The Outside Blog

Adventure : Nov 2012

A Video Showing the Life and Death of Sandy

Here is a view of Sandy's life from above. It was recorded by NASA's GOES-13 Satellite. It begins on October 23, when Tropical Depression 18 morphed into Tropical Storm Sandy. Before that, on October 22, at roughly 11:00 a.m., about 320 miles southwest of Kingston, Jamaica, a hot towering rain cloud that rose roughly nine miles above the ocean formed into a more organized Tropical Depression 18, which generated winds of 30mph. Just six hours later, it became a tropical storm and picked up the name Sandy as it moved toward Jamaica at 3mph while generating winds of 45mph. The next day, Sandy's winds picked up to 80mph and she started growing.

By October 25, Sandy had become a Category II hurricane that blew sustained winds of 105mph—tropical force winds extended more than 205 miles from her center. As she moved over the Caribbean, she caused more than 70 deaths, and left more than 18,000 people homeless in Haiti. On October 25, NASA noted that high pressure moving clockwise over New England might push Sandy into the Mid-Atlantic as a cold front moved in from the west. By October 26, as she passed over the Bahamas, the tone became more serious as her potential to become a gigantic freak superstorm became more obvious. She was dubbed the "Bride of Frankenstorm."

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Expedition Watch: A Solo Climb of Denali in Winter

LonnieDupreWaiting out the storm. Photo: Lonnie Dupre

Lonnie Dupre has attempted to climb Denali in January each of the last two years. Both times he hit bad weather. So he huddled inside snow caves and waited for the conditions to clear. They didn't, even after seven days of sitting. Turning around after so much waiting was the toughest part of his two previous expeditions—he reached 17,200 feet in 2011 and 14,200 feet in 2012—but an easy decision. "If you make the wrong choice in those conditions, that's it," said Dupre in an email.

We checked in with Dupre to find out what he has planned for his third winter attempt at Denali.

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The Pull of the Crowd: Editor's Letter, November 2012

Keyes-novIn the winter of 2002, three friends and I headed out of bounds from the Santa Fe Ski Basin for an afternoon of sidecountry skiing in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Our destination was a set of relatively mellow chutes that drop from a ridge just above timberline into a steep scree field. Thanks to our jobs at Outside, we were equipped with the latest gear: avalanche beacons, shovels, probes, and early AT skis and bindings. Otherwise, we were not unlike many parties heading out of bounds: woefully unprepared. Only one in our party had any avalanche training. The rest of us knew just enough to get into trouble, and that's exactly what happened. One friend volunteered to drop in, and he immediately triggered a slide. The three of us watched him helplessly from above as he sank deeper into the snow. I remember hearing someone repeating the line, "Get ouf of it, get out of it, get out of it." Miraculously, he did, grabbing a tree before the slide had really picked up speed. We scurried back in-bounds with our tails between our legs.

I thought of this incident when I first heard news of last winter's massive avalanche in the Tunnel Creek drainage near Stevens Pass, Washington, which swept up four expert skiers and killed three. When I heard that former Outside assistant editor Megan Michelson had been with the party of 15 skiers involved, I was shocked. Megan is one of the best skiers I know, an athlete who has spent hundreds of days in the backcountry. That a group she was with could be taken by surprised seemed impossible to me.

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Friday Interview: Andreas Fransson

Swedish ski-mountaineer Andreas Fransson, 29, blazed into the ski industry’s collective consciousness this year with the release of Mike Douglas’ documentary Tempting Fear. The film, which follows Fransson’s comeback from a near-fatal ski injury in 2010, won Best Action Film on October 5 at the Adventure Film Festival in Boulder, Colorado.

But for the past few years, Fransson has been steadily earning the respect of his peers by quietly notching eye-popping ski-mountaineering feats, including first descents in Norway’s Lyngen Alps last spring and Denali’s South Face in 2011. In early October, he returned from a month-long expedition to Patagonia, where he claimed the first ski descent of the Whillans Ramp on Argentina’s Poincenot.

