A blog on rock climbing, travel and science

"Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment." ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

Some of this stuff is just too good not to be written down...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Disenchanted hipsters

I've had to stop going to my favorite coffee shop because I loathe the disenchanted hipsters that work there.

Their mothers must not have taught them manners.

or the pitfalls of getting neck tattoos.  Not to say I have a problem with neck tattoos.

Get me a coffee, hold the attitude, room for cream.  Thanks, bitch.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Montezuma's Revenge

The bivy was cold, wet and, above all, unsettling.  The silence was continually interrupted by the thunder that boomed though the remote canyon.  The echo seemed to carry right up until the next shattering blast emitted from the clouds.  Endless thunder.  The darkness was broken every thirty seconds by lightning that had our arm hair standing on end-- literally. The lightning seemed to linger in the air everywhere; not sorted and organized into the typical weather channel bolts.

I had forgotten my socks.  The wet rope wrapped around my blistered, cactus mangled feet kept the wind and rain from freezing my toes.  "Fucking Mexico," I lamented.  Clark suggested trying to lower.  I’m not sure if he was serious, but the thought actually frightened me.  We were a thousand feet off the deck.

We put our helmets on. 

It happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so I had hauled up a small celebratory water bottle full of Crown Royal. This was the only thing that truly mitigated our somewhat dire circumstances, and it allowed us some much needed rest.  We "woke up" at sunrise and surveyed our situation. 

“We’re Alive,” said Clark.  
I pulled myself upright, shivered, muscles screaming and stiff.  “Fantastic,” I muttered. The rope was soaked and we had more than ten pitches above us ranging from 5.9–5.12a.  Clark checked our water reserves and we agreed that we had a satisfactory amount to make the summit push.  We had hauled a second rope for faster rappels and we opted to leave the wettest one on the ledge.  We could pick it up on the way down.  I think we were both waiting for the other to suggest bailing, but it never happened and sometime around seven in the morning I put Clark on belay and we began the days climbing. 

It was spectacular.  If not for the actual movement, we were positioned above low cloud cover that gave the impression that we were only a couple hundred feet off the ground, not a thousand.  I remember thinking this to be somehow eerie.

We were in no hurry and making pretty good time.  I think it was about noon when we started the last pitch.  It was a scramble along precarious loose boulders with thousand foot drops on either side.  We were clipped into a fixed rope that we pretended was not core shot to shit.  I distinctly remember moving onto one of the boulders and it shifting to the right.  Normally not a big deal, but the rope I was clipped into was bolted to it.  Of the twenty four pitches of the route, this was by far the sketchiest one.  Once on top we did the traditional victory photo shoot, flashing semi-fake smiles that I would later convince myself were 100% genuine.  I sat down slowly pulled the rock shoes off my swollen feet, and spent some time taking in some of the best sights northern Mexico has to offer.  Then, after the near hundred degree weather started leeching the fun of the moment, our thoughts moved to the twenty four pitches we had to rappel. 

Most climbing accidents occur on the way down rather than the way up, but of course this is something you never mention when you are about to rap 20 consecutive times.  “Most accidents,” I cheerfully said to Clark as we were setting up our first rappel, “happen on the way down you know!”

We simul-rapped the pitches back down to the bivy ledge and picked up the second rope we had left behind.  A few fast raps later I collided with a tree/cactus thing.  Cursing, I pulled a few barbs out of my leg and maneuvered around.  We were on solid ground now- a large ledge which we had to traverse to another section of five or six pitches.  Time had gotten away on us and it was somewhere around four in the afternoon.  With our double ropes employed we were only three rappels away from enchiladas and a beer.  Our water cache was all but exhausted, but we were less than an hour from the ground and the sun had finally relented, leaving us in the mercy of the shade.  With a double rope rappel you have to make note of which side to pull down to avoid pulling the knot into the anchors.  We were climbing on a red rope and a brown rope.  To help our sun-stroked brains we made up little phrases like, “brown is down, red you’re dead.” 

