Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More than the daily dose of adventure

The jungle always adds to an adventure. It's something about heat and humidity mixed with thick vegetation and unknown sub-tropical creatures - a combination that turns a simple day of hiking and climbing into a noteworthy mission. Yesterday the goal was a newly developed crag at Pha Tang mountain 25 km north of
Vang Vieng, the the central region of Laos PDR. Myriad factors led to this day of motorbiking and climbing being quite different from a day at the local rock gym.

First, and possibly least, is the gact that this region of Laos is ethnically Hmong. Hmong fighters, hold-outs from the Vietnam War, former American allies, and still clinging to the possibilty of autonomy, have been clashing with Laos military police as recently 2005. In 2003 a tourist bus and some German bicyclists were caught in the crossfire. My fears were mediated after careful research (finding no recent reports of incidents) and seeing no signs of armament while travelling this Highway 13 last week from Luang Prubang. None-the-less motorscootering on rough roads through the poorest of villages in a former war-zone breeds apprehension. So after a hour of riding through this picturesque karst countryside I was mometarily relieved when we arrived at a simple quarry that would safely park our bikes (story has it that our gas would be siphoned if left in teh woods).

From along the newly oiled highway we could see the white limestone towers rising from the jungle, but the approach would not be without its own set of stories. We left the road on a bearing towards the towers and immediately entered a lime orchards with an unknown flowering shrub in the understory. There were many branching trails assumingly from the local fruit pickers. We were following directions clearly written by a non-native English speaker and consequently they were immediately useless. The orchard ened at a small streat that we decided to work along following a newly cut trail through tall ferns. Just 100 meters into the jungle, Josie, leading, was blind sided by a spider web complete with a white and black long legged friend. She maintained resaonable composure considering a large and creepy jungle spider dangled inches from her eyes and its web netted her hair. By the time I reached her she was rid of it and we took the accompanying picture of the peculiar aracnid.

The spider trail ended at a fence and we retraced our steps to the stream and crossed it. We then gained a wide shallow river which we waded easily without our shoes. I did not know it at the time but I think this is where I got the leech bite on my foot that later in the day would not stop bleeding. We easily crossed a patchwork of rice paddies and came to the side of a small hut which I think is used in the rainy season for the farmers. Now just a few
hundred meters seperated us from the limestone though an unkept orchard retaken by jungle stood in our way - there were faint trails but nothing seemed continuous. I was cautious to leave well-trodden ground as in my research I also learned of the hundreds of thousands of land mines placed unmapped by the Viet Cong. My nervousness was surely over-zealous and unfounded due to my poor understanding of Laos geography and post-war reparations. I was lacking an objective way to understand these risks (as I would, say, of the possibility of an avalanche) and though it was extremely unlikely we were to come across a unexploded ordinance I was mentally tired apon reaching th base of the enormous limestone massif.

The wall stood tall, dusty, and covered with cobwebs. Bamboo leaned into it and created a quintissential jungle atmosphere. Josie, always strong, made short work of one named climb and then quickly located two others that we had no information of. They seemed very new and we cleaned bugs and dirt and loose rock as we climbed. The 5.11 climbing itself was technical and steep and followed an impressive brown dike through the harder gray limetsone. We climbed 30 meter picthes at eth ground - there was clearly another 300 meter of stone above us. I am now reminded that apon reaching this second set of climbs we encountered a very bizzarre bat trap that was essentialy just a fishing net hung up perpendicular to the cliff between two bamboo poles. We had to get very close to the net before understanding what it was, but as we near the three near-death bats wringled in their unfortunate situation and stared at us in something I can only describe as fear. the whole scene was quite unnerving and added to the mental game that we were already playing with the dirty rock before us.

After our fill of jungle rock we worked back through the jungle and across the river. We were very hungry from the day because we got what we thought was sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves - turns out we unwrapped pandora's banana leaves to find what was I think about a tablespoon of uncooked pork. To shorten the already lengthy story: we reached the bikes just as it began to drizzle, we were starving , and the mixed clay and concrete road was quickly becoming trenchorous as it wetted. We had no choice to stop for chicken part and rice noodle soup in the first small village and sit with nice Laos people, only pointing and smiling, as the rain past. We returned to Vang Vieng just as the sun was setting into the bright orange of late evening. I had had my daily dose of adventure - and I think maybe a little extra for good measure.

Photos: 1) The sun sets. The view from my bungalow. 2)Crossing the leech stream and heading towards the tower. 3)Bat in net. Quite possibliy the freakiest thing I have ever seen - sorry but just had to give you nightmares too 3)If the bat wasn't enough this is the spider that almost punctured Josie's eyeball.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dispatch - Christmas -
Vang Vieng, Laos PDR

Last night, after a day of rock climbing and rope swinging, we were invited to a grand Christmas party by a Spanish girl and her friends. It was a white elephant dinner party. We sat at a long table in the garden, I between the tall Spanish girl and the owner of the only Laos-owned climbing guide company here. We talked about how tourism is changing his formerly-small hometown into a mecca for western travellers - he listed the pros and cons and had a very relaxed opinion of the whole thing. Tourism IS the Loas economy yet I have not seen the kind-hearted Laos people turned bitter or jaded my the Western dollar. Adam has made a good business of guiding climbing for foriegn visitors. We toasted to his success and his birthday.

The common language was English, but many side conversations rattled around the table in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and all collections of English accents. The Laos people and children that joined us wore Santa hats and talked in their gentle language. Each person was served a whole fish on a large plate, fried rice and sticky rice, garlic bread, and Beer Lao accompanied the main course. I met many new friends; as nearly all the European countries were represented around the table. A large British man played Santa Claus and carried a large rice bag to collect our presents for exchange. We rolled dice to see who who pick and exchange first - I got a small handmade doll that is a keychain. We ate and dined like kings - for 18 people our bill was 1 million Lao kip (maybe 120USD). No doubt it was a Chistmas party I will not soon forget.
Happy Holidays to all.

