Ethics of Ambition 2016: Risk
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Yosemite, California (Wednesday October 28, 2015 at 11:24 am)


Dean Potter on a slack line without a tether (safety line)

When, and under which conditions, would the risk taken by climbers pose an ethical dilemma? I’ve discussed this issue in the past with Professor Strom’s class, Ethics of Ambition. Today, I presented three cases of risky activities:

1. Wing-suit flying and BASE jumping

2. Guided climb to Mt. Everest

3. Sponsored athletes who perform stunts for Red Bull and others

Dean Potter held the world record for the longest base jump, from the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger. In his wingsuit, Dean flew for almost 3 minutes over a distance of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers).

On May 16, 2015, I was cat sitting for one of the ranger’s in Yosemite National Park. About 10pm that evening, I answered a knock at the door. It was Dean’s mate, and another woman.

“Dean and Graham jumped tonight, and we haven’t heard from them,” Jen said. “Is it possible they were arrested and can’t call?” she asked.

The ranger, Mike, who was packing to leave town the next morning jumped up.

“C’mon, we’ll go over to SAR (search and rescue) and see what’s going on.

With a sinking feeling I watched them leave.  Base jumpers and wingsuit fliers not showing up usually means one thing: they crashed. I was afraid that Dean, whom I’d known for over 20 years, was dead.

They had not been arrested (BASE jumping is illegal in national parks), nor did they call that night. The next morning,  SAR sent out a  team  which found and recovered the two bodies.

Potter’s goal was to break barriers and do what no one had done before. In an interview with Dan Duane (the Last Flight of Dean Potter), he says “”I love having these ultimate goals out in front of me,” …. “But the number one goal… — is that I don’t ever get taken out by fucking up. I want to live to be a grandfather….”

Sadly, Dean did not survive to see his grandchildren.

Still, Dean followed his dreams uncompromisingly. He pursued new goals as his art, and did not bow to the demands of sponsors.

Unlike Potter, would-be Everest summiters face different ethical dilemmas.

Mountaineer Leanna Shuttleworth passed the bodies of dead and dying people on her ascent. Leanna Shuttleworth  and her father Mark headed for the 29,035ft summit on May 19-20, 2012. Almost 200 climbers tried for the top; six died. “There were quite a few bodies attached to the fixed lines and we had to walk round them”, Shuttleworth said. “There were also a couple who were still alive.” Shuttleworth describes coming across one man who she assumed had perished. “As we passed he raised his arm and looked at us,” she said. “He didn’t know anyone was there. He was almost dead. He was dead when we came back down.”

In an era when climbing Everest has become a form of extreme tourism … has human life come to count for less than the fulfillment of a personal ambition.

In May 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal, killing  8,000 people, including at least 19 climbers—10  Sherpas—at  Everest Base Camp.This started one more debate about the commercialization of Everest and the ethics of climbing it.


Red Bull has been increasingly criticized for sponsoring extreme events and competitions in which numerous people are injured or killed.

Büchel and Deutsche Welle looks at the dark side of extreme sports and sponsorship in “the Dark Side of Red Bull - the Perils of Extreme Sports.”

In 2009,  three athletes died while doing (paid) stunts for Red Bull: skier Shane McConkey, parachuter Eli Thompson and basejumper Ueli Gegenschatz - who was  filmed when he was killed. Robb Gaffney, a medical doctor,  described Red Bull marketing as unethical.

In a recent story,” When Does Risk Outweigh the Reward?”, 

The author criticizes the Red Bull Rampage  mountain bike competition.
He describes it: “This is MADNESS.”  It  costs the Pros money to enter and
riders bring their own insurance , and are required to sign a liability waiver freeing Red Bull of any responsibility.”

I’ve described three very different types of extreme activities, with very different ethical considerations. Potter base jumped for his own fulfillment, with little or no pressure fro sponsors.

Would-be Everest summiters pay huge sums to risk their own lives as well as those of others - many Sherpas and guides have been killed trying to get the wealthy to the top.

And for Red Bull, athletes risk life and limb to get the sponsor more publicity.

