Zanskar Odyssey 2010

In the fall of 2010 I was privileged to join my friends Jason Kehl, Abby Smith and Pete Takeda in India for a ‘himalayan bouldering expedition.’ I shot the expedition, and it appeared in the March 2011 Men’s Journal, as well as Dead Point magazine, Escalade, Klettern, and with mentions in Elevation Outdoors, and other media. Special thanks to the Jonny Copp Foundation for their assistance with the Jonny Copp Award.

Jason produced several episodic short films; you can watch them on YouTube:

[tubepress playlistValue=”3412F39FBE5FF357″]

and you can download the full 40m feature film here:

Dead Point Magazine Digital Downloads

1440 Alpine Ave

Though I moved to Boulder 15 years ago for its cliffs and crags, I found a community of like-minded green-builders among my new climbing friends. They exposed me to alternative building strategies, and were starting solar energy companies before rebates and incentives made it fashionable. A twist of fate landed me the job as the first director of the ReSource 2000 program (now simply ReSource) at the Boulder Energy Conservation Center (now Center for Resource Conservation), which colored my ideas of demolition, construction, and energy-efficiency. During those infant years at ReSource and constructing alternatives to stick-framed homes, it was a perfect swirl of kinesthetic satisfaction, pioneering business growth, and even the Ivy-league engineering background I’d pursued but thought I’d left behind.

Growing up outside New York City, I was fascinated with the constant renewal and reinvention of industrial areas of the City. I was enamored with the way they showcased their history in exposed brick and steel while at the same time engaged the present with modern fixtures and updated energy efficiency. Blending old and new, the architectural style of renewed spaces had a psychic efficiency and sense of rebirth in reusing old building materials. After I purchased a run-down, uninsulated ranch home on a large south-facing lot near Ideal Market, I approached a friend, architect Corey Nielsen, about designing the project. His almost-immediate response was that he’d always wanted to design a place inspired by the distinctive grain elevators that dot the plains of Montana, Alberta and the West. I came to recognize the angular metal-sided, metal-roofed structures instantly from far away. Restricted to the existing square footprint, we could only go up, and the vertical lines of the grain elevator inspiration suited this perfectly. Out of this initial inspiration, a concept grew to create a home that was at once modern but Western, blending the warmth of refurbishment with sleek modern lines and appliances, and of course, reuse and energy-efficiency.

Effective green-building is a blend of design and experience, I found. Initially I shouldered a spectrum of tasks from General Contractor (GC) to carpenter, painter to plumber, and learned many lessons (read: mistakes). But successes and mistakes both inform experience. Beginning with the first strokes of the sledgehammer, my ReSource history kicked in and we initiated a deconstruction plan that included immediately de-nailing and squaring lumber from the original house into normalized lengths for immediate reuse in the framing of the new house. We also stacked and sold materials such as siding and flooring right out of the yard to eager builders from Craigslist. Our plans called for wall and roof framing that would allow the best energy efficiency insulation techniques. This included adding 1” rigid foam on the entire exterior to prevent heat losses through the framing. It also prevents changes in color to the exterior due to the thermal difference where the studs are. Having lived in older inefficient homes, I was shocked to experience the comfort these insulation techniques combined with high-efficiency windows and passive solar design led to. During periods of consistently single-digit temperatures, the radiant floor system only kicked on once or twice a week!

I’m fascinated with physics and design, but also the natural world, and since I was simultaneously the owner/GC/framer I made many one-the-fly changes to the design when improvements beckoned. One of these had to do with a cooling system modeled on nature. Part of a passive solar design is to mitigate heat gains in the summer, and we took the usual shading techniques into account in our design. However, I also recognized that I could use the 3-story entryway/stairwell to act as a cooling tower much as African termites do in their massive earthen mounds. A change to the floor plan and the addition of special 7’ horizontal operable skylights, along with the overall open design made possible this 3-story north-side cooling tower that draws hot air up and out from throughout the house.

Of course, I also had to remain true to my impulses to refurbish materials and space, so I wanted something really distinctive worked into the house that would exemplify history and reworked material. I tracked down a 120-year old barn under deconstruction and claimed much of its wide-plank spruce flooring, siding, and all the 10’ Chestnut timbers I could. American Chestnut is extinct as a timber tree, but previous to a destructive blight was extensively used in construction for its straight-grain, lightness and strength, and rot-resistant qualities. We set the gorgeous timber material in the massive steel stairway both as the 28 treads and as the railing stock, outfitted portions of the exterior siding with spruce, and laid the spruce flooring throughout the 3rd floor office/studio.

