Friday, December 30, 2011

The Nose - Heavy & Slow

Oct 7th was our fifth anniversary. What better way to celebrate it than climbing the Nose on El Cap? 

We had been prepping for this climb for the last few days. Buying 12 $0.79 two-liter bottles of soda for water containers, packing the haul bags, and practicing jugging where all part of the prep. After a casual breakfast we walked to the base of the route, only to see 11 other people on the first three pitches of the climb. We sat down and just watched. Everyone was moving very slowly, so we bailed. 

Plan B, the next morning we got up at 3:30AM and were at the base of the route at 4:30. Most parties climb the first four pitches, to Sickle ledge, then haul their bags to that point from the ground. Then the next day jug those lines and continue. Not wanting to get caught up in the mess of the lower pitches we decided to haul our bags from the first pitch up and just keep going. Those lower pitches were tough hauling. It is lower angle and our "pig" weighted about 120lbs, punishing work. 

After a summer of light and fast climbing we were in for a healthy dose of slow and heavy climbing, or should I say, manual labor. Hauling is just tough work.

We were gunning for Dolt Tower the first day, but did not make it. Thankfully we had a borrowed portaledge with us, so we were able to set it up at a hanging belay below the Dolt Tower. In the middle of the night we were awaken by two guys flying up the route, hooting and hollering as they climbed. They were on their second lap up El Cap for the day! Moving so fast, so light. We looked at them longingly from our ledge.

The next morning the progress got a little faster, the pig got a little lighter, and we made it to the top of the boot flake. I thought this was the best campsite I'd ever camped at. The moon was full, we could see everything in the Valley, it was amazing. 

Day three started out with the King Swing. It was my turn to lead, so Janelle lowered me down about 80 feet to the base of the pendulum. I was nervous. Two other parties were watching, along with everyone in the meadows 1500 feet below. I ran to the left, back to the right, and then sprinted back left, pushing as hard as I could. Slapping for a shallow dish of granite I halted my progress. Had I really made it on my first go? Nope. I was too high. So I swung back, lowered down, and tried again. After several airy swings I stuck it, Success! And I caught it all with my GoPro headcam.

At 1:00PM we got hit by the first sprinkle of rain. Rain was not in the weather forecast. It was forecasted to be clear and sunny for 7 days straight. We trusted that forecast, and therefore did not bring our rain gear, or the fly for the portaledge! Oops. I led another pitch in the spitting rain, and then Janelle took over for the Great Roof pitch. I was pretty damp when she got to the anchor and fixed the rope. I jugged up to Janelle, and we both hung out under the roof, twenty feet to the left of the bolted anchor, hanging in our harnesses and aid ladders. 

We passed the time looking at the poor guys below us getting soaked. The rain should pass and we would keep climbing, I mean this is sunny California right? Well it didn't. So we decided to built an anchor in the micro crack above us and sleep under the roof, the only place on El Cap not getting soaked. Two hours later we had a 9-piece anchor made out of fixed nuts and C3 cams. We were dry, and I had a new favorite campsite of all time. I'm 99% sure that no one else has ever done that, an El Cap first!

Day four and five went by without event. We topped out at noon on the fifth day. We had done it. It was a great feeling. Even better than that feeling is the feeling we had eating pizza post-shower, later that day! That makes 35 classics complete. 

[Please help us reach out fundraising goal, due to end on January 1, 2012 at 11:59PM. Donating will get you some very cool rewards directly from us. And we will be so thankful to be able to keep this journey alive in 2012 with 9 more Classics on the calendar: ]

Monday, November 7, 2011

Grand Teton, North Ridge via the Cathedral Traverse

Mounting the snow horse
After our time in the Bugaboos, Canada, we headed south, back to the Motherland. Driving through Montana we were excited to easily interpret the speed limit signs, have working cell phones, and buy “half-priced” gas.

Before long we were in one of my favorite places, the Tetons! Janelle and I have traveled here at least once per year since we meet 6 years ago. The Upper Exum Ridge was one of my first alpine climbing experiences. We honeymooned in Jackson. Janelle became the US National Ski Mountaineering champion at Jackson Hole ski resort. Needless to say, I have many fond memories from being in these mountains.

I first heard about the “Grand Traverse” during one of my early visits.  This Traverse links all 7 major mountains in the range (with a handful of smaller peaks in-between).  I hoped that one day I would be strong enough to tackle such an endeavor, and on August 24th that day came.