Photo: River side bar and swimming hole, Vang Vieng, Laos.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dispatch - December 21
Vang Vieng, Laos PDR

The 24 hour sleeper bus ride and the 6 hour minibus ride are behind me now. I will leave that story for another time. Today I found some climbing in a jungle acrost a river. There was a massive rope swing into the river and there was a bar at the shore played Bob Dylan all day. We rode is a tuk-tuk with a drunken driver - but he was kind enough to share his Beer Lao with us after returning us to town. There is an island here that is reached by a rickety bamboo bridge, on the island are many bars and campfires surrounded by routy European tourists. We you get hot you can swim in the river right from your bamboo perched, as long as you don't upset your beer as you jump off. There are endless hourds of western tourists here sitting in resturants watching Friends and snacking on fruit shakes. I happy to have a climbing mission because tubing the river all day and drinking and watching TV all night would truly get old fast. Laos people are very kind and friendly and they don't honk nearly half as much as Chinese drivers. This will be a very nice place to spend New Years and Christmas as every day is a party and you can easily drink and eat too much - which is what I'd do for the holidays back in the states anyways.
Photo: Boatman on the Mekong River, Luang Prubang, Loas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dispatch: Kunming, China 12/17/2008

We left friendly and beautiful YangShuo on a local bus to Guilin yesterday afternoon and without much trouble have found our way to Kunming. Kunming is in Yunnan province and lays some 1200km west of Guilin. We slept well on the confortable sleeper car and prior we were able to watch the scenery and villages go by until the sun set. The other train riders were interested in us and watch on as we played cards and reviewed our photos. I tried my few Chinese phases and we shard some laughs with our bunkmates. We met a guy who smokes regular cigarettes out of a big bamboo bong between cars and I was kind and unable to turn the rough Chinese tobacco down. Josie beat me at cribbage after that.

At the Kunming train station we easier than expected found a fancy new sleeper bus that was bound for Luang Prubang, Loas. We got our tickets and will depart this evening expecting a slightly arduous 24 hour ride through jungle and canyon. Let the adventure continue....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rock Climbing in YangShuo, China
Beta for Multi-pitch Routes

When I first arrived in Yangshuo I was prepared for a month of limestone sport climbing. I readied myself for pocket pulling and tufa pinching up steep white and orange walls. Once I began to roam the towers and delve into Yangshuo Rock Climbs I reliezed there may be a slightly more elusive Yangshuo climbing scene. I made a point to climb as many multi-pitch routes up these impressive limtesone towers as I could fit into my trip. What I found was a collection of jungle adventures into beautifully unexecpted places with endless panoramic views of a magical land. There was also no shortness of crumbling rock, unequipped anchors, vine pulling, razor blades, hailing buses in the dark, rockfall, rusty mallions, and an ocassional snake. In otherwords: sweet!
Climbers Beta
(note: vocabulary may be a bit tedious for the non-climber friends and family)

There are a lot of fresh bolts in Yangshuo and thus the climbing is fairly safe (some older routes do have some rusty bolts). Many rappell anchors need to be backed-up or rebuilt. Bring lots of webbing and rap rings. Next time I will bring many rapid-links and chains as most rap anchors could use some permanent equipment (this is also true even for some of the single pitch sport climbs). The rock here is both sharp and loose. Climbing here without a helmet would be foolish. Almost every route can be decended via the ascent line with one 60 meter rope. I found the topos in Paul Collis' book to be well-drawn and consistent. Lastly, it should be noted that the amount of rock here makes the possibility of putting up more routes comparable to these completely unlimited. Hundreds, if not thousands of unnamed, unclimbed, unexplored towers rise from the rice fields and river flats in all directions. Climbers seeking limestone walls of adventure need to look no further.

The Routes
  • Thumb Peak - Happy New Year (5.10b,5 pitches)
    This is the first and definently the cleanest multi-pitch line I did here. Climbing in great, bolts are frequent, the top anchor was looking pretty hangered 'til we beefed it up. Bring lots of draws to link the 3rd and 4th pitch.

  • The Screaming Mountain Turtle (5.9, 5 pitches)
    There is a new first pitch to this climb that is maybe 10a that goes to right of the original line with bleached out threads. The rest of the pitches are sharp. I almost broke Szu-ting's wrist with rockfall on the first pitch. We used a #2,#1, .5 Camalot to supplement some sections, otherwise there are lots of bolts. There is a hidden bolt on the traverse pitch. The top pitch requires loose climbing above dubious cams. The final rappell (off route) is a sketchy thread at a chalky stance.

  • Low Mountain - L Echo des Montagnes (5.8, 5 pitches)
    An alpine style route with little hard climbing. Lots of rope drag if you're not careful. The 50 meter free-rappell is the best part of this climb, second is the very cool river of the river. In the shade for first half of the day and bolts everywhere.

  • Low Mountain - Monkey King (5.10c, 5 pitches)
    First pitch is fanastic and clean, link it to the 2nd. The 3rd pitch is soft rock but cool climbing and the 4th is the only bolt protected off-width to squeeze cimney in Yangshuo. Must use every rappell station to get down. Despite being dirty this is a fun route!

  • Twin Gate Western Tower - Penthouse Platforms (5.10a, 3 pitches)
    The hardest climbing is right of the ground. Like it says, big belay ledges, and the cool top-out and views make this an enjoyable route.

  • Brave New World, East Face - The Witch Woman of the Rock (5.10c, 5 picthes, bolted anchors)
    This is the only true trad climb we did and subsequently the most intense. There are indeed cracks from top to bottom but the rock quality is variable. This was Szu-tings favorite route and for good reason: serious climbing, we got use the gear she brought all the way from the states, amazing exposure, even better views, and the only true hand jams in Yangshuo. This route is recommended for experienced trad climbers as we used cams to #3 and a small set of nuts and many long runners. The anchors are in good shape as they are good bolts equipped with rope loops and rap rings.

  • The Egg - The Deviant Direct (5.9, 3 pitches)
    Szu-ting forgot we did this route so it must have not been very good. The 30 meter rappel directly from the top anchor is not eqipped and thus I had to jug back up to the anchor on-route.

