Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Smallest Adventures

I woke up to fresh snow this morning and it was still falling thickly as I walked to work.

There are still a few Canada geese around but they looked a little sad with the snow on their backs.

I'm lucky that my walk to work is along the river. It's nice to experience a little nature before spending the day in the office.

These pictures were taken with a new Canon SD700 IS.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bike Update

In the end I didn't have to buy a new bike. My bike store (Bike Doctor) managed to get me a new frame from Cannondale at a reasonable price. My blue bike is gone - I now have a shiny black one.

The only nit to pick is that it's an F400 frame, one model down from the F600 I started with. This also means it has mounts for V brakes which I don't need since the F600 has disc brakes. No big deal.

So I'm happily back on the road. Or I would be happy if it hadn't just snowed leaving everything icy :-( The joys of living in Saskatchewan!


Last weekend I paddled my new kayak down the river (the South Saskatchewan that runs through Saskatoon). I had originally planned to leave Saturday but the rain never quit so I postponed to Sunday. (Monday was a holiday here.)

I bought the kayak about a month ago. It was a little crazy to buy a kayak at the end of the season, but I got out in it quite a few times and it'll be ready for the spring. It's a yellow and white Evergreen Envy. Previously, all I had was an inflatable Sea Eagle, so it was quite a step up. I love the feeling of the kayak becoming part of me, like riding a bike. Not having to think about the mechanics, just moving freely and easily.

I started at the Clarkboro Ferry (west of Warmen) about 20 km downriver from Saskatoon since I'd previously paddled that far. I wasn't sure how far I'd get in two days. I ended up making it to Batoche (northwest of Rosthern), about 60 km down the river. Needless to say, I would never have made it that far if I hadn't had the current with me. Paddled about 7 hours each day with occasional breaks to stretch my legs.

The weather was pretty good but cool - only about 5 C (40 F) when I left. A bit of a rain storm Sunday afternoon but only for about 30 min. A huge luminous yellow moon rose over the river at sunset painting a gold streak of reflection down the river. The night was cold, heavy frost and ice in my water bag. I'd set up camp where I'd get the morning sun but there's not much warmth in it this time of year. Not like the powerful sun at altitude in the himalaya. The wind was stronger on Monday but luckily it was mostly behind me.

It would have been nice to go a week or two earlier before the leaves fell. It was a little bleak with the bare trees. But maybe it suited my mood. My mother had died a week before and this trip was my first chance to get away after six weeks hanging around the hospital. We had been close - talking on the phone every day and getting together several times a week. It was a trip she would have loved (not that she had been capable of it for quite a few years). She loved the outdoors, nature, animals, plants. But the adventure of life has its end like everything else.

I saw some wildlife along the way - great blue herons, bald eagles, mule deer, muskrats, and of course flocks of canada geese, ducks, and gulls heading south. Lots of signs of beaver but I didn't see any.

Batoche was a good spot to pull out - it was only a short way on a good path from the river to the parking lot. I called Shelley on the cell phone to come get me. Unfortunately, the gate was locked so we had to carry the kayak and my gear 2 km to the highway.

It was a good trip. There are farms and houses all along the river. But no one else was on the river so I had solitude if not wilderness.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bicycle Blues

I came out of the office yesterday afternoon to find that someone had tried to steal my bike. It was locked up with a U-lock through the frame. They bent the U-lock but it still held. However, in the process they damaged the frame badly. Surprisingly, they didn't trash the bike - everything else seemed ok. I could even ride it home.

It's quite a sickening feeling when something like this happens. It's just a bike, and I have insurance, and it can be replaced, but it still hurts. You get quite attached to things like bicycles. It's almost like they're an extension of your body, part of you. Maybe some people feel that way about their cars, but to me a car is a lot less "personal".

I'm assuming it won't be worthwhile to replace the frame. Maybe I can get something for the wheels and components - they're in pretty good shape.

