Contact me at climbingschool@yahoo.com

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt...


The following are published articles (Arizona Newspapers Association award winning) and stories (fiction, non-fiction and biographical) written by me. Also included are news stories featuring the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School that have appeared in The New York Times, The Arizona Republic newspaper, Sonoran News, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Frontdoors magazine, National Geographic Adventure magazine, Outside magazine and AAA Highroads magazine. Below are accounts of my personal travels, trials and tribulations including orchestrated compilations of climbs and relationships in my life. From my days of mountaineering in Alaska, Canada, North Cascades, Cordillera Blanca,Tierra del Fuego to climbing the vertical faces of Yosemite.

"A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal" - Big Fish

These stories are the essence of who I once was. They defined my life - its strengths, frailties, joys and pains. It delves into the loss of friends to the mountains, to shattering my body and mind in pursuit of self-centered goals. Surviving long, epic climbs has a way of strengthening both mind and body, but can also be a "drug" unto itself. Mother Nature doesn't recognize the egos of mere mortals or bow to their obsessions. Remote, vertical adventures can be brutal. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the mountains, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

Someone once wrote, that in the end it's all about the stories, and here are some of mine - no more, no less. There will always be some nostalgia of my past, but these days my journey continues by experiencing life in different ways - I now find myself scaling to the most precarious of "pinnacles" - self-discovery.

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"Triumph and disaster are equal imposters"
– R. Kipling

Mark Brontsema's colorful 35-years in the climbing, canyoneering and adventure-based profession started with Exum Mountain Guides in Moose, Wyoming in 1977. In 1981, Mark enrolled in the National Outdoor Leadership School and soon after became a climbing instructor. Mark pursued climbing in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, North Cascades and Alaska. In 1993, he had the opportunity to be with the Colorado Outward Bound School in Leadville, Colorado. Mark has been the Director of the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School for the past 25 years.


Mark has had the opportunity to climb, sea kayak, canyoneer and backpack in some of the most remote areas of the Western Hemisphere. Mark has participated on international expeditions – from cold Alaskan mountains and oceans to the vertical pinnacles of Yosemite and Tierra Del Fuego. He also has been the director of Youth Wilderness Challenges, a community education and substance abuse prevention program of the Cave Creek School District and a Sierra Club outing leader.



Mark has held certification in Team and Trust Building (COBS), Wilderness Therapy (COBS), Rock Climbing Instruction, Sea-Kayaking, Mountaineering, Outdoor Leadership and Wilderness First Aid/Responder from the Colorado Outward Bound School, American Mountain Guides Association, the National Outdoor Leadership School and is a member of the American Alpine Club, ACCESS FUND, Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) and Leave No Trace (LNT) Partner.
- by Michelle Monette

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"No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel but beautiful land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match." - Wilfred Thesiger



Grand Canyon: Redefining the self
by Mark Brontsema

Part 1 • Truth or Consequence
Published March 30, 2005 issue


All around me are familiar faces
Worn-out places
Worn-out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression
Hide my head
I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had
– Gary Jules, “Mad World”

After my climbing accident, my life – or what was left of it – stopped. I was now in a world of powerful painkillers and pharmaceutical-induced emotions. I was no longer who I had been. My past strengths were replaced by fear, doubt and anger. I desperately wanted to be the “invincible” person I had so meticulously created over the years, but the mountains had reduced me to pulp; my driving life energy drained. Letting go of the world was one thing, but letting go of your life is a one-way ticket to oblivion. I wasn’t yet willing to concede defeat of my former self – at least not without a fight.

Mary, my girlfriend at that time, endured the worst of me. Being confined to a small apartment made both of our lives difficult. Without Mary’s encouragement and help, I would have easily given up. Being bedridden for almost six months resulted in my right leg – with the help of a plethora of pins, screws and plates – healing enough for me to graduate to crutches. Living on the second floor would help me to perfect the fine art of mobility on crutches. Hobbling up and down the steep concrete stairs of the apartment seemed as challenging as any mountain I had climbed. A fall here could easily send me back to the hospital. But, with great care and determination, I was able to successfully “summit” to my second-floor apartment daily.

Month after month of tolerating physical therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists – along with weight-lifting and ingesting bottle upon bottle of vitamins – allowed my strength and balance to slowly return. Almost a year to the day after my accident, my cast was permanently removed. I began to plot my escape from the confining world of stucco walls to the deep, weathered canyons of sandstone, which had waited patiently for me all these millions of geological years.

The Grand Canyon had always been my home away from home. I was possessed by it. A more beautiful place couldn’t be found in which to taste life this deeply. When I was in my hospital bed, I would daydream about the Canyon being the last vision my eyes would gaze upon – its majestic colored mesas and the shimmering Colorado River below. Although the hopeful fate of the masses was to die in bed surrounded by familiar faces, I feared such a final consequence.

I had hiked into the Canyon’s depths countless times. I would risk life and limb for just one more intimate encounter. To die in the act of love – every lover’s fondest dream. But reality is usually different from the fantasy.

This trip would be distinct. I was dealing with a body and mind that wasn’t completely healed. I hoped that by returning to the Canyon – my Canyon – I could find some semblance of my former self. I would do this trip solo to help me restore my self-confidence, which – like my leg – had been shattered by my fall.

I packed my gear in my truck and headed for the South Rim. The radio in the truck wouldn’t work, which gave me even more time to think about what I was doing. Doubt and confusion kept creeping into my mind. Three and a half hours and 225 miles later, I arrived at the Canyon – mentally drained. Despite my mounting skepticism of what I was doing, I bit my lower lip and made my way to the trailhead.

I chose to backpack down the Boucher trail, one of the more difficult routes into the Canyon – a place where only turkey vultures would comfort you. It was 11 miles to the Colorado River, 22 miles round-trip. The final section of the trail – the steep and strenuous 2,400-foot descent to Boucher Creek would be the most challenging.
I put the heavy backpack on and headed down the trail...

- See Part 2 below



Grand Canyon: Redefening the self
by Mark Brontsema

Part 2


"
Let each person who enters the Canyon – whether on foot, on mule, or by boat – clearly understand that some elementary and fundamental risk is involved and that nothing can guarantee your safety but your own common sense. Not even that. Nothing should be guaranteed."
– Ed Abbey

The Boucher Trail was originally built in the 1890s by Louis Boucher – the famed “hermit” of the Grand Canyon. He operated a copper mine at Boucher Creek and lived in a stone cabin close to Dripping Springs. Boucher was said to have a white beard, rode a white mule, and told only white lies. For 20 years he lived alone in the Canyon and found that guiding tourists into its depths was more profitable then mining it.

As I headed into the Grand Canyon on the Boucher Trail I reflected on my last trip into this remote labyrinth several years before my accident. I was unbroken and spirited. Canyon hiking for me was a soul-enriching journey into a serene and beautiful world. A hike from the rim of the Canyon to the Colorado River and back again was almost effortless for me. But things had changed – I had changed.

Still recovering from my climbing accident, the Canyon had now become a daunting physical exercise in navigating on endless and intricate terrain. My right ankle had less than five degrees of movement. It would easily become stiff, which would cause me to trip on the easiest of topography. Instead of “plowing” my way through obscure landscapes, I now had to delicately walk on rock-strewn trails with the caution of a person in a minefield. It was twice the amount of effort to cover the same distances I had so easily traveled in the past.

The Boucher Trail is not maintained by the Park Service, adding to its backcountry “charm.” It descends sharply through an encyclopedia of wonderfully colored geologic layers. A slip or a wrong step on this rugged trail could easily send a hiker plummeting down hundreds of feet of loose limestone and sandstone into the Canyon below. I knew the confidence I had developed from past treks would now need to be tempered with patience. An overconfident mind in a less-than-willing body could be disastrous on this trip.

The first three miles of the trail from Dripping Springs was virtually flat. I easily covered the distance without so much as a blister, but this was about to change. Reaching Travertine Canyon, an obstacle course of large boulders and steepening terrain, I slowed to a snail’s pace. In several places I had to remove my backpack and lower it. Seeing what was below me was a guessing game. As I slowly worked my way down the toe-jamming trail into the inner canyon, I took the time – or, in reality, by design, was “forced” to take the time – to “see” the Canyon in a different light. It somehow had become more vast and beautiful, yet forbidding. Brachiopod fossils lay scattered at my feet. At my slowing pace, I somehow felt a connection to this fate.


And lifting up mine eyes,
I found myself alone,
And in a land of sand and thorns.
- Tennyson

After an exhausting descent to the top of the Redwall section of the Canyon, the trail leveled out. The accident-induced arthritis had eaten away most of the cartilage in my ankle joint. The bone-to-bone grinding made me wince in pain. Even with another five miles and 2,000 feet to descend I refused to turn around. I would not allow myself to be beaten.

The daylight began to dim, and so did the weather. A light rain started to fall. As I approached the last and steepest part of the trail, it became very slippery. A miscalculated foot step on this narrow section would send me hurtling down to the distant creek below. I was tired, wet and on precarious footing, but a light from a campsite far below beckoned me onward. After 16 painful hours of hiking, I arrived at my destination – Boucher Creek. Wracked with pain, I dropped my backpack and, with the last of my energy, set up my small one-man tent and crawled in. Too exhausted to care about covering the rest of my gear outside, I passed out to the sound of comforting light raindrops hitting the tent.

Waking the next morning, I could barely stand up. My right ankle was swollen and a sharp pain shot through it with each step. I counted six blisters on each foot and my quadriceps were as tight as piano wire. I gazed at the trail that I had come down. I was almost 4,000 feet and 11 miles away from my starting point. The rim so far above seemed as remote as my salvation from the past.

I nursed my blisters; ate and refilled my water bottles. It was still early morning and I knew if I wanted to get back to my truck before midnight I needed to leave immediately. I gathered my gear and started back up the torturous trail. At two in the morning I arrived on the South Rim of the Canyon. My entire body was stiff with pain. I was humbled by the experience.

Wilfred Thesiger the author of “Arabian Sands,” wrote, “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match."

As I looked out at the moonlit Canyon, I realized how insignificant and unimportant I truly was. I found myself paying homage – not only to the Canyon, but also to myself for not surrendering my spirit.



Swept away by the ‘broom of God’
by Mark Brontsema

Part 1
Written May, 2000) Published Dec. 3, 2003 issue

Near the southern tip of South America lies a windswept landscape of bent trees and ice-covered spires called Patagonia. Chile and Argentina border this land, whose outstanding feature is a sharp chain of legendary Andean mountains – Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, Punta Herron and Cerro Standhart. The most prominent is Cerro Torre. Standing at 10,262 feet, this sheer granite needle with its frightening overhanging granite walls was once considered unclimbable.

The sheer south face of Cerro Torre. The dotted line indicates our route and the “X” marks our location after three days of grueling climbing.

The coveted summit of Cerro Torre was our goal on this small international expedition of five climbers – Chuck and I from the States, Peter and Fredrick from Germany, and Ian from the UK. After enduring a week of flight delays, lost luggage and broken-down buses, we were anxious to get on the mountain as soon as possible.

The wicked Patagonia weather, however, had its own plans – and we weren’t on its guest list. Winds of more than 100 mph 24 hours a day forced us to spend three weeks tent-bound at base camp, and we were quickly reaching our breaking point. The gale-like storms caused the nylon tent walls to flap violently, creating a deafening echo chamber within the tent. Sleep was non-existent. We had to shout at each other just to be heard in the close quarters of the tents. Walking several yards away from our shelters in these winds meant being blown off our feet. Any form of outside activity resulted in being sprayed by high-velocity ice crystals. Cuts and small pockmarks covered our faces and hands.

Being confined together for such a length of time magnified the most minute annoyances into intense arguments and full-blown fights. Two angels directly descended from heaven wouldn’t last a week in the severe Patagonia landscape without inflicting each other with black eyes and bloodied noses.

On the fourth week of our forced interment, the winds finally died, the sun came out, and the barometer began to rise. We decided to climb as two separate teams. Chuck and I would climb the direct South Face route, while Peter, Fredrick and Ian would attempt the famous Compressor route just to the north of us. We packed our gear and parted company, intending to meet either on the summit or at base camp within the next five days.

After three days of merciless vertical climbing and nights spent trying to catch some semblance of sleep while clinging to the mountainside on uncomfortable portaledges,

Chuck and I were now three-quarters of the way up the jagged ice-covered granite spire. The corniced summit finally seemed within our grasp. Our confidence was soaring like giant Andean condors. The last several days of climbing were almost windless – a rarity in this land of endless hurricane-strength storms.

Thousands of feet below us lay a world of glacial ice, with lakes of deep turquoise reflecting the snow-capped pinnacles piercing the clear skies around us. I continued to climb. I was some 60 feet above Chuck when I heard a loud crack and then a rumble. Small rocks and ice chunks began to ricochet off my climbing helmet. I clung to my precariously placed ice axes and pulled myself closer to the rime-covered rock face, bracing myself for the inevitable.

- See Part 2 below



Swept away by the ‘broom of God’
by Mark Brontsema

Part 2
– Continued from Nov. 24, 2004 issue
Published Dec. 1, 2004 issue


I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes
and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.
Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take
your life,
There's a bad moon
on the rise.
I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end
is coming soon...
– Bad Moon Rising by J.C. Fogerty

I desperately held on to my precariously placed ice axes as the heavy wet snow and rocks began to pummel me from above. It felt like a dump truck was emptying its entire load on me. I was no match for its brute weight and force, and was torn from the rock face. With steel crampons on my boots and an ice axe in each hand, I fell like a spinning, knife-wielding Benihana chef into the thick Patagonian fog.

Below me, Chuck dodged the maelstrom and, without retreating, firmly held the rope onto which I was tied. The strained rope tightened from the force of the excessive weight of the avalanching snow cascading down upon my body. The ice screws I had placed to catch me in a fall now exploded out of the frozen face like claymore mines, sending ice shrapnel into the falling snow. I flailed wildly at the face with my ice axes to slow my fateful descent, but they ricocheted off the cold diamond-like surface.
PHOTO BY ED HERBERT

The author on an icefield.

As I uncontrollably cartwheeled down the ice chute, my goggles were ripped from my face. A large, jagged boulder roared past me, missing me by mere inches. I heard a yell from below and then the rope went slack. My body accelerated to the debris-covered ledge below.

When I came to, I found myself on my back. Packed snow and small rocks covered me. A large boulder underneath my back caused it to arch unnaturally. At first I thought I had broken it, but then discovered I could move, and began to crawl out from my icy prison. A spike of pain shot through my right leg and ankle with an intensity that blurred my thoughts and vision.

I took a deep breath and tried to move again, but was greeted by the magnifying pain. I heard myself yell, then passed out. When I came to, my leg was ice-cold and felt almost dead. I carefully extracted myself and, for the first time, was able to see the impact-induced damage.

The bone had fractured above the ankle and was protruding just above the top of my boot. My thermal pants were ripped wide open from my ankle to my knee. Deep cuts covering my leg were filled with dirt and snow. I began to hyperventilate so hard my lungs felt like they would explode. I watched helplessly as my blood trickled over the ledge I was on and then froze into small crimson icicles.

Chuck was nowhere in sight. Only 15 yards separated me from thousands of vertical feet to the glacier below. I could only guess that the avalanche had swept him off the ledge and into the abyss. The realization of his fate overwhelmed me. I was alone.

The cold and pain now began to eat away at my will to live. I lay in the snow as though I was nailed to a horizontal cross. I began to cry; the selfish tears froze on my cheeks.

Chuck had once told me that all of our extreme adventures were worth the effort to live through. He said that in order to survive there was always something left in your body to burn, even if it was just brain matter.
I had always admired Chuck’s bullish, hell-bent, kamakaze style of climbing. Being in the shadow of his abilities and strength was highly addictive. He had helped me overcome many of my fears, which gave me the confidence to challenge myself and succeed.

The pain had returned. I was so cold. This was not the way I wanted to die, but I didn’t know if I had a choice. I could sense Chuck’s ghost smiling at me through the swirling snow. It began to claw at my sanity. I was extremely exhausted and confused. I had literally been thrown into the legendary Patagonian meat grinder.

The storm-filled evening sky faded into blackness and, with the scent of my blood in the wind, the viciousness of nature was now stalking me.

- See Part 3 below



Swept away by the ‘broom of God’
by Mark Brontsema

Part 3

– Continued from Dec. 1, 2004 issue
Publsihed Dec. 8, 2004


This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans,
the end …
Desperately in need …
of some … stranger's hand
In a … desperate land
Lost in a Roman …
wilderness of pain …
– Jim Morrison, The End

MAP: www.planetmountain.com

Our expe4ition focused on Cerro Torre, an imposing peak located between Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.

The pain of my fractured leg, the increasing cold – and the knowledge that my friend Chuck was lying in the abyss below me, swept off the unforgiving slopes of Cerro Torre to a certain fate – was overwhelming.

I knew from experience that if I didn’t find shelter from the tempest I would become just another well-preserved corpse on this peak, dressed in the latest mountaineering wear. I was wet and cold and could feel my core temperature dropping. Soon it would become impossible to make any reasonable decisions. I would become sleepy, and struggling would become a moot point. The storm would consume me like a giant whale inhaling krill.

The snow and rock around me was covered in red. I had lost a lot of blood. The now freezing temperatures made me shiver uncontrollably, but helped my blood to coagulate and stopped the bleeding. I was barely hanging on to a life that was now doubtful at best.

Twenty feet from where I fell lay one of our haul bags, containing food, sleeping bags, a stove and other essentials. It was badly battered by the falling rock and ice, but its contents were still intact. I crawled to it on my back, like a Marine squirming cautiously under barbed wire. The slightest wrong move now would cause searing pain to rip through my shattered leg and I would pass out again. This was not an option with darkness approaching and the stinging cold wind on my face. I began to sweat as I crawled, yet I was freezing.

I tried to stay focused on the importance of getting to the haul bag and kept telling myself to take a deep breath with each movement. After what felt like hours, I was finally within reach of the bag and pulled it towards me. My hands had become clutched fists from the tightened muscles in my cold body. I clawed the large zipper on the haul bag open and dug around through the jumbled gear for a headlamp. After pulling out a dozen objects, I managed to reach it.

I prayed that it wasn’t broken. Without it, I was surely dead. I carefully turned the rotating lens to switch it on, but nothing happened. My heart began to sink into the blackness of despair. I banged the headlamp against a small rock lying next to me – still nothing. I cursed at the gods above. Just as I was ready to submit to the darkness it went on – I had light!

The sudden illumination caused a brief resurgence of life in me. I took advantage of this and quickly pulled out a sleeping bag, the stove, a quart-size pot, Snickers bars and tea bags. I pumped the stove’s pressure plunger and, unlike the erratic headlamp, the built-in igniter fired flawlessly. I scraped the hardening snow’s surface with my blood-covered gloves and placed the frozen ice crystals in the pot on the stove. The ice quickly melted and became a boiling pink-colored mixture of water and blood.

I poured the burning liquid into my tea-laden cup and drank, ignoring the scalding of my mouth and tongue. I inhaled three Snickers bars and immediately felt nauseous. I couldn’t afford to throw up – the loss of this life-sustaining liquid and nourishment would be fatal. I took several deep breaths and calmed myself. The queasiness passed and I began the ardous task of unpacking my narrow sleeping bag and squeezing into it. This seemed physically impossible, given that my swollen and frostbitten feet were encased in razor-sharp crampon-covered mountaineering boots. I feared that the cold and the injury would eat away at my will to care. I knew that the fight for my life was just beginning.

