About C August Elliott

Anthropology/Climber person

A Bunch of Incorrect Things Politicians Have Said This Week

So Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister during the Howard years, has become a giant Twitter troll – and I mean this strictly in the pejorative sense of the term. I say this because while the entire world is mourning the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the corresponding implications for press freedom, Downer is spreading disinformation on the Internet masked as “questions”.

From the open source, the answer to both of these questions is “no” and “no” (or at least, “where’s the evidence before you start spouting this bullshit?”). This begs the question – what does Downer want to achieve with such trollery? For now it’s unclear – except that he appears to be going to bat for the Saudis.

Who knows if the stuff we put in our cars has anything to do with it (I don’t have any evidence to suggest it does) but to borrow from the former Foreign Minister’s conspiracy theory-mongering playbook for a moment: “is it true that Alexander Downer has close ties to the petroleum industry and is that also relevant?”

Downer’s ties to Woodside, after all, are currently being dredged up in the public discourse surrounding the Witness K sorry business.

Point is: without presenting actual evidence, asking such questions on the Twitter-machine is a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. Khashoggi, let’s remember, was just cut up into little bits and sent back to Saudi Arabia in diplomatic bags. Seems the era of #FakeNews is all-surrounding.

Elsewhere, Catherine McKenna, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change came up with this absolute ripper of an explanation for why the Stone Age came to a bronzy conclusion.

Let’s review the operative sentence again (then we can mock it): “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. We got smarter”.

Well no, Cathy. Actually, this is extremely incorrect. Cognitively speaking, there is little difference between the mental faculties of today’s homo sapiens and the anatomically-modern humans who lived in the Stone Age. Of course, there’s a good argument to be made that groups as wholes have improved their capacity to store and transmit information (see, for example, the Internet) but this does not mean that “we” have become “smarter” – certainly not the “we” in terms of us as individuals.

One thing you come to appreciate when you spend a bit of time in the wilderness is just how smart and resourceful our ancestors were – expanding out of Africa; spreading through a multitude of inhospitable climates; using language as a tool for co-ordination during hunting.

Moreover, with all the rubbish that modern sedentary humans now put into their bodies you also have to wonder if there might be some link between the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in America and, say, Trumpism.

No, the Stone Age did not end because we “got smarter”. It ended because of smelting. And since the collective detritus coughed up by industry is now having a good go at destroying the planet, one could reasonably argue that on a big enough time scale smelting was a bad idea.

There’s one important thing to reflect on when reading McKenna’s little quip about our supposed intellectual superiority over the peoples of the Neolithic. Scientists need to do a better job at out-communicating a few basic and persistent misconceptions about how evolution works. Making bronze did not make humans “smarter” or “better” in the sense of moving towards a utopian superlative. It was a specific adaptation to a niche – one which historically correlates with the development of year-round agriculture (which sedentarised us) and the rise of centralized government in the form of early proto-states (which, I’m sure we agree, has had varying effects on the human condition). A niche adaptation makes an organism “fitter” in the context of its immediate environmental surroundings but when that environment changes those same adaptations may actually reduce the organism’s fitness.

If a nuclear Holocaust does occur in my lifetime, the first thing I will do is log off this blog and set to the task of learning how to be a hunter-gatherer.

Key point to note: that famous “March of Progress” image you still see posted up on the walls of high school biology labs is fundamentally wrong. Evolution is not a process of linear advance.

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Elsewhere, Australia’s former Defence minister turned head of the Australian War Memorial is making a fool of himself again. Header for this video could read: “Dr Nelson: head of historical museum insists on putting himself on the wrong side of history”

Having said that, they are pretty tricky these “he said-17 others said” legal cases – so we’d all be well-advised to wait for the allegations to fully have their day in court.

But in the spirit of Downerism, I’ve just got one question for Dr Nelson: “Is it true that Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, is Chairman of the Australian War Memorial and is that also relevant? I’d like to know.

A More Serene Democracy

When walking the cobblestoned vias of the “Città”– the capital of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino  – you might think you were wandering through an experimental miniature of the perfect society.

