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Tim Cahill on a Modest Montana Peak
On a bright summer day sometime next August, I'll walk out my front door and make for Livingston Peak, the modest mountain that is framed between the willows I planted just so on my front lawn 15 years ago. On the day of my summit assault, I'll stroll five blocks due east along Livingston's sidewalk to the Yellowstone River, where I'll take off my boots, stash them in my day pack, and put on my sandals. Then I'll swim the river, which is probably 150 yards [137 meters] across at that point. The far banks are mostly pasture and hay fields giving way to national forest.
Once I've traded sandals for boots, I'll head cross-country over prickly pear cactus on the treeless flanks of the mountain, making my way past the locally famous archaeological dig that has yielded evidence of more than 9,000 years of continuous human habitation in the area.
Before long, I'll catch the Forest Service road and walk a little more than five miles [eight kilometers] to the trailhead. It will be about three more hours to the summit from there. The last several hundred feet will be steep: I'll take five steps, stop, five more, and so on. But I've done this many times before, and I know that, in the fullness of time, I'll stand on the summit, 9,314 feet [2,839 meters] above sea level.
It'll be just like climbing Mount Everest, minus about 20,000 feet [6,096 meters]. More to the point, it'll be 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] above my house.
There'll be no dillydallying on the summit, no opening of the glass jar to read the names of Boy Scouts and others who have recently summited. There will just be time for lunch, an epiphany or two, and maybe, if the weather is fine, a brief nap.
This unpretentious peak is not the highest peak in the Absaroka Range, and it is not even the highest mountain in the county. But Livingston Peak marks the collision of high prairie and mountain.
The prairie and its river bottoms are the land of deer and antelope, and bison now departed. Above, the slopes are heavily timbered, and they run fast with glittering trout streams. There are moose and bear and mountain lions and, just now, after a brief absence, wolves.
I like the sudden conjunction of mountain and prairie, and think that this enjoyment is a universal human trait. The archaeology around here is precisely what you'd expect: Find a nice camping site with running water and a view to the distance, and you will find artifacts in the soil. Humans need the reassurance of vast spaces and long views.
I think our concept of the beauty of great distance may actually have a basis in function. In bison country, for instance, a camp on the slopes of a peak overlooking the prairie gave the early inhabitants a view of their grocery store. There was also a military advantage to a camp high up, near the trees.
Most of us today are neither hunters nor warriors. But the old necessities still please us past the point of joy. Screw the superlatives: People didn't make their homes on the highest peaks in the range. They lived where providence and panorama sent the soul soaring.
I'll grapple with that thought on the summit, and then turn and walk down the mountain, swim across the river, and be home before dark.
Get 49 more perfect placesand a pull-out mapin the November 2002 issue of Adventure.
Forum: Your Secret Spots in Our Favorite Parks
Where do you find personal space in U.S. national parks?
Little Sister, Big Mountain
Climbing the Himalaya's Cho Oyu
The mountain is called Cho Oyu. It's the sixth highest peak in the world, 26,906 feet above sea level. This converts to 8,201 meters, meaning that Cho Oyu, which straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet, is one of the 14 members of the much obsessed upon and much mythologized 8,000-meter-peak club.
The four of us who attempted to climb Cho Oyu last fall included a photographer from Boulder, Colorado, named Beth Wald; my younger sister and only sibling, Diana Finkel; Diana's long-time boyfriend, Ben Woodbeck; and me. I went to the mountain for only one reason: My sister was going to the mountain.
* * * *The decision to attempt such a mountain was not made lightly. It really couldn't be. Climbing an 8,000-meter [26,248-foot] peak is both expensive and dangerous. With all the permits, fees, and guides to pay, even the most economical trips can cost in excess of [U.S.] $6,000 per person; an Everest climb can easily exceed $60,000 each.
Despite the media-generated impression of crowds up high, climbing an 8,000-meter mountain is not a common pursuit. From 1950, when the first of the 14 was climbedAnnapurna, in central Nepaluntil the day of our departure, fewer than 3,000 men and 200 women had ever summited an 8,000-meter peak. This includes Mount Everest. At the same time, about 600 people have died, which means that for every five climbers who have reached an 8,000-meter summit, there has been one death.
Diana discovered, after a bit of research, that of the 200 or so women to reach the top of an 8,000-meter [26,248-foot] mountain, not one had done so with a brother. None of the men, therefore, had summited with a sister. We could attempt to become the first brother-and-sister team ever to climb an 8,000-meter peak. This fact thrilled uswe could be the Hillary and Norgay of sibling alpinists!and, at the same time, pretty much convinced our parents that they would lose both their children in one fell swoop.