- See Part 4 below



Swept away by the ‘broom of God’
by Mark Brontsema

Part 4

– Continued from Dec. 8, 2004 issue
Published Dec. 15, 2004


All my life I've been
searching for something,
Something never comes,
never leads to nothing,
Nothing satisfies,
but I'm getting close,
Closer to the prize
at the end of the rope.
All night long I dream
of the day,
Then it comes around
and it's taken away,
Leaves me with the feeling that I feel the most,
Feel it come to life
when I see your ghost.
– Dave Grohl, All My Life

Trying to get into the zipperless sleeping bag feet-first with frozen cramponed boots proved impossible. I took out my knife and cut a small six-inch breathing hole at the foot of the sleeping bag and slid the bag over my head and torso. I was “wearing” the sleeping bag upside down – my feet slightly stuck out of the open end. With my arms crossed over my stomach and nose sticking out of the slit, I felt like a cursed Egyptian mummy – buried alive, suspended between purgatory and hell.

It was the night of the new moon, the darkest of the month. The cloud-covered skies smothered the light of the stars – it was pitch black. The howling wind tore at my womb-like sleeping bag and my sanity. I felt like a helpless fetus about to be aborted by a cold steel hanger.

After hours of being tormented by the wind, I fell into a coma-like sleep. The darkness now entered the deepest corners of my fragile mind. I saw myself facing a black marble headstone with no inscription, as if saying I was a nameless and empty being without beginning or end. The disturbing nature of the nightmare jerked me violently awake. My heart was racing; my breathing short and shallow. The small slit I had made in the sleeping bag to help me breathe had become sealed with ice particles from my moist breath – I gasped for air. Disoriented, I tore at the ripstop nylon like Houdini trying to escape from his fateful straight-jacketed last performance.

As I emerged from the sleeping bag, the sun hit me full face. Despite the bright sky, my spirits sank when I discovered that more than half of my gear had blown off the ledge during the night and now lay thousands of feet below me. My right ankle had quit bleeding, but my foot was hideously bent in an unnatural position.

I thought of Chuck; tears burned my eyes. I knew I wouldn’t be able to survive another night alone on this rock without hope. The possibility of rescue was at least a week away. I thought of the irony of it all: that it was the mountains that had given me a reason to live; now it would be the reason I would die. I had fallen off the edge of the known universe.

I tried desperately to rekindle the almost-extinguished fire of life in me. With the last of my hammered spirit and body, I crawled on my stomach and gathered what was left of my remaining equipment – the stove with a half-full fuel bottle, two quarts of water, a cooking pot and lid, a lighter, the sleeping bag, and a knife. The food, extra water, ropes, first-aid kit, and dry clothing were gone. I had just enough to keep myself barely alive for another day or two.

The ledge I was on was covered with a considerable amount of snow from the avalanche. While laying on my left side, I used the pot lid to dig a narrow trench through the middle of the deepest pile. By late afternoon I had finished removing a three-foot by seven-foot section of snow. It resembled a grave more than a shelter. I collected my meager gear and made my open-roofed “igloo” as comfortable as I could.

Tired, in pain, hungry and cold, I pulled the sleeping bag over me and waited for the darkness from above – like a priest administering the Last Rites. Without an ounce of energy left, I quickly fell asleep – but, instead of being visited by nightmares, a warm and glowing hand reached out to touch me, to pull me through the doorway in which I was standing. The loving hand offered me peace and an intense, loving warmth I had never known before. The hand beckoned me to pass through the doorway and grasp it.

Yet something held me back – the heavy burden of physical life; its hardships, its pains and its sorrows. It called me by name, and my name weighed heavy with guilt; the guilt of a unredeemed life. My name blended with the wind and I slowly drifted out of my dream and back into the cold reality of this world.

As I lay there I could hear the distant sound of someone yelling. Was salvation at hand, or had I finally gone insane?

- See Part 5 below



Swept away by the ‘broom of God’
by Mark Brontsema

Part 5
(Conclusion)
– Continued from Dec. 15, 2004 issue
Published Dec. 22, 2004


“Run and tell all of the angels
This could take all night
Think I need a devil to help me get things right
Hook me up a new revolution
’Cause this one is a lie
We sat around laughing and watched the last one die
I'm looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright...”
– Foo Fighters, Learn To Fly

The yelling I heard faded in and out with the erratic rhythm of the cruel wind. As I lay in the snow of my roofless shelter, I watched the drifting clouds take shape. The largest of these clouds took the form of Chuck, lying motionless among jagged boulders and bleached bones; his face grimacing with pain, his eyes cold and still.

My mind wandered into that grey area between light and shadow … insanity can become so real that it just isn’t insanity anymore. I felt it would be easier to die than to make sense of the painful memories that haunted me.

Something shook me back into consciousness. I slowly came to and focused on the blurred shape above me.

“Hey, amigo, you look like hell!” It was Ian. Peter, Fredrick and Ian had attempted a different route on Cerro Torre than Chuck and I, and had also failed to summit because of the storm. Instead of rappelling directly back down to base camp, they traversed across the rime-covered granite to the ledge I was on. It was pure dumb luck that they had spotted me.

Ian, who had spent most of his life in the African bush, took one look at my blood-soaked and torn clothing, said, “Damn! You look like you were attacked by a lion.”

I was so dehydrated my blood felt like it was as thick as crystallized syrup. Only my basic mental functions of sight and hearing remained. As my fellow climbers nursed my wounds, a barrage of questions ensued. I was only able to mumble that Chuck was dead. Exhausted from uttering those few words, I quickly fell back into a stupor.

For the first time in my life, I would become the rescued instead of the rescuer – a role I would not adapt well to. While Fredrick served me hot tea, painkillers and dried fruit, Ian and Peter rigged their ropes to lower me several thousand vertical feet to the valley below. The process of re-rigging the ropes every 150 feet to each established anchor point with an injured climber in tow would be tedious and highly dangerous.

I was an emaciated spectator, unable to help with the easiest of tasks – nothing more than dead weight. As I was lowered from the overhanging walls, Ian was alongside of me, keeping my injured body as stable as he could against the spinning effect of the wind. I couldn’t feel anything but cold from my waist down. The swaying of the rope, along with the drugs, gave me a feeling of weightlessness, which put me into a relaxed, comatose sleep.

Hours turned into days. I was never conscious long enough to retain any memorable realities. I do remember the heavy diesel-laden air in the bus as I endured the rough ride into town, and a doctor at the small spartan clinic in Punta Arenas. Looking down at me, he spoke Spanish with a serious tone – I understood little except the warmth of the morphine he injected into my protruding veins. A kaleidoscope of broken images and muffled sounds marked my surreal journey back to the States.

My physical recovery took several years, although my mangled right leg has never fully healed. The emotional scars, however, would be with me for the rest of my life.

The reoccurring theme of fighting for my life on ice-covered pinnacles would wear thin after 25 years of trespassing above the clouds and leaving friends behind, frozen in place and in time. The unforgettably sad memories feel like a cancer that will slowly eat me alive. I no longer have the will to fight those demons in the mist, in my mind. I thought the past struggles for survival were like ice and would melt away with time. But they remain as crystal-clear and cold as the day they were created.

How many deep experiences and memories of love and death can one soul endure in a lifetime without going mad? I’m sure I’ll find out soon. The remaining strength I have is reserved for my dreams – to be with those I left behind among those distant mountains that part the clouds.

The rope attached to me now is not connected to another friend or climber, but the phantom boulder that missed me on that fateful and horrible day. It plunges into the abyss below me and I knowingly await its pull and to be swept away by la escoba de Dios – the broom of God.



Spirits in the stone
by Mark Brontsema

Part 1: Ghosts of the past
Published September 22, 2004 issue


“When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”
– Chief Aupumut,
Mohican, 1725

There is a place in the Grand Canyon, a secluded one, to which I have been drawn back many times over the years – and not because of its beauty. I am pulled to it with the longing of one to his birthplace; an environment possessed with the pain of birth and the finality of death. A sadness overwhelms me as I approach it, like that of visiting a loved one’s grave. I return for something lost; something not realized – an inexplicable yearning for answers to unknown questions. This place has a hold on me like no other.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Looking down into the Grand Canyon and the chasm, down which I will need to negotiate to get to the “sacred” petroglyph.

On this trip, I am alone. I hike deep into the Kaibab forest, where there are no trails – stepping over fallen branches and altering my course constantly due to the irregularity of natural tree growth. There are no straight lines to where I am going. The air I breathe is filled not with sweet scent of pine, but of dust. A drought has plagued this forest for years, and I feel as though my heavy boots will ignite the dry twigs snapping at my feet below. My pack is heavy, not with gear and gadgets, but with the only life-giving substance of any value here – water.

I continue to hike without compass or landmarks. I am pulled to the distant Canyon’s rim like steel shavings drawn to a magnet. After an hour of hiking from where I left the truck, the forest gives way to pockmarked limestone ledges and a view of the Grand Canyon that few will ever see. The spirits below await me. But they will have to wait until morning. It is late afternoon and the emotionally draining hike has left me fatigued. I drop my pack and spread out my sleeping pad and bag. I left the tent behind; it seemed like a luxury item in this stark landscape. I felt its presence would offend whatever ancient and spiritual forces remained.

I slide into my sleeping bag and watch the sun as it gently sets behind mysterious and distant sandstone temples. My eyelids grow heavy and I drift to sleep. But, somewhere between dusk and dawn, I have a foreboding dream. I am at home sitting at my desk. A small lamp behind me casts my shadow on the wall in front of me. Slowly, a dark shadow begins to materialize on top of mine; it continues to grow and take on an unearthly and eerie shape. The manifestation begins to overwhelm my shadow. It is without any defined shape, but it becomes denser and darker than the deepest and most frigid of oceans. As it approaches me from behind, I feel its ominous presence. I feel the life draining from my limbs.

Startled, I awake from this seemingly real nightmare, shaking from the cold and fear. As my mind slowly shifts from a dream state into reality, my eyes desperately try to focus on the inky blackness of the night; my pupils dilating to catch even the smallest beacon of light. The moonless and cloud-covered sky keep even the brightest of stars from giving me a bearing. In the absence of light, the dark prevails. The only sound was that of my palpitating heart. The Canyon to my right and the forest to my left remained silent.

I had also left my flashlight behind. I knew that a light aimed in the forest would only produce shadows and cause one’s imagination to see God-knows-what, imagined or real. A light aimed into the vastness of the Canyon would only be swallowed by the impenetrable black void, leaving me still more unsettled. I lay motionless; only my sense of hearing – magnified by the lack of sight – remained.

But the overwhelming silence of my surroundings slowly lulls me back into a dreamless sleep.
I am awakened by a gentle Canyon sunrise. It welcomes me on the small patch of ground I share with pine cones and sagebrush. I shake off the evening nightmare with a cup a coffee and an energy bar. I look out into the Canyon. The only sound comes from the melancholy chirping of a Canyon wren, which darts from one ledge to another.

I go over the day’s schedule of “activities” in my mind. I will try and retrace my steps from years past down through the rugged limestone walls which protect and hide my objective – a magical petroglyph that stands alone among petroglyphs.

I pack enough water and food for two days, even though I hopefully plan on being back by nightfall. Within a hundred yards, the terrain becomes steep. I slide down a loose scree slope littered with sharp jagged rocks that begin to roll down with me. There are three of these slopes; each about 100 feet in height and separated by short, narrow deer trails. I will have to carefully negotiate my way down this fluid maze. A misstep here could send me careening out of control into the large boulders below.

– See Part 2 below



Spirits in the stone
by Mark Brontsema

Part 2: Hidden artifacts
Published September 29, 2004 issue

PHOTOS BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Hidden in a remote area of the Grand Canyon are wind-carved grottos bearing pottery and other ancient artifacts.

A variety of beautifully painted pottery shards and sharp arrowheads – fragments of a ancient culture that mysteriously vanished from the Grand Canyon.

Below
An ax believed to be from the early Spanish explorers of the mid-15th-century.

As with any trip into the wilds, one needs to exercise caution. Traveling solo magnifies this need tenfold. You need an adventurer’s mind, but a cautious body – and to be prepared for the unexpected. The adrenaline-induced excitement of discovery, though, can lead even the most seasoned of explorers to doom.

This wilderness logic echoes through my mind as I continue to slide down the loose scree slopes. I am in a squatted position; one leg extended out with the other tucked under me as I sit on the heel of my boot and slide like a 10-year-old on a toboggan. I reach the bottom of the slope, stand up, brush off the grey dust on my pants and walk out to my next obstacle – a series of ledges resembling the staircase in a giant’s decaying castle.

The way down at first does not seem apparent. I walk along its edge to find a weakness in the rock for me to enter; a route that won’t lead me to a dead end. I find a spot that seems vulnerable to my scrambling abilities and crawl down, one ledge to the next. Within a matter of minutes, I have reached the base of the Coconino limestone, the third geological layer from the rim of the Canyon.

I realize where I am and get that uneasy sense of being watched. Just below me and to my right is an Anasazi burial ledge I discovered years before. Several splintered bones could still be seen protruding from the powdery dirt of their resting place. Quietly I tiptoe pass it and out onto a limestone deck with a drop-off that brought back an old feeling from my childhood – a fear of heights; acrophobia.

I began to seriously wonder why I was there. Maybe I just liked to torment myself. I still wasn’t sure what I sensed; it had no clear definition. The many years confined to sepia-toned cities left me with little insight to this world of spirits.

I descend another 100 feet and come upon a weathered sandstone wall. This one is covered with dozens of small, shallow, wind-carved caves; the largest of which is maybe five feet in height and length. I peer into it. Painted pottery shards, arrowheads and split-twig figurines litter the floor. Above lies a smaller chamber. I climb up to it and discover several clay pots, completely intact except for a small chip on the larger of the two. The intricate spiderweb-like designs painted on them almost looked modern. I marvel at these ancient urns for several minutes, but my foothold is unstable and I climb back down.

The Anasazi and Cohonina were known to have populated these regions from A.D. 500 to 1500 and then disappeared from the Canyon. One hundred and fifty years later, the Cerbat, ancestors of the present-day Hualapai and Havasupai, inhabited these lands. Twenty-four years ago, when I first visited this spot with my friend Chuck, he came upon an extremely rusted iron ax almost completely buried in the dirt of one of the deeper ledges. Another friend of mine, an archeologist who had been on digs across the Southwest, studied the photos I had taken of the ax. He believed that the early Spanish explorers of the mid-1500s probably traded it to the native peoples that occupied these lands. How it found its way here to this remote ledge was a mystery. I check several more of the sandstone grottos and find the ax – it is still there after all these years. I take several photos and leave everything as I found it.

I continue along a narrow section of ledges covered with fissures and cracks, and carefully work my way down to my goal – a well-hidden and cryptic petroglyph.

– See Conclusion below



Spirits in the stone
by Mark Brontsema

Conclusion: In search of the Ancient Ones
Published October 6, 2004 issue


“… Mystical answers
are sought
From the stars which fill
The vastness of
the dark sky.
What shall our path be
Oh, Spirit Guide?
To live in a world
Which only wishes
us to die?
Our ways shall come back;
For now we wait,
Our Spirits in
dormancy lie.
Till the Ancient ones awaken
And hearken to our CRY!
– Medicine Wolf,
“The Ancients”

The ledge I traverse is about two feet wide. To my back is an overhanging, smooth and unclimbable sandstone wall; below me a drop-off of 20 feet. I am restricted to this narrow walkway, which is covered with course sandstone grit, amplifying the shuffling of my feet like sandpaper against sandpaper.

Small prickly pear cactus grow out of some of the larger cracks on the ledge. I carefully step over them, but, in trying to keep my balance, brush up against them. The shins of my legs are now covered with the fine needles of these “guardians” to the petroglyphs I am seeking.
PHOTOS BY MARK BRONTSEMA

On a remote and distant wall in the Grand Canyon is a solitary figure overlooking the petroglyphs in the photo below.

Could these ancient petroglyphs represent what astronomers know as sungrazing comets? Or are they celestial symbols foretelling the demise of a long-vanished people?


I could only imagine how the Anasazi had covered this same ground. What research has been done about them indicates they were a spiritual people with an intimate relationship with the earth and the celestial heavens. They were short, which would have been an advantage on this ledge. My 6-foot-4-inch frame keeps me slightly off-balance on the narrowing ledge, with the wall next to me curving out against me.

Twenty minutes later, I come upon a 4-foot break in the ledge. To proceed, I have to jump this short chasm, the other side of which is covered with loose rocks. Maintaining my balance, I carefully remove my pack and throw it to the other side of the chasm. I take a deep breath and leap. I land ungracefully, but am glad not to have sprained an ankle on the wobbly rocks at my feet.

The ledge now takes a distinct turn to my right and leads down to a larger ledge, which is at the base of a crevice I have to climb to get to the petroglyphs. Once on this ledge, I take a water and snack break, looking out at the intimate landscape of the Grand Canyon before me. It is early afternoon and the bright sunlight reflects off the red rock walls, whitewashing its otherwise deep colors.

As I sit here daydreaming, I can almost hear the faint dialect of an ancient people who vanished from this area hundreds of years ago. This humble area did not possess any dwellings, granaries, or signs of farming. It was steep and barren, with a haunting yet esoteric depth about it. This was a place of ritual.

I get up, but leave my pack on the ground and walk over to the crevice. This vertical crack leads to the ledge that records in rock an event whose meaning I can only guess to understand.

Despite years of climbing on a variety of rock surfaces, this crevice is difficult even for me to ascend. The crack is too large for a good handhold and too small for a toehold. I slip several times in an attempt to get off the ground, but finally find that by unnaturally jamming my arm in its shallow depths I can move upward. I feel shaky, but my height finally pays off and I quickly reach the lip of the ledge and pull myself over and onto it.

The only petroglyphs adorning the floor of the ledge are what look like a planet eclipsing the sun. Below it are a pair of comet-like symbols, each headed in opposite directions. The head of one is filled in; the other is not. Could they possibly represent what astronomers know as sungrazing comets? If these aboriginal people would have been able to see one of these comets crossing over the sun with the naked eye, it would have been a very impressive event and one worth recording. It is skillfully carved into the sandstone and, because of its location on the ledge, is protected from the elements.

Several feet away is a wall – blank, with the exception of a lone petroglyph of a man facing down at the “comets.” The man’s legs are curled inward and look like they are broken at the ankles; his arms are held out, but his hands are pointed strangely to the ground. It looks like an Anasazi version of the Crucifixion. Could these symbols depict a celestial event that marked the time when a shaman or leader had died? My gut feeling tells me that it is. I study the petroglyphs further and try to open my mind to other possibilities, but none come.

It’s getting late and I need to get back to my campsite. I climb back down, pick up my pack and head out the same way I came. The going is slightly easier as I retrace my steps and emerge from the Canyon before dusk.

The campsite is a welcome oasis. I crawl into my sleeping bag and watch a cloudless sky become black and slowly reveal the first of many stars that appear that evening. I lay in wait and reflect on those mystical petroglyphs and their possible meaning. The constellations Orion and Pleiades come into focus and I realize that, like the Canyon itself, the petroglyphs are a symbol of the fragility of this unique landscape; a monument to all that is evanescent.



Dread, desires and dreams
by Mark Brontsema

Published August 25, 2004 issue


“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
– Jack London

Over the years I have been asked a number of times why I risk life and limb pursuing such a risky and foolish activity as rock climbing. Most people shudder at the thought of vertical heights and falling – after all, it is one of the most deeply rooted fears we have. So why pursue it? The momentary rush or adrenaline-pumping effect it has on us can be addictive. Risk-takers such as rock climbers, white-water kayakers, surfers and BASE jumpers are known to embrace and overcome challenge in all its forms.