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The streets are clean, the food is reasonably priced, the mountain air is fresh and the mood at the Palazzo Publico – the centre of national public life – is one of calm and quiet.

From the walkways of time-preserved castle ramparts to the leafy streets outside the citadel’s main walls, it is difficult to ignore the profound sense of tranquility that irradiates the world’s smallest land-based democracy and oldest extant republic.

Even the Guardia di Rocca – the Guards of the Rock who safekeep the seat of San Marino’s government in red-and-green double-breasted jackets – are all smiles as they act the part of props in the holiday snaps of visiting tourists. Freedom without fear. Security with cheer. All this in a country that has not been to war since the Lords of Urbino laid siege to it in the 15th century.

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The obvious question then to ask is why this is – and how can such “serenità” be imported into Australia’s increasingly toxic political climate?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that San Marino’s calm is simply an accident of history and geography – enclaved as it is as a happy little pebble inside the boot of the Italian peninsula.

All the same, a visit to this tiny country also offers a teachable moment in what makes a political system successful.

Founded by a saint as a communitarian geopolitically-neutral colony during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecutions, San Marino is today a “city on the hill” in the truest sense – a white-walled castle republic spilling down the sides of the picturesque Mount Titano.

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Aside from its defendable location, shrewd neutrality and ancient egalitarianism, San Marino also tends to a system of government called “diarchy” whereby the country’s main legislative body elects two Captains-Regent to serve as dual heads of state. Modeled off the consuls of Rome who co-ruled as a duumvirate, the Captains-Regent are rotated through every six months – the most recent being just a few weeks ago.

To Australians frustrated with the constant changes of leadership that have undermined recent Parliaments, it may seem anathema that stability can exist amidst such kinglessness.

Indeed, conventional wisdom has long had it that a recognizable face in office is tantamount to a steady hand. Australia’s perennial leadership changes have made it “the coup capital of the democratic world”, declared the BBC’s Nick Bryant. Who are we to label our neighbourhood the “arc of instability” – opined the Lowy Institute’s Shane McLeod – when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Ministerial persistence is 40% longer than Australia?

And yet, as the Sammarinese example shows, perhaps the regularity of leadership changes isn’t really the problem.

Instead of being an exercise in political blood-letting – a kind of ritualized kill-Caesar side-show as it is in Australia – this month’s transition of the Captains-Regent was orderly, mandated and polite – little more than a customary occasion that shied far away from international headlines.

By contrast, Australian changes of leadership are often discussed using violent imagery – the “spilling” of blood; incumbents as suicide bombers; “cycles of violence”; ruminations about who is Cassius and who is Brutus in the latest political subplot; cartoons depicting the sitting Parliament as a Game of Thrones-style “Red Wedding”.

Comparing this untidiness with what the Sammarinese do right, one logical conclusion is that Australia’s unstable politics is less the consequence of frequency of changes and more the correlation of two unfortunate variables – the lack of fixed terms for prime ministers and the obsessive cult of personality this engenders.

Until two weeks ago, San Marino’s Matteo Ciacci, aged 28, was the youngest serving state leader in the world. To most Sammarinese however, this factoid wasn’t remotely interesting because surely enough – as happens every six months – this particular Captain-Regent would soon be gone.

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Compare this with the amount of time Australians spend obsessing over the polling effects of Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth, Kevin Rudd’s managerial style, Julia Gillard’s gender and the religious preferences of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. In Australia, the personal oddities and ideological quirks of the incumbent prime minister do matter because – well – technically he or she could stay in office for life. So the media, either feeding or responding to popular interest, deifies the personalities.

Even so, because of cabinet collective responsibility, the real power of a Westminster system’s prime minister is technically denuded – more now today where a toxic combo of salacious media reporting and actual palace intrigue has any Australian Prime Minister constantly looking over his or her shoulder.

But if there is any instability in the system it is not because the office of the Prime Minister is too weak or that leadership changes occur too often, it is because, in the absence of fixed terms, the public and the party are utterly obsessed with the question of who is occupying the seat at the head of the table (and who is ready-set to unseat them).

If the polls are anything to go by (and of course, recent history shows that they perhaps aren’t to be trusted) then Scott Morrison’s Liberals have scored enough own goals to all but guarantee their own immolation at this coming election.

