Williamson Rock, SoCal’s Premier Crag, Might Reopen

23 Aug

The cliffs of Williamson Rock are a sport climber’s dream. Located in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the highly featured granitic rock offers around 225 routes, ranging in difficulty from 5.6 to 5.13, and its east-facing, high-elevation position keeps the crag shady and cool on most days.

Since 2005, the area has been closed to hikers and climbers after the discovery of an endangered mountain yellow-legged frog population. But at the end of July, the Forest Service completed a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement, which proposes a compromise between climbers and conservationists, allowing access to most of the area’s cliffs while keeping routes in or adjacent to frog habitat in Little Rock Creek closed. The proposal would also reopen a 7.8-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail. (Hikers have had to take either a 20-mile detour or a shorter but more dangerous detour along a highway.) The change could come as early as next year. And as is the case with most good compromises, both sides are a little unhappy.

Climbing at Williamson Rock started in the 1960s and blew up in the 1990s—long before it became part of a national monument in 2014—a time when sport climbing was taking off in popularity nationwide. In that time, Williamson Rock became Southern California’s premier sport crag, according to the Access Fund, a rock climbing advocacy organization. “There would be times when the entire mountain road would be lined with cars,” says Troy Mayr, a photographer and business consultant who developed routes and guidebooks for the area. “On a busy weekend, there would literally be hundreds of people.”

Thirteen years ago, only five mountain yellow-legged frogs were believed to be left in Little Rock Creek. The Forest Service closed the area for a year to assess the needs of the frogs and because officials worried climbers and hikers might trample in and around the waters where the frogs lay eggs. After the yearlong ban ended, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service to renew the closure, arguing that the agency’s management plan was not in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. The Access Fund joined the fray, and for more than a decade the three have been arguing over whether people should be allowed in the area and what protection should look like for the mountain yellow-legged frog.

Since the amphibian’s listing, in 2002, officials have installed fish barriers in the creek and removed nonnative trout, which were preying on the frogs. Thanks in large part to these hands-on federal efforts, biologists counted 134 frogs in 2016. And while that’s an improvement, it’s still not a victory. “The population’s still very much in danger,” says Jose Henriquez-Santos, a Forest Service landscape architect in charge of a team of specialists analyzing options at the site.

In its recent draft environmental impact statement, the Forest Service recommends balancing the needs of wildlife and recreation. It’s just one of several possible options, and before any decision is made, official have opened a 45-day comment period ending September 10. If the plan goes through, it would allow Williamson Rock to open to 90 climbers per day between August 1 and November 15 each year. The closure time frame covers the nesting season of peregrine falcons (also found on the site), as well as an existing yearly winter road closure. Going forward, the dates could change depending on how the frogs react to visitors. If the population tanks, the full closure would resume. But if the frogs recover, the Forest Service could allow more people in each day.

As for hikers on the nearby PCT, the Forest Service plans to build a bridge over the habitat so the frogs are left undisturbed and so people don’t have to make a long detour.

“What we’re proposing is groundbreaking for our forests,” Henriquez-Santos says.

Erik Murdock, policy director at the Access Fund, generally agrees with this approach but worries it’s still too inflexible. For example, he says that despite the annual weather-related road closure on November 16, the pavement leading up to Williamson Rock has rarely iced over in recent years, but a hard rule keeps climbers out no matter the road conditions. Murdock is also concerned that this temporary plan will become permanent because of “bureaucratic stagnancy” and a lack of funds needed to implement monitoring. He says that “snow should dictate when the road closes, raptor nesting behavior should determine when and where raptor closures are implemented, and frog habitat should determine when and where climbers and hikers can walk.”

The Access Fund is also concerned about the point system proposed by the Forest Service. In it, visitor violations—such as littering, trampling vegetation, or entering closed areas—accrue points depending on severity. If the number hits 100 in a season, Williamson Rock will be closed for the year. Katie Goodwin, the organization’s public lands associate, says this first-of-its-kind system is redundant since Forest Service staff will be on-site issuing citations. “Climbers could be implicated or punished for other user groups doing something,” she says.

The Center for Biological Diversity, meanwhile, would still rather see a full closure until the frog is moved to threatened status, a step down from endangered, according to senior scientist Ileene Anderson. She also expressed doubts about the Forest Service’s ability to pay for new staff needed to manage and enforce the restrictions. “I’m dubious about their capacity to fulfill these obligations that they’re proposing,” Anderson says. “That can potentially be a disservice to the recovery of the frog. So why not just wait until we can get a better population of frogs across the range?”

