Inner Vision: A Pilgrimage in Tibet

Inner Vision

When he attempts to make the pilgrimage over Tibet’s Duge La Pass, a traveler almost loses his sight but gains new insight into the meanings to be found in the world’s highest mountains.

Words and Photos by Casey Flynn

Another avalanche rumbles down unseen slopes. Fat, wet flakes fill the air and cut visibility down to fifty feet. My fogged-up sunglasses hang from my neck, useless. The wind eases briefly and I can see other pilgrims through the white haze on the slope above me, blazing onward through three feet of fresh snow. Any semblance of a trail is buried.

Our objective is Duge La, a 13,000-foot pass that crests the spine of the Kawagarbo Range, crossing from Yunnan Province, China into the eastern reaches of Tibet. My fellow spiritual seekers and I are treading the outer pilgrimage route around the sacred Tibetan mountain Kawagarbo, a 21,770-foot monolith to our north. The two-week trek circles clockwise around the holy peak, across high passes, along steep gorges and through narrow valleys lined with waterfalls. Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.

But doubt gnaws at me. I’m throwing away years of snow safety training for the idea of completing the pilgrimage. It’s still snowing. Conditions are deteriorating. I have no idea what terrain lies ahead. But my stubborn attachment to making it around the mountain prevails. I forge upward.

Prayer flags appear out of the swirling, featureless landscape. The pass. Suddenly, the line of people stops moving. Wind whips the wet snow sideways through the rocky gap. A few pilgrims turn and start walking back toward me, but others grab hold and reassure them. When we start forward again, the cause of the panic becomes clear: a two-foot deep slab avalanche has ripped out and raked 3,000 feet down our descent route. Unconsolidated powder and scree make the going slow and slippery. Intermittent spatters of blood paint the snow surface, remnants of falling pilgrims.

In the safety of the valley meadows below, I sit on my pack to rest and eat peanuts. A Chinese man and his Tibetan guides catch up with me. He’s shivering violently. “I’m hungry,” he stammers in English.

I hand him a fruit bar. His guides don’t seem very concerned about his condition, but I am. “Do you have any dry clothes in your bag?” I ask.

He nods.

“You should change into them,” I say.

He stares at me blankly. He doesn’t seem capable of changing on his own so two of his guides and a friend began peeling his wet clothing off. I’m not much drier—with the temperature hovering around freezing, the snow is falling damp and soggy. A chill creeps up my legs. They find dry pants and a shirt and pull them over the man’s damp skin. He starts to improve immediately. The color comes back into his face.

“Thank you! Thank you!” He takes my hand in both of his and shakes hard before moving on.

I feel ill. I’m not drinking enough water. The cold and wet have discouraged me from stopping and taking off my pack to get my bottle. Now, the effects of dehydration are clenching my stomach and fogging up my head. I’m having trouble seeing clearly. Is it snow blindness from forgetting to wear sunglasses?

DSCN2516The Source of Power: “Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.” Photo: Casey Flynn

Darkness comes and I put on my headlamp. The trail blurs. My head and eyes ache. I want to take my contact lenses out, thinking it might help, but my fingers just scrape against my face, unwilling to do what I want. I extract the right lens but the pain from my clumsy attempts forces me to give up on the left. I stumble on half-blind in the night.

Later, I hear voices. Behind a large boulder, pilgrims huddle over a damp, smoke-spewing fire. They welcome me to stand with them around the crackling kindling, but the smoke sears my eyes. I stagger to a nearby boulder to rest. A father and son make space for me to join them under the boulder’s low overhang. I crawl into the cramped but dry space with them and wait for sleep to take me.

According to the Dalai Lama, “The goal of pilgrimage is not so much to reach a particular destination as to awaken within oneself the qualities and energies of the sacred site, which ultimately lie within our own minds.” Circumambulation is how Tibetans awaken these qualities in themselves, walking clockwise around the holy object with concentrated awareness. Pilgrimage sites have outer and inner routes. The outer path prepares pilgrims for the spiritual treasures that lie closer to the center.

Accomplished practitioners are said to have found hidden lands in sacred centers. I’m unsure whether these places are in one’s mind or whether they actually exist in geographic space but I was drawn to Kawagarbo and its secrets. I didn’t know what I would encounter along either path, but I needed to find out.

I can’t sleep. I can only fit into the tiny space with the father and son by curling up into a tight ball, but muscle cramps force me to stretch my dehydrated legs out until the cold forces me back into a ball. My repositioning is periodically interrupted by mice scuttling across my bag and my face, but I’m too weak to swat at them.

The father and son stir. Morning must have come but I can’t see it. My eyes are swollen shut. I listen to them roll up their bedding. The tarp that lies beneath their blanket crinkles as they fold it, stiff from the night’s cold. I hear the father walking toward me “Come, you must come,” he tells me in Chinese.

“I can’t,” I say.

“You must come!” He gently pulls me up.

“I can’t! I can’t see.”

He says something I can’t understand, but I can sense the concern in his voice.

“I can’t go. I have food, I have water, I am warm. I will stay,” I say. I’m not warm, but without sight, staying is the only choice. He keeps insisting I come but I keep shaking my head. At last, he hands me a plastic bottle full of hot yak butter tea and leaves.

I stretch out under the boulder’s overhang. I have food and water, but I’m close to hypothermic. Wet clumps of snow melt and flow down the boulder and through the zippers and cracks in my bivy sack. Day becomes night. The forest grows quiet and the cold sharper. Hallucinations and vivid dreams take over.

Late in the night, I crawl out of my bag, convinced that friends and a warm cabin are close by. There is no longer a separation between the inner and outer worlds. Shocked back to the present by the cold, I realize what I am doing and retreat back into my bag, back into delusion. Am I still on the pilgrimage?

The forest awakens around me. Birds chirp and a breeze rustles the leaves. I crack open my right eye and see light. My left eye is still swollen and a crust has formed across the lid. I can’t open it. Damp and aching, I stand up for the first time in 40 hours.

