Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hunting Transcendence

A fragment I'm working on as I think of the past, and the future. Like many of the things I post here, it's an idea, a speculation, a seed. Above, I'm desending from the flank of El Capitan in December, 1996. Photo by Chiu Liang Kuo.

Acres of glaze ice slid off the summit slopes of El Capitan, two thousand feet above our two-foot wide perch. White flakes launched gracefully into the frigid morning sky, expanding as they twirled down at us. Chiu yelled “Ice!” and I shouted an expletive as I pressed myself to the metal-cold granite wall, squeezing in my shoulders and trying to hide under my puny helmet. My gloved hands death-gripped the sling connecting my climbing harness to a bolt imbedded in the rock. Slabs of ice rained past us with the sound of immense whirling blades. Jet-engine whooshes sucked at my innards.

We were 1,200 feet up the vertical cliff. Chiu started arranging his rappel and I helped in a frenzy of clipping and unclipping, tying knots and backups. Without a word Chiu stepped backwards and disappeared over the edge. The purple and red ropes went taut as cable as his full weight was applied. A moment later I side-stepped to clip myself to his anchors and when I did a suitcase-sized ice slab exploded on the ledge where I’d just stood. I squeezed my eyes shut and held Chiu’s ropes, waiting for them to slacken and tell me he’d reached the next ledge, 160 feet below. When they did I clipped a heavy cargo bag to my harness and scrambled clumsily over the edge, crashing backwards down the rock wall, trusting everything to the two, half-inch diameter ropes. Between my dangling legs I could see the broccoli mosaic of trees over a thousand feet below. Sliding jerkily down the ropes I envisioned an ice chunk shearing the bolt from the rock and the free fall that would follow, the tangle of recoiling ropes and my body and the cargo bag tumbling through the air. I envisioned the clean granite ledge sawing through the ropes. The heavy bag pulled at my harness straps, cutting like hot knives into the tendons joining my thighs and crotch. I was sure permanent damage was being done but I kept sliding down the ropes, desperate to get away from the cascade of ice.

Three hours later we landed at the pines at the base of the cliff. Crusty snow covered the forest floor, the trees were hard as ice and there was no pine scent. We shook with cold and fright, staggering stiffly through uneven snow patches. When we reached camp we collapsed on the ground, laughing hysterically, gulping air and hooting, shaking our heads.

“That was too close!”
“Well, we made it.”
“Yeah. We made it.”

At the bar I sank deep into a plush leather seat and ordered beer after beer without a though for the bill. The fact of money was gloriously irrelevant. We were alive, electrified and exhausted, more spirits than men. We had achieved transcendence. I didn’t know, then, that there were many paths to this euphoric state of peace and self-realization. Some reached it through meditation or contemplation, some through drugs or sex or running marathons or building cathedrals from matchsticks or painting or singing. For Chiu and me the path had to wind through a wilderness bristling with mortal dangers, a path laid by belief in the redemption of Adventure, of pitting oneself against the unknown—which we could best find outdoors—and finding what lay there, and what it did to us. We had to know that we’d come close to extinction. It could be argued that this was unreasonable, but, as explorer Ted Edwards once wrote, “Reasonableness is not a charge that has been successfully leveled at me.” We did what we had to do; it was our path, as natural and irresistible and gravid to us as the downhill flow of water.

The taste of transcendence didn’t last long; maybe a day, or a week at most would pass before we had to move beyond the street and market and computer and library again, so we laid our plans and went back up into the mountains.

And so for ten years Chiu and I hunted transcendence, sometimes skillfully, most often clumsily. We couldn’t have put words to our quest, then. Our minds were crude and simple; we sought a feeling which we devoured with little contemplation.

Although I no longer climb, I'm starting to find the words: and when I smell snow, or stop on a street corner to feel the rasp of a granite building block against my fingers, I know better what we were after. Lightness, freedom, gravity, seriousness, awareness; the knowledge that we were extracting all we could from our brief and precious moment of consciousness.

Today there are other ways to achieve it; peering into the mysteries of dark, bubble-specked Arctic ice; feeling my paraglider inflate and draw me into the air; feeling the thrum of heavy rope through my neoprene glove as I drop into dark water; spending a moment with someone I love or a moment with the thought of someone I love as I sink heavily into an airliner seat when the jet surges up off the runway.

(c) 2007 Cameron McPherson Smith

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Going East

A poem about a trip last summer, written by someone dear to me.