Still, others believe that allowing some recreation to occur is important. Mayr, the photographer who developed early guidebooks for the area, argues that access is crucial to stoking interest in protecting nature. “If you lock [a resource] up in an ivory tower, people aren’t going to know what the resource is that they’re protecting,” he says.

After the draft statement’s comment period is over, the Forest Service will prepare a document that lays out its final decision. There will be another 45-day period to object, but if approved, the plan could be put into action as soon as 2019—although, since the plan includes the construction of a bridge, the Forest Service says it’s likely the crag would not officially open until 2020.

If a compromise can’t be reached between climbers and environmentalists, it’s possible that Williamson Rock could be caught in a legal fight and stay closed for years or longer. Hopefully, Henriquez-Santos says, that can be avoided. “If we could find a happy medium,” he says, “we’ll be better for it.”

Plane Crash Near Denali Killed Four—Fifth Presumed Dead

9 Aug

Denali National Park staff are “coordinating search and recovery operations” for a flightseeing plane that crashed Saturday at Thunder Mountain, according to a statement released yesterday. NPS and National Transportation Safety Board officials hope to fly out to the site today, but bad weather may postpone recovery and investigation of the wreckage. In addition, the plane is located on dangerous terrain.

“[The plane] is on a hanging glacier, and the nose of the aircraft is embedded in a crevasse,” says Katherine Belcher, a spokeswoman for the park. “They need time on the ground to investigate, and unfortunately that location makes putting bodies on the ground incredibly difficult.”

The plane, operated by K2 Aviation, crashed Saturday evening, 14 miles southwest of Denali’s summit in a mountainside crevasse at an elevation of 10,900 feet. The pilot, Craig Layson of Saline, Michigan, who had spent his last two summers in Alaska, made two satellite calls soon after, reporting injuries. According to pilots in the area, it was cloudy but relatively calm earlier in the day, but heavier clouds moved in later in the afternoon and evening. Saturday and Sunday, officials patrolled the area via helicopter but were unable to see the wreckage due to cloud cover.

On Monday, search and rescue rangers reached the crash during a brief period of clear weather. A ranger was lowered to the plane from a helicopter and proceeded to dig through the snow. He found four bodies, and no footprints or other signs that the any of the passengers made it out of the plane. The fifth passenger is “unaccounted for and presumed dead,” according to park officials.

Craig Layson
The plane's pilot, Craig Layson (Courtesy K2 Aviation)

The four passengers on the flightseeing tour were from Poland. The Polish Consulate in Los Angeles has requested that their names not be shared.

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board told the Washington Post that accessing the site will “require technical climbing experience.” More crevasses tend to appear with summer snow melt, according to Jason Martin, director of operations for the American Alpine Institute.

The last fatal air taxi crash in the park was in 2003, according to Belcher. At that time, a Cessna crashed in South Hunter Pass, killing the pilot and three passengers, according to the Anchorage Daily News. In 2000, pilot and dog musher Don Bowers and three rangers died in a crash near Yentna Glacier.

Watch Andrzej Bargiel Make the First Ski Descent of K2

24 Jul

On Sunday, Andrzej Bargiel of Poland made the first full ski descent of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

Bargiel, 30, started his ascent Thursday, climbing via the Cesen Route without the use of supplemental oxygen. Up to Camp 3, he was supported by a team of fellow Polish mountaineers—including his brother Bartek—and Sherpas. He left Camp 3 alone at 4 a.m. local time Sunday and reached the summit at 11:30 a.m. He then unstrapped his skis from his pack and descended the hazardous and steep southern face to base camp using a mixture of routes to navigate the 28,251-foot mountain’s massive ice blocks and crevasses.

“It’s a very technical descent, leading down the middle of the face, so I’m very happy it turned out well,” Bargiel told CNN. “I’m glad I don’t have to come back.”

It was Bargiel’s second attempt to ski down the mountain. He had to abandon his first attempt last year due to high avalanche and rockfall risk.

K2 is considered to be the world’s most dangerous mountain due to the technical difficulty of climbing it. While over 4,000 people have summited Everest, fewer than 350 have topped K2. Efforts to ski down the mountain in the past have resulted in tragedy: in 2009, Michele Fait of Italy died after a fall, and the next year Swede Fredrik Ericsson fell to his death from the Bottleneck, a steep and narrow gulley near the summit.

