Elliot At Altitude

Elliot at Altitude

Move over, Cheryl Strayed. I have a new role model.  Her name is Elliot Singer; she’s 14 years old, writes an amazing blog at Elliot At Altitude, and eats mountains for breakfast.

I’ve known Elliot since I was 11 years old, and if I’ve learned one thing about her over the years, it is that you should never underestimate her. At four foot, eleven inches, and no more than a hundred pounds, it’s hard to imagine this girl doing much damage. That is, until she shakes your hand. She has the kind of iron handshake that could make a grown man tremble.  Her callouses are hard and well-worn, developed over the years from summers spent scaling the Sawtooths, biding her time before she was ready for the high peaks of the Himalayas. This spring, Elliot finally had her chance, and with five-time Everest summiteer Melissa Arnot as her guide, she traveled to the Khumbu Region of Everest to attempt three 20,000 foot peaks. She had been training for the trip for months, waking at 5:00 am to run at the gym, wearing a 20-pound weight vest around the house, and practicing her breathing techniques for the paper-thin air of the high Himalayas.

This trip was a test, not just of her skill as a climber, but of her character. Few teenagers have the patience or the perseverance to be a mountaineer. An ascent of 20,000 feet takes every bit of physical and emotional strength you have, and, sometimes, you don’t even get the reward of reaching the summit. But Elliot is a quick study.  In the Khumbu capital of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas, Elliot discovered the value of being “chill,” of entering into a meditative state in which you prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and settle for something in the middle.  Armed with Bob Marley and a pocket full of Coconut Crunchies, she successfully summited Island Peak, slept 20,000 feet atop Lobuche Peak, and entered into the unknown territory of Kyajo Ri. With each ascent, she set the bar higher, proving again and again that she is absolutely fearless, one of the grittiest gals I know.

Recently, when faced with my own small challenges, I have started to ask myself a question, “What would Elliot do?”

Elliot, I don’t know what the future holds for you, but after standing at the summit of a 20,000-foot mountain, the sky is truly the limit.

HulaF’nHula

For all those of you who have asked about the disappearance of my grittygal blog, I apologize. It has been a long haul this year. I promise, however, to return to the blog with renewed vigor. Thanks for sticking with me.  


          100_0927The Hulahula was littered with rocks and boulders and long sections of big, ice-cold rapids. As the bowman, my job was to read the river and pick the best route. Occasionally, I had time to study it, to calmly choose our line through the rapids. But most of the time, I was forced to make split-second decisions, paddle hard, and pray to the river gods that our canoe would make it through without spilling.

Between rapid runs, my dad liked to lay his paddle across the gunwales, sit back, and admire the scenery.

“Aidan,” he’d say, “Just enjoy this. You may never see anything like it again.” He’d pause and then he’d add for emphasis, “No really, Aidan. This is it. This is one of the last great wildernesses left. Just relax and soak it up.”

Relax and soak it up, I’d mutter to myself.  My dad had learned to trust me and my ability to read the river, but from my perspective, he had forgotten what was like to be in the driver’s seat.

On our fourth day, my dad was dreamily watching the mountains when I yelled out, “Boulder garden!”

His reverie came to a screeching halt. “Eddy out!” he yelled.

Downriver was a section of water teeming with rapids and angry looking rocks.

“No way,” I said. “We can’t make it.”

“What do you suggest then,” he said tensely, without a sliver of bliss left in his voice.

Lining our canoe wasn’t an option. The rock walls were too steep and the current too strong.

I bit my lip. The river was divided into three channels. On the right, the water surged toward a cliff in a long wave train and then dropped off a ledge into a bowl of roiling water. In the middle, three large boulders rose up. The spaces between them were too small to squeeze a canoe through. On the left, the water was fast and as rocky as a scree field.

“What do you think, Aidan?” my dad asked.

“The right,” I said, hesitantly.

“Yup,” he answered. “Looks like our only option. Let the current take us up to the wall and kick us out. Then draw the canoe hard left and miss that bowl. There’s a smaller drop to the left, but I think we can survive that one.”

I bit my lip again. I didn’t like his choice of words.

“You got this, Aidan,” he said, patting me on the back. “If we take this right, we’ll be okay.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Be confident,” he said. “Bold and confident.”

I studied our line along the right wall.

“Take your time,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Now,” I answered. I knew the more I thought about it, the more frightened I’d get.

We peeled out and entered the wave train, the water heaping over the bow and flooding into my spray skirt. I could hardly see, but knew we were just inches from the wall. When the wave kicked us out, I yelled, “Left! Left!” but the boat wasn’t turning. I was certain we were going to dump. Then, suddenly, the boat moved. We’d missed the drop-off. When we pitched into the second one, I felt the bow of the canoe porpoise. It dove, came back up, and I emerged from a wall of water. Then I saw it, a boulder dead-ahead. I drew the canoe left, but could tell by the way the boat moved that my dad hadn’t seen it yet.

“Boulder!” I yelled. I felt the back end of the boat bump the rock. But that was it. A bump and not a collision. Ahead I saw an eddy just downstream.