PHOTO BY THIERRRY RENAULT

My greatest fear lies not on an obscure vertical rock face, but in the eyes of a woman I’ll never know.

Watching others take unnecessary risks from the safety of our living rooms is what most consider to be “normal.” “Visual-risk” entertainment is a “drug” we readily seek in this bored and limited-attention-span society in which we live. Some risk-takers believe these “armchair” adventurers have found a comfortable prison in which to hide from risk. Their days of excitement, learning, growth and creative energy are long gone.

But participants of high-risk activities are considered by many to be anomalies and basically unbalanced characters.

Being one of these “anomalies” has put me and my fellow comrades outside the norm of society – black sheep, forever cursed to be hooked on an ever-increasing dose of intoxicating adrenaline. Like a smoker who has been told the number of health problems he’ll face if he continues his folly, warnings fall on deaf ears. The addiction can overwhelm the senses and logic. Adrenaline highs can also have another effect on oneself – a feeling of being unique and very different in a world that is inhabited by clones.

Uniqueness has many forms. The illusion of knowing you are capable of what most people are incapable of can be very ego satisfying. Of course, herein lies the dilemma. Emotional and intellectual strengths must sometimes be taken from other aspects of your ego to feed the other – an imbalance in the psyche can occur.

In my case, years on the rock have left me with a multitude of permanent physical and psychological scars. I have spent weeks in hospitals and I.C. units. From head to toe, my body has jagged stitch marks resembling those sewn by a poorly paid, arthritic seamstress rather than by a qualified doctor. I have even flatlined on several occasions and was revived via defibrillators. Does this give me bragging rights? Has my vision of the world become clearer or been given more depth? Has it made me wiser? Smarter? Not really. These are experiences that just make me who I am. If I lose that, I lose myself. I don’t want my pain taken away; I need my pain.

Seeing one’s friends die in the mountains because of poor judgement or the uncontrollable forces of nature can be very sobering. I have, in the last several years, become more vulnerable because the ghosts of my past actions have come back to haunt me. The fears that I once kept safely locked in the deepest recesses of my mind are now peeking out with more frequency.

Many people have an assortment of anxieties and fears – some justified, some not – from spiders to armadillos to speaking in public. For me, it’s bank tellers. Whenever I make a deposit or withdrawal, I watch the teller’s eyes focus on a computer monitor with a complete view of my pathetic economic history. I’m naked – I cringe. Looking back at me with telling eyes, they hand me a receipt and tell me to “have a great day.” But as I walk away I can hear their thoughts – “what a loser this guy is.”
Some of my fears I’ve overcome in the last several decades. Others, which I never conquered in the past, have become magnified.

My greatest fear arises several times a month and by circumstance. I come into contact with a certain, rather beautiful woman. This woman is also a bank teller, which further magnifies the fear factor for me. Her deep, dark and glittering eyes penetrate mine. Her voice vibrates within the hollows of my heart. In my mind’s eye I clearly see a vision of how things could be. I become weak. What is left of my charm dissipates into thin air. My armor over the years has become rusty and lost its sheen. I instantly transform into a stuttering, fumbling, pimple-faced 16-year-old. Whatever self-confidence and courage I had that enabled me to ascend daring peaks now fails me. I try to respond to her questions with wit and humor. My mind goes blank. I answer instead with the flatness of an untuned saxophone. I’ve tried a dozen times to ask her out for coffee, but the words always become as heavy as lead and remain in the back of my throat for me to choke on later.

I finally drummed up the nerve to send her flowers and a card. A week later she called me to tell me she was seriously dating someone and wasn’t interested. My dream bubble had been burst.

I realize that some adventures are never to be. Like exotic and foreign places I’ve never travelled to and know I never will. Like the things I’ve never done and know I never will. Like that unsuspecting teller, who I know I could never ask out. Are they illusions or merely delusions? Or are they unrealistic desires to be converted into dreams, dreams to be placed in the deep abysses of our souls? Dreams that are not to be acted on or realized, but ones that will forever be just that – our dreams.



White tiger, brown bear
by Mark Brontsema

Published July 21, 2004 & Oct. 22, 2003 issues

The powerful grizzly or brown bear – Ursus arctos horribilis – Latin for “bear horrible.”

I have been considering another sea kayaking trip to Alaska in August and, in retrospect, I'm reminded of an incident that occured in October of last year which I wrote about. Timothy Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, were killed by a grizzly bear at their remote campsite in Katmai National Park in Alaska. Treadwell, co-author of the best-selling book “Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska,” had spent the last 13 years in the park. Overcoming drug addiction, Treadwell founded Grizzly People, a grassroots organization devoted to preserving bears and their wilderness habitat. Treadwell had a strong philosophy of living without weapons or fire in the wilderness. He spent the summers in Katmai not only studying and photographing the bears but also acting as a deterrent to poachers.

One of the most unsettling things about the attack was that it was captured on tape. Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments were recorded as they screamed for their lives while a bear tore them apart and later partially ate them. A ranger, charged by a grizzly just minutes after arriving on the scene, had to empty both a 12-gauge shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol into the bear before it finally fell, just 12 feet away. The tragedy continued when a second aggressive grizzly was shot and killed as it approached rangers trying to load the victims’ remains onto a small plane.

The chilling story had a significant effect on me. I have spent years backpacking in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming, Glacier National Park in Montana, Glacier Bay and Denali National Parks in Alaska – all prime habitats for brown and grizzly bears.

The grizzly bear is an omnivore and a poor predator. But years of digging in hard, barren ground for one of their main dietary staples – roots – have evolved them into an enormous mass of bone and muscle, roughly 10 times our own for a given size. Their size and raw power is unequaled in the animal world; they are the undisputed king of the beasts.

In 19th-century California, grizzlies were placed in pits with bulls for betting purposes. The grizzlies shattered the ill-fated bulls’ skulls so easily that the betting became poor. To raise the stakes, African lions were imported and pitted against the grizzlies, but the brave lions were killed just as quickly as the bulls.

Last year, while sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, I had my closest contact with a grizzly. Sticking my head out of my tent, I came face to face with a large male. It ignored me and, after about 20 minutes, slowly walked away. The experience – at first one of fear – quickly transformed into one of wonder and amazement. It was an encounter that has overshadowed every one of my past outdoor experiences. It will always remain a special moment in my life.

Treadwell – who has been compared to Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall – was an expert on bears and took time to talk in classrooms; his videos and exceptional photos reached children and adults alike. His methods were considered by many to be foolhardy and at odds with the National Park Service, but the more I read about Treadwell, the more I related to his wilderness ideology and philosophy – no matter its flaws and dangers. His 13-year-long passion with the grizzly gave him insights into the bear that few will ever realize.

In a ironic 1994 interview, Treadwell prophetically said, “I don’t want my remains found by the public. I don’t want it known that I am killed by a bear. The greatest disservice I could do the bears is to die at the paws of one. It would reinforce the ‘bearanoia’ that could result in getting those bears killed.”

Was Treadwell tempting fate, or was he so devoted to the grizzly that the benefits and knowledge far outweighed the risks? Or was he someone who respected Mother Nature but refused to live by her rules? Or was he doing the bears something of a disservice, conditioning them to a benign human presence in areas where they are hunted for game. In a completely opposite environment and happening only six days before Treadwell’s death, Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy fame was attacked by one of his “trained” white tigers during a show in Las Vegas. Roy flatlined for 30 seconds before being revived, and remains in critical condition. It is still not known what caused the tiger to “attack,” or if it was trying to protect Roy by dragging him off the stage.

In Las Vegas, the land of illusion, it has been reported by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that Siegfried and Roy’s 63 lions, tigers and one wild-caught female elephant are kept in a deprived environment. PETA also says, “Seigfried and Roy have fooled people for years into believing that they breed white tigers for the sake of conservation, when white tigers are not endangered – they’re not even considered a species but simply an aberrant color variation of Bengal tigers … All captive white tigers are inbred, which has led to serious congenital defects … Breeding white tigers serves no conservation purpose and is done solely for its amusement and profit value. While normal tigers are sold for around $500, white tigers can be sold for between $25,000 and $100,000 each.

“The entertainment industry, through acts such as Feld Entertainment’s Siegfried and Roy, tries to legitimize casino acts and carnival sideshows with breeding programs for the ‘nearly extinct white tiger,’ when in fact they are propagating genetic freaks.”
In a August 2000 Esquire article Roy was quoted as saying, “Women and tigers are exactly alike. They have the same temperament, emotions, and vulnerabilities. They must be spoken to softly – but it doesn’t hurt to carry a big stick just in case.”

It will be interesting to see how history will judge these controversial incidents. Did Treadwell and Huguenard deserve such a violent fate? And what of Seigfried and Roy – will they continue to provide “wild” animal entertainment to the masses in the comfort of resort-like casinos? In a quickly shrinking world, will this be the fate of all our natural predators – to be subjugated and trained to jump through hoops of fire for our amusement?

Who, in the end, will be considered a courageous animal rights advocate and who will be judged a self-serving one? Or were they blinded by greed or the illusuion that the natural world knows no allies?



The nexus and nemesis of travel
by Mark Brontsema
Published May 19, 2004 issue

Part 1: But it's a dry heat

It was late June as we entered the infamous and desolated land of sand, borax and rocks – Death Valley National Park. The temperature gauge on my old Isuzu Trooper was reading in the red as it labored up another steep hill of molten asphalt.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Lora walking to the top of one of the largest dunes in Death Valley.

I had planned a climbing trip to Yosemite with Lora, my girlfriend at the time. I persuaded her that the shortest distance between two points – Carefree to Yosemite – would involve driving through one of her least favorite places: Death Valley. Our last trip through the Valley in the middle of summer caused tempers to rise even quicker than a thermometer at Furnace Creek, one of the area’s lowest spots. But I never claimed to be smart, and this trip would be another example of my short-term memory.

Death Valley is an extreme place with a Biblical landscape. Its stark beauty can be riveting. It is one of the hottest and driest spots in North America, with an average rainfall of less than two inches. At 282 feet below sea level, it possesses the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental United States.

I have always been attracted to extreme real estate, and Death Valley certainly qualifies. Maybe its similarities to hell is what draws me and my warped psyche to it. I figure the more time I spend there, the more I’ll be acclimated to the real thing when I get there.
Traversing Death Valley’s sand dunes stirs the imagination. Romantic visions of T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) cresting one of these surrealistic dunes in flowing bedouin attire or French Foreign Legionnaires, holding their ground against all odds, come to mind. But my dreams of heroic actions in remote deserts were quickly extinguished by the flashing temperature light on my dashboard. If it was 120 degrees outside in the shade, in the direct sunlight it had to have been well over 160.

Lora suggested shutting off the air conditioner and rolling down the windows to help cool the motor down. As we cautiously cranked the windows down, the vacuum of Mojave heat sucked out the remaining cool air in the vehicle – as if we had decompressed from 30,000 feet. We gasped as the superheated air filled our lungs. Even though we had spent most of our lives in the Sonoran desert, we were still impressed by the magnitude of this heat.

As we continued across the bleak expanse of salt flats, day turned into night. The heat remained constant. My plans of camping out under the stars evaporated as quickly as water in this low humidity desert air.

We pulled into Stovepipe Wells close to midnight and checked into the only hotel around for miles. We were hot, tired and dirty. Sleeping in a air-conditioned room with a bed would be our only reprieve from the long drive. The room looked like a rundown version of Roy Rogers’ childhood bedroom, decorated with cowhide lamps and its walls adorned with tacky cowboy art from the early 1950s. The bed felt like World War II army surplus.

The air conditioner was a window-mounted unit that looked and sounded like it was assembled during the early Apollo moon missions. Even on its coldest setting, it kept the room at a balmy 90 degrees – but still 30 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. The lifeless cockroaches on the floor looked like they had died from heat exhaustion. We were still uncomfortably warm.

I went into the bathroom to take a cold shower. I turned the calcium-encrusted knob to cold, but only scorching hot discolored water sprayed out. After running the water for 10 minutes without any noticeable temperature difference, I called the front desk. They informed me that all the plumbing ran outside and was directly exposed to the burning sun and wouldn’t cool down until early morning.

I tried to fall asleep, but found it impossible under these circumstances. Lora, on the other hand, had no such problem. The sound of snoring coming through the thin walls actually drowned out the air conditioner’s rusty and grinding fan – it was going to be a long night.

As I lay there sweating, I could only hope that the tall granite walls of Yosemite would be kinder.

– See Part 2 below



The nexus and nemesis of travel
by Mark Brontsema
Published June 2, 2004 issue

Part 2: Road warriors


"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
– John Muir

Leaving our heinous hotel early in the morning was essential to avoid overheating my Trooper. At 6 in the morning, the temperature was already nearing the 110-degree mark. Lora took the steering wheel while I checked the map for shortcuts.
PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Climbers (center) on a popular route called “Great White Book” on Stately Pleasure Dome.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Looking up at the white granite face of Fairview Dome. It measures 1000 feet from base to summit.


The vast emptiness of Death Valley could be measured in some areas by the straight single-lane highways that disappeared into the distant heat-wave-ribboned horizon. There wasn’t a car to be seen for miles ahead of or behind us. The temptation to put the pedal-to-the-metal with only turkey vultures as witnesses was enticing.

Undistinguished salt flats and barren summits provided the only scenery. Under the planet’s fieriest sun, the motto here is “hike until you combust.” On the positive side, most tourists will not leave the comforts of their air-conditioned cars to explore this endless and gripping landscape. Hikers and backpackers can find solitude here like no other park in the lower 48 states.

But Lora and I aren’t playing tourists on this trip. Leaving Death Valley, we feel more like evacuees than sightseers. Having both had our share of epic adventures in desert heat, we drive on to cooler landscapes. After hours in the “saddle,” we long for an out-of-vehicle experience.

Our road trip to Yosemite takes us through Darwin, Lone Pine and Big Pine, small nondescript towns in the once-fertile Owens Valley, whose sole existence now seems to be providing food and gas for travelers heading north. We fill up, stretch, eat a late lunch and use the rest room – leaving behind our only contribution to the area.

The High Sierras, including Mount Whitney, begin to dominate our view through the windshield. At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the tallest point in the contiguous United States and stands just 85 miles from the lowest point, in Death Valley. We pull over. Lora, who has a wealth of knowledge of this area, shares it with me as she points out the various landmarks and peaks. She talks about her ascent of this grand peak years ago in less than favorable weather.

We drive on through the town of Bishop, home to the late climber and wilderness photographer Galen Rowell. Rowell’s photos have adorned National Geographic magazines for years, and his best-selling book “Mountain Light” is a personal favorite of mine.

We continue along the fringes of the Palisades, the Minarets and Mono Lake, which is 2-1/2 times as salty and 80 times as alkaline as the ocean. Its strange-looking “tufa towers” of calcium-carbonate rise like large stalagmites out of the lake. The “shortcut” through Death Valley has added an element of raw, natural beauty to our trip.

We turned off at Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park, heading to Tuolumne Meadows campground, our final destination and climbing base camp.

Yosemite is also a place of extremes – its smooth granite walls are among the largest in the world. It’s steep and it’s serious-looking. At over 9,500 feet, Tuolumne Meadows resembles a green ocean, broken only by huge, intimidating granite domes. We are blinded by its beauty.

Lora and I set up our shelter, a huge North Face dome tent known as the “Himalayan Hotel.” It offers plenty of room, but – with its six long support poles – can be tedious to erect, especially in high winds.

It had been over 18 years since I had climbed in Yosemite Valley. My last climb was on El Capitan’s Nose route; three days and 3,000 feet later I was on top.
I hoped this trip would rekindle the flame of confidence I once had on these big walls. Lora, being a competent and meticulous rock climber, was looking forward to the challenge.

Lora’s beauty on the rock was that of a graceful ballerina. She was very conscious of her abilities – as well as her inabilities – on the rock. She added a grounding as well as a high safety factor to all of our climbs together.

We spent our first evening in the chilled mountain air next to a small campfire. We skimmed over climbing route books to find a climb we would both feel comfortable on, but still challenged. I chose a horrendous and scary-looking route on Fairview, the largest granite dome in the area. Lora, fully aware of my ageing climbing abilities, suggested something a little less intimidating.

We both finally agreed on a route and turned in for the night. The tall vertical granite walls, like the giant Titans of Greek mythology, awaited us.

– See Part 3 below



The nexus and nemesis of travel
by Mark Brontsema
Published June 16, 2004 issue

Part 3: Moments of doubt


"Rocks make no compromise for sex … rock climbing is not like some sports, where it is made easier for women; or sports like, say, softball, which is only baseball for soft people. On a rock, everything is equal.”
– Beverly Johnson,
climber

Awakening to the crisp, cold mountain air of Yosemite was a pleasant switch from the suppressing, oven-like heat of Death Valley. Donning my light down jacket, I fired up the camp stove and heated some java for Lora and myself. I hoped the dark brew would motivate Lora out of the comfortable tent and into cooking my lazy ass some breakfast.
PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Lora belays Trevor on the first pitch of our climb.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

With Trevor belaying her from above, Lora nears the top of the second pitch as we climb Yosemite’s Stately Pleasure Dome.

The climb we had chosen while looking at our books the evening before was said to be a beautiful and relatively easy route on Cathedral Peak – the perfect “warm-up” before attempting one of the more intimidating domes. With its sweeping white granite buttresses, the aptly named Cathedral Peak is a prominent Tuolumne Meadows landmark.

Tuolumne is famous for its right-off-the-road climbing. Parking your vehicle within feet of the rock face makes it ideal for those of us who hate to hike but love to climb.

Our chosen climb, however, required a long approach hike through high alpine meadows and along Budd Lake. Lora liked this fact; she felt it would add some additional “color” to our Yosemite trip.

I, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy hauling heavy climbing equipment and ropes any further than I had to. The narrow climbing pack had a minimum of padding, and I usually found myself being stabbed in the back by the shifting aluminum climbing gear – making sightseeing less than enjoyable.

Just moments before we were to begin the long trek to Cathedral Peak, we were told by several passing hikers that two climbers had fallen to their deaths the day before on the very route we had chosen to climb.

Lora and I looked at each other and, with the residue of death hanging in the air, decided to go climb elsewhere.

We opted for some shorter climbs to familiarize ourselves with the rock. The climbing route book suggested several within our capabilities. Unfortunately, the guide book was not forthcoming with details – a common and notorious reality in the world of climbing. Lora and I scrambled to the base of several climbing walls. We failed to see any distinct handholds or fingerholds on the featureless rock to indicate an actual route a mere mortal could ascend.

Towards midday we spotted a rock face with several vertical cracks on it. It’s the first of several climbs that we do find in the route book. Lora was better at climbing on rock faces with small nubbins of rock for finger and footholds. I preferred the more brutal cracks, which often required the donation of one’s flesh.

The short but difficult 3-inch-wide crack we were now climbing required inserting a hand in, thumbs up, and forcing it into a partial fist. The friction created by skin against coarse granite, along with utilizing the feet properly, made upward movement possible.

After several hours of “playing” on the rock, we called it a day. As we gathered up the gear, I glanced at Lora’s hands, the back of which looked severely scraped. I pointed this out to her but, surprisingly, she barely complained, and we headed back to our campsite.

We only had one day left in Yosemite and I had promised Lora we would do one of the dome climbs. Unable to find the routes I wanted, I walked over to the campground pay phone, bit the bullet, extinguished my ego, and made the call I had been avoiding – I hired a local climbing guide.

