Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Friday, February 15, 2013

Returning to Bagwaji

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

-Lord Byron

This is one of my favorite poems; I carved the words by hand with a pocket knife on the door of my Shack, which is no longer mine.  These words always come back to me when I travel, so even though I had driven many miles to participate in the Michigan Ice Fest, I simply could not be five days in the U.P. without spending one of those days doing what I love best, the solitary Bagwaji.

Despite several invitations from my new friends at the Ice Fest to go climbing on Friday, I resisted the temptation and stayed true to my nature by spending the day alone, hiking in the north woods.  Bagwaji is an Ojibwe term for into the wild.  Perhaps my American Indian ancestry calls me to the woods, or possibly I just gain so much from a solitary communing with nature that I felt drawn in the direction of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore's North Country Trail to hike, breathe, and take it all in.

Wearing many layers to combat temperatures in the single digits and the ever-present wind coming off Lake Superior, I drove to the Munising Falls trailhead, left my vehicle, and took the path toward the North Country Trail.  A Cross Country skier had gone in the same direction, which made my hiking easier as I followed his tracks.  The hike was steep and mostly uphill, making me think the skier ahead of me must be in very good shape, and as I huffed and puffed and once again cursed myself for the many bowls of Captain Crunch I have consumed, I continued on at a leisurely pace (as if I was capable of a brisk pace) and stopped often to capture images of snow, snow, and more snow.  I don't often see that much snow where I live.

Upon reaching the level of 200' above the shoreline, the trail evens out and follows the stone ridge from which the ice formations originate.  There are few opportunities to actually see the frozen waterfalls, as they are below the ridgeline, though at one point I was hiking in silence, only to come upon a sudden vantage point for watching the climbers below.  I didn't even know they were there until I was quite literally standing over them.  As I took photo after photo of people climbing the ice, I realized that they were unaware of my presence, which made for some good candid shots.  I have to admit, it felt kind of creepy to be standing there watching people who didn't know I was there, so I moved on.  Later I ran into the Cross Country skier, who turned out to be a climber I had met the night before, so he slowed his pace for me and I hiked out behind him.

I then continued on alone again, hiking down Sand Point Road and finding the access point up to the ice.  Once more going up a steep incline, I found climbers from the Ice Fest and went a little wild with my camera, climbing ledges and outcroppings to get the right angle and the close-up shots without actually strapping on crampons and climbing the ice with them.  Angling ever up, I eventually made it back to the North Country Trail and continued east to the marsh trail, which was deserted and gave me two hours of being completely alone.  When I say completely, I mean it.  No birds, no wolf tracks, no moose, no cougar (one of which had been in the general area 4 months ago), and of course the bear and snakes were all hibernating.  Thank goodness the snakes were hibernating; I was in a marsh, after all.  I focused on the snow and the many unusual formations the wind twists the white flakes into, including finding my first snow snake.  Even that made me breathe a little quicker.  I studied the different species of trees, pleased to see so many birch, with their curling bark and smooth trunks.  I hiked, I listened to the wind and the moments of complete silence, I reveled in the contrast between blinding white snow and dark trees which held their secrets waiting for Spring to reveal their full form.
Snow Snake!!!!!!!!!!

I indulged in my fascination with brightness and darkness, shadow and light.  It never fails to amaze me the patterns that are formed by natural light, though instead of getting my camera back out of my pack, I just sat for a long while on a snow-covered log and contemplated the shadow and light.  Filled with inspiration and longing to better understand the natural world, the winter landscape displayed black and white simplicity,  and in every object a purpose.  What a beautiful reminder to stay focused, to give purpose to my words and actions.

That purpose of action came about quickly when I realized the sky was growing darker.  With much reluctance, I left my perch and hiked back to my vehicle.  Eager for the evening festivities, I made my way back to Sydney's for companionship and food.

What sets the Michigan Ice Fest above other adventure weekends is the efforts of Bill Thompson to bring us all together at the end of the day for camaraderie and even more excitement.  Bill offers food and drink, new and rekindled friendships, reps on site for advice and gear, and the extremely popular slideshows!
Friday's lineup was every bit as awesome as the previous night with Bill Thompson and Ben Erdmann. First up was Fabrizio Zangrilli.  Seriously, with a name like that, I knew he would be fabulous, and he did not disappoint.  Fabrizio lives in Colorado, but for the past 22 years his climbing has taken him all around the world, from Alaska to Antarctica.  His slideshow told stories of leading expeditions to Everest, K2, Cho Oyu, the Gasherbrums, Nuptse South Face, Ama Dablam, Pumori and Cerro Torre.  According to his blog, Fabrizio is one of the few climbers to go from K2 base camp, 5000m, to Camp 4, 7900m, and back to base camp in a day.  He believes in speed and safety.
Fabrizio told us that many people ask him how to get started as an alpinist, how does one prepare to take on such an adventurous lifestyle?  His advice is "research how to be cold and lonely".  From there he told many stories that made us laugh, accompanied by photos of his expeditions.  But Fabrizio also spoke of safety and caution, and friends lost to the mountain, and gave us all a sobering reminder that such a lifestyle carries inherent risk.  Alpinists are not reckless.  They are prepared and educated and aware of the risks.  Again, the question came to mind;  why do they do this?  What makes them different?  I was only beginning to understand the answer, but I'm pretty sure it has more to do with the mountain in front of them than the lure of adventure.

