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Mountain fever 

by Dan Egan


For climber and author Mark Kroese, the plan was simple. Find 50 of the best climbers on the planet and have each one choose their personal-favorite climb in North America. So, for the next 18 months he did just that. From Yosemite to Alaska, from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories, he interviewed and climbed with 50 elite mountaineers. The result is an ambitious new book: Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List. Kroese will be at Mountain Gear on Wednesday to present a slide show and discuss his new book.


When he was 19 years old, Kroese was inspired by Allen Steck and Steve Roper's seminal 1979 work, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The well-used book became his climbing bible. Twenty years later, he realized a second edition was overdue. Then, when he discovered that no one was working on the project, he decided to take it on himself.


"My whole concept was to pick up where they left off," says Kroese. "There's been a lot of great climbs put up since that book was published."


A lot has changed in the last 20 years, says Kroese. Interest in climbing continues to grow, and with more climbing walls available, the sport has taken off. "The collective body of knowledge is so great now in terms of routes and what is possible. It used to be when I climbed El Cap [Yosemite's El Capitan] it was a big deal just to climb it. Now it's 'How fast?' 'How light?' The bar has been raised."


The 40-year-old retired Microsoft executive says he wanted to write more than just a climbing guide book. "My whole goal was to focus on inspiration as much as information. I wanted to learn about the contemporary history of climbing in the last 20 years and give a window into the lives of the people who shaped that history."


He said if he's learned anything from writing this book it's that Yosemite and El Capitan remain the ultimate rock climbing destination. Eight of the climbs from the book are in Yosemite, "where you can have 3,000 feet of pretty modest climbing up the most striking, proudest line in a place where the weather is perfect, it's a half a mile from the road, is steeped in history, and in a beautiful setting. There's just not many places like that in the world."


If forced to choose a personal-favorite climb, says he would probably choose something from his home state. "Something in the Cascades. I'm from the area, and I've done a lot of cool things in the Cascades."


With all the changes in climbing technology, gear and attitudes, Kroese says one thing never changes: "The basic simplicity of what it means to go climbing is sort of a timeless thing."





Mark Kroese presents slides from Fifty Favorite Climbs at Mountain Gear, 2002 N. Division, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7 pm. Call: 325-9000.





The Running of the Steelhead


It's been a tough year for Northwest rivers. The combination of a yearlong drought and a California energy crisis has left them trickling along at record-low levels. But in a twist of bittersweet irony, area anglers are celebrating the largest steelhead run in the history of dam counts on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The Snake, Clearwater, Grand Ronde and Salmon are so full of these powerful sea-run rainbows that Oregon, Washington and Idaho have all boosted their catch limit this fall.


Generally, any steelhead run of more than 100,000 at Lower Granite Dam is considered exceptional. As of October 23, the count of steelhead at Lower Granite Dam, which is the last of eight dams before reaching Idaho, topped 218,000 fish. That number has already outpaced the previous record of 131,000 in 1989, and is nearly four times the 10-year average of 57,000 steelhead per year.


"This is the largest run we've seen since they've done systematic counting on the dams," says John Whalen, a biologist at Washington Department of Fish & amp; Wildlife (WDFW). However, he cautions that most of these steelhead are of hatchery origin and are not from the wild runs that came upriver before Bonneville Dam was built in 1938. "This is a rare thing," says Whalen. "And one good year does not constitute steelhead recovery."


Even though most of these steelhead are hatchery fish, Glen Mendell, WDFW district manager in Dayton, agrees that this is a steelhead run for the ages. "When people talk about the good old days, they'll talk about this run," says Mendell. "I'm not sure whether we'll see a run like this for a while. That's what I'm telling people, 'If you've never fished for steelhead, now's the time.' "


This run includes about 34,000 of the famed B-run steelhead. These are the larger -- 10- to 20-pound -- fish that arrive later and are destined for the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers.


Most biologists attribute the unprecedented number of returning steelhead to two forces of nature -- one occurring in the river, where massive spring runoff in 1997 and 1998 helped flush the juvenile fish safely down the Snake and Columbia Rivers, and the other at sea, where biologists recorded some of the most biologically productive ocean conditions in more than a decade. "The stars just kind of lined up," says Whalen. "Everything just came together for a great return, and now we're reaping the benefits of those conditions."


Also reaping the benefits are tackle shops and local guides like Stu Waters of Waters Edge Sporting Goods in Clarkston. "Our phone here, it rings off the hook," says Waters. "The guides here are getting inquires from all over the country. We have people coming from South Carolina, California, Texas, all wanting to catch these fish. I just had some Texas people in the shop. They just booked a trip today."


The word's gotten out. And where there are fish, there are fishermen. One only needs to drive down the steep grade of Highway 95 to realize you're entering Steelhead Central. It's an early Saturday morning in mid-October. A flotilla of a couple hundred boats are working the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, some trolling as many as five lines. On the banks, dozens of fishermen line the shore waiting for a prized steelie to take their shrimp-baited jig and bobber set-up. All achieve different levels of success. For rookie steelheaders, trying to catch one can be frustrating.


"Ninety percent of the fish are being caught by 10 percent of the fisherman," says Waters. "But, this year," he says, trying to sound more encouraging, "I've heard from the old-timers and the guides, that catching the limit will be the exception rather than the rule."


Upriver, where the Grande Ronde enters the Snake, a large parking lot is full. Nearly 50 RVs are parked, sardine-style. Some stay for up to a month. Technically, they're camping, but really it's just a place to sleep while they fish for steelhead by day. Finding a place to cast among the crowd can be difficult. On this day, the fishing is slow, with a lot of casting and not much catching. One shore fisherman catches a bright, almost metallic silver steelhead. It's about five pounds. The adipose fin is clipped, indicating it's not wild, so he whacks it on the head with a rock and tosses it on the bank to be cleaned later. Wild steelhead are protected under the Endangered Species Act and must be released if caught. "You shoulda been here Tuesday," says one older man named Wayne as he casts and retrieves a large spoon. "Everybody was catching them. I bet it was three hours per fish. Today, it's slow, about 10 to 12 hours a fish."


Mendell says at this time of year, steelhead are not interested in feeding. They're on a mission to migrate up stream. At peak migration, they travel about a mile and a half per hour, all day long and can be seen "porpoising," much like a dolphin at top speed. Enticing one to bite can be difficult, since usually they strike out of sheer aggression or territorial defense rather than hunger. Occasionally, however, they can't resist their universal instinct to feed. Fishing has been mixed so far, mainly because the water temperature has been slow to cool this year. But the recent cold weather should result in increased fish activity. Ideal water temperatures are between 50 and 55 degrees.


Because of low water levels, this year's run could be a short-lived bounty, say biologists. Snake River steelhead are expected to take a dive in 2003 when this year's juveniles return. For many, this may be as close as they get to fishing in Alaska, and now is the time to do it. As Wayne, the spinner fisherman, says, "This is your backyard, don't miss it."

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