Failing and Making It Worth It

Failing and Making It Worth It

IMG_7931.JPGI fail a lot.

Yesterday, for example, I climbed Heather, 12b trad. Or more accurately I fell off Heather. A lot. After the initial crack things get thin, the protection gets small, and I started flying. I jammed so hard I took chunks out of my pinky and ring finger, left blood in the crack. I eventually pulled through the first crux on gear after repeated whippers on a slotted microstopper. The jams were so painful they left my knuckles aching. Onto the second crux, a series of sport climbing-esque slaps up an overhanging wall above a fixed pin—I backed up the pin with another microstopper, but on my first whip the rock around it blew. The stopper and quickdraw scurried down the rope to my hanging waste. The pin held, so I yarded back up and placed something else nearby. I took a few more whips and then lowered.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have the finish in me. It was that I was finished. I’d hung enough, my head was spent. I was just tired of being scared. I wanted to stand on flat ground. I was over it. I’d failed.

FullSizeRender-1That was yesterday. Two days before I lowered off Confederacy of Dunces, a crimpy “sport climb” that requires as much gear as quickdraws. Earlier in the day I’d fallen off Promise Land, a route I’ve climbed a bunch before.

Before that it was Astroman, the classic Yosemite 11c. I’ve been up there four times with two different partners, and everytime I’ve retreated. Even the Steck Salathe, a long Yosemite 10b, I had to hang on this trip.

Coyne Crack. Sanctuary. Mean Streak. Fat Lady. Flesh for Lulu. Tight Rope. The Prow. Women in Love. White Eye. The last pitch of The Underground. There are more routes out there I’ve fallen on or backed off of than routes I’ve sent. A lot more.

I fail a lot. A lot a lot.

The last few years this has been particularly acute—my drive to push has ebbed and surged in waves. One day I’ll be fixated on a route, and the next I won’t care about climbing at all. Until I’m standing at the base, until the route is towering overhead, I have ZERO gauge on where my head will be.

Yosemite, for example, three weeks ago: I was feeling lukewarm about the huge projects I’d set out for myself, Astroman and a one-day ascent of the Nose. But then we came through the tunnel and I saw the towering bulk of El Cap. We pulled over, parked with the rest of the tourists, and snapped a few photos. I could feel the excitement rising from somewhere deep inside me. Suddenly I was jumping up and down, eyes wide, my hands on my partner Andre’s shoulders. “Let’s do this!” I shouted, energized, alive. “LET’S CLIMB THAT BEAST!”

We didn’t. We failed. We tried Astroman three times but never reached the top. Even climbing the Sentinel was a close one. We never even got on the Nose.

I remember as a beginning climber backing off everything. I could practically downclimb as well as I could ascend; almost every route wound up including a retreat. The first time I tried the Whitney-Gilman Ridge I backed off three pitches up; I had no idea where to go, and I was too afraid to get stranded. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, the sense of adventure required, to continue. It was the same feeling that came flooding back yesterday.

I also remember when I stopped failing, stopped always backing off stuff and started getting to the top. It felt like a victory, a gaining momentum, like I’d crested some hill and the battle that had ragged for years was finally turning in my favor. Call it confidence, call it whatever, but there was a tipping point and it allowed me to start sending. The foundation was built and it was now time to climb.

There is a power in possibility, power in believing in yourself, believing you are successful, can succeed, power in believing the next hold WILL show up, the next piece of gear WILL be bomber. There is Truth in that. And yes, you might get stranded, there may not be any gear, but most times it will work out. Climbing has the power to get you killed, but when you climb with openness and possibility, when you ask the question “How do I use the holds before me?” rather than “When will the holds get good?” the best of us shows. We meet the challenge with our all. And suddenly you find yourself at the top.

But that doesn’t happen every day. Not in climbing, or elsewhere.

I fail a lot. And not just in climbing. I tried writing a book once, a guidebook to Western Maine rock. I never got past collecting topos and building a website. My “career” is a handful of fits and starts, nothing to write home about, a small town writing gig that keeps going with some adventure on the side. And I was married once. That didn’t work out either. Life has a way of handing us failure, adversity, reminders we are imperfect, routes we can’t seem to get to the top of. Our best efforts of the moment aren’t enough to crest the hill. The summit might just be out of reach. Life has a way of reminding us of that.

I failed yesterday. A lot. It came at the end of a week marked by failure, and a trip marked by failure. At the end of a few years marked by failure.

And in the midst of those lessons on failure the failures can compound. They can transform from a single moment to a storyline, from one climb to climbing, from event or sequence of events to a life narrative.

