Freesoloist Austin Howell Dies in Fall

2 Jul

Free soloing 5.12 was common for Austin Howell. Over the last six years the 31-year-old Lombard, Illinois, resident spent more time climbing without a rope than with one.

“Climbing, to me, has been a path towards peace,” he wrote on his website. “Soloing isn’t just a rare occurrence for me, it’s my way of life.”

Despite his experience, on Sunday, June 30, something went wrong and Howell fell 80 feet to his death from a climb in Linville Gorge, North Carolina, in the remote Pisgah National Forest. It’s unclear at this time what route he was on and whether a hold broke or he simply slipped. The cause of the fall is being investigated by the Forest Service.

Howell often posted videos of his solos on his popular social media accounts and on his website. Usually, he’d be climbing a huge roof of sandstone in the Southeast, swinging from one hold to the next on steep, no-way-to-reverse-a-move routes, his wild straw hair shooting up in the air making him resemble Doc Brown from Back to the Future. He was fond of tie dye t-shirts and newsboy hats. Sometimes, though, he soloed naked, eschewing even climbing shoes and a chalk bag.

He also opened up online about his mental health struggles both on and off the rock. “The most terrifying moment I’ve ever had wasn’t while soloing,” he wrote in a post from April. “It was a long time ago on top of a building, while my mind fought to destroy me … Freesoloing isn’t a death wish, it’s a life wish. It’s the single best therapy I’ve ever found for calming my tumultuous mind. The control that I’ve developed on the wall transfers into my daily life. This is important, because I’m not the guy who ‘beat depression.’ I don’t get to be that guy. I’ve got to manage this for my entire life.” 

In other posts he wrote about his struggles with Bipolar II, a disorder characterized more by depressive states than manic ones. 

“He just had this urge,” his mother, Terri Zinke Jackson, told the Chicago Tribune. “He explained it as feeling his most free and relaxed and comfortable when he was climbing. He fought depression and anxiety, and it almost seemed like it was medicating for him to do it.”

Over the years he’d been injured climbing several times, including breaking his back and his ankles; in 2007 he fell headfirst onto a ledge on the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite, breaking his skull, wrist, and five vertebrae in his neck. 

Howell was born in Friendswood, Texas, a small town outside of Houston. He dropped out of college after studying electrical engineering for two years at the University of Houston and went to work repairing cellphone towers in Atlanta. He moved to Illinois in 2017. 

Through Howell's postings on social media and his website, one friend wrote on his Facebook wall, he “tried to live transparently and struggled openly with demons, showing the way for others who struggle to follow.”

A 10-Year-Old Just Climbed the Nose

14 Jun

Selah Schneiter, ten years old, is small for her age, weighing just 55 pounds and standing four foot two. She loves math and playing guitar and is “silly and plays make believe,” says her mom, Joy. 

She is also the youngest documented person ever to climb the 3,000-foot Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. Selah topped out the famous line at 5:45 P.M. on June 12 after a five-day push with her dad, Mike, and his friend Mark Regier. 

“I was scared just sometimes,” she said at the top. “I thought it was really fun.” 

(Mike Schneiter)

Scott Corey climbed the Nose twice in 2001, when he was 11; Tori Allen climbed it when she was 13, also in 2001. 

Selah, who lives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, has climbing in her blood. Mike and Joy fell in love 15 years ago while climbing El Capitan; when Selah was just eight weeks old they brought her to the Valley, bathing her in a Rubbermaid tub in historic Camp 4. Selah has visited many of the most famous climbing areas in the country and she climbed Independence Monument, a five-pitch 5.8+ tower, on her seventh birthday.

But the Nose is much longer, 31 pitches of free and aid climbing. “Selah’s still learning how to lead trad, but she’s been picking up big-wall skills for quite a while,” Joy said. “I was worried about her capacity to do that much work with such a small body. But I knew that Mike would keep her safe. I’m really proud of her.”

Mike owns Glenwood Climbing Guides, where he teaches ice climbing, sport climbing, and vertical self-rescue. Joy works as a registered nurse at Glenwood Medical Associates. Selah has three younger siblings: Zeke, seven; Sunny, five; and Salome, 17 months. “Zeke’s passionate about climbing and he wants to do the Nose with me next year,” said Joy.

