Monday, April 13, 2015

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal." ~ From an Irish headstone

It's not uncommon in my life to hear a mother figure say to me, "Don't you think you're burning your candle at both ends?" or "Why can't you just stay at home for a weekend like normal people?" Short story, I stay busy. It's not unusual to be out of the house five plus nights a week, and when it comes to weekends, I'm rarely anywhere to be found in the city. It's always been a policy of mine to own a car I can sleep in if needed. Just a couple of weeks ago, I slept in my jeep before an early rise to Bierstadt. In spite of it all, there is one thing that will bring me to an immediate stop - my family.

In February, when my mom called to confirm they were going to induce Mary, I packed my bags. I crammed in one more day at the gym and one more day in the mountains before I hopped in the car to Texas Children's in Houston. In some ways, my family had been preparing for this moment since November, but honestly, there really is no way to prepare for this moment. My cousins, Connor and Mary, were pregnant with Emmalynn Nicole. Emmalynn had a genetic defect on her 18th chromosome called, Trisomy 18/Edward's Syndrome.

Fifty percent of Trisomy babies are born stillborn - Ten percent survive to their first birthdays. Connor and Mary had family alongside them throughout this process. Every appointment towards the end had a room of people waiting for updates. I drove straight from Denver to Houston. By the time I arrived for the delivery day at Texas Children's in Houston, I could barely process a clear thought. 

Here's a conversation from the valet stop:

Mary's Aunt: [seeing my CO plate] You must be here for Mary Beth

Me: No. I'm here for a Mary, not a Mary Beth

Mary's Aunt: [looking puzzled]

Me: Oh wait! You're Mary Beth is probably the Mary to my Connor and Mary

I counted the number of people in the hospital waiting room that night. It was 28 that stayed overnight - this number didn't include the people who stayed for several hours during the day. The room was filled with empty pizza boxes, bottles of wine, bags of snacks, and the most worthless sized tissues I've ever seen at a hospital. They amount to maybe half the size of a regular tissue. I'm sorry, but this is a Children's Hospital. If I'm going to need a tissue, you better be giving my the full size, or extra large if that exists.

In the morning, just before 7am, the doctor came out to tell us Emmalynn didn't survive. The next few hours, the next few days, the next few weeks were dedicated to supporting Connor and Mary - helping them grieve, grieving ourselves, and preparing for our lives going forward. Emmalynn wasn't given the opportunity in this life to live, love, and laugh, but those of us who remain were given the opportunity to carry her with us always.

In the Fall, I knew this Spring would open the faucet on a stream of mountaineering goals. I have plans - big plans for the mountains. I can't reach those goals without a considerable amount of practice and strength building. My first Spring goal was to complete a two day mountaineering course with the Colorado Mountain School (CMS). This past weekend, I finished that goal.

I dedicate this adventure to Emmalynn Nicole DeAngelo.

Day 1 Spring Mountaineering: Turns out, I was the only student - I really lucked out with one on one instruction all weekend...not to mention my instructor was awesome. We spent the day at Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a leisurely hour past the Bear Lake parking lot. The first day consisted of an in depth refresher on snow travel, including ice axes, travel w/ and w/o crampons, snow anchors, and self arresting. In addition, I learned a couple of new knots, and how to build/set rock anchors.

Equalizing an anchor. Notice all three points pull at the same force.

While spending the day at Emerald we noted the snow conditions, including the changes throughout the day. This would be important for our route planning after getting back to the CMS office. Opting not to do the commonly traveled Dragon's Tail Couloir, there was little data on the planned route. We scouted our route for the next day by taking pictures from different angles and noting the challenges we might face in the hidden areas. We decided to each bring one ice tool, in addition to our ice axe.

Geared up for snow travel and self arrest practice, only I should have zipped my pocket.

Self Arrest Practice: Often times snow travelers spend a considerable amount of time focused on self arresting. I want to point out that self arresting is considerably important to snow travel, but just as much time, if not more, should be spent on the actual footwork and proper ice axe use during travel. The idea is to avoid/reduce the chance of getting into a self arrest situation. But, if you are in a self arrest situation, here is a simple, non-technical, step-by-step example (Note: you should not wear crampons the first time you practice self arresting - it can be very dangerous, and not worth the injury. This was not my first practice)

[Disclaimer: If you are looking for real instruction on self arresting, please don't rely on the below. It is very basic, with little about specifics]

 Step 1: Get into a slide -- Step 2: Use the shaft of your ice axe to anchor and turn your body

Step 3: Allow the force of the axe shaft to turn your body -- Step 4: Sink your axe end and knees to anchor into the snow. Try not to let the axe get away from your torso, to reduce the risk of shoulder injury (do not use your toes, especially in crampons).

