Author Archives: hmix

Pobeda: Elusive and Unrepentant, Part 2

Day 1

After breakfast, we took a slow and steady several hours to inspect each other’s gear, count GU packets, and weigh the pros and cons of couscous. After a few hours, in hot sunshine, we shouldered our monster packs and headed up the moraine. Soon, we traversed onto the ice of the Zvezdochka (Starry) Glacier. While beautiful, it was bright, hot, slushy and a maze of seracs and narrow river slots. Icy blue pools fed spectacular waterfalls. As we neared Camp 1, snow bridges became slushier and sketchier and we roped up. Just as we started to wonder where the Dutch tents would be, Bob led over a small rise and whooped out in joy…two beautiful tents were pitched in a broad, safe site just shy of camp one proper. We divvied up tasks and got to work re-anchoring tents and sorting gear. I fetched water from a nearby crevasse pond…we would use every trick in the book to save fuel.

Day 2

We wanted to get up through the serac band before sunrise, but when our alarm went of at 4 it was snowing and nasty out. We gladly took the extra hour or so of sleep before we brewed up, got dressed and marched up the glacier. Soon we could see an Iranian group working through the difficult sections above, and it was quite obvious why this portion of the route to Dikiy Pass was feared: a narrow and rotten gully was our only access to vertical/overhanging seracs fixed with lines. We romped up the gully as fast as we could, but the heat of the day was already softening things up and making the going tough. At the base of the seracs proper, Bob encountered a tricky overhang which took a few creative ideas and a ton of swearing to overcome. I ended up opting for my hands and knees on a dicey narrow ledge that we’d fixed with an additional ice screw. Just above, I popped through a snow bridge (protected by fixed line of course, but annoying nonetheless). The temperature was absurd. I’d say it felt like the upper 80s to 90s. All this with a monster pack and the inability to swap out 8000m boots for flip flops. After a mid day snack, I took the lead of the rope team as we entered the broad and gentle valley to Dikiy Pass. As we rounded a corner that gave our first views of camp 2 above, I saw a few climbers above moving slowly. Soon we reached two Iranians who were dealing with exhaustion. We didn’t feel much better and continued the last few meters to camp. A lone Russian wearing ski goggles and suffering from extraordinary sunburn plodded down at a snails pace. I stopped to say hi and learned that one climber had died on the summit ridge. No more details were exchanged as he continued to lumber down towards the glacier below. That evening, as we watched from our spectacular site we watched in awe as the entire Russian and Ukrainian contingents descended. They looked like hell. No fewer than twenty men, some collapsing every few meters slowly made their way down the ridge. It was an exodus. Soon, we were quite alone. The mountain felt different.

Day 3

We awoke to good conditions. The route to camp 3 looked beautiful and exciting, but once we wove out of camp 2 and got onto the lower buttress, things became challenging in hurry. The snow was deep and soft, and the hordes of climbers who had descended the previous day had turned the bootrack into sloppy ruts. The going got rougher when the wind and snow began to pick up. I donned my outerwear and our team regrouped to rope up at a small crevasse. Just a few meters later, things really deteriorated. In horizontal snow, we yelled over the wind for a bit before deciding to chop a platform and make camp. With the three of us working together, we stomped and shoveled a generous site, set up the tent and jumped in.


I felt a punch to my chest and lurched upright in the darkness. Bob was trying to wake me but I was already beyond alert. The roar of the wind started so suddenly, Bob had thought an avalanche was barreling down on us and was bracing for impact. So much for the weather. We spent the next five or so hours til dawn getting hammered by wind and spindrift out of the west so violent that it filled our vestibule with snow and was starting to crush us. Periodically I sat up to punch the consolidating snow to clear some space for sleeping. By the time the morning came, we knew we were pinned down for the day. Bob, always a team player, got out and started shoveling first. Our tent had been buried to the brim on the uphill side and our guy lines were coated in rime ice. We learned that those above us at 6400m had an ordeal in the night but were okay.