I’ll let you decide which of these activities pose  greater ethical dilemmas, and which are purely a personal decision.

Posted by sibylle in Uncategorized (Thursday March 19, 2015 at 8:55 am)

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World Cup finals Downhill - AFP photo

Lindsey does it again!

On March 19, Vonn won the downhill race of the Ski World Cup finals in Meribel France,  clinching her 18th World Cup overall title in downhill. Going into the race, Vonn led her main rival Fenninger by 18 points, and needed only a top 15 finish to gain the World cup title. Instead, Vonn won her 7th race this season, and the 66th victory of her World cup career. The video shows her excellent form.
Vonn said that  “This is the most meaningful globe I’ve ever won.” After her knee surgery she missed two seasons as well as not skiing in the previous years inaugural downhill at Meribel. Because she was unfamiliar with the course at Meribel , she skipped the races in Sweden to train at Meribel for an extra week - training that paid off well!

Austria’s Goergl placed second, team mate Hosp third, and Tina Maze in fourth.

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Vonn, super-G, Getty images

A day later, she won the Super-G, clinching one more World Cup title.

Vonn led the standings by only 8 points over Austria’s Fenninger, and whoever won the Super-G that day, would win the World Cup title. Skiing 15th, Fenninger crushed the course to take the lead. Vonn, who skied 19th, knew she had to beat Fenninger to win the World Cup.

“She put a lot of pressure on me,” said Vonn. “I knew she was leading when I was at the top. I skied as hard as I could.”

Vonn won her 19th crystal globe, to tie with Stenmark,  and 67th world Cup race, a woman’s record in alpine skiing.

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Vonn, Super-G, Meribel

El Capitan, Yosemite - climbing to Dolt Tower
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, women, Yosemite, California (Sunday December 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm)

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El Cap, the Nose, Stovelegs, first pitch

My climbing partner Eric Doub  and I conceived the  idea that maybe we should try to climb the Nose in a Day (NIAD). After all, everyone is climbing the NIAD these days. I personally know many people who’ve climbed it in a day. So why shouldn’t we?

Well, some minor details, like - the  other climbers climbing the NIAD are faster than either of us. And stronger. And most of them about 20 years younger.

However,  I wanted to try. And, apparently people at the American Alpine Club thought that we deserved to try this - they awarded me a “Live Your Dream ” grant to attempt the Nose.

Initially, I drove to Yosemite alone and found a climbing partner there who’d climbed with my friend in Colorado. Steve and I met at 5:00 am in the parking area below El Cap and organized our gear. Today, we would climb only the first 10 pitches - as far as Dolt Tower, and then rappel down.

Steve was a stronger climber,  and had climbed Astroman free a week earlier, so he led the first several pitches. After following pitch three, I  decided I wanted to lead the next pitch. Pitch 4 went well, after a scary stemming move above a ledge (with no gear in), followed by two short pendulum traverses, and then we were on Sickle Ledge.

We stopped for a quick snack here, and Steve said, sounding surprised,

“It looks like we’ll make it to Dolt.”

“Well, yes, ” I replied. “Wasn’t that the plan?”

Yes, but I didn’t really think we’d make it,” he admitted.

Oh? When I asked why, he replied that he didn’t really think an older woman like myself would make it to Dolt Tower, and that he thought we’d climb as far as was reasonable, and then descend.

He added, “We’re climbing faster than I expected, and I expect we’ll reach Dolt.”

Since I’d had every intention of getting to Dolt Tower, I was glad he now also though this was feasible — especially since I still hoped to eventually climb the whole thing.

I then led pitches 5 and 6, two easy pitches one can run together  with a bit of simul-climbing. The next few belay stances were miniscule — about 2″ by 3″ at the most, enough for one toe hold. Steve, who mentioned that he’d led every pitch of Astroman, led the next few pitches, and I climbed them .

We took no ascenders on this trip, but both of us climbed all the pitches. sine it was a practice run, this gave me a good feeling for the climbing on the lower portion of the Nose.

It also convinced me that I’d happily lead pitch 8, the first pitch of the Stovelegs, a fun hand crack.