Anyway, I went to pull the rope and it was hard going.  I bet it’s that nasty bush thing up there I remarked.  The other end of the rope left the ground and began its journey up the wall to the anchors as we pulled on the other end. 

It never made it.

Many climbers have been there: the rope just won’t pull down any further- dynamic rope stretching indignantly despite your hardest efforts.  Clark and I were both pulling now, and before to long it was obvious it was not about budge.  The other end of the rope dangled above us about fifty feet up and forty feet off to the right of the route.  The paths of established routes in Mexico are often obvious in that the rock off-route is usually, a) ridden with cactus, b) a disgusting choss pile, or c) all of the above.  This particular pitch was in the latter category.  I have been in many moderately sketch situations while climbing, and for some unknown, terrible reason, getting out of these situations almost always ends up on me. 

I tied into the free end and Clark put me on belay.  I climbed up, clipping the first two bolts as I progressed.  Luckily, the climbing clocked in at moderate 5.8.  But, eventually I came level with the other end of the rope that was the object of my quest.  In between me and it, however, was forty feet of loose limestone and unforgiving cactus.  I edged away from the last bolt I would get to clip.  From here, every meter I progressed equated to twice that distance in crazy-ass-pendulum fall potential.  By the time I reached the free end of the rope my arms were riddled with cacti, and in the event that I cased it, I was looking at a fifty foot ground fall and almost certain death.  I quickly tied myself off on the free end with a clove hitch on a draw, and began whipping the rope up and down, side to side, trying to free it from the shrub it was tangled on above.  I wouldn’t be able to make it to the bush without free soloing.

“I might have to go for it!” I called down.
“Nobody has died yet,” yelled Clark, “let’s try and keep it that way!”
I continued struggling with the stubborn cord, and then, finally, it swung clear.  Success.  I gingerly made my way back towards the route, cursing as more and more cacti became embedded in my now savage looking forearms.  I made it to the bolt and lowered.

I was so thirsty. 
We were so tired.
It was getting dark.

In the end, after a few long, meandering rappels by headlamp, we touched down.  It felt good.  Really, really good.  We had left our approach shoes at the base of the route and it seemed to me that I had never put on a more comfortable shoe. 

“Only a couple miles to the camp,” I said grinning widely.
“We better get going,” smiled Clark.  “They’re probably pretty worried about us.” 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Song of Departure

Mr. T nuggets aka Super T the wild man
fucking classic man!!!!!
talk about an almost cliche way to exit ehh, completely loaded almost late for an international flight with a morally compromised, partially clothed woman in tow....what could be better ....dude lol
i cant believe you took that girl to the airport...10 to 1 odds say you dont rememeber her name... 
im surprised you made it, billy aka "ken 9-5" said that he left you at 4:45AM and you didnt seem  ready to leave anytime soon, i was about 80% sure that id be recieving a call from you thatd go like this "hey its my last nite here we have to go out tonite" i thought you missed it for sure
yeah i got the run down of how it all went down that nite
 billy said that you seemed to have a blast and were like a kid in a candy store at the bar he said everytime he turned around you were hustling a different girl, what i thought was funnier though was that the bitch and wang lee went with...cant really imagine that being anythng other than awkward....although i think its a classic icing on the cake to that drama..... according to billy not only did you blow the bitch off but so did wang lee, billy said he thought it was hilarious, heres this girl that was invloved with you before and plans to visit than brings her present boy toy without thinking it would be out of place, than gets blown off by you for 3 weeks and argues with wang lee the entire time, than on the final nite, she has to spend it with both of you in bars and than watch both of you grinding and making out with hot chicks in a disco...i dont think you could have planned it any better than that...sometimes the impromptu approach works like a charm    
anyway i thought it was a fitting end to your time 
even if i was sidelined
anyway as for me i did get sick not so bad as last time but still feeling kind of shitty, little fever stuffy nose etc but really not so bad itll be through in a day or 2
from the sounds of your retunr back i can only imagine how your sizing up  your thankgiving and or xmas breaks...the weather is choice here that time of year.....
and im sure well all still be hanging around so...
anyway glad to hear that you made it back and didnt piss yourself in your sleep on the flight back...thatd sort of suck, but actually would seem even more fitting as a far as rounding out the final nite, you step up to immigration in the us wreaking of booze having pissed yourself in your sleep...somehow i think the officer would forego the whole  "so how was your trip" routine
anyway dude take er easy keep in touch
 later ese 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Climbing among the Samburu