After his success, Bargiel updated his Instagram bio, which previously read, “Currently on a quest to make first full ski descent from K2,” with “MISSION COMPLETE.”

Andrzej’s brother used a drone to film his descent.

Westerners (Blue or Red) Aren’t Happy with Zinke

20 Jul

Republican and Democrat, the majority of westerners don’t think Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is doing a great job. They’re especially displeased by the downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and they think preserving western land is a major priority.

That’s according to a new study by the Center for Western Priorities called “Winning the West,” released Wednesday. When asked their impression of Interior Secretary Zinke, most western voters (42 percent) responded that they had an unfavorable view of his time on the job, versus those who responded favorably (25 percent) or said they don’t know (33 percent) how he has done. Even among Republicans, just 47 percent were pleased with the secretary’s work. And Zinke had especially high unfavorable ratings in Nevada and his home state of Montana.

“Regardless of political party, [voters] value candidates that are going to stand up to protect public lands,” says Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities.

The study polled 2,500 voters in the political battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Montana, asking questions about conservation, energy, and policy approaches to public lands.

Some of the more interesting findings:

  • 56 percent of all voters disapprove of the Trump administration on public lands issues.

  • 74 percent opposed reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

  • 67 percent oppose increasing public land available for oil and gas development.

  • 64 percent oppose rolling back regulations for extraction development.

  • 84 percent favor investment in renewable energy.

The overwhelming majority (81 percent) of voters think outdoor recreation is important to the future of the region’s economy and, according to the poll results, that future depends on conserving public lands. Brian Gottlieb, a researcher who prepared the findings, says the study shows westerners feel strongly enough about these issues that they’re willing to cross the aisle come election time. For example, hunters and anglers—who skew politically conservative—indicated that they would vote for a Democratic candidate who supports access to public lands (and, presumably, their ability to hunt and fish on them) and that they would reject a Republican who wants to make cuts to these areas.

“The importance of outdoor recreation to the West and the western economy really stood out,” Gottlieb says. “Those numbers cannot be ignored.”

For the most part, western voters prefer a middle-of-the-road political approach that strikes a balance between conservation and energy development, according to Gottlieb and Rokala. This means that, in the coming election, candidates’ stances on energy, conservation, and public lands will be important deciding factors. More than 80 percent of people surveyed said public lands, parks, and wildlife issues were somewhat or very likely to influence their decision when it’s time to vote.

There’s definitely a more balanced political approach to public lands than what’s going on in D.C. right now, Rokala says. “Our hope is that candidates take this data, digest it, and use it to inform their positions on public lands and meet the voters where they are,” she says.

Wildfires Are Destroying Our Air Pollution Gains

17 Jul

Americans today are breathing cleaner air than they have in decades. Our cars run 100 times cleaner than in the 1960s, and we burn less coal for power in favor of natural gas and renewables—changes with a huge impact on our health. But in areas across the West wildfires threaten to undo much of that progress.

Climate change has made the West hotter and drier, and that, combined with decades of fire suppression, has led to larger wildfires and a longer fire season. Between 1984 and 2011, in fact, the area burned in this region increased by almost 90,000 acres each year. These massive new fires are sending huge amounts of particulate matter in the form of noxious ash into the air, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And some of the worst affected areas are much of northern Utah and Nevada, parts of California and Oregon, and most of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

“This is a more rural part of the country, but that area includes cities like Salt Lake City, Reno, Boise, and Spokane,” says Daniel Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Washington and one the study’s authors. “There are a lot of people who live in the areas that are being affected.”

To track trends in air quality, the scientists tapped into data from a series of monitoring sites, most of them located in national parks and forests across the U.S. They looked at levels of fine particulate matter—particles like smoke, metal, or organic compounds 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter—from 1988 to 2016. Pollution this fine often comes from smoke or burning fossil fuels, especially coal, so to differentiate the two researchers compared levels of carbon versus sulfur. Sulfur emissions—a main source of which is burning coal—went down across the states. But carbon—an indicator of wildfire—showed increasingly big, summertime spikes in the West.

They then measured the increase of carbon matter in the air during the worst 2 percent of days, because even such a short period is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have the potential to harm health. The impacts of particulate matter—including smoke—to our health are well-documented and include asthma, shortness of breath, and, as Jaffe puts it, “various assaults on our cardiovascular system, up to and including loss of life.” Young children and the elderly are hardest hit, but at high levels it's bad for everyone, no matter the age, which is another reason why the increase during the typically most polluted days is concerning.