(c) 2006 by cc

elk, wandering through amber waves of grain.
amber waves of grain.
bald, hay-harvested hills.
hawks. several. unsure of what type.
cow birds
morning doves
house finch
golden finch

quail (but no quail babies)
deer drinking from river.
deer grazing in meadow.
baby deer. full-on bambi, by side of highway.
rattlesnake (possible. sleeping.)
other lovely snake in middle of road. delight to watch it slide into
las vacas. siempre.
los caballos. !que guapos!

emma, the spazzy.
ellie, the insistant.
billie bob, the constant.

heron. blue. on deschutes.
sun-silver wings of unknown flock of birds, flying against shadow of

a prosperous spider on a sage bush.
many moths. one on buddha's eyebrow.

a desert sage called johnny.
a turn-of-the-centry trash heap.
baby cows on the side of the road to heaven.
lone trees on lone hills.
pony butte with ribbons of ash and algae skeletons.
horse heaven ghost town disneyland mine and the sinister trailer.
monocular detective work.
love and snacks on the gravel at the side of the road.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ice Ghost

I'm thrilled to say that my narrative of spending February 2007 on Alaska's north slope will appear as "Ghost on the Ice" in The Best Travel Writing 2008 (you can see the 2007 volume here). Some excerpts below:

Sometimes I crossed frozen lakes, the black ice, six feet thick and hard as bottle-glass, screeching under my crampon spikes. I often knelt to examine shapes that seemed to move beneath the surface. Through the thick, irregular lens of frozen water, spectral gray bubbles seemed to wobble if I moved my head from side to side, and I did this to keep them in their surreal, drunken motion. Some were big as balloons, others like marbles. Deeper forms were blury. In some places, multitudes of star-white points clustered like rising soda fizz. And there were isolated specks, lonely as interstellar dust. The surface of the space-black ice was often broken by inch-wide cracks that shot and jagged like lightening bolts hurled from the sky and caught int he ice. Most of the cracks were filled with snow and the broad gray slots dropping into the ice looked like curtains or guillotines. Occasionally the scenes would be obscured as a gust-driven swarm of sparkling grains slid across the ice.

One morning a stiff wind drove the temperature down to seventy degrees below zero. The wind rushed through my face, bypassing skin and muscle to directly attack the bone. It felt as though a screwdriver had been jammed between plates of bone in my skull and was prying them apart...

On my 20th morning in this frozen world the Earth rolled another fraction and the rind of the sun flowed up and over the horizon, a syrupy slash of bloody red and molten copper. Turning from the roiling blaze, I saw that the snowscape was now an irregular checkerboard of hues. A million wind-scalloped hollows brooded watery green, cold cups patterned regularly between batallions of small wavelets and whips of windblown snow that stood up a little, their peaks catching the light and glowing as if lit from within. The snow radiated a misty pink and the expanse of delicate shades leaping away from my boots in all directions seemed so bouyant that I imagined the entire tundra lifing slowly and gently floating away, an immense flying carpet. For a moment I forgot the cold and allowed myself to believe that I was in a magical place.

(c) 2007 Cameron McPherson Smith

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Moonlight Levitation

There is something extraordinarily primal about being lifted. When you are lifted bodily, you remember something. Tonight I took a paraglider wing to a park and pointed the inflation ports into the wind. The wing inflated and stood above me, towered twenty feet above me, striving upward; it pulled at me, straight up, lifting me off the ground. Drawing on the correct lines I dropped to the ground with a light bump. With a gust I was up again; the feeling of suspension from an array of lines was deeply familiar. I felt a great calm as something ancient in me whispered Yes, this is right.... When I looked up I saw stars racing past the leading edge; I was flying, just a few feet above the grass, but flying forward. Below my boots the grass was black and shining with moonlight.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Oregon Bluster and the Shrimp Army

I love Oregon; it's raining now, our 'Liquid Sunshine' streaming off waxy fir boughs, turning elm arms a slick black, wet wind blowing yellow-white leaves off the trees like snow, whirling in the wind until they slant down and stick to the pavement. Beautiful. The other day, with Greg Baker and Bill Cornett, I took a dozen students from Linfield out to Parrett Mountain to find a lost archaeological site. What can I say; 30mph wind, clouds blowing across the fields, so dark in the woods that we couldn't even do basic paperwork. For the first time in seven years, my GPS couldn't even acquire a single satellite; this was Oregon bluster at its finest. Picture above of my intrepid students :) And below, a sketch of the Shrimp Army, seen a few weeks ago on a night dive seventy feet below the surface of Puget Sound, Washington (click to enlarge).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sarcophagus on Skis

A feature on the sled-hut, which I called the 'sarcophagus on skis' in my Iceland expeditions (photo above is copyright 2004 by Halldor Kvaran). Below, an excerpt from my book manuscript (tentatively titled The Frost Giants), on what it was like to live in this contraption. This is an experiment written in second-person.

