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Monthly Archives: September 2008

September 5 – October 12, 2008 | India

Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, and I are attempting to scale The Shark’s Fin, an unclimbed pillar, in the spectacular Garhwal Himalaya Range of India. Follow our adventure on the Expedition Dispatches Blog.

– Conrad


September 1, 2008 | Sun Valley, Idaho

This past weekend Jenni and I drove to Sun Valley, Idaho for her annual Labor Day art show at the Kneeland Gallery; she is a fine artist (in both senses of the word) creating whimsical images of Western life, wildlife and the places we love. The drive, passing over the divide and onto the northern Snake River plain, is one of my favorites. The pines give way to a belt of aspens that give way to the verdant fields of alfalfa and potatoes. Eventually the land is too arid to support farming and the sage and black rock of Craters of the Moon National Monument win out.

The Labor Day parade in Sun Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary. The parade tips its hat to our equine past – lots of horses, mules and ponies. When we lived on the land these animals were part and parcel of our existence – we were tied to the land. I try to put myself in their shoes – what was it like to live in Montana before the advent of cars, refrigerated food, mobile phones and DSL. Must of have been some kind of adventure.

final_covercopyJenni also read from her book at Iconoclast, an independent bookseller in Sun Valley. Her book, Forget Me Not, is a memoir of her life with my late best friend Alex Lowe, and the life that Jenni and I as a married couple have created. It never fails to elicit an emotional response from readers. The common thread in her book is the connection we have to wild places and how it shapes us as individuals. My connection to Jenni is based in the wilderness and it is in the wilderness that we find solace and happiness.
(More information on Jennifer Lowe-Anker can be found on her website.)

– Conrad

August 20, 2008 | Glacier National Park

Flying over the arctic from Paris to Salt Lake City I was fortunate to have a window seat. The views are amazing, a first person experience of something that with Google Earth is commonplace. When viewing our planet from 38,000 feet one realizes how small it really is. As we passed over the green and well-cared isle of Ireland my eyes were drawn to the ocean. The few white caps frothed up by the wind were the only indication of activity. Eventually I looked down onto the expanse of white that is Greenland.

In climbing we have a term know as “sand bagging.” This practice entails under grading a route to what its actual difficulty might be. The first ascensionist has the privilege of determining how to set the rating, the assessment of the difficulty of the route, for subsequent climbers. A sand bagged route is one that is always much more difficult than what the rating gives it. In a similar manner, Greenland is perhaps the ultimate sand bag. Greenland is a land of glaciers and rocky fjords with long nights in the winter. What is green about this? Perhaps when it was settled by the Norse it was green. Perhaps it might be green again.

Looking at the glaciers I reflect on how our existence as humans is affecting these storehouses of frozen water. What is changing and what is the long-term prognosis?
My family and I depart Bozeman for a six-hour drive to Glacier National Park. We’ll be meeting up with David Brancaccio and the team from PBS NOW to continue working on our glacier story. We meet Dan Fagre, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to interview him on the effects of a warming climate and the glaciers that define Glacier National Park.

Glaciers are the most obvious manifestation of a warming climate. Unlike animals, that can fly or run from one climate zone to another, or plants that have variances in their life cycle, glaciers are an inanimate collection of ice. A three-year-old child understands how the sun melts an ice cream cone. Too warm and it turns to soup. The pleasure of an ice cream cone is lost.

In the same manner we see ice melting in all of the world’s mountain ranges. Too much warmth and they evaporate. And for Glacier National Park? Is it an ice cream cone on a hot sidewalk in August?

The updated timeline of the melting of the 25 remaining glaciers in Glacier national Park is 12 to 20 years. For a geologic feature, a force that carved these mountains, to be gone this quickly is a sobering manifestation of the change our planet is undergoing.

