Thursday, June 5, 2014

Music and Mountains… A Binding Force

The third weekend in June…
It just has a ring to it.
Just to utter the phrase fires me up and has me reflecting on all of the countless memories I have collected over a cumulative 50 + days and nights on the Rocks. 
For close to 20 years now the third weekend in June has been carved into my calendar with a permanent sharpie.  It’s as constant as my ever hastening birthday and my painful IRS payout. My expedition and work schedules always have a mandatory block out over this sacred holiday.  For the most recent nine of those years the grandparents get a UPS delivery of a little kid that needs a home and food for a week.

You see, the third weekend in June means 9,500 of my friends descend on Red Rocks for a multi-night run of southern rock & roll music that we know as Widespread Panic.

Panic, as well as the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, have played a constant soundtrack to my life…  I have taken them with me on every climbing expedition and adventure I’ve ever been on. They’ve coaxed me up big hills and lured me back home again. They’ve lifted me up to far away places and then gently lowered me back down again. They’ve provided me the venue to meet some of my dearest, lifelong friends… in fact this is how I met my best friend, who happens to be my wife and baby-momma. These bands have been with me since the beginning and they’ll be with me till I die.

The live jam band music experience is very precious to me. Each show is like a mini adventure with my friends.  We put our team together… trustworthy and solid participants all of them… carefully vetted from years of sharing experiences together. We plan and strategize on how to optimize our experience, delegating logistical responsibilities amongst the group. We establish all the gear and equipment we will need to execute the weekend… professional style.
We enter the venue with a mysterious sense of the unknown, hoping the band takes us to the place we are looking to go. At times we reach the summit and bask in the bliss that only a highly functioning band can provide. Other nights, the band takes chances and comes up short. We are left shy of the elusive summit…knowing all the while that all summits are not achievable every time you head out. We will try again tomorrow and perhaps the winds will take us in a different direction and we will stand on top. When we descend from our journey we are excited to discuss, dissect and critique our experience… by doing so we relive some of the most precious moments. Then we are faced with the task of trying to explain our experience and rabid approach to our friends and family that don’t quite get it.
“You went and saw the same band three nights in a row?”
“Umm… yeah. It’s different every night.”
“OK…whatever you say.”

And suddenly it dawned on me… this whole live music experience and what goes into it is fundamentally kindred to the other constant in my life… climbing mountains.

I have been strategizing, planning and executing large scale climbing expeditions for 20 years now. Putting together teams, strategizing routes, compiling necessary gear and equipment, getting excited about the potential of summits and understanding the expectations of sometimes coming up short. Sharing an experience with my teammates that is binding and pure. Returning from big trips and trying to provide a thoughtful answer to the ubiquitous question, “How was your trip?”

Sounds familiar, right?

I find that many of the things I love about adventuring and guiding expeditions are also found during the third weekend in June.

The adventure we share together… whether on a 26,000 ft peak or seeing the band at Red Rocks… is about that shared experience. We go through it together and come out the other side a bit changed. We look to our left and right and know that even though we are in the same venue, the person next to us is having his or her own subjective journey. And we are doing it together.

The third weekend in June is quickly approaching. Hard saying how many Panic shows this will make for me… lost track around 200.
The Monday after the shows I will depart for Africa to guide my 14th expedition up Kilimanjaro. Then directly to the Andes of South America for my 12th time in that range.

I keep going back to the same places… because each time, it’s a unique adventure. I’m guaranteed to have a different trip…each time. The venue stays the same but the people make the experience.

The music and the mountains bring us together and provide the backdrop. The backdrop where the real magic happens… the fellowship and the camaraderie. We go for the experience… we stay for the people.

Climb High


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

High Loss… And the Sherpa Voice

It’s been 5 days since thousands of tons of ice ripped off the west shoulder of Mt Everest, cascading down on to the Khumbu Icefall. The impact of that glacial collapse will be felt for generations…emotionally, financially and politically.

As has been duly reported, at the very moment of collapse there happened to be about 50 Sherpa making their way up through the icefall, just a short stroll from Camp 1. They were doing everything they could to limit the exposure to the massive hanging glacier that looms over the left side of the Icefall… early morning departure to avoid the heat of the day and moving quickly through the “shooting gallery” where the objective danger is unavoidable.  Everyone who has stepped foot on Everest knows that this “hanger” rips regularly… so much so that Russell Brice pulled his Himex team off the mountain last year based on the word from some of his most senior Sherpa that this particular hanging glacier was too unstable to travel under.  A year later, Russell seems like a gallowly forecaster.

