Thursday, May 31, 2012

A last day of sorts

The 25th Hour is a brilliant (older) film, the premise of which is a man and how he spends his last day of freedom before serving his prison sentence.

My last day started the day before I left on an extended adventure abroad. Certainly packing and repacking is a cornerstone to any "last day" before a long journey into the unknown, but beyond filling the backpack I took one day to load up on some local adventures.

It started with an early morning swim in lake Coeur d'Alene. My mother pals around with a great group of friends who practice their open water swims in this North Idaho lake throughout the summer. I felt fortunate to tag along for their first swim of the season. Now granted, we'd be hard pressed to call what we did exercise, considering much of the swim consisted of lifting our heads out of the water to regain feeling in our faces. But I'm pretty sure all of us felt invigorated by simply being in the water on such a beautiful morning, and "enjoying the journey" as Coach Scott would say.

The afternoon was spent on my Truimph Bonneville. Knowing this would be my last ride before putting her in storage while I am traveling I headed for the open road. Its hard to describe the feeling of driving a motorcycle to someone who has never experienced it. Often, when the topic comes up, the conversation turns to "I knew this guy and he crashed on his...". Admittedly there is an inherent danger in riding this two wheeled seatbeltless machine, but with proper instruction and common sense motorcycles are a dream to drive. The way the bike pulls forward as you shift from gear to gear, the way it leans around long sweeping turns, and how the mind has (or at least should have) complete focus on the ride. No texting, no talking, no tunes, just riding. pure and simple.

The day ended on top of Big Rock with two of my favorite climbing partners. Big Rock is a big rock tucked behind the Spokane Valley, sticking out on the hillside like a giant piece of granite/quartzite thumbing a ride. Up and down the two pitch climb, then a beer and some banter at the bottom as the last light of the day spreads out across the Palouse, with patches of gold and green farmland as far as the eye can see.

A "last day" with a lot of great memories to hold me over for those few lonely moments on the road.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The perfect wheels for riding around the concrete jungle

Bicycles have long been one of my favorite modes of transportation. Whether riding along side the Oregon Trail with one of my best friends Tom Kingen, cruising back to Shakespeare&Co after getting lost on the streets of Paris, taking part in the punishing hill climb Ronde PDX in Portland Oregon, or taking the long way through the Alps. Time on a bike empowers us with a unique kind of freedom, allowing the eyes to see, the mind to think, and the body to match motion with movement.

So when my good friend Paul came to me with a plan to build a bamboo bike I jumped at the idea but wondered where to begin such a project? It wasn't long after that boxes filled with different sized bamboo sticks began arriving at Paul's house. "That's a logical first step" I thought.

Setting to work with his friend Gary (Hairy Gary as he is known among the local biking community is a legend of sorts, having built custom frames for decades). Gary gives off a slight mad genius vibe, his home is out of order to a degree that would leave most believing he can't possibly be bothered with cleaning due to the demands of his passionate devotion to crafting the perfect frame. His hair is carefree and without guidance, much like his two dogs, one of which is as wide as it is long. With a demeanor that can best be described as a cross between Rain Man and John Candy, Gary is the friendliest introvert you'll ever meet.

Paul, left, and Gary tweaking the angles on the jig
After a handful of Tuesday evenings Paul and I had our routine down. Both dogs, Paul and I wait for Gary to come to the front door. After exchange pleasantries the three of us descend into Gary's basement, which turns out to be no regular rumpus room. If Batman were to ever get into building bikes, this would be his lair. Under this low ceiling with bad lighting lives (bear with me as I showcase how little i know about tools/machinery) industrial looking contraptions that pound, bend, cut, mold, punch, all things metal. Finding our spots around the bike jig, the six pack of beer is then unveiled from Paul's sack-o-parts, each of us clinking our glass bottles, just some guys toasting to the wooden bike frame revolution.
A candid shot of the bike frame after a long day at the office.
It's usually at this point, when we really start to get serious about building the bike, that I take my usual position either to the left or right of Paul, the optimal locations for a trusted sidekick. I assume the role of "Robin" in the bike lair. To avoid looking like the last workshop I was in was a writer's workshop, I always find something to hold (besides my beer), be it a piece of pipe, a cut of bamboo, anything that promotes my role of executive assistant. The dremel tool was my most favored item. Dont sweat it, i didn't know a dremel was a the perfect tool for sanding down bamboo either.
Wrapping the joints with carbon fiber
If this sounds really interesting and you would like to build your own bamboo bike, i would advise the following. Download a bike frame building program. Make friends with a guy like hairy Gary who has his very own bike frame jig. Be a supportive friend to your friend who actually knows angles and framing and how to make "things line up like they do on paper". (This last part is optional but worked well for me.) Sign up for a two week mountaineering course halfway through the project, come back and be ready to thank your friend for having diligently worked on the project while you were away.

The finished product. Move over hipsters there's a new ride in town.
Finally, having just watched the new doc on the life and times of Bob Marley I think Bob would approve of this bamboo bike. I imagine him checking out the sleek lines of the bamboo, taking it for a quick spin and then saying something like "Now dats' the way to get around dee' concrete jungle man."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lessons I learned in the mountains

Halfway up the Southwest couloir on Early Winter Spire in the Northern Cascade Mountain Range.
With my ice axe stabbed deep into the heavy snow I looked up the steep slot of the Southwest couloir on Early Winter Spire, unable to see how much further it was to the summit. After stealing a quick glance of the endless stretch of soaring peaks behind me I resumed the Piolet Manche, what would soon become my favorite use of the ice axe, the technique of jamming the spike/shaft of the axe into the crusted snow above your head, then gripping the pick and adze for support in order to kick steps upward.