– Conrad

rainy-lr1August 1, 2008 | The Alps

In mid-July I had the good fortune to visit the OutDoor trade show in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Situated on the northern shore of Lake Constance among a rolling deciduous and coniferous mixed forest with an occasional apple orchard, Friedrichshafen is an ideal location to hold a trade show dedicated to the outdoors. From climbing to trekking to paddling, one can find any sort of toy for the great outdoors. The only aspect of diversity that is larger than this is the people that attend. From around the world. People meet to exchange ideas rekindle friendships and, in the process, sell a few products.

limestone-lrThe Association for Conservation is the European counterpart to the Conservation Alliance. As a board member for our North American counterpart, my goal was to share a slide show highlighting the connection between wild places and the health of our planet. The relaxation and rejuvenation the wild brings to us is obvious. We wouldn’t return to the wild if it didn’t bring happiness. The other aspect is that wild places are the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to the health of our planet. As the dominant species on this planet we need to ensure this small orb’s health and balance for our own health. My grandmother would remind me when she was worried that I had overworked myself, “You have only one body – you better take care of it!”

watchWe have only one planet and we better take care of it. This simple thought is part of my daily decision matrix as I look at my life. I think of the carbon my jet needed to get to Europe in terms of a debit to the future. I don’t want my boys Max, Sam and Isaac to suffer the consequences of planet in transition. So I do something about it. My footprint for the journey to Europe amounts to approximately 2 tons of CO2, which by one estimate costs between $25 and $40 to offset. Be aware. Think mindfully and always keep in mind we share this planet.

Perhaps in my own silly way having a little fun in Switzerland justifies the carbon. Why not experience a little of the local color? My friend Tim Seipel is studying for his PhD in plant biology in Zurich, Switzerland. After the trade show Tim and I matched up our schedules for a little climbing. As the summer of 2008 is shaping up to be wetter and colder, we opted to climb on a small limestone rock tower near his house. The tower is some 400 meters in length and offered fine climbing. Cows clanged about on verdant green pastures as we tugged on perfectly sculpted handholds. Once we made the summit we had a rope length of scrambling before we trundled down a green slope to a fine pilsner beer.

My next notes to share with you will return to NOW PBS special “On Thin Ice” that I am working on. We visited Glacier National Park.

– Conrad

July 2008 | India

Our PBS expedition begins looking at water and its effect on humanity, specifically India. In Montana we take water for granted. It snows in the winter, rains in the spring and our local reservoir in Hyalite Canyon fills up. Open the tap and out comes water. Aside from a faint chlorine smell, it is clean and delicious. When I pay my water bill there are a few tips on how to save water: the resultant costs of leaky faucets and the best time to water the lawn. But past this, I am blissfully ignorant.

In Delhi we are confronted with a different reality. Water is scarce. Vendors sell glasses of water from handcarts. Hotel guests are urged to conserve with shorter showers and to use less linen and towels. The trees and plants – eking out an existence in the concrete reality of one of planet’s largest cities – are parched. The monsoon is on its way north, yet to arrive. For the millions of people in this city water is a very real issue.


gangotri_glacier2As in Montana, the water arrives in the mountains, is stored and then slowly released over time. Reservoirs are predominantly the natural type: glaciers. The ice builds up over time from annual snowfall and then is slowly released over time. For millennium, these have been the source of water. For the past twenty years the high Himalaya has been a place I visited for fun. Climbing and not much else.

indiaYet this time we were to look at something a bit different. Are the glaciers changing? Are the getting bigger or smaller? How do these changes affect the millions of people that depend on water?

– Conrad

June 16, 2008 | Along the Ganges River, India 

india_hardiwar1Rivers are the lifeblood of water. They are the most essential source of the substance that sustains life on earth. Their age far exceeding human civilization, they are the strongest connection we as humans have with our planet.

Each continent has its major river, the one all others are compared to. In South America the Amazon reigns. The Nile runs from the heart of Africa to the Mediterranean, a cultural conduit from the cradle of humanity. For India and the Himalaya, the Ganges is the river. Sourced high in the Himalaya glaciers and flowing a 1000KM TK to the Bay of Bengal this river supports 500 million people. This river provides more than physical sustenance from crops and well being. It is central to the Hindu religion.

The Gangotri Glacier, located on the crest of the Himalaya is the source the Ganges River. Snow, which accumulates in the shadow of 22,000-foot peaks, is compressed into ice, which over time due to its elasticity flows down to a lower elevation and melts. This melt water is the original source of the Ganges.