Selah led the first pitch and the bolt traverse that crosses from Texas Flake to Boot Flake. “Overall the leading was fun but a bit scary at times,” she said.

And now, safe at the top? “I want pizza,” she said. “I’ve been dreaming about it forever.”

(Mike Schneiter)

Bodies of Missing Climbers Found on Howse Peak

23 Apr

On Sunday, April 21, the bodies of American Jess Roskelley and Austrians Hansjörg Auer and David Lama—professional climbers and members of The North Face’s Global Athlete Team—were recovered from avalanche debris at the base of 10,810-foot Howse Peak in Canada’s Banff National Park.

The team was climbing M16, a 3,280-foot route on the east face of the peak that was first climbed in 1999 by Barry Blanchard, Scott Backes, and Steve House. The line is considered one of the most difficult in the area.

According to a report by the Roskelley family: “Jess Roskelley’s phone was recovered, and photos indicate the three climbers had reached the summit on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:43 pm and looked to be in absolute joy.”

After the men were reported overdue on Wednesday, April 17, Parks Canada surveyed the area via helicopter, noting, in a release, “signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment.” The avalanche that swept the trio from the face was later classified as a size 3 on Canada’s five-point scale, which means it likely ran for around 3,200 feet and carried 1,100 tons of debris.

An Avalanche Has Reportedly Killed Three Top Alpinists

18 Apr

Earlier this week, American Jess Roskelley and Austrians Hansjörg Auer and David Lama were attempting M16, a difficult climb up the 10,810-foot Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies, about 70 miles from Banff, when a large avalanche swept down the mountain. 

Canadian authorities searched the area via helicopter on Wednesday and found “signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment,” according to a news release. The three alpinists are presumed dead.

“The pain that is felt is indescribable,” wrote the Basque pro climbers and brothers Eneko and Iker Pou in a tweet.

Auer, 35, grew up in a small village in Austria. He was one of the world’s top solo climbers, having free soloed the 37-pitch Fish Route on the south face of Marmolada in the Italian Dolomites (to name just one of his many ropeless climbs).

Roskelley, 36, from Spokane, Washington, was the son of famed American alpinist John Roskelley. The two climbed Everest together when Jess was 20. At the time, Jess was the youngest person to reach the summit of the world’s highest peak. “Jess didn’t like the long expeditions. He wanted to put his skills and focus on lower objectives but much harder,” John told me after the climb. One of those objectives was the 8,500-foot Mount Huntington South Ridge Traverse, which Jess completed with his friend Clint Helander in 2017.

Jess Roskelley (Chris Van Leuven)

David Lama, 28, a former teenage prodigy, was an accomplished all-around climber. He freed the infamous Compressor Route on Cerro Torre and soloed the first ascent of the 22,621-foot peak Lunag Ri in Nepal. Lunag Ri took Lama several attempts, including once when he had to retreat after his partner, Conrad Anker, suffered a heart attack. Anker recovered but decided not to return to the mountain. He gave his blessing to Lama, who returned alone.

The three men were some of the best alpinists in the world and had already climbed many hard routes together this spring, including Andromeda Strain on Mount Andromeda. “This route they were trying to do was first done in 2000,” John Roskelley told the Spokesman-Review, referring to M16. “It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare. This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare.” 

“It’s Bizarro Land”: Joshua Tree Will Remain Open

11 Jan

On Wednesday, the eve of the planned temporary closure of Joshua Tree National Park, the National Park Service did an about-face on California’s Hi Desert Radio Z107.7 FM. “The National Park Service now says the park expects to stay open and all previously closed areas and campgrounds will also be re-opened,” the broadcast said.

The Park Service had initially ordered Joshua Tree to close its gates on Thursday in order to address the ongoing damage to the park during the shutdown—including too much human waste, damage from vehicles off-roading, and cut-down trees. But within 24 hours, the Park Service said it would re-route park entrance fees for park improvements to pay staff and keep Joshua Tree open.

The directive to keep Joshua Tree open likely came from Superintendent David Smith’s bosses, Acting Director of the NPS Paul Daniel Smith (no relation) and Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, according to a ranger who spoke to Outside on condition of anonymity. “Bernhardt is a longtime oil and gas lobbyist,” says the ranger. “He’s quite smart and knows how to keep his fingerprints off things.”