Reflections on the Vimy Trip

(1999) I force open an eye, seeing my breath appear as a puff of vapor in the cool early morning air and turning eastward from the cooling ashes of our fire pit, I am drawn out of my sleeping bag to the rosy glow on the horizon. Breathing crisp morning air and watching the sunrise silhouette a family of elephants, I let my camera drop from my face to my thigh. Slowly eating, moving eastward toward the marshes, these large, slow dark shapes are framed by a rosy sky. I smile, reflecting on a moment spent in a sunrise, look back up to the pink snows barely visible on top of Kilimanjaro, and listen carefully to the sounds of Africa in the morning. The rumble of the small groups of elephants communicating with each other, a throaty growl, rolls across the open bush plain and up to the slopes of the mighty volcano. Birds flutter and squawk nervously, numerous tones mingling to make one large, African birdsong; while a few scattered half-hidden wildebeest snort among the bushes. A baby elephant nuzzles close to its mother; the elder is moving step by step, swinging immense legs one by one, wrapping bushes up in her trunk and removing them like weeds in a garden. The giant beasts file slowly past the huge round bulk of Kilimanjaro, tusks catching the morning sun, ears flapping gently against their bodies. These creatures, this mountain, the lone tall trees, continually remind me of the words of Karen Blixen: “…small figures in an immense scenery”.

Somewhere in the skies around Kilimanjaro this morning is the Silver Queen, I can hear her before I see her, on her way to Tanzania. Even in the Vimy, I can imagine the pilots’ small heads peeking out over her body, dwarfed by the huge wingspan and propellers: more small figures in an immense scenery. The skies this morning are clear and I smile to myself picturing the grins on their faces as they soak up this incredible portrait of Africa, past mighty Kilimanjaro.

The elephants, the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and the Vimy– a meeting this morning of three distinct and powerful icons. And on the ground, camped under large acacia trees lie the students, a fourth powerful icon, for the students represent a mixing of cultures, a bonding of individuals and a unique and heartening educational adventure. These five students, while learning and writing about wildlife, cultures, politics, history, and aviation, are also teaching us about finding a cultural meeting point, a symbolic hug transcending political boundaries. Chosen from 5 representative countries, and ranging in age from 14-19, the students are the arm of the Silver Queen Flight responsible for maintaining context and educational support on the Web and for presenting the project to African schools. Descriptions from the field students and schoolchildren in Africa about the reversal of their perceptions of race and different nationalities would astound me and put a special light on this very powerful experience.

This is the kernel of our project: that we would combine an experiential education, where the students are absorbing by doing, with an ambassadorial mission, where they are teaching, while they participated and assisted in a very grown-up adventure. In these tasks the student team was wildly successful. The projects proved overwhelming enough to maintain their wonder, so that they continued to produce fine written work for the World Wide Web. Yet they were collected enough to give presentations, remaining friendly and outgoing, sharing of themselves despite hardships and despairs.

They helped with the plane, changing the oil, cleaning it; they wrote up projects on wildlife, cultural lifestyles, history, and gave talks to eager African schools. They were part of the adventure team, not just spectators of it, and contributed by providing the context for the adventure by traveling in and researching firsthand the places the Silver Queen would go. While on safari in the Maasai Mara, we presented detailed firsthand experience of the wildlife and the Maasai culture. Warriors with symbolic thick scar markings on their arms recounted stories of grappling with lions and danced a traditional warrior dance around a blazing bonfire. In Naivasha, we were privileged to stay with and enjoy private lectures by Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. In Nairobi, we wrote about urban life there, and in central Kenya about a camel safari and Samburu herbal medicine, then later in South Africa and Zimbabwe, we were treated to warm welcomes, traditional food and heart-wrenching tours in the townships. In the completion of these projects and others, the students fulfilled a curriculum diverse in content and subject matter, one which flexed with the winding course of the Vimy, and one through which we were able to touch people of the African continent as much as we were touched by them.