Around 3 pm, we arrive on top of Dolt Tower, enjoying a wonderful view with our snack and water.  I can see why climbers call the Nose the greatest rock climb in  the world: the climbing is excellent, on superb rock, with a variety of moves and techniques - liebacks, stemming, jam cracks, face climbing all on stellar rock.

After that first run up to Dolt, I definitely planned to come  back for more.

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On Dolt Tower

Ethics and ambition, 2014
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, skiing, women, Colorado, California (Tuesday November 11, 2014 at 11:05 am)

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Shelf  Road, a favorite winter climbing area
I’ve spoken at Professor Paul Strom’s class, The Ethics of Ambition, for many years. In 2013, I discussed the dilemma of would-be guided Everest climbers, who pass by dying climbers on their way up and down the mountain. I also discussed sponsorship, and climbers who perform death-defying (and in some cases, deadly) stunts to please their sponsors and their audience. One report  by Deutsche Welle “uncovers the background stories of several deaths associated with Red Bull’s publicity stunts”

in 2011, I delved further into sponsorship and the pressure it can place on climbers (and any professional in extreme sports, such as base jumping, surfing, free skiing, and others.)
This year, for the first time since I’ve spoken at this class, we discussed a personal ambition of my own. The first consequence ( for this class, of my ambition):  the students wrote the answer to their homework question, and were ready to post it, before I got around to posting my annual ethics post. And why? Because I was rock climbing at Shelf Road (photo above) in pursuit of my current ambition.

In the past year, I conceived the idea of trying to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan within 24 hours. Many climbers have done this, so it’s nothing that special — but I would be the oldest woman to ever climb it in a day. Perhaps even the oldest person , if it takes me long enough to accomplish!

So why this goal, why now, and what ethical constraints are involved?

As to why climb El Capitan,  I’ve always loved climbing this rock face, since becoming part of the first female team to climb it. I’ve wanted to climb el Capitan since then, and was able to climb it two more times while I was still a student. Since then, I haven’t been able to climb El Capitan due to various constraints - job, career, and then I became a mother. While I continued to rock climb recreationally, I was not able to commit the amount of time and energy necessary to climb it within 24 hours.

Last spring, I was in Yosemite for a month, practicing the first third of El Capitan.  In 2015, I plan to return to Yosemite and work on the route for another month of two. When my son was young, I could not leave home that long. and, even though he’s been in college the past four years, in 2012 and 2013, I was taking care of my extremely ill mother, who lied in the Bay Area. I could climb for the weekend, but not for weeks on end.

So, in the past years, I’d given up my ambition to take care of my son, and then my parents.  The ethical constraint was clear: postpone my goals, or abandon my family. I chose to take care of my family, and climb El Capitan later. Perhaps waiting paid off: this spring, the American alpine Club awarded me a ‘Live Your Dream‘ grant to attempt this climb.

Why now? My son graduated from college in May, 2014; both of my parents have passed away, and my job as a ski instructor at Beaver Creek Resorts allows me to take the summer to climb. For the first timein decades, I have the time to go to Yosemite for a month or so without abandoning other responsibilities.

I’ve asked the students to discuss similar ethical dilemmas that they may have faced in their lives. for instance, perhaps a  high school athlete had to choose between his sport, and academics. Or someone had to choose between attending a college that offered the best education, versus staying closer to home and family.

We all make choices in our life that affect others, and those decisions and  ambitions can cause ethical conflicts.

What gets publicity are the famous athletes (and artists, politicians, and  others in the media) whose decisions affect not only their only lives, but the lives of many.

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El Capitan, Yosemite

Mikaela Shiffrin wins again !
Posted by sibylle in skiing, women, Europe, Colorado (Tuesday January 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm)


Shiffrin demonstrates her winning technique

Photo from Denver Post

Mikaela Shiffrin, 18-year old ski racing phenom from Vail, Colorado, won the Flachau slalom decisively, beating her opponents by almost a second in a race in which hundredths of a second often separate rival skiers.

After her first run, she was ahead by 0.9 seconds, an almost unbeatable advantage. Her second run was not as fast as the first, but she still beat the runner ups, Frida Hansdotter, by 0.83sec, and Maria Pietilae-Holmner by 1.14 seconds.