Day 4

Later in the morning, things cleared in a most spectacular fashion. Below, a sea of snowcapped peaks stretched in all directions. The magic of the Central Tien Shan was alive. All of our stuff luckily got dry and we spent the day resting and discussing the weather. What would we do? Later in the afternoon the winds picked up. Soon, we heard shouting voices and exited to see two figures in the whiteout probing for crevasses below. We briefly chatted with the two Russians as they came by, asking about the whereabouts of camp 3 as they slowly postholed higher. Later that evening, we met Juho as he rapidly descended to camp 2, his summit bid over.

Day 5

After a string of increasingly alarming weather forecasts for the coming days, we decided to pack up and descend to camp 2. At least camp 2 was in a safe (we weren’t so convinced that our spot on the buttress was out of avalanche danger) and comfortable location. After a short descent to camp 2, we again were able to stretch out, dry our clothing and sleeping bags and enjoy the mountain a bit. But the forecast continued to deteriorate. Now, winds were expected to be 90 mph for a couple days, and the pattern after the major wind storm seemed unsettled, with a substantial snowfall forecasted afterwards. Did we have enough food to sit out the weather and still make a summit attempt? Even in the best of circumstances, we’d have no margin for extra days as our reserves of food and fuel would be depleted by a 4-5 day wait. After much deliberation, we settled on returning to base camp in the morning. And that’s when the fun began. I tore into scrambled eggs, sliced cheese, blueberry granola and pasta. No sense lugging extra weight back down the mountain. Plus, in the previous couple days we’d been purposefully starving ourselves to keep as much extra food as possible. In the evening, a huge serac ripped off the summit ridge and produced undoubtedly the largest avalanche I’ve witnessed. Though we were miles away and several thousand feet higher than where it landed, the powder blast steadily marched up valley and swept over us and into the Dikiy Glacier valley. We were now quite alone on the mountain, as only the Russian pair were above us. I rested well knowing our mission was clearer though we still needed to return through some tricky terrain to base camp.

Day 6

We woke up to another spectacular day. With our systems and teamwork now dialed, we packed up and roped up for the glacier below. The route was spectacular in early morning light and the firm snow made for enjoyable cramponing. Soon we reached the top of the fixed lines as a few climbers ascended on their own summit bids. The glorious weather and the presence of others pushing higher made us openly question our decision. We remarked that while we certainly didn’t want anyone to get into trouble, we almost wanted the weather to get nasty to justify our bailing in such perfect conditions. By noon I reached the comfort of base camp, now more of a deserted tent city. Relaxed and happy, my journey into the unknown was over.


As predicted, the storm rolled through. Winds first started to roll over the ridge, then things got nasty in base camp. People were holding the dining tent down for dear life. Some tents were blown away in base camp. Reports from the Russian duo, now in a snow hole at 6900 were of 135 kph winds and being pinned down.

Pobeda: Route overview and considerations above our high point 

Camp 3 (5800m)

Simple, but somewhat avalanche-prone slopes from Dikiy Pass. There was a huge snow cave there, which could be used to escape extreme weather. But in the Russian/Ukrainian exodus following their assault, this had essentially been turned into a field hospital. We let our minds run wild as there were reports of trash, blood, vomit and discarded dexamethasone needles.

Camp 4 (6400m) 

Looked like fun and moderate climbing up the first rock band and in and out of couloirs to this airy perch. You know you’re getting close when you see the dead guy from last year. While somewhat sheltered, there’s space for just three tents. No snow cave option. Iranians were stuck here for six days. A tent collapsed here during our eventful night at 5600m.

Camp 5 (6700 or 6900m)

Sounded like there were snow cave options in either of these locations. West Pobeda (6900m) would be the only option for a one-day summit push that skipped the 7100m obelisk camp. Despite the simple climbing above 6400m, they both sounded like death traps. Go up there, get in a snow hole, and pray that the weather lets you get down.