During mid June this year I joined a team of journalists from PBS-NOW to look into to correlation between glaciers, their relative health and the humans that live from the Ganges. “On Thin Ice” is the title of the one-hour special, which will be presented by David Brancaccio this, coming January. Glaciers across our planet are melting an accelerated pace, a fact that regardless of its cause, that will have severe impacts on humanity. The loss of glaciers is clearly visible and backed by straightforward data. The Himalayas, which separate the Indian subcontinent from Asia, are home to over 8000 glaciers. These high altitude frozen reservoirs are the source to the five major Asian rivers. These rivers in turn sustain a population of 1 billion people. Melting glaciers are forecast to flood in the near term 50 years as they melt out which will be followed by drier seasonal rivers. By visiting the Gangotri Glacier and the Ganges River to see the impact of glacier recession.

hillside_village_indiaWe began our journey in Delhi the capital of India. Meeting scientists, farmers, and pilgrims allowed us to get a glimpse into the Ganges and its significance.

– Conrad

May 21, 2008

It is sixteen years to the day that my mentor Mugs Stump perished.

Mugs was guiding the south buttress of Denali when on the way down a crevasse bridge gave way and buried him. His rope led into a jumble of ice and snow. There was no hope.

At the time, in 1992, I was 29 and the world was my oyster. Climbing and being in the wilderness was just about all I lived for. My core group of climbing partners had yet to experience the devastation of death in the mountains. Yeah, stuff like that happened, but it didn’t happen to us. We rationalized the game with silly explanations like our abilities were based on experience; we wouldn’t be in a dangerous spot like that and we had better equipment. Of course when someone close to you perishes all this philosophy flies out the window. It can and will happen to all of us.

Mugs was a natural athlete. He played football at Penn State under the tutelage of Joe Paterno. His true calling was in the mountains. In the 80’s he was one of the preeminent alpinists. From the wind-ravaged summits of Patagonia to the bone-numbing cold of Alaska, Mugs traveled the world in pursuit of adventure. Mugs was 13 years my elder and for myself, as a young man, a valued mentor with lots of vision and experience.

For Mugs there was no greater joy than being outside in the great big open. There was nothing more fun than pulling into parking lot under the stars, falling asleep to the anticipation of an early start. The beep of the alarm would coax us out the comfort of our sleeping bags to the stove. A cup of coffee warmed and motivated us. Once we were a half hour in, with trees and the wind around us, we were at ease with ourselves and the world around us.

We miss you Mugs. Thanks for the years of inspiration.

– Conrad

April 25, 2008 | Utah

Summer vacation has its roots in agriculture, when the majority of our nation lived an agrarian life. The family pulled together to work on the land. It was a time for teachers to integrate into their communities. The provenance of spring break is a little more mysterious. In Montana spring break is the transition from winter to hopefully spring.

With winter still in its grip, our family tradition is to pile into the mini van for a trip to the red rock country of southern Utah. scott-below-n-six-shooter-small2Our goal this year was the eastern side of Canyonlands National Park and Indian Creek Canyon. The drive south crosses the divide at the Idaho – Montana border, that being the high point of our journey. There we marveled at the 10-foot tall snowdrifts. Snow camping was not our plan. Sand, steep cracks for climbing, a crackling campfire and the company of several other families was our goal.

The Wingate sandstone that defines Indian Creek must have been the inspiration for the Road Runner cartoon series. Looking out over the slender sandstone spires, cliffs ringing the valley like a massive red curtain and the meandering wash with the occasional grove of cottonwood trees one can imagine Wiley E. Coyote chasing the elusive road runner. I just hoped there would be no falling anvils!

lighteningboltcrack2-small2The Park Service campground provided our home for the week. Ringed by sandstone formations and slot canyons, our children explored the terrain on their own time. We parents cooked camp meals over sputtering stoves, confident that the children were being safe. They knew what a cliff was and were not going to fall off. Or at least we grownups comforted each other with that thought. By allowing the kids to rat around, we gave them a chance to discover the world for themselves, without a set of rules. Knowing that it is a potentially dangerous environment, we also signaled to the kids that we trusted them to make good decisions. Empowering children with these responsibilities makes them confident. Which, from my view, is a good attribute for children to have.

