A new era of training

With my failure on Hood still eating at my soul, I have become very resolved to get my physical and mental condition in better shape than I ever have. In a sense, I was both blessed and cursed when I was a little younger, since I could basically go months without doing any kind of exercise, then get off the couch (metaphorically speaking) and go climb a mountain. At 42, I am discovering that I can no longer do that, and it certainly isn’t going to get any easier as I age.

I had been doing these five-mile walks from my house to Whistler’s Bend park and back, and I felt like I was in decent shape from doing them, but after Hood I realized that I needed to make them tougher, so I have walking with my backpack on, starting with about twenty pounds and gradually adding more weight. I am now carrying around 30 pounds. But even my walks are not nearly grueling enough to get myself in the shape I need to be in, so last Monday I went to the North Bank Habitat Management Area, a nearly 7000-acre park that is only ten miles from my house.

(The map below shows the area of the NBHMA)

I did a loop that is about 9.5 miles long, with cumulative elevation gains and losses that are probably over 2000 feet. Basically, it is a mini mountain-climb. I love going there. On Monday I saw more raptors (around 20) than people (zero). I am quite fortunate that this amazing park is so close to my house. I am going to go there again today. My goal is to do that loop at least once a week, but preferably two times each week. Combining that with my five-mile power walk three times a week, plus a new series of core exercises I am doing, and I will be in great shape. I am already getting there.

In a couple of weeks I plan on doing an even bigger loop at the North Bank Ranch (as it is known locally). By connecting trails, I ought to be able to do a fifteen-mile loop that will have cumulative elevation gains of closer to 3000′. Once I am in good enough shape to do that, then I will make it a weekly hike.

This is going to be great year in the mountains.


Failure and Success on Mt. Hood

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700'

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700′

Sunday the 20th was an amazing day on the mountain. Mild, mid-spring conditions (while the lower valleys were stuck in a frozen inversion pattern), brilliant sunshine, no wind and near-perfect snow for climbing. We left the parking lot at Timberline Lodge at approximately 3:10 a.m., and almost immediately my lungs were burning. Within half an hour I was already questioning whether or not I could climb the mountain. It was very frustrating. I had been training throughout most of the winter, and while I had been sick a few weeks earlier, I really thought I was essentially free from illness and fully expected to climb well that morning. So to struggle so quickly was really discouraging.

My climbing partner, Bill, who has climbed the mountain somewhere around 120 times, kept pushing me to continue, and I kept grinding it out, despite the burning in my lungs and the shaking of my legs. After a few hours, my lungs did actually start to feel better and I began to regain hope that I might make the summit.

When we reached the top of the Palmer Ski lift, around 8500′, we stopped to eat and rest for just a few short moments and Bill, who is also a nurse, got out his oxygen saturation/heart-rate monitor and we discovered that my heart rate, even after I had been resting for a few minutes, was in the mid-130’s, while his was about half of that. He expressed his concern about it, but also said that I was not showing any symptoms of anything else, and he believed we could continue safely.

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

So on we went. Shortly after heading past the top of the Palmer, the snow conditions were getting icier, so we decided to stop again and get on our crampons. Then we continued.

I also continued to struggle. Sometimes my lungs would be burning, and would also wheeze a little, but with Bill’s gentle prodding and my determination, I kept pushing, and inevitably  would feel better again.

When the sun began to rise around 7, we were greeted by a mountain that was otherworldly and fantastic, fluted ice pinnacles up high and snow slopes colored salmon by the rays of the morning sun. These are moments we mountaineers live for, and I was so glad to be there to witness it.

By this point I felt like there was a good chance I would make it to the summit. My wheezing had stopped and I was starting to feel better. Yet every time we stopped and took my pulse, it was still between mid-130’s and 140, and would not go down with rest. Bill was obviously very puzzled by it. I was able to talk while we walked, I wasn’t showing symptoms other than being really tired.

When we reached the base of Crater Rock, I really started to hit a wall. Obviously, elevation had a lot to do with how I was feeling, since we were now around 10,000 feet. But I was also starting to wheeze again and I just had no gas left in the tank. I fell further and further behind Bill at this point, and I was really beginning to doubt whether I would reach the summit or not.