Summit Ridge 

This thing simply gets hammered with insane winds, usually out of the west. Every. Day. During my several week stay here, I observed just two days that would have been good to be up there. Let’s say an average day is 40-50 mile per hour winds (gusts can knock you over!). At 23,000 ft, air temperature in the vicinity of 0 °F. During the bad times the ridge is obscured by a giant cloud and snow plume. Winds were as high as 90 miles per hour (72 is a hurricane). On several occasions, we observed wind driven over a kilometer off the summit into western China.

Pobeda: Elusive and Unrepentant, Part 1

“It is better to return to Pobeda ten times than to not return once” –Gleb Sokolov

Fifty-nine mountains are higher. Plenty are steeper. But few are harder. Despite it’s relatively moderate climbing, Peak Pobeda routinely turns back—and kills—those who don’t take it seriously.


Following several weeks of acclimatizing and strategizing, Pobeda casually thwarted our strong and competent team over a vertical mile below its summit. Here is the story:

Day 0

For days, base camp had been abuzz. Prior to potential summit windows, these places become infested with gossip, anxieties, impressive gear spreading, and endless conversations about the weather.

Thirty or so Russians and Ukrainians, ascending in what can only be described as a military siege, were nearing the summit. Excitement was in the air, but with the short climbing season nearing its close, the rest of us sized up the others and scrambled to make arrangements. It was a veritable hodge-podge of mostly small teams.

My own thinking and organization began to crystalize around a few core concepts: 1) Don’t do anything stupid, 2) I knew that despite my perfect health and strong climbing below 6000m, I had limited acclimatization. I was able to climb from base camp to Khan Tengri’s Camp 3 (5900m) in seven comfortable hours, but I only had one night there and two at 5600m. I needed a slower, more conventional ascent on Pobeda in order to acclimatize on the mountain. No sprinting to a snow cave at 6900m in just a couple days, 3) I needed the security of extra food, fuel, and strong shelter. This was shaping up to be the biggest pack I’d ever lugged…about two weeks of food and fuel. And my clothing system was outrageous—as warm as gear is made.

All three factors drew me to joining an American couple living in Canada. Bob, a contractor and former Alaska Range guide, and Katherine, a philosophy professor with a calm, determined mind, had tons of big mountain experience, and I could tell that by partnering with experienced Americans, we had similar philosophies, risk tolerances (hell yes we were roping up on the lower glacier) and strategies for the summit. We got along well personally, which we knew would be vital for the inevitable tentbound storm days. We would try as hard as we could within our safety bounds. Team America was born.

Team America departs for Pobeda

Team America departs for Pobeda

One hitch…we didn’t have the ideal shelter solution. I had a two man single-wall tent and they had a double wall, but essentially a one-man tent. We needed to distribute weight better: one tent, one stove. I set off on a multi-day and impressive, if I dare say so myself, diplomatic mission. Within a day, I brokered a straight up trade with a Dutch trio for our pie in the sky dream tent: a Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1. Double wall. Strong as hell. And downright palatial. My single wall was perfect for their objective.


More writing coming as I get more juice. I am in base camp waiting out the storm. It is bad, even down here. Hopefully heli to Bishkek tomorrow!


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Contemplation and Commitment

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Khan Tengri at sunset. What a privilege it was to climb in 2011!

A few nights ago I awoke at 2:00 to the jingle of my phone. Finding the willpower to extract myself from my sleeping bag is among my greatest challenges in the mountains, but I had no trouble getting dressed on this moonlight night. A sense of purpose filled me. The expedition has become simpler. Clearer.

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Pobeda. Objects in real life may appear larger.

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Sunset from base camp

The mission was unusual: retrieve my tent, stove, gas and a few other items from Camp 2 on Khan Tengri, return to base camp and recover as quickly as possible. After much deliberation, my focus has shifted entirely to Peak Pobeda, the colossal massif that presides over the Central Tien Shan.
IMG_3771 (1)I shouldered a nearly empty pack: just a pair of light gloves, a couple layers, a liter of water and three small snacks. Soon I was hopping across the glacier, only breaking my crisp rhythm to hop the occasional crevasse. The crunch of the ice felt good under my feet. The limitless freedom of the high mountains buoyed my spirit. This is the type of climbing I love most. Completely unencumbered. Light. Fast. Just my breath and the mountain at night.