This bike was a Cannondale F600. Before that I had an M400. I wonder what I should buy this time? I was happy with the F600, or I could move up to an F800 or F1000 (although I'd have to get use to the Lefty shock!) Or should I be going to full suspension, like a Scalpel? And that's just staying with a Cannondale. I'm used to them, but there's lots of other good bikes out there.

Normally, buying a new bike is exciting, but being forced to do it like this takes some of the pleasure out of it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

GPS to Google Earth

I'm a big fan of Google Earth (and Google Maps, especially the Hybrid view). If you upgrade to Google Earth Plus ($20 per year) you can interface to GPS devices. I picked up a data cable and tried it out. It's a little slow getting the information from the GPS but it works pretty slick. I still had Cho Oyu data on my GPS (a Garmin Geko 301) so I downloaded that first. Next was the data from the Willingdon trip. Most recently I downloaded the data from a canoe trip down the river. Very cool.

For topo maps I use Fugawi. They also have software that'll talk to a GPS but I haven't tried it yet.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Climbing Mt. Willingdon

Last weekend Shelley and I headed out to the mountains. It was a holiday long weekend so we picked a destination to escape the crowds. We had seen Mt. Willingdon in The 11000ers of the Canadian Rockies by Bill Corbett. It looked remote enough to not be crowded. Of course the highways getting there were busy (but we were enjoying our brand new Toyota Prius hybrid so it wasn't too bad).

We drove out Friday (stopping at MEC to spend money) and camped at Lake Louise so we could buy backcountry passes in the morning at the information center (and have breakfast at Laggans first!) Then we drove up to Mosquito Creek where we left the car in the hostel parking lot. (It made us a little nervous to leave our brand new car in a lot that had a lot of broken auto glass on the ground! We worried about this all weekend, but in the end the car was fine.)

We started hiking in at 10am - not exactly an alpine start, but the book said 6 to 8 hours to hike in so we still had plenty of time. The first part of the approach follows the Mosquito Creek trail, leaving it at the bridge where the north branch of the creek comes in. After that there's no real trail, although there are various faint paths. It's fairly straightforward to follow the shore of the creek. We ended up taking our boots off twice to cross the creek where the shore got impassable. After a few kilometers along the creek you angle up to the right through openings in the trees to a big grassy amphitheater with Quartz Pass above. Getting up to the pass requires varying amounts of steep boulder hopping, depending how well you pick your route.

The view down the East side of the pass is a little intimidating. The book said to be sure to "scope out the route". The question was where the route went. We explored a bit but decided to down pretty much directly from the low point of the pass where there's a narrow steep snow gully. We traversed out and back on the rock to avoid the steepest part of the snow, but the rock was loose and ugly - a bit nerve wracking with the long potential fall. Once on the snow we kicked steps down the steepest part and then glissaded the rest. Meanwhile two young guys also heading to Willingdon had come down a little further south and passed us - their route looked a lot better.

The final slog across to Devon Lakes was hot and tiring. We arrived about 5pm for a time of 7 hours - right in the guidebook estimate of 6 to 8. We had brought our new Black Diamond First Light tent - only about 1kg, our North Face Kilobags, and Prolite 3 Short thermarests. It's sure nice having this light gear to keep the pack weight down. Ice axes and crampons added a bit, but at least we didn't have to carry a rope and rack. Helmets would have been nice in a few spots.

Although the book said only 6 hours for the climb, we decided to get an early start (5am) to avoid the heat and soft snow. (And because we hoped to get a head start on the hike out that same day.) The climb is pretty straightforward. Parts of the ridge looked a little scary from below but turned out to be easy scrambling. We avoided the snow until just below the cliff band that forms the final obstacle. It was icy so we put on our crampons for this bit. The cliff isn't that high - only a body length or two - but it was early enough when we got there that the rock was covered in a thin layer of ice from yesterday's melt water. We found one spot that seemed dry and had good holds. The only problem was pulling over the lip where it was loose rock and scree slippery with ice. From there it was an easy scree slope to the top which we reached at 10am (four hours up). It was a beautiful sunny day with fantastic views all around.