This leaves Shiffrin, current slalom world champion and winner of last year’s World Cup crystal globe in slalom, in a dominant position for the upcoming Olympics.

Watch the video  of her first run, which the Austrian commentator describes as her skiing with “perfect technique” and ends by saying after her first run, that “the race is really over”.

The Austrian commentator notes her stable upper body,a nd describes her skiing as resembling a “graceful waltz”, but a very fast waltz!

For my ski students, note how her upper body faces downhill and is very calm and stable, while her legs turn under her .. very fast!

Shiffrin has won six of the last 10 slalom races, which gives her the  lead  in the World Cup rankings with 402 points ahead of Hansdotter with 258 points - a nice position to be in just before the Sochi  Olympics.

Ethics of Ambition, 2013
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, skiing, ice, women, Switzerland, Europe (Tuesday October 29, 2013 at 11:25 am)

Why would a climber speak to a class on the Ethics of Ambition?  Does climbing pose ethical dilemmas? It may - if you’re a sponsored climber and under pressure by sponsors to perform. Or if you have a very ambitious goal.

Mt. Everest

I’ll describe recent scenarios  of climbers around the world that involve decisions made by climbers, guides, and Sherpas.

First, ambition requires a great deal of egotism and selfishness, as I’ve discussed before in previous year’s classes.

Once our ambition drives us to set goals such as climbing the world’s highest mountain, or being the fastest person to climb El Capitan, then these goals require much time spent training, and in the case of Mt. Everest, a very large sum of money - about $65,000 to $100,000 (per person) for a guided climb.

Today, many of the rich and would-be famous sign on with a guide to climb Mt. Everest, some inspired by the book, Seven Summits, by Dick Bass and Frank Wells.  In the book review, it states that, “For their third and final attempt on Mt. Everest, Wells had to choose between the summit try and his family.”

Driven and ambitious climbers, after paying $65,000 or more for their chance at the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, have walked right by dying men and left them on the side of the trail alone, to die.

In 2006,   German climber, Thomas Weber,  collapsed and died, less than 20 yards from the trail. A British climber, David Sharp,  became seriously ill and died. IN 2006, 40 climbers, intent on the summit, refused to help. Climbers often pass dying climbers on the mountain without stopping to help - either, because they lack the strength and skills … or, because they are intent on reaching the summit.

In 2012, the Guardian posted a blog about “the ethical dilemmas facing climbers” as they describe how one climber found many bodies attached to the fixed lines and had to walk around them. In conclusion, they ask, “has human life come to count for less than the fulfillment of a personal ambition?”

In 2013, Sherpas attacked Swiss climber Ueli Steck and two of his friends  and threatened to kill them.  Steck says that after passing the Sherpas on the climb, when they returned to camp they were met by “a mob of 100 people hitting us with rocks and they threatened to kill us.”

Swiss info asked Steck what his sponsors said, and Steck replied, “they understand but on the other hand … we don’t get anything for free. The sponsors want to benefit from me. And now, all three of us have to deal with financial disaster. We spent a lot of money…  the world keeps on spinning and I have to keep going.”  Steck said he would not return to Everest after this threat on their lives.
In Oct. of 2013, Steck returned to the Himalayas to solo climb the south face of Annapurna, and said that, though he’ll not forget what happened on Everest, that “I think I’m beginning to find the fun in life once again!”

Büchel and Deutsche Welle looks at the dark side of extreme sports and sponsorship in “the Dark Side of Red Bull - the Perils of Extreme Sports.”

In 2009,  three athletes died while doing (paid) stunts for Red Bull: skier Shane McConkey, parachuter Eli Thompson and basejumper Ueli Gegenschatz - who was  filmed when he was killed.

The press asked “who is responsible for deadly maneuvers?”

Büchel said that McConkey was under tremendous pressure: “In order to stay in business, McConkey perceived himself as challenged to perform ever-more reckless acts - like combining extreme skiing and base-jumping.”

Robb Gaffney, a medical doctor,  described Red Bull marketing as unethical.

