Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Weathering the Storm

Below is an article I wrote regarding the April 27 tornado that wreaked havoc on Tuscaloosa, Alabama last year.  It was published in the April issue of Rock & Ice magazine.

From my stance at the jug, one pitch up the lichen-covered sandstone, I let my gaze wander skyward, grateful for the Alabama spring sunshine. I desperately needed to get out of the wreckage that was now my town and had been willing to suffer a couple hours in the car for the chance to climb. A tornado had decimated our area nine days before, and I thought climbing would help clear my head.

Scanning the flaring horizontals for holds and a gear placement, I spotted something yellow and fluffy in a vertical seam, just out of reach. I rocked up slightly on my toes, locked off, and removed a large chunk of fiberglass insulation from the crack. Easily 100 miles from the site of the devastation, I was finding pieces of buildings 100 feet up the rock.
I had watched the growing chaos through the front window of our apartment that gray afternoon.

The gargantuan oak trees had swayed violently in the courtyard, a torrent of old acorns, twigs and leaves filling the air. They stood like stalwart bastions against the growing storm, their sturdy trunks heaving under the raging winds, slowly beaten back, bending further with each surging gust. They strained to hold their deeply-rooted places in the earth. I was sure at least one of them would soon buckle under the pressure.

I had just finished checking the weather report online. The first two warnings had passed half an hour before. However, a third warning had just been issued. A tornado had touched down and was anticipated to run a course from 10th Avenue to McFarland Mall between 5:05 and 5:10 p.m. It was 5:02 and we lived right next to 10th Avenue. The signal on the local sky cam died just as the power went out.

The light from the window shifted from gray to an eerie green glow. Susan and I exchanged glances, and both moved purposefully in the direction of the bathroom, the only room with no windows in our second-floor apartment. Along the way Susan pulled the blanket off our bed, while I intended to continue to the back room for the headlamps and climbing helmets. The pressure dropped suddenly, my ears popping like mad, as if I were diving at a violent pace deep, deep underwater. Taking this as a sign that the helmets and headlamps could wait, I seated myself on the bathroom floor next to my wife, feeling the sweat on her palm as I squeezed her hand.

I looked at the pair of La Sportiva alpine boots on my feet against the backdrop of the hexagonal-pattern tiles on the floor. Susan had given me a new pair of crampons that morning before we left for work. I got home early and had been fitting the crampons to my boots when she called and asked me to pick her up. I walked out the door still wearing the boots, figuring that my footwear would have no impact on a 10-minute car ride. I also joked to myself that if the afternoon’s tornado warnings did in fact come to fruition, I‘d be well prepared in the footwear.

I was surprised to find that I was not as scared as I thought I would be. As we sat together I entertained the fleeting notion that I, my wife, or both of us, might be dead in a few moments. This was quickly followed by the realization that there was nothing I could do about it. I could not stop a tornado any more than I could stop gravity. All I could do was hold on tight and keep myself under control. Maybe it was the bright yellow boots I was wearing, but as the sky unleashed a torrent of swirling destruction upon us I realized that all the time I had ever spent climbing had prepared me for this moment. The commitment, the acceptance, the uncertainty, the fear--it felt exactly the same as being run-out far above small gear with the crux moves staring you in the face.

The tornado sounded like a freight train—the noise was much more malevolent. Every moment was punctuated with the sound of explosions and the cacophony of all our belongings being hurled against a wall that was being ripped apart. The sound of driving wind was ever-present, and yet, the whole furious noise seemed somehow distant, ringing through painfully muffled hearing.

The pressure lifted suddenly; the intense pain left my ears. In one terrifying, interminable, indescribably violent minute, the tornado had passed.

What was left of the ceiling instantly sprang leaks. Susan and I immediately plugged the sinks and bathtub, filling them with whatever water was left in the pipes. The walls were thoroughly beaten and misshapen, but still standing. Outside the front door I heard my neighbor attempting to make a phone call, though mostly she was screaming and crying. I opened the door.

What had once been a two-story apartment complex housing a couple hundred units was in many places leveled to the foundations. The mighty oaks in the courtyard lay splintered on the muddied lawn like so many toothpicks. No brick was untouched; every wall was cracked, battered, crooked, or simply rubble. The din of the receding gale and the screams of the frightened, bereaved, and injured assaulted my ears, battling for primacy. Breathing deeply, I slowly shut the door and ran to the back room to dig for the first-aid kit.

Moments later, we walked out our front door with purpose, I still in my boots, deeply grateful for my Wilderness First Responder certification and the refresher course I had taken just six months prior. As well as all our first-aid supplies, we had grabbed helmets, headlamps, kneepads, gloves and water, prepared to provide aid to anyone we could until the ambulances arrived, whenever that might be.