Photos: 1)Endless unnamed, unexplored towers along the Li River; between Yangdi and Xing Ping 2)The team at the Egg; Josie, Masa, myself, and Szu-ting

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Climbing everyday

Climbing everyday in China is tiring and rewarding. Most days we gather lunch and breakfast supplies as we walk to the bus station. We gather warm soy milk in a bowl, steamed buns with sweet peanut filling, blueberry bread, sticky rice in bamboo leaves, cookies, candy, mandarian oranges and crisp apples. We then head to the crowded local mini-bus station and cram ourselves and our gear into a breadbox mini-bus half the size of an American minivan. We ride with the locals down wide roads honking and passing tractors and bikers and getting passed by large tour buses and taxis; did I mention the honking. After much honking and much shuffling of people in and out of the mini-bus we arrive at a dusty side street and pay our fare - 2.50 yuan or 35cents USD per person. The bus sputters off and we start the short or long walk through villages to a beckoning limestone tower.

The villagers are busy with their daily chores of picking fruit, washing, sweeping, collecting wood, or working on a new part of their cement homes. One time an old lady got off at the same dusty road as us and walk alongside chatting with Szu-ting as we haeded for the crag. She told her she can always pick out the climbers because they carry backpacks and most of them are westerners. She seemed happy that we passed through her village - unaffected by our presence but entertained by our parade. Sometimes when we are slightly lost and tramping around through someone's orange or rice field a farmer will apear out of nowhere - he has a basket of small tart citrusy friut to share and helps us with finding the right trail - usually guiding us all they way 'til we have located the proper path. I can not tell wheather he just wanted us to stop tromping around in his field or if he actually wants to help us find our way. Either way we are rarely lost for long (speaking Chinese helps very much with this).

Once we reach the cliffside we open the newly republished English guidebook (Climbing in YangShuo; Collis Oct. 2008) and begin to pick out routes that we can do. They always look steep and intimidating and if I'm feeling fresh I head out on lead up the rugged, often sharp, holds. If I'm feeling sleepy or slow I talk Szu-ting into starting up; she happily grabs the gear and begins to work through the technical movements that characterize this limestone climbing. The rock is made up of pockets and side-pulls and overhanging holds facing all directions and therefore, regardless of grade, always keep you on your toes (pun, what pun?). The climbing is protected well by numberous and fresh looking bolts and is consequently quite safe - that doesn't mean it doesn't feel intense or scary for the consistent steepness and adventuresome manner of the stone lends itself to some intimating climbing. Every route is fun and every crag we visit is a new adventure.

Rock climbing development in YangShuo continues at a very rapid pace with one team we talked to reporting as many as 30 new climbs bolted since the publication of the October guidebook. This speed supercedes any American climbing area I have known. Route development and climbing exploration in many other parts of China is just beginning and the possibility to establish new routes seems at this moment endless. Yet, for now, we continue to explore routes clearly established by the adventurers that have come before us. Regardless, many routes we have climbed appear to have had only a handful of previous ascents and as we learn through the grapevine of more recent develpoment many routes we approach may have had even fewer previous parties. I envision a time when I will put my name on a newly created route somewhere deep in rural China. Until then I will continue to enjoy the quality offerings, of both culture and stone, at the cliffs of YangShuo.

Photos: 1) Corey decending via a free-hanging 50M abseil from Low Mountain's SW Arete 2) Approaching Low Mountain through groves of citrus and cotton 3) Szu-ting leading yet another steep 10b at Space Butress

Friday, November 28, 2008

Yang Shuo Fire and Water Tourism and Fruit Trade Show Event (thingy)

It was perfect timing. Yang Shuo has been hosting their annual town festival and we were lucky enough to catch many of the festivities. Without a doubt it makes up for the lack of fanfare for the more traditional holidays back in America. The events calendar and coinciding tourist influx is beginning to wind down now. The traffic on the pedestrian street moves along well again and the municipal park has taken down the stage. It has been a fantastic evening diversion after a long day of climbing to come back to town and always have an exciting new thing to see. So as the banners fall from the street lights and we get on with another couple weeks here let me recap the most notable events of the Yang Shuo Fire and Water Tourism and Fruit Trade Show Event.
We first knew something was up when a large float decorated with plastic flowers and the local fruit (the gui) shown up on West Street. Szu-ting translated the calendar and told me there would be a beer competition, a marketing respresentive contest, dancing, and a fireworks show. All these items seemed vague and slightly uneventful but little did I know the amount of entertainment value the local government could pack in to these ambiguous titles. Sunday turned out to be the day of most of the excitement so we headed to the park following the loudspeakers. We found the place to be packed, loaded with kids chasing cotton candy and ballon vendors, and what appeared to be traditional native cultural dances being performed on an impressive stage. The costuming was intricate and while I understood very little of the music (or the Chinese Opera and one-act plays to follow) the performances and the turnout was still impressive for this little town.
After a break we headed back into town and found the place to be litterally crawling with tourists, most of them from neighboring towns. Police were everywhere but they seemed content just keeping traffic moving along. We arrived at a cross street to watch what was only described as a beer competition - turns out it was a beer drinking competition and I was immediately sorry I missed the sign-up. The first round was the western tourists and as they lined up to ready themselves to pound a TingSao 22 the local paparazzi swooped in for good photos. I shoot my photo from a balcony across the street. There were subsequent rounds of Chinese beer drinkers but somehow the white guys got all the fanfare at this event?
Just after the beer comp we made our way, with our own beers in hand, to the riverside. It was rumored there would be fireworks at 10. As we neared the waterway we recognized the immensity of our position. It looked as as the whole town plus the 5 neighboring towns had turned out to watch the display. We waded through people 'til we got right down to the water - still having no idea where these fireworks would be coming from but figuring the more dense the people the better the view. At 10:10 we were quite surprised to see that the fireworks would be shot off from immediately opposite the river from us (were talking Deschutes River not Columbia River here). Please remember the Chinese indeed invented gunpowder and still make most of the world's fireworks to this day so one can imagine the scope of a firework show at a festival whose name includes the word fire. For forty minutes we watch a few men run around these massive cannons and boxes launching the loudest fireworks I've ever heard into the air above us. The booms resounded off the limestone tower walls and reflected in the river at our feet. The ferry boats of the river lined up perfectly, each lit by a single light and floated idyllically past and out of sight. The fireworks went on and on, short and tall, flares and firecrackers, left and right, and all the time everyone ohhed and ahhed and took pictures with their cellphones.
The next day we were back from climbing just in time to the marketing representive contest. You guess it a Chinese beauty contest for the Queen of YangShuo (I give that name myself, but it is a good translation). On the park stage again, this time in the evening under lights with even more people standing and straining to get a view. First there was the swimsuit round, then the evening gown, then the question and answer, and then they must have crowned the Queen but we didn't stay for that long 'cause the Q and A was really boring if you don't speak Chinese. All in all a great week of giving thanks time events in YangShuo. Mark your calendars for Nov 22nd 2009 - the fireworks are always the same day!
Photos: 1)The best fireworks. Ever. 2) Ballon vendor
3)View from third pitch of the Egg. Yes we go rock climbing too 4)Westerners and paparazzi and beer.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It's not just another climbing route!
It's a tower in China
The Thumb: Happy New Year! (6 pitches, 6a+)

