Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Serendipity and the life-long impact of the outdoors.

There are many organizations of which I support their intentions in my mind but very few in which I choose to donate my time and energy. I'm sure you all know, there just ain't enough time in the day.

It was a last minute decision to speak at the event. I had only briefly mentioned to Ivan the possibility of speaking about the Appalachian Trail as I had in past events at REI. Tell stories about the trail, show photos, geek out and use Google Earth - that kind of thing. But somehow in one of his conversations with Big City Mountaineers he mentioned my name and surprisingly, they knew who I was. Apparently they were intrigued by me, having seen the spread in BACKPACKER magazine, because I am somewhat of a rare breed in the industry. An asian-american who is a somewhat serious outdoorsman.

A testament to how much a minority I am can be seen in any gear catalog as well as on the AT. In 2006, I met a good portion of the thru-hikers (one of the benefits of being slow) and met only one other asian. ONE other. This is among hundreds of long distance hikers. Ironically, we had both chosen trail names that played upon this, hers being Feng Shui and mine representing Balance and Peace. There were two black people and one hispanic on the trail that year. And that's it. Everyone else was caucasion.

In light of this, BCM was interested in me speaking to this fact. The tricky part is that I didn't know what to say about it. I am asian, yes. But do I usually refence myself as asian? No, not really. With that I spent the entire two weeks leading up to the event reflecting on my life and polling friends and particularly minority outdoorsmen/women on their experiences in the outdoors. It all led up to me completing my speech at 4 in the morning the day of the event.

It was a beautiful venue and a great opportunity for me to reflect on how fortunate I am to have the outdoors as a core part of my life. We had attendance of over 40 people from the Denver-metro area, some of who donated items ranging from water bottles to custom skis. Good food, live music, and open bar gave it that extra touch.

So why is getting kids into the outdoors important to me? And why is it also very important for you and our future? Read excerpts of the speech below:

I AM a writer and a photographer and a digital cartographer. I am a teacher and a student. I am a builder and a connector. A scientist and an artist. I am even a day trader and consultant. But of all the things I do the most unlikely thing is that I am a hiker. A professional hiker at that.

For the past two years nearly every story I tell has revolved around the Appalachian Trail. But tonight instead of stories of the trail I will tell you the story I haven't told. Because I was never the most likely person to get into the outdoors. I was never the most likely person to run an outdoor club. To work for Backpacker magazine, nor the most likely to hike 2175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
I am where I am today because of sheer, absolutely, nutty, crazy luck. Sheer serendipity.
As minorities become the majority here in America. As we all become to consider ourselves global citizens in addition to our country affiliations. We need our future generations of all creed and color to recognize the importance of the natural world. Our physical, mental and spiritual health depends on it. MacKaye had the great wisdom to see the possibilities for health and recuperation. He says, "The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a natural resource (and a national resource) that radiates to the heavens its enormous health-giving powers with only a fraction of a percent utilized for human rehabilitation. Here is a resource that could save thousands of lives. The sufferers of tuberculosis, anemia and insanity go through the whole strata of human society."
Complete transcript can be read here: In Their Footsteps & Big City Mountaineers Fundraiser Keynote

Monday, March 30, 2009

We raised $3200 to get kids into the woods!

A couple weeks ago I spoke at a fundraiser event organized by my friend Ivan Junge to benefit Big City Mountaineers. BCM is an amazing organization who's practical goal is to get inner-city kids here in Denver into the woods while providing one-on-one mentorship. That's great. But their larger goal of making a difference in these kids lives - building self-confidence, opening their minds and their lives to worlds beyond the 10 mile radius in which they grow up is really what makes it shine.

Through a silent auction of donated items, we were able to raise $3200. Enough to fund an additional group of 5-adult to 5-participants on a week long trip in the Rocky Mountains.