The snowstorm has blocked Duge La pass behind me. The only way is forward. At first, walking is slow and clumsy due to my altered depth perception, but over three days of solitary travel, I adapt to my partial blindness, aided by a walking stick. I gradually tell myself that my vision might be permanently damaged. Acceptance is easier and more practical than despair.

The early-season storm has ravaged the forest. Tangled masses of downed timber choke the trail and streams of snowmelt flood the path. I skirt cliff bands to navigate around blocked sections of trail. Several steep switchbacks demand that I climb down through the branches of fallen trees to reach the lower trail.

I follow footbridges lined with prayer flags and piles of mana stones, flat pieces of rock with prayers etched into them, to the village of Tsawalong. While resting in the dusty street, a man emerges out of a crowd of Tibetans and pulls me to my feet. I recognize him as the Chinese man from Duge La. Beaming, he shakes my hand, introduces himself as Zeng Yuan and thanks me for saving his life.

I hadn’t saved his life. I had only observed his condition, something he wasn’t able to see at that time. And then I realize what we share. The circumambulation is carrying us both forward. While lying under that boulder and walking solitary through the forest, I had begun to see my own condition more clearly. Though it almost cost me an eye, the pilgrimage gave me sight.

Postcard: Maroon Bells

Alone, either of the Maroon Bells would be gorgeous — a towering pyramid surrounded by much more randomly shaped mountains. But it wouldn’t be the same if there were only one. They need each other. They are famous because they are a couple. Twins. Bells, not Bell. Never mind the challenges they present to would-be conquerors, in the climbing/skiing sense. The Maroon Bells are a symbol of Colorado’s freedom, possibility, and beauty. Perhaps the symbol. Here is what they looked like last Friday, from the north ridge of Highland Bowl — an Aspen landmark in its own right.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Signs Along the Way

The collie puppy and I decided to do some winter bushwhacking. I grabbed the map nearest to hand—a facsimile 1893 USGS topo for Durham, New York—and headed out the door. We set off through the woods. Here in the Catskill Mountains, the woods do not come to an end. They just keep going. A few inches of hardened snow covered the ground. Easy walking for me and the collie puppy. The cold wind was at our backs. And in our ears. We walked and we walked and we walked. We crossed the track of many a deer. No hints of any living people, just the traces of those long gone—in the form of old stone walls, lithified lines of gnomic verse across the landscape. We started following one. We were drawn deeper into the woods. Our direction was toward the base of a mountain.

DEC-SignWithout warning, we came upon an official sign put up by the state. We looked at it. It was shiny and new and denoted the boundary of a wilderness area. We stuck to this line and came upon another sign denoting the same thing. Then another. The shiny signs continued to appear along the old stone wall. In the 19th century, these rock fences established the bounds of a pasture. The pasture has since vanished. Forest succession took care of that. Eventually the shiny signs petered out, but the old wall kept going. And so did we. The wall finally came to an end in a grove of dying hemlocks at the lip of a deep ravine. Below was a big creek buried under snow.

On the other side of the ravine rose the steep, wooded spur of a mountain named after a famous 19th century landscape painter. That painter never set foot on this peak. He must have known better. That didn’t stop us. We plunged into the daunting ravine, crossed the snowy creek, and started up the precipitous slope. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow became. The wind grew louder. We were well above any shiny signs or old stone walls. The few game trails we saw all led downhill.

We continued our ascent, but the collie puppy was starting to have his doubts. The snow was now up to my knees and his neck. Drifts were deeper still. Neither of us had snowshoes. I pressed on, breaking the trail. The collie puppy followed close behind. On and on this went, higher and higher. Formidable ledges loomed above us. The sky turned a ferocious blue. The wind became a bitter dragon-roar.

The collie puppy at last lost patience. Surely, more fun was to be had down below in the sheltered hollow where the deer were running. Why climb this snowbound peak forsaken even by its namesake? He started scolding me, nipping at my calves, treating me like an errant sheep. I told him to stop. He barked. I told him to stop. There was no appeasing him. I had forgotten his cheese. He barked and he barked and he barked. At last I relented, “Okay, we’ll go down!” He yipped with delight. He frolicked in the drifts. He led the way downslope. We dropped our elevation in a quarter of the time it took to gain it. The wind subsided. The snow wasn’t so deep. The terrain leveled out. The deer tracks reappeared.

We came upon what seemed to be an old road, bordered by another stone wall. The road—barely a track, to be honest—had long since fallen off the newer maps, but there it was on my old map. We followed this road down a gentle hill. It was like strolling along in 1893, only through woods instead of pastures. We passed a spring and a cellar hole filled with snow. A former home site—it too was on the map. We kept walking until we came to a feature not on the old map: another of those shiny signs marking the boundary of the wilderness area. This one was nailed to a tree near what was once a gate in the stone wall. We passed through the gate without any trouble. After that it was the same all the way home.


Land in the Sky: Dwelling Anew

Last Christmas Eve down at Pandora’s Tavern, while everybody else was watching a bowl game on the bar’s big screen, I found myself re-reading some Heidegger. One does things like that down at Pandora’s Tavern. I first read this philosopher in the early 80s, under what might be called peculiar conditions. You could say that reading philosophy under peculiar conditions only serves to thicken the peculiarities, and you’d be right. Even under the most normal of circumstances, all it takes is a few minutes of casual browsing in a volume of philosophy—and everything takes an odd turn. But what did I know, I was a young, enthusiastic scholar pursuing my studies in the wild woolly-wags of eastern Maine, far removed from the lures of Wall Street where some of my old chums were already raking in the big bucks and had not yet been busted for insider trading.