Step 5: After coming to a stop. Re-position a secure stance in the snow, and praise god.

Day 2 Spring Mountaineering - Ascend the Dragon Slayer (Currently un-named, so we named it): Using NOAA weather data, our knowledge of snow conditions, and the muenter trip equation we planned for an 11am top out on the couloir. This meant a 6:15am departure from the CMS office. We stayed ahead of schedule by about 5-15 minutes most of the day, until one unplanned 3rd belay pitch. Our last push on the Dragon Slayer entailed a rather steep section, with 2-3 small rock moves, and one short traverse all on rope belay. A belay involves an anchored belay person, while another takes the lead. The first belayer is responsible for breaking down anchors, and collecting gear on their climb. 

The lead may opt to climb the entire length before setting another anchor to belay up the other partner, or the may set multiple anchors during the pitch to protect both individuals from the impact of a fall (this is the most common approach - it's safer). For our ascent yesterday we used one full pitch on the 40 meter rope, two multi-anchored pitches, and one final rock anchored traverse. Most other travel was done as a roped team of two, myself and Jake, the instructor. 

Once we reached the top of the apron, we roped up and stayed one body length apart - moving step-by-step together up the first part of the Dragon Slayer. Initially, this can be pretty difficult to get the entire team in sync with steps, especially on a 50 degree slope with kick-steps heading towards a bout of screaming barfies. Lucky for me, my instructor was awesome, and I managed not to lose my *&$% on any of the tough slope angles. By the end of our roped time together, we were pushing along in rhythm. 

Beautiful blue bird day to start - exactly as the weather predicted.

This was more or less our route. The bottom left portion is called the apron for the Dragon Tail Couloir (to the left).

Shadows in the moat from our first break and rope up was at the rock outcropping from above where the route turns right.

Second break point. Looking down back towards the apron. Our initial resting point lasted less then 45 seconds when a piece of ice fell between the two of us, prompting us to immediately get a move on to a safer location.

Climbing through a small ice section with Jake belaying from the top. Good thing we brought ice tools.

I am currently set at the anchor, getting ready to pull gear for lead belaying Jake. Notice the weather starting to change, which was not noted in the forecast.

Another pitch to break down Jake's anchors, and take a break before going back to roped travel. I opted a low dagger hold on with both the ice axe and ice tool for faster climbing. Yep, it was snowing - always prepare for changing weather.

Jake setting an anchor for the last pitch. Check out all that gear!

A look back at how far we've ascended from Emerald Lake.

Cleaning anchors, and heading up.

After a short traverse, we officially topped out on the Dragon Slayer around 11:45am. The sun finally returned.

Views from the top - looking out over Rocky Mountain National Park. With the sun, came strong winds. We spent some time ascending up to the notch above the Dragon's tooth and tail, but it was too cold for photos - then, a long trip down the Flattop Mountain trail, which I was too tired for photos.
Note: A common mistake people make on low angle slopes, especially when tired, is not continuing to exaggerate their steps while wearing crampons. This generally leads to a face plant in the snow. In an effort to find a concept entertaining enough to keep my attention into the flats, I pretended to be John Wayne for next half mile or so. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” ― Lao Tzu

April is a big month for me this year. It marks the closing to a year of self discovery after being freed of a very negative anchor in my life. When I moved to Colorado, I allowed someone else to set my goals and expectations. Over my first year in the Rocky Mountains, this person continually told me I was not capable of achieving great things. He would tell me of wonderful travels in the Colorado Rockies, then he would tell me I wasn't capable of doing them. When I did accomplish something, he would remind me that it was a minor achievement in comparison to my peers.

Over time it becomes difficult to believe in yourself, when a person you care about repeatedly tells you that you aren't up to their standards. If you were friends with the person prior to dating, what makes it worse is you believe they really aren't the person you're seeing - you begin to blame yourself for their actions. In that 11 months, I lost myself. I stopped working out. I stopped setting goals. I stopped caring about new things. I stopped dreaming about adventure.