Yesterday was the first day we climbed a tower of limetsone. It rose from the rice and vegetable fields of rural China. We rode a crowded mini-bus just a handful of kilometers to be dropped off at the tourist spot called Butterfly Spring. It was the weekend and hoards of Chinese tourists rode bikes along the scenic rode and gawked at the magical views. The buses and trucks and cars streamed past as well, constantly honking and swerving around the biking hoards. We crossed through the quiet farmers tending thier crops and stood below the overhanging, colorful wall. The wall was well equipped with closely-spaced modern bolts and two-bolt belay anchors. The climbing was steep, but not too hard, and I struggled up some sections with my sore finger. Szu-ting made short work of an awkward bolted off-width crack nearing the top of the tower. The crack was razor sharp and the exposure was drastic but she nonethless escape upward without adding blood to the hand-eating fissure.
From the top of the tower the constant honking and tractor rumble fell away, and we were able to finally look out across the landscape of endless towers with the Li River weaving a ribbon a life throughout. Tourists and locals biked and laughed along below us and further, rice farmers swept their crop thin across concrete roofs to dry it in the patchy sun of the afternoon. We took it all in from the summit not much wider than a basketball court and then returned to the edge to begin our rappels to the ground. The anchor was pieced together and the strands of rope and webbing shown the wear of sun and rain. We added a caribiner to the mess, threaded our rope through it, and decended through knife-blade limestone and vertical jungle to the next, and much better, abseil anchor below.

China is a very new place for me to be travelling. Culturally it is unlike anything I have seen. There appears to be a great disparity between rich and poor. Though is seems that the rural people live simple and slow lives that have allowed them to escape the many trappings of the modern automobile and information driven society we have embraced in the west. By the way people drive and honk incessently here it appears cars may be fairly new to many of these villages, cell phones and the internet even more so. As the world continues to become more international, as cultures continue to melt into one another it gives me some sort of solace to see old Chinese farmers shucking rice grains with a wooden, hand-crank contraption.
Each night we explore the alleys and streets of Yang Shuo; it if a tourists destionation for not only westerners but for many Chinese from neighboring cities. There are thousands of resturants and craftman shops. There are western bars and hotels and pizza cafes and street vendors selling fruits and whole chickens and tea and deserts and cotton candy made with a bicycle tire and a wooden tub. Szu-ting translates menus, and street signs, and advertisements for me. I am beginning to learn words and phrases in Chinese which I forget and relearn daily. As I begin to understand how the language is put together I begin to understand the immediate and stark differences to English and I am even further impresses by Chinese speakers that have mastered the English language. I am not only thankful, but truly impressed by Szu-ting's speed and agility in daily translation; for it has allowed me to more fully appreciate the place. A place that continues to captivate my western mind.
Photos: 1) The Thumb; our route went basically right up the center of this colorful, vegetated tower. 2)Yang Shuo town and the myraid limestone towers beyond. 3)Looking out the round windows from "Sleeping On Clouds" lookout in Yang Shuo Municapal Park.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dispatch - Yang Shuo, China - 11/20/2008

After two exciting days of travel we have arrived in Yang Shuo. Since there are no direct flights to the mainland from Taiwan so we first had to fly into Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we had planned on tranferring to a ferry that would take us to another airport across the water in China where we could then fly up north to a town called Guilin. Instead, we missed the ferry transfer to collect our luggage and was then forced through Hong Kong customs - once through customs we would have to find another option to get out of the airport. We choose the airport express train that led to the Hong Kong subway. The subway is very modern but very busy and required 5 transfers which we negotiated with all our climbing gear. The other thousands of people were obviously commuters and were surprised by our amount of luggage. We then reached an above ground line that headed for the Chinese border. At the end of the line we worked our way through Chinese customs and were finally on the mainland. We then spent hours trying o find a bus or train bound for the Szenchen airport - even speaking Chinese and English it took alot of asking to work our way through the confusing transportation network in China. We finally embarked on a wild bus ride through the city and ended at a local airport serving domestic flights within China.

We had yet to aquire tickets to Guilin so we went directly to the airline counter and bought tickets with cash for a later flight. We took all our gear and walked to the small neighboring town and had beers and dinner. There was a school bus full of kids that all ran to the side of the bus to say "hello" to the westerner in town. In all my travels in Asia I had never had this much attention from local children - they were clearly excited to practice their English and wowed by a white guy sitting on the street-side. Szu-ting said she had never got so many looks, for even though she is Chinese we were clearly not locals. We had amazing hand pulled noodles for 3 yen (40 cents) a plate for dinner and returned to the airport. The flight was an hour and 500 km long - the train would have been 13 hours so it was money well spent. We were finished after that day and found a hotel with a massive marble and chandelier lobby - it was $18 USD a night. In the morning we found yet another bus to take us the hour here to Yang Shuo. We have been busy working to find long-term housing, get climbing info, and settle into this tourist town amongst the beautful karst towers this region is famous for. More adventures to come.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taiwan: Final Dispatch
Sea cliff climbing and Chinese homecooking

One last report from Taiwan before we head to Hong Kong tomorrow morning. Despite the rainy weather outlook we decided we must check out the climbing area here before leaving. So we packed up the Piglet once again and took freeways for and hour and some to the northeastern corner of the island. The climbing is at a rugged cape composed of brightly colored sandstone. You scramble down muddy, slippery fisherman trails right to the edge of the sea and work along boulder fields and tidepools to the base of the crags. Long Dong (yes, that's its real name; it means Dragon Cave) is built from rock unlike any I have seen before. While the guidebooks call it sandstone it compares little to sandstone climbing areas in the states. It is a conglomerate, there are features mixed in that appear to be quartz; the resulting rock is amazingly bombproof and the many fractures create great places for natural gear. Couple amazing rock quality with the impressive position above the sea and you have a noteworthy rock climbing area.