Travis and I experience the inside a crevasse during a mock rescue. A surreal environment to be enjoyed when one is assured they will be safely pulled from this blue abyss in a timely fashion. But what I can easily imagine being a horrific, freezing cage of fear if someone were to fall  in unroped.
Spending the last 12 days in the Northern Cascade Mountain Range with an incredibly knowledgeable AAI guide named Paul I learned how to live among the mountains. More than learning knots, packing tips, different crampon steps, crevasse rescue techniques, and other essential knowledge I appreciated how so much of what it takes to climb a mountain transfers to lessons about how life should be lived regardless of elevation.

From high camp the rope is staged, ready and waiting for the impending 2AM summit push on Mount Baker (looming in the background).
If our cell phones connect us to "the world" then mountaineering connects us to life. Setting out from the trail head or starting an early morning summit push taught me the importance of being prepared. Negotiating all types of terrain has instilled in me the value of assessing the situation not from how quickly something can be done but how safely it can be done. Roping up to a team has reaffirmed the power of teamwork and what can be accomplished if a group works together to achieve a common goal. And how trusting your methodical calculations of objective hazards surrounding you is just as important as a well built T-trench.

I can also see how mountaineering has all the ingredients to showcase what a great leader is made of. Constantly watching over weather conditions, accurately assessing the morale and fatigue of the team, navigating through unknown terrain, and managing the persistent threat of objective hazards. This unpredictable alpine setting is the prefect training ground for challenges associated with making difficult decisions under pressure.

The last few days of the course consisted of a student led trip. Route finding, logistics, all of it was left in the "trusted" hands of the few of us who signed up for this course. Paul took a backseat. On the final morning we each took turns at the front of the rope. I took the last push of the climb, making it up the last part of the glacier in whiteout conditions, crevasses on either side, overhanging cornices along the ridge line to a summit the size of a dinner table. My time at the front of the rope added to the level of respect I have for guides and highlighted the strong connection between mountaineering and leadership.

Enjoying the sunset from this basecamp balcony. Our legs paid a little extra to get a room with a view.
It seems the best way to find out what's inside is to spend long days outside. I hoped this course would push my physical and mental limits. It did. Far beyond anything I could imagine  Paul did an incredible job of transforming inexperience into experiences that have inspired me to get back out there and get after it.

In addition to all the intangible info above I was in awe of the natural beauty that surrounded our basecamps, summits, approaches, climbs, campgrounds and everything in between. My camera is a little worse for the wear but I wouldn't have felt right not taking it out as often as conditions would allow. I hope a few more of these images capture a little of what I lived over the last two weeks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Life above tree line

A hardcore mountaineer on the drive up to Mount Rainier last summer. 
There are those who regard "The Freedom of the Hills" as essential reading for aspiring mountaineers. With a growing interest in advancing my alpine skills I gave the book the old college try. Flipping through the pages, pausing at illustrations that depict climbers "climbing". It wasn't long before I was overwhelmed. I hadn't left the living room and already felt lost. 

More of a hands-on/visual learner I've opted to spend the next 12 days in the Cascades, taking part in the AMTL course through American Alpine Institute. Covering all the basics of mountaineering, this course brings "Freedom of the hills" to life! (paper cuts not included).

Bear with me as I drop this blog for the backcountry. I am excited to experience life above tree line, enjoy the camaraderie unique to climbing, and see some of the most remote regions of the Pacific Northwest.
Just the basics - that will most likely break my back.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

M.D. Doctor of Mercedes

Most everyone has a favorite MD. My mother often references the wonders of a local physician Dr. Brad Bale, heart attack prevention specialist and Kentucky Derby fanatic. Or parents who gush over their child's pediatrician. Or the women who rave about their OBGYNs. I've never been much of a doctor name-dropper. Until now.

The story goes back to when Ruth was reaching the outer limits of her lifespan. Though her odometer quit counting long ago, I'd guess she's pushing 350,000 miles by now. A while back my mechanic of 10 years told me she was beyond repair; best just to bag the old beauty and move on. Under normal circumstances this might be considered the most logical option but having received this amazing piece of German engineering from my great aunt Ruth in 2000 I had (admittedly) an unhealthy attachment to this car. My great Aunt bought the Benz brand new in Manhattan in 1980 and gave it to me when she retired from the wheel. I made countless road trips with the car, including a complete circle around the United States. So the thought of "offing" her was something I took very seriously. I was faced with difficult decision. Like anyone in this situation. Ruth and I needed a second opinion.

As luck would have it a perfect stranger referred me to a specialist in Coeur D Alene Idaho. His name. Fernando Ormos, owner of Motortech. From what I have gathered Fernando is half Chilean half German. He speaks Spanish and vacations down in Chile any chance he can get. His blue eyes would make Sinatra blush. A weathered face, and fine white hair trimmed short gives off an aged Steve McQueen kinda cool. He works wonders on Ruth. At times I'll take the passenger seat and he'll take her out on the highway to determine the problem. What must be similar to the Horse Whisper, I watch as Fernando's senses become one with the car, within minutes he makes his diagnoses and we return to the shop.

I have come to appreciate his quiet charisma and friendly demeanor. Nowadays we poke around the underbelly of Ruth while trading stories about our latest adventures. I find great joy in hearing the solution to a loose muffler and the best flight connections to Santiago Chile in the same sentence.

Doctors and mechanics are more similar than they are different. They both poke and prod. They both have waiting rooms. They both deliver bad news. They both get their hands dirty. And in the end, they both have the same goal of keeping us moving.

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