This is the first year parks have remained open during a government shutdown, thanks to a Department of the Interior contingency plan. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding this new protocol—few know who signed the order in the first place or why it was implemented—but it’s reasonable to assume that the Interior didn’t want to close the parks and risk a PR fiasco like the Obama administration faced in 2013. Now, 20 days into the latest shutdown, the Trump administration is facing its own PR crisis, with reports of parks—minus most of their full-time staff—getting trashed by visitors and their poop.

The Interior’s solution to keep the park open during the partial government shutdown is to allocate entrance fee funds to pay the staff. (The House of Natural Resources is investigating whether this is even legal.) “Now, they’re using this money for basic operations like picking up trash, instead of deferred maintenance,” says the ranger. “We were never allowed to use fee money for basic operations. They’re basically dipping into money that may have projects that are already tied to it. If that money isn’t replaced, it won’t be there [in the future].”

The directive to allocate entrance funds to keep Joshua Tree open came as a surprise, says Seth Zaharias, co-owner of Joshua Tree climbing service Cliffhanger Guides, who’s been a local resident for 20 years and spearheaded volunteer clean-up efforts in the park during the shutdown. (When reached for comment, the NPS referred Outside to their press release.) 

And now, thanks to new protocol that requires a day’s notice, a press release, and DOI approval, it will be even harder to close national parks at all. “Any closure of anything now has to be cleared by the Department of the Interior,” the anonymous ranger says. “Before any closures can take place, 24 hours of notice needs to be given to the Department along with a draft of the press release, unless it’s a true emergency.”

He received a memo this week from one of his superiors that read: “Interviews should be avoided during the lapse in appropriations except in cases of safety, emergencies, etc.... Please continue providing information as appropriate in health and safety of parks... will distribute further guidance in the coming days for parks to update basic website alerts and social media updates as there are changes to park accessibility and available services.

“While we know that parks are likely to be asked to speculate if and how this new policy will affect their day to day and long term operations, please do not speculate on these questions.”

“It’s bizarro land. No one has straight-up facts,” says Zaharias. “No one has ever seen anything like this.”

What the Government Shutdown Looks Like in Yosemite

3 Jan

I’ve lived in Yosemite off and on since 1995. From my current home, I can see El Capitan and Half Dome from my front door. And so I’ve had a pretty good view over the past 12 days of just how bad the partial government shutdown has trashed the national park.

December is low season in Yosemite, but the park still gets 3 percent of its visitors during the month, which equates to about 119,000 people. Normally, around 800 National Park Service employees are staffed during the off-season and cater to those visitors. But, according to a friend of mine who works as a ranger, the end of December saw only about 50 Park Service employees—law enforcement, some firefighters, ambulance drivers—accommodating a holiday-weekend level of tourists. 

“We’re low on staff this time of year anyway,” the ranger told me, “so any reduction in staff is noticeable to both the Park Service and visitors.”

Driving the Valley Loop Road last weekend, it felt like peak tourist season: cars overflowing from pullouts, families pouring out of SUVs that have their four-ways on in the middle of the road, guests from all over the world choking up the entrances and exits to the Village Store. Even worse, some trails were covered in used toilet paper, candy wrappers, abandoned clothing, and other trash. 

“There are piles of human shit everywhere,” a friend of mine, also a Yosemite local, wrote on Facebook, quoting another park ranger who wished to remain anonymous. “Gross, but so seriously true. Garbage cans are overflowing until we can get time to pick it up.”

Technically, the park is open and free. And Yosemite has a concession service, which has remained open, allowing visitors a few spots with available facilities. But Park Service options are limited.

The resulting human-waste issues have led to the closure of many places within the park, including Wawona Campground, Hodgdon Meadow Campground, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The visitor centers in the park are also closed. On Wednesday, the park closed daytime access to the south entrance from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M.

“People are screaming about paying their taxes and having rights,” my friend wrote, quoting the ranger. “Keeping parks accessible is reasonable if people can fend for themselves and care for the park themselves, but the large majority can’t. … That is why they hire the National Park Service. To provide a service to the vast majority who don’t know how to be a true steward for their land or don’t care to be. I beg all of you to stay home and not visit your parks until everyone comes back to work. Your experience will be ten thousand times better.”

On January 2, two informal cleanup groups worked at the Four Mile Trailhead, Bridalveil Falls parking area, the Village Store, and Happy Isles, picking up trash, bagging it, and driving it out of the park. Though it has been tragic to watch people trash one of the most beautiful places in the world, it has also been heartwarming to see how our little Valley community has reacted to the mayhem.