The area in red shows where wildfires are increasing summertime particulate matter spikes. (Figure adapted from: McClure C.D. and Jaffe D.A. US particulate matter air quality improves except in wildfire-prone areas. Proc.Natl.Acad.Sci., DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1804353115, 2018)

The study was focused on air quality up to 2016, but with last year being one of the worst wildfire seasons on record the amount of particulate matter in the air and the area impacted will probably have grown. According to climate models, this will all only get worse. While the U.S. has done a lot to limit particulate matter from burning fossil fuels, the country is still spewing a lot of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which is speeding climate change. That, in turn, makes wildfires more severe.

“There have been a number of computer simulations on climate that predicted this—saying that in 2050 it’s going to be hotter, there’s going be more wildfires in the Western U.S., and we're going to have more smoke,” says Jaffe. “Well, guess what: the future is here now.”

Setting a Speed Record Through the Grand Canyon

24 May

Lava Falls—rated Class 10 on the canyon system—is notoriously difficult. In 1869, John Wesley Powell and his team picked up their wooden boats and carried them around these rough waters. Since then, the waves here have trashed boats, broken bones, and taken lives. Today, Lava Falls is the biggest obstacle facing teams attempting to set the speed record (currently 34 hours and two minutes) down the canyon.

The 1983 record was initially set by river guide Kenton Grua and two friends. The team harnessed El Niño flows to rip through the canyon on a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile in 36:38. Their effort was chronicled in Kevin Fedarko’s 2013 book, The Emerald Mile (see Mile 65). That record wasn’t broken until January 2016, when a team of four expedition kayakers brought it down to 35:05. Two days later, kayaker Ben Orkin shaved almost an hour from the record on a solo mission—despite having to bail from his boat after it flipped over at Lava Falls. In January 2017, the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team punctured their custom-built raft when it crashed into a “monstrous wave” at Lava, says Ian Anderson, an athlete who joined the team on its trip. They had to bring their raft onshore to patch a four-foot gash at night and during a storm, ruining their shot at the record.

New records will surely be set, but they’ll likely come as a surprise. “I think the whitewater community doesn’t necessarily talk about their attempts prior to them happening,” Anderson says. “You brag about it afterward.”

Hans Florine on His Terrifying El Cap Fall

9 May

Last Thursday, pro climber Hans Florine broke bones in both legs in a fall on the Nose route of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Florine dropped about 25 feet and hit a ledge with his heels after a piece of protection popped out of a crack known as the Pancake Flake, about 2,200 feet up the 3,000-foot wall.

Florine has climbed the Nose more than 100 times. Until recently, the 53-year-old held the speed record for the route, with a time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, which he set with Alex Honnold in 2012. (Most climbers take three to five days.) In October 2017, Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds brought it down to 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 44 seconds.

On the day of the accident, Florine and his partner Abraham Shreve were running a lap up the route for training and planned to complete it in ten hours.

So how does one of the most experienced El Cap climbers of all time take a fall like that? We asked him.

I had fixed the rope and was self-belaying at the Pancake Flake, which is on the 22nd pitch, while Abe was below me cleaning the Great Roof. Once you do the fun part of the Flake, there’s a thin 5.11d section. I had a bomber number one Camalot at my ankles. I placed a nut; I usually use cams, but we dropped a small rack of cams earlier on the route and decided to keep going because, heck, they didn’t have small cams in the ’70s and ’80s.

I tested the nut; it felt okay. Then I stood up on it, and it just popped. I hit the triangle ledge that’s in the middle of the pitch and smashed my right heel and left ankle. Then I toppled backwards and hung upside down. I pulled myself onto the ledge, looked at my feet, and realized my left foot was torqued to the side.

As good as I think I am at placing gear, a piece popped, and it happened to be the rope was a little bit long. I had a good piece in; I wasn’t running it out. The nut just popped too quickly for me to react to. If I’d jumped out even a foot, I probably would have missed the ledge.

Abe lowered me down to the anchor, and then we opted to lower down another two pitches because the ledge we were standing on was small and the winds were strong. We thought, “Why not just lower all the way to the ground another 18 pitches?” But if we did that, Yosemite Search and Rescue wouldn’t have been able to help us, because their only options are a helicopter pluck-off or coming from the top. So we just stuck it out and waited. It was really tough—I was in a lot of pain.