In one of his less formidable essays, Heidegger makes a distinction between “building” and “dwelling.” Not all buildings, says the philosopher, are dwellings. “Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings.” That may seem pretty obvious. But when it comes to philosophy, the obvious is preferable to having a ding an sich shoved in your face. Anyway, by Heidegger’s lights the house I grew up in in suburban North Jersey counted as a dwelling. That’s because my family actually lived there. Whereas the nearby Pulaski Skyway—though certainly a building in the technical sense—was no dwelling. Nor was the giant stadium they built in the Hackensack Meadows, which opened in 1976 (the year I graduated from high school) and has since been torn down. Nor was the big mall— put up on what had been the wooded edge of our town—a dwelling, though it now teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and may soon be shuttered and become a haunted house of sorts.

To complete this picture, it should be noted that, in the New Jersey landscape of my youth, genuine dwellings were rapidly giving way to mere buildings—to the point where a peculiar kind of human-fashioned wilderness emerged, one distinguished by car dealerships, fast food joints, gardening centers, Kinney Shoes, pawn shops, dry cleaners, National Guard armories, bowling alleys, Entenmann’s outlets, lumber yards, drive-in theaters, donut shops, Robert Hall, and pet stores. And that’s just a partial inventory of the terrain. Yes, a peculiar kind of wilderness, which—in keeping with Federal law—is a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I for one could not remain in New Jersey, so I lit out, as soon as I could, for the wilds of eastern Maine, where I misspent what was left of my youth.

And that’s where I first read Heidegger. The peculiar conditions were these.

I was a struggling graduate student in literature. The monthly stipend I received was just enough to cover the rent for my cheap digs, the cases of ramen noodles and beer that provided my sustenance, and the gas for my 1973 VW Beetle, which more often than not was out of commission so I mostly didn’t have to worry about filling the tank. I was assigned an office, which I shared with three other people. It was located on the fourth floor of what was then called the English-Math Building. A large portion of this unattractive structure remained unfinished on the inside because the university ran out of money to finish the project, so the place felt more like a parking garage or roller rink than an ivory tower. By no means would this echo of a Bauhaus blunder ever be considered a dwelling in the Heideggerian sense. Hell, it didn’t even have a proper name.

As fate would have it, I was forced one day to abandon my meager lodgings—in a snug trailer in a vintage mobile home park out near the town dump—due to a flea infestation. Having nowhere else to go, I moved—temporarily, or so I told myself—into my office in the English-Math Building. All my books were already there and a padded bench dragged in from the hallway provided a fine place to lay out a sleeping bag each night. My officemates didn’t mind. Nor did the kindly department secretary, who brought me coffee each morning and let me keep my beer in the department refrigerator. And my various friends, who were dwelling under more secure circumstances, regularly invited me over to their places for a meal and a shower. In the evenings, after the last classes were dismissed, a tomblike quiet would descend upon the English-Math Building, which proved a perfect environment for getting some serious reading done—reading that included works by Heidegger. Because rent was no longer a worry, I had more money than ever before. I was able to buy more books, including nice hardbound editions of Walden and The Maine Woods, both published by Princeton. I soon realized that I actually enjoyed living in my office. Things were simple and complete. The English-Math Building—at least my little corner of it—had become a dwelling. My dwelling.

I did harbor a few doubts about this place—this situation—that I was now calling home. After all, what kind of person lives in his office? (Think Bartleby, or Ted Kaczynski, or a Washington politician.) What would people think? What if I took ill and needed to be confined to bed? More than anything else, I worried about becoming lonely. Happily, those doubts were driven out when I discovered that another grad student—in math—had also moved into his office, on the same floor as me but on the other side of the building. I was no longer alone! I stopped by one evening to introduce myself—“Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall”—and he invited me in. Unlike my office, which indeed looked like an office because I rolled up and put away my sleeping bag each morning, this guy’s looked like somebody lived there. He had a big cushy chair, a gray tufted-back sofa sleeper with a couple kilim throw pillows, a girlfriend’s painting hanging on the wall, a color TV, a fancy microwave, and a hot-plate. The shelves around the room were packed not with books but canned goods. It was the most posh graduate student dwelling I had ever seen. And it got me to thinking, maybe I should spruce up my place.

Alas, that never happened. A few nights later I was at my desk, working late as usual, when a disruption occurred. I always left the door open so the night janitor wouldn’t be surprised to find somebody in there. When he made his rounds, I’d chat with him as he’d empty the trash buckets, then we’d bid each other a neighborly goodnight. Once he had passed through, I knew it would be safe to unroll the sleeping bag and bed down. On that night, the janitor had already made his rounds. I was just about to call it quits, when this great commotion erupted out in the hall. I heard the bang of the stairwell door bursting open, then the clomping of boots on the tile floor. I looked up from my desk to see a line of campus policemen charging past my door and down the hall. Whatever could be the matter? A few minutes later they filed back the way they had come, but now escorting my neighbor—in handcuffs. The cops never even bothered to peek in on what I was doing, but my neighbor did. The look on his face said: “Get the hell outta here, buddy, as fast as you can!”

And I did. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headed out into the snow, and trudged off to a friend’s—a grad student in geology—who was living in a homemade teepee deep in the university forest. I stayed with him till things cooled off back at the English-Math Building. Then I resumed my cozy office dwelling. I figured if I continued to live in such a way as not to call undue attention to myself, I’d be okay. And I was. But I never saw that math grad student again. When I stopped by to see how he had fared with the cops, I found his office stripped bare. Empty. As if nobody had ever dwelled there. It was forlorn as an abandoned mental hospital.

As for me, I continued to dwell in my own office for another couple months—till I somehow contracted salmonella and had to go in to the hospital for a few days. After that I didn’t go back to my office. I moved on to other lodgings—and many others in the years since. Yet each time learning how to dwell anew.