Life in a Telephone Booth

Flesh, bone, and mind tell you “That’s it,” and you take last step of the night. It’s been blowing a stiff 30mph all day from your right side and since you’ve stopped moving the chill of the ice cap leaps at your body. Slabs of skin on your face harden in the wind. Super-cooled wind pours into your hood like a pitcher of ice-water dumped down your shirt. The chilled air mass settles in your clothes and your sweat starts to freeze.

As you unbuckle from the harness, your fingers freeze and tighten. They’re like metal pincers worked by cables and pulleys. Your hands feel a thousand miles away by the time you’re out of the harness. It’s as if you’re looking at someone else’s mittens. It’s OK; you’re used to this. You’ve learned to set up camp entirely by grabbing things with the crudest grasps, or pinched between the heels of your hands…

You stand, pushing the sledhut lid hard upwards against the wind. The fabric walls suck in as you push up. Once the lid is as high as you shoulder, you rest it on your shoulder and struggle with the frozen door zipper. You use a combination of frozen claws, breathing on— and then licking— the plastic zipper pull. You get the zipper moving, once again, though you’re not sure how, because your goggles are frosted over and all you really see are wriggling blobs of muted color, not objects.

When the door is open, you thrust your head and shoulders inside, where there’s a glorious moment of peace, out of the wind. It’s pitch dark, but that doesn’t matter because your goggles have fogged on the inside, now. You’ve learned that you can’t do anything about it, so you blindly fumble for the two metal telescoping poles that keep the rear end of the sledhut lid up. They’re frozen tight from condensation last night, so you must brutally break the ice free, using your fists like hammers. The wind has been whopping the loose fabric walls like giant kettle-drums, but now you have them up and tight, and it’s a good feeling; the system is coming together.

You turn around, and sit down on the edge of the sledhut: torso inside, legs outside. You’re half-in and half-out of the sledhut, and the wind finds another way to make mischief, blowing snow into the doorway; you can hear it hissing around inside, feel it settling between your thighs on the sledhut floor…

Finally, you crawl inside for the night. You zip up the door. Your whole body shakes and your teeth chatter. You scrape at your goggles, but they’re too crusted and foggy, so you raise them a little, and you see the darkness in the sledhut filling with a dense white cloud of condensed breath. You know the headlamp won’t cut through this fog, and since your goggles keep a large part of your face warm, you lower them again and work blind for a while longer. You hope, every night, that something will change, but it’s always the same, and you have to work blind. A morbid chill is creeping up the flesh of your thighs, like you're being lowered into a pool of ice-water. It’s as if the ice cap is trying to get into the sledhut with you.
(c)2007 Cameron McPherson Smith

Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Yawk

I spent the last few days at the Explorers Club in New York City (46 W 70th), promoting a book, which means wearing a nametag that says 'Author Cameron M. Smith', drinking sparkling cider and wandering around signing books for the 200+ crowd with 20-odd other authors (or 20 other odd authors; as you please). Thanks to all who came! The Explorers Club is a crusty old place, five stories (well, I'm not sure, really; one floor plaque said 'Floor 5 1/2') of odd artifacts, fading framed pictures of polar explorers (one above), and heavily-carpeted, squeaky floorboards. I could imagine ghosts there, or a little old man in a forgotten cublicle, scribbling away on some impossible, endless Tome since 1909, a forgotten, little, immortal man, a kind of Burgess Meredith tucked away forever in the narrow spaces of the Explorers Club...You know, the grey little man who might smile mildly in a Twilight Zone episode and say 'Well, I suppose I have always been here. Yes...Do you know I can't say that I remember having ever been anywhere else? Isn't that odd?'. I'd like to write about this little man, but I don't know the first thing about fiction.

