Mt. Everest: Man vs. Mountain vs. Tectonic Plates

from nytimes.com (04/25/15) The base camp at Mount Everest after an avalanche on Saturday. Credit Azim Afif/via Associated Press

from nytimes.com (04/25/15) The base camp at Mount Everest after an avalanche on Saturday. Credit Azim Afif/via Associated Press

For hikers, trekkers, trail runners, and armchair adventurers, Mt. Everest has to loom large as an ultimate destination. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, so much high altitude catastrophic loss of life has occurred there. As of 10 p.m. EST on April 24, 2015, the New York Times is reporting another 17 people have perished on the mountain after an avalanche swept through base camp, killing climbers in their tents at base camp, and cutting off those camped above the avalanche beyond the Khumbu icefall section of the route. This avalanche is attributed to the magnitude 7.8 earthquake with its epicenter near Kathmandu which struck today and the subsequent aftershocks.  That event has reportedly claimed well more than 1,800 lives with that number surely to be revised upwards. In a chilling coincidence, with respect to Mt. Everest, this past week marks one year since 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall area between base camp and camp one on the mountain’s southeastern ridge.

Writer Mark Synott posted a thoughtful piece about guided climbs on Mt. Everest on adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com just days before this most recent catastrophe and loss of human life occurred. In his piece, titled ‘Everest-a moral dilemma’, which now seems very dated, reading it through the prism of the current unfolding maelstrom of even more human suffering,  Synott  questions some of the brazen trends developing among guiding companies working to put more and more eager people on the summit of the world’s highest mountain, whether those paying clients are qualified high altitude climbers or not. But Synott also looks back to a simpler time, at some of the great victories on Everest when the struggle was really man vs. mountain, a time when only the most prepared and daring would deign to make that climb.

In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, Synott concluded his  thoughts on Everest by writing that “there is high drama to be found on the world’s highest mountain…”. He surely did not anticipate another tragic climbing season with the loss of life reported so far only paling in comparison to the loss of life, human suffering and tremendous devastation ongoing in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and the surrounding region.

Man versus mountain may succeed once in a while. Men versus moving tectonic plates, however, will never win. We watch helplessly from afar but hope and pray that swift relief will come to all affected, on Everest and throughout Nepal.

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Another New Trail Shoe Trend

(originally appeared in Trail Walker, quarterly publication of the NY/NJ Trail Conference Spring 2015)

Extra thick soled hiking and trail running shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking and trail running shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a niche product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.

The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature – mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning.

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

Hoka One One boot. Photo by Brian Metzler, from running.competitor.com

, like the famous Western States 100 mile race  (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).

Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.

A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh.  Theelevated  platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.

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On the trail: the grass survives, again.

The grass survived.

The snow has melted, finally, and you can once again run, walk or hike through the grass. After months under a foot or more of snow, the grass is still green, and alive, mostly.

How does grass survive the freezing cold, the darkness, buried under the snow?Humans can not survive being buried in an avalanche for more than a few minutes. Yet grass survives the cold, the weight, the desiccation. How do its cells resist rupturing, imploding and becoming a protoplasmic organic slime? How do its fragile roots maintain their grasp on a soil which has itself frozen and is no longer nurturing.

This week marks the beginning of the holiday of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The holiday has many themes, revisited each year by parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren in a performance art like meal called the ‘seder’ where the story of the exodus is retold, using food as symbolic props.

But one idea often gets lost in all the preparation and the re-telling. The name of the holiday, Passover in English and ‘Pesach’ (pronounced peh-sakh) in hebrew, conveys a most basic but critical thematic idea. The name of the holiday references God’s sending an angel to visit death upon the first born males in pharonic Egypt as a punishment. God instructed the angel of death to spare the Jewish children. The name, then, focuses on a celebration of survival and an acknowledgement of God as both the taker and sustainer of life in a world filled with Divine intervention in the matters of mankind.

It is by design that Passover always occurs near beginning of springtime, a period of rebirth. And the blades of grass are the first signs of that renewal. They persist through a winter that really should have killed them. But at winter’s end the grasses stand up with no flowery announcement of their arrival. Unannounced and unadorned, they unfurl themselves and reach for the warmth of the nourishing sun.

The springtime holiday of Passover marks not only re-birth but also the birth of a nation that survived its own long winter of oppression, deprivation and servitude. Not every blade of grass survives the winter and neither did every member of the nation survive to leave Egypt 3,000 or so years ago. Which is why seeing the grass again in the springtime is the perfect time to truly celebrate life.