Last year we climbed the North Face of the Grand, and the only classic climb remaining was the North Ridge on the Grand. The glacier to get to the route can be broken and nasty this late in the season, so we concluded doing the Traverse would be the best/most fun way to approach the ridge.

Having climbed in the area my fair share, I knew that route-finding was going to be a crux of the experience. There is a lot of terrain to cover during the Traverse, and getting off-route would simply burn precious daylight. We collected quality beta from, some Exum guide friends, and other friends that had done it before. The best tip was to take only one 70-meter twin rope, which helps with the long rappels.  We took our Sterling Ice Thong 7.7mm rope....super thin!

The other major crux is getting your pack as light as possible. We simply wanted to climb fast with a light backpack. So we bribed our friend, Rob, into porter-ing our sleeping bags, pads, and extra food to the Lower Saddle campground on the South side of the Grand Teton. He was cheap, so it worked out well. =)  
Porter Rob
The plan was to climb the “Cathedral Traverse” (Teewinot, Owen, the Grand) day one, sleep at the Lower Saddle, then finish the Grand Traverse on day two. We left the parking lot at 4:00AM with happy (light) packs, amped and moving fast. There were several forest fires in the area, and the air was thick with smoke, which made breathing a little difficult. Halfway up Teewinot we got above the smoke layer just as the sun was rising. It was amazing.

Reaching the top of Teewinot in a few short hours we were rewarded with the most spectacular view of the Grand Teton’s North Face.  

From there the terrain is fairly easy 2nd-4th class until the first rappels. At this point another “traverser” caught up with us. He was doing it solo. I offered him our ropes to rappel, instead of using his own. From there we moved together to the top of Owen, crossing mostly broken rock, some quality rock climbing, and a little snow.

Some say the crux of the route finding is getting from the summit of Teewinot to the Gunsight Notch.  Last year, Janelle and I climbed the Serendipity Crack on Owen, so we had seen this terrain. That experience helped keep us moving quickly. From the Gunsight Notch up to the Grand Stand is the highest quality climbing on the North Ridge, in my opinion.

Once we got to the North Ridge proper there are two main ways to go. The Italian Cracks or the Chockstone Chimney. The Chockstone Chimney is the route listed in “the book” so we went that way. There was a small section of ice to chop through, but compared to Mt Hunter it was cakewalk. The climbing in the chimney was really good too.  We decided to pass on taking rock climbing shoes, so pulling the 5.8 crux in my guide tennie approach shoes helped keep it real.

From the top of the chimney the climbing is straightforward. All paths lead to the top. On top, we hung out for a while, soaking in yet another Grand Teton experience. This route was way more enjoyable than the North Face, which doesn’t take much since the N. Face is a big pile of crap!

We arrived at the Lower Saddle campsite around 5:00PM. Rob had delivered the goods, and we were eating dinner that he carried up for us shortly thereafter. We wanted to be as nice as possible to him, so we did not have him bring up a tent. Well, that backfired on us. At 6:00AM the next morning we awoke quickly to rain drops hitting our sleeping bags, then hail! We threw all our stuff together and ran for shelter.

There were thunderclouds to the West, approaching fast. Our plan to complete the Grand Traverse we getting washed out. Janelle and I looked at each other, wondering what the other person was thinking. Should we keep going? Should we bail? Just then a big flash of lightening in the distance sealed Plan A’s fate. We reluctantly decided walk down and get breakfast in town.

I hate bailing on my plans in the mountains, especially when the ski clears halfway down to the car! I couldn’t believe it. At 6:00AM it looked like Zeus was having lightning bolt target practice with the Tetons, and then at 7:00AM it was bluebird. I was pissed to make the wrong decision to bail. Regardless, we kept walking downhill, back to the van. At 8:00AM dark clouds rolled back in and unleashed a rainstorm full of lighting. Standing under a big pine tree, out of the rain, I was smiling ear to ear. We had made the right decision. Amusing isn’t it, how the same decision can be good one moment, bad the next, and then good again.

The Cathedral Traverse is by far the most fun I’ve had in the Tetons, and I recommend it to anyone interested.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Back to Bugaboo

[Disclaimer: I have had several major epics in my climbing career that have taught me many valuable lessons. My epic-ing frequency has drastically decreased due to completing several AMGA guide certification programs, and climbing with a female. I empathize with the people I write about below.]

Bugaboo: (mining term) The promise of a motherload that never pans out.

Bugaboo Provincial Park is an alpine climber’s playground. The campground is beautiful, the rock high quality, and the company entertaining.