In all likelihood, Australia will shortly experience another change in government – a new occupant in The Lodge. Inevitably, when (and if) Mr Shorten does take office, new rumours will begin to surface about the next intrigue – all of it to the detriment of the smooth efficiency of government.

This state of affairs being what it is then, perhaps the best course of action is to permanently enshrine regular changes of leadership into Australia’s system of government, just as San Marino has.

The Sammarinese model shows that timely and constitutionally-mandated changes of leadership do two things: 1.) ensure that power cannot be concentrated into the hands of any single individual and 2.) redirects the limelight away from the eccentricities of the incumbent and onto the order of the day.

Those are both healthy outcomes.

In peace-loving San Marino, the good life flows as the sun sets in tangerine tints over the Apennines.

Why not have the same in Australia?

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License plate #: “RSM01” and “RSM02”

Procrastination = Meme Creation

I made a meme (am also reading about them again).

Would also maintain that this is the best meme format on the Interwebs. Why?

Because it’s a perfect demonstration of the Socratic method and the importance of dialectical critical thinking. Has good applications for discussions about ethics – including ethical debates outside the silo of working anthropologists.

Maybe now I’ll actually make headway on that paper and that book review and those two half-finished op-eds, not to mention that 100,000 word dissertation.

#PhDLife

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Footnote: replace “then” with “than” in the second pane. Still haven’t mastered that one…

A Final Word on Chelsea Manning

The Australian government’s rejection of Chelsea Manning’s visa application on a character grounds basis has triggered a furious public debate over the rightness of the decision.

Framed by some as a test of Australia’s democratic ideals – namely, the right of whistleblowers to be heard without fear of retaliation – it appears that many of her local supporters, including Greens leader Richard di Natale, are unphased by the former intelligence analyst’s previous criminal convictions. On this however, Manning’s defenders would do well to reconsider their position.

Indeed, far from a courageous and discriminating act of whistleblowing, Manning’s decision to illegally transmit hundreds of thousands of sensitive files which contained among other things, the identities of local Afghan informants and the social security numbers of American troops – was, plainly, simply, an act of espionage.

This is not to say, of course, that none of the material leaked by Manning and subsequently published by Wikileaks between April 5, 2010 and April 25, 2011 was in the public interest. A selection of it certainly was.

To argue, for example, that the infamous “Collateral Murder” video – which showed the air-to-ground obliteration of Reuters journalists by a pair of US Apache helicopters – was not a right-to-know news item requires absurd levels of devotion to government secrecy.

Similar caveats also apply to the documents which specifically detailed the March 2007 Shinwar shooting (in which US Marines killed more than nineteen innocent motorists during a “frenzied” highway rampage); the August 2007 Nangar Khel incident (when Polish troops mortared a woman, her baby and others as part of a revenge attack); and the March 2007 shooting of a deaf, mute Afghan man by a band of CIA paramilitaries in the remote mountainous hamlet of Malekshay.

The above stories were indisputably newsworthy and as such, they were picked up and selectively re-reported by serious journalists at The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

What Manning’s unilateral, unexpurgated data-dump of 734,119 US embassy cables and military patrol reports did however was deprive the public of a human frame of referent with which to digest unfiltered information. In other words, by drowning the truly pressing news items in assorted bytes of procedural government bureaucracy she all but ensured that the story of the mother and her child at Nangar Khel would be buried by The Pentagon’s legitimate complaints that rightfully “sensitive items” had been revealed in the documents.

Of course, the security of the US military’s Afghan and Iraqi sources was never a subject of importance for either Manning or Julian Assange. And given what we now know about Wikileaks’ alleged ties to Russia, it may even be fair to characterize the leaks as an act of information warfare against the United States and its allies.

According to David Leigh, an investigative journalist at The Guardian, during a heated internal debate over whether the names of Afghan civilians would be redacted upon publication, Assange reportedly said “well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” An effective acknowledgement of a premeditated intent to harm the American mission.

Manning on the other hand – as the prosecution would successfully demonstrate in court – had become essentially (or at least functionally) indifferent to the value of classification even if her motives were not so palpably nefarious. Source protection, it’s fair to say, was never a priority.