Unfortunately, the winter weather has been consistent since we've been here in Taipei and when we visited Long Dong the rain was between drizzle and downpour. Nonetheless we located a short wall of cracks inside the mouth of the cave and as the choppy waves blasted against the cape we were able to sneak in a few meters of climbing - enough to say we climbed in Taiwan atleast. But the day was only a teaser as now I interpret the routes in the guidebook as more quality than the pictures suggest. I expect Long Dong would support a good week or two of amazing trad climbing and possibly another week chasing around the most recently bolted routes as well.

In other adventure news I have been very fortunate to dine with Szu-ting's family each evening. her mom is an incredible cook and I have had handfuls of amazing homemade Chinese dishes. The meals are always served with rice, which you eat plain just a bit before adding the entrees, and finished with a brothy soup. My favorites have been sea bass, spiced bone-in chicken, seaweed and tofu, handmade sausage, water vegetables and carrots, and mushroom sautee. I have eaten many new items - they are too numberous to list - and I am thankful for the Yi family's hospitality.
Photos: 1)A rainy day ay Long Dong Cape. 2)An array of homecooked Chinese courses. 3) A well-animated cliffside warning sign.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Taiwan Road Trip Part I:

Big cities, chicken rice, and alpine tea

Days are very full and therefore moving very fast here in Taiwan. It turns out this small island figuratively floating off the coast of mainland China has much more to offer than the neon bustle of Taipei city. The rains continued to pour down as our jet lag faded away and as the coastal climbing areas to the northeast sat damp and sad against the Pacific we decided to turn our dreary days into a sunny road trip that headed south and into the rugged interior mountains. Therefore, Wednesday morning we loaded Szu-ting's trusty 'Piglet', a miniature Nissan hatchback not seen in US markets, and weaved through Taipei surface streets to finally gain the comfortable Taiwan southerly freeway. I was constantly amazed by the density of Taiwan's cities, for as soon as we left the trappings of Taipei we passed through city after city, each taller and more built up than nearly every large city in the US. Every few miles was yet another tower of industry, a skyscraper of commerce, or a massive housing project fed by even a more massive power plant. Along this flat west coast the Taiwan Straight is churned up and dark brown, the prevailing winds turn mighty windmills, and the interior mountains are shrouded by haze.

Though, here, in the largest cities south of Taipei is where the true character of Taiwanese people and cuisine emerges. Szu-ting usually starts the introduction to each town like this: “the featured food item for here is ______.” This particular evening, in the town of Jah-yi (it should be noted placed names are provided in English by a process called ping-ing in which you just write letters that somehow make the sounds that are the word, an inexact translation as best) the featured item is 'chicken rice' which turns out is exactly that – chicken (cold with all the parts) and rice (warm). It is not my favorite Chinese dish, Szu-ting likes it a lot. I am glad she only ordered one. I instead opt for a grapefruit and honey drink which is fantastic and then eat some little round cakes cooked in a giant-round-waffle griddle on the street. I find a candy store and an Asian bakery that has some sort of ham croissant that is filling. On the streets there is a bustle that is unlike anything American – scooters and cars mix with vendors selling everything, neon lights bath the streets, ally ways fill with steam of cooked everything, and I wonder how a city can be so alive and interactive – there can be nothing more different from an anywhere-America strip mall.

After Jah-yi we begin our easterly ascent and the driving adventure begins. We wind up one and half lane roads into the steep green mountains illuminated by full moon light. The character of the landscape changes immediately and the cities turn to villages as the terrain steepens – there is no longer room for massive cities, only collections of homes and business perched on terraces seemingly carved from the slope. In one high village, surrounded by fields of tea, we find a karaoke celebration at a temple with a view and locate nearby lodging at a beautiful stilted 'bed and breakfast.' It is mid-week and the proprietor welcomes us to his office for tea served from a antique table made from a slice of old-growth cypress. He has much to tell us about his region, Szu-ting does her best to translate but it is late and constant translation in tiring so I let them talk in Chinese, as I watch the particulars of the tea pouring and making. Pour the tea leaves into a ceramic pot, pour the water over them with reckless abandon letting the water spill over and on to the wooden tray, pour the tea from the pot through the strainer and into the glass pot, pour off the first cup sloppily, but use it to warm the small drinking glasses, which have been pulled from boiling water themselves and set out in front of the guests. When the leaves are ready to provide tea pour it carefully into small ceramic jars with narrow necks, turn the jars into the glasses, and let the aroma of the brewed tea sit in the vase for inspection. The tea is ready. Talk, in Chinese, about mystical giant trees in the mountains, of trains climbing into high forests, of Barack Obama and the American economy, and of your home and your tea and your guests. Drink carefully and quickly, yet enjoy each sip. Walk to the veranda and point out the cities below. Welcome your guests once again. Sleep.

Photos: 1)Wind farms line the entire west coast of Taiwan. 2)Elder sister pond in Alishan National Forest 3)Terraces of tea from our lodging high in the mountains.

Taiwan Roadtrip Part II:
Old-growth forest, winding roads of despair, jungle gorges, the other side of Pacific, and gold-medal traffic jams

We woke up amongst alpine tea terraces and devoured a traditional Taiwanese breakfast of fruited rice, chive omelet, pickled veggies, and shredded pork. Piglet, our squeaky and efficient transportation was ready for another day of driving adventures. When I thought we had already climbed to the top of the highest peaks I found myself mistaken as the road just continued to wind up and up to a place called Alishan. To my amazement Alisan is home to a montane old-growth forest of Taiwanese Red Cypress. It is a well developed and touristy park but that did not distract from the majestic forest that we toured through via a elfin wooden boardwalk.