When the conversation came around that we needed to discuss our relationship, and make a decision about whether or not to work it out, I could not help but heed the warning signs. I opted to walk away. We had been friends for ten years before dating, and it wasn't easy; although, it did turn out to be the best decision I've made since moving to Colorado. It took a couple of months to muster up enough courage to venture out into the great wide open, but I found myself once I did.

“Sometimes you have to kind of die inside in order to rise from your own ashes and believe in yourself and love yourself to become a new person.” ~ Gerard Way

Lesson 1: Choose your climbing partner wisely. When I refer to climbing, it is a combination of hiking, scrambling, and climbing. Finding a hiking a partner isn't all too hard in one of the most active cities in the U.S. Finding a partner that can do miles, elevation, and technical moves becomes a little more trying. Skill level is a big consideration, but even more so is the personality of your climbing partner.

Going into the mountains with some one that processes challenge differently than you can pose a problem when you're at 13,700', fighting winds, and working on route finding. Yelling at a climbing partner, and yelling to a climbing partner are very different. It is never acceptable to yell at your climbing partner. Find a partner that can push you the last 500' feet when you're mentally fighting yourself about going home to binge watch netflix.

This is my climbing partner, Nicole. From our first trip to the Sangres, to my first twelve foot whipper on the climbing wall, she's inspired me. She's faster, stronger, and better than me in the mountains, but she's always treated me as an equal. Here are some of our adventures from this past year:

Our first climb, Mt. Lindsey. It was a doozie (Nicole, I'm sorry I posted a helmet photo of you)

Ben (also a favorite in the mountains), myself, Nicole, and Byron on South Maroon. By far, my biggest/toughest day in the mountains to date. Incredibly thankful for my partners that day.

Nicole took this of me on Bross. Not a difficult route, but I'm not sure I would have made the summit that day if it wasn't for her encouraging me the entire way.
On top of Beirstadt. Not my first winter summit, but my first long winter summit. Not a lot of people are willing to hike 9+ miles and 3,000+ feet on a weekend (photo by Ryan Richardson).
Lesson 2: Push yourself, but be responsible. My first introduction to rock climbing, I use introduction loosely, was my ex giving me a 10 minute tutorial on his fireplace. Really, probably not the best idea. I'm very much a why and how to person. I need to understanding the inner workings to place my life in the hands of an activity. Also, I love learning new things. This is why being a member of the Colorado Mountain Club works so well for me.

I have a number of goals, and aspirations I want to accomplish. Both short and long, just ask me for my summer mountain goals sometime - I keep them on a piece of paper in my wallet. That piece of paper holds a few difficult goals, including two of the four great traverses. I'm really just aiming for one traverse, and I'll consider the second depending on where my abilities are later in the summer.

This is the responsible portion of Lesson 2. If you start out on an adventure on willy-nilly, gung-ho, mindset of an indestructible 18 year old male, you might be heading for trouble. A very valuable lesson I did learn from my ex, is to respect the mountains. Accidents happen all the time, and not just to young in-experienced climbers.

I have to push myself to get better, but if I'm going to head out on adventures and accomplish my goals, I need to know what I'm doing. In the last year, I've taken courses in rock climbing, avalanche (AIRE1), ice climbing, another ice climbing, and wilderness first aid. Coming up over the next couple of months will be spring mountaineering, technical snow travel, and trad climbing.

Basic Rock Climbing with the CMC. Trad school coming soon!

First big class 3 summit. Climbing with Ben (photo by Nicole).

Happy Birthday! Learning to ice climb outside of Estes Park. I didn't get what I needed from the class, so I took another.

Learning more about ice climbing with the CMC. Getting ready to top out in Silver Plume. Here's what you should know about this photo. I'm doing it better :-)

Lesson 3: Believe in yourself. I initially believed I wasn't worth much in regards to the climbing community. I was convinced that my n00b status (yes, I spelled that correctly), would hold permanent placement over me. How would I even amount to anything worthy of my peers? Why would they ever think to include me on their adventures? The questions of confidence pretty much snowballed in all directions from this for quite some time. It wasn't until I finally put myself out there, and just gave it a shot did I realize how frivolous my mindset had become.

