStochla) performing in Scranton on St. Patrick's Day.
18 - Working "I-Beam" in April, a 5.11a classic climb at my local crag. Need to lead it clean in 2011.
17 - Annual trek to DC for Independence Day.  At the Lincoln Memorial, post fireworks.

16 - Campbell Hill, highest point in Ohio. Proving it truly is a "drive-up."  P.S. I'm hosting the Highpointer Club Convention here July 14-16. You're all invited.

15 - Highpointer Club Convention was in Mississippi in 2010. Tough to find things to climb down in the southland

14 - Defended my title at Hazleton's Trot 'n Brew in August.  Record field of nearly 600. Team sponsors behind me, not my competition ;-)

13 - Underground Saints - good friends, great musicians. Released their debut album "Broken Machines" in May.

12 - Meeting Rudy in July. Turns out he's a Yankee fan too.
11 - Sunset at Loon Mountain during the Nor'Easter in September.  Great climbing / music event with some great friends.
10 - Corn field at Urbanski Farms. Representative of the bountiful harvest we had in 2010.
9 - On Denali in June, looking back at my rope team as we climb Motorcycle Hill.  Camp at 11,200' and the Kahiltna Glacier can be seen below.
8 - About to flail on "Congratulations" 5.11a on the Thin Wall at Joshua Tree National Park in November.  1st day of the JTreeTweetup - absolutely loved it!
7 - Me, Patrick and Aleya pose for "The Band Shot" at the state line in August.  On our way to climb Devils Tower.
6 - Dave down climbing towards the "Crow's Nest" on "The Maiden," a classic Flatirons climb with a 110-foot free-air rappel from the summit.
5 - Free solo of "Aguille de Joshua Tree" - during the JTreeTweeup in November.
4 - Devils Tower, Wyoming, illuminated by the fading rays after our summit on 8-9-10.
3 - Team photo of "TZT2" with our gear - on the Talkeetna, AK airstrip prior to our assault on Denali.
2 - Patrick Gensel, 300 feet off the deck and in a lightning storm during Devils Tower descent. Very privileged to be there to take this shot.  Very fortunate to get down safely and be able to share this.
1. Traversing the "Sidewalk in the Sky" at 17,000 feet on Denali on our way to high camp.  Mt. Foraker, Alaska's second highest peak is at the upper left of the frame.
2011 - here I come!