I had spent nearly half of my time in western Kenya over 2009 and 2010. Now, I was back in Kisumu; a substantially sized, dusty city on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are several notable climbing destinations in Kenya ranging from reasonably well established sport to adventurous traditional climbing.  Apart from a trip up Malawi's Sapitwa Peak in 2010, I'd had shamefully little time on rock while in Africa. Previously too bogged down with my PhD research, I was resolved to make more time to get out and climb over my six month research season in 2011. I had been in contact with a climber, Alex, I found through the Mountaineering Club of Kenya (MCK) in 2010, but we were never able to link up. In April, I got in touch with Alex again on the phone and we discussed our options. 

"Are you up for an adventure?" Alex asked tentatively.
I couldn't resist grinning into the phone, "I'm up for anything."
"Do you have a tent?"
"Sleeping bag?"
"How about a rack?"
"Yes, I do have a rack," I laughed, "and a rope too."


Two days later I was escaping work after organizing my field research team in the morning. I caught a ride from the Kenya Medical Research Centre to the bus station in Kisumu with my Ghanaian friend and colleague, Yaw. Bus stations in Kenya, or stages as they are called, are one of my least favorite places on earth. Dusty polluted tracts of land heavily spattered with tin kiosks and slam packed with commuters, pickpockets, vendors. Being the lone white person in the crowds can draw unwanted attention, solicitations, hassles. If you have been to Kenya before, you will know what a Matatu is- the public transport terrors of the roads. Large Toyota mini-buses outfitted to seat a dozen passengers, but frequently packed with twenty. I was going to be stuffed into one of these shuttles navigating deteriorating roads at dangerously high speeds the entire day.  First, trekking east 4 hours to Nakuru City in the Rift Valley, and then another four hours to Nanyuki where we would rendezvous at a fellow climbers house.

Matatus.  Pubic transport terrors of the road.  Matatus provide shuttle services between towns in Kenya.

Ten o'clock in the morning and I was already sweating. There are no set times for when shuttles leave for their destination. They leave when they fill. Showing up to an empty shuttle can often result in a long wait, and I waited for about an hour there at the Kisumu stage. I passed the time making small talk with several conductors and pushing away panhandlers. Being in good spirits, I had fun talking in broken Swahili and trying to impress them with my vocabulary. Despite the bumpy ride, I was able to catch up on sleep along the way. When I woke up, we were already pulling into the stage in Nakuru. A few cigarettes later I was back on another shuttle that would take me to my final destination of the day.  The ride was excruciating; packed in the far back row with four other men. The gentleman adjacent to me was a monster.  We openly battled for leg room for three hours.  

When we were nearing our destination, Alex called and informed me that his car had broken down and I would have to talk to the driver in order to get off of the shuttle early "at the bottom of a large hill."  Alex put his emergency flashers on so we could spot him.  However, there was a wall of humanity between me and the driver making it something of a task to communicate the pertinent information to him.  I'll remind you that it is quite irregular to have a white foreigner in one of these shuttles in the first place.  Within ten minutes I had the entire passenger load on board the cramped Toyota mini-bus actively (and enthusiastically) looking out for my friend on the side of the road.  I have deeply loved the time I have spent in Kenya, and this can be attributed foremost to my interactions with the local people.  Somehow I have the ability to seemingly fit it well among Kenyans.  In a place where I should feel most alien, I have felt more at home than almost anywhere.  In the next few minutes we did eventually come upon Alex and his vintage Subaru Legacy.  The driver pulled over on the dark, dusty shoulder and I gave my appreciation and farewells. 