This 15-Year-Old Just Free-Climbed the Nose

21 Nov

Over the course of three days starting on November 17, 15-year-old Connor Herson freed the Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan, a sweeping polished line of piton scarred cracks and face climbing, with the support of his father, Jim.

Thousands of teams have aid-climbed the Nose over the years, but a free ascent—where gear is used for protection but not for upward progression—is extremely rare. Connor’s ascent marks the sixth overall, and by far the youngest, free ascent of the line.

Freeing the Nose is difficult because of its 3,000-foot length and steepness. Two cryptic sections make up the crux. The Great Roof, pitch number 21 of 31, requires shoving one’s fingertips under the bottom of a 20-foot right-traversing feature. This vertical section offers few footholds, forcing the climber to paste the front of their climbing shoes onto fingernail edges on the face. The even more difficult Changing Corners comes a few pitches higher, where the wall steepens and where many of the world’s best climbers have failed. Lynn Hill, who in 1993 became the first person to free climb the Nose, named the sequence required to get through here “the Houdini.”

Tommy Caldwell and his then wife Beth Rodden became the second and third to free the Nose when they completed it in 2005.

Connor’s father, Jim, is a robotics engineer out of Silicon Valley with 30 years of experience climbing big walls in Yosemite. He’s held speed records on both El Cap (including the Nose) and the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome. He’s also freed El Cap’s Salathé Wall (but not in a continuous push). Connor’s mother, Anne Smith, is also a climber and works as a software engineering manager. Connor’s sister Kara, 20, also climbs and did Half Dome in a day with her father in winter at age 12 and the Nose in a day at age 14.

Kara and Connor’s first big wall was the 2,000-foot-tall Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome, which they climbed with their father before they were teenagers.

Connor’s free ascent of the Nose with his father’s help was bittersweet. The two dedicated the climb to their friends Tim Klein and Jason Wells, who died earlier this year in an accident on El Cap.

“Here we are at the top of the Captain,” says Jim, off camera, in a phone video he recorded at the top. “Connor, what did you just do?”

“I just freed the Nose,” Connor says, a bit bashfully.

“Good job, man,” Jim says. “Was it hard? Was it fun?”

“Yeah,” Connor says, “it’s a good route.”

Alone and Stranded on Latok I

29 Aug

By July 25, Alexander Gukov and Sergey Glazunov had been on Latok I for 14 days. The Russian climbers had brought just five days’ worth of food for their final push on the 23,440-foot peak in central Pakistan, and their rations were nearly gone. They were attempting the North Ridge, an 8,200-foot sharp fin of rock and ice that rises up from the glacier below. But as increasingly bad weather moved in, the men were making a hasty retreat down the mountain.

Glazunov was in the lead, rappelling the wall they had climbed just days earlier, building their next anchor, and waiting for Gukov to follow him down before pulling the ropes and repeating the process all over again.

In 1978, Americans Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy, and cousins George and Jeff Lowe made the first attempt on Latok I’s North Ridge. They spent 21 days on the route before being forced back just 500 feet shy of the summit, but their expedition had become one of alpine climbing’s most enduring sagas. In the years since, there had been more than two dozen attempts on the line; none of the parties had made it farther than the Americans’ high point. Adding to the allure, the mountain had been summited just once, from any direction, by a Japanese team in 1979.

Gukov, a blue-eyed 42-year-old from Saint Petersburg, Russia, was fascinated by the line’s complicated, ever-changing terrain. He made his first attempt on the North Ridge in 2017, with two other Russian climbers, Anton Kashevnik and Valery Shamalo. The team got as high as 22,000 feet before being forced to turn around. “We would have done it,” Gukov later wrote in the American Alpine Journal. “I’m certain, but the weather was constantly against us…It snowed for all but two days of our 15-day attempt.” Conditions during the descent were treacherous, and both Kashevnik and Shamalo lost a few toes to frostbite. “Though we didn’t summit, I’m confident I have a good chance next time,” Gukov wrote.

At just 26 years old, Glazunov was already an accomplished alpinist and a fitting partner for Gukov’s next attempt. Glazunov worked as a climbing guide and coach in his hometown of Irkutsk, a city in eastern Siberia, and was one of the strongest climbers in Russia. He and his brother, Evgeniy, had ticked off a long list of first ascents in Kyrgyzstan and their home country.