When he’s not scouting obscure corners of the globe for new lines, Fransson lives in Chamonix, where he’s training to become a mountain guide. But what separates Fransson from many of his hard-charging peers, is his elegant outlook on life and skiing. He’s endlessly searching for new challenges, journeys, and meaning in it all. Here he discusses fear, risk, and adventure—the philosophic musings of a self-proclaimed soul skier.

In Tempting Fear you say: “It is a human condition to seek adventure and challenge. The temptation to test both possibilities and limits is strong in some.” What exactly do you mean?
I think it’s the human condition to be curious in life. Fear in different shapes keeps us away from exploring the possibilities of life experience. The only sane thing I can think of is to play with life. Play with fear. Play with existence. Play with love, sex, the mountains, and even death. Play is the value of everything. Boredom is the problem.

How does this notion of “tempting fear” play into your skiing?
Skiing is just one of many ways I express myself in life. It’s the thing I have done the most, so I’m not hindered by a lack of skill, which allows me to play with fear before, during, and after I do something. This makes the experience more complete.

What was the experience like of shooting Tempting Fear?
It was a very escapist experience, as I can’t completely identify myself with the Andreas in the movie. I feel like I change so fast and the film is all based on old thoughts, old actions, old adventures, and I don’t think much of what’s old and gone. I’m a new person. Now, I’ve got new theories, new thoughts, objectives and new adventures coming up. But in short, I had a great time, I learned a lot and I really appreciated spending time with Mike Douglas and Bjarne Salén, as well as the guys at Switchback and Salomon.

In the film, you talk about defying society’s expectations as the means to finding adventure. What do you see as society’s expectations and how do you defy them?
I have to challenge my own expectations to go beyond, into the unknown—the only place where real adventure can be found, as I see it. If you know the outcome of something, it will become dead. So we have to play with the unknown, in big and small things, to get freshness in our lives.

To defy society’s expectations might be to defy the concept others (friends, family, colleagues, media) put on us. In other words, to not live the story others create for us and instead, write the magic of our own lives.

How do you pick your trips and objectives? Can you talk about skiing the Whillans Ramp on Poincenot?
As a skier and person, I’m always looking for challenges and it’s not easy to find the perfect challenge, where the difficulties are so great that you can precisely overcome them and cash the rewards. In this way, Poincenot was the perfect challenge for me.

Why did you choose this region and these mountains for this expedition?
American alpinist Colin Haley pointed the ramp out to me years ago, and this autumn was the perfect time to go. It was a fun place to be because the mountains are wild and there has been very little steep skiing done there.

Given the risk—of injuring oneself, losing life, losing loved ones, the defeat and the setbacks—why do you do what you do?
This is what I dreamed of doing when I was a boy and now I’m here, living that dream. One of the reasons I think I can do this is because I don’t think the consequences behind the risks are as bad as society wants us to think they are.

In one of your recent blog posts, you try to define “value” in life. How do you define value in your life?
This can differ from day to day, but taken from the heart right now, this is what I value: Being able to play a game I love playing. The ability to share the game with people I love. Having as much freedom as possible, but at the same time remembering that you can never bake anything with the oven door open. Eat great food and drink good wine. See places from the inside and outside. Always remember that we are all playing a game.

Talk about having “to nourish both sides of the coin—the up craving and the will to run away.”
You have to have fear and one voice inside of you wanting to back off. At the same time, you need to have another voice telling you to continue. The “real you” stands in the middle and tries to make a sober and balanced decision. It’s the balance between the two that gives you success and completion of an objective, and at the same time keeps you alive.

Can you describe the accident in which you broke your neck?
Two years ago, I was skiing with Colin Haley down the Y couloir on Aiguille Verte in Chamonix. It’s a complicated descent and we tried to make it in a one-day push. The skiing took a bit longer than expected and the weather was much warmer than forecasted. On a rappel close to the end, I got caught in an avalanche that swept me 400 meters down ice, rock and snow. I was in pieces and very lucky to be alive, even more lucky to be able to have a body that can still perform. I learned a lot though from this and I think this experience has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

How did this accident shift the way you view risk?
Every time I ski something steep, I get flashbacks from falling down the mountain. It helps keep me focused when I need to. And I’m extremely picky about objective dangers and stupid exposure to risk nowadays. I can still go out there and expose myself for a great objective, but I have no craving whatsoever to expose myself to risk when it does not equal the reward.

What’s your ultimate goal?
In skiing, I’d like to just mature as a skier—in decision-making, technique, tactics, strategy and so on. In life, I’d like to keep revealing the secrets that are in front of my eyes. Become more tender and compassionate. Take dreams down from the sky, juggle them for a while, and then let them sink down to the ground while I continue walking toward ... I don’t know where.

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A Dog Left to Die on the Mountain

Two men struggle with a dog. The rocks are large and unstable, her paws are shredded, and a storm is coming. They lower her from boulder to boulder. Each time she touches down, she lands in pain. The clouds are growing, and now she doesn’t move. So one man drapes her across his shoulders. He jumps from boulder to boulder on blistered feet, and he drops her. They give her the last of their water. Then, they leave.

She couldn’t walk, but she could wait. At first, for her owner, then for the couple that found her on the verge of death—and vowed to bring her down the mountain alive. They returned expecting to carry her the entire way. She refused. After surviving eight days and seven nights alone at 13,000 feet, Missy traveled the final miles of Mt. Bierstadt as she had climbed them—under her own power.

Missy is now called Lucky. And she is a celebrity. But in the early hours after Scott and Amanda Washburn found her, she was just a nameless German Shepherd with paws more like bloody ribbons of flesh and a case of dehydration so severe that her saliva was blue. The Washburns tried to carry her down, but they didn’t have the strength—the terrain was just too taxing. So they bandaged her paws, and left her with water. And they made their way off the mountain.

“We figured we’d find a Park Service Ranger to help us carry her out,” Scott says. But the first Ranger they met dashed their hopes. He said they couldn’t risk people to save a dog. The Washburns would have to let nature run her course.

Amanda wasn’t willing to accept that answer. So on their drive back to Denver, she called everyone she could think of—from animal control to search and rescue—to no avail. Out of ideas, they went to the 14ers forum, an online community of hikers.

Scott made the first post. It included a picture of Lucky along with a description of her condition and information where she was found. He asked people to give Lucky food and water if they came across her, and he gave out his phone number to organize a rescue.

Within half an hour, his phone was ringing. People offered advice and help. Online, they expressed their suspicions. Scott’s area code was from San Mateo, California. Had he really been on the mountain? And his post was made only minutes after he first joined the site. Was it all a sick hoax?

Brandon Vail didn’t think so. He saw the post at 8:00 p.m. and had a gut reaction. “I knew I needed to do something, and I knew I had to do it right now,” he says. After all, had it been his dog up on the mountain, he’d want someone to do the same. At 9:30 p.m. he made three calls—one to a friend, and two to strangers who had offered their help on the thread.

At 11:30 p.m., they met at the trailhead and set off into the night. Over on the website, some called it suicide. To get to Lucky, they’d have to climb 3,900 feet up Mt. Bierstadt—a climb peaking at 14,264 feet—and then descend down 900 feet to Sawtooth Ridge, which wouldn’t be easy going—it’s Class III terrain.

If they managed to find her at night, they’d have to figure out a way to carry her (she had been uncooperative with the Washburns), make their way back across the ridge, and up 900 feet before descending the mountain. For strong hikers in the day, it would be difficult but doable. Under penalty of darkness, it was anyone’s guess.

But Vail had done Mt. Bierstadt before and was a strong hiker. He was confident in his plan as the foursome rushed up the mountain. Scott had planned an assault for the following morning, but with the weather dipping to 20 degrees, it wasn’t clear Lucky could wait that long. With all the manpower dedicated to Vail’s mission, they were going for broke—there would be no try the next morning.

Vail and company summited the mountain at 1:15 a.m. The four men broke off and began searching in a grid pattern—down, then across, then up, and across again. They hoped to catch Lucky’s eyes with their headlamps and spot the reflection. But they also had to be careful. A false step on unstable rock wouldn’t be pretty.

For three hours and fifteen minutes they scoured the mountain in 20-degree weather. Around four in the morning, they made the excruciating decision to abandon the search. They thought they had been too late. “It was devastating—a quiet hike back down.”

Eleven hours after Vail saw Scott’s post on 14ers.com, Vail made it back to Denver.

OVER ON THE FORUM, a man comes forward with disturbing news. He writes that he passed two men struggling with a dog on the mountain seven days ago. The dog was panting, and the men were using a rope and harness to lower her from boulder to boulder. Eventually, one of men says “I think I’m going to bail.” He’s 95 percent sure the dog is Lucky.

Nobody knew what to make of the story—what happened to Lucky’s owner, how long had she been on the mountain, and was she still alive. A few posts later, Scott chimes in with a plan. Eight strangers will meet at the Guanella Pass trailhead at 5:00 a.m. on a Monday.

They’ll bring their packs and hope to find one that Lucky will fit in. Then they will make their way up to find her, and they’ll hope she’s alive. Based on Vail’s failed attempt and the post detailing just how long Lucky has been on the mountain, expectations were low. “I was trying not to get my hopes up,” Scott says. There was no guarantee they’d find her, dead or alive.

Nestled between the rocks and sheltered from the wind, Lucky waits, practically impossible to see. But Amanda was careful to take her bearings before leaving her two days ago, and it pays off. Stefan Kleinschuster spots her almost immediately.

They give her a liter of water to drink and some food to eat. Then, the hard part; they have to carry her up 900 feet and then down the mountain. After loading her into the pack, they set off with each taking his turn. The going is tough. Ten minutes of work leaves Scott exhausted. It starts to rain and snow—no blizzard, but just enough to make things slippery. A fall probably wouldn’t be deadly, but it wouldn’t be good for Lucky.

They push on, and the news reaches the forum. A volunteer who chose not to follow Scott onto the Sawtooth reports that they’ve found a dog. A post on Amanda’s Facebook pages confirms the good news.

Several hours later, it looks like the story has run its course. But critical questions remain unanswered: How did a dog get stuck at 13,000 feet, and what happened to her owner? Was Lucky left to die?

At first, it wasn’t clear we’d ever find the answer. Each year, millions of unknown animals are killed in pounds and shelters. Some owners turn their pets in—the costs go up, their pay goes down, and the dog has to go. Others are abandoned and nameless when they arrive.

It is safe to say that Lucky’s owner could have stayed anonymous. But in the hours after she was rescued, he did something courageous and unexpected. Anthony Ortolani came forward to the 14ers forum. He posted his story, thanked the rescuers, begged for forgiveness—and asked for Lucky back.

Ortolani isn’t talking anymore, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Over the past few months, he’s been vilified on the Internet and been the recipient of death threats. He has a case pending in the courts. And the media hasn’t tried to tell his story. So he isn’t talking. But in the beginning—before things blew up—he was. And from what he wrote, we know some things.

Ortolani and a teenage companion hike up Mt. Bierstadt and make their way over the Sawtooth ridge. Looking back, it’s unclear when the problems truly began, but they reach a critical point as “[Lucky’s] paws got bloodied up right in the belly of the Sawtooth.” A few hikers stop to offer help and then leave because of the weather. Ortolani and his friend use ropes and a harness to lower Lucky from boulder to boulder but “she was hurting herself worse against the rocks sprawling out and catching them with her legs.” Eventually, she stops moving and Ortolani picks “her up on my shoulders and was hopping from boulder to boulder.” But Lucky falls, and he nearly does too. He realizes he cannot carry her down the mountain.

Meanwhile, he’s worried about the weather. He’s worried about himself. And he’s worried about his friend. Human lives are at stake.

“At this point, I made the decision that I honestly never thought I would ever be faced with,” he writes. “I left her there so that my friend and I could get down safely with intentions for calling S&R when we were off of the mountain.”

So after two exhausting hours of trying to save Lucky, Ortolani gives up. Once down, he calls 911, the Sherriff’s office, and search and rescue. He receives the same answer as Amanda. Nobody is going to send up a human crew to save a dog.

Almost every story has an inflection point, a moment that could have changed everything. For Ortolani and his critics, this is undoubtedly it. Rather than making his way back up the mountain to save Lucky, posting flyers, or reaching out on 14ers.com, he holds tight. Bewildered and emotionally devastated, he Googles “Dog found on Bierstadt” for a few days after leaving her on the mountain. That’s all he does.

THE ESTABLISHED STORY DOESN’T look very good for Ortolani. He forces his dog over dangerous terrain, gets her injured, leaves her exposed at 13,000 feet, fails to mount any rescue attempt, and then asks for her back once somebody else finds her.

The details paint a far more complicated picture. Lucky wasn’t new to hiking. She and Ortolani hiked six 14ers before tackling Bierstadt. And they didn’t approach the mountain on a whim. Ortolani did “a Web search on crossing the Sawtooth with my dog” before setting out on the hike—which is more than many hikers do. The site he found was supportive of his plan. It suggested hikers have a rope and harness—which he did—but that’s all. Needless to say, it was terrible advice.

When the going got tough, Ortolani didn’t just leave Lucky. He struggled with her for over two hours on the mountain. He didn’t drop her off at a shelter or abandon her in the streets. And when he made the decision to leave her, he gave her three bottles of his water—reserving only a liter for himself and his friend.

The more you hear, the easier it is to picture yourself in his position. Every dog owner has made mistakes. We’ve all been in over our heads before. But for some reason, the empathy doesn’t last. We always return to the most basic question: Why didn’t he go back?

Once more, the devil is in the details. He didn’t have a choice. Not only was Ortolani physically unable to attempt another climb—his sister, a close friend, and his employer all mentioned he had trouble walking post-Bierstadt—but his employer had him traveling out of state the next day.

On the 14ers forum, Ortolani’s boss came to his defense, writing: “I had the misfortune to demanding that he go out of state to work on a project that involved many other people and could not be postponed or cancelled. He wanted to return to look for Missy but he had no choice in the matter. My heart was breaking for him.”

It seems that Ortolani couldn’t make it back up the mountain himself. But why couldn’t he put together a rescue attempt? Posters on the forum forgave his decision to hike Bierstadt with Lucky, they can understand that he had to leave her. Some may even realize that he couldn’t skip work to save her. But no strangers came forward supporting his decision to sit quiet.

Unless he speaks up, we may never know exactly what Ortolani was thinking at the time. But he did explain one thing after the fact: He believed Lucky was dead. He knew his friends were not “outdoors people.” And he wasn’t going to risk their lives on a doomed mission.

“There are a few that I could have called, but seriously I just lost hope, and bringing others into it seemed as bad as good,” he wrote. “If the rescuers will not put their lives in jeopardy, it didn't really seem all that wise to ask my friends and family to do the same.”

Ortolani wants his dog back, but that’s not happening. As part of a plea bargain, he gave her up to Scott and Amanda (and also paid $5,000 in veterinarian bills to cover her recovery). Instead, he faces up to 18 months of jail time for charges of animal abuse, and will be sentenced November 20.

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