Fall Himalayan Climbing Season Begins

Makalu, a popular Himalayan climbing site this fall. Most mountaineers, both actual and armchair, know that for two months each spring, Everest and the other big Himalayan peaks become the epicenter of the climbing world. From April to June, hundreds of mountaineers from around the globe descend on Nepal and Tibet with the expressed goal of scaling one of the tallest mountains on the planet. As a result, Base Camps across the region can become noisy, dirty and overly crowded, which dramatically detracts from the experience, to say the least. But not everyone knows that there is a second climbing season that arrives in the fall, after the monsoon has departed for another year. The fall season is much quieter and more tranquil than the spring, affording climbers more solitude in the mountains.

The 2012 fall Himalayan climbing season officially got underway at the end of August when teams began arriving in Kathmandu. Most spent a few days in Nepal’s capital city organizing their gear and putting the final touches on their preparation before they begin the trek to their respective Base Camps throughout the Himalaya. That hike generally helps to start the acclimatization process that will prepare them for living at high altitude over the coming weeks.

Often times the fall season is used to hone technical skills in preparation for bigger challenges to come. For instance, climbers who are planning a spring ascent of Everest will often visit the Himalaya in the fall to gain valuable experience and assess their body’s ability to adapt to the thin air. For some it will give them the valuable tools they’ll need for taking on the world’s tallest mountain, while others will learn that the Big Hill is ultimately out of reach.The two mountains that will receive the most traffic this fall are Makalu and Manaslu, the fifth and eighth tallest peaks on the planet respectively. Of those, the 8481 meter (27,825 ft) Makalu is considered a more challenging climb. The lone peak, located along the border of Nepal and Tibet, features a distinct pyramid-shaped summit that provides plenty of technical challenges including a final approach that mixes both rock and ice. Manaslu, on the other hand, features a double summit, the tallest of which extends 8156 meters (26,759 ft) into the sky. While not quite as difficult as Makalu, it does indeed make an excellent testing ground for climbers looking to move on tougher peaks.

Cho Oyu, another popular destination for fall Himalayan climbers, is off limits this year due to the continued closure of the Tibetan border by the Chinese. That 8201 meter (26,906 ft) mountain is also a good tune-up in preparation for a spring attempt on Everest. But because of on going protests inside Tibet, no entry visas are currently being approved. That has caused several expeditions to change their plans and move their climb back into Nepal instead.

While the fall season is much less crowded in the Himalaya the weather also tends to be more unpredictable as well. At the moment it is calm and warm there, but winter tends to arrive early in that part of the world, which means climbers could easily be dealing with high winds and heavy snows before they’re through.

Most of the fall expeditions will be between a month and six weeks in length. In the early weeks the climbers will mostly be concentrating on acclimatizing to the altitude while they slowly build a series of camps that they’ll use in their final push to the summit. Once that process is complete, they’ll simply wait for the weather to be right to facilitate their summit bids. If they’re lucky they won’t have to wait long, but more often then not they can end up waiting for a number of days before conditions are right to go for the top.

And when they’re done, they’ll head home rest, recuperate and begin planning their return to the mountain in the spring.

[Photo credit: Ben Tubby via WikiMedia]

Inside The Urban Underground: Exploration Gets Personal

New Yorker Steve Duncan was so desperate to pass his college math class, he crawled through a tunnel to finish it. A computer assignment was due the next day and the software to finish was inside a building closed for the night. In a moment of desperation, Steve came up with a crazy plan: he could sneak inside. Having heard from a classmate about a collection of well-known tunnels connecting the university’s buildings, he resolved to convince the friend to guide him. After escorting Steve to the tunnel entrance, the friend offered vague directions, wished him luck and promptly left. As Steve recalls:

“He took off in the other direction and … here I was absolutely alone – it was terrifying and eye-opening, because every building on campus was connected by these tunnels. I passed the math class, but what always stuck with me was that first moment of being alone in the dark and being absolutely terrified but realizing that if I could face that, I had access to every part of the campus.”