I started with hiking, added climbing, pushed myself a little more every day, and I even started running again. This winter, I officially took up rock climbing. My favorite part about our gym is watching regulars. Like me, they struggle in the beginning, and with every step (pun intended), they progress. Rock climbing is a puzzle on the wall - a mind game, and you get to work out while you're completing it. Getting back my strength, getting strength I'd never had encouraged me to push more in other aspects of my life.

I wake up in the mornings thinking about my next adventure. I look around my apartment at the collection of gear overflowing from closets and bookcases, and I remind myself that I am somebody. Not because I go into the mountains on adventures, not because I lead climb over hung walls, not because I fit in a size 8, but simply because I believe in myself.

Sunrise summit on Gray's Peak. Summit 10 or 54 Colorado 14ers. An easy summit, but who cares...I had fun while doing it :-)
Fun with the family for Christmas in Pagosa Springs, CO.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” ― Anita Desai

Chance the Wild was created mostly to tie in my adventures in the backcountry with the world around me, both figuratively and literally. It is a way for me to share my journey through this chaos we call life. One truly can find themselves when they step out into the great wide open with a map and trekking pole. You can also get lost for that matter - I highly suggest using a topo map to prevent that. Remember, you must know how to read it to use it.

A door of opportunity opened a little less than a year ago for an adventure in Belize. My friend's brother had a resort package from an HRC silent auction that he wouldn't be using. As chance would play out, Pam and I just spent a week in paradise. I leave the definition of paradise up to you as the reader - some people don't enjoy gun laden customs, and 24/7 sauna conditions. Yes Mom, I just used the phrase "gun laden," mostly just to get a shock factor out of you though.

Belize borders Mexico and Guatemala, and was initially under British rule. The national language is English, and they accept US Dollars pretty much everywhere, with exceptions of course. I would consider Belize to be a 2nd world country. Some places we visited were 1st world, and others 3rd world. This country is truly a mix of culture, history, and adventure. The first part of our week was spent in San Ignacio - mainland, close to the Guatemalan border. There are a few decisions you need to make as a tourist from the first world traveling in international destinations.

1. Can I live without A/C? I sweat like the dickens all week, and couldn't have cared less about A/C. You'll be spending all day on adventures. Chances are, you'll be too tired to realize your hotel room doesn't have A/C - as long as you can open the windows of course. Besides, if you have a place like this just outside your hotel room to relax, A/C really isn't on your mind. Maya Mountain did have A/C, but we opted not to use it.

The view from the Parrots Porch at Maya Mountain Lodge

The shared patio on the Parrots Porch

2. Food & Water. Is it accessible, and can I afford it? The first half of our week was spend in San Ignacio, where I would not recommend drinking the city water. Salads and fresh fruits/vegetables are rinsed in city water, and in general should also be avoided. I did pack my MSR 3L filter for the trip. Some people choose to carry SteriPens. Lucky for us, Maya Mountain Lodge has a separate filtering system. This allowed us to use potable water from the lodge all week, and not have to worry about any lodge food being contaminated.

The food was amazing. I didn't eat a thing all week that I didn't wish I could have again and again and again. Our meals at Maya Mountain came out to about $10US (including tax and tip). They were full plated breakfast with unlimited deliciously, scrumptious coffee. Dinners were 3-4 course plated meals. Our last night's menu consisted of plantain-jalapeno soup, shrimp croquette with mixed slaw, and bbq short ribs with mashed potatoes and local vegetables. Yep, it was a whopping $10US. Oh boy! I'm hungry just thinking about it.

Traditional Mayan meal of wrapped fish and sides

3. Should I turn down this road? Well, it depends. If you drove too far, as in the Guatemalan border, the sun is setting, and your only option is to follow the GPS down a sketchy alley looking dirt road, you really have nothing to lose at this point. If you are going to opt for a rental car in a foreign country, I do recommend at least one person in the travel party pay for an international plan on their phone.

Now, this particular road took Pam and me for an interesting ride. We were on it for a couple of hundred yards before connecting with a main road, all the while both of us are beginning to think Maya Mountain Lodge isn't a real place. For all we knew, the GPS was taking us to a plywood shack in the middle of nowhere. What a relief to pull into the lodge, meet some friendly people, and finally have our first meal. Always do a thorough background check of the place you are staying - sometimes they aren't real.