The accident happened a little before 2 p.m., and the rangers arrived at 7 p.m. They lowered from the top and hauled me up by about 10 p.m. I had to sleep on top of El Cap with two medics and two nurses, because the winds were not perfectly calm, and flying a helicopter at night in the wilderness is a recipe for accidents. They checked in with me every two hours that night to make sure I wasn’t running out of pain meds.

Shreve (left) and Florine (right) before the accident (Hans Florine)
YOSAR prepares to strap Florine in for the rescue. (Hans Florine)
An external fixator binding bones in Florine's left leg together. (Hans Florine)
A nurse points out where Florine fell. (Hans Florine)

The next morning, they helicoptered me out, threw me in an ambulance, and took me [about 90 miles] to Fresno. At the trauma center, they found that the bottom of my left tib/fib had broken into a couple pieces, and both the tib and fib were broken where they connected. On my right side, the calcaneus—the heel—was broken into at least six pieces. They put this crazy skeleton bar system on the outside of my left leg to lock my bones solidly in place. On the right side, they just put an external splint.

Now I have to wait for the swelling to go down enough for surgery, which will be probably ten days from now. I may be in a wheelchair for six months. It’ll likely be a year before I’m fully healed up.

Despite whatever image there is out there of me as a speed climber with flowing blond hair, people who have actually climbed with me know that I’m very safe. I’m placing a piece of gear every five feet. It’s always more fun to come back and climb the next day than it is to get a record or accomplish some goal.

I’ve been up El Cap 178 times—more than anyone. I’ve gotten injured three other times where I had to back off, but I’ve never been rescued before. That’s a lot better odds than mountaineering or swimming the English Channel. I think the way I do multipitch climbing in Yosemite is very safe—it’s just not as safe as playing golf.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Climate Change Could Make Avalanches More Dangerous

16 Mar

The planet's warming, and the Himalayas, of course, are not exempt. One result of those rising temperatures could be increased avalanche risk, according to a new study published last week.

The researchers focused on the Western Himalaya, a region that's seen more and farther-reaching slides in the last 50 years. "In many slopes in the Himalayas, the snow is not a limiting factor, but the warmer temperatures are affecting the snow pack stability," says Juan Antonio Ballesteros-Cánovas, lead author and scientist at the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. In other words, the volume of snow has remained relatively constant, despite warming. It's the changing air temperature that causes a problem: as the days get warmer earlier in the year, the snow pack destabilizes, leading to wetter, more frequent slides in late winter and early spring.

Scientists have seen similar patterns in the Rocky Mountains and the French Alps. At the same time, recreation in these areas has grown, making more people vulnerable to fickle alpine conditions; in the U.S., avalanche deaths are increasing

In their study, Ballesteros-Cánovas and his team were interested in an east-facing slope in the Western Indian Himalayas, which looms over a key roadway connecting the lowlands and mountain regions. The scientists wanted to gauge the threat of avalanches to the roadway and to a proposed tunnel in the area. 

Avalanches are complicated, often-spontaneous events affected by many factors, such as snow type, weather, and the shape and angle of the underlying slope. That makes them hard to study. But, luckily for the scientists, avalanches leave a record in trees, through scars, stumps, and slanted trunks. The scientists analyzed 144 trees on the slope, making observations of damages and dating scars using their rings. Using this process, they constructed an avalanche history dating back over 150 years. “By doing this, we are sure that the frequency and extension of snow avalanches in recent decades has been much larger than previously,” says Ballesteros-Cánovas.

Over the entire period, the area averaged 0.24 avalanches per year. But, in recent decades, starting in the 1970s, the average was as high as 0.875 per year. A greater area of trees was injured in more recent avalanches, indicating that not only are avalanches becoming more frequent, but they're also covering more ground. 

It’s intuitive to assume that as temperatures climb and snowpack decreases, avalanches will become less common. Instead, in high-elevation areas, the study suggests the opposite. With warmer temperatures, snow is wetter, and thus loosens free of the underlying slope earlier in the year—at a time when there’s also a greater volume of snow. Plus, wet avalanches tend to travel farther than dry ones, due to their sheer mass. 

Some argue the results of the study, which was mostly confined to one slope, are too limited to extrapolate. As David McClung, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, puts it: "The tree damage study area is in the foothills, a long distance from the high peaks of the Himalaya." 

Ballesteros-Cánovas says there's work to be done before it's possible to understand how the results apply to other areas. Still, he thinks it's important for alpine skiers and mountaineers to to be aware of these results. "Warmer temperatures in spring, after a good winter, can be dangerous."