Five Reasons Why Valley Uprising Rocks



Yosemite is high on the radar of everyone from NBC News to Rock and Ice but something else big happened when it comes to the history of America’s favorite big wall playground this week. Sender Films released “Valley Uprising,” it’s film about the history of big wall climbing in the park on demand on Vimeo. If you care about climbing, or are even just a casual observer, you’ll want to check this out. Here’s why:

It’s not just for climbers. Since its inception, REEL Rock Film Tour has featured an epic mix of short films highlighting the latest climbing porn laden with stories and characters that only hold significance among the climbing community. However, in its 9th year, Sender Films and Big UP Productions decided to showcase Valley Uprising, a full-length documentary that explores the 60-year climbing history of Yosemite National Park. You don’t need to come from a climbing background to appreciate the stories of 60s counter-culture, drug-smuggling plane crashes or the breathtaking views of the Valley itself. In fact, it’s even narrated by Hollywood actor Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a work of art. This 90-minute film was indeed a labor of love, taking seven years, 50 interviews and dozens of trips to Yosemite to complete. The historic, never-before-seen photos are revamped with a 2.5-D animation twist and the soundtrack features . The cinematography within the first five minutes alone will have you questioning why you’re not in the Valley at that very moment.

It pays tribute to the legends. It’s rare to be involved in a sport where the majority of the men and women who brought it into the forefront are still alive today. Many modern-day climbers start out by pulling plastic in the gym, removing them from the rich history and culture that once dominated the community. This film allows the newest generation of climbers to cultivate a deep sense of respect for the founders who made it all possible.

It will make you feel like you were born in the wrong generation. You will leave the theater feeling nostalgic for events that happened before you were even born. Valley Uprising does such a great job at glorifying the dirtbag days of Camp 4 that you’d do anything to go back in time to live like an elective refugee and eat expired cat food with Yvon Chouinard. Well, maybe some of you Mountain Gazette readers were born in this generation…

It gets you psyched for the future of climbing.
 Before Warren Harding made the first ascent of The Nose in 1958, climbing El Capitan was considered impossible. Just a few decades later, climbers are free-soloing the same route in a matter of hours and BASE-jumping from the summit. It’s really amazing to see how much the sport and its culture have come, and the possibilities are endless for future generations. The free ascent of the Dawn Wall is just the beginning.

Postcard: Ptarmigan on a Fourteener

You have to wonder if the ptarmigan knows how cool of an animal it is. To turn snow white when you need to hide in snow for seven months of winter is not just a sign of evolution but also a boon to the rest of us. I like seeing a ptarmigan on my ski tour. I’ve seen up to nine at a time scurrying around on the side of a mountain, almost invisible but for their eyes and beaks. This dude or dudette was hanging out next to an abandoned gold mine on 14,265-foot Quandary Peak yesterday. Did he mind if I took his photo to put it on the Internet? I guess I’ll never know.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: A Walk Down Memory Trail

Once upon a time in the Gunks, I lived at this very spot. On the shore of bucolic Duck Pond. For a whole summer. In a diminutive shack. I fetched my water from a spring. I cooked my meals on a little Coleman stove. I wrote letters at night by candlelight. Few wrote back. The other day I took the collie puppy for a walk down Memory Trail. We visited the scenes of my fond remembrance. He peed on some trees.



Postcard: Crazy Mountains, Montana

You know how you can drive and drive and drive without seeing anything other than vast flatness and sky, then suddenly a giant mountain range appears and you exhale like you’ve not exhaled in days, because you know everything is going to work out after all? The relief comes from finally seeing some relief—in last week’s case, it was the Crazy Mountains in southwestern Montana that returned our minds to a point of equilibrium. Fun was only a matter of time from there.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Spangle Lake: Why we come to Wilderness

The Hike to Spangle Lake

A meditation on why we leave the order of the human world for the chaos of Wilderness

By Mike Medberry

I can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.

I had planned to hike sixteen miles from Atlanta, Idaho to see the ultimate headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Boise River at Spangle Lake in the highest, most stunning country in the Sawtooth Wilderness. It would be the conclusion of a hike from the Snake River to the top of the Boise River drainage. The whole river would be below me. But now I just sat on the tailgate of my pickup, drank another afternoon beer, and watched this gorgeous, cool, day, aiming toward the end of summer.

Spangle photo so-so-2Spangle Lake sparkles, glitters, and gleams! I just know it does. It’s an exotic place in my mind.  I tried to conjure up the weather report to determine if the temperature would be too cold for me to go on up to Spangle without a sleeping bag, but my cellphone had no reception and the weather looked stormy. But a guy can have his dreams, right?

I  contemplated going back the 130 miles to Boise to get it—down the Atlanta Road (bumpity-bumpity- bump all the daylong stinkin’ way), back past Queens River, downriver to Dutch Creek Station (boor-ing!) , on to the North Fork (oh, that would be pretty… for the fourth time), up and over to Idaho City (through all of the cheerless mine tailings), down to Lucky Peak Reservoir (which was the grand apotheosis of I-don’t- know-what, maybe the unflooded city of Boise), but at least I would miss Arrowrock Reservoir on the way down, which might be some consolation.

I get cynical when things don’t work just right for me and… well I just didn’t want to go back without hiking in the Wilderness.  So instead, I drank another beer, trying to gain some sort of lousy consolation.  I just can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.

trailcrew!Then three guys pulled up on my right in a carryall-rig and unloaded their backpacks while I sat thinking about what to do. Cheer and energy was on their side.  I drank from the bottle and pulled out some raisins-and-peanuts and sat chewing and listening to old music. We exchanged pleasant salutations and talked about their plan to work on trails within the Sawtooth Wilderness as they loaded their packs. The men were paid by a consultant who contracted with the US Forest Service, like what the old CCC had done.  The Civilian Conservation Corps was a federally funded program that was part of the New Deal, supported by President Franklin Roosevelt. The program hired young, unemployed people in the 1930s and early 40s after the Great Depression. The CCC had created many of the superb trails on the Sawtooth National Forest and their legacy still lived in the current funding of Forest Service trail projects.

“I can’t believe that I forgot to bring my most excellent, new, delightful, down sleeping bag,” I muttered mostly to myself, and tried to take another glug out of the now empty bottle. I threw it in the back of my pickup.

“That’s pretty bad,” one man said.  They laughed a little as two of them donned their packs. “You ever backpacked before?”