Duncan had educational goals in mind when he entered the underground tunnels that night, but his experience kick-started an interest in an activity he continues to practice to this day: urban exploration.

Urban explorers seek to investigate the centuries of infrastructure created (and sometimes abandoned) by modern civilization: disused factories, historic bridges and unknown tunnels entered using legal, and sometimes illegal, means. The reason they do it is not as easily defined. Urban explorers come from a range of backgrounds, ranging from urban planners to historians to preservationists to architecture lovers, photographers and just plain old thrill-seekers all of whom are often lumped together under the banner of this general term. Just in New York alone, there’s the founders of the website Atlas Obscura, Nick Carr from Scouting New York and Kevin Walsh from Forgotten New York, along with countless others living around the world. These individuals, taken together, are less a community than a loose network of individuals united by a common love: re-discovering and investigating the forgotten and sometimes misunderstood detritus of modern day urban civilization

Yet the popularity of urban exploration confronts an interesting dilemma facing many 21st Century travelers: now that so much of what we seek to “discover” has been Google mapped, investigated and written about ad nauseum, how is our relationship with the concept of exploration evolving? And what does it tell us about the future of travel?

%Gallery-163759%

Steve Duncan – Urban Historian, Explorer and Geographer
It’s been over a decade since that math class first brought Steve Duncan underground, but he’s continued to evolve his approach to urban exploration from his home base of New York City. Styling himself as an “urban geographer” and historian, Duncan continues to direct his energies towards understanding the unseen layers of infrastructure that constitute our urban environment – namely the sewers, bridges and subway tunnels of the Big Apple.

In more recent years, Duncan has gained increasing attention for his adventures, including a week-long expedition through the sewers under NYC with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and a short documentary made by filmmaker Andrew Wonder that follows him as he visits New York’s off-limits subway stations and climbs to the top of the Queensboro Bridge.

But Duncan’s urban adventures aren’t undertaken merely for thrills – they’re a means to an intriguing end. In fact, Duncan cares less about being the first to rediscover forgotten places than taking a fresh look at the urban environments we inhabit. Despite the fact more than 50% of our world’s population now lives in cities, Duncan notes, much of today’s travel media continues to focus on outward-looking explorations of far-flung places perceived to be “exotic” – for instance, the wild jungles of Borneo or the ancient temples of Jordan. Steve believes his own adventures constitute an equally exotic form of adventure – a new inward-focused method of exploration.

As he notes, “I’m not interested in going to places nobody’s been before, [but rather] I’m interested in how we shape places.” This life-long history lover views exploration not as a means for public recognition but rather as a way to better understand his personal passion for the ever-changing nature of cities. Whether or not he can “claim the place” as his is irrelevant – he’s more interested in understanding. As he tells it, “All exploration to some extent is personal. It doesn’t matter if someone’s been there before. If it’s new to you, it’s still exploration.”

Taken together, Duncan’s adventures constitutes a kind of inward-driven “time travel” – a concept in which the worlds of history, the growth and decay of cities and adventure travel merge together to define a new opportunity all of us as travelers can take to re-examine the everyday world around us as a source of curiosity.

Dylan Thuras – Cartographer of Curiosities

Not all stories of urban exploration involve spending weeks in tunnels under New York City. For Dylan Thuras, co-founder of website Atlas Obscura, a mind-altering childhood trip to House on the Rock in Wisconsin defined his early travel memories. The strange house is part museum and part hall of curiosities, filled with bizarre collections of artwork, carousel rides and giant biological specimens. As Dylan recalls, “the fact that this could be tucked away in the woods in sleepy Wisconsin made me feel like there were these magical worlds all over the place … if I just knew how to look, I would start to find these fantastical places everywhere”

Ever since that moment, Thuras and his co-founder Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura have dedicated their website to altering travelers’ perspectives of the places worth visiting on their itineraries. To date they’ve built a worldwide, user-driven database highlighting more sites on all seven continents. As an example of the sites Atlas uncovers, Thuras mentions two sites in Florence, Italy – whereas the Uffizi Gallery is probably on most travelers’ radar, Dylan and Joshua also want to help you discover La Specola, the museum of wax anatomical models that contains a specimen of astronomer Galileo’s middle finger.