Clearly a glacier can calve at any moment but typically the chances of a massive collapse are much higher in the heat of the day after the sun has beat down on the surface and had a chance to heat up and change the adhesive qualities of the ice to the rock and itself.  In the game of mountaineering, it’s impossible to eliminate all risk and that is one of the allures of the sport. Living in our insulated and safe cocoon of modern society, it’s refreshing and exciting to enter into a realm that you can’t alter but so much. The mountains make the rules. We simply do what we can to decrease the objective dangers as much as possible. In this tragic incident, the mountain decided to shed its skin atypically, at the worst possible moment. Of the 25 that were hit by the ice, 16 were killed. Three bodies are still buried and will most likely remain that way. This event was twice as deadly as the night that eight climbers died in 1996 (recounted in Jon Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air).

It’s difficult to imagine the degree of impact this event has had on the Khumbu community, primarily from an emotional perspective but also with regards to the economic and sustainability issues of the dangerous work these men perform every spring.

Thirteen of the sixteen killed were from the down-valleys within a couple days walk of Everest. The other three, although carrying the title of high altitude climbing guide, were not from the Sherpa clan and therefore lived further away from the mountain. And although news travels fast in the valleys of Nepal, I’m guessing that we heard of the incident here in the US through news outlets and social media prior to some of the deceased’s families. As the news spread throughout the tight nit communities of the Khumbu and beyond, the anger, tension and frustration peaked from years of watching the lion’s share of the millions of dollars of expedition money end up in the pockets of fat cats from the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism (MOT) and not the men who actually perform the dangerous work. As the dollar has saturated the Khumbu Valley over recent years, so has the disparity of where it goes. With the typical guided client fee coming in around $60,000, lots of people are getting rich… and many of those are not the hardy men that are taking the most risks on the mountain. The “muscle of the mountain” Sherpa typically pulls in between $2,000 and $6,000 for a season on Everest, which stacks up quite well when one considers that the GDP in Nepal is just over $500 annually. That being said, the job they perform is incredibly tough and ridiculously dangerous. Twenty-seven Sherpa have been killed on Everest in the previous 5 years. It has been stated recently that in the past 10 years, Everest-working Sherpa have a death rate 12 times higher than that of US military personal serving in Iraq in the heat of battle there.

When a Sherpa is killed while working on Everest, the family of the deceased is compensated an anemic $10,000 USD from the insurance kitty that is coffered by each of the international guide services. In addition, the MOT provides each family a $400 funeral compensation. This most recent tragedy has brought this issue to a head and created a leverage point for the Sherpa “union.” Their demands are well thought out and worthy.  Some of the thirteen points of demand from the Sherpa coalition…

·      Increase the MOT funeral payout to the families of the deceased climbers from $400 to $1,000.
·      Provide same $10k payout to permanently disabled Sherpa from the most recent incident.
·      Increase death insurance payout from $10k to $20k.
·      Establish a monument in Kathmandu to honor Sherpa that have been killed on the mountain.

My guess is, with as much money that’s at stake here…the Everest outfitters and MOT will gladly buy into these demands. Everyone knows that the mountain would essentially “shut down” without the work of the Sherpa. And if it weren’t for the fact that so many families in the Khumbu Valley depended on the Western dollar, I would say that allowing the mountain to return to its natural state would be a good thing. But alas, far too many stomachs rely on the men setting the way for Western folk to climb the mountain.

On our NFB Everest expedition in 2001, the mountain was a far different scene than it is today.  Fewer teams, less chaos and only couple of “guided” groups. It seemed to be a happier time on the mountain… just prior to the influx of commercial outfitters and novelty climbs. The clown-show that exists now has evolved into a tension filled, oxygen guzzling, conga line of rich folks that feel the draw of climbing the highest mountain in the world.  Westerners now typically consume twice the amount of oxygen as was used 13 years ago which means that the Sherpa have to carry and stock the high camps with large amounts of heavy bottles… both up and down. This translates to twice the number of trips through the dangerous Icefall for the Sherpa than that of the guided clients. Twice as many opportunities to run into a lethal wall of ice.