I shrugged and grimaced. The third man laid a sleeping bag on the tailgate beside me and said that he didn’t think that his dog would miss it. It was his dog’s sleeping bag. “Just leave it in the truck when you return,” he said.

“Hey thanks!” I said brightly, abandoning all pride.

I listened to another of Sinatra’s whines on his CD. Frank sang something about living a dog’s life. I reached for another bottle of beer in the back of my truck. Walking around to the driver’s seat I noticed a flattening tire.  I closed my eyes for a second and inhaled deeply. “OK, go flat, you damned shit!” I said. “I’ll fix you on my way out.”  I left the truck, poured the half beer into the dirt, put on my pack, and headed out behind those young men.

Into the Wilderness

The trail crew launched like rockets down the trail, and I didn’t think that I’d see them again, but they were sitting at the entry point to the Sawtooth Wilderness about two miles up. They sat and smoked a bowl beside a sign at the edge of Wilderness.  I said “Hey” trying to sound enormously cool, and talked with them a bit. They told me that their goal for the day was beyond mine; they were going to Plummer Peak, a 9,900 foot mountain, roughly 15 miles up the trail. The altitude where we began the trip was 5,400 feet. It was 4 o’clock.

“That’s ambitious!” I said. But I was thinking: that’s impossible. “Good luck!” I signed into the ledger as proof of my passage and walked by. Soon they marched beyond me, but their dog, call him Young Labrador, hung back to bark ferociously, apparently wanting to regain his sleeping bag. “You lose, Buckwheat!” I whispered to him. “It’s all mine now!” He showed me his rapier-sharp teeth.

I walked five miles and stopped by a grove of turning aspen and Douglas fir trees which made an otherwise parched spot shady and cool.

Emerald pool in the Boise RivierThe nearby river flowed the width of a softball pitch, and just now it had the personality of a chatty creek. Its banks were granite and they squeezed into a serpentine-green slide. The river begged me to stop. So I did. It begged me to fish. So I did. I found it as productive as it was pretty, and I simply had to keep three small fish. Among the trees, not far from the river, I set up my tent and threw my gear inside.  This was a very fine spot to be camping and I took in all of the air with a deep breath.

However, the too-short sleeping bag smelled like wet dog and the sudden pitter-pat of rain on the tent lulled me to sleep, but watered me from below. The smell soon led me into half-waking dreams of a dog howling at my feet and grabbing them in its mouth, growling, shaking madly: The Beast! That mad dog moved through my dreams like swamp gas.

In the morning, after a fish breakfast and drying out the wet tent, I looked up at 9,900 foot Mattingly Peak which rose out of gauzy clouds.  It was as high as Plummer Peak, a dramatic 4,000 feet above me. I watched it for a few moments with the cotton wandering across the wide peak and then I packed up and headed out.

The Middle Fork flowed wildly, cascading out of the high mountains. Now it slowed in a Chokecherriesmeadow. Now columbine and chokecherries grew along the path beside it as the drainage ripened with the changing colors of Autumn. Beavers had been there a few days ago and might come again. Deer, bear, elk, wolves, wolverine were out there somewhere. I knew they were out there somewhere out in these kind woods, but I never saw a single one of them.


One More Confession

Now I have to make a second confession, to bring this trip into a proper perspective: I also forgot my knife. I know, I know, you’re saying: “Your sleeping bag and your knife? Uh, Mike, did you remember your stove, your underpants, socks, food, and your jacket?”  I proudly say “yes” to those and anyway, I didn’t necessarily need underpants, did I?

You ask: “How did you clean the fish and cut the rope to set up that tent?”  Well, you already know that I didn’t forget my tent, right? It was on the far side of damp though. I searched through my backpack for the knife and then sat searching for inspiration. Nothing. I looked for sharp sticks, jagged rocks, arrowheads, and other more primitive things lying about that would allow me to perform tasks like gutting fish. Not a truly sharp thing came to mind or hand so I grumbled and went out fishing and thought: something will rise!

Yes indeed.  Of course, as I already mentioned, the fish did.  Now I had three fish to clean, maybe a decent meal, right?  Maybe. And that’s the way I’ve written it, right?  But there was nothing to clean them with. Did I mention that? No. So I went through my backpack again looking for something that might slice the fish from asshole to gills without ripping the fish apart: corkscrew—naw;  bottle opener, fork—too messy; fishhooks—possible in a pinch; fingers, pencil, pen?—ick, no way, what a mess!

Ah hah, I found my First Aid kit—maybe a razor blade?  Noooo.  Rock, paper, scissors?  I thought about that. Ah yes, there are scissors in the First Aid kit. They would cut bandages or fish and rope—that’s it!  It felt good to be back in the 21th century once again where scissors could beat rocks as a tool. I made a note to myself: make a list of things to bring on every backpacking trip that might be helpful.  Think of TP for instance. Please remember to refill the fuel container once in a while. Bring matches too. On other solo trips I had forgotten each of these. Quit going solo.

Mountains of Gold

A redtail hawk screamed at me from her perch.  “Shaddup. smarty wings,” I screamed. She had none of the needs that I had. I soldiered on and thought about the drive up to Atlanta.  On that drive, I saw mining and landslides and buildings and forest fire scars. This land was changing beside the town, but the river endured.  It cleaned up every mess given time.

mining near AtlantaMining surrounds Atlanta. Naked rocks stacked in piles, defined placer mining from years past. Roads climbed just about every tributary of the Middle Fork near Atlanta giving access to gold and silver mines. They were mostly holes pick-axed and dynamited into the ground.  However, the Atlanta Gold Company, headquartered in Canada, proposed in 2006 to mine two open pits and put $40 million into a cyanide heap-leach project on their patented land. Faced with lawsuits from the Idaho Conservation League and others about that plan, the company backed off and chose to mine underground. So far Atlanta Gold hasn’t produced high quantities of gold in years.