Neither of us wanted to go back down the cliff band so we went over the top looking for the alternative descent described in a typical vague fashion. We ended up descending the snow gully just on the other side of the summit. It was mostly easy step kicking with a few icy parts to keep things interesting. The gully led us out onto the South "face". From below this looks very steep, but it's mostly scree with a few rock bands. Unfortunately, one larger cliff band prevents you from descending straight down so we traversed across the face to a gully beside the ascent ridge. From there it was an easy walk back to camp by about 12:00

After a break we packed up and moved camp to the foot of Quartz Pass. Shelley suggested we could go over the pass that day, but it was hot and we'd already had a long day. We watched another party go up that afternoon. When we talked to them the next day they confirmed our decision saying it had been extremely hot and the snow extremely soft. It was hot enough for us hanging out by the tent! The mosquitoes were bad enough that you'd rather not be outside but on the other hand it was too hot inside the tent.

The next day we slept through our watch alarms but still got away by 7am. Starting fresh, in the cool of the morning, it was an easy climb up and over the pass (taking the better route we'd seen the other pair take). Rather than going straight down to the creek we traversed the hillside diagonally, avoiding the awkward spots where we'd had to cross the creek. We joined the creek where a wide waterfall comes in from the West. Hiking back down the creek seemed to take forever but we eventually hit the bridge and rejoined the main path for an easy hike down to the road and the car.

We got down about noon, stopped in Lake Louise for a shower and lunch at the Alpine Club / Youth Hostel center, and drove the tedious 7 or 8 hours back to Saskatoon.

All in all a great weekend! Photos

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

More on Cho Oyu

I should have written this as soon as I got back, but things have been busy, as always. Lots of memories from the trip (even though it already seems like I was never gone!) Here's how it went...

43 hours after leaving Saskatoon I arrived safely in Kathmandu with my luggage intact. Hurdle number one passed.

I wasn't as excited about Kathmandu this time. It's still a neat place and I enjoyed revisiting favorite spots, but I wasn't as excited about being there as I have been in the past. The political turmoil didn't help - soldiers and police everywhere, tanks rolling down the streets, curfew keeping us shut in the hotel. In the Thamel tourist district, where our hotel was, it was pretty quiet and there were few signs of the problems. But from the rooftop terrace of our hotel we could hear teargas and gunfire and see the pillars of smoke from demonstrators burning tires in the streets.

Because of the problems we were delayed a day and ended up taking a helicopter from Kathmandu to Kodari on the border with Tibet. It cost us an extra $300 each but I think it was worth it. We were glad to "escape" from Kathmandu.

Although I was climbing solo I traveled and shared a base camp with 7 other climbers (one pair and 6 more solo) who had also signed up with Asian Trekking.

We skipped the night at Zhangmu and went straight to Nyalam, putting us back on schedule. Two nights there, then on to Tingri for another two nights of acclimatization. Neither place is any joy. Cold, windy, dirty. The same chinese food every day. On the positive side, it makes you happy to get to basecamp!

A little headache and nausea at Nyalam but not too bad. Maybe altitude or maybe just the food or water. Several of our group were hit quite badly by traveler's diarhea and vomiting.

The end of the road (Chinese Base Camp) was as desolate, windy, and dusty as I remembered. The difference was the Tibetan teahouses where you could eat and sleep (for a price). Nothing like that last time I was here.

Another difference was the road all the way to the intermediate camp. For $50 four of hired a jeep to drive us up. I felt a little guilty not walking, but there didn't seem much point in walking up the road!

We had only planned to stay overnight at the intermediate camp (more Tibetan teahouses!) but that night it started to snow and continued for two days. Even when it stopped we couldn't continue because the snow was too soft and deep for the yaks. We ended up staying four nights.