Last years “brawl on Everest” was another indication that the balance, at least in the eyes of the Sherpa, is out of whack. One gets the sense that after years of performing the backbreaking and sketchy work every year to help the western “climber” (for many, this is a undeserved title) to the summit of the world’s highest mountain, the Sherpa community is finally demanding respect and deserved compensation.

So now there is talk of cancelling the entire Everest season. This is a terrible but yet understandable outcome from a very confusing and tense time in the Valley. Many westerners will forfeit their “one shot” at glory and dozens of Sherpa will go home with only a small percentage of their typical seasonal wage. The Sherpa are waiting for their demands to be met but are also quite hesitant to step foot back on an angry Chomolungma… stepping over the buried bodies of their brothers, cousins and friends. And in an act of trying to save face and show the world that they care, the MOT has dispatched a liaison team to provide diplomacy at Basecamp in hopes of talking the Sherpa guides into finishing the season.

Undoubtedly, there will be many Westerners that will offer to pay willing Sherpa to continue the season in spite of the wholesale opt-out. And undoubtedly, many will take the bait to feed their families with money they had previously counted on. My sense is, the season will go on, albeit in smaller numbers.

It’s a chaotic time within the Nepalese mountaineering community. I can only hope that through this tragedy the Sherpa voice will be louder and the compensation for such badass work will be duly received.

Mingma Nuru Sherpa
Derji Sherpa
Dorjee Khatri
Then Dorjee Sherpa
Phur Temba Sherpa
Ang Tshiri Sherpa
Nima Sherpa
Tenzng Chottar
Phurba Ongyal Sherpa
Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa
Chhring Ongchu Sherpa
Pasang Karma Sherpa
Asman Tamang
Ankaji Sherpa
Pem Tenji Sherpa
AAsh Bahadur Gurung


Friday, March 7, 2014

An Illustrative Look At The MountainVision Message

This amazing illustration was created during one of my recent keynote presentations. Such a wonderfully creative way to take a look at the overarching themes I share to global Fortune 500 companies.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

S2S Mission: Mt Whitney

As I reflect back on the previous four years since Erik and I committed to initiating and developing what would later go on to become the Soldiers to Summits program, I am profoundly moved to consider the dozens of amazing warriors I have been honored to share a rope with on each of our expeditions. One of the great gifts of starting this program has been the personal degree of learning I have been exposed to.  I had very little understanding back then how transformational the S2S program would be for me on a very profound level.

Watching these wounded warriors come together as a unit, congeal as a team, prepare for a mission and deal with adversity has taught me more than I can easily convey. I have seen strength and I have seen raw pain. I have learned what it means to stand up in the face of adversity…and in some cases, in spite of it.

Now four years later, as I accept the role as expedition leader again for an S2S project, I am honored to be inextricably connected to a new group of veterans that have dedicated themselves to roping up as a team, committed to the healing process and are fired up to embrace the bounty that the alpine environment provides us.

I am grateful to all the men and women that rope up with us in the mountains. I am grateful to them for their sacrifice. And I am grateful to them for teaching all of us what it means to be a warrior.

Jeff Evans PA-C
Expedition Leader - Mission: Mt Whitney

Friday, November 22, 2013

Avalanche Of Life

It’s that time of year again.
My yard is full of glistening snow. A handful of my fellow Colorado drivers act like they’ve never driven on icy roads before. Flames in the fireplace are a nightly occurrence. And my backcountry skis are practically vibrating at me from my gear room.

It’s time to hit the big hills, climb up them and then ski down them. And I’m not talking about shushing down slopes at Vail and Aspen dressed in your pastel unitard.
I’m talking about earning your turns.
Ski sweat equity.
Tele till you’re smelly.

Skiing in the backcountry with friends is absolutely one of the most pleasurable activities that I pursue. Even when the conditions are less than ideal… i.e. bullet proof, wind blown or just cold as balls… it’s still so much stinkin fun to go out with good peeps, skin up the flanks of some big hill and scoot down steep glades amongst the rocks and trees without the mayhem of an overcrowded ski area.