In addition, small-time miners scour streams for gold with lawnmower-sized suction devices and in the process make a mess of fish habitat. Of course not the habitat for steelhead or salmon or lamprey–those had been eliminated years ago by downstream dams on the Snake River–but for the native threatened bull trout (which had been isolated by dams from swmming to the ocean) and rare, uncommonly lovely cutthroat trout. A few of the mines are ragged holes in the ground or have reservoirs to block the flow of tailings downstream–this might work for a few years but not forever.  It will take the diligence on the part of conservationists to block mining in the region and to gain effective protection for fish habitat.

The future of mining in Atlanta will depend upon the price of gold and silver and the price of cleaning up the mines, like the Tolache, Minerva, Atlanta Gold, and Monarch Mines.  The miners must maintain the high quality of water entering the Boise River which affects the safety of human populations and rare species in and around this river. It will also depend upon the price of that most useless of elements, gold, and the desire, the motivation, the greed, and conniving politics from hardrock miners to get to the gold in competition with ardent conservationists fighting for water, plants and animals, as well as their own health. The system of use and protection is defined by competition among advocates, which changes the way the whole world works.

Spangle Lake Beckons

Everywhere change is in process: the leaves fall from aspens, the water grows less forceful day-by-day, the air feels cooler.  Somehow beauty grows.  I felt good to be above mining and human manipulations on the land. It was good to have a nice trail and fish to catch, but upon consideration the trail had to be constructed and maintained by people, people had transplanted fish into the river; the joy of my many gizmos and maps that REI had sold me—all of the things that I had forgotten–and coffee, ah yes, coffee from Costa Rica or Kona or Kenya heated up on my metallic stove fueled by gasoline; these all came from other places: boots were crafted in China, my backpack and aluminum pans originated in some faraway unknown place.

It felt as if all the trappings were loaded on my back and I realized that I couldn’t get away from the production, consumption, and practicality of living in the United States. But here in wilderness I felt free to walk wherever I wanted. Freedom at a price. I guess that’s the price of awareness. I denied the importance of what I didn’t want to see and discounted the privilege of my being here.

No, actually, I’ve never discounted the value in wild places—it is always a privilege to be in this undisturbed and wild land. I’ve seen the price of maintaining places as untrammeled, maintaining all of its birds, mammals, and reptiles, all of the trees and vegetation, all of the insects. A miner once told me that mining will always win when the price of mining an ore goes high enough—“We will get it when the population wants it,” he said.  But today the mountains and streams and trees and wildlife felt eternal, the place sublime and more golden than any ore.

Hiking gave me time to think about what the world is doing to us and we to it: pollution, population growth, fighting for things (fighting, always fighting, always), wanting all of life’s pleasures, seeking youth, time, strength, immortality. Maybe that miner was right. But when I turned around I saw the beauty right there: a sudden Shangra-La, a worldly paradise far away from the hassles of modern life: a gift to all who took the trouble to see, enjoy, and to preserve it. What person could say that the land has less value than the minerals beneath it? Not me.

In the late afternoon I arrived at Spangle Lake.  In the perfect campsite I found my hiking and working friends and Young Labrador laying low. Their presence was marked only by the absence of impacts of other people on the land, an absence that seemed a presence. The three men had cleaned up all of the other the campsites.   I hooted hello to them and went searching for the second best campsite.  I never found that campsite but I found a nice place above Spangle Lake and settled in to mess it up a little.  I caught another few fish and watched the lake darken into night. Spangle Lake delivered what I had thought it might—fish, solitude, fine scenery, reflection, and a natural place to sit in and read and write.  It was alive with sparkles, sparks, in the morning and I guess that is all I wanted: a way to look at our world that pleases my heart and soothes my soul. Bad Assfish

On the next day I caught a 20-inch cutthroat trout in a nearby lake and a dozen or more in lakes beyond the tallest mountains. This cutthroat laid still for me to take one picture before she swished her tail and swam away, annoyed by the shallow water. Her girth was greater than my grip and I felt a fool for letting her go free.  But why had I captured her to begin with?


Spangling Dreams 

Hills are aliveWalking around at the top of the world took me to a place where whitebark pines were lined on a ridge like grave markers. These pines had lived for so many years, hundreds at least, maybe a thousand, that their forms defined their lives: wind and deep snow bent some and they had adapted by growing low. Others appeared to have lived only on the sunny side of the trunk.  A few were stout and straight-growing and seemed to have lived most fully. These whitebarks were sheltered by the environment, protected by boulders, and their fate had deposited them on a warmer, more protected spot in this otherwise harsh environment. At long last, however, drought or disease, or both, brought them to an end.

Another few seemed to be on their last breath with their lives contained in thin strips of bark that barber-poled up the trunk. All of the deaths and near deaths began to settle-in, but as I walked over the ridge, I saw a more remarkable thing: seedlings of whitebark pines grew, toiling from soil with pure happenstance. They were young and didn’t know where they were growing.

Upon returning to Spangle Lake, a pair of ospreys flew above the lake. Quickly, far gone in a spiral updraft, headed out beyond the next ridge with no roughness in the climb. The climb had seemed so endless to me yesterday—the hike was up and up and relentlessly up—so flying looked good at the moment. I also had some notion, however, that climbing in the air might be just as tough as climbing on the ground, but the theory of finding a thermal sounded good. I wanted to glide.

I took the time to move my camp to the best space that the trail crew had last night and the view was stupendous. I slept beautifully, awoke, sucked-up a tank of coffee, packed up, and took out gliding. The same columbine grew in the cool, moist forest in the “V” of the rivercourse and when the view was good it was incomparable.  Maybe, just maybe, my friends would clear the broken, tangled trees, and those nasty, thorny blackberry vines to clear that avalanche run.  Or perhaps they might have my flat tire off and put the new tire on my car when I got back. But if wishes were facts, even hikers could fly like ospreys! I saw the men and their nifty dog on the way down. The men worked hard to clear the path ahead of me and even that damned dog was civil.

The river sashays through what was solid land, rages under weather-making peaks, dodders in an autumn-colored meadow, whispers out of the Wilderness beside predictable humdrum roads, villages, towns, and cities, into reservoirs, canals, laterals, and drains then, eventually, into the Snake River. You ask me what made me come into this bloody Wilderness when there is all of that well-ordered life to enjoy in our human world?