Just above camp one, I reached my gear cache and swapped out my flimsy trail runners for clunky triple boots and crampons. As I donned my helmet and harness, a string of headlamps lit up the couloir above. One by one, I overtook the group. My rhythm intensified. Kick kick kick kick. I checked my watch. Over five hundred vertical meters per hour. This is how it feels to perform at my best. To be alive.

As a whiteout closed in, I took a swig of water and kicked upward into Khan’s infamous bottleneck. No rest until camp two. I danced in and out of giant popcorn, some blocks the size of buses, from a monster avalanche a few hours earlier.

I returned to base camp eight hours later, tired but content after the morning’s work. Now nothing other than waiting and targeting the right summit day remains. I believe in this team and our style. Paul is here, straight off Lenin Peak, where he spent four nights and five days in the solitary confinement of his tent at 20,000 ft in a blizzard. Juho, the Finnish phenom who turns twenty on Wednesday, is fresh off ascents of Lenin and Khan.

Storms continue to batter the summit of Pobeda with ruthless intensity. Nearly three feet of snow blankets the upper elevations each day. Sustained winds are at least 30 miles per hour. Temperatures colder than minus forty are commonplace.

The route involves a traverse of four miles of technical terrain, all over 23,000 ft. We require a summit day with less snow and wind. Now we settle into the rhythm of eating, resting, hiking, watching the sky and checking the forecast. The Ukrainians, Russians and Iranians have already begun their final push. We have spent countless hours discussing the forecast. We will know when the time is right.

One thing I’ve learned in the big mountains: you must believe. And once you believe, you must commit. This is serious business. We will know when it is time to go. And we will not hesitate.

I am strong. I am ready. I will try my hardest.



World of Ice

I am back in base camp after an excellent acclimatization rotation to ~19,500 ft on Khan Tengri. I should be prepared for a summit bid following the current storm. Major storms have been hitting over the last few days and likely won’t subside until the weekend.

Nuts and Bolts update:

I am very healthy and happy here in base camp. People here on the South Inylchek Glacier are very friendly. A first for me in Central Asia…there are Americans here! How exotic! Also, a couple professors which is super cool. There are teams from Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Poland, Spain and other individuals from all over the world. This year is shaping up to be a festive one, as it is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Given the incomprehensible losses of the former Soviet Union during the war, it is a major objective here to commemorate this anniversary with an ascent of Peak Pobeda (Russian for Victory).

I am very power and internet limited here, so for now I hope the following photo essay can tell part of the story.

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Return of the Snow Leopard

Families flock to Ala-Too Square for a choreographed light, music and fountain show.

Families flock to Ala-Too Square for a choreographed light, music and fountain show.

Greetings from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan! My five year love affair with the high mountains of Central Asia continues. This time, I return to the Tian Shan, the Celestial Mountains, to attempt Peak Pobeda. Known for some of the world’s worst weather, Pobeda is certainly the crown jewel of the former USSR’s five 7000m “Snow Leopard” peaks. I was hoping to write a more thought out piece but I have had too much to do in the mere 24 hours since my arrival. But I am in excellent physical, mental and emotional health, and I look forward to the journey ahead. I will have plenty of time ahead for reflection, writing, relaxation, and of course, good old fashioned suffering. It will be an adventure.

Nuts and bolts: The Journey from Here

In two hours I depart for Karakol, near the banks of the great Issyk Kul. The next day we’ll drive to At-Jailoo (jailoos are summer pastures) in the extreme northeast of Kyrgyzstan. The next day, early in the morning before the braided rivers swell with glacier runoff, I’ll begin a six day trek up the Inylchek River and South Inylchek Glacier. Once there, I’ll spend a few weeks climbing and acclimatizing on a few peaks including Khan Tengri (7010m) before attempting Peak Pobeda (7439m). More to come…I’m off to catch this jeep!