And last, but not least,  what about kids climbing? In July 2013, 12-year old Tito Traversa was killed in a fall to the ground when his incorrectly-assembled equipment failed. The Italian prosecutors filed manslaughter charges against five people - the gear manufacturer, the store selling the gear, and the manager and instructor of the club the organized the trip on which Tito was killed.

But who’s really responsible? In my opinion, not the store or manufacturer, if the quick draws are sold unassembled, but whoever put the draws together incorrectly. And whoever checked (or failed to) check them.

Want to learn to ski?
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Tuesday October 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm)

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Ted Ligety in a GS race

Often, in the many years I’ve taught skiing,  a man brings in his children (and sometimes, his wife and children) to a lesson and tells me,

“I’ve booked a lesson for the family with you. Tomorrow, I want to ski the mountain with them.”

On one occasion, the paterfamilias  brought in his family for a half day morning lesson, and informed me he planned to ski down the mountain with them that afternoon.

Usually, when I get the family for a day, I reply that some people learn more quickly, and others not as fast, but that the speed at which they pick up learning will depend on their previous athletic experience.  After teaching former competitive ice skaters, and competitive ice hockey players, I’ve seen that professional athletes  can pick up skiing very quickly. They already know how to balance against a moving edge, and they know how to turn their legs independently of their body.

But not all people learn that quickly.   The paterfamilias who wanted to ski the mountain with his family, I cautioned,

“They may need more than three hours before they are ready to descend the mountain with you. We’ll  progress at the speed of the slowest member of your family, and even if the strongest kids would be ready, I can’t take them on more challenging terrain until they can all go there.”

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Learning to ski well is a little like learning to play a musical instrument   — practice, practice, practice.

Learning to play an instrument is like learning a foreign language“, says Babbage in the blog “Instruments of Mass Delight”.  And continues, “it is easier to learn to play an instrument when a child—while the brain is still plastic enough for extra connections to be built between the auditory, visual and motor regions.”

As in skiing, where we build connections between  visual and motor regions, and build muscle memory.

“Musicians who learned music at an early age reveal accumulations of white matter in the corpus callosum …such people are way above average at synchronising their limbs with cues from their eyes and ears.”

I remind my students - both parents and  their children - that learning to ski is like learning to play an instrument - the more they practice, the more they’ll improve.

Babbage concludes:

“Ultimately .. playing an instrument is more than just tapping, plucking, bowing or blowing the correct sequence of notes.   No amount of … videos  can embed such intimate appreciation into the muscles and memory. Only an insightful teacher with a lifetime’s experience can do that … get on with practicing scales. Tedious as they may seem, they are the key to mastering music.”

Often, in my lessons we do drills, such as skiing without poles. These drills, especially at the beginning of the season, will help us progress as the season unfolds. Even world cup skiers begin their season with drills.

Here are some recommended drills:

USSA programs  - base training, core training

US ski team updates  - stance, progressions, drills

Finding time for drills  - includes Shlopy’s
Right now, I’m doing core training (plus rock climbing, of course!) This winter, we’ll start our ski time with a few drills, and then enjoy the rest of the mountain.

Penny Lane, Smoke Bluffs, Squamish, Canada
Posted by sibylle in Spain, women, Canada and PNW (Wednesday August 21, 2013 at 5:49 pm)

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Basque climber Saioa starts up Penny Lane

This summer in Squamish started with hot, sunny days that sent us to hide in the shady cliffs at Cheakamus, followed by days of showers that made us retreat to the sunny crags of the Smoke Bluffs.

I headed to the Penny Lane cliff with Niko from Germany,  the Basque climbers Joaquin and Saioa, and Quebec native Lucie, amidst a mish-mash of languages - some of us spoke German, others Spanish and Basque , some French - but we had no one language in common.

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Saioa near the crux of Penny Lane

I’d lead the eponymous climb, Penny Lane, a few days earlier and chose to act as team photographer while Joaquin and Saioa climbed the route.

The climb starts with a few delicate face moves off the ground - on small, smooth holds. Getting off the ground  here has always gotten my attention. Right after the tiny face holds come a few layback moves on tiny  edges and smooth friction for the feet. One more layback move gets you around the corner and onto a good foot hold.