This forest brought back many memories of old-growth forests past and I could not help but draw comparisons to the sequoia forests of the Sierra that I have come to know well. These Cypress, well over a 1000 years old, occur, just as the Sequoia, in a narrow band at around 6,000 feet on a particular aspect in a particular soil in a particular mountain range. Immediately, upon their discovery, the locals recognized their spiritual nature and protected them from harvest. The story of conservation is very similar to that of the Sierra forests. The park has recently added to their protection by building elaborate boardwalks touring through them, because just as the Sequoia, these giant trees are fragile and sensitive to soil compaction. While hikinh through these mighty trees one comes across elegant shrine's to historical figures past, vintage railway lines, azure Koi ponds, and creeky suspension bridges. These images will be forever imprinted in my mind.

After a morning exploring Alishan, and just when I figured our narrow road had topped out we again climbed up and over rugged mountain passes and had amazing views of many 3,000 + meter peaks. We descended only briefly to find food in a small village and after a soak in a well-developed hot spring the darkness forced us to find lodging in a train station town at the foot of the steep mountain faces. A river ran its course through this town and we found a simple night market with BBQ and candy stands to occupy our evening. In the morning we had a simple breakfast from a handful of street vendors and again headed back into the mountains via the most amazing collection of one-lane roads. The roads are windy, very windy, with mirrors at each corner, which are best used to determine if the oncoming traffic is a bus or heavy truck. Often the road barely fits Piglet because the rest of the road has since fallen into the valley below. I can only compare these routes to those I have traveled in the Italian Dolomites, though somehow building these grades in loose rock and in a land of monsoon rains seems more impressive that those carved out of solid granite. Szu-ting told me the route we took is only a couple of decades old and it is known that 100s of people died in its construction. I did the driving, she only screamed a couple of times, mostly because oncoming big rigs threatened to squish us or catapult us into 2000 meter of air, but Piglet held her ground and we worked our way up and over Taiwan's mountain pass. Many hours and maybe 5000 S-curves later we enter a impressive and very scenic gorge called Toroko on the English signs(tidal goul is what Szu-ting calls it, but that conjures up images of some scary sea creature blob monster from the deep).

Tidal goul (toroko) is far from scary. In fact it was the most impressive natural wonder we came across on this trip. It is a massive gorge framed by jungly vertical walls with a thin stream forming a wash at the bottom, huge marble boulders litter the stream bed and wispy waterfalls pour in from nowhere. An engineer marvel, the narrow road enters and exits endless tunnels as it somehow works its way through the defile. I have no words left to describe this place – but I will, just as Szu-ting suggested, put it on the must see list of any travelers to Taiwan.

After Toroko I though the scenic tour was over but we then gained a road that headed north along the rugged Pacific coast of the island. The ocean was an incredible blue and the green mountains came down to meet the sea in incredible relief. This was the scariest part of the drive as well, as the rain poured down, trucks rumbled along the curves, people passed haphazardly on corners with utter disregard for the double yellow line. We worked our way slowly and finally, much to the relief of both of us reached a freeway leading back to Taipei. We entered a 15km long newly built tunnel taking us northwest, near the end the temperature of the tunnel must have reached 110 degrees. I was only scared for a minute – the rest of the drivers seem uneffected so I drove on and was soon back in the comfortable evening outside air. Once reaching Taipei we exited to surface streets and spent the next two hours weaving through Friday night traffic back to Szu-ting's neighborhood. Buses, scooters, trucks, and cars merged in and out of a constantly changing traffic pattern. There must have been but I noticed no true organization pattern. Szu-ting read the signs, I attempted not to permanently mangle any school children as the weaved through the 4 lanes of crawling commuter traffic. Everyone honked at someone, I was amazed that damaged cars and scooter drivers did not litter the street-sides. Amazingly, without incident, I somehow managed to navigate Piglet back to the MingDe neighborhood and immediately had a cheap Japanese beer for my troubles. An adventure? Yes. Beautiful? Very much so. Driving in the cities and mountains of Taiwan? Unforgettable.

Photos: 1)Highway 14 winds through many 3000m passes in the central mountains 2)Shrine to those that died making the road we just drove on in Toroko 3)Piglet at the top of the pass 4)The Pacific meets the mountains on the Taiwanese east coast

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lost, but at home, in Asia once again

Just one day in Taipei so far and already the adventure has begun. My previous journey's into Thailand and Malaysia have prepared me well for this new place but already I am completely indebted to Szu Ting and she guides me through the maze of eateries and ally-ways in endless Taipei. Just a year ago I was feeling comfortable and at-home in Thailand's biggest cities but here there are many new challenges - most notably the use of Chinese characters in most signage. There is very little English translation and I can only imagine the challenges of eating and navigating without my Mandarin speaking host. My ninja scooter driving and human compass skills have indeed come in handy but they are no match for not understanding a single thing.

After arriving at 6am to the airport and with little sleep we made our way via buses and subways to the neighborhood of Szu Ting's family's home. The weather was windy, dark, and rainy, but somehow my previous summer in Seattle made it feel slightly homely. We wanted so badly to sleep but the timeframe of visa aquitition required us to nearly immediately return to the subway system in search of the proper government office that could reissue Szu Ting a new ID card that would be required for the Chinese entrance 'visa'. The journey, shrouded in a sleepless delirium, took many subway rides and a rainy jaunt on the family scooter through mazes of streets that confused us both. We were successful and rewarded our day with Taiwan Beer and potstickers; which were purchased for $1 and 20cents a piece respectively.

This morning we continued the China 'visa' hunt which turns out is nearly as difficult for Taiwanese as it is for Americans ( mine requires $130 and days in LA traffic jams, hers requires running from office to office throughout the city at half the cost). We added a nesseccary visit at tourist stop Taipei 101- what may be, and appears to be, one of the tallest buildings in the world. I don't know the particulars but it truly towers over an already impressive city skyline and seems to defy gravity as it reaches in the foggy Taipei sky. Taipei in general it should be noted defys the eye in many ways as it reaches in all directions with such a grand density that it dwarfs any American city I have known.

It is a wonder I often have as I travel - how, and why, does it feel good to feel small and lost in an unknown land - to be a foriegner, to stick out of a crowd so completely, to understand nothing and to take solace in that lack of understaing, to have everyone seeing you seeing them and to share that look/unspoken exchange of 'what is your life like?' and... well... I've only been here for two days. We'll get to the and soon enough.