How to (and how not to) follow along

I’ll be out of good contact starting now. I will carry a SPOT messenger with me to post OK messages periodically, but I can’t make guarantees about the frequency or quality of my communication until August 16 or so. I expect to check in within at least 8 days (my arrival at base camp) and weekly-ish after that. To track my progress, click the “Where’s Hari??” link at the right of the header.

Thank you to the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream Grant and Osprey Packs for supporting this expedition!!!

Take care,


Kyrgyz folk singers were excellent

Kyrgyz folk singers were excellent

Boulevards and parks in Bishkek are as beautiful as ever. Definitely the most chill of the big Central Asian cities.

Boulevards and parks in Bishkek are as beautiful as ever. Definitely the most chill of the big Central Asian cities.

Glacial runoff from nearby 16,000 ft peaks rushes alongside every street. For a country with 30% permanent snow or glacier cover, water is abundant. But climate change threatens otherwise water-poor Central Asia.

Glacial runoff from nearby 16,000 ft peaks rushes alongside every street. For a country with 30% permanent snow or glacier cover, water is abundant. But climate change threatens otherwise water-poor Central Asia.


A mini piggyback


So, San Diego continues to be nice...

So, San Diego continues to be nice…

I’m back to my usual summer pattern of getting into my research while simultaneously disappearing into the mountains for a while. This summer’s travels started with a mini “piggyback” – a combo research and field adventure. This time, Sean and I headed to San Diego to give a talk and have some meetings at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scripps is filled with bright and energetic people who somehow manage to get work done despite their idyllic setting.

Scripps' campus puts all others to shame. Good luck studying!

Scripps’ campus puts all others to shame.

After a few days of productive discussion, we headed north to the Eastern Sierra. Aiming for some alpine rock routes in the Whitney region, we shouldered packs with a few days of supplies and headed up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.


Spectacular bald eagle at Lower Boy Scout Lake


Baby marmots checked out our camp near Iceberg Lake.


Sean gets a little bouldering in before dinner


At camp below the Whitney massif


Sunset on Lone Pine Peak


Sean and I scrambled around after dinner. Last light illuminated the Alabama Hills.

Unfortunately, morning showers and even stronger afternoon thunderstorms prevented us from getting on any of the technical routes, but it was a great trip nonetheless.

Chasing Neutrons

Hari Aaron

Chatting with Stanford’s Aaron Strong, one of the SCU stable isotope lab’s first visitors.

Ask any tenured or tenure-track professor about their first year and you’re bound to get a seasoned, almost gleeful look in return. “Just wait a few years, it’ll get easier,” they’ll say, as they recount the desperate sprint of starting out as a faculty member.

A few months into my first year, I can officially report that faculty life presents a daunting set of challenges. And I’ve had it easy: no cross country move, no job search for a spouse, no young children to raise. But while the honeymoon years of infinite intellectual and recreational freedom that defined my graduate career have come and gone (hey, the pictures on this blog didn’t take themselves!), I gaze out at the landscape of opportunities ahead.

Lately, I’ve been coming to terms with the contrast between the countless problems I can work on and the startlingly short horizon defining the frontier of my knowledge and skills. Part of what’s made the job so all-consuming have been the strategic questions, the big upfront decisions I make that will shape my research trajectory over the coming years. Not to mention figuring out how these “work” decisions will ultimately fit into a happy and fulfilling life. First step, many a scientist’s rite of passage, building my own lab…

Sean and I with the new off-axis integrated cavity output spectroscopy triple water isotope analyzer. Yep, that's what it's called.

Sean and I with the new off-axis integrated cavity output spectroscopy triple water isotope analyzer. Yep, that’s what it’s called. I spent Thanksgiving break building the instrument.

Using a pair of lasers and super high reflectivity mirrors, we detect the ratios of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water vapor based on the wavelengths of light they absorb.