Leading up to the event, I was excited (and nervous) to speak as keynote about my experiences and have the opportunity to make a difference in these kids lives. Here is what BCM had to say in their press note:

The event was held in space donated by the Rebel Salon/Gallery on Blake St in Denver. The well attended first year event showcased Jeff Chow, a contributing correspondent from Backpacker Magazine, as the Keynote Speaker. Jeff, spoke about his experience through hiking the Appalachian Trail and need to encourage and create opportunities for unrepresented populations to use outdoor recreation opportunities. - Big City Mountaineers
I encourage you to support this great organization. See how here!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Top 10 Myths about Sustainability: Scientific American

Top 10 Myths about Sustainability: Scientific American

I ran across this article in Scientific American recently and it rekindled a pet-peeve of mine.

The word sustainability has taken on a rather limited definition over the past 5 years. Which has been interesting since it was in 2006 I wrote my senior thesis on developing sustainable student organizations. Back then I faced the challenge of redefining sustainability more broadly than its environmental connotations. And in light of the failing US auto companies and corrupt banking/hedge fund industry, I continue to think of how these organizations seem to be choosing short term gains at the expense of long term, sustainable growth. For some of these companies it is so bad that todays banner year is taken at the expense of their company being viable the next and corrupting the whole industry. Talk about short-sightedness!

The concept of sustainable living goes as far back as living beings. From the most basic level it is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Single cell organisms need to live sustainably within their micro-environment to ensure the survival of their species. And I'm sure they didn't do it just to be hip. Humans are no different. It is in our own benefit (both as individuals and as a society/species) to want to live sustainably.

Sustainable living is a concept that the American Indians have at the core of their society. They knew by living off the land that each action had a reaction and that there was no way to avoid their impact on the world. Reduce, reuse, recycle was not simply a catch phrase, it was a necessary life mantra simply because they couldn't just truck their garbage to another site. It is only now in a society where we, the human, are at the center of the universe, able to control the climate within our homes and cars, control strife and illness with a pill, and ship our waste out of sight and out of mind that we have lost our connection to the earth and can fool ourselves into thinking that our actions on this earth do not affect the earth. In many ways, it's the loss of the connection to natural consequences.

It reminds me of the wilderness programs that take troubled teens out into the woods as a means of rehabilitation. These teens often are in jail and are given this option as a final means of parole, the final chance to live a productive life in society. They could be in jail for all kinds of reasons, from burglary to drugs to violence but I would assert that most of these kids did what they did simply because they never learned, or never believed their actions had consequences. Perhaps this is analogous to our society as a whole (it certainly applies to AIG). So they take these kids out, strap packs on their backs and march them to a wilderness campsite. If a participant doesn't want to walk, they get left alone (within bounds of safety). They don't want to carry their pack, they won't have food the rest of their time. They don't set up their shelter or learn how to rig it properly, they may find themselves curled up in a wet, slimy sleeping bag, shivering throughout the night after a sudden downpour comes tearing through soaking everything they have. It is in these wilderness programs where the kids immediately, and ultimately see that their actions have direct consequences, otherwise known as natural consequences. And for some, this permeates every aspect of their lives causing them to lead a healthy, productive, and sustainable life.

And perhaps we all need a little more of that.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Blog on BACKPACKER.com - Yellowstone in a Nutshell

Backpacker's interactive maps make planning your Yellowstone expedition easy

With its bounty of epic summits, gnarled canyons, pristine lakes and festering hot springs, Yellowstone National Park serves up thousands of possibilities along with one semi-annoying but semi-important question: Where do I start?

With this conundrum in mind, we sent our fearless correspondent Jeff Chow, armed with only his god-given wits and a trusty GPS device, on a month-long excursion into Yellowstone's immense wilderness. After a month of summiting sky-scraping peaks, fording raging rivers, and sleeping with 600-pound grizzlies, Jeff has not only lived to tell the tale, but has returned with a mother-lode of wisdom (and GPS data) on America's first national park.