Gukov and Glazunov arrived at the foot of Latok I on July 1 with fellow Russian climbers Victor Koval, Konstantin Markevich, and Alexander Parfenov, who were attempting another line on the mountain. The team pitched their tents on the dirt platforms hacked into the hillside on the edge of the Choktoi glacier moraine, the iconic ridgeline looming above them. Shortly before they arrived, a team from Korea had packed up and left because of extreme avalanche danger.

On July 12, Gukov and Glazunov started up the ridge. Every day or so, they sent updates on their progress to their friend Anna Piunova, editor of the climbing website Their Iridium satellite messenger limited communication to 160 characters at a time, so they wrote in simple, clipped sentences:

“Overnight stay at 5512m. Everything Ok.”

“Leaving our heavy st[u]ff. Taking food for 5 days.”

“All day was climbing vertical snow mushrooms. Stop for overnight, everything Ok.”

On July 20, Koval’s team turned back. “On our route to the right side of north ridge,” he wrote. “Not safe conditions.” Rocks rained down all around them. Markevich was struck in the head and chest, shattering his helmet and one of his ribs. Small avalanches swept down the face. Meanwhile, Gukov and Glazunov pressed on.

“Wether [sic] get better,” Gukov wrote. “Steep wall in the front. Tomorrow depended on weather.” The batteries on the Iridium dwindled, and communication was reduced to the necessities.

On July 23, during yet another spell of bad weather, Glazunov led a pitch to what he thought was the summit. “It’s Latok I,” he shouted down to Gukov. “This is unreal. Everything is covered with snow mushrooms.” But his perch was precarious, so Gukov stayed a rope length below. The weather worsened, and the two men began their retreat.

As they descended, Gukov became convinced that they had only reached the western summit, a couple hundred feet lower than the true summit. Still, all things considered, the expedition was a success—they had, after all, become the first party to climb the entire ridge.

Neither Koval nor Piunnova had heard from the men in days, and Koval was worried. He called for a military helicopter to check on them. On July 25, the pilot spotted them rappelling down the ridge at 21,980 feet and dropped a bit of extra food and fuel, which Glazunov somehow caught out of the air. Everything seemed okay.

The men continued down the mountain, with Glazunov leading the way. At 21,300 feet, Gukov stood on a small ledge; Glazunov was out of sight below. The taut rope holding Glazunov went slack as he busied himself building the next anchor. Normally, it only took him a couple minutes to construct a rappel station, but this one seemed to be taking longer than usual.

Gukov yelled down to his partner but got no reply. A few moments later, he yelled again, but all he could hear was the wind whipping across the ridge. Ten minutes passed, then 30, and still nothing. Gukov placed an ice screw—his last—and rappelled down to look for Glazunov, but there was no sign of him, just a rope attached to a single piton hammered poorly into the rock. Gukov didn’t know what happened—Glazunov could have slipped while he was transferring his weight to the next anchor—but he did know that Glazunov had nearly the entire climbing rack, including all the supplies needed to continue retreating down the ridge.

He looked through his pack, assessing his gear: one small tent, a stove with fuel, a down sleeping bag, a water bottle, what was left of the chocolate bars the pilot had dropped off the day before, and the Iridium satellite messenger—with only 2 percent battery power remaining.

He quickly hit the SOS button and typed out a note to Piunova: “I NEED HELP. EVACUATION REQUIRED. Sergey fell. I’m hanging with out any gear.

In Moscow, Piunova received Gukov’s message at 12:24 p.m. and immediately called the Russian embassy in Islamabad. She knew there were two ways to save Gukov, and both required something she couldn’t organize on her own: a helicopter.

The preferred method was a long-line rescue. To execute that approach, a helicopter would need to fly in close to Gukov while dangling a nearly 100-foot length of high-strength rope fitted with a D-ring on the end. Gukov would need to grab the rope and clip it to his harness before being hoisted to safety. The second option was dropping other experienced climbers near Gukov with the supplies to help him descend the rest of the ridge. This technique had worked earlier in the year on nearby Nanga Parbat, when Adam Bielecki, Denis Urubko, Piotr Tomala, and Jarosław Botor came to the aid of French climber Elisabeth Revol. But it also had the potential of putting even more people in harm’s way.