From here, I’ve seen some climbers try to layback the following corner, or like Saioa above, use fingerlocks and toe jams. I generally stem the corner while trying to get  my fingers  into the crack when I can.

After the crux start, the remaining climb consists of great hand jams that easily make up for any struggles lower down.

Penny Lane’s a great warm up for the harder climbs  on both sides, such as Crime of the Century, to the left,  or Climb and Punishment further to the right.
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Crime of the Century (5.11c), with Penny Lane visible at right

Squamish - Chekeamus - Sacrilege
Posted by sibylle in Canada and PNW (Saturday August 17, 2013 at 5:52 pm)

On my first day back at Squamish, we headed to Chek, at Chekeamus - a little out of character for me, since it’s a steep, pumpy, sport climbing area - all things I’m not very good at. But on  a hot day, Chek provides shade, and it was time to work on my weaknesses.


Here, I’m leading pitch one of Sacrilege

Photos by Andy Cairns
We found a great climb: the three pitch long Sacrilege. The first pitch of Sacrilege comprises a left-tending steep ramp that begins with off -balance moves. After the first two clips, the available footholds  are bigger, and a nice crack lends itself to jamming - of which I took full advantage!

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Pitch two of Sacrilege. Photo by Andy Cairns

On pitch two, Andy continued up the corner, on good holds to another bolted belay.  On pitch three we find the meat of the climb: lay-backing around a small bulge, and then continuing up and around flakes.

The climb is well worth  all four stars, and a great addition to the limited availability of easier warm ups.

We descended with two rappels, using a 70-meter rope.
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Rappeling from Sacrilege

Photo by Andy Cairns

At the Chek , or main, crag of the Cheakamus  Canyon area.

From the parking area, turn right and pass the Foundation Wall , shoot to Kill Wall, Negative Wall, and Toxic Lichen Wall. Just before the the Circus, look for a ramp that trends up and left to bolted anchors. If continuing on to the second pitch,  pass the first bolted anchor and head left to belay at the second anchor.

Lisa Hechtel, R.I.P.
Posted by sibylle in women, Germany, Eulogies, Europe (Thursday June 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm)

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With my mother in the European Alps

This will be the hardest eulogy I’ve ever had to write: that of my mother, Lisa Berta Hechtel.

My mother lived a great life, a full one, and enjoyed  a long life, but she still left us too soon. I cry, as I write this, and wish I had spent more time with my parents while I still had the opportunity.

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Lisa Hechtel as a young woman

I knew Lisa Hechtel only as my mother, and we take our parents for granted — until we no longer have them. Since her passing, countless people have written to me to share how much they loved my mother, and how much they will miss her presence in their lives.

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An early climb with my parents

My mother always put her family first - she followed my father on his climbs, belayed him, and then seconded the route. She never took credit for her many accomplishments - climbing big mountains in a time before most women climbed.

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My parents on a climbing trip long ago

After I was born, she usually accompanied my father on his trips, cooked for every one while camping, and often hiked to the base of the climbs to bring food for my father, while taking care of me.

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Lisa feeding her family in the Schwaebische Alp

I still use the little tin tea kettle
She once told me: “When you were little, Richard needed a climbing partner,  so we tied a rope around you , and tied you to a tree while we were climbing.”

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Early climbing trip in Germany

None of the photos in their albums show me tied to a tree — most show my mother carrying me, holding me, and feeding myself and my father.

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Lisa getting me a  drink

She taught me to ski, and helped my father take me climbing, while still helping to take care of her own mother, and her niece, and her many friends.

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Another early climbing trip - as I got bigger, the mountains got bigger, and harder.

As I look through the early photos, I have so many questions  that I never had a chance to ask  - so many things I never knew about.

After I grew up, and left home, my parents trekked in Nepal - but I’m not sure when, or where. They climbed Kilimanjaro , climbed in New Zealand, and numerous other places around the world. I wish they’d told me more about their trips - but I was far away, in Colorado, living my life and raising my own son.

My parents trekking in Nepal
And I  hope that my mother’s many friends will read this, and  share their memories of their times together.

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