Trevor was young – about 24 years old – and had worked as a climbing guide for six years. He made a meager existence at it, but was doing what he loved – climbing! He said he would meet us at 7 a.m. at the general store down the street from the campground.

The next morning, the three of us headed over to Stately Pleasure Dome, a moderate-size granite dome overlooking Tenaya Lake. The route we had chosen was described in our book as fun, easily accessible, and with amazing views. Despite Lora’s tattered hands, she was still willing to climb anything.

The main highway through the park brought us alongside the impressive dome. We parked my Trooper, got out, and put on our climbing harnesses and rock shoes. A 5-minute approach hike brought us to the base of the climb.

Trevor started up the rock face, with the rope trailing behind him as he placed protection along the way – a variety of aluminum “nuts” and expanding cams which, with the use of carabiners, are clipped into the climbing rope and used to arrest a fall. Lora belayed him from below as we watched him climb effortlessly.
He reached the first belay ledge – about 150 feet off the ground, also known as a “pitch” – and anchored himself to the rock face.
There were four such pitches on this particular climb.

Trevor yelled down to Lora to begin climbing. Lora answered back with the affirmative “Climbing!” and began her ascent as Trevor belayed her from above.

I stood below and watched in silence, awaiting my turn on the rock.

- See Part 4 below



The nexus and nemesis of travel
by Mark Brontsema
Published June 30, 2004 issue

Part 4: Conclusion: At the end of our rope


"The bizarre trend in rock climbers is not the risk they take, but the large degree to which they value life. They are not crazy because they don't dare, they’re crazy because they do. These people tend to enjoy life to the fullest, laugh the hardest, travel the most, and work the least.
– Lisa Morgan, climber

Lora finished the first pitch of the climb up Yosemite’s Stately Pleasure Dome, anchored herself to the belay bolts, and yelled down to me to start climbing. Being the last one to climb on a rope team is easier and less stressful than being the one who leads the climb. You are belayed from above, giving you a feeling of lightness as you climb. A fall is usually arrested quicker, which, when plummeting towards the ground, is a very good thing. You can relax more and enjoy the climb.
PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

With Trevor belaying, Lora makes the final moves to the summit of Stately Pleasure Dome.

PHOTO BY LORA NEU

WThe author rappelling down the steep face of the climbing route.


The opposite is true when lead climbing. A lead climber places protection – such as cams and nuts of various sizes – that must fit precisely into the crack being climbed. Valuable time and energy can be burned up just in placing the right-sized protection. The leader also has to worry about rope drag, the condition of the rock, being on the right route, staying focused and keeping fear at bay. If you fall above your last-placed piece of protection, a plunge of twice that distance can be expected – provided your belayer is awake and the protection holds.

As I climbed up the steep granite face, a small network of cracks and pockets provided me with solid and evenly spaced handholds and footholds. I flowed up the rock with little effort and removed the protection our guide, Trevor, had placed. I reached Lora and Trevor on a small, narrow belay ledge and clipped into the anchors. Three more pitches – about 450 feet – of vertical climbing awaited us. Trevor once again took the lead while Lora belayed him. There was little I could do except watch.

As I waited on the tiny ledge, I had the opportunity to thoroughly check out my surroundings. I stared out at the distant granite domes protruding from the floor of the Yosemite high country. I was amazed at just how beautiful the day was. The weather couldn’t have been nicer and the sky couldn’t have been bluer – a perfect day. With the sun on my face, I began to daydream of previous past ascents in Yosemite and soaked in nature’s radiant splendor. A yell from above brought me back to the ledge on which I was standing and my purpose for being there.

Before I started the second pitch, I rechecked the knot that was tied to my harness. For a brief moment I began to think of Hollywood climbing movies – unrealistic productions, but nonetheless creative and gripping.

In the Sylvester Stallone movie “Cliffhanger,” a girl is seen traversing a rope over an open chasm with thousands of feet of air below her. She wears a small pack on her back with a stuffed teddy bear attached. She loses her grip on the rope and is seen dangling by her harness; she screams. As our buff hero, Stallone, attempts to save her, the main metal buckle on her harness starts to tear unnaturally, like it was made out of taffy. She begins to panic and screams uncontrollably. Stallone reaches out a hand to her. She grabs it, but her grip is like an insincere handshake – her fingers slowly slip through his hand. She screams out that she doesn’t want to die. The buckle breaks and the camera focuses on her terrified face as she and her teddy bear plummet thousands of feet to the rocky ground below.

With that scene in my head, I checked my harness buckle once again and realized I was wearing the exact same type of harness she had. Despite knowing it would take thousands of pounds of force to break the buckle, I still regretted the large breakfast I had eaten. I tried to shake the thought of equipment failure from my head and thanked the gods that I had left my teddy bear back at home.

I continued the climb, which became steeper and more challenging. I took a small slip, but kept my scream of “I don’t want to die” to myself. I repositioned my hands and feet and kept ascending.

The climbing was enjoyable and within my abilities. By early afternoon, Trevor, Lora and I finished the climb and stood on top of Stately Pleasure Dome. We took some pictures and began the multiple rappel back down to my Trooper.
Within an hour we finished descending the 600-foot face and drove Trevor back to the general store, where we parted company. Lora and I returned to the campground and gathered our things for the long drive back to the Sonoran desert.

This trip had been one filled with a variety of sights and extremes. At the time I didn’t realize it, but this would be the last climb I would do with Lora. We both eventually went our separate ways. But, as with most of our adventures together, the excitement – as well as the hardships – we shared in the wilderness will forever make a lasting impression on my soul.




Colorado Outward Bound or bust
by Mark Brontsema
Published March 24, 2004 issue

Part 1: To be or not to be


“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our touch, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
– E. E. Cummings

In the early 1990s I found myself lacking any real direction in my life. I paced back and forth along the dark and empty corridors of lassitude. Just as I was starting to resign myself to this fate – the phone rang.

As with most things in my life, a sudden opportunity at the midnight hour of despair fell into my lap. The Colorado Outward Bound School in Denver called. They had a last-minute cancellation on their coveted Wilderness Therapy Practicum course – would I be interested in attending? They also were willing to give me a $500 reduction on the tuition! I had signed up for this course some six months prior to this, but was put on a one-year waiting list because of its popularity.

The course – held among 14,000-foot peaks in the beautiful Rocky Mountains – was strictly for outdoor educators interested in using the wilderness to instill self-confidence and trust in their students. A variety of proven and unique team-building activities were incorporated to achieve this goal. I would need this valuable educational training if I was to pursue my outdoor teaching.

There was one drawback, though. The instructor on the phone informed me that the course started in just three days. Could I be ready? Excited at the opportunity, I told him without hesitation that it would not be a problem and to go ahead and enroll me.

But there was a problem. I was working for a newspaper that required a 30-day minimum notice for any vacation time taken. Was I willing to loose my job in order to attend this 10-day course?

I was instantly pulled back down to Planet Reality. The prospect of being unemployed, broke and a regular shopper at the local Goodwill store was a face-slapping wake-up call.

But the anticipation of realizing a dream shot me back into the lofty clouds. With the excitement and foresight of a 12-year-old, I quickly called my publisher. I explained the situation in a groveling yet dignified manner. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. I braced myself as I waited to hear one of my least favorite words – “responsibility.”
Guess which one doesn’t have the Ph.D.? The author is pictured at right with his fellow Outward Bound participants.


Somehow my persuasive delivery had hit its mark – my publisher agreed to the last-minute notice. I was relieved. Damn, I was good. Maybe I should consider a position in sales. I shuddered at the thought and began packing.

The course was being held in Leadville, Colorado – a precarious two-day drive from Cave Creek with a truck that couldn’t exceed 55 mph without imploding the radiator.

My strategy was simple: drive two-thirds of the way up on the first day, get a cheap hotel room, leave early the next morning and be at the school in time for orientation.

The drive was without incident and I found a hotel in the sleepy farm town of Montrose. I was too restless to sleep well that night. The thought of being in a course with students who possessed master’s degrees and Ph.D.s humbled my college-dropout-like demeanor. I tossed and turned all night thinking about this; waking the next morning groggy and exhausted. I took a quick shower and put in my contact lenses. They felt dry, so I squirted what I thought was saline solution into my eyes. Within a millisecond they were on fire. The saline solution was really hydrogen peroxide, which is used to disinfect the contacts. The bottles were almost identical.

I immediately grabbed the saline solution and flushed my eyes over and over again. The pain subsided, but all of the blood vessels in my eyes looked like they were about to explode. I resembled a crazed axe murderer. I hoped by the time I got to Leadville my eyes would be back to normal.

Several hours later, I pulled into the Outward Bound School without a minute to spare. A quick look in the rearview mirror revealed eyes that were swollen and resembled overripe cherry tomatoes. As I approached my fellow students, I was greeted by stares and whispers regarding drug use. I felt about as uncomfortable as a naked man in a meat processing plant. So much for first impressions.

At that moment, I certainly didn’t realize the deep impression this course was about to make on me – one that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

- See Part 2 below



Colorado Outward Bound or bust
by Mark Brontsema
Published April 7, 2004 issue

Part 2: Aspirations


““Climb to the threshold of your own beliefs not with the statements of others, but with the footsteps of your own experience.”
– Anonymous

For me, the most magical place on Earth had always been the mountains. They had once provided me with a compelling richness and an invulnerable youthfulness. But after years spent in pursuit of snow-capped peaks, the losses I had endured made me deeply cynical. I now questioned the essence of my life – was it a life misspent? Had I inadvertently protracted my adolescence in this pursuit?

On the second day of my Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) practicum, my classmates and I were asked to define who we were. As each student easily explained their purpose in life, I stumbled with the thought. Sure, in my spare time I had started a local outdoor youth program and I had a full-time job. But that didn’t explain who I was. I felt like an actor who was stripped of his script and asked to play an unfamiliar ad-lib role.

When it was my turn, I talked about my many exploits in the mountains. The boldness and sheer willpower that had allowed me to “conquer” my wilderness adversaries. But my voice had no depth; the words had no weight. I realized I was no longer that person. I was merely a conquered warrior without a homeland.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “A man's character is his fate.” It can also be aptly said that our dreams – or lack thereof – form our fate as well.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

A blindfolded student about to be challenged on the high-elements rope course at the Colorado Outward Bound School.

For the next several days, the class was challenged with a variety of trust and team-building games. They were designed to help illuminate beliefs and attitudes toward trust, commitment and communications.

I had complete confidence that this would be easy for me, especially since I had entrusted my life to others at the end of a rope for so many years. My background with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) gave me the outdoor and leadership skills that the rest of the class was lacking. My prior wilderness training helped – but nowhere near the level I assumed it would.

The games were intended to challenge the group as a whole. Physical, mental and cooperative support was necessary to successfully complete them. Any weakness within the group would result in failure. But the level of vulnerability needed to expose your failings to five students who barely knew each other was humiliating. As a group we argued with each other over who would lead and who would follow; who was stronger or who was smarter.

One of the games is known as the Spider Web. The object is to move the entire group through a nylon string web without touching any part of it. The student is passed through an opening with the help and physical support of the group. Bells are attached so any movement on the strings indicates the student has been detected by the “spider” and is required to try again.

Time and time again, we failed miserably at completing this and other games. After each failed attempt, we were debriefed by our instructor and asked to evaluate our performance as a group and as individuals.

After several days of this, our group slowly lowered its guard. We realized each of us possessed skills that the others did not. By combining our unique individual strengths within an atmosphere of mutual cooperation, we easily began to complete every game. We were a group to be reckoned with!

Just as we were becoming confident, our instructor took us to the next phase of our training – trust skills.

The trust-building games were in an environment known as a high-elements rope course – a virtual obstacle course in the forest, located 20 to 30 feet above the ground in the trees. These exercises challenged the individual and would be beneficial in building self-confidence, compassion and personal growth.

Once again I thought this would be a breeze. I was about to find out just how little I trusted myself and others.

- See Part 3 below



Colorado Outward Bound or bust
by Mark Brontsema
Published April 21, 2004 issue

Part 3: Te ipsum nosce – Know thyself


““It is not only the most difficult thing to know oneself, but the most inconvenient one, too. Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems.”
– John W. Gardner

As the high-elements ropes course progressed in height and difficulty, so did the stress level. As a group, we had been able to unite our collective talents to accomplish the task at hand. But the high-elements ropes course was now challenging us as individuals, and some members of our group were deathly afraid of heights.

Standing alone on a swaying, double-rope bridge 60 feet off the ground challenged even those of us who weren’t afraid of heights. The shear drop-off and dizzying exposure hit me when I was about halfway across. I froze. Physically, I could easily do this – but as soon as I entertained my fear of falling, I began to get scared.
PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

A blindfolded student about to be challenged on the high-elements rope course at the Colorado Outward Bound School.


My climbing accident several years ago had weakened my resolve more than I thought. Despite all my years spent on vertical rock faces thousands of feet off the ground – a personal history of triumphs and boldness – this seemingly simple ropes course was now melting away my ego, like so many drops of sweat disappearing into the depths below me.

I felt like I was on the verge of falling apart. The group below me realized I was having problems and began to cheer me on. This gave me just enough support to continue. Shaking, I slowly inched my way across the 100-foot span of ropes stretched tight between two trees. I was halfway between salvation and retreat. With each step I took, I got a little closer to my goal – a small platform attached to the tree.

I concentrated on my objective and did my best to stay focused. My self-preservation, along with the pressure of reality, got me safely to the platform. An eruption of cheers from my friends far below assured me that I had succeeded.

My first feeling was how pathetic I was to have been so petrified over something so mundane. But it was immediately replaced with a double-helix of emotions – joy, sadness, fear and confidence. For a brief moment in time I could see myself as I truly was – a 360-degree view of both the good and the bad. I felt that something had changed in me – but what?

I remember years prior to this experience, when I had summited my first peak in Grand Teton National Park. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of herculean strength and a victory that overshadowed all my past weaknesses. I seethed with desire and fanned the flames of my own self-importance.

I had blindsided myself into believing I was invulnerable. But now, standing on that small platform looking out across the pine-covered landscape, I felt a combination of both humility and honor.

In the next phase of our course we would find ourselves among the snow-capped mountains and green valleys of the Colorado Rockies.

With heavy packs on our backs, we headed deep into its wilds. The course would now take us to a whole different level of awareness and understanding with a unique wilderness experience called the Solo.

- See Part 4 below



Colorado Outward Bound or bust
by Mark Brontsema
Published May 5, 2004 issue

Part 4: Conclusion
(see previous parts below)

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Our course took us into the heart of the beautiful Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies.


PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

My fellow students take a much-needed break near a small mountain lake before setting up base camp.

We backpacked deep into the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies, which embodies the three highest peaks in Colorado. Our base camp was located just above treeline, surrounded by imposing yet magnificent towering mountains.

This was the expedition phase of our course. It would entail not only wilderness travel techniques, but also rock climbing, ascending a mountain peak and, of course, the dreaded Solo. Our base camp shelter consisted of one large tarp, under which we all slept.

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.”
– Henry David Thoreau


Within days of being confined together, we became quite familiar with each other’s lax hygienic states. Our forced proximity under the tarp magnified body odors and gastrointestinal smells and noises induced by a freeze-dried vegetarian diet. Any pretense of formality had long since disappeared.

During the day we practiced wilderness safety, map and compass reading, and a vast array of wilderness skills that included minimum-impact camping.

Each evening after dinner we huddled under the tarp. Following the course’s curriculum, the instructor encouraged us to “open up” to each other, divulging previously unspoken and painful realities. These stories of deep, unhealed traumas of abuse and betrayal filled the tarp with a heavy atmosphere.

As a tight-knit group we offered understanding and support. But some of the students, including myself, were reluctant and unprepared to expose our soft and vulnerable inner selves. I firmly believe Nietzsche’s warning: “Beware, lest in casting off your demons you cast out the best thing in yourself.”

My pain was like a fire within my soul, and I keep it alive by stoking it with memories of despair. I know if it was extinguished I would certainly vanish from this earth.

However, I allowed the group to pull out some of my fallibilities – I felt I at least owed them that after listening to theirs. Within a week’s time, I knew my fellow students better than I knew most of my best friends.

One evening, a massive thunderstorm moved over us. The tarp flailed about in the electrically charged winds; its guy lines threatening to snap at any moment. Lightning hit the treeless ground within 50 yards of our puny shelter; each strike coming closer to us than the last. The thunder was deafening and the foundation of terra firma beneath us trembled with each volley. A more frightened group of people couldn’t have been found even in the bowels of hell.

When the storm finally passed, we were exhausted from fear. But this near-death experience created even more of a bond between us. With each passing day we enjoyed each other’s company without judgement. We were inseparable.

The final days of our course included Outward Bound’s famous Solo experience. The longer Outward Bound courses involved a three-day Solo, but our shorter course would only allow us one of 24 hours. We were each led by our instructor to a remote and secluded area to be by ourselves – alone with our reflective thoughts.

We were permitted only water, a sleeping bag and our journal. Food was not allowed; we would be required to fast. We were to stay within a 100-square-yard area until retrieved by our instructor the next day.

My hilltop spot had a picture-perfect view of the highest point in Colorado – Mount Elbert and the spectacular Collegiate Peaks. But, after “meditating” in their presence for several hours, I became bored. My Western mind lacked the discipline to simply enjoy what Buddhists refer to as “being nobody, going nowhere.”

I stumbled around my borderless plot of land, looking for something with which to occupy myself. The sound of twigs breaking underfoot disturbed the encroaching silence.

I unexpectedly came across the scattered bones of an elk, bleached white from the sun. I wondered if this was a sign from the gods – an indication of my “death” and “rebirth” on this course.
As I sat alone among those bones, a light wind began to rustle the leaves of the aspens standing guard around me. A pair of red-tailed hawks circled overhead, playing in the warm mountain thermals. I immediately felt privileged to be part of such primal and natural beauty.

A serene contentment flowed through me like a warming campfire on a bitterly cold winter evening. Although it will forever remain obscure to me, I could not but be aware of its power.

As the daylight turned into night, I crawled into my sleeping bag under the star-filled sky. For the first time, the troubled sleep that had plagued me for years disappeared. I awoke the next morning filled with hope and inspiration – something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

Somehow the solitude had sparked a magical moment in my life. More than 10 years later, that 10-day experience still stands at the forefront of my mind. And, although some of my demons are still within me, every day that I am alive I get a little closer to letting them go.



Insignificance and self-importance
by Mark Brontsema

Part 1 • Return to the Canyon
Published February 25, 2004 issue


All around me are familiar faces
Worn-out places
Worn-out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression
Hide my head
I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had
– Gary Jules, “Mad World”

After my climbing accident, my life – or what was left of it – stopped. I was now in a world of powerful painkillers and pharmaceutical-induced emotions. I was no longer who I had been. My past strengths were replaced by fear, doubt and anger. I desperately wanted to be the “invincible” person I had so meticulously created over the years, but the mountains had reduced me to pulp; my driving life energy drained. Letting go of the world was one thing, but letting go of your life is a one-way ticket to oblivion. I wasn’t yet willing to concede defeat of my former self – at least not without a struggle.

Mary, my girlfriend at that time, endured the worst of me. Being confined in small apartment made both of our lives difficult. Without Mary’s encouragement and help, I would have easily given up. Being bedridden for almost six months resulted in my right leg – with the help of a plethora of pins, screws and plates – healing enough for me to graduate to crutches. Living on the second floor would help me to perfect the fine art of mobility on crutches. Hobbling up and down the steep concrete stairs of the apartment seemed as challenging as any mountain I had climbed. A fall here could easily send me back to the hospital. But, with great care and determination, I was able to successfully “summit” to my second-floor apartment daily.

