Sunday, 30 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 7 - McKinley Denali

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

There’s one last summit for Cason Crane to conquer before he can claim to have climbed the Seven Summits – Mount McKinley in Alaska. The local name for it is Denali, but for most of the world the name McKinley is more familiar. Which is why I’ve using the name McKinley Denali thoughout this week.

Cason had attempted to climb McKinley Denali in 2011. This attempt was unsuccessful due to weather conditions, so as Cason makes his second attempt at this very moment, here is the story of what happened last time.

The first few days at Base Camp were spent in skills training. The mountain is surrounded by glaciers, so climbers need to know how to keep safe if they slip on the ice. Cason’s group would all be roped together for the climb, not something that has happened on Cason’s previous climbs. The group was more varied in both age range and nationality. One member was someone even rarer than an openly gay mountaineer – an openly lesbian mountaineer.

Silvia Vasquez Lavado is a Peruvian-born climber who lives with her wife Elayne in California. Silvia spent time at Everest Base Camp in 2005 but didn’t attempt a climb there. Since then she too has decided to climb the Seven Summits. Most of her climbs have been for charities she has co-founded. These range from helping women and children in the Congo to supporting local communities in the Peruvian Andes. Silvia had already climbed Kilimanjaro and Elbrus. A team from her Congo charity were on Everest at the same time as Cason just over a month ago. However, Silvia herself was not part of the team. Her mother passed away shortly before the team left for the Himalayas. The team did reach the summit on 21st May, the day after Cason’s team. I hope one day that Silvia will eventually climb Everest and become the first openly lesbian climber to complete the Seven Summits challenge.

Back to MacKinley Denali. After the group had got acquainted with each other and spent several days training they moved up to Camp I. All seemed to be going well until Day 7 after they reached Camp 2. The weather took a turn for the worse and they were stuck at camp for 3 days. By Day 11 they had managed to reach Camp III.

This was where Cason had his first real encounter with homophobia on all his expeditions. Also at Camp III were a group of disabled climbers from the Wounded warriors charity. They had been forced to abandon their own summit attempt because of bad weather. Cason was very excited about meeting them, but it was when he placed his Rainbow Pride flag on his tent that Cason received homophobic comments from the Wounded Warriors. We’ve got used to some military personnel questioning the presence of gay soldiers, but here the heroes stained their reputation. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand why a gay man should choose to be a mountaineer. Cason could have said exactly the same about disabled mountaineers, but he didn’t. He attributed their abusive behaviour to their disappointment at not reaching the summit. But disappointment or not, it can’t excuse homophobia – disability or no disability. After all, the whole point behind Cason’s Rainbow Summits project is to put a stop to this kind of thing. Any school bully could use disappointment as an excuse, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

As Cason’s team headed up to Camp IV they got news of more bad weather on the way, and after 3 days of waiting for the weather to abate the group decided to abandon their summit attempt.

They made their way back down the mountain in howling winds and near blizzard conditions. Arriving safely at Camp III Cason was given the opportunity to join another team who were on heir way up in the following days. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t improve. Thick snow and high winds continued for several more days and the risk of avalanches from the new snowfall was too high to continue. The weather was so bad that the team got lost on the way down to Camp I. Thankfully, they used GPS to find their way back to base.

“I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t upset about not summiting Denali,” said Cason on his blog. “That said, I am very proud of myself for giving it my all.”

And here we are, ten months later, and Cason is back on McKinley Denali aiming to reach the top and complete his Rainbow Summits Project. Has he made it? After a rest day yesterday the team are going to make the final push today.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 6 - Everest

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Arriving in the Himalayas at the beginning of April this year Cason had to go through several weeks of extra training and acclimatisation before he could begin his assault on Mount Everest.

Climbing mountains isn’t always a case of leaving Base Camp in the morning and reaching the summit the same day. With a mountain as high as Everest it takes several days or weeks going one stage ahead and back again so that climbers can acclimatise and get used to breathing less oxygen, though oxygen masks are used in the final assault. These treks up and down help to get equipment and supplies higher up the mountain so climbers don’t have to carry everything with them all the way.

The route Cason climbed was the southern route along the South Col. After a couple of training days he made the first step up Everest by climbing the Khumbu icefall, a mass of solid blocks of ice from the Khumbu glacier that have frozen together. The icefall is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the route up to the South Col. Cason would have to encounter the Khumbu icefall several times as he climbs up and down before the final assault on the summit.

At the beginning of May Cason had moved up to Camp II situated on Mount Lhotse, 21,300 feet above sea level. After a couple of rest days back at Base Camp he was back over the Khumbu icefall for the third time. The aim was to go three steps forward and one back, reaching Camp III then returning for the night to Camp II.

In the morning bad news reached the camp, as one of the experienced sherpas at Camp III had died just before his group were about to descend to Camp II. It highlighted just how dangerous an Everest climb can be even for the most experienced climber.

The sherpa’s death was the latest in a long line of tragic losses on the mountain. One of the most well-known is the failed attempt to reach the summit in 1924. The whole expedition still provides lots of unanswered questions, the most important being “was George Mallory on his way down from the summit when he died, or on his way up?” Mallory’s body was missing for decades and was finally discovered in 1999. Recent biographies have also raised the question of his sexuality. True, he had some form of brief relationship with James Strachey when they were at Cambridge, and Mallory knew most of the predominantly gay Bloomsbury Set. Apart from that there’s not really any evidence to indicate he had any other gay feelings after Cambridge. What we do know is that he had a great appreciation of the naked male form, almost homoerotic in nature, often showing off his own muscular physique for painters and photographers.

Cason Crane and the team of 15 climbers had several rest days to ponder on the deaths of the sherpa before their own summit attempt. On 20th May they made their way up to Camp IV on the South Col. This is a mountain pass at the southeastern side of Everest from which the final ascent is made.

The South Col was first reached in 1952 by a Swiss expedition. They failed to reach the summit, but the next year the Hilary-Tenzing team succeeded. The first of the team to reach South Col was Wilfrid Noyce. There are many lists of lgbt people which include both Wilfrid Noyce and George Mallory. The latter, as I’ve just mentioned, probably wasn’t gay. But Wilfrid Noyce probably was. Noyce’s own death in 1962 echoes that of Mallory – they both died on climbing expeditions. In his early 20s Wilfrid was a regular climbing companion of John Menlove Edwards, who was gay.

At Camp IV on the South Col Cason’s expedition had their instruction in the use of oxygen equipment and prepared for the final assault in very high winds. As the blog of the expedition said “… suddenly the reality of climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest was made real, and even a little intimidating.”

Cason finally stood on the roof of the world on 20th May 2013, almost 60 years to the day after Hilary and Tenzing made the first successful climb on 29th May 1953 (near enough for me!). And as if to highlight the significance of this, Cason’s personal sherpa was called – Sherpa Tenzing!

Mount Everest would have provided a fitting end to Cason’s Rainbow Summits Project had it not been for that bit of unfinished business on Mount McKinley Denali in Alaska.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 5 - Vinson Massif

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

It’s fairly safe to say that no-one had climbed Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, before 18th December 1966 when a group of American climbers became the first to reach the summit. In fact, no-one had ever seen it until 1958, and the highest peak wasn’t even named officially until seven years ago. Consequently,  Vinson is the newest of the Seven Summits, in that is the only one of the seven not known to ancient cultures.

Mount Vinson, or Vinson Massif,  lies in the Sentinel mountain range and comprises of several high peaks. In 2006 the highest of these was named Mount Vinson, named after a US Congressman who was a major supporter of Antarctic research. The other peaks were named after members of the 1966 expedition.

Cason Crane arrived on Antarctica from Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile. There were a couple of familiar faces who joined him on this expedition – a young British climber who was part of the Carstenz climb, and a guide who led the Aconcagua climb. Before leaving Chile Cason celebrated his 20th birthday on 2nd December 2012.

Even being the height of summer in the southern hemisphere Vinson is still the coldest of the Seven Summits. Being in permanent sunshine for several months doesn’t stop temperatures getting below -30 centigrade.

The attempt to reach the summit of Vinson started on 11th December. The weather was perfect with clear skies. At about half-way to the summit one of the team began to show signs of hypothermia. For the sake of his health the whole group decided to return to base. Was this going to be the second unsuccessful summit attempt for Cason after the disappointment of McKinley Denali? Fortunately, no.

The following day the group set off again. The weather was no worse that the day before, and the team member who was ill was well enough to join them. Ensuring that this team member was properly stocked up n food and drink to help keep his body fuelled up (his illness the previous day was probably because it wasn’t) the group made their way slowly up the mountain.

The group finally reached the summit. They celebrated and rested briefly, and Cason unfurled his Rainbow Pride flag. This was the farthest south the flag had even been flown, none had been flown this near to the South Pole (unless research discovers otherwise, of course). So even before completing his challenge to be the first openly gay man to climb all Seven Summits, Cason had gone into the record books.

With five of the Seven Summits now successfully climbed Cason was entering the last stages of his project. The next climb would be the most difficult and the most high-profile – the climb to the top of Mount Everest. It wasn’t until Cason reached Everest that the mainstream media began to take real notice of his achievements. The lgbt media had been following his progress from day one, but the mystique and majesty of Everest turns every climber with a cause into a news story. It was Cason’s unique cause and, dare I say it, his sexuality that turned him into a global celebrity as much as did his age and achievements.

By this time, the early part of this year, Cason’s project was getting more international notice. It meant more interviews, more talks, and more fundraising, but all the time focussing on the great challenge ahead.

For the first part of the challenge, up to Everest Base Camp, Cason was joined again by Isabella his mother. Arriving in Nepal at the beginning of April the pair prepared for their time on the world’s most famous mountain.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 4 - Kosciusko and Carstenz (2 for the price of 1)

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

I know it says Kosciusko and Castenz in the title of this article but Cason’s 4th summit attempt was actually on Mount McKinley Denali in Alaska. Preparing for the climb Cason was in good spirits, but the expedition was overshadowed by the deaths of 4 Japanese climbers on McKinley Denali in an avalanche on 15th June 2011, the day before he set off for the mountain. The weather was not good. Cason and his tam managed to reach High Camp but were held back from reaching the summit by the snow storms and winds.

Undoubtedly disappointed at not reaching McKinley Denali’s summit Cason was determined to return a year later so he could complete his Rainbow Summits Project. I’ll give a more detailed account of the aborted climb in a couple of days.

Almost as compensation, Cason’s next expedition was to climb two summits, as there are two different mountains listed as the highest in Australasia/Oceania. One lists Kosciusko in Australia as the highest, but the other list gives the Carstenz Pyramid on the island of Guinea as the highest in Australasia. Cason decided from the start of his project that he would climb both to stop some mountaineers saying he didn’t climb the “right ones”.

From Sydney, Australia, Cason set off for Kosciusko, about 300 miles south west of the city in the Great Dividing Range. Having a relatively low summit compared to the other Seven Summits meant that Kosciusko is most likely to be the only one on either list that was successfully climbed long before Western/European climbers even knew it was there.

Cason was held up for two days in the ski village due to bad weather, but once it cleared it was an afternoon stroll to the summit in comparison to his other climbs. He managed the whole trip up and down in less than 4 hours on 8th August 2012. But that isn’t to say that it’s no less dangerous than any other mountain.

After the relative ease of Kosciusko Cason headed out to Bali to meet his mother Isabella who would join him on his expedition to Carstenz Pyramid, twice the height of Kosciusko.

Even if Bali sounds exotic and romantic, the actual island where Carstenz is located is more challenging. For a start you have to track through dense jungle for up to ten days before you reach the actual mountain – there’s no other way to get there. Of course, the local population may seem challenging if you are unprepared for the culture shock. There are still some tribes of cannibals in the jungles of Guinea, not to mention rebels prepared to kill foreigners in their fight for independence from Indonesia.

The arduous jungle trek to the summit of Carstenz began in earnest on 17th August. A good omen was the sight of an actual rainbow arching out of the jungle. It not only filled Cason and Isabella with optimism but was also a good omen to the native porters (who can get quite confrontational if not paid enough, apparently).

It wasn’t until three days into the dense jungle that the expedition got their first view of the object of their quest, Carstenz Pyramid. The name makes it sound man-made but its not. Its made of limestone, a type of rock not normally associated with mountains. Usually, mountains are made of much harder granite or other igneous rock.

After battling through the jungle and the rain for several days the group reached Base Camp (actually higher than the summit of Kosciusko). The nature of the rock from which Carstenz is made means that the summit is shaped differently and is reached by means of sheer climbs and several crevasses. Cason admitted that this was a worrying aspect of the climb but he was excited at the air of true adventure. At one point there’s a 25 meter gap, across which a wire stretches. This is the only way to get to the summit.

Reaching the actual summit came almost unexpectedly to Cason. On reaching a large lump of rock after a vertical climb of 50 meters he realised there was no wire or crevasse before the summit – because he was actually there! Within ten minutes the whole of the expedition, including Cason’s mother Isabella, were celebrating reaching the summit on 22nd August 2012.

The Carstenz expedition was a highlight of the whole Seven Summits project. Cason was fascinated by the different culture, the “other worldliness” of the jungle section of the climb. It was in total contrast to Cason’s next summit, where he’d be lucky to see anything living at all, on the highest mountain in Antarctica.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 3 - Elbrus

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Cason’s expedition to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia near the Georgia border didn’t start well. The plan was to join a group of climbers to ascend the southern route. This is the easiest of the two official routes, having a cablecar and ski-lift part of the way. However, as he was about to set off for Russia the mountain tour company who had arranged the climb phoned to say that the rest of his group had cancelled their trip. He was offered the option of a one-man climb with one guide, or join another team about to climb the harder northern route. He chose to join the northern expedition.

Cason and his group reached base camp on 3rd June 2012. Arriving in the middle of the day gave them time to acclimatise and try out the famous hot springs that are found on Elbrus’s north side. These springs, and the geological evidence in the rocks, is all that shows us that Elbrus is actually a volcano. It hasn’t erupted for nearly 2,000 years, but the heat generated as the Turkish continental plate crashes into Europe creating the Caucasus gives climbers a chance to relax in hot springs before beginning their expedition to the summit.

On an acclimatisation hike on Day 5 the weather got a little scary. Clouds and mists rolled in and as the team rested after their climb their guide pointed out that the exposed rock they had stopped on could attract lightning strikes as the clouds go thicker. Needless to say, the climbers moved away from the rock pretty quick.

This incident makes me think of the vengeance of the gods - throwing their thunderbolts down - which is very appropriate because Elbrus provides a link to ancient Greek mythology.

Elbrus is said to have been the mountain to which the Titan Prometheus was chained by Zeus. This was long before Zeus adopted the young Ganymede as his lover, as it was not long after Prometheus created mankind. Promethues tricked Zeus into accepting an unsuitable sacrifice. Zeus punished mankind by removing fire from the world. Prometheus, however, was determined to give it back. By stealing the fire from the volcanic forges of the god Hephaestus and returning it to mankind Prometheus earned the anger of Zeus. As punishment Zeus had the Titan chained to Mount Elbrus for all eternity.

Also, by stealing fire by means of a flaming torch Prometheus was regarded as the creator of the sacred torch processions and relays which formed part of ceremonies all over Ancient Greece. This, in turn, is the origin of the modern Olympic torch relay, lit at the sacred site at Olympia. It so happens that the Olympic torch will be passing by Elbrus next year as the 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay will pass Elbrus on the way to Sochi, host city of the next games, only 150 miles away.

As if having Prometheus chained wasn’t enough Zeus sent an eagle to rip out and eat his liver. The punishment didn’t even stop there. Being immortal Prometheus grew a new liver overnight, so the eagle came back the next day to eat it all over again. This was to happen every day, forever.

The eagle would still be feasting on the Titan’s liver had it not been for that great Greek superhero, Hercules. During his famous Twelve Labours and tucked in between the seemingly endless parade of wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, Hercules was passing through the Caucasus Mountains. He encountered Prometheus, who had been suffering the agony of eagle attack for several thousand years. Hercules killed the eagle and snapped the chains, leaving Prometheus to free to take his revenge – by eating the eagle’s liver! Cason may have known about this myth but he didn’t mention it on his blog.

After a rest day Cason and his group set off for the summit at the very early hour of 2.30 in the morning. That was because the northern route takes up to 15 hours to get to the top, and after that you have to climb back down again.

Then came the Death March!

Elbrus is a double-peaked mountain with the western peak being the highest. The Death March is the nickname given by climbers to the hike along the ridge between the two.

At about 1.40 pm. Cason was the first of his group to reach the summit. What he was determined to do on each expedition was to fly the Rainbow Pride flag from each summit. Knowing Russia is quite a homophobic country, as recent new anti-gay laws have shown, Cason was keen to thumb his nose at the homophobic authorities by flying his flag from the highest point in Europe. His mother, however, was more cautious. She was genuinely concerned for his safety as he travelled in Russia as an openly gay man. So she hid the flag before Cason set off. Not to be put off, Cason unfurled a banner bearing his Rainbow Summits Project logo instead.

Summit number 3 was in the bag. It was now back to North America for his next expedition – which didn’t quite go according to plan.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 2 - Aconcagua

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Cason Crane graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall high school in June 2011. He decided to take a year out and climb a mountain before going to Princeton University.

After getting the mountaineering bug after climbing Kilimanjaro at the age of 15 Cason was eager to climb another. So he joined Lydia Bradley in New Zealand where she would be his coach. Lydia is an experienced and respected climber, also being the first woman to reach the top of Everest without oxygen.

In New Zealand Cason made the decision to climb the Seven Summits for a good cause. It was while he was still in high school that one of his friends committed suicide because of homophobic bullying. It was a distressing time. Cason had often been bullied himself but managed to handle it. Then, a few months later another teenager, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. Cason had never met him, but it was an event that attracted a lot of media attention to the problem of bullying in schools and universities.

Tyler was a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He had only recently started his undergraduate course in September 2010 when his room-mate set up a secret webcam in their shared accommodation. The room-mate had been aware of Tyler’s sexuality before they began their course and had discussed it on social media sites several times. Tyler did his best to ignore such gossip, and by the time they moved into their room they were barely on speaking terms.

But it was what happened after the secret webcam was set up that stirred public discussion. Tyler asked if he could have their room to himself one evening. He met a gay friend and it was this sexual encounter which his room-mate watched with another student. Almost immediately the room-mate was tweeting about it and suggested that he would be spying on Tyler again. Tyler found and disconnected the camera, but the experience of being spied on and treated like a sideshow subject to gossip prayed on his mind. Several days later Tyler jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Cason Crane was moved by the death of his friend and Tyler to contact The Trevor Project, an organisation set up to hep victims of bullying and educate the education system into the dangers of not controlling bullying in and out of the classroom. Cason was too young to be accepted as a counsellor, but he was still determined to do something to help.

Training in New Zealand everything came together – the mountaineering, the Trevor Project and Cason’s desire to help victims of bullying. He’d climb all the Seven Summits to raise funds for the Trevor Project. To highlight the lgbt aspect he named him project the Rainbow Summits Project. He also realised that he would, in all probability, be the first openly gay mountaineer to climb all seven summits as well.

So it was off to South America in February 2012 for the first proper summit in his project, summit number 2 in his challenge.

Aconcagua is the highest mountain in South America. It is located in Argentina high in the Andes. It also holds the record as the highest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres. Like Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua is regard as an “easy” climb for experienced mountaineers. It is also the highest non-technical mountain to climb, which means you don’t need a lot of ropes or axes.

Base Camp for Cason and the rest of the team was Playa Argentina, the smaller of the two on the mountain. After spending St. Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14th) as a rest day the team began the climb. By the time they got to the second camp site higher up they had lost two of the 12-person team due to altitude sickness or other illness. That didn’t seem to be much of an issue, but then the head guide informed them that bad storms and high winds were on their way and that there were two options. Option 1: wait at the camp for a week until the storms had gone; or Option 2: move the schedule ahead and start out for the summit in time to be back at camp when the storm arrived. The team chose Option 2.

An hour before sunrise on 24th February the team set off for the summit. Luckily, the sun came up into clear skies and the -20 degree night-time heat soon soared. The team took a break two hours before trekking along the hardest part of the route called Canaletta to the summit. During this last push Cason began to feel the enormity of climbing Aconcagua. He has recorded on his blog and in interviews how this feeling made him very emotional, and he cried as he though of his coming achievement and how proud his family and coach would be.

Cason reached Aconcagua summit at 3.10 pm. that day. But that’s only half the expedition over – there’s still the trip back down. As the team stood on the summit the bas weather began to close in quickly, and it got worse as they went down. Resting overnight at the camp site the team were glad to leave the 80 mile and hour winds for the increased oxygen levels lower down.

With summit number 2 safely under his belt Cason returned home to the US for a short break before heading to the Caucasus Mountain range to deal with the highest mountain in Europe. More of that tomorrow.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Rainbow Summit 1 - Kilimanjaro

For an introduction to Cason Crane’s Rainbow Summits Project go here and here.

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest mountain (actually a dormant volcano, to be pedantic!) in Africa. It is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, taller than Everest. That means that it’s not standing in the middle of a high mountain plateau and it’s base is at sea level. I recently explained this to a friend by using our own heights to illustrate. Standing beside each other I am taller than he is, using this to represent the measurement from mountain base to summit. I represented Kilimanjaro and he represented Everest. I asked my friend to stand on a chair representing the Himalayan plateau on which Everest stands. That didn’t make him taller than me, I explained, only higher.

Kilimanjaro was the first of the Seven Summits climbed by Cason Crane, long before the idea of his Rainbow Summits Project was created. At the age of 15 Cason was invited to climb Kilimanjaro by his mother Isabella, described by him as “a very adventurous woman”. The Kilimanjaro climb as, in Cason’s words, a mother-son bonding exercise, though they have always been a close family.

This was Cason’s first experience at mountaineering, and climbers often call Kilimanjaro an easy mountain to climb. Perhaps it is for experienced mountaineers, it’s all relative. It is the least technical climb of the Seven Summits, meaning you don’t need ropes or axes and people can usually manage the whole expedition in a week.

Being regarded as an easy climb has led to Kilimanjaro being the “celebrity mountain” – many celebrities have climbed up the mountain for charity, including Take That’s Gary Barlow, billionaire Roman Abramovich, and actor Jessica Biel. The lgbt community’s very own Martina Navratilova attempted the climb in 2010, but even though Kilimanjaro is considered easy it is not without its dangers, as Martina found out to her cost.

Being a popular mountain (over 1,000 climbers a year) Kilimanjaro also has a high mortality rate due to altitude sickness or hypothermia. Martina attempted the climb with a team from the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. It had been a bad year for Martina – she broke her wrist in January 2010 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. We all know of Martina’s great athletic prowess and stamina, but less than 5,000 feet from the summit she got a stomach infection and altitude sickness. During the nightly medical check on the whole team it became clear that Martina had to be taken to hospital. She was bitterly disappointed not to reach  the summit, but realised that if she didn’t get treatment she may not wake up the next morning, she could have died from a pulmonary oedema. She has no plans to go back.

But Kilimanjaro can inspire those who reach the summit. A couple from Colorado, Massimo Alpian and Brett Kennedy, are both keen mountaineers. It was after Brett climbed Kilimanjaro that the couple decided to attempt another mountain challenge – climbing 8-Thousanders, 14 mountains over 8,000 feet in height, all in the Himalayan region. As a gay couple they have experienced stereotyping and homophobia from some straight mountaineers who always presume they are brothers or friends. Most of them still cannot believe gay men can climb mountains.

Cason Crane was a student at Choate Rosemary Hall school in Connecticut when his mother Isabella invited him to join her on her Tanzanian trip during spring break. The trip started with a marathon – Isabel ran the Kilimanjaro marathon, and Cason ran the half-marathon. With hardly enough time to catch their breath the couple were beginning their trek up the mountain.

Choosing to climb the Machame Route, the most difficult of the six official routes up Kilimanjaro, the Cranes hiked across the Stella Ridge to the summit 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. Cason found this first experience gruelling and wondered if he could make it to the top. With his mother’s encouragement and the support of the rest of the climbing party, Cason reached the summit on 17th March 2008. It was this struggle, which he equates with the homophobic bullying that resulted in the suicide of his school friend, which he uses to encourage bully victims that there is help and support for them if they find life a struggle.

It was an experience which changed Cason’s life. Standing on the snowy summit at Africa’s highest point he decided that he would climb mountains for the rest of his life. Cason believes the feeling of empowerment at completing the challenge of his first mountain, facing his own doubts during the climb and receiving support from those around him, can be an inspiration to victims of homophobic bullying as they face their own challenges in life.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you how Cason came up with the Rainbow Summits Project.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Rainbow Summits Project

This coming week sees the 35th anniversary of the Rainbow Pride flag. Little did Gilbert Baker know when he and his team of volunteer flag-makers decked out the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade on 25th June 1978 with his 8-striped designs that it would become so universal.

As a vexillologist (flag studier) for exactly the same length of time I can think of no other flag that is used by the same community in so many countries so much. Even if the Guinness Book of World Records doesn’t list it as such I believe the Rainbow Pride flag is the most popular flag in history, used by more people than any national or empire flag.

But Guinness has recognised the Rainbow Pride flag’s record-breaking achievements in the past. In 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and the Gay Games being held in New York that same week, Gilbert Baker produced a flag that was one mile long. It was recognised as the world’s longest flag.

Almost a decade later Gilbert’s flag had to relinquish the record to another. In 2003 a flag that was a quarter of a mile longer took the record. Was Gilbert disappointed? Hardly, the record went to a Rainbow Pride flag that was unfurled in Key West, Florida, to celebrate the flag’s 25th anniversary. (The record has since gone to a Syrian national flag.)

To celebrate the flag’s anniversary, in this US Pride Month, there’s no better way than to highlight a project which takes the Rainbow Pride flag as an inspiration.

The Rainbow Summits Project is a highly ambitious challenge that young American Cason Crane set for himself. Hopefully, in the next few weeks he will complete his project to climb the highest mountain on 7 continents (listed below). Climbing specifically as an openly gay man for an lgbt cause Cason created his project after the suicide of a school friend and of Tyler Clementi. Cason was always been open about his sexuality. He received abuse from fellow students, and from visiting sports teams when he appeared in the school athletic events. Recognising the struggles and challenges encountered by many gay teenagers because of homophobia and bullying Cason contacted The Trevor Project, an organisation which supports victims of bullying, and volunteered to take on his mountain challenge to raise funds for them. He also hopes to unfurl a Rainbow Pride flag at each summit.

So, who is Cason Crane? What makes him the right person to take on the 7 Summits challenge?

Cason Crane was born in 1992 to two Princeton graduates, David and Isabella Crane. Both of his parents come from influential and prominent families with distinguished ancestry, including royal blood through some early settlers, notably Mrs. Anne Hutchinson who was accused of heresy and witchcraft.

The family moved to Hong Kong when Cason was young when his father worked for Lehman Brothers. They returned in 1999 and lived in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. At his private boarding school Cason showed a keen passion for sport from an early age, encouraged by his parents. His mother in particular was instrumental in getting Cason interested in mountaineering. He had always dreamt of climbing mountains as a young boy and got his chance to do it for real when his mother Isabella took him to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro when he was 15. From then on Cason got the mountaineering bug and it seems only natural that he would try his hand at the Seven Summits.

Now, what about the Seven Summits? This is a semi-official list first drawn up by mountaineer Richard Bass after he became the first to climb all 7 summits in 1985. However, definitions vary as to how mountains are measured or on which continent they are located. These variations will be discussed in the coming days.

Another mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, compiled a slightly different list, giving Carstenz on Guinea as the highest in Australasia/Oceania (Bass listed Kosciusko, a smaller mountain on the Australian mainland). Cason Crane chose to climb all 8.

Here is Cason’s Seven Summits list in the order in which he climbed them :-

Height (meters)
South America
Oceania (Australia)
Carstenz Pyramid
Oceania (Guinea)
Vinson Massif
McKinley Denali
North America

I’ll be taking each summit individually over the next 7 days (numbers 4 and 5 together) in that order to follow Cason’s challenge. You can follow Cason’s progress yourself and contribute to his project by visiting his website.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

1 + 1 = 1

It’s surprising how many mathematicians and computer scientists there are who are partners of others. It’s not so obvious in the other sciences. So today I’ll bring you 8 people who prove that 1 (mathematician) plus 1 (mathematician) equals 1 (couple).

The first couple are more of an “alleged couple” than a self-acknowledged one. They are Soviet mathematicians Andrei Kolmogorov (1903-1987) and Pavel Aleksandrov (1896-1982). Both men were living at a time and in a country where homosexuality was illegal. Their relationship, or friendship, began in 1929 when they went on a 3-week boat trip together down several European rivers.

Aleksandrov was topologist, a mathematician who studies shapes, forms and spaces, and was Professor of Mathematics at Moscow University. Kolmogorov was more interested in logic and virtually invented probability theory (which, ironically, sums up the common view of their relationship – it’s a probability theory by itself!).

In 1935 Aleksandrov and Kolmogorov bought a house in Moscow and they lived there together until Aleksandrov’s death in 1982. Although neither admitted their sexuality publicly, there were rumours floating around the Soviet Union for decades, and other Soviet mathematicians have said that they believed they were both gay. It seemed to be an open secret, known even by Stalin himself. Today the nature of their relationship is disputed, stating that Kolmogorov was married, but we shall see next that is no proof of heterosexuality. My own opinion is that there is enough to suggest they did have some form of romantic attachment which may, or not may not, have been physical.

One of Kolmogorov’s students links directly to an undoubtedly open gay mathematical couple – Robert MacPherson (b.1944) and Mark Goresky (b.1950). In 1977 MacPherson was approached by Kolmogorov’s  former student. Through him MacPherson got to know many Moscow mathematicians and visited them in the USSR regularly. However, Soviet maths was not freely available in the West because the over-suspicious authorities were always looking for coded political messages or state secrets in research papers submitted for publication. MacPherson continually smuggled maths research papers out of Moscow for anonymous publication in the West.

Things got worse for Russian mathematicians after the collapse of the USSR. Mathematicians and academics found it difficult to find work in the economic crisis which followed. The state had no money for maths or research. MacPherson persuaded the American Mathematical Society to start a fund to help the struggling mathematicians.

But MacPherson has been more than a maths philanthropist. With his partner Mark Goresky he discovered intersection homology, another of those complicated ideas you find in topology. MacPherson and Mark met in 1971 when Mark began as a graduate at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, where MacPherson taught. Both men were married, but there was a chemistry between them that began almost immediately. After collaborating on the intersection homology paper the two went their separate ways, but both of their marriages began to break up soon afterwards. In 1985 they realised they were in love and they’ve been together ever since.

My next two couples are involved with the computer sciences and information technology. Ladies first.

The world of information technology and Silicon Valley often conjures up images of men in white lab coats. One female couple who are among the most powerful in IT are Megan Smith (b.1964) and Kara Swisher (b.1962). Megan is currently a vice president at Google, which she joined in 2003. She earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at MIT in mechanical engineering and serves on MIT’s board. In April this year, and last year, Megan was named in “Out” magazine’s Power List of the USA’s 50 most powerful and influential lgbt people.

In 2008 Megan married Kara Swisher, a technology columnist. Their marriage was timed deliberately to be held the day before California voters overturned the same-sex marriage law that their courts had approved just 5 months beforehand.

Kara has been writing on technology issues for the Wall Street Journal for several years, and co-founded the online journal “All Things Digital” with Walt Mossberg. Even though she is married to a Google executive Kara has not shied away from criticising the company or it’s policies. In 2012 placed Megan and Kara in it’s “18 Hottest Power Couples in Technology”, the only same-sex couple on the list.

Finally, when it comes to global communications, one gay couple has played key roles. In fact we would probably not be able to use computers for work or send emails without their contribution. Their names are Kirk McKusick (b.1954) and Eric Allman (b.1955).

Eric and Kirk have also been referred to as a “power couple”. Kirk, having a degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in computer science, worked in the 1980s as project manager at the University of California, Berkeley, on a way for computers to locate and recall saved and closed files. We take that for granted these days.

Eric worked on an early example of something else we take for granted. Also working in the 1980s Eric developed a programme which could send messages and documents from one computer to another. He called it Sendmail. Over the years he developed the programme, and it became the forerunner of toady’s emails.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Seeking Refuge

This week is one of those less well-known “awareness weeks” which should become better known within the lgbt community – Refugee Week. June 20th is World Refugee Day.

The biggest known (or presumed) movement of lgbt refugees was during World War II. The Nazi persecution of a number of social and ethnic groups led to many of them leaving Germany in search of refuge in other countries. This included gay men and women. We’ll never known how many of these there were.

This year is also the 20th Anniversary of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group who have been fighting for lgbt asylum seekers, refugees and foreign partners of UK citizens since 1993. So far, since its formation as the Stonewall Immigration Group, the main success has been in relation to an “unmarried partners concession” allowing couples to remain together in the UK if they have co-habited for a specific period. After the Civil Partnership Bill of 2004 was passed foreign civil partners were given equal immigration rights as married couples.

For asylum seekers, however, the change has been slower. Today there are 80 countries where homosexuality is illegal, 5 of which still have the death penalty for those found guilty. In other countries violence towards lgbt people is still considered commonplace and acceptable, and many victims try to escape to other countries.

There are no proper, accurate figures of lgbt refugees and asylum seekers available, just estimates, but there is hardly a month that goes by without the media – the lgbt media in particular – reminding that some of us are fortunate to have some amount of legal protection in our own countries.

It is also difficult to determine how far back you have to go before the we encounter the first recognised lgbt refugee being granted asylum. In the USA the first recorded successful lgbt asylum seeker was Marcelo Tenório, a gay man from Brazil. He was granted asylum in 1993 after having arrived illegally in the country in 1990. The first known person to be given asylum on the grounds of his sexuality in the European Union was in 1997. An Algerian man, who had set up HIV/AIDS and human rights organisations in his home country, sought and was granted refuge in France.

The cases of lgbt asylum seekers in the UK in recent years has improved slightly, but many immigration officers have shown inadequate training when they questioned refugees. The authorities have often turned down requests for asylum by suggesting to the lgbt asylum seekers that they should be more “discreet”. This “discretion test” was questioned by 2 gay men who had sought asylum in the UK, both of whom feared persecution, prosecution, or even death, because of their sexuality if they were sent back to their countries. “HJ” of Iran and “HT” of Cameroon brought a joint action in the Court of Appeal pointing out that “being discreet” was a violation of their right to be who they are. The Court of Appeal agreed, and in July 2010 the “discretion test” was effectively abolished.

Others have not been so successful. Several African lesbians have been declared illegal immigrants and had their asylum requests turned down. Efforts have been made this year to have them all deported back to their countries. Jacki Nanyanjo, who was seriously ill when deported back to Uganda in January, and died in March. Two other lesbians currently under deportation orders are still fighting to remain in the UK. Two Muslim lesbians have recently become Civil Partners in the UK and have claimed asylum here, fearing persecution if they return to their home in Pakistan.

Each nation has its own laws and regulations regarding asylum seekers and refugees, though not all of them have consistent rules regarding lgbt requests. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees includes the phrase “particular social group” in it’s definition of a refugee. Both the US in the case of Tenório and the UK in the cases of HJ and HT accepted this definition as inclusive of the lgbt community.

To end this brief look at lgbt refugees we have this story of a gay Ugandan couple that has a happy ending.

Friday, 14 June 2013

On Track to the Outgames: Part 7

With only 50 days to go before the opening ceremony of this year’s World Outgames, here’s a look back at the sport and cultural festival of the previous games held in Copenhagen in 2009.

There was a more varied international content to the cultural festival than at previous games. This variety was reflected in it’s title – OutCities – a plural title indicating Copenhagen was not the only city to be celebrating. Performers and artists from Melbourne, Rio, Antwerp, Mexico City, Arhus and Tel Aviv were located around the city centre and many lgbt performers from each country made an appearance. A variety of other events were also on offer, ranging from the QueerTango, OutChoir and Out in Leather festivals, as well as cinema and theatre.

There were more sports at the Copenhagen games than in the first in Montréal. Thirty-eight sports were available to athletes, with the usual swimming and athletics events being well subscribed. Copenhagen also introduced several sports new to the Outgames (World or Continental) – climbing, curling and floorball. As in previous games several international lgbt governing bodies also used the Outgames as their annual world championships.

One of the challenges encountered by many lgbt athletes when attending events such at the Outgames, Gay Games or EuroGames is often the absence of a playing partner or team to play with in some events. Badminton players, for example, would arrive from the other side of the world and not know who his/her doubles team-mate would be, if any. Quite often the draw to pair up players didn’t take place until the morning of the competition. It is not unknown for two players who had never met until a couple of hours before their first match as a team to go on to win a medal. This has often led to some very creative team names. One water polo team at Copenhagen had members from West Hollywood Aquatics, Atlanta, New York, and Queer Aquatics Utah. They abbreviated their name to W.A.N.Q.!

Officially there were 6,500 athletes, 89% of whom identified themselves as members of the lgbt community. According to Tommy Kristoffersen, Outgames Sports Co-ordinator, there were 13 transgender athletes, the largest number recorded at an international multi-sport festival.

International sporting governing bodies have yet to agree on the criteria for inclusion of transgender athletes. The Outgames had generally followed the Olympic policy which set strict regulations on which gender-based contest (male or female) the athlete could compete, according to the transition stage of the specific trans athlete – if they were allowed to compete at all.

At the Copenhagen Outgames a Canadian trans athlete, Jennifer McCreath, competed in the marathon and swimming contests. She had to compete in the female competition, even though she had not fully transitioned. The timing equipment used for international sport only records male or female results – there is no third setting. Jennifer’s finishing times in both the marathon and swimming were, accordingly, recorded as female results.

After some discussion with the organisers Jennifer suggested the Outgames adopt a third gender category. They agreed, and an interim policy was adopted on-site with an official published policy statement coming a few months later.

As the only transgender athlete in both of her events Jennifer was recognised as the gold medal winner. However, for the time being at least, the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Association (IGLA), who were using the Outgames as their world championship meet, awarded her the silver medal as second-place finisher in her women’s category. The IGLA had no third gender category.

There were many sporting achievements throughout the Outgames, too many to list, but here is a small selection.

Confusion and controversy reigned at the men’s volleyball contest. The organisers decided to re-organise the categories for the final medal round. The teams quickly objects, complained, and presented a petition.

As expected, Canada took a clean sweep of gold medals in all 3 categories in curling. Of the 8 teams in the competition, the Canadians had 6, the other 2 were both Danish.

AIDS campaigner and US reality tv star Jack Mackenroth won a total of 8 swimming medals – 2 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze.

One of several all-straight teams won a silver medal. Team SAS, a Danish female handball team, were beaten in the final by fellow Danes Team Panic.

As mentioned last time, 58-year-old American runner Dean Koga won a gold medal in his gage group in the 200 meters the day after being injured in a bomb attack at the track.

The oldest known competitor was 86-year-old Robert Lornezen in the bridge tournament.

The nation with the most medals was the USA with 513 in total (243 gold, 151 silver, 119 bronze), followed by Germany with 306 (130 gold, 101 silver, 75 bronze) and then the Netherlands with 248 (112 gold, 67 silver, 69 bronze). Host Denmark came next with 218 (93 gold, 67 silver, 58 bronze). These places are the same whichever way you count medals – by the overall total, or by total gold medals first.