I felt great the day we hiked up to advanced base camp (the real basecamp). We were one of the last groups to leave, but I steadily passed people until just before ABC I caught up with the trail breaking crew (two Tibetans with shovels plus four yaks with no loads).

To be honest, I got a bit pessimistic. From the start, nothing really went the way I wanted! On the way in I didn't acclimatize as well as I would have liked. Part of the problem was the usual stomach problems. I had one miserable time at Base Camp where I spent the night spewing from both ends at once. Not something I'd recommend to anyone, but not unusual on these kind of trips. A cocktail of Immodium (for diarrhea), Cipro (antibiotic), and Stematil (for nausea) eventually settled me down. Then the first time I tried to carry a load to Camp 1, I didn't make it (too tired). Then when I tried to carry to Camp 2, I also didn't make it (too slow). When I was planning to go to sleep at Camp 2 (and make an acclimatization climb to Camp 3) the weather turned bad and I had to go down. Meanwhile, most of the others seemed to be doing a lot better. Needless to say it was a little depressing, despite knowing that these expeditions always have their ups and downs.

So when I headed up for my summit attempt I was somewhat dubious - I hadn't even slept at Camp 2 let alone visited Camp 3. I headed up the day before everyone else, spent a day at Camp 2 to acclimatize, and then when the weather looked good, headed up from Camp 2 at 2:30am. (I didn't have the time or energy to establish a Camp 3, and I think if you can get away without it, you're better off as it's high enough to be debilitating) It had snowed and blown the day before so I had to break trail from Camp 2 to Camp 3 in the dark. (The funny part is that I broke trail for Fernando, who had oxygen, and his Sherpa!) Despite breaking trail I made Camp 3 in 3 hours. I had timed it so it would get light about the time I got to Camp 3 so I could see where to go. I thought the people in Camp 3 would be leaving for the summit, but for some reason no one in Camp 3 went up that day, despite the great weather. It was a bit windy and of course cold on the way to Camp 3, but after the sun came up the wind died down and it was a beautiful warm day. Again, because of the recent snow and wind there were no tracks to follow so I had a true solo summit day which was rather nice actually. Better than following a line of people up a well trodden path! Fernando and his sherpa took a different route so I didn't see anyone above Camp 3. It's actually quite a steep climb from Camp 3 to the summit plateau. Not hard, but you wouldn't want to slip. Once you reach the summit plateau it's another 1/2 km to the actual summit with only a very gradually rise. At 8100 - 8200m it's a terribly slow slog. Any excuse like weather or time and I'm sure I would have skipped it, but the weather was perfect and I was in good time so I dragged my butt to the real summit where you finally get a view of Everest on the far side of the mountain. Got there at 12 noon, took some pictures of the prayer flags and junk (oxygen bottle) on the summit and then headed down.

I was very conscious about being safe on the way down with the steep ice and loose rock. Finally made it back to Camp 2 at 4 pm. Over the 14 hour "day" I drank only a liter of water (although I carried three) and ate only 4 gels! The next day I packed up my Camp 2 and carried a big load down to Camp 1. Packed up Camp 1 and continued on to ABC. (I have to confess I left a load at Camp 1 for a porter to retrieve.)

Climbing is all about "style", not just getting to the top, but how you do it. This might seem strange, but if you think about it, it makes sense. If all you cared about was getting to the top, you could take a helicopter! I was pleased not only with being successful, but also with the style I did it in. Unlike everyone else in our group (and most other groups), I carried all my own gear up (no porters or sherpas), established my own camps, didn't use other people's tents etc. didn't use oxygen, and went from Camp 2 instead of Camp 3 (longer). Not bad for an old guy! (I turned 46 at Camp 1)

Although the climb isn't "difficult", it's still not something to take lightly. A sad reminder of the risks came a few days later when a German slipped on the way down from the summit and fell to his death.