Blah.

But each of those moments are single moments, blips on the screen, instantaneous and individually inconsequential. “Failures” in name only.

As I bailed off Heather yesterday my friend Pat walked past on his way to Airation, a Cathedral finger crack. I’d seen him working the route a year ago, but he’d fallen at the crux.

“I’m getting back on it,” he said. “I’ve still got to send it.”

Not a failure, an ongoing challenge.

Life does a lot of smacking around. It is about mistakes and missteps, confusion and corrections. Climbing is a stupid, pointless way to spend the weekend. And I love it. It has a tendency to mimic the rest of existence, remind us of the challenges we face every day.

Today my fingers hurt. And my abs. I’m thinking a bike ride, or a trail run, fits more than climbing; I’m thinking I need a mental break from falling, fear, and visions of failure.

But yesterday as I walked down the descent trail after retrieving my gear I turned to Nick, my climbing partner. “Thanks man,” I said, “today couldn’t have been more fun.”

He smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “that was awesome.”

Failure can still be worth it.

And I’ll be back. I’ll be up there again, fingers jammed to the bleeding-point, gear smaller than I want disappearing below me. No matter how many tries it takes me it won’t truly be a failure, just an ongoing challenge, just one more route I have yet to send. And there are lots of those. I’ll never send them all.

 

Tweeting Shrimp

Tweeting Shrimp

IMG_7918-1Last week I wrote a post about chasing snapping shrimp down the Pacific Coast and sent it off into the internet-sphere. The whole piece/story/adventure revolved around a Radiolab podcast on the little crustaceans with the fire of the sun in their palm, so after I wrote it I shot a copy Radiolab’s way just for fun.

AND THEN THEY SHARED IT!!

I love Radiolab. In a world where most science reporting is more about the controversy and who said what about something than on the basic facts and merits of the matter Radiolab brings a sense of wonder to the genre. They tell their stories with nuance and complexity, allowing the pieces of this world that are amazing to stand on their own. (If you want one of the best examples, check out their story The Rhino Hunter, one of the most stunning pieces on the complexity of modern conservation I’ve ever heard.) I wait each week for the next episode to download; their success at telling longform stories in the Twitter Age is remarkable.

So it was nice to see their name tagged next to mine. YEAH!

Chasing Whales

Chasing Whales

13244231_1490935147599232_2529425574868615330_oI’m not sure how to explain it, but I’m chasing whales.

Not metaphorically. Really. I am looking for whales. Everywhere. Anywhere. And when I see them I dive in, swim after them. Follow them down into the blue. No joke. I’ve been training. 🐋

It started in Iceland.

Actually, that’s not true, it started before Iceland. It started last summer. It started in New England.

We were laying around, sprawled on the bed in the middle of the day. “Want to go snorkeling?” she asked.

“You know, I’ve never liked snorkeling,” I said. “I did it as a kid, but I can’t relax. Listening to my breath, all loud next to my ear, I don’t calm down. I wind up on the verge of hyperventilating. I’ve always wanted to get comfortable but I never have.”

She popped up to sitting. “I have masks,” she said. “Let’s go.”

That was the beginning. I have a tendency to run headlong at anything that scares me, and her push was enough. We grabbed wetsuits, masks and snorkels and went to the beach. The water was cold, but I floated around listening to my breath run ragged through the plastic. I calmed my heart, willed myself to relax. Soon we were coursing our way around rock beaches and points, diving down to examine starfish and stripers. The ocean, which had always held a foreboding cast for me, came alive. I was part of it, close enough to touch it. I was hooked.

12961430_1458805094145571_3194725830949882464_oLater that summer we were diving a nearby beach and swam into a shark. A blue shark, nothing dangerous, but it sure felt real as I swam up to him in his territory. In the fall we dove the Florida Keys, where I came face-to-face with a swarm of parrotfish. They looked like a herd of rhinoceroses tromping over seagrass beds; they saw me and parted like swallows, enveloping me. The next day I swam alongside a sea turtle as it made its way over the reef. Two days later on a diveboat, the only two without tanks, we swam with nurse sharks 30 feet below the surface. The ocean’s current had me; it was dragging me down.

Fast forward to February: Iceland. I had a 24-hour stopover on the way back from climbing in Scotland. I saw it in the Iceland Air magazine, towards the back: “Whales of Iceland. The largest whale exhibition in Europe.”

My head was still in mixed climbing, but it looked interesting. I’d give it a shot, I figured. I had a day. The plane landed and I caught a bus to my hostel. After a shower, a meal and some relaxing time in a bookstore coffee shop I went to bed.