Manning and Assange’s general apathy to the real-life repercussions of unredacted reportage is what distinguishes their leaks from, say, the reporting done by journalists at Fairfax and the ABC during the recent coverage of allegations related to Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

While Manning’s actions were, as the judge presiding over her trial described it “wanton and reckless”, the manner by which the alleged criminal malfeasance of Australian troops was most recently brought into the public eye was measured, cerebral and noteworthy.

No “raw data” – just careful fact-checking. No unredacted patrol reports – just document briefs, key passages quoted and highlighted, without carbon-copy facsimiles. No names attached where identities and reputations might be unjustly and gratuitously at risk – just the testimony of tried-and-true whistleblowers reporting what they saw. By comparison, and at a fundamental ethical level, Manning’s decision-making failed to pass muster.

Having said that, there is still some merit to having this debate.

Some, such as the Lowy Institute’s Lieutenant Colonel Greg Colton have persuasively argued that Manning’s attempted entry to Australia is a free speech issue – a test of the government’s willingness to hear things it doesn’t like from someone who has already served a commuted sentence.

Certainly, most would probably agree that ruthless fealty to the principle of free speech – including the right to speak truth to power – is a sign of a well-functioning democracy. So it’s a point worth considering.

But speaking freely, as we have surely come to realize in an age where violence and vitriol is begat upon the political pulpit, also comes with certain responsibilities. And even from a free speech perspective, Manning has historically demonstrated that she is not a responsible citizen of the world.

In purporting to exercise what her defence tried and failed to frame as “her First Amendment rights” at trial, Manning transmitted troves of protected information which compromised the security of many unwitting people – from Zimbabwe to China. Speaking freely yes, but also speaking in an utterly irresponsible manner, with catastrophic consequences.

Some of these consequences – such as, for example, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s pledge to investigate and “punish” the Afghan informants named in leaked US intelligence reports – may have been unintended. But these consequences should also have been anticipated.

Why would Australians award somebody who evinces such criminal lack of judgement the privilege of entering their country?

A Recent Tweet from the International Committee of the Red Cross

… with which I have a particular affinity.

It is, indeed, quite simple.

 

Update: Make that two awesomely-put Tweets by the ICRC.

Also, this guy Chad (well-named) on CBC News said some pretty awesome things about the ongoing spat between Chrystia Freeland’s social media team and the Kingdom currently run by the House of Saud. Listen from 28:44. Amazing!

Response to Dr. Baker’s UNSW Opinion Piece

An unusually-acerbic opinion piece was recently published by the University of New South Wales’ Newsroom. Therein, the author, Dr. Deane Peter-Baker, an ADFA academic, took issue with my most recent Fairfax op-ed on the conduct of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

Although worth reading, many of the arguments, including the nigh-on verbatim passage about alleged paedophiles and their tarnished reputations, appear to have been recycled from an earlier op-ed written by Dr. Baker last year.

(Sidenote: it was me who suggested to Small Wars Journal’s Dave Dilegge that Dr. Baker’s first op-ed might be published on SWJ because it was the best public rebuttal to the original ABC op-ed I had earlier written on the topic).

Additionally (and sadly), there are also a number of demonstrable falsehoods in Dr. Baker’s latest rebuttal – most of them related to what was actually written in my Fairfax piece. Some of his gymnastic re-renderings of my arguments are, to use his phraseology, “frankly laughable”.

As such, while I readily encourage robust debate, I would also invite Dr. Baker to carry out a more careful examination of the text when crafting his next rebuttal to whatever it is that I write. This might help him avoid any future misinterpretations and/or misrepresentations of what is actually being said.

Of course, it is partly-true, as Dr. Baker was quick to point out last year, that I am but a “blogger turned ABC analyst [Correction: I’m a freelancer]”. And who is a mere blogger, after all, to have an opinion about anything?

Even so, it would be nice if those who choose to dive into my works would dive in proper and read all the sentences in all their completeness.