“Eddy out,” I shouted.

When we turned the canoe into the eddy’s calm water, I felt my muscles slacken. We’d made it. After inspecting the canoe, we realized that we’d cracked a crossrib, but that could be fixed.

“Holy shit,” my dad said, relieved.

We had eight to ten days ahead of us. The Hulahula has a pretty sounding name, but by the end of our trip, by the time we reached the Arctic Ocean, tired, battered and shaken, we’d chosen a cruder phrase to describe the river.  Pronounced not as three words, but one, an expression of reverence and deference: HulaF’nHula.

 

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A Bear!?

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Prior to this trip, I’d never actually seen a grizzly. I’d been in bear country and had seen fresh tracks and steaming scat, but never a bear. So, on this trip, I was intent on spotting a grizzly. I didn’t need a long look at one, and I sure didn’t want one close up, but I was not going home without catching sight of a griz.

As we hiked up the Chandalar River toward Gilbeau Pass, I was constantly on the lookout. We tramped across gravel bars thick with willows, and I scanned the branches for a bear. When we stopped for a break, I looked downwind to see if one might be tracking us. While my dad, and Chris and Dave ( our two companions) quizzed each other about old 70s and 80s music to pass the time, I stayed silent and focused. They could have their fun, but I would be the one to spy the bear in the thicket ahead or to send out the warning call when one came stumbling out of the brush.

But after 4 hours of steady hiking over the tundra, always climbing higher, I grew tired. The only things on my mind were if we’d stop, how long we’d rest, and if I might dip into the trail mix or the hummus when we did. So, when I came up out of a ravine, I was not prepared for the brown-haired, humped- back form of a grizzly.

“Bear!” Dave yelled, turning to my dad who was carrying our only shotgun. Startled, I jumped into action. I pulled out my pepper spray and put my thumb on the trigger. I was prepared to stand my ground. And then, the bear turned.

It was then that I saw two very un-bear like horns emerge from the animal’s enormous head. This most definitely was not a bear. In fact, we had stumbled upon an even more unlikely beast — a muskox, thrashing its head back and forth as it browsed among the willows.

I felt surprised, thrilled, and then a bit disappointed. But I needn’t have worried. I was going to see grizzlies – a number of them – and quite possibly a polar bear, too.

Stay tuned for more bear sightings.

 

Beware the Bears

Making peace.

When we arrived at the Fairbanks airport, with our backpacks and fishing rods, an airport employee took a look at us and asked where we were headed. “To the Arctic,” I said. He grimaced and then proceeded to launch into a bear story, sparing us none of the gruesome details.

“My friend and I were hiking in the mountains,” he began, “and we saw this bear in the distance, but you know, it’s Alaska, this is bear country, so we just kept walking. Anyway, I hiked up ahead a bit, and then I heard a scream in back of me. I turned around, and there was a 800-pound grizzly attacking my friend. The bear took a swipe at him and he went down. I ran back yelling as loud as I could and somehow I chased the bear off. It saved him, but his face is a mess now.”

The brutal story was one I didn’t need to hear. I already had bear on the brain. Even before we left Wisconsin I was having bad bear dreams; they were following me through the woods, stalking me. I’d wake up whimpering and clutching at my pillow.

My dad told me, we didn’t need to worry, unless we came across a grizzly guarding his kill, or a sow and her cub. Bears, he said, would be more afraid of us than we’d be of them. It was cold comfort. So on our first morning in Fairbanks, I woke early and surfed the internet, determined to learn everything I could about Ursus arctos horribilis before heading for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My goal: to have a bear-proof plan for survival.

What I learned was unnerving at best. There is little hope of out-running, out-swimming, or out-climbing a bear. An angry grizzly can out-sprint Usain Bolt and swim faster than Michael Phelps. As for climbing, there are few trees at 67 degrees latitude that a grizzly in hot pursuit couldn’t uproot as fast as a bulldozer.

Later that day, we talked with a bush pilot who laughed when he heard that I would be wearing bear bells. “That’ll help us with identification,” he said. When I gave him a puzzled look, he added, “When we find a big pile of bear shit with bells in it, we’ll know it’s you.”

On our second day in the Arctic, I learned that the wide, well-packed trail we were camped near, was neither a caribou trail nor Heimo’s snowmachine path, but a veritable bear highway. I felt like Goldilocks, but instead of three genial porridge-eating bears, I had a big, bad, potentially man-eating grizzly to worry about.  I could only hope that Papa Grizzly wouldn’t find me asleep in my tent, and wonder, “Who’s camped on my trail?”

That night, before I went to bed, I placed a can of bear spray next to my pillow. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until finally I rolled over and whispered to my dad on the other side of the tent, “Daddy, you up?” He groaned in his sleep, and slowly opened his eyes.

And that was when I had my revelation. I felt guilty because it was so foolproof, my ace-in-the-hole. And I slept well for the rest of the night. I knew that if we encountered a charging grizzly, I needed to do only one thing to stay alive: I needed to out-run my old man.