The next day I woke up at 7 a.m. The sun doesn’t rise in February in Iceland until 10 a.m., so I wandered out into the dark. I found a public bathhouse where I relaxed in geothermal water in outside pools. The morning was beginning well.

I plotted my course on a cheap tourist map. The whale exhibit was on the other side of the city, but Reykjavik is small; it took me 30 minutes of walking, buffeted by wind.

I got there right after 10 a.m. just as they opened. The city was bathed in gray, overcast light. The man behind the counter looked up at me.

“You’re the first one here,” he said. “Just go in. Don’t worry about paying.”

IMG_4604Confused, I wasn’t about to complain. I wandered into the entrance, where I met the first of 23 full-sized models of the dolphins and whales that choke Icelandic waters. They were detailed, realistic, hanging from guy-wires, suspended from the ceiling. I turned the corner and the man from the corner came after me. “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up his cell phone. “We just developed a new app, a virtual tour of the exhibit. Will you test it out for us?”

I took the phone without a reply; I was still taking in the massive beluga whale model off to my right. I wasn’t yet ready to answer questions. I hit the play button and began wandering through the sea of mammals.

The tongue of the blue whale weighs as much as an elephant. The heart is the size of a Volkswagen. A sperm whale’s teeth are the size of corn cobs. And I was wandering beneath detailed, full-sized versions, bathed in blue light, listening with a phone to my ear in awe. It felt like I’d stumbled into the real thing, like I’d wandered into a sliver of open ocean. I went from one whale to the next, and slowly they got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until they were the size of city busses and diesel locomotives. I sat down at the coffee stand at the end, still open to their enormity, and exhaled. They were stunning.

Then I saw it: A virtual reality headset on a nearby table. I walked over and put it on, goggles and headphones both. There were three choices—tropical, temperate or arctic. In each you were underwater, surrounded by whales, and fish, sharks, seals and more. I spent 15 minutes spinning blindly on a chair watching orcas race past me. This. Was. IT. I was chasing whales.

IMG_1043I walked out in a daze, barely remembering to give the guy back his phone. “Come back whenever,” he said.

That’s it. The seed was planted in Iceland. That’s where it started for real. Since then I’ve been watching, waiting for whales. And they keep show up—in conversations about work, in books, tattooed onto the forearms of strangers at the Red River Gorge, along the highway. So I follow them. I trust they are leading somewhere. And I’m preparing to meet them: I took a freedive course in North Carolina so when one pops up before me I’ll be ready. In Moab I swam laps in the rec center pool, holding my breath from one end to the other. I’m going to be ready. When I see one and it dives, I’ll dive with it. They will share their secrets with me. They already have.

If this doesn’t make sense, I know. But I’m following them anyway.

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”
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Glidden on Washington Column.

What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?

For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.

But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.

“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.

Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.

“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”

That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.

“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.

“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”

He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.

In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.

But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”

The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.

“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”

He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.

“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.

But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”

The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.

But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.

That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.

But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.

“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.

And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.

But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”

The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.

This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

10,000 Seafloor Clicks

10,000 Seafloor Clicks

13235224_1490935110932569_1854608173923259447_oIt’s a long drive from Monterey Bay to San Diego, punctuated by towering seacliffs and emptiness. It’s the kind of drive were you find yourself pulling over every five minutes, where the landscape looks sculpted by god. Big Sur. Kerouac’s coast. Every photo looks magnificent, but none are able to capture the spirit of the place.

I spent the morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can pet a stingray, watch bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks grow frantic around shimmering clouds of sardines, see hoards of jellyfish from inches away and marvel at octopus species so different one looks like graffiti and another like camouflage. It took hours to wander through the exhibits, past giant bass and sharks and sea anemones.

One small crustacean I barely took notice of was a shrimp. He was a few inches long, with a pair of lobster-like claws, one substantially bigger than the other. His name? The snapping shrimp. I definitely saw one stowed underwater and behind glass, but I barely took notice. It was just another weird little ocean creature, nothing as majestic as the large pelagic predators or as striking as the brightly colored fish. It was just a shrimp.

13235634_1490935080932572_338291320125641097_oThen I started driving. I skirted my way out of Monterey, past Carmel and onto the Pacific Coast Highway. Hours clocked past. The landscape grew into lofty hills above an azure sea. First cell phone coverage faded, then the radio stations. “Next gas 62 miles,” the sign said.

But I come prepared for such terrain: I plugged my iPhone into the auxiliary jack and scrolled through my podcasts. Suddenly one of my favorites caught my eye—Radiolab.