You kidding? Maybe it’s chaos. Maybe it is the inhuman aspect of the place. But I remember the goodness in my new friends (and their damp dog); the disordered brutality and beauty in this disobedient landscape; the stark, blinkless views of Spangle Lake; the silence and vastness of the sky and its blue, blue, saphire-blue, blueness; the hints and tracks of wildlife somewhere out there living in the boondocks that left me wondering about their present existence; there is the inspiration of whitebark pines, fabulous constellations, crags and stalwart mountains, and the river that flows forever, but never runs away.

It’s not chaos that I liked, but the random piece-by-piece connectedness of the wilds, the thinking about, and finding, surprisingly unpredictable but acceptable natural things—hot springs, uplifted mountains, beaver dams and the freakin’ ants–moments of silent inspiration all these seduced me to get out beyond civilization and live for a few days to walk in respect in its beauty.  And I suggest that it may do you good to go there as well. Find some humility. This wilderness is an old friend who always recognizes, welcomes, and judges me simply by what I am.

But soon, as the trail gave way to road, my one flat tire–impossibly unround it remained–waited for me to replace it with a less flawed model, and then the long road unwound, eventually back to scathing civilization to my home in calm, happy, and equivocal Boise.

Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.

An Ode to Eric Bjørnstad (and his trailer)

With Eric, the Trailer Was the Real Show

Eric Bjørnstad (1934–2014)

Cameron M. Burns

We first met Eric Bjørnstad in 1987, after Benny Bach and I had spent a night out on Big Bend Butte. We were driving back into Moab—tired, dehydrated, hungry, and generally frazzled—when we passed a huge rock shop of the north end of town (no longer there). We decided to stop and look around. Inside, rocks were stacked every which way on dozens of shelves, tables, and racks. Hundreds of thousands of rocks. Enough to rebuild the earth.

There was an old guy behind the counter (Lin Ottinger) and we got to chatting (after he asked why we looked like used dish towels on an Alaskan crab boat).

“If you boys have been climbing, you ought to talk to my roommate Eric.”


“Yeah, he’s writing something about desert climbing.”

With directions from Lin, we found Eric and Lin’s trailer a block west of Main Street in Moab, nearly opposite a well-known eatery called the Poplar Place. We knocked on the door and a gruff voice commanded, “Come in.”

We opened the thin metal door and stepped inside.

If you’ve ever seen the television show Sanford and Son, then consider this: Sanford and his young spawn Lamont had the neatest, cleanest establishment for the commerce of junk that the world has ever seen. That is, if you’re standing in Eric and Lin’s mid-1980s trailer.

Inside were books, clothing, blankets, appliances, and a huge range of weird … um, I guess you’d call them “collectibles”—stuff like deer antlers, china tea sets, a javalina skull, a leather-bound flask, a brass trumpet, insulators from electric lines, and a 1930s box camera. You name it, it was there. Plus a few dogs.

And, apparently, a middle-aged man in the back, behind a desk piled high with books. Eric Bjørnstad was coming off a ten-year stint working for Harvard University on an air quality study, and he was busy lacing up a few reports.

We told him Lin had sent us, and we got to talking about climbing, even though we had no idea who he was or what he was doing. After an hour, we left with a promise to meet him—after we’d set up a camp—at the Poplar Place.

We showed up a few hours later.

Eric was at a table in the middle of the room. We immediately recognized the guy sitting to his right as Charlie Fowler (over the years, one of Eric’s closest friends) because we knew Charlie from the People’s Fake Left-wing Republic (Boulder). The other two we didn’t know, but we were soon introduced to Jimmy Dunn and Maureen Gallagher.

Then we started drinking beer. There’s not really much else to report from that evening because—as far as we know—nothing else happened. I do recall that no climbing got done the following day. In fact, no sitting up in the sleeping bags got done….


Then it started. 

Dozens and dozens of, maybe more than a hundred, trips to the desert, nearly all of which involved a visit to Eric’s in one of the five or six places he lived during the last 30-odd years—with Luke, Jon, Jesse, James, Benny, Baker, Takei, Sugarbush (Ann), Leslie, Mel, Bryan, Smith, El Jefe (Widen), Deucey, Singer, Schillaci, Fehlau, Ramro the Skiing Action Figure (JC), Porchdawg (Steve), Rab, Doorish, The Fred, and Charlie and Wee “Jumar” Joe (so called not because he was good with jumars). And a guy we called “Tourist Meat” because he wasn’t a climber (but every trip needs a non-climber to push the action toward the edge).

The best visits came once he got the trailer down on Powerhouse Lane, in which he lived for about 18 years. It was the bomb. The times in it were the bomb. And, in reality, it looked as if someone had bombed it. Sorry to say, when we arrived each weekend, it was basically the same thing.


The trailer, a long, full-sized job, was pure Eric. The front “room,” so to speak, was lined on both sides with shelves and books. The middle of the front room was a square area covered with vomit-yellow shag carpet. In the middle of the shag was a wood-burning fireplace—which in winter was always cranked to a level that would’ve put Guy Fawkes to shame. Windows on that end were those slatted rectangular things, which you can crank open and closed. The glass was, of course, that weird translucent stuff you can’t quite see through.

Step a few feet back, towards the middle of the trailer, and you’d enter Eric’s office. He had a desk propped up against the wall, stacked high with a classic Mac computer (at least 25 years out of date) and dozens of books and articles about desert flora and fauna, desert soils, desert history, Native American beliefs and traditions, poetry, 4WD trails (yup, he consulted a lot of those books because motorheads really do get around), geology, music, and philosophy—there were even a few books about climbing.

To the right of his desk was a two-seater couch (my back told me it was a two-seater after the first of dozens of nights on it). On a ledge above said couch was the TV, a 19-inch color job, continually cranked to Channel 39, also known as the Playboy Channel. (I’d never seen that channel before and after a few visits became convinced that I was a lesbian.)