The Parrots Porch - Free Wifi

Beautiful view of the Belizean jungle from the Maya Mountain property
No, you should not always turn down that road. While traveling in other countries, you should do your research beforehand. Pam and I knew Belize was pretty safe, but we also knew there were a number of political and drug issues in Guatemala. Our first stopover on this trip was about 30 minutes from the border, so turning down random roads is not suggested.

4. $125US to hike a cave/see some old stuff! Is it worth it? Yes, in most cases it is worth it. Pam and I chose to go on two excursions while we were in San Ignacio - Actun Tunichil Muknal (the ATM Cave), and Tikal. The ATM cave has only 33 trained/certified guides. Not all are active at this time, but most are. Each guide is limited to parties of 8. Cayo Adventures picked us up at Maya Mountain around 8am. They made one stop for a bathroom and drinks before exiting the main road. The entire drive was filled with details about the ATM trip plan, the jungle, and Belize. One driver stays with every vehicle - this is important when you take into consideration that you don't go into the cave with anything other than the clothes on your back, and a helmet on your head.

The hike is about two miles in, and crosses three streams (rivers depending on the wet season). It's not difficult, and there are ropes at every crossing. The large group stops about 50 yards before entering the cave to stash gear, and split up with guides. After the last 50 yards you plunge into a topaz blue pool, and swim about 20 feet to the cave entrance. The next couple of hours are spent in a single file line weaving around the river cave. Yes river cave. You will still be up to your waist or shoulders in several sections. If you're lucky, the guide will take you through the Jaguar's mouth.

The guides really have the tours down to a science. Every guide is different in presentation, but every group gets to see rock formations, stone monuments brought in by the Mayans, burial sites (mostly sacrificial), and pottery that has lasted the years of time. Around the end, you're finally out of water. You scramble around, climbing a little, and even spend about half a mile with only socks on your feet. At times, you laugh a little to yourself when you realized you're playing a game of follow-me. To say the least, this is a one of a kind experience. Yes, it's worth $125US.

Take your water friendly shoes.

ATM Parking lot. Part with your belongings, and go for a stroll.
Tikal wasn't quite $125 up front, but after customs transfers that's what it comes out to. Belizean guides aren't allowed to take groups into Guatemala, so on this day you also make a stop to pick up your local guide. The first stop is at customs, where you get 4 new stamps by the day's end. Who doesn't like passport stamps? Our Belizean guide walked us through both sides of customs, and spent most of the drive talking about the history between both countries.

Guatemalan Customs side (photo by Kent Roberts)

Yay! Stamps.
Once we crossed into Guatemala, the presence of military and weapons became fairly noticeable. We made a stop at a gas station where even the shop employee had his shotgun strapped over his shoulder. Short story, Guatemala has some drug cartel issues. The road to Tikal had numerous police/military stops fully armed. Our guides were a guarantee of safety for the day. Having them there, kept us from going where we shouldn't be. Also, don't forget to tip your guides.

5. Don't be that person! Some things don't change just because you're not still in a first world country. Respect the culture around you. Don't just run around taking pictures of locals - ask first (in most cases you may need to consider paying them a little too). Don't contribute to things that should change (i.e. littering. yes, there is a lot of trash on the roads in some countries). And for heaven's sake, don't feel the need to write your name on things.

The signs say "No Rayar - Don't Scratch". Don't be that person.
6. Explore. Explore. Explore. I cannot emphasize this enough. When you are given the opportunity don't pass it up. Walk around. See things. Try out their beds if you want long as it's not behind a closed section, of course. Don't just look at it - really take it in. Put yourself back in time, and try to understand their way of life. Tikal is only 20% excavated to date. The city lasted for 1,000 from BC to AD. It is the oldest and largest Mayan city.

Residential palace in Tikal (photo by Kent Roberts)

From the top of Tower IV in Tikal
A look back at Tower IV

7. When an opportunity presents itself, capitalize on it. Remember the vacation package from Pam's brother? Well, I didn't even get to that part of the trip. The resort package from her brother's included three nights at a luxury resort in Placencia, Belize. Pam and I decided that if we were going to travel to Belize, we would make the most out of the trip.

Placencia Post Coming Soon...