The episode was called “Bigger than Bacon,” and it was about this strange sound emanating out of the ocean: a crackling, like the popping of bubblewrap. What was the culprit? Snapping shrimp!

But more amazing is the power of that sound, as well as the phenomena that accompany it. The snapping is masked by water, muffled, but in reality each snap is roughly 220 decibels, or about as loud as a jet engine. The claw closes at 60 miles an hour, but it occurs in a space so small something amazing happens: at the base of the ocean where no air sits, the snapping shrimp’s claw closes so quickly it forces away all the water, literally vaporizing it, creating a vacuum, an air bubble. Suddenly a void exists where previously there was none, a brief spot of emptiness created by a couple-inch-long organism.

And when the water rushes to fill that space it does it with a vengeance. Molecules slam into one another at such a pace that the space that was once a bubble heats up to 5,000 degrees, the temperature of the surface of the sun. On the seafloor. In the claws of a shrimp.

Seriously. This is no joke. This is real. Scientists even captured it on video:

 

But here’s the best part: as I listened I drove. And I drove. I drove past the pristine shores of central California, past Santa Barbara and Ventura and the megapolis of Los Angeles, to San Diego, to friends and surf and southern California beaches. I spent a week there, surfing, eating tacos and diving; swimming through Pacific waters in a mask, fins and snorkel, chasing sea lions and Garibaldi fish and leopard sharks.

And the whole time I heard snapping. Every time my ears broke the surface I heard it. I’d never noticed it before, never paid enough attention, but now whenever my head went underwater it was an orchestra. The shrimp were everywhere. I could hear the snapping of their claws at the surface, and when I dove it only got louder. I never saw them, but I could picture the little crustaceans scampering across the seafloor, smashing their claws together like Marvel Comic heroes generating plasma-like heat rays in their palms. The floor of the ocean was on fire, but only the shrimp could see it. And me.

(The full Radiolab is definitely worth a listen. Maybe on a drive?)

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/radiolab/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F603688%2F

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

Iraq-1020772The ceilings hung squat and low, traced by fluorescent lights dotted among recessed tiles. The hallway was dingy, scraped paint along bare walls and floors that wouldn’t shine no matter the scrubbing applied. Worn signs hung on the bathroom doors, faded now after too many handprints, only half the words now visible. Someone redrew the head on the men’s bathroom symbol, but they’d drawn it square. Inside, a black Magic Markered smiley face stared out.

It didn’t look like a hospital. Or it didn’t look like an American hospital, particularly not one in a major city. American hospitals are shiny and well-lit, with glass walls and artwork lining the corridors. They are regal, siblings to university buildings and museums and federal government offices.

But this wasn’t. What came to mind was Cuba — the dark hallways and simple plastic-upholstered seats lining the waiting room walls in the public clinics, the cement stairwells and overcrowding.

But even in Cuba the lines of patients move. People get seen promptly. Not here.

The emergency department was full. Some people stood along the walls. The woman behind the desk said it was a five-hour wait, maybe more.

“Busy day?” my friend asked.

“No,” the woman said looking apologetic. “This isn’t bad.”

We sat down beneath an overhead television. It was 1 p.m. The afternoon soaps were on.

Seven hours later, the evening news was coming to a close. Our wait also was ending.

Welcome to the VA system.

I’ve heard not every Veterans Affairs hospital is the same. Some, I’m told, don’t feel caught in the Soviet era. I don’t know; I’m not a veteran, and I’ve only ever been to one VA hospital. But that one visit was disturbing enough.

My friend and I were in San Diego. Our visits to California overlapped by a few days, so we decided to team up for some surfing, snorkeling and exploring the city.

But on day two she began complaining of lower back pain. An Air Force vet, she Googled the local VA services. There was a hospital on the outskirts of the city, just outside La Jolla Cove where we’d been snorkeling the day before.

She looked at me. “This should be fun,” she said.

Being a veteran, she knew. I did not. But within a few steps of walking in the door I understood viscerally. All the news stories I’d heard in recent years came flooding back, about long wait times and how the head of the VA had resigned and the system was again due an overhaul. It was akin to walking into an inner-city school — one look was enough to know the facility was under-resourced, that the job it was expected to do far exceeded its capacity. Long waits, substandard care, lost files and missed diagnoses seemed to ooze from every exam room. This was less a hospital than a holding pen. Prisons are better equipped.