The ambassador’s assistant, Vladimir Victorovich Zaicev, quickly arranged for two Écureuil AS350 B3 helicopters to launch from Skardu, a town of 500,000 about 45 miles to the south of the mountain. The B3s were the helicopter of choice for Pakistan’s 5th Army High Altitude Aviation Squadron, who would be leading the rescue. But high winds and low visibility prevented them from getting close to Gukov.

Helicopters can’t fly anywhere, let alone at high altitude in big mountains, when visibility is low. Despite Piunova and Koval’s urgency, the rescue operation proceeded along a stutter-stepping trajectory. Day after day, when the weather allowed a helicopter to take off, it would invariably hit conditions that forced it back long before getting to Gukov. On one flight, a pilot thought he spotted Glazunov’s body near the bottom of the mountain, but a closer look at a few photos he snapped showed it to be an empty sleeping bag.

Eight inches of new snow fell high on the mountain, which meant that even if they could get a helicopter close enough to Gukov to attempt a rescue, the resulting wind from the blades might trigger an avalanche.

After Glazunov disappeared, Gukov carefully made his way to a perch the size of a dinner table at 20,650 feet and set up his tiny orange tent. His stove allowed him to melt snow for water, but he was soon out of food. He began to weaken. A seemingly constant stream of avalanches fell on his tent. The cold made it difficult for him to use his hands.

Gukov started to hallucinate—twinkling snowflakes and faraway landscapes flittered in and out of his vision. 

Desperation began to show in his messages to Piunova: “Bad mood: shitty weather. Nobody will save me… Fuck [this] situation. Where [are] all these avalanches coming from? Can’t make any water…[but] Was able to [find] half of the Snickers bar and [a] little water…”

Then his sat phone died.

“Mountain clearing out. We can see [to] 6300m,” Koval wrote to Piunova on July 30. The next day, two B3s launched from Skardu at 4:45 am.

After more than six days alone on the ridge, Gukov’s tent was buried underneath the snow, and it took nearly an hour for the pilots to locate him on the massive ridgeline. The High Altitude Aviation Squadron had settled on the long-line technique, and two of their helicopters worked in tandem, hovering above the North Ridge. The chopper in front maneuvered the long line toward Gukov while the chopper in back worked as a spotter, relaying directions to the other pilot over the radio: left, right, down, up. The pilots needed to be precise. If the long line snagged on an outcropping of rock, it could bring the entire helicopter down.

For five minutes, the pilots finessed the line back and forth over the ridge while the depleted Gukov grasped for it. Finally he held it tight and clipped in. The helicopter began its descent with Gukov dangling in the wind.

After so many days at altitude, Gukov’s brain had started to swell. One of the climbers at base camp administered dexamethasone, a corticosteroid used to treat acute mountain sickness.


Gukov was evacuated to a military hospital in Skardu and then transferred the next morning to a hospital in Islamabad. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and near starvation. His feet were racked with frostbite, but luckily the swelling in his brain had gone down and his condition was slowly starting to stabilize. His relief at finally being off the ridge was tempered by the memory of his partner. “We tried with my friend,” Gukov told a reporter from RT, an English-language news site based in Russia. “He [was] a young but brave man, 26 years old.”

Gukov forced a smile as he looked up at the camera and spoke briefly about his time stranded on the ridge. “For seven days, every day, I have more and more hallucination dreams where everything is finished and I am at home, I am with my friends. But every morning when I wake, open my eyes, I saw that I am in the same position.”

A nurse tended to the frostbite on his hands with a towelette. Gukov’s feet were wrapped in white bandages and propped under a heat lamp. After the interview, another nurse wheeled him into the hallway, where a woman and two small children handed him a bouquet of flowers.

The scene seemed staged for the cameras, and he awkwardly nodded his head at the woman. But it didn’t matter. Gukov was going home.

Climber Tom Frost Dies

24 Aug

On August 24, legendary climber Tom Frost lost his short battle with cancer at a hospice near his home in Oakdale, California. Frost, who was 81, was a Yosemite pioneer in the 1960s, and established some of the most famous routes in the Valley while climbing with Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard, and others.

“Tom proved a great example of how to do it right,” said Alex Honnold. “He was a high-end climber who had a balanced family and work life. What a legend. Hopefully he’s satisfied with the life he lived—certainly the rest of us are inspired by it.”