So. In full, and as kindly published by the UNSW Newsroom after I raised the factual inaccuracies with them, here is my response to Dr. Baker:

 

RESPONSE FROM C. AUGUST ELLIOTT

I would like to re-state my position to avoid misrepresentation. Dr Baker suggests I have been “throwing around the ‘war criminal’ label willy nilly”. This is not true. None of my writing has used the term “war criminal” to describe any member of the Special Operations Task Group. I used the term “illegal violence” (which comes from the Crompvoets Report) when referring to special forces allegations and used “war crimes” only in relation to historic case studies of Mỹ Lai and Srebenica. Dr Baker also says that I was “quick to condemn not just a whole Regiment but the entire 3000-strong Special Operations Command and all those who have served in it since 2001” for alleged misconduct in Afghanistan. The Herald article to which Dr Baker refers used phrases such as “some soldiers”, “certain charismatic corporals” and “insidious sects within special forces” (emphasis added) to ensure my critique specifically did not apply a broad brush to all within the organisation. Some members of the command are now blowing the whistle on alleged wrongdoing. They are witnesses, not suspects, and their claims should be heard out in full.

 

All Along the Watchtower

Carl and I had been getting about a bit. Chief laps, cragging, a new variation on the East Face of the South Nesakwatch Spire. It was time for something big.

With leave secured, we weighed our options. The Waddington? Nah. Princess Louisa Inlet?  Nah. Washington Pass? Nah. The Chehalis Range? Perhaps. Something on the North Face of Viennese? Maybe. Let’s pack anyway.

The heatwave rolled through and The Chehalis – with its solar-drenched walls and snowless ridge lines – was out. We rallied for a backup. Options were slimming.

Something further east at the very least, beyond the worst of the millibars.

Yep. Plenty of unclimbed rock on The Deacon, I think.

Primed, watered, fed, we galloped out of town.

In Keremeos, the mercury read thirty-eight degrees and the Cathedral Range was on fire. With the daylong approach, our water source unknown and the possibility of an unplanned self-rescue across the border into the US, the plan seemed uninviting.

There must be some kind of way out of here.

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The Purcell range – the Bugaboos – were a surer, if a further, bet. Higher elevation, cooler climes. A known known, if not The Unknown we were looking for. They would have to do. And besides. I had plans with Splawinski to try the North Howser Tower the following week. The Pole was flying out from Thunder Bay especially. Why not get the rope and rack up to base camp?

Time to dust off the ticklists of yesteryear, Carl.

We angled north to Golden. By midnight we were at the trailhead. Atop the Applebee Dome, by three. Tent laid and in bed, by four.

Morning came and we woke to the usual Applebee scenes. Snowpatch Spire. The eponymous Bugaboo. The Crescent Towers, Eastpost. The Hound’s Tooth – the dog’s denture adrift in a crevassed minefield.

Later, after coffee, we packed and rallied. The late night on our feet had meant a just-as-late start. Nevertheless, we trotted off to do something. A forgotten rope realized halfway up the col confirmed our brains needed rest. It made more sense to chill, to brew the afternoon away. Do something big tomorrow. We returned.

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Applebee was full of “jokers and thieves”. Calgarians and Canmorons. Euros and would-be Beckey-Chouinarders. Voracious marmots with food-raiding predelictions.

We’d brought folding camping chairs and we made of them our thrones. Talked of plans. Sprayed and pre-sprayed our way into a self-constructed corner. Half-dolefully re-packed for the next day when we realized what we had done.

Sunset, darkness, first light. We set out for the North Buttress of Snowpatch. Sunshine Crack. “The best rock climb in North America,” I’d heard it called. It climbed well, especially the headwall – a sixty metre arcing whip-crack of fist-jams and finger locks.

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Satisfied, we returned to Applebee to resume our thrones. To hold court with friends in the dimming light. Come the morning, Kyle and Nina were headed up the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo with plans to climb it fast.

“We’re gonna leave early,” said Kyle. Six a.m was early round here, apparently. It makes sense in a way. If you’re in the alpine already, any start of any kind is an “alpine start” after all.

Rosy-fingered dawn came and went. In the end, we were away by seven. Carl dropped an axe early on-route. Rookie move but it wasn’t worth whining about. It was my tool but complaints to management wouldn’t have much effect on the customer’s situation. I was sure we could figure out a way to get down the col on the other side.