After this shindig I spent time wandering Central Park, or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was awesome in the most literal sense: awe-inspiring. I didn't get far from the Medieval, Greek, and Egyptian galleries. Didn't even get upstairs, not one floor up. That's OK, I'll be back. If you get the chance, the Met isn't to be missed!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Explorers Film School

On a recent diving trip my buddy and I were able to view our pictures, and even video footage(my impresions of the dive are here, and Todd's are here), within minutes of getting out of the water. Saving images and video to flash drives, and having them instantly available, is strange. I'm used to carefully planning out each shot of 35mm film, and biting my nails for a week or so--after returning to civilization--for the results; maybe a handful of saleable shots in one 36-frame roll, maybe only two. It's all changed, though, and I'm going digital. A professional photographer friend of mine, who owns and operates PhotographersDirect said it the other day: 'Film is dead.' RIP, film! I'll miss you. Speaking of expedition videography, here's a link to Andrew Miles' new Explorers Film School (it's in England); Andy has filmed in Antarctica, the Himalaya, under Arctic pack ice, in the Candian name it. He shot supplemental video of my 2000-2004 SoloIce expedition to Iceland for the film 'The Deadly Glacier' (National Geographic Television, 2005; sample here) and he's now opened his own expedition film school to train expeditioners in the basics of field photography and videography. Good luck with the new venture, Andy!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Another Dimension

This weekend of diving left me sloshing with the waves, whirling and surging upwards with the bubbles. I felt these as I drifted to sleep, but at 3am I woke with an overwhelming urge to move, to keep moving. I went out and ran three miles east, towards the edge of the Earth where the sun would rise, but I found no light out there. Finally I turned for home, knowing I'd been right to go; there was little logic to it, but I didn't care. I had to go, I still have to go. I have to keep going. There is another dimension to plunge into, to explore, and it is just over there, towards where the sun rises.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Plumose and Sunstar

Eight hours ago I surfaced from the waters of Hood Canal, Washington, with my dive partner, Todd Olson. In our dives, day and night, we saw an army of shrimp marching across an undulating, muddy, moonlike plain seventy feet down; a fat, happy ling cod gilling in the wreckage of an old fishing boat; a billion phosphorescent motes whirling in slow motion through a medium 800 times denser than air; a confused young wolf eel; waving and swaying plumose anemones, and prickly starfish. Unfortunately some of the plumose anemones were wilted, and some of the 'sunstars' (like starfish, but with more arms) were exposing tender, orange tissues, also indicating poor health. These are due to low dissolved oxygen levels, at least partly a result of sewage and other pollution being dumped into the water (you can learn about this phenomenon on this short YouTube video. Once again, humanity uses the oceans as a garbage dump. The good thing is that we're aware of it, and today the canal is being cleaned up; divers are encouraged to report signs of poor aquatic health as part of the Hood Canal Diver Observation Program. Above, a photo of a healthy plumose anemone, by Todd Olson. As Steve Irwin used to say, 'WOT A BEAUTY!' And below, a sketch of a kelp crab. I'm building a slate that I can use to draw undewater, something I've wanted to do for a long time.

Friday, November 2, 2007


Neither flying a ten-pound fabric wing, nor breathing air through a mouthpiece under dark water, are intuitive. Suspended by an array of lines from a flexing, surging airfoil, or dropping slowly into a strangely passive blackness, you have to focus and rethink what you can and cannot do, and what you may and may not do. Disaster can transform your bliss in a moment, in a single decision. If you're lucky, you'll have the opportunity to regret what you've done, to learn from your mistake. To survive, you have to adapt; to learn, to rethink yourself from basic principles. That requires stripping away ego, and that's not always easy, but if you don't do it, you're finished.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Mighty Sled-Hut

A little thing about the sled-hut; I'll be following this up, later this week, with an article on self-contained Arctic exploration sleds. For the moment, there's a video clip of the sledhut in use on my YouTube page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Below is an excerpt from my recent expedition narrative, "Escape from Darien", in "They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorers Club". I'll be in New York City on the 8th of November for the book launch, and to discuss my Iceland book with a publisher.

Escape from Darien

copyright 2007 by Cameron McPherson Smith

Another big Pacific swell came up fast and silent, moonlight flashing on its face. Hurrying east, it lifted and then dropped our sixty-foot raft with the smooth motions of an elevator. I caught my stomach and adjusted a steering plank. The glowing compass revolved slowly as the raft pointed back on course. I marveled at how quickly it responded, and in perfect measure.

But I didn't marvel for long. My mind was following the Eastward-driving swell, thinking on where it would end up. I knew exactly where it would end up, but I didn’t want to believe it. I knew that eight miles East the swell would rise and then curl and crash as luminescent foam on a dark, stony beach that cowered beneath thick jungle vegetation. I sensed the Darien out there, to my right, like the open jaws of a medieval Hell-Mouth.

