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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.

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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.

Aftermath

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.

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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.

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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!

Hari

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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,

Hari

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.

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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.

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Spectacular bald eagle at Lower Boy Scout Lake

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Baby marmots checked out our camp near Iceberg Lake.

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Sean gets a little bouldering in before dinner

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At camp below the Whitney massif

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Sunset on Lone Pine Peak

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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.

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.

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

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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.

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The headwall guarding access to the upper mountain

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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

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

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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!

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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.

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

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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

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Big Will from the lower Northeast Ridge

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

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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.

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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

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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

Winter traverse of the High Sierra

Zach slippin along on day 2 of the Sierra traverse

Zach slippin’ along on day 2 of the Sierra traverse

With all of the recent polar vortex talk, it could be easy to conclude that winter, glaciers and climate as we know it are here to stay. Well, out here in California, my good friend Zach and I just crossed the Sierra Nevada. In sneakers. In two and a half days in the heart of “winter.” California, if you haven’t heard, is in a ridiculous drought right now.

Zach and I were excited at the prospect of this unique trip and a chance to visit some of California’s threatened glaciers in winter. Borrowing from the light is right, alpine-style ethic, we stripped down to the bare essentials and rock hopped, plunge-stepped, and slipped along icy trail from the Eastern Sierra to Yosemite Valley.

Zach and I shouldered our packs near June Lake on the east side of the Sierra.

Zach and I shouldered our packs near June Lake on the east side of the Sierra.

Looking back down to the eastern Sierra

Looking back down to the eastern Sierra

The east side of the Sierra is steep. These old tramway tracks gave us a chance to warm up in a hurry!

The east side of the Sierra is steep. These old tramway tracks gave us a chance to warm up in a hurry!

Banner (L) and Ritter (R) dominate the skyline near Mammoth Lakes

Banner (L) and Ritter (R) dominate the skyline near Mammoth Lakes

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Vastness near Donohue Pass, the first of three passes on our traverse

Vastness near Donohue Pass, the first of three passes on our traverse

Zach surveys the landscape from our first camp. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite and home to the Sierra's second largest glacier, is beyond.

Zach surveys the landscape from our first camp. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite and home to the Sierra’s second largest glacier, is beyond.

It wasn't always a cakewalk. It was often easier to stick to the more technical rock than to deal with the uncertainty of snow-covered boulders.

It wasn’t always a cakewalk. I often found it easier to stick to the more technical rock than to deal with the uncertainty of snow-covered boulders.

This section of snow covered boulders was treacherous. Fortunately, a snapped trekking pole was our only casualty.

This section of snow covered boulders was treacherous. Fortunately, a snapped trekking pole was our only casualty.

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Zach pulls a move on the ascent to our second of three passes

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I survey the scene from our second pass. Tuolumne Meadows is deep in the background.

I survey the scene from our second pass. Tuolumne Meadows is deep in the background.

Finally some easy terrain! The low point on the skyline was our highpoint.

Finally some easy terrain! The low point on the skyline was our highpoint.

Hiking down spectacular glacial polish in the Yosemite high country. Our last 25 miles or so were downhill.

Hiking down spectacular glacial polish in the Yosemite high country. Our last 25 miles or so were downhill.

Half Dome comes into view. Merced Lake was our second bivy spot.

Half Dome comes into view. Merced Lake was our second bivy spot.

Basketball-sized boulders of ice provided an interesting road block for us.

Basketball-sized boulders of ice provided an interesting road block for us.

Zach emerges from a naked plunge into the iced-over Merced River.

Zach emerges from a naked plunge into the iced-over Merced River.

Such a pleasure to be on a trail with dry shoes--thanks Zach for building a great fire on the 2nd night so we could dry our stuff.

Such a pleasure to be on a trail with dry shoes–thanks Zach for building a great fire on the 2nd night so we could dry our stuff.

Magnificent Half Dome. The trail was a complete ice rink for miles on end. We slipped and slid our way down to the Mist Trail.

Magnificent Half Dome. The trail was a complete ice rink for miles on end. We slipped and slid our way down to the Mist Trail.

Nevada Falls was an icy trickle.

Nevada Falls was an icy trickle.

The last couple miles were a joy. Here we share a moment by Vernal Falls.

The last couple miles were a joy. Here we share a moment by Vernal Falls.

Zach crosses Happy Isles Bridge, marking our finish line

Zach crosses Happy Isles Bridge, marking our finish line

WHY DID WE EVEN BOTHER CROSSING THE SIERRA? We'd been talking about what we'd order at the Curry Village Pizza Deck for days.

WHY DID WE EVEN BOTHER CROSSING THE SIERRA? We’d been talking about what we’d order at the Curry Village Pizza Deck for days.

Thanks to Brad and Matt for dropping us off in style, and Seanan for the unlikely encounter in Yosemite and company on the way home!

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Rising mountains dried out Central Asia

Nemegt Basin, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Nemegt Basin, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Something has come of those two summers spent bouncing around Mongolia in Russian vans! Work led by my fellow grad student and travel companion Jeremy Caves has been presented, submitted for publication, and picked up by a few science news aggregators. This piece, written by Stanford’s earth science writer Ker Than, puts some of our findings into English…

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Rising mountains dried out Central Asia

A record of ancient rainfall teased from long-buried sediments in Mongolia is challenging the popular idea that the arid conditions prevalent in Central Asia today were caused by the ancient uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Instead, Stanford scientists say the formation of two lesser mountain ranges, the Hangay and the Altai, may have been the dominant drivers of climate in the region, leading to the expansion of Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi. The findings will be presented on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

“These results have major implications for understanding the dominant factors behind modern-day Central Asia’s extremely arid climate and the role of mountain ranges in altering regional climate,” said Page Chamberlain, a professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford.

