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  My Denali journal remains an unpublished work, but I do intend to share excerpts in a future blog post.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,  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!