Darien. I said it softly aloud. How many conquistadores’ tales ended there? How many human disasters had that monstrous jungle hosted, like a grinning spectre? How many old explorers’ tales of the Darien had I read throughout my life, and had the jungle – like an enormous net – finally drawn me in?

I took a breath and told myself that none of that mattered. All that mattered now was the wind. If it gave up completely our raft would follow that swell and run aground on that beach. There would be nobody to help us. Our sailing raft, a replica of a native vessel encountered by Spaniards in 1526, was built of logs, rope, and canvas. We had no engine. Our radio took an hour to set up, and contact was intermittent. We were half-way up a 200-mile stretch of primordial jungle that for five centuries had shrugged off every bloody club and every subtle wedge of civilization.

Manila rope creaked and clicked as the raft wallowed ahead. I looked up at the mainsail, a three-story high triangle of dirty canvas glowing yellow from a kerosene lamp. The sail fluttered, barely tugging us along. If the wind died we’d have just a few hours before the swells drove us aground. I imagined six men scrambling in the dark to get clear of a heaving raft that weighed almost as much as a Sherman tank. The breakers would destroy the little bamboo deck-house, containing our supplies and the radio. And then what?

As another swell swiftly elevated the raft I turned and looked back at the deck-house. There was no light and I turned back to stare at the compass.

For the full story, have a look at the book :) Or, if you're patient, I'll eventually post it here, in its entirety.

Life Raft=Bad

Four Things You Must Know if You Find Yourself in a Life Raft, by my buddy John F. Haslett. He's been there and he knows.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fish People

Holy Smoke! Israeli inventor and diver Alon Bodner has devised a SCUBA system that, rather than supplying the diver with a container of compressed breathing gas (air, or a mixture of gasses), separates air from water with a centrifuge! The upshot: divers' under-water time won't be limited by the amount of gas in thier breathing tanks. Revolutionary!


The 'watertight' casing on my digital wrist-top camera is, so far, watertight, but the buttons used to shoot and control modes are made of a very soft plastic that continually 'grabs' whatever you might bump into. One such bump ripped a small hole in the button seal, allowing in a few drops of water. The camera still works, but the LCD display now displays gibberish. I'm trying to repair the breach with silicone sealer (white button covered with clear goop, upper right on the pic above). Not sure if it'll work. I hope it lasts long enough to get some photos of my monofin. What's a monofin? Think of swimming like a dolphin...or that old TV show, 'The Man From Atlantis'. Photos soon! In the mean time, a forward inflation at Sauvies Island the other day. Video by Mo Morales (handheld) and my 'belly cam'. So very close to flight here...just a few knots of wind coming up the beach would allow some levitation...still, it's good practice.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


For me, scuba diving is about descent, darkness, cold...immersion in an environment completely alien to a terrestrial primate. You breathe air from a canister. On descent, you purge air from your vest to drop to the sea floor, thirty, fifty, seventy, ninety, a hundred feet down. You land with a gentle bump and the muffled crunch of sand under your neoprene boots. Check your guages: all's well. Explore. Finally you ascend, eyes on your guages again as you come back to the light, rising slowly and carefully as your body adjusts to the decreased pressure. Surfacing, cold water pours off your hood, disturbing the stars reflected in the black water. You are speechless. Above, a drawing of a recent night dive in Puget Sound, Washington.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ego Check

Am I really going to bite off another slab--another website, another activity? Yes. I fly now -- a paraglider. I swim now -- with SCUBA gear. I climb mountains, ski on the frozen Arctic Ocean, squirm through caves. Only in the last few generations have these experiences been available for the common person. A generation ago an Arctic expedition was something like a space shot, requiring a massive inter-agency effort and national support. Today I can fly to the frozen ocean for $1,000 and drag my sled loaded with a month of lightweight supplies. What does all this get us? It gets us closer to the natural worrld we feel so disconnected from-- and not in some virtual reconstruction, but right down on your knees in the snow, examining individual crystals. It strips away our defenses, forcing us to look within. It converts the priceless worlds of the Arctic in Winter -- or the sea floor, or the clouds, or a hundred other places -- from being the exclusive province of a few to places we can all understand and appreciate. Like a plant needs light, I need regular, real-world exposure to environments that check the human ego. Between those exposures, this blog will be my outlet, a place to post ideas, images, writings, and links in a free format. No editors, just one man's mind pouring out ideas generated by fresh air, cold water, stinging snow or springy moss. Is this exploration? I don't know, but I mean to find out.