And sitting there I had ample time to consider the string of ironies I was witnessing. Here I was in a VA hospital, and I kept having flashbacks to Cuba, a country where the population lives on a fraction of the American standard. But despite appearances, Cuban hospitals get better results. Their version of socialized medicine competes favorably with the profit-driven system employed by the United States, and it blows the VA system out of the water. I was looking at America’s finest — the soldiers, airmen, seamen and Marines of the U.S. military — as they were served up the worst of American health care. Some of them may have even served on Cuban shores, may have stood guard on Guantanamo Bay, Cold War warriors who fought the spread of communism.

What did they earn in return for their service? Socialized medicine.

It almost made me laugh: Fight in honor of American values and you earn guaranteed free government-run health care. “Oppose communism to secure your place in socialism.” I doubt that made it onto many recruiting posters.

But there is a tragedy hidden within the comedy: The modern American application of socialized medicine offers veterans few gifts. They give us their best, and we give them our worst. The VA system is known for wait times that sometimes outlast patients, for diagnoses that come too late. “Support our troops” seems to only hold until the fighting is over. After that we leave them to die on quieter battlefields.

The problem, of course, is not socialized medicine. Plenty of countries pull that off at a high standard — most of Europe, Canada, Costa Rica. But the United States has proven incapable at setting up its own system, even for soldiers. That U.S. soldier who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay may have done better to wander off base to see a doctor than visit the hospitals provided by their own government.

So, every day we rob veterans of what they have earned. We underfund and understaff and under-resource to the point of no return, to the point that servicemen and women die as a result.

It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy, to rest at the myth government can’t run anything well and move on. But that is a farce. Government-run health care works worldwide, just not here.

But the VA has to work. Not marginally, not sluggishly, but well. Efficiently. Smoothly, with dynamism and grace. We owe it to every American willing to pledge more than taxes and a vote every four years for his or her country. It may not have been on the recruiting poster, but it is the promise we made.

And we’ve failed. For a generation now we’ve failed. We’ve accepted the myth that government can’t work, that socialized medicine is doomed to fail, and our soldiers have paid the price for it. Sagging buildings and five-hour wait times are not the best we can do. Our veterans are worth more than that.

This piece appeared in today’s edition of the Conway Daily Sun.

Saving Caucasian Snow

Saving Caucasian Snow
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Part of our team on the north summit of Aragats. Tim Terpstra photo

Last September I took a flight from Boston to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a country I had barely heard of and knew even less about. Tucked in between Turkey, Iran and a handful of former Soviet republics, it is an arid plain with a history of invasion and cross-invasion.

It is also home to the Lesser Caucus Mountains, part of the mountain range that divides Europe from Asia. I was there on an American Alpine Club climber exchange, teamed up with Americans, Armenians and Iranians climbing our way across Armenia and Georgia, everything from single-pitch sport and trad routes to alpine snow and ice up 5,000 meter peaks. It was a tremendous three weeks, one full of new friends and meaningful connections.

One of the mountains we climbed along the way was Mount Aragats, the tallest peak in Armenia. (Historically Mount Ararat was the tallest peak in Armenia, but it’s now part of Turkey, and the border is closed. This is a painful fact for Armenians.) Aragats has four distinct summits, the north being the tallest at 13,420 feet. Climbing it means clambering over loose shale and boulders to windswept ridges. Most of the mountain feels unstable, like stacked blocks barely held together. There was one small patch of snow tucked beneath the southern and western summits, but otherwise it was dusty, dry and hot.

Historically, however, the snows of Aragats have held through the summers. They have kept creeks flowing in hotter months. Prior to escalating global temperatures, Aragatan snowfields would last through the year and provide a stable source of water through dry times.

Today, however, high temperatures melt things quickly, leaving the valleys flooded in the spring and parched by fall.

This short documentary by Armenian filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan lays out what is happening, and what local scientists are trying to do about it:

 

Yep. Thermal blankets. Several of us noticed them on our descent—white mounds squirreled away beneath the south summit. We didn’t realize what they were, that they were an attempt to save Aragats’ last few patches of snow. I remember discussing them when we got back to camp, but no one could tell exactly what they were. Now we know.

Blankets. Is that the solution to global warming? For now, the answer in Armenia seems to be yes. But it’s a lot of pressure for a few swath of fabric. What if the blankets insulate too well? Or not well enough? How many do they need to makes sure there is enough water? Do they have to cover the mountain? What happens if things don’t last through the summer?

These are complex questions, ones previously left to nature to ponder. But lately her answers have left Armenians parched. Now it’s up to Armenian scientists to see if they can do better.

When we were there in September our team didn’t know the difference. We didn’t realize we were walking over fields usually covered with snow. We scrambled the bare rocks unaware they normally would be entombed by snow.

To us Armenia was just dry. Now we know why.