No amount of preparation could prepare for the spectacular interpersonal, intercultural healing that occurred between the students. Through them, a wonderful message of openness and acceptance was offered to a world struggling with the growing pains of globalization. In that meeting is the heartening conclusion to this grand experiment: that only by sharing of ourselves, our cultures, our countries, can we achieve understanding. Through this journey, Americans, British and Germans came to Kenya and beyond; white South Africans came to Kenya and a black Kenyan to South Africa. In that sharing of place and person I was overwhelmed by the magic of diverse adolescents smashing down walls of ancient prejudice to come together over an old airplane.

Firelight above the River

Firelight above the River
In the Central Highlands of Kenya

(1999) A cool breeze is blowing through the darkness. Smoke from the fire is tossed about before deciding where to remain and the flickering light dances on everyone’s faces in time to the rhythms of the wind. Arranged on large sitting-pillows in a semicircle around the fire, the students and several new friends are chatting, staring into the fire, breaking into short bursts of laughter. Behind them, several lanterns placed here and there sweep out small circles of illuminated detail- a picture on the wall, a hewn log post, a Samburu artifact. Just beyond the fire, beyond where the stone floor gives way to a small wood deck, and far below our perch on the side of this gorge, we can hear the steady rush of the Ewaso Nyiro river. My eyes sweep up the narrow hewn posts into the log rafters lashed together supporting a large thatch roof, only barely apparent in the low light of the lanterns and the fire. Then pointing my eyes out into the darkness, I imagine the creeping leopard, drinking at the riverbank, the silent crocodile, or a family of baboons. The entire front of this hut is exposed, open to the breezes and the sunrises, to the song of the river, the plunging and flittering of birds, and the expanses of the African bush.

My gaze swings back to a partially lit face in front of me. A lantern is glowing behind two wine glasses, its reflection is squashed in the curves at the neck of the wine bottle. Beyond, off to the left behind Kerri, are the fire and the students, beyond them is the river and the bush. We are seated at the dinner table, in this half-structure, by lantern light and surrounded by the cool night air, discussing plans for the days to come. She has assigned a Samburu guide, Gabriel, to take us out on camel safari and several walking safaris. We have come north, to this camp on the Ewaso river, after meeting Kerri over lunch at the Douglas-Hamilton place the day before, and after a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling 6hour drive.

While trekking around in the low brush, over hills and rocks, we will see game shuffling about in herds, flying above in aerial hunt, or filing along to and from the river waters. We will break off a small piece of special twig to chew- a Samburu toothbrush, and learn how to make potions for curing backaches and stomachaches. We will peer downwards, hunched over, studying animal tracks, and gaze broadly upward, from the top of some escarpment, taking in the majesty of the open spaces.

From atop the slow, trudging camels several of us will be tossed back and forth, swaying in the sheepskin saddles, while others walk beside and in front of the train, studying tracks and plants along the way. As always, Matt and I are shuttering our way through roll after roll of slides, twisting and zooming for the perfect shot. The hot sun is noticeable from a seat on the camels or walking alongside, more so than from inside the safari van we had in the Maasai Mara.

Visiting a new friend from the neighboring ranch, we will travel to a Samburu village, meet the people and stoop to enter the small manyattas. We will visit with a 36-hour old baby in the pitch darkness of a manyatta, choking on the smoke from a claustrophobic fire, and shoot slide after slide in the single shaft of African sunlight that pierces the blackness inside. The baby and nanny will model for us, their colorful red clothes in the smoky shaft of light offset by a weathered old black face and a chubby smooth young one. Afterwards, our friend Julia will be kind enough to give us cool drinks and offer a jump in her spectacular pool overlooking the miles and miles of bush.

We will be sleeping under a thatched roof and inside three walls, lulled by the steady sound of the river, the tips of our noses kissed by the coolness of the exposed night air. The students and Matt will pile onto one large mattress in the mess hut, next to the fire, like so many boys at a backyard sleepover, while I take the opportunity to spend some time alone. The log furniture, stone floor, heavy blankets, and rustic construction of these magnificent huts reminds me of my home in Colorado, and I will sleep better here, to the song of the river and in the snap of the night breeze, than I have in months. The Samburu guides begin milling about before 6am, their toothy smiles complementing the bright red clothes they wear.