Photos: 1) Street signs guide the way 2)Szu Ting guides the way 3)Taipei 101 - it's huge!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dispatch 11/08/08

Today is the day. LAX to TPE (Taipei, Taiwan) this evening.
Quite a harrowing week of preparing for such a massive international trip. Monday I made an early morning trip to LA to apply for a Chinese Visa and Tuesday started off with the loss of my bank card and ended at the filled with joy Joshua Tree Saloon. I have never seen such an emotional and incredible end to an election as all of the young dreamers showed up at the bar to squint through teary eyes as Barack gave his speech. Throughout out the week I have been teaching climbing to my fellow peers at an end-of-season Naturalists-At-Large anchor training that rode on the undertones of a new era in American politics. The regularly hapy and joyous crew was this week overjoyed and hopeful. Friday was syncronistic and insane as I regathered my financial tools and snuck through traffic to acquire my passport and new visa just minutes before being locked out of the Chinese embassy.
As some of you may have known I did some damage to the tendon of my right finger while climbing in Joshua Tree two weeks ago - a challenging injury to undergo just prior to launching off into a three month climbing trip. Because of this and the general nature of adventure my itinerary is splotchy at best and therefore this blog may just be the only reasonable way to keep track off me. I am most looking forward to my adventures in China, and further adventures and climbing with many close friends by the New Year in Thailand.
Keep an eye on IanOutThere for photos and updates

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fall Musings

After a short 2 months at Naturalists-At-Large I am looking forward now to a grand adventure in China, Thailand, and Borneo this winter. The itinerary, beginning Nov. 8, is starting to fill up with endless forays into new and never visited climbing areas across Southeast Asia. But before I launch into preparations for the upcoming journey I felt it only to necessary to recount a few excellent adventures from the last bit of this play called work.

So to recap: The Southern California fall has been nothing short of fantastic. My regular tour of the region this season included some of the Golden State's most beautiful and less visited natural areas. I began in September at one-of-kind salty, tuffa'd Mono Lake and I moved around working and touring through the dry yet elegant Mojave desert. Along the way I was accompanied by a colorful cast of devoted and outrageous outdoor educators. Campfire music sessions were numerous, miles on the Interstate were even more numerous, and the time spent with friends in wild places was notable in the fact that despite the many times I have visited these places they are still just as I want and need them to be.

Programs at the end of the Colorado River were fun and the weekends following in dirty, quaint Yuma, Arizona were clearly scenes out of low-budget Hollywood flick backdropped by neon cheap hotels and sad palm trees. A canoe trip below the Hoover Dam meant Vegas was just a short drive away but we chose to spend our evening watching the presidential debate in the back of a local bar and wandering the streets of a desert town lost in the middle. In Pinnacles we befriended the rangers, took the superintendent's 10 year old daughter climbing and later, Andrew and I climbed the serpentine Machete Ridge with speed and grace (not always the case) until dark.

This season I reflected on how truly lucky I am do be working at a job that lets me visit some of these incredible places. As the world continues to spin into an increasingly unpredictable place I am excited and thankful to be continuing to live this life of constant exploration, honest fun, and rewarding pursuits. May the adventure continue....

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A nearly secret part of the Colorado River

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Home Back Home On the Mighty Colorado

The Colorado River is a one of a kind place. No other river on Earth can mimic its comforting grand canyons nor the deep mineral hues of its' coves. The Colorado River drains so much of the southwestern US that it encompasses and links many diverse regions. Yet, because of the river's endless enchainment of dams each piece must be explored separately. The Colorado River that I know begins as a chilly silt-free discharge from the bottom of the historic Hoover dam and flows decisively south toward the Davis Dam. Everyone that has visited this oftentimes quiet piece of the Colorado River has become fond of it.

On this particular week this peaceful Mojave Lake backwater is baking at well over 105 degrees. The winds only help to enhance the feel of living in a convection oven. The bighorn hide sleepily in the shade and the echos of my powerboats engine bounce across the tepid clear water. We are supporting nearly 80 people as they paddle through the numbing heat. We wait, we motor, we unload, we swim, and then repeat our now familiar work day. It feels good to be working and living in a place where most humans are only short-term visitors.

On the last day we begin to explore a cove that previous friends had visited. It is muddy and brushy at the shore. After three years out on the river I have never been here before it seems like a discovery is about to take place. We push through the sharp brush and immediately enter into an unknown tall slot canyon. There is nothing like this along this stretch of river; it is unheard of. We are excited and taking pictures like school children. We have made yet another amazing find along the under appreciated river corridor. We all agree we like our job today and then we get back to work.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Photos from the Eastern Sierra with my new Sony DSC-H50 that I'm still getting used to. I already love this camera (too bad it can't take a picture of itself).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Seattle. Friends. Rain. Goodbye.

Photos: 1) Krista and I taking our morning vitamins at Potholes State Park; Eastern Washington. 2)Teddy and I contemplating the next step of our YBOYS adventures; Olympic National Park.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Tooth - South Face
A (wet) classic

The Tooth could be called Seattle's local mountain. Less than two hours away The Tooth sees nearly daily ascents of it's regular routes. This did not discourage me from planning a weekend climb on one of Northwest Washington's classic alpine summits. Though The Tooth has a comparatively short approach and just a few hundred feet of rock climbing it still requires technical climbing skill and, on our chosen day, and fair bit of Northwesterner gusto.

I wanted to beat the traffic, crowds, and supposed afternoon rain so I picked Mark up at 4:30am. We swung through Bellevue to pick up Ron, who just hours before agreed to head up The Tooth with us, and were at Snoqualomie Pass just before 6am.

The last times I had approached the Tooth and Source Lake was during winter excursions so I absent mindedly followed the winter route towards the base. “There has to be a better way,” said Ron, as we bushwacked up a steep waterfall and splashed through wet meadows. Turns out there's a trail that heads right up to the basin we were aiming for but I explained we were in it for the adventure and that the wet bushwack added to the excitement of the climb. I don't think they agreed.

After cross talus and low-angle snow, and making our way quickly through steep gullies we were at the base of the rocky and damp South Face. Mist swirled in the air and hid the entire route from view. It was silent and eerie below the unmeasurable mountain face at 8am. We brought two 8mm ropes – I tied into both and tied Ron and Mark into one each. We were going to be climbing in a cold cloud, I put my jacket on, and finished adding gear to my harness. I set out on damp rock placing little gear but feeling pretty nervous not knowing the route, not being able to see the route, and watching my toes slip on the wet granite.