Month after month of tolerating physical therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists – along with weight-lifting and ingesting bottle upon bottle of vitamins – allowed my strength and balance to slowly return. Almost a year to the day after my accident, my cast was permanently removed. I began to plot my escape from the confining world of stucco walls to the deep, weathered canyons of sandstone, which had waited patiently for me all these millions of geological years.

The Grand Canyon had always been my home away from home. I was possessed by it. A more beautiful place couldn’t be found in which to taste life this deeply. When I was in my hospital bed, I would daydream about the Canyon being the last vision my eyes would gaze upon – its majestic colored mesas and the shimmering Colorado River below. Although the hopeful fate of the masses was to die in bed surrounded by familiar faces, I feared such a final consequence.

I had hiked into the Canyon’s depths countless times. I would risk life and limb for just one more intimate encounter. To die in the act of love – every lover’s fondest dream. But reality is usually different from the fantasy.

This trip would be distinct. I was dealing with a body and mind that wasn’t completely healed. I hoped that by returning to the Canyon – my Canyon – I could find some semblance of my former self. I would do this trip solo to help me restore my self-confidence, which – like my leg – had been shattered by my fall.

I packed my gear in my truck and headed for the South Rim. The radio in the truck wouldn’t work, which gave me even more time to think about what I was doing. Doubt and confusion kept creeping into my mind. Three and a half hours and 225 miles later, I arrived at the Canyon – mentally drained. Despite my mounting skepticism of what I was doing, I bit my lower lip and made my way to the trailhead.

I chose to backpack down the Boucher trail, one of the more difficult routes into the Canyon – a place where only turkey vultures would comfort you. It was 11 miles to the Colorado River, 22 miles round-trip. The final section of the trail – the steep and strenuous 2,400-foot descent to Boucher Creek would be the most challenging.

I put the heavy backpack on and headed down the trail...

- See Part 2 below



Insignificance and self-importance
by Mark Brontsema
Published March 10, 2004 issue

Part 2 • Return to the Canyon


"
Let each person who enters the Canyon – whether on foot, on mule, or by boat – clearly understand that some elementary and fundamental risk is involved and that nothing can guarantee your safety but your own common sense. Not even that. Nothing should be guaranteed."
– Ed Abbey

The Boucher Trail was originally built in the 1890s by Louis Boucher – the famed “hermit” of the Grand Canyon. He operated a copper mine at Boucher Creek and lived in a stone cabin close to Dripping Springs. Boucher was said to have a white beard, rode a white mule, and told only white lies. For 20 years he lived alone in the Canyon and found that guiding tourists into its depths was more profitable then mining it.

As I headed into the Grand Canyon on the Boucher Trail I reflected on my last trip into this remote labyrinth several years before my accident. I was unbroken and spirited. Canyon hiking for me was a soul-enriching journey into a serene and beautiful world. A hike from the rim of the Canyon to the Colorado River and back again was almost effortless for me. But things had changed – I had changed.

Still recovering from my climbing accident, the Canyon had now become a daunting physical exercise in navigating on endless and intricate terrain. My right ankle had less than five degrees of movement. It would easily become stiff, which would cause me to trip on the easiest of topography. Instead of “plowing” my way through obscure landscapes, I now had to delicately walk on rock-strewn trails with the caution of a person in a minefield. It was twice the amount of effort to cover the same distances I had so easily traveled in the past.

The Boucher Trail is not maintained by the Park Service, adding to its backcountry “charm.” It descends sharply through an encyclopedia of wonderfully colored geologic layers. A slip or a wrong step on this rugged trail could easily send a hiker plummeting down hundreds of feet of loose limestone and sandstone into the Canyon below. I knew the confidence I had developed from past treks would now need to be tempered with patience. An overconfident mind in a less-than-willing body could be disastrous on this trip.

The first three miles of the trail from Dripping Springs was virtually flat. I easily covered the distance without so much as a blister, but this was about to change. Reaching Travertine Canyon, an obstacle course of large boulders and steepening terrain, I slowed to a snail’s pace. In several places I had to remove my backpack and lower it. Seeing what was below me was a guessing game. As I slowly worked my way down the toe-jamming trail into the inner canyon, I took the time – or, in reality, by design, was “forced” to take the time – to “see” the Canyon in a different light. It somehow had become more vast and beautiful, yet forbidding. Brachiopod fossils lay scattered at my feet. At my slowing pace, I somehow felt a connection to this fate.

After an exhausting descent to the top of the Redwall section of the Canyon, the trail leveled out. The accident-induced arthritis had eaten away most of the cartilage in my ankle joint. The bone-to-bone grinding made me wince in pain. Even with another five miles and 2,000 feet to descend I refused to turn around. I would not allow myself to be beaten.

The daylight began to dim, and so did the weather. A light rain started to fall. As I approached the last and steepest part of the trail, it became very slippery. A miscalculated foot step on this narrow section would send me hurtling down to the distant creek below. I was tired, wet and on precarious footing, but a light from a campsite far below beckoned me onward. After 16 painful hours of hiking, I arrived at my destination – Boucher Creek. Wracked with pain, I dropped my backpack and, with the last of my energy, set up my small one-man tent and crawled in. Too exhausted to care about covering the rest of my gear outside, I passed out to the sound of comforting light raindrops hitting the tent.

Waking the next morning, I could barely stand up. My right ankle was swollen and a sharp pain shot through it with each step. I counted six blisters on each foot and my quadriceps were as tight as piano wire. I gazed at the trail that I had come down. I was almost 4,000 feet and 11 miles away from my starting point. The rim so far above seemed as remote as my salvation from the past.

I nursed my blisters; ate and refilled my water bottles. It was still early morning and I knew if I wanted to get back to my truck before midnight I needed to leave immediately. I gathered my gear and started back up the torturous trail. At two in the morning I arrived on the South Rim of the Canyon. My entire body was stiff with pain. I was humbled by the experience.

Wilfred Thesiger the author of “Arabian Sands,” wrote, “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match."

As I looked out at the moonlit Canyon, I realized how insignificant and unimportant I truly was. I found myself paying homage – not only to the Canyon, but also to myself for not surrendering my spirit.



Broken bones and shattered egos
by Mark Brontsema
Published April 9, 2003 issue

My right leg after the fall – it can now predict weather changes.

In 25 years of rock climbing I have seen some pretty horrendous accidents and deaths. Like so many of my surviving manic-depressive climbing friends, our passion for scaling rock faces that seem to be unscalable has given us a wide variety of wounds.

These wounds are both physical and psychological in nature. They are a constant reminder of our vulnerability and cannot be covered by any amount of clothing. Our portfolios aren’t filled with financial gains, but a strange list of crazy wilderness endeavors that we have gotten away with over the years. Our shared poverty and pain have given us a deep and lasting bond that only sheer gravity can shatter.

My worst climbing accident resulted in my right leg and ankle being shattered beyond recognition. The impact of the fall left me with multiple compound fractures and bone matter that resembled corn flakes. Despite 14 pins, plates, screws and wires – and a doctor who thought that amputation of my right leg would probably be my best bet – I refused to believe in this prosthetic fate. I wore a cast for almost a year; my armpits had callouses from the crutches. Every two weeks they would saw off the cast, and I would get a front-row seat to view a shriveled leg that had turned bone white, whose ghastly incision resembled something that belonged in an autopsy room.

Eventually I regained the use of that leg and climbed again. But I would never be able to completely shake off the fear of that single moment of fate. Climbing would never be the same for me.

I started to instruct again and found that I was better able to help those with the fears that plagued most beginner climbers – something that had eluded me before the fall.

Was my life-altering fall a tragedy? At the time of the accident it was. Unfortunately it took a devastating event for me to recognize my failings. But as I reflect on the changes my life has taken since, I am thankful for the insight and patience it has given me.



High mountains, cold seas and deep souls
by Mark Brontsema
Published Feb. 26 & Nov. 19, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY ED HERBERT

The author “crossing” a crevasse.

At its extreme, mountaineering has been considered by some as an enlightening journey to a spiritual reality – but to reach it you need to find the courage, grace, humility and humor to go through your own self-inflicted hell. Sound familiar? Tormented by screaming winds, lack of oxygen, sleet, lightning and thunder, rock and snow avalanches, exposed to the elements with no shelter except for the insulated parka on your back and a thin nylon tent. An environment where death is meaningless and random. They say deprivation and suffering alone opens the mind to all that is hidden to others. According to some, nowhere else on earth – except on high, desolate and cold mountain summits – have they experienced this revelation with such clarity.

My fellow conspirators and I have explored regions of this world that few have tread. We have scaled vertical granite rock faces thousands of feet high, explored vast regions of deep sandstone canyons and have kayaked into questionable and rough seas. Self-reliance and stepping out of one’s comfort zone in the world’s remote regions has a “Thoreauean” depth and nobility to it.

Kipling wrote that “triumph and disaster are equal imposters” and spending too much time on “Mount Olympus” with Zeus and Apollo can, like the weather, lead to certain disaster. A climber with a larger-than-life ego is dangerous, and I have had the misfortune of climbing with them. Failure to recognize this mountain “blindness” has led many a famous and egotistical climbing guide and their clients to their doom.
Some climbers are Captain Ahabs in search of their Moby Dicks, pursued by their private demons. Overstepping one’s limitations in the high mountains is often rewarded with grief, and a long fall back into the reality of one’s capabilities can be very sobering.

It has been said that climbing is a living metaphor for unifying one’s existenceand, at its purest level, climbing is done solely for the satisfaction of extending the limits of experience.

I will always treasure the heights I have won.There maybe safer ways to restore the soul, find enlightenment or keep the child “spirit” alive than by climbing and wilderness adventures, but I have yet to find them.



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
(A 6-part series)
by Mark Brontsema
Published July 16, 2003 issue

Part 1
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

PHOTO BY ED HERBERT

The author climbing his way out of a 600-foot deep crevasse near Mount Baker.

Over the years I have met a variety of people with a wide range of experiences and achievements. No matter their age, they all seem to have had one incredible moment in time; one life experience that boldly stands out above the rest and sometimes defines who they are. The momentous experience can range from near-death to life-giving. These stories are told with eyes that travel back in time to a place they can never return to. Memories with a depth and detail that no movie producer could recreate.

In 1981, I was with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which is considered to be the leading wilderness education organization in the world. From mountaineering to kayaking to backpacking, from Alaska to Africa to the high Himalayas, NOLS courses offer the student the opportunity to be challenged beyond their perceived abilities.

The outcome of this extreme training was always uncertain; both students and instructors have died on NOLS courses. For some of us who have survived NOLS, that first life-altering experience thrust us into an Olympian realm of personal achievement and accomplishment for the first time in our lives.

It was at this enlightening moment that we first experienced sight, sound, and touch at nature’s rawest – like a baby’s first breath initiated by a spank. Both pleasurable and painful, NOLS etched character into the depths of our wandering and searching souls. It would give me the strength and courage to face and overcome my future adversities.

My first experience with NOLS was a mountaineering course in the North Cascades of Washington. It was 30 days in length, which was the longest that I had spent in the field. My gear consisted of a backpack loaded with two ice axes, steel crampons, helmet, harness, rope, carabiners, warm weather clothing, tent, tent poles, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking set, fuel, water and food for the first 15 days. The 90-plus-pound pack made my knees and hamstrings tremble – and I was in excellent shape. The first day out we covered 15 miles heading deep within the Cascades foothills. My feet swelled. Large pulsating blisters enveloped my overheated toes and heels. I walked like a man who had traversed barefoot on broken glass. My collarbones bowed painfully inward from the weight of the crushing pack. It was the year after Mount St. Helens erupted, and the weather pattern in the Pacific Northwest had changed dramatically – it was a sweltering 95 degrees with 60 percent humidity. I was exhausted. Every bone and muscle in my body ached – I felt like I had barely survived a small plane crash into a mountainside.

Food on a NOLS course was comprised of such staples as flour, yeast, rice, sugar, noodles, and oatmeal. Meals had to be cooked from scratch and they were vegetarian by design. Cooking up a creative and tasty meal after a 15-mile uphill speed hike was yet another test of my fortitude. But the nightmare that awaited us in the mountains would challenge my very existence.

- See Part 2 below



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
by Mark Brontsema
Published July 30, 2003 issue

Part 2
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

PHOTO BY ED HERBERT

One of several Tyrolean traverses required to reach the high mountains in North Cascades National Park.

The morning breakfast began with hot tea fortified with honey and powdered milk, followed by oatmeal – cooked over a small backpacker’s gas stove – covered thickly in brown sugar. I had never been so hungry in my life. I licked my bowl clean; a Maytag dishwasher couldn’t have done a better job. My leg and back muscles ached from the first day’s hike in; the open blisters on my feet were raw, and placing them into a pair of heavy, stiff mountaineering boots only compounded the pain.

NOLS and its necessary minimum-impact camping standards wouldn't allow campfires and toilet paper. Overused camping areas were scarred from fire-rings and cluttered with used white crumpled tissues that inconsiderate backpackers had left, which were known as “Charmin” flowers. Smooth, anatomically correct sticks, pine cones, rounded stones and moss were the “paper” of choice on these courses. Some students would squat against a tree. This was not an option for some of us because our overstressed legs were so stiff squatting was out of the question. Sitting and reading something while “going” was a ritual I wasn’t about to abandon easily. Small logs and rocks were gathered and then assembled into a makeshift toilet seat and then disassembled afterwards. The remaining stool was smeared over the ground to speed up the decomposition process.

Breaking camp involved “sweeping” the area, which meant putting moved rocks and sticks back where we had found them, tent stake holes filled in; even footprints were brushed away. The camping spot looked even more pristine than when we had found it.

Once loaded, the ridiculously heavy backpacks were then wrestled onto our backs by a “clean and jerk” method similar to that used by weight-lifters. Shoulder straps and waste belts were tightened to keep the heavy load from shifting and rubbing which – if not properly adjusted – could result in welts and hip and shoulder “hickeys.” Proper weight distribution of each item in our backpacks had to be factored in or the pack would list to one side or, even worse, pull us back. Our leg muscles were constantly twitching and over-compensating to keep our balance, like an extremely overweight man walking on a tightrope – one false move and you’d go down. Fallen students would be lying on top of their strapped-on backpacks – they resembled flipped-over turtles; arms and legs comically flaying around to gain purchase on some unattainable ground.

Our first goal – of which there were many – was to get above treeline and onto the spectacular glaciers of the Cascades. Bushwacking it through Devils Club and the more evil “tug-a-more” – a dense undergrowth brush of tangled and twisted branches – and climbing over fallen giant cedar trees left us exhausted.

I had decided on going to the North Cascades to escape from the endless egg-frying heat of Arizona and into the misty and cool mountains of Washington, but that escape was to be futile. Once again I found myself in a land of burning sun and thorns. Where there were usually cascading waterfalls and streams, only weathered rocks remained. The thick canopy of trees prevented us from seeing the mountain peaks we desperately wanted to ascend.

We had been hiking all day and had run out of water hours ago. As we crested a hill, a swarm of wasps attacked us like Japanese kamikazes. Our group ran in all directions; backpacks were discarded and rolled down the steep hillside. After 10 minutes of ducking and dodging the wasps left us. Our group slowly reorganized. Wasp stings left most of us with swelling welts on our heads, faces and lips. One instructor’s lower lip swelled so out of proportion he resembled a cartoon character. By now the group was disillusioned, thirsty, tired, in pain and poor spirits – and it was only Day Two, with 28 more days to go.

- See Part 3 below



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
by Mark Brontsema
Published Aug. 13, 2003 issue

Part 3
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Roped-up crossing of a large crevasse and snowfield with Mount Baker in the background.

PHOTO BY ED HERBERT

The author displaying his “foot fangs,” or crampons.

As one day of pain blurred into the next, the daunting reality of mountaineering took its toll on the group. We started out with 10 students and, within a week, two had dropped out. Water sources were few and cold streams were nothing more than mirages. I was filthy. At night in my sleeping bag my bare legs stuck together from a gluey mixture of sweat, dirt and tree sap. I was constantly hungry and yearned for hamburgers and fried chicken. My body was still adjusting to the vegetarian meals, as were my muscles to the weight of the pack. I thought about quitting every time I fell behind or stumbled over a rock, which was often.

After almost 10 days of backpacking through thick forests and steep terrain, I had yet to see a mountain. Towards early afternoon we found ourselves atop a small fog-enclosed hillside. Visibility was maybe 50 feet. We took our packs off, sat down to rest and stared into the dense grey mist. Just as I started to feel a deep remorse over signing up for this course, the fog began to clear. Within minutes the entire North Cascade Range was exposed in all its grandeur – a 360-degree view of endless black mountains partially covered with contrasting white glaciers and deep snow-capped peaks. The sky had become an intense deep blue with the heavenly light of the sun radiating behind angelic-formed clouds. I was awestruck. With years spent in the Grand Tetons, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, few sights sparked my jaded soul. But this did. I felt renewed and invigorated; my goals were once again in sight.

Our instructors thoroughly trained us in the fine art of using map and compass, which included reading a topographic map, adjusting a compass for magnetic declination, measuring distance with paces, navigating switchbacks and orienteering. Every day a new student was designated “leader” and was responsible for the day’s route: elevation gained and lost, mileage to our intended goal, rest points and ETA. After several days we reached one of the larger glaciers in the North Cascade Range and set up camp.

For another seven days we would practice crevasse travel and rescue, ice climbing, traversing and snow anchors. Traveling on ice required wearing crampons, which was the equivalent of walking with sharp one-and-a-half-inch steel fangs on the bottom of your boots. Each step had to be carefully placed. Failure to lift your leg up enough would result in the crampon either catching on the ice or your pant leg. Your walk resembled that of a chicken or ostrich. Traveling on crevasses also required us to be roped together in groups of five. If one student fell into a snow-hole or crevasse, the remainder of the group would immediately fall flat, with axes planted deep in the surrounding ice to arrest the fall.

To relieve yourself, you needed to stay roped up and in full view of the rest of the group. The exposed snowfields offered little privacy. We left behind a telltale trail of bright yellow and brown spots that Hansel and Gretel would envy.

Twenty feet of rope separated each person, and walking in unison on ice with crampons was a challenge. No matter your size, everyone had to take the same length of step as the leader or the rope would pull, causing a domino effect on the entire “chain-gang.” As mountaineering neophytes, we would be pulled off balance and the crampons would then dig into the ice and a continuous cycle of falling and cursing would ensue.

By week’s end – exhausted, cut and scraped by ice shards – we had mastered the techniques that would help us ascend the distant and looming summits.

- See Part 4 below



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
by Mark Brontsema
Published Aug. 27, 2003 issue

Part 4
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

After our initial mountaineering training, we planned on summiting one of the “lesser” peaks in the North Cascades in a day and be back at base camp for supper. We arose around 3:30 a.m., loaded our packs with just the climbing essentials and food for the day. Packing light would give us the ability to travel fast. Of course, the downside to this philosophy was if any disasters occurred high on the mountain, we would be in serious trouble. Rescue in this remote area was not an option. Speed would be our only safety net.

The weather on that fateful morning was beautiful; a sunny and balmy 65 degrees with little wind. The steep southern slope we ascended was a mixture of ice and very unstable volcanic rock. With 10 of us climbing in close proximity to each other, we started small rockslides. The cascading rocks would whiz past us like baseballs thrown by a National League pitcher. Of course, the lower you were in the climbing pecking order with more climbers above you, the better your chances of getting pegged by one of the projectiles.