And other than the occasional gear malfunction or annoyingly painful foot blister there is only one potentially ass whoopin issue that is ever-present.


It’s a fact… sliding down large faces of snow is very much fun.
Another fact… these same large faces of snow react to the laws of physics in a powerfully beautiful yet devastating way as they collapse and tumble on themselves.

I’ve been in two. That’s two too many. I am making it my mission to never be in another.

This morning as I was reflecting on the potential for this season to be fat…and I’m talking phat as in phluffy… I started to consider the massive amounts of precipitation we have received here in Boulder County over the past several months (the same flood that walloped my downstairs). The hope is that this trend will continue into the winter providing us with blankets of fresh pow all season long.

I also dove in to my annual avalanche data review…just to brush up on the nature of why and when a group of innocent snowflakes up and decide they are just tired of sitting where they are and take a fast ride down because all of their millions of snowflake buddies are doing the same thing.

It was then that I began to realize the interesting parallels between the nature of avalanches and the nuances of life.

A few of the snowflakey pearls…

Understanding recent weather patterns…
            Months of history play in to what is happening right in front of you.  It’s always easy to just look at things (people) for what they are on the surface when in reality there are many issues that lead up to how things are manifesting right at this moment. There have been storms. There have been sunny blue-bird days with excessive heat. There have been days with high and swirling wind. Each day is it’s own component that create the picture that we all bring to the table. Acknowledging the past provides us more compassion in dealing with the present.

Weak layers lead to fracturing…
            It’s easy to forget that we all have layers upon layers of personality that all surface from time to time.  Although each layer sits in close proximity to the others, they are all exquisitely unique from the others. In the case of a big ripper avey… it’s always the hidden layer that is the catalyst for failure. As much as we try to hide our unstable layers…those are the ones that require the most attention. They are the ones that break.

Wind deposition can load a slope…
Wind can deposit snow 10 times faster than actual snowfall from storms. Wind will drive snow into sheltered parts of the mountain in many different directions during a storm and deposit significantly more snow in otherwise unreachable terrain. Wind is sneaky. It picks up those sweet little innocent flakes and lays them down in a spot they didn’t intend to lay down in. It’s the mystery variable that is unpredictable. Erratic behavior that leads to dangerous conditions. It's just part of it.

Being smart when traveling through sketchy terrain…
            Just because you’re not on a slope doesn’t mean all is safe. Many accidents occur to parties that are down in a drainage or run off zone. It’s the slope that’s way up high and off your radar that can sabotage you.  Being aware of surroundings and out-of-site terrain is critical.  It’s easy to become complacent in a “safe zone” and fail to recognize that the peripheral issues can slap you down if you neglect to stay vigilant.

Knowing when to stand down…
Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle just say STOP. Go home. Many climbers and backcountry skiers have an internal voice that occasionally will beckon that it’s just too sketchy today. Live for tomorrow. Ego and pride can take you up a steep slope and place you precisely in the sites of a Howitzer machine gun of a slope that doesn’t give a shit how bad ass you think you are or what mountains you’ve climbed in the past. Humility and recognition will place you back at your truck so you can plan for the next day out.

Being solid with rescue skills and traveling with capable teammates…
            I owe my life to the couple of guys I was roped up with in Alaska when I got tumbled down a hill towards a massive, bottomless crevasse. They knew how to self-arrest. They acted quickly in digging me out. They were reliable. Surrounding yourself with trustworthy and knowledgeable teammates is the only chance you have in the case that you are hit by a wall of snow. Also of importance here is for you to be reliable and strong for the other folks in your party. Careful with who you put on your rope team. A time will come when you will need them…and they will need you.

Risky but worth it. The ROI is high…
            The funny thing about avalanche prediction is… the more you know, the more you realize that avalanches are very hard to predict. You can only arm yourself with some fundamental knowledge and skills and be sure that the folks around you are also capable. Avalanches are like the funny adventure of life… they are unpredictable at best… but simply a part of the overall journey. Nothin worth doing is without consequence.
But in the end…it’s worth the risk. Some of my very best days of every year are spent skiing down mountain slopes with my buds… even though we all know the risk. The joy is deep and fulfilling. The risk is apparent. It’s just a matter of acknowledging the contributing factors and embracing them.

Find Your Bliss