Using a pair of lasers and super high reflectivity mirrors, we detect the ratios of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water vapor based on the wavelengths of light they absorb.

I’m also continuing to refine the “piggyback,” where a work trip incorporates a bit of play. Case in point, spring break was spent with my student researcher Sean, who just happens to be a superb rock climber (wink). Read more of Sean’s exploits here. So we dropped by Yosemite valley for a couple days on the way out to fieldwork in the Eastern Sierra near Reno. I gladly gave Sean all the runout pitches on valley classics including Snake Dike, the legendary line on Half Dome. Hiking out, I noticed a scratchy throat and proceeded to get violently sick for the rest of break and the next couple weeks, but all in all, it was a very successful trip sampling and otherwise.

Sean on one of the fun upper pitches of Snake Dike.

Sean on one of the fun upper pitches of Snake Dike.

Stellar views to the Valley. Not a bad way to start a work trip.

Stellar views to the Valley. Not a bad way to start a work trip.

We snacked on granola on the summit of Half Dome before cruising the hike out.

We snacked on granola on the summit of Half Dome before cruising the hike out. The place was overrun with animals that had hitched a ride in my pack!

Boca Reservoir near Truckee showing effects of the ongoing drought.

Boca Reservoir near Truckee showing effects of the ongoing drought.

Sean sampling a 3 million year old ash, Boca Basin, CA.

Sean samples a 3 million year old ash, Boca Basin, CA.

The Verdi Basin, was by far the most urban of my field areas. We sampled along irrigation ditches and railroad cuts.

The Verdi Basin, was by far the most urban of my field areas. We sampled along irrigation ditches and railroad cuts.

Oh, and I’ll get back up in the big mountains too…I’m just shaking out before the crux!

P.S. Thanks to everyone who’s reached out to me with regards to the Nepal earthquake. Lots of friends over there have been affected, but luckily a lot of the news I’m getting from the ground now is better than I’d feared. Still many are in need. For those who’ve been asking, I’ve been recommending the American Himalayan Foundation as a great organization on the ground that’s currently directing 100% of donations to relief and long term recovery in Nepal.

P.P.S. A few years ago, I came across a couple mountain guides from Oregon who snapped these awesome shots of me in action on Bugaboo Spire in BC. Somehow my email address was temporarily lost, but look what came in the mail!

Running it out on the summit ridge traverse of Bugaboo Spire.

Running it out on the summit ridge traverse of Bugaboo Spire.

What a day! Descending the Kain Route after a day on the North American Classic NE Ridge. Pigeon Spire, which we climbed earlier, and the Howser Towers (R) in the background.

What a day! Descending the Kain Route after a day on the North American Classic NE Ridge. Pigeon Spire, which we climbed earlier, and the Howser Towers (R) in the background.

Big Will and the California Fourteeners

The High Sierra, Whitney to Tyndall and beyond from the summit of Mount Williamson

Whitney, the Kaweahs, the Great Western Divide, Tyndall and beyond from the summit of Mount Williamson

“Going to the mountains is going home” -John Muir

It’s been too long. I joined the machine and got a “Real Job.” I built my own lab this past fall (more on that later!). But the High Sierra are my home away from home. Last weekend I completed a seven year journey to climb each California’s fifteen peaks over 14,000 ft…and each with a twist, be it a linkup, speed ascent, winter ascent or a non-standard route.


Looking back down to the Owens Valley floor. If you want to climb Williamson, you have to earn it from the bottom.


No peak was more challenging nor turned me back more than bulky Mount Williamson. It’s not that Williamson is the most technical, nor the most mileage. It’s just one of the bigger, more inaccessible piles of rubble you’ll encounter. Williamson’s routes are nearly Alaskan or Himalayan in proportion as they start from the Owens Valley floor, over 8,000 ft below the summit. They involve miles of up and down trail, thousands of feet of bushwhacking, scree, scrambling or rock climbing. For my fifth (or thereabouts) attempt on Williamson, I opted for the loose, brush-filled, icy boulder-hopping, snow climbing and scrambling sufferfest that is the North Fork of Bairs Creek. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I eat this stuff up!