When we reached the Hogsback, the traditional roping-up point for the final, steeper pitches above, I was spent, and wasn’t breathing too well. Bill took my pulse once more and it was around 140, and didn’t go down with rest. I decided that was enough. Since the sun was fully risen and its warmth was releasing a barrage of ice chunks every few minutes, I knew that I would be putting both of us in danger if I continued on. Speed would be required to get across the firing line, and that was something I was lacking. So I told Bill I would wait while he continued on.

I hated having to make that decision, yet at the same time I felt like in this case, it was the right one. I have stood on Hood’s summit before, and I am certain I will again, but I am not so summit-obsessed that I need to push myself too far. As it turned out, I am really glad I made that decision.

Bill headed up, and I retreated to a flat spot closer to Crater Rock where I could rest and relax and warm up in the sun. I took off my crampons, since my feet were getting cold and shot film while Bill zipped up the mountain. He actually had to dodge a mini-avalanche of ice chunks as he ascended — if I had been following him, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the energy to run out of their path like he did.

It probably took Bill forty-five minutes to make the trip to the summit and return, and when he did, we took my pulse again, only to discover that my HR had only dropped a few points despite a long time to rest. Obviously my body was feeling pretty tweaked.

I didn’t make the summit. Again, another winter failure, yet this one felt different. I had not been in pain, I had pushed myself (with some gentle prodding from Bill) and I had reached a point higher than any other mountain in Oregon. It was an ass-kicking training run, and it motivated me to train even harder before attempting it again, something I have been doing since I have returned.

In the end we figured that several factors had been effecting me on the mountain: 1) I was having a slight case of exercise induced asthma (I had asthma as a teenager but I rarely have been effected by it as an adult — in fact, I don’t even have inhalers of any kind) 2) Having been ill for almost a month and only getting better a few weeks before the climb and 3) Coming from near-sea level and driving up to 6000′ in only a few hours, then going even higher after that was also a mitigating factor in my performance. Looking at the climb knowing this has made it easier to digest my failure. In fact, it has made me pretty proud of my accomplishment in reaching the elevation that I did.

I have been working much harder at my conditioning in the week since I returned from Hood. I am now doing my five-mile power walks with close to thirty pounds in my backpack, I started doing a core-workout routine and yesterday I did a 9.5 mile, 2000+’ elevation gain hike with the same weight in the pack. A few more weeks of this type of conditioning and I will be ready to return to Hood.

Hood on the Horizon

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Well, it looks like everything is falling into place for me to go to Mt. Hood over the next few days to make a winter attempt on this fair state’s highest peak. I wasn’t sure if things were going to work out, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to make the trip to Eugene, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get there at all, but after contacting a few people, I was able to hitch a ride with Charles, my friend with whom I went to the Grand Canyon and South Sister. My bags are now packed, the gear is sorted, and I am really excited to meet up with Bill tomorrow.

Bill Soule is an amazing climber. He has summited Hood over 100 times, he has climbed all over the world and personally knows or has met a huge number of my climbing heroes. He has so many amazing and funny stories to tell, I am sure it will be a blast climbing with him.

Our plan is to head out of Eugene around 2 or 3 and arrive at Timberline Lodge in the evening. We are taking canopied pickup, and will crash out and try to get as much sleep as possible before waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to head up. Probably won’t get a lot of sleep, but that is part of the Mt. Hood experience. Nevertheless, it should be fun.

I really hope I can summit this time. I am ready to make winter mountaineering a more regular part of my life, especially now that my pain issues seem to be a thing of the past. We shall see.

I will be taking both my video cameras, so I will have some spectacular footage when I return!

Thinking about Hood

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin

Mt Hood above Timberline Lodge. Photo copyright (c) 2013 Swift Benjamin using a Creative Commons license

I have been wanting to make a successful winter ascent of a major Cascade peak for as long as I have been climbing, but always in the past my pain issues (always worse in the winter months) limited both my fitness and motivation to get the job done. I have made half-hearted attempts on Mt. Thielsen, Mt. Bailey, and Hood. The closest I have come to making a successful ‘winter’ climb was when we got to the summit pinnacle on Three-Fingered Jack before a lack of daylight made us turn back. Still, this was in mid-November, so it wasn’t really a winter climb at all.