Around noon, each one of us summited. We stood together admiring the spectacular 360-degree view, but it was short-lived. A storm front from the northwest was approaching. Climbing on the opposite side of the mountain hid this grim reality from us. Had we known we would have retreated back to base camp hours before. The massive squall line before us engulfed the horizon.

Within minutes a gale force wind hammered the summit. We were forced to squat for fear of being blown off. With its deadly loose rock, retreat down our ascending route was impossible. Our only reasonable choice was the eastern ridge, which was still protected from the wind. We slowly down climbed a small section of stable rock onto a small glacier. It began to rain, then hail. We were out in the open with no shelter, either natural or man-made, within miles. The moisture-laden clouds enveloped us. We were in a white-out – visibility was 15 feet at best. We kept moving in a southeasterly direction. Hours went by and it started to get dark. Finally a small indented cliff face could be seen through the cold fog. We ran for it.

The slightly overhanging cliff got us out of the rain, but the narrow section only allowed us to stand. One foot forward and we were back in the brunt of the storm. By now we were soaked to the bone. Our rain jackets and mountaineering boots had turned into sponges. The temperature dropped into the teens and we all began to shake uncontrollably from the oncoming hypothermia. The rock wall at our backs magnified the coldness. It was doubtful we would come out of this with all our fingers and toes, let alone our lives.

If we had fallen asleep the hypothermia would quickly have entered our inner body cores and ice crystals would begin to form in our bloodstreams. Death would come quickly and without a fight. To keep from freezing we took turns doing jumping jacks throughout the night. To be that cold and wet and stay motivated is a challenge beyond comprehension.

By first light the heavy rain had turned into fog and we started out again onto the glacier. Little did we know, our journey of pain had only begun. The next three days would test us to the absolute limits of human endurance.

- See Part 5 below



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
by Mark Brontsema
Published Sept. 10, 2003 issue

Part 5
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Our swollen and frostbitten feet were covered with ripped-off blisters.

We continued across the steep and broken glacier to a possible escape route to base camp. Without sleeping for over 24 hours, I felt like I was entering a sleep-walking zombie state. Part of me wanted to lay down on the ice and fall asleep to an inevitable fate. The other longed for the warmth of dry clothes, food and life. The latter would require finding a strength I didn’t possess. Acquiring such willpower when one has begun to entertain the depths of darkness would be the most difficult challenge of my life.

It continued to rain and sleet. The endless swithbacking on the heavily crevassed glacier required our full attention. We soon had to unrope from each other. One misplaced step or distraction would result in immediate and certain fatal repercussions. The danger was that the narrow glacier ice ledges offered no possible way to arrest a falling student without pulling the entire roped team into the dark, cold “bottomless” abyss. This way only one student would be lost, increasing the group’s overall odds of survival. I felt like we were at a roulette wheel in Vegas – but instead of betting money, we were gambling with our souls. I wondered which one of us would die first.

By noon we had depleted the last of our food, which was nothing more than a handful of raisins and peanuts. We were burning about 7500 calories a day and getting thin fast. The famous polar explorer Robert Peary said, “Many times I have thanked God for a bite of raw dog.” I salivated at the idea.

At dusk we had descended 2,000 feet and finally exited the jumbled ice maze to emerge back on solid rock. The treeline still lay another thousand feet below us. Perpetually exhausted and hypothermic, we huddled together to keep from freezing to death. It continued to rain throughout the night. By morning we resembled corpses. Our only hope now was to get below treeline, find wood and start a fire. We would not be able to survive another day exposed to the elements.

We reached treeline by early afternoon and followed a precarious 6-inch-wide game trail. We walked in singlefile; no one talked because of the energy it would expend. Apart from our labored breathing, it was deathly quiet. The narrow “tightrope” trail was located on a steep, wet and grassy 70-degree slope. A slip would cause one to careen downhill like a human pinball, bouncing off the random tree or boulder and finally stopping 1,200 feet below the trail. We eventually made our way down into the forest and level ground.

We spent the next several hours hunting for any dry wood we could find. By nightfall we had built a small bonfire on a 3-foot-tall by 5-foot-square table-shaped boulder. The flickering light of the fire reflected onto our ghastly and strained faces. Our wet outer clothing hung in the bushes and trees near the fire. Steam rose off of us and our hanging “laundry” like smoke. We wobbled back and forth as we fell asleep standing. The scene looked eerie.

By morning we were dry. Our feet, on the other hand, were trashed. They had become raw, swollen and had the first stages of frostbite. Spending three days and covering long distances with wet socks and boots on glacier ice had physically crippled us. On top of that, we were lost.

- See Part 6 below



NOLS – The maker and breaker of self
by Mark Brontsema
Published Sept. 24, 2003 issue

Part 6
(Conclusion)
Flashbacks of a 1981 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Looking back at the route by which we escaped the mountains and the storm that almost claimed our lives.

In the dense cedar forests we had no mountains or landmarks as reference points for our maps and compass. We followed a deep running stream, chancing that it would empty into Lake Chelan – our rescue pick-up point. Within an hour of hiking along its narrowing contours we were forced to cross the shoulder-deep ice-melt water. We locked arms together in chain-link fashion to help maintain our balance as we precariously walked on the smooth stone-covered stream bed. The force of the the water at our backs threatened to sweep us away with each slippery step we took.

Once on the opposite shore we found ourselves in even worse shape than the night before. Wet and cold, we looked into each other’s eyes and wondered which of us would survive. The thin, rotting expressions on the faces around me revealed the hopelessness of the situation. We fought to keep our souls from leaving our bodies.

Our instructors knew all too well of our dire predicament and picked two students as runners to get help. I and Ed Herbert were the only ones who had any semblance of energy left. We took off in the general direction of the lake at a fast pace. Our clothes were still dripping wet; I shivered uncontrollably as I walked.

By late morning we stumbled upon a hiker’s trail and forced ourselves to jog. My frostbitten feet were raw at this point. I felt like there was nothing between my fragile bones and the hard soles of my boots. The pain seemed unending and increased with every step. By early afternoon I began to hallucinate. Beautiful crystal bowls and ornate, gem-studded Fabergé eggs lined the trail. I began to hear faint voices in the distance. I would stop and hear nothing. The voices would return again as I started walking.

I had no idea where I was going or why. I constantly tripped and fell to the ground. Ed would help me up and slap me across my face. This would temporarily bring me back to reality, but I would soon fade and, with staggered momentum, lurch forward in a blurred psychosis. This went on for several hours.

Finally we reached Lake Chelan’s shoreline and a wilderness campsite. We came upon several campers, who looked at us as though we had escaped from a concentration camp. Our damp and torn clothes were covered in dirt; our faces and hands cut and bleeding. But I believe it was the empty darkness in our eyes that explained our marathon ordeal without words.

The campers fed us peanut butter sandwiches and apples. Ed and I soon felt the light of life returning to us. We told our newfound friends what had happened. One of them left and returned shortly with a park ranger, who immediately radioed a message to NOLS headquarters in Sedro Woolley, giving our location and condition. Within several hours NOLS had a boat with food and camping gear at our location. Ed, who now seemed completely regenerated, went back to find the rest of the group. I was still too dazed and exhausted even to move. By nightfall, one by one, the students and instructors slowly trickled in from the dark. I could now see what the campers saw when they first laid eyes on us.

I had spent four days traversing some of the most rugged terrain in the Northwest, in severe weather, without food and only several hours of sleep. The tiresome details of the ordinary world had been flushed from me. By now my tolerance for pain had increased tenfold.

After several days of rest, we were transported to within a day’s hike of our abandend base camp, which was now strewn about the glacier. Most of our gear was intact, but the tents had collapsed on the slowly melting ice and our sleeping bags were soaked.

We had seven days left on our course and opted to climb Mount Baker as a final hurrah. But for me, the mountaineering course was no longer about climbing summits. It was a journey into the deep recesses of myself I hadn’t known existed. We had all died on that course – but we were also reborn to a world few have entered.

They say the ancient Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died – did he have passion? As the years have gone by I continued to seek out experiences that would keep me from “faking it” – from becoming a fake human being. I shuddered at the thought of the mundane life that awaited me back home. Marriage, children, the eight-to-five workplace – these things I feared most. My NOLS experienced had forever changed me.

For the next 22 years I would challenge myself and be challenged by my extreme brethren – the heart and soul of the high mountains, cold seas and deep canyons. Over the years there would be a similar element in of each of my adventures, a sort of scrambled version of that first NOLS course. Things had become clearer for me.

Ultimately I’ve learned whether seeking distant summits, a soul-mate or a supreme being, the quest is the same – to fill that empty hole in your soul with the deepest and most meaningful experience that you can find.



Myths of Mount Everest
by Mark Brontsema
Published May 28,, 2003 issue


All men dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night
in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day
to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may
act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
– T.E. Lawrence,
“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”

At a lung-crushing 29,029 feet, Mount Everest has always been surrounded by stories of epics, risk, falling, death and surrender. In 1924, George Mallory and Andy Irvine attempted to reach its summit wearing tweed coats, wool sweaters and knickers, with hobnailed boots for traction – the best the time had to offer. Mallory and Irvine were both experienced climbers, with Mallory being the finest mountaineer of his day. Few high Himalayan peaks had been climbed – let alone summited back in the ’20s. Everest, being the tallest mountain in the world, was considered by most not only foolhardy but impossible to climb. Mallory and Irvine thought otherwise. On June 8 they both vanished high on its slopes. In 1999 Mallory’s almost perfectly preserved body was found at nearly 27,000 feet. Irvine’s body has yet to be found. The great mountaineering mystery for over 70 years has been: did they perish before they summited or afterwards? Were they the first to claim the great mountain’s virgin summit? If not, just how far up did they make it? Speculation continues.

Officially, the summit wasn’t reached until 29 years later by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Since then, reaching the summit of Everest has remained one of mountaineering’s greatest prizes – or so some would believe. After Hillary’s ice-breaking achievement in 1953, Mount Everest has been climbed and summited almost 1700 times, with over 120 corpses remaining on the mountain.
PHOTO BY NICK ESTCOURT
The southwest face of Everest (Chomolungma) through monsoon clouds, from Kala Pattar.


However, although Everest is the highest in the world, it is far from the most challenging. The oldest climber to reach its summit was a 70-year-old former skier from Japan; the youngest was 15 years old. The mountain has been climbed by an array of people with health problems and disabilities ranging from blindness and cancer to amputees. Some have virtually been dragged up the mountain by sherpas on a short rope. All in the name of fame.

The mountain is not without its heros, though – Reinhold Messner from Italy was the first to climb it solo, without oxygen, from base camp and back in just several days. The average Everest expedition can comprise of well over 600 sherpas and porters and can take well over 60 days to reach its summit. A virtual circus of equipment, tents and trash have turned Everest Base Camp into what resembles a large swap meet and outdoor barbeque.

During the “season,” Everest has regular bottlenecks of climbers on the South Col – just a hundred feet from the summit – all trying to make their way up the most difficult part of the climb: the dreaded Hillary Step. This 40-foot rock face is the only technical part of the crowded Hillary and Tensing route, where the majority of climbing involves hiking in deep snow carrying heavy packs and wearing outfits that orbiting astronauts would envy. Carrying and using oxygen is still common practice for most on the mountain.

It was not uncommon in the ’60s and ’70s to find some of the best mountaineers smoking cigarettes on the upper reaches of the mountain.

To commemorate the 50 years of climbing on Everest since Hillary and Tenzing “bagged” it, last week Sherpa Pembe Dorjie climbed the mountain in less than 13 hours – and last week Thursday more than 40 climbers reached its summit.

With the advent of mass media and “survivor” television shows, the numbers on Everest will continue to swell – as will the endless statistics of the mountain. Why do people climb it? The ego gratification of having the summit of Everest on your resume is still an intoxicating and luring one. Even though I never reached the summit of Everest, I’m reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s words:

..............
I’ll go with you, then,
..............Since you must play this game of ghosts.
..............At listening posts
..............We’ll peer across dim craters:
..............joke with jaded men
..............Whose names we’ve long forgotten.



Booo-kah!
by Mark Brontsema
Published May 14, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Joe surprising unwary hikers in the Grand Canyon with a dead yucca stalk.

As a climbing instructor and guide I have had the fortune and misfortune to field test the latest and greatest outdoor gear from many manufacturers. On one particular trip my good friend and climbing partner Joe Slate and I arrived at the Grand Canyon late and decided to camp at the already crowded Mather campground. Our goal was to reach the inner gorge by way of the Hermit Trail. Lightning and thunder filled the sky. Joe and I didn’t have a tent, but I had a brand new, first generation, waterproof Gore-Tex one-man bivvy sack. It was state-of-the-art and only weighed one pound but was no larger than a coffin.

It began to rain and Joe, being a firm believer in making do with what you have, pulled out an old vinyl shower curtain and pulled it over himself as he crawled into his sleeping bag. I zipped up my bivvy sack, turned my flashlight on and began to read a book. The wind picked up and the light rain now turned into a gale-like downpour. In the new bivvy sack I felt totally secure from the outside elements. I wondered how Joe was faring, though.

A quick look outside revealed a lump in the middle of our campsite with only a single visible hand holding down the shower curtain. I could also hear Joe snoring like a baby. I zipped the bivvy sack back up and went back to my reading. It continued to pour. After another hour of this relentless storm, the campground was now beginning to resemble a shallow lake.
My “high-tech” bivvy sack began to leak. With flashlight in hand, I watched the water seep in through every seam. Within minutes, my down sleeping bag and clothes were thoroughly soaked. The bivvy sack began to fill up like a bathtub whose plumbing had gone awry.

Once again I looked out into the pouring rain at Joe’s low-tech, makeshift sleeping set-up. He was still sound asleep, dry and warm. All the high-dollar gear I had was failing to the point of me becoming hypothermic. I tried to move around in my tight quarters but to no avail. As “cool” as it looked, I had placed too much faith in this new technology and Joe, being the wiser, knew better. Thinking of the pure simplicity of Joe’s five-dollar sleeping set-up versus my 250-dollar one made me laugh at the insanity of it all. I dashed out of the bivvy sack in my underwear and out into the rain, laughing uncontrollably and running around the campground. Joe eventually woke, but thought he was in the middle of some bizarre dream. It was two in the morning and I was soaked, covered in mud and shivering from the cold – but laughing like a blind man who had abruptly been given sight. I somehow convinced the half-asleep and puzzled looking Joe to hand over his truck keys. Still laughing, I climbed in and fired it up, revving the motor to get the heater working. Lights began to appear in the distant campsites. The noisy Ford must have wakened half the campground.

I eventually got warm and passed out in the truck.

When Joe woke me, the sun was just coming up. Most of my gear had floated into the next campsite. I put some dry clothes on, gathered my wet gear and we headed for the laundromat at Grand Canyon Village. After drying my wet clothes and sleeping bag (I gave the bivvy sack to an ex-girlfriend), we headed off down the Hermit Trail.

In my opinion the Hermit is one of the most spectacular trails on the South Rim. There is water year-round at Santa Maria Springs, two miles below the rim, and the scenic vistas are like no other in the Canyon. Backpacking with Joe – the American version of Crocodile Dundee – is always an adventure. Joe’s wise humor in the face of adversity has always made me feel lucky to have such a special and unique friend. If you found yourself stranded on a deserted island with Joe, he could easily constuct a plush treehouse far surpassing Swiss Family Robinson’s at DisneyWorld.

Joe can tell stories of his past that will bring you into fits of laughter. In the Canyon Joe would, on occasion, let out a loud, tropical-sounding bird call which sounded like “BOOO-kah!” It would echo off the steep canyon walls and temporarily take our minds off of the toe-jamming trail. The Canyon would bring out the kid and the mischief in us. It was like an oversized playground where we would challenge and dare each other.

The only established campground on the Hermit Trail is about a half mile from the Colorado River. Once arriving we unpacked our gear and set up camp next to several existing tents. We then hiked along a steep and narrow canyon that led to the Colorado River. It turned and twisted and, somewhere between the campsite and the river, we suddenly came upon five naked sunbathing women on a large ledge 20 feet from the trail. We couldn’t believe our luck.

Now I – being the perennial gentleman that I am – whispered to Joe that we should just quietly walk by without letting them know we were there and cool our heels down at the river. We discussed the morality of this dilemma while hiding behind a large boulder. Joe, of course, saw this more as an opportunity. Before I knew it, Joe had fired off one of his “BOOO-KAH” calls at the top of his lungs. The women immediately got up and ran for their clothes, yelling and cursing at us. They then hurried up the trail to the campsite.

Joe and I headed down the remaining section of trail to the Colorado River and soaked our burning feet in it while Joe told me other stories relating to nude women in the wilds. Of course, this day’s encounter paled by comparison.

We soon got up and decided to mend our evil ways by apologizing and offering to cook the free-spirited women a dinner. When we got back to the campsite all their gear was gone and they were already a good mile up the trail. They were practically running to distance themselves from us. So much for that well-thought-out plan.

It was getting late and Joe and I placed our sleeping bags on the only flat ground around. Between our bags was a large “snake hole.” We jammed it full of rocks the size of softballs, stomping on them until we couldn’t get any more in the hole. This seemed like a sufficient deterrent to avoid being “surprised” by whatever was living in that hole that might want to pay us a visit in the middle of the night.

I fell asleep quickly and had some rather excellent dreams. When we awoke in the morning we were shocked to discover that all of the rocks had been pushed out of the hole and were strewn around our sleeping bags.

We never did find out what it was, but it seemed a fitting ending to yet another adventure into the Grand Canyon, where each trip always seemed to outdo the last and the unexpected “scenic” vistas would continue to demand our personal attention.



Pocketknives and paragons
by Mark Brontsema
Published July 16, 2003 issue

Last week, in a remote canyon near Moab, Utah, climber Aron Ralston had to cut off his arm using his pocketknife to free himself from a dislodged 800-pound boulder. He applied a rope tourniquet to the bloody stump, rappelled about 65 feet and proceeded to hike several miles before reaching help. It made national news.

I know that most people including myself would find it almost impossible to hack off a limb, especially with a small knife. First cutting into the flesh, then arteries, nerves, muscle and tendons and then trying to separate the lower arm from the elbow joint. When faced with such limited choices it amazes me what one is capable of doing to survive.

Years ago I was forced to make one of my first – but not last – life or death decisions in the mountains, though not nearly as dramatic or painful as Aron Ralston’s, and I alone was to blame for my plight.

The year was 1977 and I was living in the small town of Moose, Wyoming at the foothills of Grand Teton National Park. I backpacked into the mountains every weekend and would spot the occasional mountaineer high above me. I admired their ability to reach these heights all washed in heavenly light and shadow. I would wonder what it would be like to look down from their lofty and cold summits.

Once the mountain bug had bit me there was no turning back, I signed up for a three-day introductory rock climbing course with Exum Mountain Guides. Throughout the course the instructor, as well as myself, was amazed at my natural ability to climb. I was hooked.

In school I did very poorly at any game involving a ball. I couldn’t hit a baseball, let alone alone catch one of the hand-stinging spheres, to save my life. In basketball, at 6 foot 3 inches I had the height, the jump and the moves, but couldn’t make the ball go into the net. After being booed off the court one too many times, I eventually resigned myself to a more realistic but lesser goal – the track team, which had the worst track times and losses in the state.