Monday, June 12, 2006

2006 Urban Adventure Challenge

Saturday (June 10) was the third annual Urban Adventure Challenge - an urban adventure race in Saskatoon. There were only 12 teams this year - I think some people got scared off by the excessive amounts of running in last year's race - 20 km is a lot unless you've trained for it, and this is meant to be a "fun" race. Of course, this year there wasn't much running at all! Instead it rained the whole time, not hard, just a steady drizzle. But it was warm enough when you were moving so it didn't really matter. Better in many ways than being too hot.

As usual it was a fun race. They even managed to include some canoeing for the first time on an artificial lake in one of the suburbs. For fun, we even got to ride the miniature train in Kinsmen park!

We biked about 30 km and I would guess we ran about 10 km in total in the three running legs. I'm not sure how fast the winning teams finished - my team took about three hours for 7th or 8th place. We would have done better but we gambled on a shortcut biking which ended up costing us some time and in a short race like this you don't have much chance to recover from setbacks.

I had Jeff and Suzanne on my team. Jeff and I have raced together lots - including all five of the Prairie Pitches, the last two Urban Challenges. We couldn't get our normal thirds so we asked a friend of Shelley's to join us. It was Suzanne's first adventure race but she just ran a half marathon a few weeks ago so she was in good shape. Probably better than Jeff or I since we hadn't trained much yet this spring. My lungs were probably in good shape from Cho Oyu but I hadn't biked or ran for months.

Now I have to get busy organizing the Prairie Pitch. After five years of racing in it, it will be a change to be on the other side of the fence. Tony, who has organized it up till now, will be racing this year so it'll be a switch for him too. Tony has done a good job of organizing the Prairie Pitch (and the Urban Challenge) - I hope I can match the standard he's set.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Cho Oyu 2006

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Self Portrait On the Summit of Cho Oyu

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Success on Cho Oyu!

I'm happy to report I made it to the summit of Cho Oyu on May 7, 2006. Even better, I did it solo, from Camp 2 (skipping Camp 3), without oxygen or sherpas. I was very lucky to have beautiful weather on my summit day, sunny, warm (relatively), and little wind. I'll post more details when I get a chance.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

My Expeditions

2006 Cho Oyu, Tibet
Succeeded, solo. Summited May 7.

2005 Mt. Saskatchewan (unclimbed), St. Elias Range, Yukon
None of the team summited

2004 Aconcagua, False Polish route, Argentina, South America
Just Shelley and I, we both summited

2003 Kilimanjaro, Western Breach, Tanzania, Africa
Just Shelley and I, we both summited

2001 Shishapangma, Tibet
None of the team summited

1999 Manaslu, Nepal
5 other team members summited

1997 Cho Oyu, Tibet
2 other team members summited

1995 Broad Peak, Pakistan
Shelley and I summited along with four other team members. First female Canadian ascent. Possibly first Canadian ascent?

1993 Denali, West Buttress, Alaska
All four of our team reached the summit.

1991 Changtse (North peak of Everest), Tibet
Another team member and I reached the North Col

1990 Denali, East Buttress, Alaska
Just Shelley and I - unsuccessful

All except Changtse and Broad Peak were organized and led by Shelley and I. None of the trips have been guided (other than the mandatory African "guide" on Kili) and we've never used sherpas or oxygen. Only Broad Peak was a commercial trip and it was still unguided and without porters or sherpas.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Gear for Cho Oyu

I spent a fair bit of thought (and money!) on gear for this trip. I wanted to go as light as I could without sacrificing safety.

I'm taking two tents - a Bibler (Black Diamond) I tent (1.95 kg / 4 lb 5 oz) and a Mountain Hardwear EV-2 (2.21 kg / 4 lb 14 oz). Both are lightweight, single wall tents. The Bibler is pretty cramped for two people but for one, it's fine (as long as you're not too tall!) The EV-2 has a built in vestibule so it's roomier. I've had a bunch of Mountain Hardwear tents over the years and I've always been really happy with them. Getting the poles inside the Bibler can be a bit of a struggle - the EV-2 has external poles which seem easier to me. Although it's normal to have three camps on Cho Oyu, I'm hoping to get away with two by going for the summit from Camp 2. If this doesn't work I'll just have to take my tent with me when I go from Camp 2 to Camp 3.