Our own concerns, at least initially, were less about danger than about finances. Here, though, we had a piece of luck: Shrewdly playing the brother-sister first-ascent angle, we applied for and won a $25,000 grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council. None of the four of us had ever attempted an 8,000-meter peak, and only Beth had previously even seen the Himalaya, so we also paid for a guide and a two-person support crew, whom we met up with in Kathmandu. The expedition's total cost came to $61,915.
We chose Cho Oyu for several reasons. Most significantly, it is considered one of the least dangerous 8,000-meter peaks (one death for every 36 summiters). It's about as popular to climb as Everest, and there was no way we were going to try Everest on our first trip to the Himalaya, though other people have. Also, Diana and I wanted to climb without oxygenwe were both attracted to the purer challenge of going on our own lung power, succeed or failand Cho Oyu, which is 2,100 feet [640 meters] shorter than Everest, is demanding but feasible without oxygen. And so Cho Oyu it was.
Get the full story in the November 2002 issue of Adventure.
He Said, She Said: Author and Sister Speak
Michael and Diana Finkel give both sides of their story in audio interviews.
Turkey's Electric River
Andreas will tell you that the waves in Chocolate Thunder measured 10 to 12 feet [3.7 meters] high, but those of us who saw them from the water know better. They were 16 feet [5 meters], maybe 18 [5.5 meters]bigger than our raft. The sort of waves you meet in an ocean, not a river. They were massive and muddy and unyielding, and they thrust our raft into the sky until it stood on one edge. Then they let us passhumbled, in a tangle on the floor, missing a paddle but right side up.
Chocolate Thunder is just one of the big rapids on a big river that has little name recognition in the United States. Yet the Çoruh, in northeastern Turkey, has a lofty pedigree. It has attracted the attention of the world's best rafters, as well as its most ambitious hydroelectric engineersthough for now it remains undammed.
The Çoruh was first run in 1978 by Richard Bangs, the rafting legend and Mountain Travel Sobek founder who also pioneered runs down Africa's Zambezi and Blue Nile and Chile's Bío-Bío. Next came überguide Skip Horner, who led the first commercial descent of the Çoruh in 1982 and who later famously led multiple clients up the Seven Summits. He called the Çoruh "one of the hairiest, most challenging runs of my 30-year career."
In 1993 the white-water world championships were held here. The Çoruh is a Class V classic on a grand scale: high-volume, unrelenting, and fast. It drops 50 feet [15 meters] per mile [1.6 kilometer] in one long sectionabout five times the rate of the Colorado River through the rapids of the Grand Canyon.
In Oregon, where I grew up rafting and later worked as a white-water guide, I enjoyed wilderness rivers above all else; the fewer traces of humanity, the better. The Çoruh, in contrast, is rife with signs of civilization: thousand-year-old Georgian churches and riverside citadels, rickety suspension bridges and villages of simple timber-walled homes clustered on arid hillsides. Along the Çoruh you see not only countryside but a country.
* * * *On the last morning of our three-day trip, we awoke in a green meadow, shaded by cherry trees and tall, willowlike kavaks. The air was calm, the sun warm. And I was nervous. The Çoruh saves its most ferocious water for the end. Just downstream was the beginning of the Yusufeli Gorge, five miles [eight kilometers] of back-to-back rapids that include seven named Class IVs and Vs. I wore a wet suit under my life jacket and offered the front seat to Cem Kitapci, a brave soul from Istanbul.
We paddled hard. But after riding a set of compression waves into King Kong, the ugliest rapid of them all, we dropped violently down an unexpected pour-over. The reversal behind it stopped us, spun us, and sucked four of us from the raft. Underwater, I was disorientedI'd come up underneath the boat. Circulated by the hydraulics, I crashed into another paddler and banged my knees against rocks. When I opened my eyes, I saw only air bubbles in the brown current. I used my hands to walk myself to the edge of the raft. I held my breath. After 20 seconds, I surfaced and pulled myself in.
Above, all was chaos: Paddles were floating by, people were trying to climb in, and we were drifting backward, rudderless, while Chris tossed a rescue rope. His target was a usually jovial Bavarian named Andreas Weiss, who was getting dunked by hole after hole. Half a minute passed before Andreas was pulled in, and while he heaved and coughed up water, Chris screamed, "We've got to make this eddy! We've got to make this eddy!"
Those of us who still had paddles struggled to reach the slack water, just yards from the head of the next rapid. I jumped into the waist-deep Çoruh and held the boat. Chris helped Andreas, who wasn't in the mood for more paddling, up a terraced hill to the nearby road. And that's how Andreas came to see the remaining rapidsincluding Chocolate Thunderfrom our support vehicle while the rest of us paddled through.
Get the full story in the November 2002 issue of Adventure.
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