On Bailey and on Hood, my hip was hurting so badly that I very quickly had to turn back. On Thielsen I was out of shape — again, because such chronic, consistent pain makes it so difficult to maintain a fitness program. Until last spring, I believed that I would probably never be able to climb in winter. My pain levels were at extreme levels and I wasn’t sure for a while if I would be able to climb much more at all.

But then I started to take Tramadol, a non-narcotic pain reliever that did something that heavy doses of opiates could not: It made my pain disappear. Within an hour of taking it, the pain in my right shoulder eased for the first time in months. Several hours went by. The pain did not come back. After about six hours I felt an ache again, but I took another dose and it went away. Days passed and I kept taking Tramadol, and it continued to keep the pain away. After several pain-free weeks turned into several months pain-free, I knew that I had found a medication that really worked, and did so without making me feel intoxicated in any way.

It has been nine months since I started taking Tramadol, and I have gone through my first pain-free autumn in seventeen years. Now we are firmly into winter and I am still experiencing very little pain or discomfort. I am in better condition at this time of year for the first time in a long time. I have been going on near-daily 5-mile walks and feel pretty happy with where I am at physically. Not in top shape, but not out of shape either. In fact, I would be in much better shape except I got sick over the holidays and lost several weeks of possible conditioning.

I had called my friend Bill about a week ago and asked him if he would want to climb Hood sometime soon, and he had expressed interest. Two days ago he called me and asked if I wanted to go on the weekend of the 19th-20th. I wasn’t going to have my eldest daughter down from Eugene that weekend, so I said I would go. The weather is supposed to get a little warmer during the week, and should get a nice freeze-thaw cycle set up, perfect for winter climbing conditions. Now I just need to figure out a way to get up to Eugene and a ride back on Sunday. Somehow, the conditions will arise to make it so.

I think this could be the first successful winter ascent for me. Bill is an uber-experienced climber who has even been on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and between the two of us we should be able to get up and down the mountain safely. I have a good feeling about this one.

If I can do this, it will be a great way to start off the year.


Beginning A New Journey

Borobudur Sunrise copyright (c) 2012 Prayudi Hartono using a Creative Commons License.

Borobudur Sunrise copyright (c) 2012 Prayudi Hartono using a Creative Commons License.

“We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains” — Li Po.

I have been conditioning almost every day since the new year, taking regular 5-mile walks to the park and back, with two sizable hills to overcome along the way. While I walk I sometimes listen to lectures by The Teaching Company, and yesterday I listened to a couple of lectures on Buddhism. Doing so inspired me to really commit myself to the Buddhist path.

Buddha Entwined Copyright (c) 2012 Echiner 1 using a Creative Commons License

Buddha Entwined Copyright (c) 2012 Echiner 1 using a Creative Commons License

I have been reading about and adapting my life to Buddhist philosophy for about twenty years now, mostly on an intellectual level, but never fully committing myself to it. I don’t meditate much, I only occasionally pick up a book on Buddhism, and yet I know it is the one ‘religion’ for me. I believe in compassion. I believe that much of the world is based on human illusion and misunderstanding. Buddhism effects me on a soulful level that nothing else does. Nonetheless, I have still been reluctant to commit myself.

I realized as I walked and listened to the lectures that there is much about the act of mountaineering that gives it a commonality with Buddhism. It requires the practitioner to be fully immersed in the present moment, it requires courage, it requires dedication and commitment. In some ways one could say that alpinism is a form of walking meditation. So it dawned on me that I could somehow merge the two, Buddhism and Mountaineering, and perhaps write a book about my experiences.

I made the decision as I walked. I would become a full Buddhist, rather than a semi-Buddhist.


Truthfully, I don’t know what this entails exactly, except that I will immerse myself more fully into Buddhist literature and — most importantly — begin a practice of meditation. My walks, in a sense, can be a form of meditation, although for now I will still continue to listen to lectures for the most part. Yet meditation must become a regular part of my practice.