For the last while I've been using an Arcteryx Bora 80 which I really like, but it's pretty heavy (3.1 kg / 6 lbs 12 oz). This time I decided to try a Wild Things Andinista at only 1.75 kg / 3 lbs 14 oz. I was pretty tempted by the Spectra version which is 12 oz lighter, but it's also twice the price and has to be custom ordered so I decided to pass. I was able to get a large to fit my long back, but with a small hip belt to fit my skinny waist. I was a little concerned about how the Andinista would carry without any kind of frame, but I've been carrying it with about 50 lbs for 5 or 6 hour hikes and it's actually not too bad. The minimalist hip belt and shoulder straps aren't the most comfortable, but the lack of frame hasn't been a problem.

The last few trips I've had some concerns about keeping my feet warm enough. On Aconcagua they got cold enough to go numb. By itself this isn't so bad but once you lose feeling you can't tell if they're freezing. I decided to splurge and bought some Millet/One Sport Everests. These are specifically designed for high altitude climbing with a built in overboot/gaitor. They're known as the warmest boots available. The new model is supposedly 10% lighter and at the same time 10% warmer. In addition to being lighter and warmer, you avoid the hassles of trying to put crampons on insulated overboots (and having them fall off at the worst possible moment!). I ended up buying these in Chamonix on our recent trip to Europe. Probably paid too much, but they're a specialty item and at least there I could try them on.

I've got the room this time so I'm taking two sleeping bags so I can leave one at base camp and the other up on the mountain. This saves some carrying. My mountain bag is a Mountain Hardwear Quantum 3rd Dimension which is a synthetic -20 C / 0 F bag. I can't say I'm sold on the "Quantum Expander" idea - I figure the extra zipper has to add to the weight. But otherwise I've been happy enough with it. I'm a believer in synthetic bags, but they are bulky. I really want a -30 C bag, but instead I've got the Quantum 3D upgrade which is a separate inner bag that adds another 10 degrees or so. For extra warmth up high I can always sleep in my insulated pants and down jacket, since I'll be carrying them anyway. For base camp I've got a MEC Hybrid (down/synthetic) -20 C bag. For sleeping pads I've got a full length thermarest for base camp and a 10mm closed cell pad for on the mountain. The thermarest is more comfortable, but I'd hate to spring a leak up high. And repeatedly blowing it up can end up getting moisture inside which destroys the insulating value.

I've got two MSR Superfly butane stoves with the hanging kits (which I hear are no longer sold, unfortunately). Butane stoves have their drawbacks, especially when it's really cold, but for ease of use and safety cooking inside the tent, it's really the only way to go. For the first time I've rigged up some copper strapping to attempt to transfer some heat to the cartridge since otherwise they tend to freeze up. Warming the cartridge with your hands or (carefully) with a lighter works but it's not ideal. I'll see how well it works in practice.

For clothes I've got Arcteryx goretex bib pants, Alpha SL goretex jacket (only 347 g / 12 oz!), Mountain Hardwear Alchemy soft shell jacket (a favorite), and some old Mountain Equipment Coop fleece bibs which I've had for years and am quite attached to. Up till now I've avoided down suits. Maybe if I was going to Everest, but I'm not. Instead I've got MEC primaloft pants, a lightweight primaloft pullover, and a lightweight down jacket. If it's windy I wear my goretex over the insulated pieces. And of course, synthetic long underwear - for up high I prefer one piece "union" suits. I recently picked up an N2S (next to skin) windstopper shirt which seems pretty good. And of course, a selection of gloves and mitts, including, for up high, Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero mitts.

Miscellaneous gear includes: Black Diamond Alpine Bod harness, Petzl expedition ascender, figure 8 descender, Grivel Airtech Racing ice axe, Black Diamond Flick Lock expedition ski poles, Petzl Tikka Plus and Myo 3 headlamps, and Black Diamond expedition duffles.