For now, looking over at the boys, watching them squawk about their adventures to our visitors from the neighboring ranch, with their firelit faces, and with Miriam quietly smiling at their buffoonery, I can only imagine the things to come. I am simply relieved that we have subverted the drudgery of going back to Nairobi, that we have a plan to fill more days of the Vimy’s chronic delay. And so, returning my glance to Kerri telling me about the days to come, I pull in a deep breath, feel the sharp coolness of it, allowing my eyes to blink shut for a split moment, and let the weariness of the hard travel wash away down river.

A night of Two Tales

A Night of Two Tales in Bulawayo
By Mick Follari and Richard Darbourne

(1999) My shoes clicked on the hardwood floors crossing hall at the Bulawayo Club, echoing off the paintings of the walls– upright men in turn-of-the century clothes. Depictions of history hung all over the walls and there was an obvious air of colonialism to the place. The ceilings were very high, the wood was dark and well preserved; worn leather chairs waited patiently in corners, plaques adorned most everything, identifying nodes in the timeline of this Club and this city. I stepped down several flights of wide stairs, crossed through several doors, and looked over the balcony of an interior garden, square and vaulted, right in the middle of the building. I crossed back into the interior, past several black faces sticking out the tops of white jackets, and passed into 1920 for the evening.

Several heads turned as I entered the cocktail party, raising a glass; I nodded back. People were dressed formally, some in tuxedos, in stark contrast to the crew who only had their one change of clothes– no more than three dinner jackets between the five of us. There was excitement, as there had been at the airfield, and an undercurrent of relief. This event, this dinner, was 79 years in the making and certainly several weeks in delay. Brenda Brand, a warm soft-spoken woman, had set up several glass cases with artifacts and photos from her father-in-law, Sir Quintin Brand, one of the original pilots. There was the original menu from 1920, photographs of the Vimy taking off, of her after the crash, and of the pilots. After several drinks, a white-haired gentleman in black tie announced that dinner had been served.

We shuffled our way into the dining hall, an immense room with a ceiling as high as the walls were wide. Everything echoed off the hardwoods, chairs scraping, the quiet din of conversation. At the front was the largest of the tables, with our names written in script around the places. Pete McBride and I sat down next to each other, and sipped our drinks, looking around at all the white faces lining the long tables before us. We passed our menus around the table signing them for each other, as van Ryneveld and Brand had done; I glanced in it to read that we were eating Hake in Vimy sauce, beef van Ryneveld, and Aviator’s Delight. The roast beef, potatoes and greens were apparently just as the aviation pioneers had eaten nearly 80 years ago.

During our meal I dare say I noticed one or another of our crew scratching his head, trying to choose the right fork. The waiters scurried around, serving the meals and getting drinks. There was a reserved excitement, a quiet soup of white noise bouncing around the room. The white-haired gentleman sitting next to Pete was full of stories about life ‘on the frontier’, and chuckled at our conversation, pink-faced from the drinks. Finally, he stood, rapping his spoon sharply on the table to quiet the crowds and begin the speeches.

We had presentations, rememberances, congratulations, and welcomings. I smiled to myself, twirling wine in my glass as I thought of how much a part of this town the Silver Queen is. In Kenya, we were greeted warmly, and people were interested in the project, but needed to be told what we were doing and why. Here in Bulawayo, it is part of everyone’s consciousness and they were dropping everything to welcome us. In fact, the following day we would visit a school where nearly all the students had been at the landing. We all stepped into our 1920’s roles helped by the atmosphere of the Club, and they were beaming, having sewn this part of history to the present at long last. Because of the crash at the racecourse in 1920, Bulawayo has a strong connection to the project; it is, after all, the final resting place of the last Silver Queen.

Mark gave a brilliant speech, chronicling the trip thusfar, detailing places along the way, the problems in Djibouti, the highlights of photoflights in Kenya. It was a wonderful summary, and the crowd hung on every word. Throughout our stay they were so gracious and warm, so interested in this adventure and this plane. Mark, John, and Pete had permanent smiles from the warm reception after their troubles in North Africa. Directly after Mark’s words we were treated to a 1920’s radio recording of van Ryneveld and Brand. The crackling old radio program was the most powerful tool in sending us back in time, and the first sounds of those original aviators’ voices stirred me from my musings, chilling me slightly, such a direct experience of them. After the speeches and the auction, the quiet din resumed, and eventually we crossed back into the cocktail lounge for some after-dinner conversation.