With my newfound abilities to move swiftly and effortlessly on vertical rock faces, my ego grew and grew.
One day I decided to travel alone deep into the Teton backcountry. I set up camp in a small cirque 4,000 feet above my starting point and found a beautiful virgin rock face. It was late afternoon and I was tired, but the rock was calling my name. It sang out to me, like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey – luring Ulysses and his shipmates onto the rocky shoreline.

I easily hiked up the south side of the towering rock, set several anchors and rappelled down the almost vertical north side to its base. As I prepared to climb the more challenging north face, I realized I lacked the experience and equipment to safely belay myself. I decided that my rappelling device would hinder my climbing ability and opted to free-solo the face. I convinced myself that I would stay within arm’s reach of the rope in case I got into trouble.

As I ascended the 120-foot face I became entranced at the sheer beauty of the climb. Each tiny foothold and handhold seemed to be synchronized with each move I made, as though the rock had been custom-tailored just for me. I climbed higher and higher. Twenty feet from the top, the hand- and footholds began to disappear. The climb was now beyond my abilities. I had had enough and reached over to grab the rope. I was horrified to discover that I had unwittingly climbed 12 feet away and to the left of the rope and was 100 feet off the ground. I was quickly slapped in the face by the grim reality of the situation. My first thought was to leap for the rope and grab it before I smashed myself like a Halloween pumpkin onto the dark granite deck below. Diving off of a tiny toehold as thick as a silver dollar in a controlled diagonal free fall and then grabbing a thin 11-millimeter diameter rope was something only a childhood superhero could pull off. As I re-evaluated my situation, fear, gravity and the icy-cold fingers of death grasped my ankles and my sanity. I began to tremble. My only other option was to continue to climb upward.

With a prayer only a condemned man would whisper, I slowly and methodically inched my way to the top. Each move was harder than the last. I was only a misstep away from damnation. I slowly cleared my troubled mind and focused. From the beginning I knew that climbing was a sport of the mind. He who controls his mind as well as his fears feels almost weightless on the rock. The sheer weight and burden of fear alone can make you fall. I continued to ignore the voices in my mind that tried to convince me that I was about to die. I composed myself, relaxed a little and focused on my technique and style. After what seemed like an eternity, my right hand slapped the top of the climb and I pulled myself onto the main ledge. Once safely secured, I was overwhelmed with a feeling like no other I have ever had before. It was an elation that vibrated through every cell of my being; one that could only be compared to having the hottest-looking babe in school call you up and ask you out on a date. Climbing seemed more of a realistic venture or making the summit of Mount Everest more likely. Cheating death can be a very rewarding and enlightening experience. That feeling of geting away with something you shouldn't have goes back to my childhood. The mischievous nature of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn flow through your veins. Your afflected blood will put you in situations that a Navy SEAL team would thing twice about.

Aron Ralston made it out of his nightmare. I'm sure waking every morning minus an arm will be a unending reminder for him to both his courage and fate. Over the years I obtained specialized training and certification through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and the Colorado Outward Bound School so that I could reach even higher goals and deeper experiences in the mountains. But ever since that almost fatal day in the mountains, I have never stopped searching for that elusive but magical feeling despite the costs.



Wilderness Insomnia
by Mark Brontsema
Published April 23, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Joe, sporting the classic wilderness insomniacs face and hairdo.

Getting a good night's sleep on wilderness trips has always been a problem for me. I like to travel light in the desert and only bring a tent when I absolutely need to. The idea of sleeping under a star-filled sky in a wilderness setting makes one long for the wide-open spaces and brings out the dreamer and romantic in most. Unfortunately the reality of sleeping on the ground in unfamiliar country can be more eye-opening than the opposite.

On one particular summer trip in the remote recesses of the Grand Canyon, I was almost driven to madness by the croaking of frogs. My good friend Joe Slate and I had been hiking all day with heavy packs. As the sun set, we found a small ledge above a 10-foot waterfall. A small stream in the side canyon trickled next to us. I doubt if we could have found a more beautiful and serene spot to spend the night. A half-hour after crawling into our bags, small frogs appeared within several feet of us and began their loud chorus. Joe and I were too tired to sleep and the frogs were beginning to seal our fate of a sleepless evening.

After tossing and turning for another hour, we both finally got up and started catching the frogs and tossing them off of our ledge into the small pond 10 feet below us. This ritual went on until we had removed every last frog. Finally some peace and quiet – even though it compromised my minimum-impact camping ethics in the wilds.

We settled back into our sleeping bags, but before I could fall asleep the frogs had somehow reappeared from the pond below. Their croaking had now became unbearable. Joe and I got back up and began gathering the frogs once again, but instead of tossing them off the ledge we placed every one of them into a large empty cooking pot along with some water – then placed on the lid.

The muffled sound of their concentrated croaking was tolerable enough for us to finally get some sleep. In the morning I removed the pot’s lid and discovered that the frogs were not only all alive, they had been mating – creating a thick foam that filled the pot. I emptied the pot’s croaking contents into the same spot we had found them. (I later sold that pot to a “good” friend of mine.)

Over the years I have been awakened in the middle of the night by grizzly bears, porcupines, large rats and scorpions scurrying over my sleeping bag. But when I was able to sleep I would usually dream not of sunsets or waterfalls, but the soft queen-size mattress with 400-thread-count sheets waiting for me at home.



Running away – Part I
by Mark Brontsema
Published March 19, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

With the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped islands in the background, Chris proudly displays his first catch of the day.

Thirteen years ago I found myself in a relationship that had gone sour and a job that I couldnt stomach any more. Along with my independent and selfish nature and the need to “escape,” I purchased a ticket for a northbound flight from Phoenix to Juneau, intent on leaving the wreckage of my actions to work itself out. I had hoped that the great distance would help me to absolve my guilt and make it easier for everyone affected. I turned my back and headed towards the unknown.

The plane taxied on the runway. It happened to be the hottest recorded day in Phoenix – an asphalt-melting 122 degrees. The early afternoon flight was the last one allowed to leave Phoenix due to the extreme high temperatures. The plane slowly built up speed; its engines roared as it labored to become airborne. The entire length of the sticky runway was needed to reach this purpose. The escape from my past would be one of many trials on this sojourne of redemption.

During the long flight I had time to consider my self-inflicted fate. I had 250 dollars in my pocket, no credit cards, a backpack, a change of clothes, a tent and a sleeping bag. The last time I had done this I was 15 years younger, naive, full of confidence and expectations. This exodus was without a defined goal or purpose; I left behind family and friends – the security of familiar surroundings. Was I escaping from my own personal gulag or heading into one? As we landed in Juneau, I began to feel the crushing weight of my impulsive decision. The airport and the people walking by me seemed blurred and without depth. Was I dreaming?

I lifted my backpack from the baggage claim carousel and headed out of the airport and into the cool dampness of Juneau. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do – no plan, no future, no expectations. I decided to take a taxi to the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry port. The next boat would arrive at four in the morning – a five-hour wait. It was headed for Haines, a small town in the upper part of the Alaskan panhandle. I leaned against the closed terminal building and tried to fall asleep despite the light of the midnight sun.

When I arrived in Haines, I walked to the closest campground and pitched my tent. There were showers and toilets – my luck seemed to be getting better. The campground was half filled with lost souls. A woman and her son hiding from an abusive husband, an engineer from Morton-Thiokol who was fired after the first space shuttle explosion. I seemed to fit right in.

- See Part 2 below


Running away – Part 2
by Mark Brontsema
Published March 26, 2003 issue

Despite the friendly faces in the campground and in the small Alaskan town of Haines, a wave of depression overwhelmed me. I had too much time to think about the damage I had left behind – my heart felt a sharp and painful emptiness; I was emotionally paralyzed. I awoke every morning wearing a necklace of unfulfilled promises and dreams. The ghosts of my past began to claw at my sanity.

On one particular morning I was almost shaken out of my tent. I thought some kids in the campground were playing around outside. I crawled out into the early morning light and walked to a cafe that was just a stone’s throw from the campground. I entered the small cafe and stepped onto a floor strewn with shattered coffee cups and plates. A confused waitress told me that there had been a earthquake of over 6 on the Richter scale and we were in its epicenter. The rest of the day I wandered around the damaged town in a earthquake-induced stupor.

To add to the surrealism of my existence here, several days later a woman came into the campsite recruiting extras for the Disney movie “White Fang,” which was being filmed in Haines. I spent a week on the set in costume waiting for my “grand” debut. Finally my chance came. I was filmed in the wolf-fighting scene as one of the low-lifes betting on them. After my 15 seconds of fame I decided that my Hollywood career didn’t have much of a future and I needed to consider other possibilities.

One role I didn’t expect was that of a “big brother.” Back at the campground, I met 12-year-old Chris, who had come to Alaska with his mother, leaving behind an abusive father in Iowa. Chris’s mom worked as a waitress, and I would take Chris fishing during the day. Someone had given me an old, rusty one-speed bicycle, which we would use to ride on a small dirt path through ferns, dense Sitka spruce and tall bear grass to a secluded coastal beach. The fishing was unbelievable – almost every cast would bring in a large Dolly Varden or salmon. By late afternoon we would have a dozen fish, which Chris could barely hold on to as I pedaled us back to the campsite.

We would clean and then grill the fish on a large campfire and share our bounty with the rest of the campground’s social misfits. We used drfitwood as plates and ate with our fingers. As the evening wore on we would each tell our sad stories of how our lives had come to this – a campfire confessional of sorts.

My inner Huck Finn was re-emerging. I began to feel alive again.

- See Part 3 below



Running away – Part 3 (Conclusion)
by Mark Brontsema
Published April 2, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

My home away from home – a makeshift shack made of discarded plywood, truck body parts and tarps.

As the days turned into weeks, the psychological pull of the desert and home was overwhelming. Every day that I spent in this land of Northern Lights I became extremely lonely. Despite the many friends that I had made and remarkable help from strangers, I knew Alaska would never be my home.

I missed my Grand Canyon, the tall saguaros, the sidewinder. Being stranded, heartbroken, homesick, almost penniless and 4000 miles from home can have a numbing – if not paralyzing – effect on one’s inner-self.

I could no longer afford staying at the campground at $7 a day, so I moved deep within the forest and found an abandoned shack. I did odd jobs around town and, during my free time, spent hours in the local library. After several weeks of this “Walden Pond” lifestyle, I eventually earned enough money to purchase an airline ticket back to Phoenix.

My life back in the desert would not be an easy one. I would have to redefine myself. The changes and challenges I would encounter would be those of many trials and tribulations.

A paragraph from one of the books I returned with, written by Stephan Hoeller, seemed to put my “journey of the soul” into perspective – “The ego world is so constituted that it may efficiently distract the soul from the task of individuation. In many ways this is a paradisiacal world: It is filled with objects and experiences that promise pleasure, riches, and power. Still, when viewed from the vantage point of transformative growth it is a fool’s paradise.”



Grand Canyon Escapades – Part 1
by Mark Brontsema
Published Jan. 8, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Hidden within sandstone formations are passages leading to lost ancient Anasazi petroglyphs.

The Grand Canyon has always been one of my favorite places for extended backpacking trips. Some of my most memorable as well as near-death adventures have taken place in this deep and beautiful chasm. In the mid-’70s I was introduced to the world of extreme canyoneering by a friend, Chuck Ramsey. Chuck was a unique character, in that he smoked two packs of Marlboro “Reds” a day, preferred Budweiser over water and, like a goat, could eat anything without suffering any ill effects. His endurance, speed and strength on the trail were seconded only by his ability to tell intriguing and mystical stories. I felt like I was in the company of both Hercules and Homer.

Chuck desperately wanted to be one of the few people at that time to navigate a way to Elves Chasm off the Colorado River via Royal Arch and Point Huitzel. Chuck had written to and received a letter of the elusive Elves Chasm route from famed canyoneer and “Grand Canyon Treks” author Harvey Butchart. The first available four-day weekend we could both get off work was that of the week of the Fourth of July. With compass and letter in hand we bolted for the Canyon.

Now, backpacking in the Grand Canyon during the summer is precarious in itself – but off trail, any error in route finding can lead you into non-reversible, slick sandstone slots and holes. These deep recesses are the Canyon’s “Venus flytraps,” where the last of your energy and water are spent in a futile attempt to escape.

Chuck’s goals on this trip were threefold: one, to see a part of the Canyon that was unequalled in both beauty, remoteness and spotted with hidden ancient passages leading to some of the most unique petroglyphs in North America. Two, a spectacular 150-foot rappell into a ice-cold waterfall and three, to make contact with river raft guides who stopped daily at Elves Chasm. They would be carrying his favorite elixir – cold beer – which, with his silver tongue, he could easily acquire. His goals seemed valid to me and I would have willingly followed Chuck into Dante’s vision of Hell and back.

After driving all night we reached our “launching off” point – an abandoned ranger station near Pasture Wash. Carrying 75-pound backpacks complete with four gallons of water each, we hiked through the thick Kaibab forest toward our descent spot – Point Huitzel. Point Huitzel is at the very edge of the Canyon rim. Below it, 600 feet of almost vertical loose rock must be descended by rappelling and down-climbing before reaching the Royal Arch drainage. A grueling 10-mile trek in 100-degree plus heat, over rough terrain, would lead us to Elves Chasm. Not more than a mile into the trip I barely avoided stepping on a large buzzing rattlesnake, which was well-camouflaged by the dry pine needles on the forest floor – an omen, perhaps, of things to come.

- See Part 2 below




Grand Canyon Escapades/Hidden Passages – Part 2
by Mark Brontsema
Published Jan. 15, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Chuck waiting for me in one of the Canyon’s deep hidden passages.

After an hour of hiking in the Kaibab Forest, we reached the rim of the Canyon. One minute you’re surrounded by tall trees with no visible landmarks, the next you’re exposed to a spectacular open vista were you can see layered multi-colored rock formations for miles. The rising warm air thermals from below create a kite-flyers heaven – coo-ol!

It was already eight o’clock in the morning and getting warm. Chuck and I were now being challenged by the Sun to find the unmarked descent point. We scrambled down a steep slope of loose limestone to a flat and large sandstone ledge. The ledge seemed to cliff out – a dead-end, perhaps? As we approached the very edge we discovered a natural “manhole.” Two feet from its mouth, the crumbly edge led to a vertical drop of over 400 feet to the drainage below.

We removed our heavy packs and Chuck squeezed his body into the hole and disappeared. After several minutes he returned with a smirking grin; like a satisfied fox leaving a chicken coop. I handed him our packs and followed. The deep hole led us to multiple convoluted passages complete with a 600–year old ancient Moki Indian ladder. Inside it smelled old and musky, the blackened ceilings indicated fires were used here.

After crawling and down-climbing, we reached the passageways exit, which opened to another ledge and the strangest petroglyph wall I have ever seen. The most unique of them required a skilled and experienced rock climber to get to. We each cached a gallon of water to be drunk on our return from the inner Canyon.

Slowly we found a route down the headwall and into the the almost – level drainage – a relief after spending hours precariously perched on winding two foot wide ledges with hundreds of feet of air below us.

By now the temperature within the Canyon was reaching 115 degrees. The sun reflecting off the walls turned the drainage into a blast furnace.

Later, after five miles and nine hours of agonizing rappelling and scrambling over boulders the size of small houses we were running on empty. All of our water was gone – the heat had transformed us from seasoned mountaineers to stumbling zombies.

As the sun slowly went down we entered a small slot canyon. I removed my pack and sat down. For the first time in my life and with many years of successfully summitting high mountains in remote locales – some of them solo – I knew I was in trouble. Chuck had reminded me of the “mountaineers creed” – the weakest must be left in order that the stronger can survive. I knew from experience that it is virtually impossible for one person to rescue another in extreme conditions. With that, Chuck disappeared into the descending Canyon– leaving me alone, delirious and cotton-mouthed.

After resting for several minutes, I got back up and stumbled onward. I began to hallucinate – crystal chandeliers and ornate china dolls lined the Canyon walls. I kept walking. Dusk turned into night, I was too tired to dig around in my backpack for a flashlight – every several feet I would trip over a large rock, fall down or bash my shin. After what seemed like an eternity, I began to hear the sound of trickling water. I immediately felt the hand of salvation on me.

- See Part 3 below


PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Looking through the arch with the monolith and Elves Chasm beyond.


Grand Canyon Escapades –  Part 3
by Mark Brontsema

Published Jan. 22, 2003 issue

At this point I was so dehydrated that my vocal cords and throat had shrunk – I tried to yell out to Chuck in the darkness, only to have it come out as a hoarse whisper. I must have stumbled for another 100 yards; the sound of the trickling stream got louder. In one last mustered yell, and with every reserve ounce of strength, I yelled one more time – “Chuck!” – which sounded like it came from a 90-year-old man with laryngitis.

Mark, I’m over here!” Chuck replied with a voice filled with vigor and reassurance. I loosened my pack and let it fall to the ground – at that point I didn’t even care about the expensive Nikon camera and lenses in it.

I joined Chuck next to the small pond, which was surrounded by moss-covered sandstone ledges. Chuck dipped a one-quart bottle into the pond and handed it to me. He then warned me to drink it slowly, explaining that he hadn’t taken his own advice and had thrown up near a small rock about five feet away from me. I was too tired to care. In the darkness I took the bottle from Chuck and began to drink. The water was beyond refreshing … or so I thought.

Something was ”thick” about the water. I pulled the headlamp from my pack and shined it into the bottle – it was completely filled with tadpoles! I then aimed the light in Chuck’s face. He grinned and said, “Hey, it’s good protein!” I felt ill but didn’t throw-up. Chuck then handed me a bottle of tadpole-free water, which I downed quickly to kill the taste of the little wiggling black devils now in my stomach.

Chuck and I gathered our packs and found a large rock platform to sleep on. With the soothing sound of a small stream at our feet, I passed out.

The next morning we awoke in what seemed like something out of “The Hobbit.” A beautifully enclosed and surrealistic canyon complete with ferns, small cascading waterfalls with deep wading pools, wildflowers, canyon wrens and hummingbirds. A natural arch bridged the stream and pools of water. A towering 200-foot pinnacle stood next to the arch and, beyond it, the 150-foot rappell down to Elves Chasm, the last section of the Canyon.

We broke out the ropes, harnesses, anchors and rappelling devices and began our descent.

- See Part 4 below



Grand Canyon Escapades – Part 4
by Mark Brontsema

Published Jan. 29, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Chuck (upper right corner) looking down at a huge ledge that collapsed just minutes after we ascended it.

The rappell into the waterfall was very dangerous. With the slime-covered wall and heavy volume of water pounding on Chuck as he descended – balance was no longer an option. The weighted and wet 11-millimeter rappell rope stretched to half its original diameter. We didn’t have the luxury of a belay rope – just the single rope, which by now resembled a piano wire.

Chuck wasted no time in getting down. He unhooked from the rope and proceeded to hike the final half-mile to Elves Chasm. Within minutes Chuck turned around and headed back to the waterfall and the rope. He ducked from the intense heat into the shadow of a large boulder. I was beginning to start the rappell when Chuck yelled up that it was just too damn hot to go any further and that I shouldn’t come down.

The heat in the inner gorges of the Canyon in July can reach well over 140 degrees in the direct sunlight. The grueling death march of the day before had left us weaker than we thought. I knew if Chuck wouldn’t be able to continue, I sure as hell couldn’t. I had nothing to prove to myself. Chuck clipped his Jumars – an ascending device – onto the rope, and began the arduous task of slowly ascending 150 feet of wet rope. After almost an hour, Chuck finally reached the ledge I was sitting on. He was exhausted. He collapsed next to me and said there was just no way to make it to Elves Chasm and out of the Canyon in one piece.