As Dylan points out, if an attraction isn’t listed on the top ten list in a guidebook “… it is easy to slip into anonymity, obscurity and disappear. I want to give people a sense that there is so much more than those ten things and that they might find that they have a better time if they venture into new territory.”

The style of exploration advocated by Thuras seeks to shift the context of the worlds we already know. That’s a far cry from the conception many travelers have in their heads of an idealized explorer discovering uncharted lands. Says Thuras: “This isn’t [exploration] in the Victorian sense of climbing the tallest mountain, or finding the source of a river … but in the sense that every one of us can find new and astonishing things if we look for them … it doesn’t always have to be about far-flung adventures.”

Urban Exploration – What’s Next?

Duncan and Thuras may appear to occupy different ends of the urban exploration spectrum, but their motivation stems from a distinct similarity. After years of endless exploring, categorizing and searching, both have arrived at the realization that our mundane daily worlds can be unknown places of curiosity and wonder. The challenge of getting there then, isn’t in the physical act of getting there. Explorers like Duncan do face large risks of injury in their wanderings, but it’s not on the scale of Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook or Edmund Hilary.

The difference in these explorers’ adventures thus seems to be a mental reframing of what we conceive of as exploration. Their perception of what is worthy of our consideration and interest as travelers is gradually shifting from the physical towards the mental. In the relentless search for finding the most far-flung undiscovered locations on earth, all of us as travelers have neglected to look right in front of our faces at the places we inhabit everyday as worthy of discovery. Unlike Steve Duncan the journey might not require a crawl through a sewer to appreciate, but ultimately it can be just as rewarding.

Japanese Woman Becomes Oldest To Summit Everest

Tamae Watanabe: The Oldest Woman To Summit EverestA 73-year-old Japanese woman by the name of Tamae Watanabe extended her record as the oldest female to climb Mt. Everest when she reached the summit for a second time this past weekend. Watanabe first climbed the world’s tallest mountain a decade ago and that previous record has held up until she decided to raise the bar herself.

Climbing with Asian Trekking, Watanabe scaled the 8848-meter (29,029-foot) mountain from the North Side, which falls inside Chinese controlled Tibet. She topped out, along with four other climbers, early Saturday morning after climbing throughout the night. The team spent a brief time enjoying the view from the world’s highest point, before starting their descent back to one of the high camps on the mountain. The following day Watanabe and her teammates all proceeded back down to Base Camp, where they are now preparing to head home after spending nearly two months on the expedition.

As we mentioned over the weekend, Saturday was summit day on Everest and as predicted, the climbers went to the summit in droves. The weather did take a turn for the worse late in the day on Saturday, however, and high winds forced a number of teams to retreat back down the mountain. Most of the remaining climbers are moving into position to take advantage of a second weather window that is expected to open later this week.

Incidentally, the distinction for being the oldest person to climb Everest belongs to Min Bahadur Sherchan, a Nepali man who was 76 years old when he reached the summit back in 2008.

[Photo credit: AP]

No Refunds For Everest Climbers

Everest: No Refunds!Mountain guide company Himalayan Experience (Himex) announced yesterday that there would be no refunds to climbers who spent roughly $55,000 on an expedition to Mt. Everest which was abruptly cancelled earlier this week. In a statement released on their website, the company said that most of the money has already been spent on logistics, permits, supplies and salaries for this season, but those clients wishing to return next year could do so at a discounted rate.