In the parking lot, a young woman screamed hysterically from the other side of a four-foot-tall wall of debris. After carefully picking a path across it, I discovered the cause of her alarm. At her feet lay a beautiful young, blue-eyed, blonde woman.  She was severely eviscerated across the abdomen and bleeding profusely. Her eyes were unevenly dilated, she bled from the nose, vomit covered her face, and cerebrospinal fluid leaked from her ears. I held my fingers against the woman’s carotid artery and ear to her chest.  If there was any pulse left, I could not detect it, and the few agonal respirations she had when we first arrived had ceased.

After what seemed a painfully long time though it was no more than seconds, I lifted my head and delivered the unfortunate news to the few bystanders. They collected a tattered bed sheet and a shredded tarp. Together we covered the young woman just as a narcotics officer arrived to call in the 10-89.

As we moved from the parking lot to the courtyard, three men flagged us over. In a small pile of rubble lay another young woman who identified herself as Chelsea. She was numb from the waist down and had absolutely no sensation below the knee. She was badly injured but stable. I assessed her spine and found evidence of serious trauma around the upper lumbar. In short order, the attending men transformed a kitchen table into a backboard in preparation for the three-block hike to a nearby hardware store-turned-triage station. We would later learn that Chelsea endured 12 hours of surgery and months of physical therapy, but can now walk again.

Two hours later Susan and I stood in the courtyard, surrounded by a small group of followers who had been assisting in the search-and-rescue process. We all gazed at the western sky as one of our number read the latest weather report on his smartphone: “Severe weather expected. Tornado watch has been issued for Tuscaloosa County starting at 7:00 p.m., continuing...” Another storm was coming.

I looked at Susan: “I think it’s time to boogie.” Mercifully, our car, though windowless and battered, started.  The three mile drive to the University of Alabama recreation center took over two hours to complete.  After administering first aid and helping to shelter numerous storm survivors, we finally collapsed into sleep on the floor of the climbing wall at 3:00a.m.

I took a slow breath, realizing I was over-gripping the rock in despair, and forced myself to relax, to appreciate my surroundings. Chris was all smiles below, the weather looming to the west held in check by the blue skies and sun over our heads. Savoring this peace, I pulled up over the bulge into easier terrain, with each move unweighting myself from the gravity of my feelings.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cold Weather Living: Random Tips

This last post on winter living includes a few tips on staying on warm and dry that didn’t quite make sense anywhere else.

Eat food.  This seems like common sense, and your body will certainly help you figure out when to eat by being hungry, but don’t underestimate your calorie needs in cold weather.  You can easily burn 5,000 or more calories in a day if you’re active in cold weather.  Don’t be afraid to eat plenty of fats as well, as the slow-burning calories will keep you warmer longer.

Take advantage of stove heat.  Your stove pumps out a lot of heat, so if you have it on to cook food or melt snow, don’t waste the excess heat.  You can use the heat and steam to warm your boots in the morning, revitalize cold fingers, or even start melting a bottle of snow.  If you take care to ventilate your tent properly, a hanging stove also makes a great space heater.

Ventilate.  Keep your tent as well-ventilated as possible to prevent a pesky ice crust from forming on the interior walls due to condensation from your breath.  Otherwise, expect to soon have some very wet evenings in your tent as your body heat melts off the condensation.

Form a strong opinion on hot drinks.  While you don’t technically need to have a strong opinion on hot drinks, it seems that everyone who spends significant time out in the cold has one.  On the one hand, hot drinks are a great psychological boon, taste great, encourage hydration (provided they’re not laced with caffeine), and provide external heat when stashed in your jacket.  Plus, they don’t require your body to heat the fluids you’ve ingested.  I know folks who swear by them and call them an “attitude adjustment” when things get rough.  On the other hand, they require extra fuel, take time to make, offer purely psychological benefits, can result in spending a lot of extra time operating a stove in the cold, and are no more than a drop in the bucket in the battle to keep your body warm.  Your mileage will vary, but I recommend experimenting with various hot drinks, thermoses and water bottles.  I’m personally a big fan of warm Gatorade when it’s cold out.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cold Weather Living: Water Management

This post is about another crucial topic—water management, or more correctly, how to ensure you have drinkable water when you need it instead of a frozen block of ice. 

Sleep with your water.  Anything that you want to be unfrozen in the morning should be in your sleeping bag with you when you turn in for the night.  I keep a Nalgene in my bag with me so I have water for the morning. 