I almost forgot the gadgets. First, what I'm NOT bringing - no satellite phone, no laptop, no internet or email, no solar chargers or generators. We had all this stuff on our first trip to Cho Oyu and I swear I spent more time messing with it than I did climbing! I have a Suunto Observer watch with compass and altimeter and a Garmin Geko 301 GPS with compass and barometric altimeter. Hopefully these will keep me from getting lost up high! My camera is a Canon Powershot S1 IS digital camera with 10x zoom and image stabilization. I've got four 1gb memory cards for it. I'm using lithium AA and AAA batteries in everything - expensive, but pretty much a necessity in the cold.

I've probably forgotten stuff, but that's the bulk of it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Three Weeks to Go

Recently an old climbing friend emailed me to find out how things were going for Cho Oyu. Here's what I told him:

I leave in less than three weeks (April 4). It's the usual mixture of excitement, nerves, and the occasional tendril of fear if I let my mind wander to thoughts of getting whited out on the summit plateau at 8000m. Everything's booked, my gear is all ready to go (not that that stops me from fussing with it!). I'm at the point in my training where nothing I do now will make much of a difference. You always wonder if you could have trained more, but I'm feeling pretty strong. Up and down Blackstrap for two hours today with big boots and pack and no breaks. But the real test will be on the hill.

It's strange to be going without Shelley, she's been my constant climbing partner for 10 expeditions over the last 20 years. Also strange to not have a team for the first time, but I'm kind of looking forward to that part. No one else to worry about, no one to fall behind or get ahead, no big logistics. It's a much simpler game, just me and the mountain, and that's appealing. With the right partner can be better than solo, but big teams can be worse.

Of course, so much of it is a crap shoot - I just have to hope I acclimatize, stay healthy, and get decent weather.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Unfinished Business

Here is a brief article I wrote for our local alpine club section newsletter:

As usual, people keep asking, “Where are you going next?” Well, this spring I'm heading back to Cho Oyu on the border between Tibet and Nepal. Nine years ago, in 1997, Shelley and I organized and led our first big expedition there. A lot has changed since then.

That was one of our first expeditions. This will be my 11th.

It took us a year of unreliable long distance faxes and snail mail to arrange things with the Chinese Mountaineering Association. This time I simply emailed Asian Trekking in Kathmandu and told them I wanted to go.

Then we had a group of 11 people. This time I'm going on my own.

High altitude doesn't seem to agree with Shelley any more and rather than organize another group I decided to try a new challenge and climb solo. Cho Oyu is normally climbed unroped anyway and I'm familiar with the route so it seemed like a good choice.

Asian Trekking will arrange transportation from Kathmandu and provide a cook at base camp. After that it's all up to me - no sherpas and no oxygen. I'll be carrying all my own loads and setting up my own camps. Not that I'm likely to be "alone". It’s a popular mountain and there will be other climbers around.

In '97 our group was successful in getting two people to the top but neither Shelley or I summited, mostly because the weather turned bad and we ran out of time. Cho Oyu is known as the "easiest" of the fourteen 8000m peaks but that doesn't mean it's easy - just that the others are even harder.

At 8201m, Cho Oyu is the sixth highest mountain in the world and although it's not technically difficult, it's still a very big mountain and the altitude and the weather are tough obstacles to overcome.

It never seems like you can train enough for these kinds of trips but you still have to try. In the fall I did lots of running, both hills and longer (e.g. 25 km) runs. Now I'm concentrating more on stairs and carrying a 25kg pack for 15 to 20 km hikes.

