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Best Local Outdoor Expert We Miss The Most - Nick Heil

Nick Heil is a legend around our office, partly because he was able to keep about five people on the phone at the same time (not a bad skill for a journalist), but mostly because he was part of this outfit since the very beginning, back in 1993.

So it was a sad day when he left us -- and newsprint -- for glossier pages and a high profile job as associate editor at Outside magazine in the fall of 1999. Nick wore many hats around the office during the six years he spent with us -- he wrote a lot and he edited a lot as our arts and culture editor -- but above and beyond anything else, he was our resident outdoor expert.

Snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, hiking and camping -- nothing outdoorsy was foreign to Heil -- and he liked to share tales of his backcountry expeditions with the rest of us -- coworkers and readers alike.

I guess it should come as no surprise then, that he's starting to make his mark at Outside, which featured his brainchild on the cover of its March edition: climbing the Ring of Fire, better known as the four major volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains.

"It was my own idea, somewhat generated from friends, you know, like an awesome glorified vacation," says Heil, on the phone from Outside's offices in Santa Fe, N.M. "This Ring of Fire thing is the best Northwest epic adventure to get attention in a national magazine, and it really is a novel trip for people from other areas of the country."

Nine dudes (another Nick-ism), all editors at Outside, went with him on the self-planned Cascade volcano climb. The grand scheme was to climb up and ski down four Northwest volcanoes in one week. Says Heil about facing the challenge: "I'd say anyone with moderate training and fitness level can do this. You know, but you may need a guide." Moderate fitness level? Super-hero powers is more like it.

"I was sort of the de facto group leader, but I and this other dude were the only ones with bona fide mountaineering experience," says Heil. "I don't mean to make it sound easy, it's a significant technical challenge, but once you get there, it's so incredibly rewarding and beautiful -- it's just awesome."

So off they went, heading up Mt. Rainier as the snow fell and the winds howled. Actually, the weather was so bad they lost two days on that mountain, and I guess, were all kind of shell shocked by the magnitude of not only Mt. Rainier, but also the violence of the winds.

After riding out the storm, then reaching the summit followed by a successful descent, they decided to skip Mt. Hood (not for lack of gumption, but for lack of time) and take on Mt. Adams instead. That done, their last climb was Mount St. Helens -- so they ended up doing 'only' three peaks in a week, instead of the planned four.

"Not too shabby," as he writes in the story. We're ready to agree, after all, they did scale more than 35,000 feet all told. The trip largely went without great disasters.

"It's wild. There are so many logistical things to pull together, and between getting the right gear and food and stuff, there are so many windows for trouble," says Heil. In his Outside article, he lists a couple of things the adventure group should have done, such as bringing along top-of-the-line expedition style tents -- the wind on Mt. Rainier nearly blew the three-season convertible tents they did bring to little pieces.

Blisters were also a problem for everyone in the group, mostly because they failed to break in their ski-mountaineering boots during the three months of training they put in. There's a gory shot of someone's deteriorating heel along with the Outside article.

"What do you do about blisters? Man, you just put a lot of gauze on them and pray they'll get better," says Heil with a hardened laugh.

I ask him how his time at The Inlander and in Spokane prepared him to take on adventures like this, and Heil laughs a little at the cheesy question. "I don't know, man. I got to live in the Northwest and see the mountains there -- people from other parts of the country just don't know about them. My time in the Northwest was very special," he says. "When you live in the Northwest, you just take all of this for granted. You have access to so many amazing things -- there is so much to do, if only people would get out and do it."

The most rewarding part of the Ring of Fire adventure came toward the end of the trip. "You can get skunked, you know, sit in a tent for days and days, but we had done it in great style," says Heil. "I enjoy the feeling when you are just done with the last big physical thing, and your body is still tingling with the effort, yet you're beginning to think of how to return back to your workaday life. You feel so expanded, and it's awesome -- it's very tangible."

You can read Nick Heil's entire article at www.outsidemag.com.

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