Sleep with hot water.  If you’re going to be sleeping with a bottle of water anyway, you might as well make it hot first, which will keep you and your sleeping bag nice and toasty.  Once the water has cooled off during the night, move it down to the foot of your sleeping bag so it won’t cool you off, too.

Bury your water.  If you need a larger supply of water or want to avoid melting snow or ice in the morning, place your extra water in “the fridge.”  Make a mound of snow and dig out a space in one side of the mound slightly larger than your water container.  The hollowed-out mound will stay barely above freezing (snow is a great insulator), keeping your water in a liquid state all night.

Invest in a pee bottle.  This is also an important part of water management.  You want to stay well-hydrated in the field, even when you’re in the tent, but you may not want to go out into the elements to relieve yourself.  Keep a dedicated (and clearly marked!) pee bottle on hand and empty it every morning.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Checking in at Table Rock

Last week, Susan and I moved up to the Outward Bound base camp at the foot of Table Rock Mountain.  Internet connectivity is limited, but I thought I would try to put up a few photos. 

Climbing above the clouds
My brother, Garrett, came by for a visit last weekend as well.  He helped us re-set the routes in the staff bouldering cave.  We also spent a rare above-the-clouds day on Table Rock.  Yesterday, Susan and I had a marathon day on Table Rock, climbing 13 pitches without having to get up before dawn or hike out after dark.  I could get used to living here.

On the summit with Garrett
The weather has been pleasant and mild thus far, though it started snowing today and looks like it will be highs in the 30s for a little while.  Who knows, maybe we'll get to climb some North Carolina ice!
Susan on the 6th pitch of the day yesterday.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cold Weather Living: Foot Care

Another important topic when out in the cold is foot care.  How do you keep your feet warm, dry, and happy?

Keep your feet dry.  This is perhaps the most important way you can help yourself.  Wet feet stay colder longer and are more prone to frostbite and blisters.  If your socks are soaked through, change them for a dry pair and stuff the wet ones in your jacket or in your sleeping bag.  If you’ll be in particularly snowy conditions, gaiters can work wonders for keeping snow out of your boots.  While a waterproof gaiter will stop water from coming in, it will also prevent it from getting out as well.  If you have particularly sweaty feet, you will need to take this into consideration if gaiters are required by using  a lighter set, bringing extra socks, or perhaps forgoing gaiters altogether, depending on the conditions and the particulars of your feet.  Single leather boots will breathe much better than double-layer plastic boots, reducing foot sweat, and potentially keeping your drier.  However, truly cold conditions dictate a double boot, so plan accordingly.

Keep your socks dry.  This definitely goes along with keeping your feet dry, but is important in its own right.  In general, I have three pairs of socks with me in the backcountry.  One pair is on my feet, one pair is probably drying out, and one pair is staying dry in some safe, protected place just in case the current pair on my feet gets soaked.  Any time socks are not on your feet, if they aren’t dry, they should be getting actively dried out, either in your jacket or in your sleeping bag (in both cases, your body heat inside the aforementioned gear is a necessary part of the equation).  I also make sure to change my socks at least daily, even if they aren’t particularly wet just to make sure they stay as dry as possible.

Start your day with warm, dry boots.  Again, this will help you keep your feet dry (noticing a pattern here?)  In general, your boots should be pretty warm during the day since your feet will be in them. The biggest challenge is starting with warm boots in the morning after your feet have been out of them all night.  This is particularly problematic as your boots are very good insulators.  They keep warm things warm, but they also keep cold things cold.  If you start the day with cold boots, you will likely have persistent cold feet throughout the day. 

With double boots, the usual solution is to sleep with your boot liners in your sleeping bag, drying them out and warming them up.  If you have single boots, things are a bit trickier.  One solution is to only use single boots on day trips when you’ve got some place warm to go at the end of the day.  However, you can usually get away with single boots for a few nights by placing them on top of your sleeping pad and under the foot of your sleeping bag at night, or even placing the entire boot in the foot of your sleeping bag if it’s really cold.  Another trick is to warm your boots over the stove in the morning as you’re making breakfast, melting snow, etc.  However, this allows for the possibility of steam to creep into your boots, making them warm but also moist.  Depending on your feet and the conditions, this can be okay, or it can be disastrous.  I recommend experimenting with this technique to see how it works for your before relying on it.

Wear proper boots.  When you’re out in the cold weather, ensuring that your boots are properly laced will go a long way to keeping your toes warm.  Over-tight boots restrict circulation, reducing the flow of warm blood to your extremities and cooling your feet.  Keep your laces as loose as possible to maintain functionality.  Similarly, the boot should be properly sized for your foot and your socks should not be too thick for the boot.  Initially, you may have to start with a thinner sock, progressing to thicker socks over the life of the boot as the boot gets “packed out” by your foot.