A native of the ex-Soviet Union, Alex looks like and has an air of a man who has spent time in the mountains.  Indeed, he has been guiding trips up Mt. Kenya and Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro since he relocated to Kenya in 1998.  He has also established numerous rock routes throughout Kenya.  As it turned out, his car was still running, but not well enough to come to town to pick me up at night.  Driving in the Kenyan countryside at night in a vehicle that may break down is by no means safe.  The rest of the car was a tangle of gear, so I stuffed myself and my huge backpack into the front seat and we sputtered down a rough road to Tom's house.  After a short but exceptionally delicious dinner prepared by Alex's girlfriend and Tom, I headed to a spare room and collapsed.

My room was actually a detached building from the larger house and I stepped outside at 5:30 AM and caught a beautiful view of Tom's property.  Not a seasoned climber, Tom would come along with us and we would see what to do.  Alex's girlfriend would also be joining us.

The view from the back door of Tom's house in Nanyuki, Rift Valley Province, Kenya

We prepared several batches of coffee on the stained stove top and packed Tom's Izuzu Trooper to it's fill.  Two spare tires were tied to the roof and we ventured off to into the characteristically dry  and barren scrub land of eastern Kenya.  Stopped at the British military landing strip nearby Tom's workplace.  Tom runs adventure courses for British troops that come to eastern Kenya for intense military training.  We filled up jerry cans of rain water from a catch basin which Tom assured us was OK to drink.  One more stop along the way in a desolate town choked by dust and burgeoning on famine.  This is the land of the Samburu Tribe, a group related but distinct from the more famous Massai Tribe of the Rift Valley. The Samburus are a semi-nomadic tribe and commonly herd cattle and camels.  Men from the tribe will walk for days to fetch water.

Samburu tribal dancers in Eastern Kenya.  Big ups.

I waited alone by the car outside the market and watched a group of young boys pass a bottle of glue, each taking their turn to deeply inhale the toxic fumes.  One boy was laid out, seemingly unconscious, across the walkway and people stepped over him without even looking.  This is all to common of a sight in many cities, towns and villages in sub-Saharan Africa.  A worn down man approached me, and through a tangle of broken and rotting teeth told me about how his camels had been stolen by raiders.  I apologized and offered my prayers while refusing to assist him with the money he was asking for.  It can be hard to deal with this day in and day out.  Usually it I am able to disassociate myself somehow from the living conditions and nightmarish circumstances that some people are forced into, but on some days I get home, collapse into my chair and feel like crying.  I suppose I should be able to take heart in knowing that my overall presence in Kenya is meant to improve the lives on a broader scale, but that really doesn't do much for me.

We continued on into further isolation.  Funnily enough, the road we were traveling on was easily among the best I have ever encountered in Kenya.  Way out there, on a path so rarely traveled, the Kenyan government had decided to invest in a proper road system.  There are many such "White Elephant" projects in Kenya.  For example, in the late 1990's, an international airport was slated to be built in Kisumu, Kenya.  The then president, Moi, not being of the Luo tribe indigenous to Kisumu, changed the proposed location to a remote area outside of the city of Eldoret in his home tribal area.  The result? One of the best most expensive airports in Kenya receives some of the lowest traffic, while Kisumu, to this day, has only domestic service and no arrival terminal- you just get off the plane.  Tribal politics are still rife in Kenya.