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The climbing on the Ridge went well. Simul-climbed everything, passed everyone, gave a nod to the long-dead Conrad Kain as we moved au cheval across dead-if-you-fell knife-edge traverses. Guiding clients up here on the first ascent in 1916 with hemp ropes and hobnailed boots was no trivial feat.

The descent went smoothly enough though the col was too crowded.

Too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

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The Applebee spray resumed and we hiked out the next day, a low pressure system inbound.

Carl was off to his cabin in the Cariboo and I was off to the shops to replace some ailing kit. The credit card came out and I didn’t much care to keep track. If Splawinski and I were truly going to go try The Watchtower on the North Howser then I didn’t want gear to be the precluding factor. What happened at the checkout seemed immaterial compared with the cost of a failed belay loop.

Business men, they drink my winePlowman dig my earth.

Leaving the city once more, I returned hillward. The fresh green fields of Chilliwack. The stochastic landslid layers of Hope. The lakes and lights of Kelowna – West and K-Town proper. University students and beach-going revellers. Fast boats, faster undergrads and the fastest time between shotglass and hospital visit this far east of Whistler. Downtown Kelowna – especially its darker shades – looked about the same as usual. The sad, the tragic, the meth-addled – stuck down here in the valleys of the world.

None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word.

I fetched Splawinski from his family home in Coldstream.

Hey, hey – no reason to get excited.

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But we fucking were. Couldn’t help but be. Headed in as we was to climb All Along the Watchtower on the goddamn North Howser Tower. Twelve hundred metres of Bugaboo granite. An El Cap-sized feature in the middle of nowhere. Everybody whose anybody’s dream route. Big, cold, committing, rad. Some kind of excruciation probably mandatory. A true fête de souffrance awaited.

By mid-next-morning we were back in Applebee, packing for the following day. The weather forecast was perfect. Obscenely good. Unfair to the mountain, almost.

The thief he kindly spoke: “there are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke”.

As the sun slipped behind the summit of Bugaboo, Splawinski was fretting some. His life of late had been clinics and patients – the first year of a Thunder Bay medical residency. He’d been away from the rocks and the mountains for a bit so his questions were natural. Had we done enough prep? Had we adequately studied the topo? Not an invalid concern, though the double negatives were better put aside for now.

Sure, I hadn’t yet replenished all the carbs I’d burned the week previous, but I felt relaxed, well-exercised – comfortable at least with the current, hyper-local conditions in the range. Everything looked like it was good to go.

We talked strategy.

Leave camp at 2am – two men with their thirty litre backpacks. Cross the col. Surge over to East Creek. Rap into the North Howser cirque. En route at 9. One bivy. Hopefully find snow to boil somewhere on the ridge. Tag the summit. Off the next day or soon after.

Eight packets of energy chews, two protein bars. Silk liners for sleeping bags. We’d carry four litres of water as a contingency in case there was nothing to melt. Pretty damn super-alpine style. But were our margins too fine? What if we didn’t find any snow at all? Even on the summit? It was possible – and a potentially shitty, though survivable, eventuality.