The lower portions of the Bairs Creek drainage are blocked by willows and icy waterfalls.

The lower portions of the Bairs Creek drainage are choked by willows and icy waterfalls.

My flat-ish bivy site

My flat-ish bivy site

I got a super late start on Saturday because I-5 had been closed the day before due to an accident. I climbed the 1,500 or so feet to the “hard to find” notch, dropped down into the icy creek bed, and ascended thousands of feet of loose rock, willows and thorns to a decent bivy spot at ~9,600 ft. I felt quite good, hydrated well and had a nice dinner of noodle soup before turning in for the night. In the morning, I brewed up, hydrated and boulder hopped thousands of feet up to the crux of the route, a snowy couloir that provided excellent cramponing up to the 13,000 ft plateau beneath the summit slopes. A while later, I was on top, making the first winter ascent of the season and with the high sierra to myself. A fast and relatively uneventful descent (minus  some inevitable thrashing) had me eating a nice dinner in town.


The headwall guarding access to the upper mountain


The upper slopes of Williamson...still 1500 more feet of boulderhopping

The upper slopes of Williamson…still 1500 more feet of boulderhopping

Whitney and Russell to the south

Whitney and Russell to the south


Williamson’s Horns and the Owens Valley 10,000 feet below


A closer look at the slopes of the headwall

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The Fourtneeners, a retrospective

Thanks to all with whom I shared these magnificent adventures…they wouldn’t have been the same without you!! Here are some highlights from fourteener trips…

Langley (with Mike) We went up this one dry Thanksgiving via a variation of Old Army Pass. The climbing wasn’t the most memorable, but Mike ate a heroic amount of french fries in Lone Pine!


Looking up at icy Old Army Pass, Mount Langley

Russell, Whitney, Muir (and Keeler Needle) (with John and Dave) What a blast. We went up the East Ridge of Russell…perhaps the finest 3rd class route I’ve ever been on (sorry Keyhole Route on Long’s Peak). I threw in Keeler and Muir for good measure and then had a death march back to the Portal.


Russell’s East Ridge (right skyline) from the summit of Whitney.


Traversing back to the Mountaineer’s Route notch during a winter dayclimb of Whitney

Williamson Can’t count the times I’ve said I was going to do this, but I made it up Shepherd’s pass a couple times alone and with Warren, not to mention the honest effort on the Northeast Ridge with Brad


Big Will from the lower Northeast Ridge

Tyndall One day winter ascent with Warren who also liked big days in winter.


A moment of reflection high on Tyndall

Split Mountain Tried once before I soloed the St. Jean Couloir in winter. Wish I hadn’t lost my camera after the ascent!

St. Jean Couloir, Split Mountain

St. Jean Couloir, Split Mountain

Middle Palisade I ran the stellar East Face route in 7:28 round trip, which I think due to some strange technicality may be the fastest known time. It’s hard to imagine given how fast the 14er records are these days that this wouldn’t be hours faster. Nonetheless, a fine day in the mountains on one of the nicest peaks in the high country. Brainerd and Finger Lakes are the gems they’re talked up to be.


Finger Lake below Middle Pal

Thunderbolt, Starlight, North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, Mount Sill (with Warren) The Palisades Traverse is still the longest day I’ve ever had in the mountains, a full 26 hours (2 sunrises in one day!!!). What a spectacular adventure. We didn’t summit Sill, but I climbed the North Couloir after graduating undergrad only to break my arm tripping on the trail at First Lake (sorry Dad and Sue!)

Looking back on North Palisade, Starlight and Thunderbolt. This was the second sunrise of our 26 hour continuous push.

Looking back on North Palisade, Starlight and Thunderbolt. This was the second sunrise of our 26 hour continuous push.