Along the road we began to see spatterings of rock that Alex pointed out and commented on.  It seems he had scoped out almost all of the outcroppings of rock.  We had yet to see our destination,  described as two large towers rising out of the African savannah: The Cat and The Mouse.  Suddenly we came to a large bend and we sighted the towers in the distance.  Along the road there was a large cliff band and we stopped to get a look through the binoculars.  A huge arching dihedral had my palms sweating, but we continued on to Cat and Mouse.  We still had to figure out how to get to them.

Scoping out some new lines in eastern Kenya.  The dihedral in the shadow looked wild.
After driving up and down the the stretch of road that appeared to be nearest to our destination several times, we chose what seemed to be the path of least resistance and plowed Tom's Trooper over a sharp thicket onto the dry sun-cracked savannah in the direction of the rocks.  We stopped and tried to converse with some tribesmen who were evidently walking to town (which was at least thirty miles away).  Unfortunately, they spoke very little Kiswahili and Tom's Samburu was not good enough to discuss a good route to the distant towers, which these men would certainly know.  Five minutes got us nowhere., but on the up side the men never solicited us for money or a ride.  This is more refreshing than you might think; the Masai tribesmen in the south would have shaken us down for every penny.  The Samburu have tribes, not being associated with the tourist safari mecca that is the Masai Mara National Game Reserve, have not been conditioned to dependence on western visitors wallets.

Within twenty minutes, both Alex and I were on foot; shirts tied on our heads to protect us from the sun, yielding machetes and cutting a path for the vehicle to pass.  After an agonizing blur that spanned a number of hours we had progressed to a reasonable distance away from the rock.  Deeming it impossible to press on, we began to set up the most remote, inaccessible camp I have ever passed nights at.  Following a large dinner of mutton and rice I was laid out on the red dirt, totally exhausted.  The heat in the night was still intense and with a stuffy tent as an alternative, Tom and I elected to lay our sleeping bags on the ground and sleep under the stars.
Cutting a road with machetes
Towers on the horizon.

We woke early.  With the sun.  It was already hot and my eyelids were plastered shut with dust excreted from the previous day, but I had slept well.  When I looked at the two towers looming in the distance, I suddenly had to take a dump.  Grabbed a machete and dug me a hole.  Looking at large, scary rock climbs has always sent me to the bushes with a trowel... and I'm not sure why.

Cat (right) and Mouse, Eastern Province, Kenya

We had put together a rack earlier (a "rack" refers to climbing equipment), so we were soon walking in the direction of Cat and Mouse.  While this place was obviously, perpetually dry, the native flora seemed to be something like Nature's caricature of a harsh-ass environment.  Nearly every desperate piece of vegetation was adorned with hooked barbs.  They joke among the Samburu that these barbs can pull an ear from a man's head.  There was a thickness in the air as we set out that day.  I know it wasn't the humidity, but a feeling of terror and elation.  A hyperawareness.

We had not gone far before we realized that getting back to camp might not be as easy as getting to the obvious, looming towers of rock.  I think it was Alex who pointed this out.  "Hmm, yes, indeed." He did have a point.

Alex gathering bones from a hyena den (center).
The solution?

Ten minutes later we were all gathered back together with arm-fulls of bones.  We were way out there.  The entire area was littered with elephant dung.  We gathered the bones of cattle that couldn't make the distance, and we made use of the assortment of bones outside hyena dens.  As we walked we left a trail of bones that we hung in trees, and we dug our feet in the dirt so that we might be able to retrace our steps.  I was especially aware of this process.  It seems (and even seemed at the time) silly, but we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into.  When people ask me about conducting yourself in other countries, I often joke, "Just don't do anything stupid.  But, if you are doing something stupid, be aware of the fact that you are doing something stupid."

I was aware.