How will this effect my climbing, my adventuring? I don’t believe it will hinder anything, in fact, I believe that there is a rich mine of untapped Buddhist ideals behind my risky adventures. After all, one of the principles of Buddhism is the study of our own mortality, and that is, in a sense, what drives many of us to take up these higher-risk sports. By facing death, we feel our own lives more keenly. I have always found that for me, going kayaking, rock-climbing or mountaineering has a much larger element of spirituality than plain-old fun. A lot of people do these things because they are fun, and that is it, but for me, stepping onto a mountain or crag or paddling down a river is much more about seeking unity with the universe. When I am paddling well, I flow with the river as if I am part of it, when I climb well, I am essentially doing a form of vertical yoga.

Yoga In The Mountains Copyright (c) 2012 Lulumon Athletica using a Creative Commons license.

Yoga In The Mountains Copyright (c) 2012 Lulumon Athletica using a Creative Commons license.

I am seeking something larger than myself, yet I am also trying to understand myself in the deepest way possible. Hopefully this new direction will allow me to expand that quest, and I truly believe it will.

The path awaits. It is time to enter upon it.


A New Year, Some Thoughts

It is places like the Grand Canyon that make me feel the most alive

It is places like the Grand Canyon that make me feel the most alive

2012 was an interesting year for me as an avid outdoor adventurer. It was another down year in some ways, I hardly rock climbed at all, I only climbed three big mountains, and yet I still managed to get in a wide diversity of adventures, from rafting the upper North Umpqua to backpacking in the Grand Canyon. For a lot of people, this would have been an epic year. I guess it just shows where my standards are these days, and that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

This year, however, I would like to have a lot more adventures. These are my resolutions/goals and manifestations for 2013:

*Rock climb at least 20 times this year. Considering the amount of cragging available within an hour of my house, there is no reason I shouldn’t be able to accomplish this goal.

*Climb (or at least make a serious attempt) 10 big mountains this year. My list includes Rainier, Baker, Middle Sister, Jefferson, Whitney, Hood, Adams, and several others, but the first five are the most important.

*Kayak at least 20 times this year. I live on the North Umpqua river for goodness sake! Also, this list does not include the times when I just go in my backyard and paddle, I mean that I want to make at least 20 runs down the river.

*I want to get my family more active in the outdoors. Since Julia was born in 2011, we have not taken her on a single hike. Not one! Ridiculous. We just got out of the habit. The sad thing is (as if the above statement wasn’t sad enough), we went on many waterfall hikes while Brook was pregnant with JuJu and yet haven’t taken her to see a single one of these falls after her birth. Going to change that this year.

*Visit at least four national parks this year. Crater Lake is a little over an hour away. Rainier is half a day’s drive. Same with Lassen. If I climb Whitney, I will be in Sequoia/King’s Canyon NP.

*Start climbing more serious mountains with my eldest daughter, Zoe. She will be twelve in February, and this is a pretty typical age for kids to start climbing mountains that are a step up from hikes. We are planning on starting with Diamond Peak, McLoughlin (when they are still snow covered and require the use of an ice-axe and possibly crampons), Hood, Middle Sister and Whitney. I am also going to get her a new harness for her birthday, so we can resume rock-climbing together.

I am a better person when I get myself and my family into the great outdoors. Maybe living in the woods and on the river has jaded us a little bit, making us feel like we just have it all right here, and while it is absolutely beautiful here, there are so many places that are truly awesome that we need to get to. I certainly do. There is a huge difference between what we have here and what we could experience at a place like Crater Lake or Rainier. A sense of awe. A sense of power, a sense of humility.

I watched this video the other day, and it really reminded me of what I am missing when I don’t get to the really big places in the world, and it woke me up, made me realize what I long for. I need to go to places like Glacier, Zion and the Grand Canyon to tap into what has always been the most amazing feeling for me. It started when I first went to Yosemite as a child, and felt so small and yet so alive, and it will continue as long as I am able to get to these places.

So here’s hoping that this will be a fantastic year for me and for my family. I pray to the powers that be that I can get there often.