Keep your boots warm and dry while out in the cold.  The biggest point here is to avoid standing in the snow.  Certainly, if you’re in the snow, this is hard to avoid and would be impossible in practice.  However, if you’ll be in one place for a little while, take the effort to pack down the snow a bit before settling in, keeping the snow under the insulating rubber of your boot soles instead of packed entirely around your foot.  Even when I’m just stopping to relieve my bladder, I take the extra 5 seconds to pack down a standing platform instead of standing post-holed in knee-high snow.  My feet thank me for it. 

Also, recognize the chilling effect crampons have on your boots.  Strapping cold, highly-conductive metal to your feet is going to work wonders for cooling your toes.  Use the least-technical crampon effectively suited for the task and only put the crampons on when you need; take them off when you don’t.  For example, micro-spikes will have a much smaller cooling effect than 12-point technical ‘pons.  Of course, speed or convenience may override your concerns about cold feet, but if that’s the case you’re probably exerting enough that the crampons won’t have much of a cooling effect.  Use your judgment.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cold Weather Living: Self-Care

Self-care is everything!  (This applies to warm-weather camping as well.)  Just because it’s cold is no reason not to stay clean, properly treat and dress cuts and scrapes, patch up that blister, and put some hydrocortisone cream on that weird, inexplicable rash.  Take time at least once a day to give yourself a quick once-over and address problem areas.

Change your socks and gloves.  Wetness on your extremities will go a long way to keeping your fingers and toes cold and numb.  Avoid getting your hands and feet wet.  When they do get wet, change your socks and gloves.  Dry your wet pair either against your body inside your jacket during the day, or in the foot of your sleeping bag at night. 

Wear your sunglasses.  When you’re out in cold conditions, there’s frequently snow around, which acts as a giant reflective surface for sunshine.  Wear sunglasses or goggles when hanging out on snow-covered ground above treeline or in open spaces.  Snow blindness sucks.

Cover up your skin.  In mild conditions or during high exertion, you may find yourself with exposed skin, especially on your face and arms.  Take the time to cover up with sun screen.  That same reflective snow that causes snow blindness can also easily cause second-degree sunburn in no time.  In particularly windy conditions, keep as much skin covered as possible to prevent windburn and mild frostbite.  Pay particular attention to your partners’ ears, noses, and cheeks as these areas tend to get frostbite readily in windy conditions.  If the skin looks pale, dull, white, or gray, take a second to cover the affected area with your gloved hand.  When it returns to the familiar bright red or pink of cold, but not frozen, skin, cover up with a hat, face mask, balaclava, or other protective layer.

Lotion is your friend.  Use a good lotion on dry hands, chapped lips, sun and wind-burned faces, and liberally on hot spots on your feet to help mitigate the risk of blisters. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Recipe: Spicy Tomato Pineapple Couscous

Sometimes while in the field, I look into the food stores to see that supplies are dwindling, but re-supply won't be for another day or two.  This can lead to some, ahem, interesting concoctions when it comes to hot dinners and breakfasts as all the leftovers tend to get dumped into the same pot.  While we were up in New Hampshire, though, we happened upon a creation that actually tasted pretty good.

Spicy Tomato Pineapple Couscous


Instant Couscous
Block of Cheese
1 Can of Rotel
1 Can of Pineapple Tidbits

At Camp
Empty cans of Rotel and pineapple into a pot.  Add any additional water as necessary for the amount of couscous you have on hand (you shouldn't need to add much water or you'll have way too much couscous and a bland dinner).  Bring the pot to a boil.  Meanwhile, cut the cheese into cubes.  When the water is boiling, add the couscous, stir, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 5 minutes or until the couscous has absorbed the liquid. Serve, topped with chunks of cheese.

I'm not entirely sure what I would add to this meal as I haven't had a chance to experiment with it yet.  However, at the time we had it, I found myself wishing for a tortilla to stuff it all into.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cold Weather Living: Glove Review

In a previous post, I discussed handwear systems for keeping your fingers warm and dry in cold conditions.  But what gloves to get, and how many?  While on the ice climbing leg of our road trip, I used handwear systems by Black Diamond, Outdoor Research, and off-brand items you can find at the local hardware or department store.  I’ll describe the pros and cons of each.  Each piece will be evaluated for dexterity, warmth, dryness, and durability.