Fabrizio's tales filled the room with laughter, and as he concluded with a message to be safe and climb on, it occurred to me that the people brought to the Michigan Ice Fest are indeed professionals, not just because they are sponsored Alpinists, but because they are educated and amusing speakers who draw you into their lives and share their passion.  

I'd had the privilege of meeting another of these professionals the previous night when Bill Thompson introduced me to Joe Josephson.  Bill did not tell me Joe is an alpinist, he just said there was someone I should meet.  Joe spent a little time talking to me about growing up in Montana, but it wasn't until he began speaking after Fabrizio that I realized who he really is.  He was so friendly and down-to-earth, I was amazed to hear the stories of his many accomplishments and roles other than climbing.  

Joe is the published author of Winter Dance: Select Ice Climbs in Southern Montana and Northern Wyoming, and a marketing force for the alpine community.  He organizes the Bozeman Ice Fest each year and works tirelessly to promote safety and achievement on the mountain.  As Regional Coordinator for the Access Fund, Joe has received national recognition for his multi-year campaign regarding winter use in Hyalite Canyon.  He promotes stewardship and conservancy, as well as increasing understanding of landscapes and wildlife through direct experience. (Huffington Post, Feb 2013)  

In addition to being an author, alpinist, sales rep, photographer, and event organizer of the annual Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival, Joe produces videos. One of his recent works,  Genesis: 40 Years of Hyalite Ice Climbing, is a delightful story of old vs. new as Pat Callis, the first climber ever to complete and name the Genesis route in Montana in 1971, climbs Genesis again with Pat Wolfe, a young but experienced alpinist.  The twist in the plot is the use of Callis' original climbing tools from the 70's, which has Wolfe wondering if he can even accomplish the climb.

Courtesy Google Images
Tools have come a long way since then, thanks in part to Yvon Chouinard, alpinist and founder of Patagonia.  A visionary in climbing and in business, Chouinard believes that "how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top" and even though he has developed many improvements in climbing gear, he strongly believes that the equipment doesn't matter nearly as much as ability and experience.  His philosophy drives the point in "Genesis".

It was also Chouinard who said "It's not an adventure until something goes wrong".  Joe Josephson knows a little something about that.  Throughout his presentation, the prevailing theme was aborted climbs due to equipment failure.  The story becomes even weirder when you discover that it was the same piece of equipment that failed every time:  the stove.
Joe has more stories of being in the middle of an expedition and being unable to rehydrate due to the stove not working, the stove being accidentally kicked off the mountain, the stove's fuel running out, and more.  Without the stove, climbers cannot melt snow to purify it and drink water.  Since climbers dehydrate quicker in cold temperatures, the stove is absolutely necessary to complete the climb.  If it's not an adventure until something goes wrong, Joe has had a lot of adventures!

Courtesy Google Images
I also posed my question to Joe.  When most people do not spend their life on such extreme adventures, what makes him different?  He paused for a moment, and answered, "that's a really hard question".

Joe grew up with the Beartooth Mountains in his back yard.  As a child, he would stare at those mountains and knew in his heart "that's where I wanted to be".  The only answer Joe could give me was his awe of the scale and magnificence of the mountains, which pulled at him and drew him in.

The answer that was emerging all weekend was that unexplainable something that draws these alpinists to the mountain, or in the case of our weekend, a tower of ice.  I don't think it's the challenge of climbing that makes the climber different, it's the call of the land that not everyone hears.  Each of the alpinists that presented at Michigan Ice Fest have gone to college and studied nature.  It's almost as if they need to know the mountain.
Joe Josephson has faced and conquered many challenges in his life.  An accomplished alpinist, he has known adversity and embraced success.  All of the professional climbers in the room had this same quality. But as I spent time with the participants of the Ice Fest, I heard so many personal stories of life's challenges.  Every one of the 450+ people there had a reason for being there to climb the ice, and we had all overcome challenges to be a part of this weekend.    There is a reason people put aside their daily lives to spend a few days climbing a frozen tower of ice, and the reasons were important.

I had my own reasons for being there, but my personal challenges do not matter so much as my experience on the ice.  Regardless of why we were there, we all shared the experience of being called to the mountain - or Pictured Rocks - and becoming part of something bigger than ourselves.

I have as hard a time answering my own question as the other climbers did.  When the people at home all thought I was crazy to come here, what makes me different?  I hear the call, and I answer it.  I go to immerse myself in the scale and magnificence of the landscape and learn from it, pushing myself to be worthy of the land.

These people aren't crazy.  They are informed and careful planners.  What sets them apart is they do not ignore the longing inside of them, they chase after it.  As I left Sydney's that night to get a good rest before the Saturday climbing class I was taking, I wondered why on earth I had waited so long to answer this call.  I was right where I longed to be, with people who understood, and the ice was waiting for me.

Climb on!