Born in Hollywood in 1937, Frost attended Stanford University where he studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 1958. It was there that he discovered climbing through the school’s Alpine Club. In the 1960s Frost was one of the major players during a period of rapid change and innovation in Yosemite known as the Golden Age. After college, Frost met Robbins at Mount Pacifico in Southern California. Robbins invited him to climb in Yosemite Valley and make the second ascent of the Nose route on El Capitan with Joe Fitschen in 1960. A year later, Frost and Robbins partnered with Chuck Pratt to author El Cap’s second route, the Salathé Wall. In 1964, that trio teamed up with Yvon Chouinard to establish El Cap’s North America Wall, the most difficult route in the world at the time. Frost’s images from these ascents, shot with his Leica camera, are some of the most important and recognizable in American climbing history.

Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost (From the Royal Robbins Collection)

During the 1960s and '70s Frost applied his engineering and design skills with Chouinard at Great Pacific Ironworks, the precursor to Patagonia. He invented the postage stamp sized piton called a RURP, and he designed the stoppers and hexes that came out in the groundbreaking 1972 Chouinard Cataloge. In 1980, he and his then-wife Dorene became founders of Chimera, which made cutting-edge lighting fixtures for the film and photography industry. Frost worked as a designer. They adopted a daughter, Marna, and later had another child of their own, Ryan.

After the Yosemite floods of 1997 and during the reconstruction process that included plans to impact the climber’s campground Camp 4, Frost spearheaded an initiative that successfully protected it and got it added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was also during this time that Frost married his second wife, Joyce, and eventually settled in Oakdale.

“He was a renaissance man from top to bottom,” Joyce said, “and he’s been an extraordinary partner for me. He’s shown me that the best thing you can do is live your life well. The gifts I’ve been given from Tom are immeasurable. I’m very happy, no regrets.”

Twenty years ago Tom and I met up in Yosemite and became friends. Over the years and up to his death he shared countless stories with me. He and I talked about far more than climbing and he often gave me advice on my love life. Many times he carefully crafted stoppers in his garage while my friends and I watched, and then he gave them to us. “How you do anything,” he’d often say, “is how you do everything.”


Russian Mountaineer Stuck on Peak in Karakoram

26 Jul

Russian climber Alexander Gukov is trapped at 20,000 feet on Latok I, a 23,442-foot peak in the Karakoram range of Pakistan. Yesterday, July 25, Gukov and his partner Sergey Glazunov, began retreating down the mountain, having climbed to within 600 feet of the summit. Glazunov was rappelling while carrying the two climbers’ equipment, but something went wrong and he rappelled off the end of his rope, falling to his death.

Gukov is still on the mountain, but lacks the appropriate gear to descend, reports Anna Piunova, editor of A helicopter is on its way to attempt to retrieve him. It’s currently midnight in Pakistan and the rescue efforts will continue in the morning.

The North Ridge of Latok I is the grand prize of high altitude mountaineering—the route has yet to be completed, despite decades of attempts. Gukov and Glazunov’s high point of 22,884 feet is the highest any team has made it since Jim Donini, Jeff Lowe, Michael Kennedy, and George Lowe spent 26 days on the face in 1978. Kennedy and his team made it to within 300 to 400 feet of the summit plateau when Lowe became seriously sick, forcing the team to retreat. More than 30 teams have attempted the peak since.

In 2015, Gukov was awarded mountaineering’s most prestigious award, the Piolet d’Or, for his and fellow Russian climber Aleksey Lonchinsky’s ascent of the Southwest Face of Thamserku via their route “Shy Girl,” a 6,200-foot route in the Eastern Himalaya.

At the time of yesterday’s accident, the Russians had stretched their five-day supply of food for 14 days. According to Planet Mountain, after Gukov sent out his SOS, several climbers volunteered to help: “Poland’s Adam Bielecki and Andrzej Bargiel and Germany’s David Göttler all offered to join the rescue operation. Bargiel is currently at Skardu and Bielecki and Göttler are both in Gasherbrum II base camp, and as we write a helicopter attempted but failed to reach them in order to transport them to Latok I Base Camp. Weather conditions are unfortunately far from ideal.”

The forecast shows bad weather for the next three days, which, Donini says, “will reduce fly opportunities quite a bit.”