This was our second time to the Bugs. This sophomore experience was quite a bit different than the previous year. For one, it was about 20 degrees colder.  Second, we only “had” to complete the Bugaboo Spire on our list, which is significantly easier than the Becky-Chouinard on South Howser Tower, so the stress level was low.

That low stress led us to get a late start the day we went for the Bugaboo Spire. We left camp around 8:30AM, crossed a small glacier and scrambled up to the base of the route.
At first glance I knew we were in for it. Four people standing at the bottom of the first pitch of the route. Then I looked up and saw three more climbers on pitches one and two. This was going to be a long day.

The guidebook clearly states, “More people get ‘benighted’ on this [East Ridge of Bugaboo Spire] than all other routes in the area combined.” This is due to the involved traverse from the North to South summit, and then the lengthy descent.

I have climbed plenty of routes with many other parties. So long as everyone moves quickly it is a non-issue, and actually makes the climbing fun because you always have someone to talk to at the belays. Problems arise when you have a faster party behind/under a slower party. That creates a traffic jam. These traffic jams can be resolved easily.  Once the slower party realizes their pace compared to the faster party, they allow the faster party to pass at a belay ledge. It is also the ethical responsibility of the faster party to not be annoying or rude to the slower party.

The two parties on route (2 Ottawans and 3 Texans) were much slower. They started from the Hut at 4:00AM. We started 4.5 hours later and caught them on the first pitch. There were two more parties of two (Salt Lakers and the Squamishers). All told there were 11 climbers.

Normally in that situation you would just pick a different route, but the forecast was not amazing, and this was what we came to do. This is one of the major downsides to having a tick list.  We sat down and started shooting the bull with the Salt Lakers. Meanwhile, the Texans were struggling. They were climbing in a group of three, catapillar style (where you climb one person at a time). The Texans offered to have the Salt Lakers pass them, which was really thoughtful. I wondered if we could pass them too. The route allowed for that as there are many cracks that are not too difficult. What to do what to do.

That’s about the time the Squamishers showed up, guns blastin. (Ill call them S1 and S2).  S1, “Oh maaan, what are you guys doing moving so slow, you’re going to spend the night up here moving like that.” I was shocked. I did not know what to say. And so it went.

The Squamishers tried immediately to pass by climbing some other crack stating, “Well it can’t be harder than 5.12…”  Oh man, this guy was a character. In the meantime the Texans third person was now climbing and the Salt Lakers were right on their heels, as requested. Janelle jumped in right behind them. She built and anchor below the Texans and brought me up. The Squamishers started right behind me. It was the start of an impressive climber train wreck.

I decided to stay below the Texans and traverse to the left of them. If we moved fast enough we could pass them in two short pitches. I moved to their left. Built a quick anchor, brought Janelle across, and started climbing again. This move allowed us to be around them with no problems. That is, until the Squamishers came up, pulling their rope straight through through everyone’s business.

It is difficult to explain here exactly what he had done to create such a mess. Just know that if anyone had slipped, it would have caused several other people to be pulled off as well. It was almost like the opening scene of Vertical Limit, only not as dramatic.

I’ve never told anyone that what they are doing is dangerous, and they need to stop, but S1’s actions had crossed the line in my head. I piped up, “Dude, you need to stop right where you, down climb 15 feet and build an anchor so you don’t kill someone.” From below the Texans shouted “AMEN!” as they were trying to sort out the rope tangle. S1 ignored me, mumbling something about moving faster. I could not believe it. The Salt Lakers were moving quickly, and as soon as possible we moved up to the next belay ledge.
This is where the route enters a 5.6 chimney or a 5.9 hand and finger crack. The Ottawans were struggling with the 5.6 due to the amount of snow choked in the chimney from the storm that passed through a couple days prior. The Salt Lakers headed up the 5.9. We began chatting with the Ottawans, who were eager to have someone else do the snow excavating. I looked down, saw the S1 coming up to the belay ledge, and quickly volunteered for the job.

Pulling snow off hand and footholds is not very much fun, but still way more fun than talking to the jerks. On this terrain we were able to move quickly enough to get ahead of the Salt Lakers as well. From that point on the climbing went smoothly.

The climbing is really diverse and beautiful. The traverse between the two summits is somewhat involved, but amazing in its own right. I would not want to do it in a lightning storm, but who would. By the time we were heading down the clouds were growing dark, so we put it in high gear.  This allowed us to get back to our tent only minutes before the cold rain started to fall.