Throughout the evening, I thought of the students across town, separated from us, mostly in time, less in distance, having a traditional meal and dance performance. I could only imagine what was happening out in the townships that night, trying chunky corn beer, learning their hosts’ dance steps. We in the Club were having a conceptual costume party of sorts, reliving a time past, a time Bulawayans have been waiting to relive for years. I would glance around the room, feeling the slightly stodgy atmosphere, feeling the weight of the silverware. I would breathe the slight mustiness in the air, looking at the pinched necks in bow ties, and think of the students sitting cross-legged on some floor eating with their hands, and thumping their toes to the rhythms of Africa.

Masai Mara

 

(July 1999) Squinting into the African sun, I am looking across the tips of miles of tall grasses interrupted by lone trees and clusters of bush, dark spots in a golden sea. A gentle breeze sweeps past, adding a shimmer to the rolling expanse and forcing the eagles and vultures to dip and roll while soaring in the sky above. On the distant plains, co-mingling masses of zebra and wildebeest stamp and snort, half buried in the high grasses of the early migration season. Gazelles skip and hop in and out of view, and somewhere in the distance, giraffes are silhouetted against the sky. I am scanning hopefully for dark shadows in the grass, cheetah prowling for a meal, or lions yawning behind a bush. Closing my eyes, I can hear in the breeze a hint of the African song… Maasai cowbells knock out a tin rhythm to the whisper of the Savannah trees and grasses; the hum of distant beasts and birds is punctuated by the occasional percussion of horns clashing. Even the silence of lions and leopards is palpable, perhaps if only in a sense of apprehension.

We have come to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya from Nairobi for an impromptu four-day safari while we wait for the Silver Queen Vickers Vimy airplane to arrive. From an educational perspective, this expedition is precious, offering us the opportunity to see and learn about both the multitude of wildlife in the Reserve and the culture of the Maasai people. We are traveling by mini bus outfitted with a pop-top, allowing us to remain in the bus while having an unobstructed view of the game. Standing, with our heads and shoulders craning out the top of the van, we have been able to spot a huge number of birds and game, including rare sightings of cheetah and leopard. Our guide, Wan Jau has been a fountain of knowledge about the animals, birds, and people, and throughout the four days the students eagerly press him for details. “Mara” means “spotted”, like the spots of the leopard, and describes perfectly the landscape, with wide expanses of grasslands sprinkled with lone trees and bush.

I turn back to face the group clustered around a remarkable lonely tree, miles of shimmering golden grasses in all directions. We are parked beneath the tree for a mid-afternoon lunch break, several students are enjoying the sun, while others are talking with Wan Jau. During the days we drive throughout this massive reserve on dirt tracks and sometimes through the grass, searching for beasts, noticing birds and butterflies as we go. Anton, our South African student, is sharp as a hawk at spotting the birds and beasts, and together with Matt Bresler they are a wealth of important information about the wildlife. Colin is keeping a catalogue and recording the salient facts, while Dennis and Miriam discuss the Maasai lifestyle with Wan Jau. I have organized the team into three groups to manage all the information- Richard will write a travel essay, Dennis and Miriam will describe the Maasai people, Colin, Anton and Matt will address the wildlife. I will be editing and revising their work before sending it posthaste to the Web.

At night we stay in the camp maintained by our tour company, Savuka tours. There are Maasai staying there who keep watch in shifts throughout the night by campfire, protecting us from lions or hyenas. We can hear the baboons screeching in the trees around camp, and hyenas cackling in the distance. Other travelers are staying at the camp as well, Germans, Dutch, British and Americans. We are all treated to a wonderfully dynamic Maasai warrior dance by the bonfire light; bright, red-clothed warriors jump higher and higher in ritual dances to the delight of the group. Sounds of the Maasai, throaty rhythmic grunts and repeated wailing chants, fill the air, swirling about our circle with the sparks from the fire. Our accommodation is in permanent hut-tents lined up in a row, with lovely bushes, flowers and landscaping marking the path, and when driving off on the dirt roads leading away from camp, we can look down on our small, isolated cluster of huts in the bush. A bell rings to wake us up for breakfast and to call us for dinner. The meals, including a packed lunch for midday are delicious and filling, with coffee and tea at breakfast and dinner.