So although Yellowstone can be overwhelming, consider that Lewis and Clark charted most of the American West without any of the handy (and free) features — interactive maps, detailed trail descriptions, elevation profiles, Google Earth flyovers, geo-tagged photos and videos, meticulous waypoints and USGS Topo Map quads — that (thanks to contributors like Jeff) Backpacker.com offers on its Destinations channel...

See more, read more! Continued at Backpacker.com!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Electric Peak continued..

On the lee side, you strip off a bottom layer only to put more on. Fleece pants and down vest to keep the warmth in as the wind tries to blow it out.

The clouds surrounding us come and go. What at times appears like a dream looking through frosted glass suddenly gets blown away to the crystal clear reality of the cold dense air. Like stepping out of the shower. Suddenly the world changes from a 15 feet radius to miles of panoramic views of rolling hillsides and jagged snow-capped peaks.

FASTLAYNE is in the fast lane as always and up ahead, beyond sight. The cool damp haze returns and I continue upward. Craning my head to plan my path. I arrive at a monolith in my way. I veer left into a notch in the rock like the entrance to a gated neighborhood. In front is a sketchy 45 degree slope of rock and scree. To my right a 15 foot jagged crag leading obscured into the clouds.

"This isn't the right way," FASTLAYNE yells from above.

"You think I should go down there?!" I respond leaning forward to see any semblance of a path.

"Yeah! I'm pretty sure up is not the right way."

I look again. Then take a few steps to peer around the corner. It still doesn't look good.

Well. He went up that way. I'm going to do the same.

As soon as I begin the hand over hand scramble, I can see what he means. The rock is loose, shifting under your hands and feet. Pieces fall from your grasp. Soon it's easy to tell that this entire monolith was once a solid piece of rock that has been shattered into hundreds of foot long chunks and simply stacked like a game of Jenga. Fear creeps in that the one you just disturbed might collapse the whole thing with Satan yelling "JENGA!" as you fall to your death.

I get to the top of the section, hearing the wind howl over the highest mountain in the range. Suddenly the fear gets to me. Listening to the wind it feels like the mountain is swaying as I watch the clouds rushing by. I shift my feet and lay against the rock trying to stay as low and as stable as possible. My chest tightens and my breath quickens. I curl up against the cold, red rock and shudder.

I lay there for minutes focusing on my breath. I count to five as I try to slow each inhale and exhale. I purse my lips and puff my cheeks as I forcefully push the air out connecting the sound to my muscles relaxing the tension. Pffffffffff.....

I decide to move forward because backwards looks just as scary. I tell myself, I can do this. "You're a capable climber, you can do this." "Just take your time, make sure each hold is solid." "Don't need to be dynamic, just steady and stable." "You can climb 5.11, this is a piece of cake."

I move using all my climbing skills to make this as safe as possible. I have my arms outstretched, bending my knees keeping my weight low. I tug at the rock to ensure it's stability before shifting my weight. I move smoothly, fluidly. Tug, move. Tug, move. Tug, "WHOA!"

Click.. click.. CLACK, click.. click.... click............ click.....

A big piece or rock tumbles down 75 feet of scree. It appears to be in slow motion as I watch the the rock bounce down the mountain. The sound jarring the quiet of its flight. After each impact, it silently flips end-over-end. The noise fades into the wind as it falls out of sight.

I desperately grasp at the rock as I suddenly feel gravity tugging at me. Feeling the anxiety return with images of falling 20 feet to the scree then tumbling down the mountainside beyond the sight and sound of FASTLAYNE, I quickly scramble to the top of the section knocking pieces down as I go.

Click, clack, click, clack.

I move quickly, and dynamically hoping that the rock will stay put long enough for me to get by. I purse my lips and puff my cheeks. PFFFFF... My mind returns to breathing. Forceful at first, then deeper as I try to control the fear. "It's OK" I tell myself. "You're doing fine. Just keep moving." "Slooowly."

I pick my way up and over the back of the stegosaurus of a mountain.

Soon I see the red glow of FASTLAYNE's jacket in the mist.

"Did you make it to the summit?" I ask.


"How much further?" I somewhat pleadingly inquire.