The Texans, Ottawans, and Squamishers were all still out there. We wished them well, cooked dinner and went to sleep to the sound of rain hitting the tent. I was so glad to be in my shoes and not theirs. At 11:00PM I got out of the tent to answer natures call and saw two little headlamps still descending from the route.  Typical for the Bugaboo Spire.

The following day the Texans got back to the Hut at 2:00PM. They had had an adventure. “Its all part of the Bugaboo experience” they kept saying. Awesome. Even though they had bivyed in the freezing rain, ran out of water, they still had fire in their eyes.

That’s one thing I love about loving the mountains. They can fully slap you around, make you run for mommy with your tale between your legs. Then the next week their allure makes you want more the next day…or maybe the next week.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Devils Thumb via the East Ridge

Only a handful of climbers have set eyes on the Devils Thumb. Even fewer have put their hands on this stone. The weather is notoriously bad there. Some climbers have flown up from the Lower 48, only to sit in Petersburg for 10 days, waiting on clear skies that never came.

Pointing Lulu north, we drove for 2.5 days from Seattle to Prince Rupert, BC where we got on a ferry to travel the rest of the way on the Alaska Marine Highway. At 3:00AM we arrived in Petersburg. The sunlight was already beginning to grow on the eastern horizon, and Devils Thumb was out. It was the start of a bluebird day. At 8:00AM we stopped by the Temsco hanger to see if we could fly that day. The lady in the office called the pilot, Wally, who told us he could go at 2:00PM!

Amped, we went into town for some breakfast and to get geared up. Taking over three spaces in the harbor’s parking lot, we spread out everything and stuffed it into two duffles, two packs and a couple other random bags. The climb would only take one long day. Regardless, we took food to be on the glacier for twelve, which would hopefully be enough to wait out the bad weather, complete the climb, and get out.

The heli flight is a really efficient way to blow 600 bucks in 29 minutes, but it is totally worth it. Like a nature viewing three-ring circus on crack, the varied landscapes flew by. Passing over an inlet, then deep forest, followed by glacier, these views fit the bill for what a Jack London Alaska should be.

After landing we pitched the tent, made dinner and went to bed at 7:00, hoping to get an alpine start the next morning. Around 10:00 that night I woke to sound of rain hitting the tent. Welcome to the Devils Thumb.

For the next three days it rained and snowed. The emotional swing one goes through by sitting still for that long is amazing. After sleeping for 12 hours, you cannot sleep anymore. Thankfully we had cards, an ipod, and books to pass the time. The rain came in waves. We would peek our heads out during the lulls, and getting out only when the call of nature became a scream.

On the fourth day the clouds began to break in the afternoon. Blue sky is so glorious after that long living in a milk jug. This far north the sun is up nearly all day, so we were able to take advantage of the sunshine to dry out everything. Ropes, clothes, sleeping bags, and climbing gear where spread out on top of the tent to let the sun work its magic.

I barely slept that night. In the last three days I had gotten about 30 hours of sleep, and now the stars were out over the Devils Thumb, I was just too excited.

At 1:30AM the alarm went off. An hour later we were walking across the glacier toward the start of the East Ridge. There was a breakable crust layer on the snow, which made for slow going, but I was amped and charged through it to the rock.

The first selection of rock was totally crap. The rock was loose, covered in frost, muddy and downright scary. I had to pick my way up very slowly as to not knock down any rocks on Janelle. When we gained the ridge, and the early morning sunlight hit our faces, things were better. Janelle was not having the best time though. Her pack was heavy, making it hard to climb. The fact that we kept our mountaineering boots on made it even harder. We pushed on, simal-climbing half way up the first tower. When the hand-holds got thin I decided to make an anchor and pitch it out. On top of the first tower we went back to simal-climbing.

The traverse into the base of the second tower is pretty spicy, knife-edged awesomeness. I had the GoPro rolling for the whole thing, so check out the video for a real “description” of that section.
At the base of the second tower we put on our rock shoes for the first time. That made the world of difference. Angling up and climbers left (south) I picked my way though what looked like the path of least resistance. 2.5 pitches got us back to easier terrain. At the gendarme there was rime ice choking the path on the ridge, so we wrapped down 200 feet to the south. This put us on extremely loose rock. To make matters worse the rime ice we were “avoiding” going this way was now directly above us. The hot sun caused several chucks to fall on us. That and we had to climb through a significant section of wet rock from this ice melt.