But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late, hey
We slept, woke and moved. East Creek was a hive of waking bodies when we swept through at six – a veritable tent city with generators and Arctery’x™ athletes™.
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Watchtower
Atop the North Howser cirque, we found the anchors with which to thread our ropes. Rappelled, Rapunzel-like. Pulled the cords. Traversed steep snow to the base of the route. Committed to the monster.
Splawinski took off quickly, running the rope out long. I followed well enough. Challenging route-finding in the lower third led to a ledge. A brief rest and a gel and a moment to warm the feet in the sun. Splawinski took off again.
An offwidth – grunty with a backpack – then a boulder problem – not the best gear, bad fall if you whipped – before I led through on a long, disturbingly good hand crack. After, as the grade began to dip, we simuled till I ran out of gear.
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The day lumbered on and so did we, a pair of colour-coded vagabonds lost in the sky-vault vert. Halfway up, the route cut left and we could see The Watchtower – with its legendary corner system – above us. A looming grey keep, cantilevered at the top of the dihedral. The colour and texture of weather-worn alabaster.
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We continued. Then, an impasse. Splawinski had run out of road. The top of a crack. Above, a runout slab. To the left, an arête – crack-riven on the underside. Unlikely but maybe-probably-has-to-be climbable.
Reluctantly, I racked up and swung into the lead. A brass nut in a seam protected the belay and a splits manoeuvre brought me to the arête. Reaching round the buttress-blade, I fondled at something and committed. Up, above and over the rock protected poorly but there was no means or desire to down climb.
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Face-climbing edges and a traverse led to a bulging crack – perfect hands. Better protection came with better climbing.
A corner, which Splawinski took while my nerves recalibrated, led to the bivy ledge.
Half a metre wide and utterly wind-exposed. We settled in for the night – hot water warming our bellies before the evening delirium.
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Morning followed a typically-bad sleep and we brewed some more water, slurping through our supplies in the dawn-lit sky. The wind picked up and I led away. Slovenly grovelling up a chimney, my energy levels not what they were the day before. The shiver-bivy had sapped us. A more-than-real possibility that we were’t yet ready to accept.
Leading into and up the initial corner, I climbed to a stance and slumped. The pitches above looked hard. Finger-width cracks in a dead-vertical, perfectly-symmetrical, perspective-distorting dihedral. Forever.
Splawinski arrived at the belay, looking warmed up. I baulked. Something was wrong with my starter motor today.
Caloric deficit from my ramblings with Carl? Or was I under-slept and unrecovered? Or had I been pulling too many all-nighters for work. Cumulative effects. Or was I just making excuses for a lacklustre half-finished lead block.

Either way I felt burned out – frazzled, toast, pork crackle – my brain the hot mess of an old tire left blazing on an Outback asphalt road.

Valiantly, Splawinski took the reins. Indolent and in the back seat, I generously paid out slack and wondered when it would end. The corner continued. Forever. Amazing, other-worldly touching-down-once-in-the-entire-universe climbing, but forever is still forever and we still had a-ways to go.

All along the watchtower.

 

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The dihedral jogged left. The crux.

My lead. A free-for-few, aid-to-most undercling traverse pitch. Hanging plates of granite, riddled with offset pinscars. Zero feet, hence the aiding. With most of the big wall experience between us, it made sense for me to lead it. My amygdala functional but still a mess, I set out across the roof, flake-to-flake, with bounce-tested gear. Offset cams and funky wires – here and there old tat to clip. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

 

 

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I arrived and belayed then the Pole arrived and led through, whipping off in the final hard moves before the ledge. We reached the crest of the North Ridge in style. Rested. Shook hands – though we both knew there was plenty still ahead.

A ducking, weaving serpent of a ridge, in fact. We bivied in the early evening. Home for the night? A snowpatch-plugged wind-protected nook, with a view of the South Howser before us. Golden light on the Becky-Chouinard. The silhouettes of sundry summiteers rapping down the other side.

Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too

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The second bivy – though technically unplanned – was warmer, stiller, more hydrational. With flecks of granite dust in the meltwater, the Pole theorized we’d also claw back some  precious minerals. Doctor’s advice.

Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did howl.

Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.

Morning returned and so did morale. Summit-bound were we.

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We reached it swiftly and sat for long, warming our toes in the morning sun.

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In the distance, below us, layers of fresh smoke backlit by the rolling ridges. Above, an apocalyptic mushroom cloud – spewing forth from a wildfire in the Kootenays – hanging like a burning bauble over all.

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Hendrix played. Figuratively.

Nice one, Jimi.

The descent would be horrible, what with stuck ropes and double-crested bergschrunds to survive. But dammit, Donahue and Harvey were right about this climb. The wildcat did howl, indeed.

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Summary of Statistics:

Sunshine Crack (5.11-, 400m), North Buttress of Snowpatch Spire, Purcell Range, BC

Northeast Ridge (5.8, 1000m), Bugaboo Spire, Purcell Range, BC

All Along the Watchtower (5.11+ A2, 1200m), North Howser Tower, Purcell Range, BC