– Conrad

April 09, 2008

As a child my parents would haul my siblings and I out for the Sunday afternoon hike. Into the station wagon we would pile with Dad at the wheel and drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge towards Mt. Tamalpias or Point Reyes National Monument. Once we arrived at the trailhead, we would bolt off in all directions as our parents closed up the car and readied a pack with the days’ lunch in it.

The trail signified the beginning of the wild. Sure, it was well maintained and visited by thousands of like-minded people annually, yet to me as a little kid, it was full of wonderment and the unknown. I would race along, imagining myself to be Daniel Boone or some other larger than life explorer. The towering and magnificent trees were a source of great mystery. A mountain lion could be lurking behind one, ready to pounce on my tender body. I had to be aware! My brother and I would find a pile of twigs and build miniature forts on the side of the trail, small houses for beetles and similar insects.

Eventually we would find a place to set up a picnic. Our adventures had led to an appetite, one Mom was most happy to satiate. A sandwich, an apple and a cup of juice were a far cry from the fare of Lewis and Clark, yet to the mind of a seven-year-old, surrounded by trees, insects and birds, with no sign of human incursion, it was wild. Big and daunting wild.

I realize now that the effort my parents took to introduce the wilderness were key in shaping who I am now. When my wife Jenni and I take our boys out to the woods we have a chance to connect with the kids in an unobstructed manner. There is nothing to buy, no rides to ride, just family and the woods.

And these are the best moments. Both now and 40 years ago.

– Conrad

March 27, 2008 | Katmandu

Katmandu on a winter’s night is a unique place. People are tucked away in their houses, the aroma of charcoal braziers mixes with the humidity drifting up from the terai. Even with 4 million people in a small valley, there is a hint of the exotic. Perhaps I have read too much Rudyard Kipling and I imagine my self-alive 150 years earlier. With no jet aviation let alone the internal combustion engine mounted to four wheels.

Perhaps this is it . . . my love for nature and the outdoors. I’m perpetually trying to get back to a place and time that is a compilation of my imagination’s best moments. Well,if that is what it is I certainly don’t mind.

I’m in Katmandu for the fifth annual Khumbu Climbing School, a vocational training program for the high altitude climbers of Nepal. The climbers that are with me are here to share their expertise on climbing with the local Nepali people. Our goal is to make climbing (guiding) on the tall peaks safer for the Sherpa – the ones who do the majority of the work and suffer the most of the consequences.

The Khumbu is a special place. The Sherpa people that live in the region are super friendly and have a balance in living with nature. Their villages are within the Sagarmatha National Park – which means they live close to wild places. Land that is arable has been tended for centuries, coaxing potatoes and barley from the sandy soil. It seems the only wildness we find are the high mountains, rising tall above the villages and monasteries. Is it possible that there is actual wildness in these mountains or is it merely a postcard backdrop to a human landscape?

Certainly it isn’t the wilderness one comes to think of in Alaska or Siberia, where human impact is far away and passing when it arrives. But it isn’t the urban landscape that covers much of our delicate planet. Hidden in the steep canyons are tall pine trees, home to squirrels and birds. In the under story one can see the occasional musk deer or if one is lucky and patient a snow leopard. As a climber, the cliffs and peaks call me with their unexplored and mysterious faces and ridges. Here, far above where grasses grow is the stark, desolate wilderness of the high alpine. Trapped in perpetual cold, clad by snow I find my greatest joy being in these high mountains.

Knowing there is wildness, just beyond, in places my imagination can visit and my eyes report upon, is what sustains my drive to be in the woods. The finest moments of my life – from being with my grandfather on the upper Tuolumne River fly rod in hand as a wide eyed six year old to standing on the summit of our shared planet as an incredulous 44 year old – are inextricably tied to the wild. Without it I wouldn’t be who I am.

And if we extrapolate this to the bigger picture, what would our world be without wilderness?

– Conrad