That was the main front room (about half the trailer).

Walk down the hall going the other way and on your right you’d pass a bathroom, a bedroom that looked like it had been in an avalanche (there was a huge poster in there of a woman’s naked chest with a hexcentric nut holding fast against the cleavage), then the final room, Eric’s, which wasn’t anything to write home about (…but maybe a quick note to OSHA might’ve been in order).


Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.
Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.

Eric wouldn’t mind me giving him a bit of a hard time about his quarters. He and I were tight. Over the past 25 years, we’d nearly always call each other before a Mountainfilm or an AAC meeting or an OR Show, just to see if the other was going. “I know who my allies are,” he used say, followed by a small chuckle.

Truth is, Eric was one of the shyest people you could ever meet. It took him 15 years before he started offering a few quips on the idiotic route names I’d come up with. And as we knew each other longer, the franker we became with each other. We knew our own faults, but backed up by observations from the other, it was a good dressing down into an honest state of humility. I lay prostrate in the desert.


The funny thing about Eric and his trailers (and other homes) was this: they might’ve seemed like the lairs of deranged hermits, and they might’ve needed a good cleaning, but Eric’s ideals and values were anything but aligned with his housing units.

Sure, he had the Playboy Channel on 99 percent of the time, but I rarely saw him look at it (a few buddies and I would stare for days on end—many climbing objectives dropped for a few hours of sun-tanned exercise on the tube). Rather, when interesting sounds issued forth from said device, Eric would crank up the classical music on his Bose radio to try and drown out the heavy breathing. Then he’d dig out a quote by Goethe or Rilke or Heidegger to stick in the end of a chapter on some area of the desert.

I must’ve camped outside the Powerhouse Lane trailer 30 times. Another 20 nights or so were spent on the couch or the shag carpet inside, in a sleeping bag (the shag carpet was filled with slivers of glass from the ornaments Eric used to make; one night, a couple I know even skronked on that carpet!).

Often, on the coldest nights, with the stove blaring heat, Eric would start chopping wood on the carpet next to the stove. It was a sight to behold. Wood chips flying every which way, snapping into old European climbing books worth, I’m guessing, hundreds of dollars.

One day, in about 1992, Eric pulled out a huge collection of aluminum bongs. He handed them to me: “Here. We used these for the Eiger Sanction.”

Eric and Ken Wyrick had rigged the Totem Pole in Monument Valley for the filming of the Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood. He told me the story several times.

I had two take aways: one, Eric and Ken were hanging just out of sight (i.e., over the edge of the summit) during the summit scene with Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy sharing beer, and, two, Clint apparently did most of his own stunts. “If I had $10 million in the bank, I probably wouldn’t have,” Eric noted.

I had no idea what to do with the bongs, but I think they’ll make nice earrings for my youngest daughter when her ears get big enough to support two pounds of aluminum.


Eric might’ve have spent a few nights in his trailer, but his heart and soul were on the road. During the nearly three decades I knew him, he went through a series of vehicles (anyone remember the gray VW truck in the 1980s?), all of which had a common denominator: enough room to kip in the back.

We’d meet him in Arches and camp. Canyonlands, and camp. Mexican Hat, and camp. The Swell. The Fishers. Rover Road. Indian Creek. Colorado National Monument (not to be confused the un-national monument).

Sometimes he’d be making notes for one of his books on desert climbing. Other times he was just looking for company.

When he came to my and Ann’s Boulder wedding in 1994, he slept in the back of his truck, in the Boulderado parking garage. In the morning, he combed his hair, washed his face, and was ready to dance all day with Ann’s Aunt Dolores. They both had shock white hair and made a terrific sight, wheeling about the dance floor like two powdered figures from Marie Antoinette’s court. (Eric never commented on the fact that we’d hired an Elvis impersonator for the gig, but he did smile when I pointed that out.)


In the mid-2000s, Eric moved again, to a pretty bland house in the middle of Moab. He was slowing down, that was obvious. I made several visits to him there, to try and interview him, but the interviews became more and more jumbled, more and more confusing.

Most afternoons he’d drive out to the Colorado River and take up a space on the north side of the river (east of the bridge) on his folding lawn chair while his dogs went swimming. A few years ago, he was taken to a hospice in Moab. He called me several times, and made plans with James Garrett to go visit him, but work and family cancelled those plans. We talked a few times, and just a few days ago, I learned he’d passed.


A lot will be written about Eric in the coming weeks and months. And yes, he was one of the most amazing record-keepers the U.S. climbing scene will likely ever see (Roper was pretty unbelievable, too).  And, yes, his climbs were impressive: Mt Seattle first ascent, Mt Robson first winter ascent, all sorts of interesting routes in the PacNW, and, of course, a dozen big, very cool towers in the desert southwest.

But I submit that a man should be judged by the dogs he keeps.

And Eric always had a dog with him. Often two. Often others, loaners or dogs that needed sitting. I got to know many of them. They had names like Harvard, Queequeg, and Rilke. Thoughtful names, colorful names. Names that had meaning, like Eric himself.

His dogs were all very friendly and all, generally, well behaved. Not one of them ever snarled at a visitor (that I saw), and not one of them barked incessantly. And certainly, none of them ever coiled down a turtle-head indoors.

Eric didn’t feed them exactly the best diet, but they were all clearly happy and healthy, and very well adjusted. I remember using Rilke as a pillow one night at Powerhouse Lane. She didn’t budge all night.

I like to think Eric is with his dogs now, especially Rilke. She seemed to go everywhere with him for years and years, including our wedding. I miss seeing her jump up on the couch next to Eric, get a good scratch behind the ears, then flop down in his lap, totally contented.

Simply put, they are the most fabulous Moab couple I’ve ever known.




Cam Burns is a Colorado-based writer and editor. His latest book is Adventure at High Risk (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). He is currently working on several other books, including a record of his father’s five traverses of the Andes between latitudes 50 and 56 during 1967–68.