"Oh, it's right up there." he points with the movement of his head.

"K.." "You wanna go back up?"


He falls in behind me as I push the last 40 feet to the summit. As I move towards the peak, the wind seems to calm. An eerie silence begins to fill my ears.

"Is this it? Or is that the peak?" I ask as I point to another little point.

"I think it's this one, it has the register under the rock."

I look out into the grey slosh imagining the view. "That was the scariest thing I've ever done."

"Wasn't it great?!" FASTLAYNE gushes.

I pause in response as I remember a thought on the way up. My life is worth way more than the excitement of this climb. Mapping this peak is not nearly as important as my life. What was I thinking??

But I did it anyway. So I stand at the top of 10,969" Electric peak and yell the everlasting call of excitement, accomplishment and relief -


Monday, December 8, 2008

Electric Peak

On November 1st we successfully summited Electric Peak. Boogie-woogie-woogie! And boy, it may have been the scariest most death-defying thing I've ever done. It's only 4.2 miles from the campsite but that last .2+ is sheer absurdity... especially when you take the wrong route.

Cliffhangers, endings and a journey home:

From the trail junction and beginning of the S. E. Electric Peak Trail it begins like any good cliffhanger does, gently. You rise and fall meandering towards the peak till suddenly, the story takes a turn. Suddenly you're digging your toes into the dirt scrambling straight up the mountain wondering what happened. And soon you realize that you're on a straight path towards the peak. It's inevitable. You see that thin line of the ridge under your feet lead all the way up and into the clouds that ominously hides the summit.

Once on the turn, you simply apply effort and some hard breathing to make progress upward. Not easy, but you know what needs to be done. You put your head down and summon that 'can do' mountain climbing ego and press those toes into the spongy black dirt lurching your 150 lbs. forward.

They say that all the trails in the West are nicely graded and switchbacked. LIES!

The grade shifts from a nice hillside ascent to standing on the balls of your feet on a slope so steep your calves can't stretch far enough to put your heels down. You lean forward in fear of falling backward. In fear of tumbling forever into the stream now far, far below. Head down and lurch. Step. Step. Step. Rest. Step. Step. Step. Rest.

The story is kept interesting by surprising you with a small reprieve making one switchback through a dry gully. Step. Step. Step. Step. Rest.

You pause to take a photo and turn so that those lovely heels can finally return to earth again.

"Onward and upward," the ego shouts with a overly dramatic point to the top as you lean into the hillside like leaning into the wind.

Soon there's wind too. Up ahead you can hear the wind whistling over the ridge. You brace yourself and prepare to lean forward and sideways suddenly feeling less like a climber and more like those inflatable, weighted clown punching dolls being pushed every which way.

The clear path to the summit begins to appear less clear. Follow the ridge, yes. But the agreeable or likely path up, not so clear. You know where the story is going, but how? Straight up the ridge? Along the rocky bluff? Turn left at Albuquerque? It's a mystery!

Pick a path and go. There's a storyline and a plot, but it ain't a mystery, it's more a choose your own adventure.

You find a faint path here and there guiding you up the increasingly precipitous ridge. Treadway going from black dirt to black rocks. The side of the ridge looking less like a hill and more like a cliff.

The character list is short but sturdy. Your compatriot leads the way providing certainty and resolve when yours is lacking. He is the embodiment of the climbing ego.

The rocky bluff that once protected you from the bitter, blowing wind becomes a shade of fiery red like that of a past girlfriend's hair.

The wind brings a song floating into your head. "It's raining in Baltimore, for 50 odd years. Watching and waiting today."

That bluff becomes the ridge and the separator between a slope of loose rock and vertical wall. The further up the mountain the further it stands out like the dorsal fin of an ancient creature.

To be continued...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No pain, no gain

Or at least no good photos. Bouldering at the edge of Firehole Falls where the snow has melted from the spray of warm thermal runoff has its consequences, other than falling into the water below.

*Photos by FASTLAYNE