Free soloing high on Starlight

Free soloing high on Starlight


White Mountain Peak Casually ran this in 2:58 car to car, also a fastest known time. Same as Middle Pal, I’d be shocked if some Yosemite hard man hasn’t run this faster.

Shasta (Tried a couple times, first with Leor, turned back due to insane winds) Finally got the weather right after my first expedition to Nepal in 2010. I soloed the Casaval Ridge in 27 hours…Stanford to Stanford. Just 11 hours on the route proper. One of my finest days ever in the mountains. Sunrise from the Catwalk was among the best I’ve ever seen.

Sunrise during an 11 hour winter solo of Casaval Ridge, Mount Shasta

Sunrise during an 11 hour winter solo of Casaval Ridge, Mount Shasta

What can clay tell us about the past?

How hot was it in Colorado yesterday? Ok, how about 20 million years ago? Hmm, that one seems trickier to answer. I recently took a stab at this and other questions in North American paleoclimate in the final chapter of my PhD, which has been accepted in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, a leading geochemistry journal. I’ve been somewhat reluctant to write about this as it’s not exactly the most accessible work I’ve done, plus I’ve been trying to run away from the last remaining scraps of my PhD in search of fresh research topics!

Anyhow, here’s a go at some of what I’ve been working on since 2008. Telling the conditions in the geologic past has always been challenging, but our foundation of knowledge has always been observational science. For many decades, paleontologists have studied fossils to determine information about ancient climate and environments. One metric involves analyzing the shapes of leaves, then using statistical models to determine things such as ancient temperature and rainfall.

34 million year old fossils, Florissant Fossil Beds, CO. University of California Museum of Paleontology

34 million year old fossils, Florissant Fossil Beds, CO. University of California Museum of Paleontology.

I belong to a community of scientists who use the chemistry of ancient sediments to learn about the past. Harold Urey’s discovery of deuterium (hydrogen with an extra neutron) not only won him the Nobel Prize in 1934, but also gave birth to an entire field of stable isotope paleoclimatology. As it turns out, many natural processes preferentially take one isotope (forms of an element with different masses) over another in what is known as isotopic fractionation. For example, photosynthesis preferentially uses “light” carbon-12 in CO₂ over the heavier carbon-13. One of the best things from a climate standpoint, though, is that most isotopic fractionation is temperature dependent, meaning that we can calculate temperature if we know some more things about the system. Most famously, our best records of climate change over geologic timescales come from ancient fossils of tiny foraminifera buried in ocean sediments. The chemistry of their shells, made out of calcium carbonate, tells us about the temperature and amount of ice on the ancient earth.

Here’s where the clay comes in…clay minerals form as weathering products in soils. The clay forms in equilibrium with ancient water, and preserves the ancient isotopic signatures of oxygen and hydrogen, allowing us to study the ancient climate. I’ve been using the peculiar chemistry of smectite, a particular type of clay that weathered out of volcanic ash from enormous eruptions to tell the temperature history of western North America.

A 19 million year old ash in northern Colorado that has weathered to clay

A 19 million year old ash in northern Colorado that has weathered to clay

My study involved collected hundreds of samples of weathered ash from all over western North America, with ages ranging from 620,000 years to about 30 million years. I separated the clay minerals using a centrifuge (read: lots of dishwashing!) and analyzed the oxygen and hydrogen isotope composition using mass spectrometry.

This is one cool step part of the process. I used laser ablation to literally vaporize rock into oxygen gas and other byproducts!

This is one cool part of the process. I used laser ablation to literally vaporize rock into oxygen gas and other byproducts.

What do our results say? Well, quite a few things, but temperatures in North America follow global prevailing trends. It was quite a lot warmer (~10-15 degrees C) around 15 million years ago at a time known as the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum. This was the most recent time of elevated global temperatures similar to where we may be headed by 2100 with modern climate change. If my results are any indication, continental interiors may warm to a greater degree than global averages.


Temperature records from clay in western North America. On the left is 60 million years ago, the right is today. The green points are from Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, while the reds are primarily from Nevada and Utah.