Chuck and I decided that we would need to hike out during the night. The daytime heat was slowly killing us. At dusk we filled our water bottles, loaded our backpacks and started back up. We hiked under a magnificent star-filled sky – the Milky Way was in full bloom. Big-eared bats darted around us, devouring the gnats and mosquitoes that followed Chuck and I relentlessly.

By two o’clock in the morning we decided to take a short break – our water was running low and we were getting worried. Our strategy was to get to our cached water – some four miles away and 3,000 feet above us – before the sweltering sun did. If we didn’t make it to our cache by noon, we would surely die of heat exhaustion.

With the sun coming up and the Grim Reaper at our heels, we hurriedly scrambled up the Royal Arch drainage to the maze-like headwall. As we negotiated our way up the exposed cliff face, we drank the last of our water. We found ourselves lost on the hot and almost vertical rock face. Rattlesnakes lay in wait at almost every shade-covered spot. Things looked desperate...

- See Part 5 below



Grand Canyon Escapades – Part 5 (Conclusion)
by Mark Brontsema

Published Feb. 12, 2003 issue

Chuck’s only prerequisite for going on one of his outrageous trips was to have a “strong-like-bull, smart-like-tractor” attitude.
Chuck and I continued up the unending headwall, our heavy backpacks digging into our collarbones and shoulders. The pain was becoming excruciating. Whenever we took a short break we removed our packs, which felt like oversized medieval cattle yokes. When we put them back on, they caused twice as much agony to our bodies. After several painful breaks, we opted to leave the packs on and just deal with it. Our liquids had run out several hours ago and we had another thousand feet of headwall to cover before we reached our two gallons of cached water.

Several years later I would take Joe Slate – a close friend and climbing partner – to the same spot. We carried a case of beer as our motivation to reach the cold Colorado River – nature’s perfect ice chest. I couldn’t remember the exact location of the “hidden” passageway down – one game trail looked like the next, which looked like the one before. Unable to find the elusive route, we decided to make good use of our heavy cargo. After downing several beers to lighten our load, we decided to leave the beer behind. We carefully covered it with rocks – lots of rocks. The mound resembled a poorly made pyramid three feet high. You couldn’t miss it. Seventeen years and 21 trips later, we have yet to find the golden elixir from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

After several more hours of double-backing and convoluted route-finding, we reached our cached water. It was warm but wet, and within moments we polished off the first gallon. We distributed the remaining gallon between us for the final leg of the trip. With only another 200 feet of climbing and one mile from the truck, we gathered what little energy we had left and bid farewell to our self-imposed hot sandstone prison.

But after another one of our “shortcuts,” we found ourselves disoriented, only this time in the dense Kaibab Forest. We were now dehydrated, delirious and wracked with pain. In our poor state we didn’t trust our compass bearings – a major mistake in the wilds. With the high-noon sun shining down on us and the thick forest vegetation, we couldn’t tell north from south. Both of us wanted to just lie down and die. We looked for any familiar landmark. Finally we spotted the bordering National Forest barbed-wire fence, which eventually led us to the four-wheel drive road, the truck and home.



Alaska Adventures in the Bush
The Trip Back - Part 1

by Mark Brontsema

Published Oct. 30, 2002 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

The crew of the M/V Spirit of Adventure and kayakers unloading hundreds of pounds in equipment at the Mount Wright drop-off point. Kayakers use the point to paddle into the Muir Inlet

As the M/V Spirit of Adventure, a large tour boat approached the fog-laden beach, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This would be my second Glacier Bay sea kayaking trip with Lora Neu, and my seventh sea kayaking trip to a remote locale. Lora couldn’t wait to get off the boat to start our seven-day sojourn into the depths of Glacier Bay. I, on the other hand had a number of issues to deal with on this trip.

Two years ago, I found myself in Scottsdale Norths Intensive Care Unit with a virus that had attacked my heart. I had "picked" up this virus in Chile years before on a climbing expedition to Tierra Del Fuego. After four weeks in intensive care, I was sent home to die. After six months of lying in bed, waiting to meet my maker, I decided not to go quietly. Getting my ass out of bed was one thing. Getting back to what I used to do was another. Despite the enlarged heart – which was only working at 18 percent of its normal output – I slowly put on my boots and headed out the door. As the owner of the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School, a small rock-climbing school in Carefree, I love the remote outdoors and the sheer thrill of ascending vertical rock faces. With a background of climbs over a 25-year period – from the southernmost tip of South America to the windy arctic summits of Alaska, I had endured quite a lot. This was going to be a whole new challenge for me. Going out with my friends and climbing routes I had easily ascended was now like being at high altitude. My lungs heaved, my heart… well, my heart felt like it was barely putting out enough bloodflow to keep a small kangaroo rat alive in hibernation. I kept at it, and at it, and...

As the M/V Spirit of Adventure beached itself, we were rushed by the crew to unload our kayaks and seven days’ worth of gear onto the shore with two other couples. The boat then reversed its loud twin-1400 horsepower diesel engines and disappeared into the thick Alaskan fog. With a mountain of gear to sort through, we proceded to separate our tents, sleeping bags, food, clothes, cooksets, fuel, water, and wine and pack the kayaks with balanced loads fore and aft. The pick-up and drop-off point was – according to the map and park rangers – a highly concentrated grizzly bear habitat. Camping was not recommended! With this in the forefront of our minds, we looked liked crazed grocery shoppers with a two-minute time limit to completely load a shopping cart. The small beach provided no refuge; only the launched kayaks would give us the sense of security from the dark, dense forest 35 feet from the water-line. Once in the kayaks, Lora and I paddled into Muir Inlet. Humpback whales, orcas, black porpoises and sea otters abound in Glacier Bay, and we looked forward to being up close with them again. With a nervous energy driven by the need to distance ourselves from the dense grizzly bear area, we paddled all day and covered 13 miles thanks to the calm sea. Near dusk we approached a small wooded island, probably three or four acres in size and looked for a spot to beach the kayaks.

- See
Part 2 below



The Bear – Part 2
by Mark Brontsema

Published Nov. 6, 2002 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Lora taking a break before heading into the deep recesses of Glacier Bay. The water changed colors as we approached the glaciers, giving it a milky appearance.

We saw the small island as a refuge from grizzly bears, but unfortunately, beaching the kayaks was impossible with its rocky shore and high tide waves crashing on it.

We were exhausted at this point and opted for the main shoreline directly across from the island. We paddled ashore and dragged the kayaks well beyond the high tide mark. It started to rain. We unloaded the gear, pitched the tent and fired the stove up. Our makeshift kitchen was located about 70 yards from the tent, the food was stored in bear proof canisters provided by the park service (this was to keep bears from associating food with humans, making them – in theory – less likely to attack).

We heated up our MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) meals and ate. The MREs worked well in bear country, with little to no clean-up required – a must in this environment. After cleaning up the cook area and stowing anything edible, we crashed in the tent. Lora was out like a light; I was still wired. This was our first night of six in Glacier Bay and, in full color, my mind was playing the classic Hollywood “bear tearing apart the unsuspecting camper” horror movie. I tried to listened to CDs to distract my racing and nervous thoughts in the warmth of my sleeping bag.

Suddenly an uneasy feeling loomed over me; my heart began to palpitate (of course the high sodium content of the MREs didn’t help). A rush of paranoia hit me full face. I removed my headphones, unzipped the tent fly and came eye to eye with a full-grown male grizzly, lean and mean looking (aren’t they all?). The paranoia gave way to full-blown fear.

We had no weapons – they’re illegal in all National Parks – no pepper spray, no flares. My first reaction was yell out “Hey bear, Ho bear” at the top of my lungs, which immediately woke and startled Lora. The bear was unimpressed with my yelling and didn’t move. Lora leaned on my back to have a look. I could feel my heart beating hard which is something I hadn’t felt in two years. I was now anticipating the defibrillator in my chest to go off.
The grizzly – every camper’s worst nightmare.


The one and only time that my defibrillator went off was when I was climbing at Pinnacle Peak soon after it reopened. I had climbed extensively prior to the event, so I couldnt believe it when it happened. I was about 25 feet off the ground, leading a crack climb. I was getting ready to place my second cam when it fired – 750 volts directly into my heart via an electrode. I dropped the cam, and held on to the rock edge with every ounce of my being. I yelled down to my belayer, Kristi, that I was FALLING!

I tried to down climb before it fired again so as to get close to my first piece of artificial protection, another cam. It fired a second time and with more voltage. I held on again to the tiny rock edge for dear life. I was too high to use the rope effectively without hitting the ground. I finally down climbed enough to fall and be caught by my first piece of protection, the rope and my belayer – Kristi Alexander. It fired a third time, which – due to my now weakened condition – blasted me off the rock face. The cam and the rope tightened – holding my exhausted and limp body. Kristi then lowered me to the ground where the defibrillator continued to fire, each time tossing me about like a small rag doll.

Kristi, an experienced rock climber and good friend had saved my life or at least prevented me from getting severely injured. The pain was incredible. I later found out that the defibrillator unit should not have gone off and it had to be readjusted.

With this event in the forefront of my mind I was feeling very vulnerable. I also knew that large predatory animals will attack the weaker, the sicker and the older animals in a group. I felt like all of the above. Lora and I cautiously crawled out of the tent and into the pouring rain dressed only in our underwear and knee high fisherman boots - a strange sight indeed. We used the tent as a barrier between us and the bear. We slowly backed away and reached for several pots to bang together. I had seen on a nature show recently that throwing rocks at a grizzly was an effective way to scare them off. Yeah right. The bear continued to hold its ground. We began to shiver from the cold wet rain and yelled until we went hoarse.

About 20 minutes later it began to get dark and the bear slowly walked away from us, towards our food stash. Next to me was a small stick the size of a baseball bat and a full fuel bottle. I soaked the end of the stick with fuel and then lit it. The stick burst into flames, and for the first time that evening I felt a sense of power and control – like a Neanderthal man protecting the tribe from saber tooth tigers. I held the flaming stick above my head and did my best Arnold Shwarzennegger yell from the movie “Predator”.

The bear continued to ignore us and headed into the water. It swam to the small island that we thought would be a haven from the bears, leaving us alone in the drizzle and darkness. Just Lora and me and the slowly dying flames of my stick.

- See Part 3 below



The Glacier and the Germans – Part 3
by Mark Brontsema

Published Nov. 13, 2002 issue

We awoke to a cold, cloudy morning and – with the bear encounter fresh in our minds – we broke camp without giving ourselves the luxury of drying out our gear. Lora helped me into my kayak, As I’m almost 6’4” – it’s like sitting in a garbage can and as difficult to get out of – the kayak wobbled from side to side, like a cheap amusement ride, half in the water and half out. I looked like someone doing the hula, only without the hoop. Once in, though, the kayak felt like part of my body. The rhythmic paddling and the sound of water being sliced by the narrow bow was almost therapeutic.

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

The enormous Grand Pacific Glacier.

With only seven days to reach our goal and get back to the pickup point, we needed to cover some major distances. I knew all too well from being on a number of mountaineering expeditions over the years, how a small uncalculated event can spell disaster, even death. The water was a little above freezing and, as we neared the glaciers, we paddled around small icebergs that were the size of Volkswagen Beetles. Staying near the coastline in the event of a large wave rolling you was wise but increased the distance from our objective – Muir Glacier. With the clock ticking, we made the decision to steer away from the coastline and headed by line-of-sight to the furthest point ahead of us. Dipping my hand in the water brought on an instant sharp numbness to my fingers – I knew neither one of us would last long if we wound up in the icy sea bobbing around like corks.

We were 70 miles from the closest town – Gustavus – which was accessible only by plane or boat. The prospect of rescue was very remote. Self-reliance and confidence in one’s outdoor abilities is one of the key components to a safe wilderness experience.
As the day wore on, we passed spectacular snow-capped mountains practically rising out of the sea. A small family of sea otters approached – warning us with their squeaking that this was their turf. I couldn’t help but get closer – a pleasant change from the growling grizzly bear the night before.

As we paddled we were constantly checking the distant beaches for camping spots, wildlife and, of course, bears. The tides also dictated where we could camp. A poorly placed campsite could easily be submerged by a strong high tide and in turn pull the empty kayaks into the open sea.
PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Gerry and Silke approaching our camp - "Firebase Grizzly".


After covering over 10 miles in rough seas, we paddled to shore, checked the beach out for bear signs and broke out our damp tent, sleeping bags and gear. Bear were plentiful in Glacier Bay National Park and, with no hunting allowed, the bears had little reason to fear man. You found yourself outside of your comfort zone and in a world where every sound and sight was magnified. I felt like every cell of my being had reawakened with a tingling sensation: of excitement, pleasure and fear. Just as I was expecting to spend another stressfull “there’s a bear in the bush” evening with Lora, a large tandem kayak appeared. The couple landed near our campsite and asked if they could camp near us. They produced several bottles of cheap whiskey and vodka – how could we refuse?!

With the warmth of a large campfire, we exchanged kayaking stories. We learned that the couple, Gerry and Silke, were from Germany, but spoke excellent English. They also had a fear of bears and were relieved to see us. Grizzly bears are more likely to attack people in groups of three or less. I quickly did the math – yep, there were four us and we had four bottles of alcoholic courage, a big advantage!

I awoke the next morning with the hangover from hell, but I had slept soundly. Gerry and Silke easily outdrank us and looked rather refreshed as they packed their gear. It had started raining hard and the wind kicked up – the whitecaps on the waves looked ominous. Silke, the least experienced kayaker in the group, had talked Gerry, a highly experienced kayaker, into getting back into the kayak despite his protests. We watched as they paddled away from us into the rough seas, the kayak rolling and pitching. They rounded a small point and were out of sight. With extra strength Tylenol in hand, Lora and I decided to take the day off despite the ticking clock. Within 30 minutes the Germans reappeared and landed near our campsite. Gerry told us they had almost been swamped several times and the wind was too strong to paddle against. They set up their camp once again and resigned themselves to their tent for the rest of the day. Lora and I went exploring and hiked to the mouth of McBride Glacier. A cold wind blew off the enormous glacier and we patiently watched and waited for the glacier to calve – sending tons of huge sections of ice into the inlet.

- See Part 4 below



The Pickup Point Fiasco – Part 4
by Mark Brontsema

Published Nov. 20, 2003 issue

PHOTO BY MARK BRONTSEMA

Our campsite overlooking Mount Wright and the pickup point.

The following day we awoke to the usual Alaskan misty morning. We broke camp and headed for Riggs Glacier – the Germans had gotten an early start and were about a thousand yards ahead of us. We tried to close the gap, but the young couple slowly pulled away into the distance. By noon Lora and I stopped along a ’berg-strewn beach to eat lunch. The tide was rising about a foot every 5 minutes, so every 15 minutes we dragged the heavy gear-laden kayaks closer to dry land. We had just another five miles of paddling to reach the spectacular Muir Glacier. I glanced at my watch. Lora and I looked at each other and came to the same grim conclusion – it was time to head back. We were into our fourth day and the seas were getting rough. With so many factors at play – the weather, our physical condition and the unknown – we somberly set the kayaks into the sea and began paddling back to the pickup point near Mount Wright.

I was hoping not to repeat a scenario from 22 years ago, when I was on a 30-day NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) mountaineering course. We had attempted to climb a volcanic snow-capped peak. We had spent over a week backpacking with 90-lb. loads to its base in thick vegetation. On the final summit attempt we had gone light; the vast majority of gear stayed at base camp. We had only ropes, ice axes, crampons and snacks for the day. As we summited that afternoon, a storm that had been hidden on the other side of the mountain moved in. As it approached we scrambled down the mountain, but our escape route back to basecamp had been blocked by avalanches. We had to retreat off the steep mountain over precarious loose rock; the nearby lightning strikes caused our hair to stand on end. Hail and rain pelted us throughout the day – our Gore-Tex jackets began to leak, our mountaineering boots filled with water – we were caught out in the open. One mistep on the steep terrain would send you hurtling thousands of feet below. No shelter was to be found and we were still several thousand feet above tree line. Basecamp was now on the other side of the mountain. After three days of exposure to the elements, on the verge of hypothermia, no sleep for fear of freezing to death, no food and exhausted, we staggered into a small remote campground and begged for food.

Lora and I had to make up for lost time and we couldn’t afford the luxury of another rest day or waiting for the weather to break. We had yet to see any whales on this trip, although bears seemed to be on every beach scavaging for food or rolling around in the ankle-deep mussel shells. During the course of the trip, Lora’s eagle eyes had spotted eight bears before I did – largely because I hadn’t removed my contact lenses since day one. (The prospect of running around blindly in the dark with a grizzly near the tent outweighed the discomfort of the dry contacts in my eyes.)
PHOTO BY LORA NEU

Moose antlers, mussel shells and sun-bleached bones littered the remote beaches.


The sun finally came out on the fifth day and its intensity burned my hands, which were also exposed to the harsh saltwater spray. By the end of the day my hands had become swollen and I couldn’t bend my fingers – making going to the bathroom and building a campfire a real challenge.

When Lora and I began our trip, the pickup point was engulfed in dense fog. Now, six days later, the landmarks were unfamiliar. We spent half the day searching the shoreline from the safety of our kayaks for the large rock cairn that marked the pickup point. We were back in the dense grizzly bear habitat and camping was unwise. In fact, not more than a hundred yards from the rock cairn was the largest grizzly we had seen so far. It was ripping large bushes out of the ground to eat their savory roots. It’s snorting and munching echoed off the mountain. By now we were both ready to go home – we were tired, dirty, damp and ready for some real food and hot coffee. Missing the boat was not an option. We found a small island nearby and cautiously walked the beach looking for bear signs – a daily routine, as was filtering water via a small hand pump which, after two quarts, turned your arms into limp spaghetti.

The temperature had warmed up considerably, we spread out our wet gear on the beach where it dried quickly. Lora and I spent the rest of the afternoon picking up sea shells, skipping stones and looking over our shoulders every two minutes. Despite the beauty of our surroundings and the shining sun, I once again had that overwhelming feeling of impending doom. We both knew how easy it was for the bears to swim out to these distant islands.

We had to be at the pickup point by 7:30 a.m. It would take us around 30 minutes to reach it from the island. We didn’t want to oversleep.

As the sun set, I built a large campfire and settled into the tent for the evening. I popped an Ambien and soon fell asleep. I awoke suddenly at 6:30 a.m., with hardly enough time to pack everything and get to the pickup point. Lora and I tripped over each other’s feet as we scrambled to stow the gear in the small kayaks. Just as we were putting on our spray skirts and lifejackets, a huge grizzly came around the corner, about 60 yards from us. I yelled. Lora got so excited she put her spray skirt on backwards. The bear entered the water, which blocked us from getting the kayaks afloat. The huge head, barely out of the water, looked like a misshapen hairy periscope.
PHOTO BY LORA NEU

The author taking a snack and stretch break among the many melting beached icebergs.

The bear continued to the other side of the inlet, headed towards our pickup point and then turned into the thick brush out of sight. We paddled furiously to the pickup point, where four Canadians were waiting. As we exchanged stories of fear and courage, the M/V Spirit of Adventure appeared. The low drone of her diesel engines gave us an instant feeling of relief and security. Once aboard, we headed for the cafeteria deck, where a hot cup of java awaited us. Lora and I went outside to the observation deck and watched the scenery go by – a lone kayaker paddling in the distance.

As I leaned against the railing, I remembered a quote from Martin Sheen’s character, Captain Willard, in “Apocalypse Now” saying, “When I was here, I wanted to be there (home), when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”