After three relative easy pitches we were at the top. The clouds swirled and teased us with views of the rocky ridgeline we were a part of. The last pitch had been exposed and required a few moves of real climbing on real wet rock. I had made a committing desperate move for wet hold just before the summit approach and was happy to now have the three of us standing on top of the vertiginous summit. On the was back we found the trail, and the tourists – I liked the bushwacking better.

Photos: 1)A modified misty photo of the Tooth and adjacent spire. We climbed the illuminated ridgeline from the notch just left of center. 2)Happy summiters.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Check out more Stuart photos at Eve's blog:


[Trip Report]
Mount Stuart - North Ridge 7/30/2008

Mount Stuart - 9,415ft and “without a rival as the crown peak in the Central Cascades” - was an incredible alpine climbing adventure. Here is a recount of our journey on this immense mountain. Many thanks to the team (Doug, Eve, and Andrew) as I had little part in the logistics for this amazing day. Note for you non-climbers some of this text may seem a bit dry and climber vocabulary laden (i.e. you may have to google gendarme).

The Park-and-Ride was deserted at 2:30 am. We were packing our packs two hourslater at The Ingalls Lake trailhead. I had no hand in the planning for this trip so I was impressed by my colleagues timing. As we took our first steps up the wide Esmerelda Trail we switched our headlamps off to meet the looming dawn.

We followed trail to Ingalls Pass and across basins to reach Stuart Pass and a ridge below the West Ridge. We ascended the ridge until a comfortable talus traverse was made to a gully leading to Goat Pass. Looking back we followed the approach notes in Beckey fairly closely, but we instead climbed the ridge from Stuart Pass and then dropped down into the west rock-glacier cirque. During this morning hike the summit mixed with windy clouds and either ominous or inviting depending on the minute you choose to look up to it.

While we worked along the edge of Ingalls Lake the winds were gusty and dark clouds and fog came intermittently. At Goat Pass we encountered lighter winds but seemingly freezing temperatures in the shade. The glistening rime and damp rock was discerning but we were encouraged by weatherless skies to the east. We discussed the West Ridge as a second option if the cold temperatures were giving anyone a second thought. The sunny glacier smiled back at us and we all started to unpack our snow gear.

With crampons, ices axes, and approach shoes we began a tedious and inspiring climb across an sunny snowfield. From the pass we traversed the steep-ish Stuart glacier and easy rock bands to reach a gully below the North ridge. Ditching the crampons we climbed the solid-in-spots 3rd class gully to the North Ridge. We continued on the ridge until reaching an exposed short wall that warranted roping up. We had two 35M ropes which worked great for the 4 of us climbing as 2 parties.

The next handful of 'pitches' after gaining the ridge are fantastic with outstanding rock and cool, exposed movement. Andrew and I simul-climbed these pitches using sparse gear and reached the base of the gendarme without swapping places. During this time we were moving pretty quickly and enjoying the clearing skies and warming sun. The crest of the ridge made for the most exposed and warmest climbing so we made some moves chasing warm stone that may be easier to the west. This was the most memorable part of the day for me.

When we reach the base of the gendarme the belay was in the sun but the imposing 200 foot clean granite block was shaded and dreary. Andrew belayed me as I worked up a series of bulging liebacks with rests and great small cam placements. Despite the moderate solid climbing on this first belayed pitch I felt the immensity of the route, the weight of my pack, and the frigid temperature of the rock all immediately and
simultaneously. It was fucking cold, my fingers were cold, the granite unforgiving and clean. I reached the belay ledge atop the first pillar after strenuous climbing and starting digging in my backpack for more warmth. I brought Andrew up from the sunny belay and onto the icy cold ledge.

Andrew led off the thin belay out across an exposed traverse and into an alcove below an icy off-width crack. After receiving a large cam from our friends ahead of us (it felt like it was lowered from heaven), he was able to grovel up the alpine awkward granite crack. With my pack on my back and Andrew's on a long leash from my harness I struggled and moved slowly through this pitch. My hands became really cold and I had to work sloppily and slowly to clean gear. At the top of the pitch I climbed/stumbled past Andrew to a sunny flat belay and was very thankful the clouds had left us.

After warming up and recollecting we simul-climbed across exposed and wild blocky traverses. We pitched out a short hand crack and a really loose traverse, otherwise we moved simultaneously to the summit. Eve and Doug, who sat side by side us at the base of the gendarme had been lounging in the heat of the summit boulders for nearly an hour. They had won the race against the corrosive cold. I can't remember what time it was when we reached the summit (my camera suggests it was around 3pm). We spent just enough time on the summit to reorganize gear and snack.

We made a regular decent by heading east below the summit ridge and onto the SE flank above the Cascadian coloiur. There was some kitty litter and loose scree but otherwise nothing to slow our decent. In fact once we hit the sandy part of the gully Eve and I got a little too far ahead as we quickly plunged though the more forgiving loose patches. We followed a good trail down and right to the head of a brushy, welcomed creek and then followed broken trail to meet up with Doug at the Longs Pass / Ingalls Creek/ campsite junction. We should have stuck closer together as the route finding at the bottom of the gully was a little convoluted.

We had one last ascent to go. Up the steep switchbacks to Longs Pass we huffed as the sun set on the massive south face of Stuart. We reached the crest of the pass just in time to soak up the last rays of sun. We finished our snacks and water and made the cruiser, but indirect, decent by trail to reach the car by 8:30pm. We were tired – and happy with the day. Simple calculations suggest we gained 9,100 feet over 16 hours, over a 1000 feet being 5th class. The cold 5.9 climbing definitely was awesome but undoubtedly added to my exhaustion. We stopped at Safeway and got bad sushi that tasted so good regardless. We got back to Seattle at 11pm. I slept in.

Photos: 1) A recon photo I took from Stuart Lake in early June showing roughly our route up the North Ridge (much less snow now). 2)Looking to summit on the early morning approach. 3)Andrew making his way across the Stuart Glacier. 4) Lost in a vertical sea of granite 5)Summit smiles. 6)The rugged south side with descent route marked.