It didn't take too long for me to imitate my friends by removing my shirt and tying it around my head so it fell across the back of my neck.  It was hot.  Dry heat maybe, but the temperature was pushing ninety and we were laden with large loads of climbing gear and water.  The thickets varied in density necessitating the leaders to carry machetes to cut our way through.  It seemed like every branch on every plant was armed to the thinnest tip with barbed thorns.  Each one of us got caught at least once, and getting the curved spines out with out ripping up your skin usually required some help from another person.  We finally reached a clearing like area where we would have to split off to either the larger formation on the right, Cat, or the small (200') but sheer tower on the left, Mouse.  After a debate we angled towards Mouse.  What seemed like a straightforward hike up to the formation soon became arduous.  We were pushed back by steep terrain and impassable thickets.  I had long since put my shirt back on to protect my thorn-scarred arms and chest.  We ended up looping around the backside of the formation which involved several semi-sketch boulder problems on loose vegetated rock.

When we finally reached the tower at the southeast corner, it was clear that we would not be climbing either the south or east face; both were steep and mostly featureless.  What features looked climbable also looked loose and foreboding.  Of the information that Alex was able to dig up on these two formations, we found two notes dating to the early 80's on 1) an aid route/bolt ladder up the mouse and 2) an ascent up the less-steep backside of the Cat.  We hiked up and around the south face and scrambled up to a thin ledge that spanned along the west face.  Although still vertical it looked more promising on this side.  I threw down my bag and took a measured drink from my dwindling water supply.  Tomorrow we would have to bring more.

As I sat down I did a double take-- a four foot long fragment of snake skin lay between the rocks I was about to sit on.  As you might imagine, getting bit by a snake in Kenya is almost always terrible.  I have had run-ins with spitting cobras at my research sites.  Pythons are also common.  This particular skin looked like it could have been from a cobra; although, who the hell knows.  I shook off the feeling that crept up my spine and took another drink of water; just enough to wet my mouth.

Looking up, eventually we were able to spot a rusted bolt line.  It looked awful. Really bad.

"Mind if I take this lead?"  I asked.
"I was kind of hoping to get on it first," Alex replied, giving me a strange look.  I don't think he had expected me to ask.
"C'mon," I whined, "I don't want to follow my first trad route in Kenya."
"Alright, mate.  It's yours."

Fifteen terrifying minutes, fifty vertical feet, some fairly stout moves, and three 1/4" bolts with homemade hangers later, I was desperately trying to stuff a tiny cam into a crumbling seam [Read: detached, fragmented choss pile].  I fumbled with the cam, unable to get my sweaty fingers to work the trigger.  I couldn't help but steal glances nervously back and forth between the fragile potato chip of rock that my left fingertips were latched on to and the comical "bolt" down beneath my feet.  My left foot was flagging uselessly as if it was trying to carve footholds out with it's toes, and my right foot was shaking like Elvis on the very top of a loose column of rock the size of a refrigerator.

I did not want to fall.

The move in question did not appear to be overly difficult, but I would be yarding with my full weight on another huge, suspect feature that looked like it could get dislodged by a strong gust of wind. If anything came off, these were definitely rope-cutting size pieces of stone.  I used a few intermediate holds to lower my center of gravity above the loose pillar.  I awkwardly matched my hand and foot on top of the pillar, eased down a bit, and ever so slowly weighted the death bolt.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Worst headline of 2012

February has just begun, but here it is: "Many Die at Sudan Peace Meeting." 

Here is the link if you want to take a look.  I didn't even read the article very closely.  I was in Kenya in July 2011 when the voting took place for Southern Sudan's independence.

It was incredible.

The lead up to the vote in Sudan had a massive following in the neighboring Kenyan media.  It was a hopeful time for Sudan.  Although in retrospect maybe we all knew what was coming.

Sudan was a country that epitomized the colonization of the African continent.  Colonists drew political lines intended to spur tribal conflict as a means to control populations.  Much like Kenya, Sudan was irrationally formed and divided.  To the north lies the Nubian Desert-- the traditional land of the Nubian people.  To the south, wide swaths of savanna that give way to rich forests and swamps.


je suis le precipitate.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Playing video games is extremely weird.  Really.  But, I guess I don't have anything profound to say on the matter.

You're dead.