By far my go-to glove on this trip was the Black Diamond Punisher glove.  For moderate output activity (read: ice climbing), the glove was insulated enough and loose enough to keep my fingers warm.  For slightly colder conditions or lower output, a supplementary hand warmer kept things toasty.  The BDry waterproof-breathable membrane did a decent job of keeping my hands dry on ice and in snow.  Unsurprisingly, the membrane was just not up to the challenge of a full-on deluge though, and soaked through when I was on a particularly wet ice climb in a bit of a sleet storm.  The fit on the glove was also a little baggy for my hand as well, with some extra space on the little finger-side of my palm.  This did not significantly affect my dexterity, except when getting ice screws started.   I was most impressed by the glove’s durability.  The goat leather palms held up against repeated ice and snow climbing, rappelling, and rope work.  This glove, however, is not designed for extreme cold and does not have an integrated gauntlet.  For harsher conditions, I would choose the Black Diamond Specialist glove, which is a very similar glove, but with a gauntlet.

Susan and I both used a pair of Outdoor Research Arete glove systems on this trip.  The system features a stand-alone gauntlet glove and an accompanying liner as well.  The liner was a fairly straightforward, but effective piece.  It had two features—some sticky silicone on the fingertips and palms and Velcro tabs for holding it in place inside the gauntlet.  While I was psyched at how well the liners fit and the dexterity they offered, I was a bit disappointed in both features.  The sticky tips and palm were a nice touch and definitely helped with the dexterity, but didn’t last more than a week before they started rubbing off.  The Velcro tabs were pretty much useless, and maybe even detrimental.  They didn’t readily match to the receiving Velcro inside the gauntlet, but they did manage to stick to all of my shirt and jacket sleeves when I wasn’t wearing the gauntlet, actually requiring me to patch a jacket sleeve mid-trip from a particularly heinous snag.  If I were to do it again, I’d get some stand-alone Outdoor Research liners to use instead, like one of the lightweight PI-series gloves.

The Arete gauntlet was a bit of a mixed bag.  By themselves, they fit well, were fairly dexterous, and had some very smart features.  The closure system was exceptionally easy to operate one handed for both putting on and taking off the gloves.  The “idiot loops” were appropriate sized, adjustable, and fit neatly and easily under the gauntlet.  I wish every glove had both!  However, when paired with the accompanying liners, the gloves were just a bit too tight, limiting dexterity and more importantly limiting warmth.  I was also not particularly impressed with the durability of the gauntlets.  The faux-leather palms are already showing wear from rope work, the middle and index fingers on one glove are fraying a bit, and the index finger/thumb joint seam on the other glove started coming unstitched almost as soon as I put the gloves on.  The gloves did keep me dry and I like some of the features, but the durability of the glove was a major sticking point for me.  Perhaps the similar but pricier Alpine Alibi would be a better choice for durability, especially with its leather palm.

I can’t say enough about cheap fleece gloves.  Depending on the particulars of what you can find, as long as the fit well, they can be great liners, are awesome for high-output activity, and I love them around camp.  The low cost makes them somewhat expendable, so you can carry 2 or 3 pairs and just change them out when one soaks through.  Daily, I would carry my Outdoor Research Arete gloves and liners, Black Diamond Punishers, and a pair of fleece gloves, with another dry pair waiting for me back in the car or at camp.  I loved the fleece gloves for the hike in, for high-output climbs, and when paired with a mitt.

Hardware store leather gloves should also not be overlooked as a cheap glove option as well.  Coupled with mink oil, they are fairly dexterous and waterproof, though not particularly warm.  They can be paired with a liner or fleece glove for some added warmth, if they are sized with this in mind at the time of purchase.  However, untreated leather gloves soak through quite quickly and become unreasonably cold in short order.

I also had the opportunity to use the Black Diamond Mercury mitt while on Mount Washington.  The dexterity was obviously not amazing, but the warmth and dryness more than made up for it.  Paired with a fleece glove inside, I could remove the mitt for some quick work and then have my fingers become almost instantly toasted once back in the mitt.  The leather palms held up quite well for the couple days I used the mitts.

On the whole, Black Diamond’s handwear selection impressed me quite a bit.  The Outdoor Research options had some good features, but did not seem to totally have it figured out with regards to durability.  Finally, the cheap fleece glove is not to be underestimated!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gone to Table Rock

For about the last week Susan and I have been in Alabama and Tennessee visiting friends and family after the ice climbing portion of our road trip.  Now we've ditched the ice tools and have grabbed the rock climbing gear for the next couple months.

We will be living and working at Table Rock, North Carolina for a while now.  During this time, we'll be entirely sans internet (gasp!), so we won't have very frequent updates to the blog.  Never fear, though--we have a few posts in the pipeline ready to go out while we're off the grid, and we'll be sure to post an update on our North Carolina adventures as soon as possible.