I leave on April 4, flying from Saskatoon to Los Angeles to Bangkok to Kathmandu. After a few days in Kathmandu to make final arrangements I'll travel by road across the border and through Tibet to the mountain. Even on the drive you gain a lot of altitude so we’ll have to stop extra days along the way to acclimatize. From the end of the road it's a two day walk to base camp with yaks to carry everything. Then I'll have 25 days to work my way up and down the mountain, gradually acclimatizing to higher and higher altitudes, resting at base camp in between. Then it's a matter of hoping for three or four days of good weather to go for the summit. (And get down again!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Full Conditions

I was out training (walking up and down with a big pack) today at Blackstrap, our local ski hill. It was very windy. One of the staff said the wind at the top was 110 km per hour (70 mph). I'd believe it - the last 10 m to the top is steep and icy and you had to be careful not to get blown off your feet. I could have used my crampons. On top it felt like you had to lean about 45 degrees into the wind to not get blown over. Luckily it was only about -5 c (20 f). If it had been much colder the windchill would have been brutal.

Of course, this is the prairies so the ski hill has a whopping vertical of about 90m. Still, it's more realistic than running up and down stairs in an office building.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


I guess I should start with a bit of an introduction. My name is Andrew McKinlay. I grew up and live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada - the middle of the prairies. Not exactly what most people would think of as an adventurous place. My earliest claim to "adventure" comes from my parents. I was born in Arusha, Tanzania, East Africa. My parents lived in East Africa for 10 years, but they left when I was only a year old so I can't claim any memories of Africa.

My favorite brand of adventure is mountain climbing. People think that's a little strange for a person from the prairies. My mother claims it's a result of being born next door to Kilimanjaro - the highest mountain in Africa. Neither of my parents were climbers. My father tried to climb Kilimanjaro once when they were living there, but turned around short of the summit. That was the beginning and the end of his climbing career. But they were supportive of my adventurous streak from an early age. Of course, that support got tempered by fear for my safety as my adventures got more serious. I remember before my first Himalayan trip asking my father what he thought of me going to a big climb in Tibet (Changtse). His response was short and sweet: "Don't be ridiculous!" But in the end I think he was proud of my accomplishments.

My first big trip was to Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Not wanting to go on the "tourist" route, we chose Catacomb Ridge on the East Buttress. We trained hard, climbing in the Rockies in the winter to get used to conditions but we had no idea what we were getting into. Our third person cancelled, leaving just two of us. Then we couldn't land near the base of the route as planned which meant to lot of dangerous glacier travel with two people. We barely managed to get on the route itself. But it was a great learning experience. A few years later we went back and had a great time succeeding on the West Buttress "tourist" route.

When I was younger I had typical fantasies about becoming a world famous mountain climber. When I succeeded on my first 8000m peak (Broad Peak) it fueled these fantasies. By then I knew I'd never be a world class rock or ice climber, but I did seem to do pretty well at altitude. We were even asked to give a presentation on our climb at the Annual General meeting of the Alpine Club of Canada. But my lack of success on the following three 8000m expeditions (Cho Oyu, Manaslu, Shishapangma) pretty much eradicated any remaining fantasies. On the positive side, we managed to get someone to the top on three out of four 8000m peaks (all but Shish). From a team leaders point of view I guess that's pretty good.

My climbing partner on all of these trips was Shelley Ballard/McKinlay. I proposed in base camp at Broad Peak soon after returning from the summit. We got married later that year. I joke that it was the lack of oxygen at altitude but I think it had more to do with narrowly escaping getting killed in a storm on the descent from the summit. Seven people were killed in that storm next door on K2. It was a sobering experience and it reminded me we don't live forever.

Unfortunately, on Shishapangma Shelley started to have problems with the altitude. It didn't seem to be life threatening (i.e. it wasn't cerebral or pulmonary edema) but puking all the time doesn't make for a fun time. So we gave up on 8000m peaks for a while.

Instead, we visited East Africa to see where I'd been born and to climb Mt. Kilamanjaro (highest in Africa). We successfully climbed the Western Breach route.

Our next big trip was to Chile and Argentina where we climbed the False Polish route on Aconcagua (highest in South America).

It was nice to be successful on Kilamanjaro and Aconcagua after our lack of success on the last three 8000m expeditions.