Page and the whole crew pulling into the camp in the Hangay Mountains, central Mongolia

Page and the crew pull into camp in the Hangay Mountains, Central Mongolia

Scientists previously thought that the formation of the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan plateau around 45 million years ago shaped Asia’s driest environments.

“The traditional explanation has been that the uplift of the Himalayas blocked air from the Indian Ocean from reaching central Asia,” said Jeremy Caves, a doctoral student in Chamberlain’s terrestrial paleoclimate research group who was involved in the study.

Jeremy in his element

Jeremy in his element

This process was thought to have created a distinct rain shadow that led to wetter climates in India and Nepal and drier climates in Central Asia. Similarly, the elevation of the Tibetan Plateau was thought to have triggered an atmospheric process called subsidence, in which a mass of air heated by a high elevation slowly sinks into Central Asia.

“The falling air suppresses convective systems such as thunderstorms, and the result is you get really dry environments,” Caves said.

This long-accepted model of how Central Asia’s arid environments were created mostly ignores, however, the existence of the Altai and Hangay, two northern mountain ranges.

Searching for answers

To investigate the effects of the smaller ranges on the regional climate, Caves and his colleagues from Stanford and Rocky Mountain College in Montana traveled to Mongolia in 2011 and 2012 and collected samples of ancient soil, as well as stream and lake sediments from remote sites in the central, southwestern and western parts of the country.

The team carefully chose its sites by scouring the scientific literature for studies of the region conducted by pioneering researchers in past decades.

“A lot of the papers were by Polish and Russian scientists who went there to look for dinosaur fossils,” said Hari Mix, a doctoral student at Stanford who also participated in the research. “Indeed, at many of the sites we visited, there were dinosaur fossils just lying around.”

The earlier researchers recorded the ages and locations of the rocks they excavated as part of their own investigations; Caves and his team used those age estimates to select the most promising sites for their own study.

At each site, the team bagged sediment samples that were later analyzed to determine their carbon isotope content. The relative level of carbon isotopes present in a soil sample is related to the productivity of plants growing in the soil, which is itself dependent on the annual rainfall. Thus, by measuring carbon isotope amounts from different sediment samples of different ages, the team was able to reconstruct past precipitation levels.

An ancient wet period

The new data suggest that rainfall in central and southwestern Mongolia had decreased by 50 to 90 percent in the last several tens of million of years.

“Right now, precipitation in Mongolia is about 5 inches annually,” Caves said. “To explain our data, rainfall had to decrease from 10 inches a year or more to its current value over the last 10 to 30 million years.”

That means that much of Mongolia and Central Asia were still relatively wet even after the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau 45 million years ago. The data show that it wasn’t until about 30 million years ago, when the Hangay Mountains first formed, that rainfall started to decrease. The region began drying out even faster about 5 million to 10 million years ago, when the Altai Mountains began to rise.

The scientists hypothesize that once they formed, the Hangay and Altai ranges created rain shadows of their own that blocked moisture from entering Central Asia.

“As a result, the northern and western sides of these ranges are wet, while the southern and eastern sides are dry,” Caves said.

The team is not discounting the effect of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau entirely, because portions of the Gobi Desert likely already existed before the Hangay or Altai began forming.

“What these smaller mountains did was expand the Gobi north and west into Mongolia,” Caves said.

The uplift of the Hangay and Altai may have had other, more far-reaching implications as well, Caves said. For example, westerly winds in Asia slam up against the Altai today, creating strong cyclonic winds in the process. Under the right conditions, the cyclones pick up large amounts of dust as they snake across the Gobi Desert. That dust can be lofted across the Pacific Ocean and even reach California, where it serves as microscopic seeds for developing raindrops.

The origins of these cyclonic winds, as well as substantial dust storms in China today, may correlate with uplift of the Altai, Caves said. His team plans to return to Mongolia and Kazakhstan next summer to collect more samples and to use climate models to test whether the Altai are responsible for the start of the large dust storms.

“If the Altai are a key part of regulating Central Asia’s climate, we can go and look for evidence of it in the past,” Caves said.

The Russian Van fords the Tuyn Gol, Central Mongolia

Our Russian van fords the Tuyn Gol, Central Mongolia

More thankful than ever

Hummus and crackers are a fine way to jumpstart a chilly Yosemite morning

Hummus and crackers are a fine way to jumpstart a chilly Yosemite morning

I live a charmed life. Occasionally I’ll be stopped in my tracks when I stumble upon an old photo…was I really there? Did I actually drink fermented camel’s milk in Mongolia?!?

This year, I have even more reason to be thankful. It’s also the main reason I haven’t posted in a while. Next year, I’ll be an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University. It’s an absolute dream for me to make this next step, and I couldn’t be happier at the prospect of joining such a wonderful group of people.

One of my few leads. I spent a lot of time thrashing around as I hadn't climbed since August!

One of my few leads. I spent a lot of time thrashing around as I hadn’t climbed since August!

I wasn’t able to get out much this fall as I was super busy with the job search and PhD work. I also messed my ankle up really badly in late September. I’d never rolled my left ankle before but I tore pretty much everything. I’m in really good running shape now and lifting as well, but mountain trips were off limits this fall. I did sneak off to Yosemite Valley for a quick weekend with my good buddy Mike. He led all the hard pitches and I climbed pretty poorly but loved every minute. Found a great veggie burger and milkshake on the way home too…Hula’s in Escalon is tasty!

The view of Half Dome after topping out on our last climb.

The view of Half Dome after topping out on our last climb.