Calling the 2012 spring season the most dangerous he has ever seen, team leader Russell Brice elected to pull all of his guides, Sherpas and clients off the mountain out of fear for their safety. In the same statement in which he broke the “no refunds” news, Brice also went into detail about how he came to his decision. He noted that unusually warm and dry weather on Everest has led to unstable conditions across the mountain, and the dangers created by those conditions were too great to put his team at risk.

Himex is already planning to return to Everest next season and they say that they’ve had preliminary meetings with the Ice Doctors regarding a safer route through the Khumbu Icefall. That section of the mountain sits just above Base Camp and has been one of the most dangerous areas of the mountain for years.

I salute Brice for making the tough decision for pulling his team off the mountain when literally millions of dollars are on the line. But I also can’t help but feel sorry for the clients who have saved their pennies, trained hard and prepared physically and mentally for the opportunity to climb the tallest mountain on Earth. They must feel incredibly deflated at the moment and the promise of a discounted return trip next year can’t really help soothe that. While a successful summit is never a guarantee, the fact that they didn’t even get the chance to try must be crushing.

Lets also hope that the teams that remain on Everest will get up and down safely without any serious issues or accidents.

Is Mt. Everest Unsafe To Climb This Year?

Mt. EverestAt 8848 meters (29,029 feet) in height, Mt. Everest is a significant challenge for climbers even under the best of conditions. Thin air, the threat of altitude sickness and physically exhausting technical challenges are commonplace on the mountain, which has seen more than its fair share of fatalities over the years. But unusual weather conditions this spring may make climbing Everest more unsafe than ever and those conditions have even prompted one of the largest commercial climbing companies to cancel all attempts on the summit this year.

Yesterday Himalayan Expeditions, or Himex as it is known in mountaineering circles, announced that it was cancelling its Spring 2012 Expedition due to concerns over the safety of the guides, Sherpas and climbers. Team leader Russell Brice feels that it is simply too unsafe to climb Everest this year and rather than risk the lives of his team or clients he has elected to go home instead. As you can imagine, this was crushing news for the climbers, many of whom have dreamed of this expedition for years and have spent upwards of $55,000 for the opportunity to scale the world’s tallest peak.

What makes this season different from others in the past is that it has been unusually dry on Everest this spring. You would think that that would actually be a good thing for the climbers, but it turns out that without snow and ice on the slopes the mountain becomes much more difficult to climb. When climbing across snow or ice, mountaineers use crampons – small spikes that are attached to the bottom of their boots – to climb more safely and effectively. Those spikes can become a detriment when used on bare rock. Additionally, the snow and ice help make the route up the mountain safer by firmly keeping rocks locked into place, without it the rocks can dislodge quite easily and tumble down the side of the mountain, striking those below.The excessive amounts of loose rock aren’t the only problem, however, as Brice has also voiced concerns about the stability of the Khumbu Icefall, which is widely considered the most dangerous section on the South Side of the mountain. The icefall is a result of the Khumbu glacier breaking up as it moves down the valley. Due to the ice shifting and collapsing, a new route must be built through that section each year. A special group of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors are charged with building and maintaining that route, which is created by laying down a series of ladders over the open chasms. Climbers then walk across those ladders as they navigate to the base of the mountain located on the far side. The Himex leader feels that the route could collapse at any time, stranding the mountaineers on Everest, or worse yet, taking the lives of those in the icefall at the time.

The other big commercial guide services seem less concerned about the dangers of climbing Everest this spring and there are some indications that conditions are actually improving. Snow fell on the mountain over the weekend, which has brought a measure of stability to the peak and has allowed climbers to go as high as Camp 3, located at 7470 meters (24,500 feet), as part of their altitude training. Those climbers are hoping that conditions will continue to get better over time, allowing for safe passage to the summit in a few weeks.

It is hard to fault any guided climbing company for being overly cautious when keeping their customers safe but I’m sure there are more than a few Himex clients that are wondering if they’ll ever get another shot at climbing Everest. Hopefully the teams that remained on the mountain will get up and down safely in the days ahead.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak]