Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fly Virgin America

I flew down to LA for my friend Dan's graduation from dental school, and it was the best domestic flight experience I've ever had. Smiling, friendly - not to mention good-looking - staff, an atmosphere right out of a trendy European lounge, great entertainment options, comfortable seats with lots of room, and excellent customer service.

If you're flying where they fly, go with Virgin America, you won't be let down.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


With proposals such as the Clinton- and McCain-sponsored gas tax cut on the table and trade agreements like NAFTA up for debate, it would be nice if voters had enough of an understanding of economics to reach an informed opinion of their own. Unfortunately, you could graduate from an Ivy League school these days and still not have a clue about the fundamental economic principles at work in modern society.

So I'd like to propose a basic reading list.

  • Wheelan: Naked Economics

  • Hazlett: Economics in One Lesson

  • Heilbroner: The Worldly Philosophers

  • Hayek: The Road to Serfdom

Wheelan's book in itself will demystify much of economics and is an easy read.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cooking Again

For the first time in five and a half years, I'm cooking at home - and the food is turning out surprisingly well.

Here's what I cooked up tonight:

NY Strip Steak, Scalloped Potatoes, and Asparagus
  • 1/2 pound, 1 inch thick NY steak, trimmed
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • four sprigs asparagus, chopped in half
  • one russet potato, thinly sliced
  • pat of butter
  • 1/2 pint whipping cream
  • Beecher's or other cheese as desired
  • French bread
Start by preheating your oven to 400 degrees and allowing the meat to come to room temperature. Douse it with salt and pepper.

Get the whipping cream simmering in a saucepan. Add the potatoes to the whipping cream with some salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan and cook until done, took me about 15 minutes. Grease an oven-safe bowl with the pat of butter, and layer the potato slices in, grating cheese in between layers and on the top. Stick the bowl into the oven for a few minutes to get the cheese to the desired state, and remove when ready.

Coat a skillet (mine is simple stainless steel) with olive oil. When the potatoes are just about done, bring the skillet up to medium heat. Throw in the asparagus with a little salt and pepper, saute for a few seconds, reduce the heat to low, and cover for 30-60 seconds. Remove the lid, saute a few more seconds, and then plate the asparagus.

Put the skillet back on the heat and increase to medium again. After a minute or two, add the steak. Brown each side for about a minute, and sear the edges for about 15 seconds each. Then transfer the skillet to the oven for about five minutes. Remove and plate the steak.

Allow the steak to sit for five minutes or so, then plate the potatoes and serve with French bread on the side.

This gave me a juicy, medium steak, just how I like it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Climbing Objectives for 2008

I thought I'd list the peaks on my list for folks who may be interested in teaming up for a climb.

  • Brothers, South Peak (South Couloir)
  • Mt. Daniel (SE Ridge)
  • Mt. Clark with option of Mt. Deception, 2-3 day trip camping by Royal Lake
Glacier Climbs
  • Ruth Mountain w/Kutta, (Hannegan Pass/Ruth Glacier)
  • Sahale Peak (Sahale Arm/Sahale Glacier)
  • Sloan Peak (Corkscrew)
  • Mt. Rainier w/Marc (Kautz Glacier)
Rock Climbs
  • Miscellaneous cragging
  • Mix-up Peak (East Face)
  • Mt. Cruiser (South Corner)
  • Liberty Bell w/Marc (Beckey Route)
  • Forbidden Peak (West Ridge)
Mixed/Ice Climbs
  • Ice climbing at Mt. Baker (Coleman Glacier)
  • Mt. Shuksan (Fisher Chimneys)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

March 15 - April 1, New Zealand

Last summer I finally started exploring the mountains around Seattle. It started with a solo up Mt. Ellinor: I encountered a short snowfield and rather enjoyed it, and that's how the madness began. By the end of October I'd also summited Mt. Pugh, Snowking Mountain, and Mt. Washington (Olympics), and attempted Mt. Daniel. (Max accompanied me on my second (successful) attempt on Snowking, and Dan was my partner on Washington.) I joined the Seattle Mountaineers, and took first aid and intro crag climbing classes with them; I also spent some time on the Muir Snowfield on Mt. Rainier practicing self arrest.

When I joined the Mountaineers I was intent on taking their introductory mountaineering course, which runs over scattered weekend days from January through early fall. Then one late summer day I jokingly told Max that maybe I should just go to New Zealand for ten days and take Adventure Consultants' intensive alpine climbing course (ACC) instead.

Adventure Consultants is a mountain guiding firm based in Wanaka, New Zealand. It has a strong reputation for taking climbing seriously, and may be best known to the lay community as the firm Jon Krakauer climbed Everest with.

By October the joke was a joke no longer, and in early November I booked a spot on the last ACC session of the season. I did weekly training hikes up Mt. Si from late January through early March, and on March 13 I headed to the airport and took off for New Zealand.

The trip got off to a stressful start. The United Airlines flight from Seattle to San Francisco was delayed by two hours, and I barely made it to my flight to Auckland. I arrived (via yet another connection in Christchurch) in Wanaka on Saturday March 15 as expected, but my gear had missed the tight connection. As it turned out, the bag wouldn't arrive until Tuesday March 18, the day after we took off for the mountains: luckily Adventure Consultants loaned me a bunch of gear, and our guide, Paul Aubrey, even loaned me his personal clothing from home.

I have to say that Air New Zealand was the most pleasant airline I've ever flown with: comfortable seats, good service, even good food. I also met a number of cool people on the flights, including a European turned Kiwi whose enthusiasm for NZ was contagious and a Wanaka local who personally knew the folks at Adventure Consultants with whom I'd interacted.

Upon arriving in Wanaka I soon realized that everyone in Wanaka pretty much knows everyone else in Wanaka. Even the tourists were friendly - I ended up making a number of casual acquaintances as well as meeting some cool dogs. Wanaka's economy is largely driven by tourism, especially during the winter months, with some agriculture in the area as well.

Lake Wanaka

Bevin Redmond at AC had booked me into the Clearbrook lodge for the nights before and night after the course. Clearbrook rocked - Maria and her husband, the proprietors, were terrific people, my room had a jetted tub, and the sliding door opened onto a grassy lawn with ducks and a burbling brook. All that and the location provided a two-block walk to the center of town - absolutely fantastic.

I found several other places in Wanaka worth noting: Cinema Paradiso, an offbeat movie theater with lots of comfy couches and even a VW Beetle as a seating option, where I met a bunch of trampers (backpackers); Cafe Gusto, which has fantastic muesli and other breakfast fare, and at which I met a really friendly (and seriously shedding) dog; and Kai Whaka Pai, a great central hangout for coffee or a beer.

I spent Saturday and Sunday relaxing in Wanaka, and met up Monday morning with the folks on the course. After introductions, various preliminaries, a failed attempt to retrieve my gear bag, and a picnic lunch, we headed out to Fox Glacier Township, with a pit stop at our guide/instructor's place - a gorgeous self-built wood and stone affair - to snag clothing for me. It was a beautiful drive that made me wish I had my motorbike. We spent the night at the NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club) Porter Lodge, practiced Prussiking from the rafters, had some beers at a local pub, and crashed after cooking up and chowing down some dinner.

Tuesday morning we flew out to the NZAC Centennial Hut above the upper reaches of the Franz Joseph Glacier at 8000' or so.

Paul Aubrey, Andrew, Paul, and Samantha (Sammy)

It was a really good group of people. Paul Aubrey, our guide and instructor, had been guiding for twenty-nine years and teaching for twenty-five. Andrew, a 28 year old Aussie and small business owner from Central Coast, had done a climb of Mt. Aspiring two years prior with Adventure Consultants, Paul Aubrey being the leader of that trip as well. Other Paul, a 24 year old Aussie and IT support engineer from Sydney, had an extensive tramping history. Sammy, a Brit turned Kiwi and cryobiologist, was a skilled rock climber. Finally there was myself.

We flew to the helipad - a snow mound - by the hut, donned crampons, and made our way to shelter.

Centennial Hut

After sorting gear and supplies, we headed out to the upper snowfields to practice snow travel and ice ax arrest, and to learn how to build snow anchors. Nothing beats five people yanking on an anchor with all their might to convince you that it's going to hold. We then returned to the hut for dinner, some theory, and sleep. That night Andrew dreamed that there was a monkey messing with him in the hut. This turned into a running joke during the trip, with a particularly memorable high point - Sammy's extended monkey impression one night in the hut.

Wednesday was spent on glacier travel and crevasse rescue, along with the necessary anchor building practice. We focused on the assisted hoist and Prussiking, and would return to the unassisted hoist later in the trip.

Andrew really wanted to hit the glacier

Thursday we made our way across the Chamberlin Snowfield, navigating around numerous crevasses, and learned how to belay up snow, both with an ATC and utilizing a hip belay. Andrew and Paul decided to try tobogganing on a foam pad with ice axes as brakes, which was rather amusing. Paul Aubrey cooked up an unbelievably good meal for dinner from dehydrated ingredients. We chopped out a bivy spot and spent a cold night on the glacier.

Bivy on the snowfield above the glacier

Awaking Friday morning, we set about practicing self arrest and other skills. We also noticed a helicopter drop off a pair of climbers at the hut - they would turn out to be two family men who've maintained a climbing relationship for three decades. As the clouds were starting to roll in we made our way back to the hut. A steep section required dagger technique with ice axes and tools as well as a belay, and we finally made our way through the final hundred meters or so enveloped by a whiteout. After some time in the hut to collect ourselves, we crossed the class three rock outside the hut and practiced abseiling down to the glacier, maneuvering to a snow lip that provided passage across a bergschrund and then cramponing back up to the hut.

Ascending the steep snow back to the hut

Saturday morning was spent indoors as the whiteout continued - we studied and practiced anchor equalization and did some theory work. (Over the course we covered navigation, basic snow safety, and weather.) We then moved out to the rock and practiced placing pro, from actual stones to pitons, stoppers, and cams. We finished by climbing up some low class 5 rock in our plastic boots.

Posing after a little rock climbing in plastics

With four days left, we decided to fly out Sunday morning: the bergschrunds prevented a full climb out, and we wanted to work on more technique. Sunday and Monday were spent learning ice climbing technique on the lower Fox Glacier, with the nights spent at Porter Lodge. We covered ice screw placement and v threads, and worked our way up to vertical ice. The highlight may well have been lowering down into a small glacial cave, with beautiful blue walls and a stream trickling through, and climbing back out. We also covered the unassisted hoist rescue technique while on the glacier.

Andrew belayed by Paul

Tuesday morning we drove back to Wanaka, grabbed my gear bag and some other items, and headed out to the crags. We spent the next day and a half climbing rock, with an overnight camp (minus Paul Aubrey, who spent the night with his family) near a stream by the crags. Wednesday afternoon we headed back to the AC office, debriefed, and headed back to our accommodations. Later that evening the four of us students reconvened for drinks and dinner, met some random foreign students along the way, and pledged to get together somewhere, sometime, for future adventure.

Building a fire at the campsite with headlamps on

The course being completed, on Thursday morning I awoke and made some phone calls to change my flights to accommodate a trip to Wellington. I caught a bus to Queenstown and spent two nights at Bumbles Hostel, between which I took a Real Journeys trip out to Doubtful Sound. Queenstown is a very developed tourist town, with virtually every conceivable adventure sport up for grabs - jetboating, skydiving, paragliding, etc. I met some interesting people at the hostel, but the most interesting part of my stay was a meal at Pog Mahones Irish pub. I had venison served raw on a steaming hot stone: you slice off cuts of meat, let them fall onto the stone and cook to your liking, and then devour them. It was the best meat I've ever had.

Venison on a "Stonegrill" at Pog Mahones

Doubtful Sound on Friday was a phenomenal experience. We took a bus from Queenstown to the town of Manapouri, crossed Lake Manapouri by boat, and then took another bus along the road to Deep Cove. Then we took a catamaran out through Doubtful Sound to the Tasman Sea. On the way back we stopped at the hydroelectric plant at the far end of Lake Manapouri. The fjords in New Zealand get a tremendous amount of rainfall, so you literally see waterfalls all around you - it's unbelievable.

Doubtful Sound

Saturday morning I left Queenstown and flew to Wellington for three nights. Wellington reminded me a lot of Capitol Hill, my neighborhood in Seattle, mixed with Granville Street in Vancouver (B. C.). There was a dominant cafe culture, along with a strip of quality nightclubs. I was charmed by how laid-back and quirky Kiwi culture turned out to be.

Sign on Oriental Parade in Wellington

I did very little of tourist value in Wellington - I visited Te Papa, the national museum, on Saturday, and took a tour of Parliament on Monday. I hung out in coffee shops a good bit, and ate pretty well: there's a strong multicultural aspect to Wellington's cuisine, with many Indian, Malaysian, Turkish, and Pacific Rim restaurants. Saturday night I had dinner at a restaurant called Ernesto, listening to the jazz band while watching a light rain outside the windows - beautiful. Then I made my way over to Matterhorn and caught the tail end of a great funk group's performance over a bourbon. Sunday night I had dinner at an Indian restaurant called Tulsi that was playing Bollywood music on the stereo, and capped off the evening with coffee at Espressoholic, where the baristas were going a bit nuts with music that demanded to be square-danced to. Monday I strolled down Lambton Quay, the shopping district, and had a great pizza dinner at Scopa. I had half a day Tuesday, which was spent strolling down Oriental Parade by the waterfront and having lunch at Mac's Brewery. As for random spots, I really liked Olive, Espressoholic, and Mojo for coffee, Dorothy for pastries, and Floriditas and Sweet Mother's for breakfast.

Finally, after 17 days in New Zealand, I headed to the airport on the afternoon of Tuesday April 1st and headed back home to Seattle. I got a bit of a scare when I got home as my motorcycle was gone from the street - it turned out to have been impounded for being on the street for too long (@#!$) but at least it hadn't been stolen. Three days later I finished up work at Google, and am now plotting my future business, travel, and climbing plans.

What a great trip!

Click for my photos on Picasa
Click for my (crappy) video of the helicopter flight out from Centennial Hut