Once back on the ridge the terrain was straightforward. Back to simla-climbing, we progressed quickly. At this point Janelle was really shaken from everything. It had been harder than 5.6 climbing on loose wet cold mossy rock, with a heavy pack for the majority of the climb. Not a girl’s favorite thing. I was still going strong, but feeling Janelle’s fear more and more as we got higher. On the last pitch of the route, on the summit ridge, she broke down. “I’m done”, she said. She was ready to get off this thing.
I couldn’t believe it. We were literally within 5 minutes from the summit. The Canadian side of the summit ridge was totally covered in snow, more moss, and ice, making it slow going. We had climbed the route, but I wanted to touch the top. I’m a dude. I need that definitive end point where I can brag to everyone that I “did that.” Janelle did not need that. In her mind we were there, the clouds were moving in, and she had had enough.

I shouted down to her that she could stay where she was, and I would un-rope to scramble to the “tippy top” (as we called Columbia Crest on Mt. Rainier). With the response I got, you’d think I just said I was going to cut off her toes with a dull knife. “NOOOOO, please don’t leave me here alone, Mark!”
I had to make a decision. Touch the top by unroping, getting that “I did it” feeling and hurt my marriage, or turn there, join my wife and comfort her. I contemplated the decision for nearly 10 minutes.

Finally, I decided that my marriage is more important than standing on that little chuck of rock, just a little higher than where I was. I built an anchor and rappelled down to Janelle. Her hands were shaking from fear. This climb had really gotten under her skin. I felt bad. I knew she wouldn’t be talked into going higher, so we rigged the rappel and headed down into the cloud that fully blanketing the south side of the mountain.

Ten rappels later we were back on the glacier, and heading to our tent. It was too late for a heli flight out that night, so we cooked dinner and went to sleep. The following morning we woke to clear skies.  At 9:00AM Wally picked us up and at 9:30 we were back to Petersburg. Heli approaches are so cool. I want one for every climb I do.

Will we go back to touch the top of this mountain? Maybe. I'd like to at some point. Its one of the most beautiful places I've ever climbed, at least when it wasn't raining. I would go back to climb a different route, to explore something else I have not seen before.  There is so much untouched rock out there, and just looking out onto the horizon, seeing all the truly jagged mountains, how could you not want to go back.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Beware: Severe Corniced & Crevassed Ridge

Climbing in the Alaskan Range is the real deal. This real deal experience can be divided into three parts. #1 Planning , #2 Climbing, and #3 Gloating, with #2 requiring the least amount of time of the three.

1) Planning
Three weeks of planning, which included, reading trip reports online, upgrading gear to the lightest and warmest possible, packing, weighting everything, repacking, and repacking again.
We had our eyes set on climbing the Cassin Ridge on Denali. With all that planning and prep for the climb itself, we missed the critical deadline for the climbing permits. The Park requires 60 days notice prior to flying on. I had given them 30 days, and as in many government organizations, there were no exceptions to the rule.
So at the last minute we changed gears and set our site on the West Ridge of Mt Hunter. With it’s reputation being, “ the most difficult 14er in the world”, we had our doubts. Will our muscles (and nerves) be strong enough? Will the weather be nasty? Will the snow be stable? Will our packs be too stupid heavy to enjoy any part of this?
Putting these doubts in the back of our minds, we flew up to Anchorage on April 30th, where our good friends Bob and Celia Lohr, met us at the airport. We were far more organized this year compared to last, so after a quick stop at Costco and REI we were ready for action.
Once in Talkeetna we did a final prep of our equipment and food at the bunkhouse Talkeetna Air Taxi provides complementary to climbers using their services. We packed to be ready to go right from the landing strip to the route. The following morning we were blessed with blue bird skies! Every mountain in the range was out. We piled on TAT’s high-powered Beaver single engine plane equipped with skis for landing on snow, and were off.

2) The Climb
Not wanting to waste any of this good weather we quickly buried our base camp cache, checked in with Lisa, and hit the trail. Not wanting to snowshoe, we had brought our rando skis and boots for the approach and hopefully the climb. Two hours of ski touring and we were looking up at the base of the route. Janelle was not stoked. This thing looked intimidating in photos and down right scary in real life. I was pumped though, so after a little persuading we started up the ridge.

Ascending the first 300-400 feet we were in the “blast zone”, under an active serac that could break off at any time without warning. Putting it in 5th gear, we huffed through the knee deep snow up the 30 degree slope for about 20 minutes until we were clear of the hazard.

Janelle punched though a crevasse shortly after that. She pulled herself out and was unhurt, but it rattled her already sensitive nerves. I took over the trail breaking and we continued up through now hip deep snow. It was slow going. Our packs were full of seven days worth of food and fuel. Even after cutting every with weight, they still weighed about 55 lbs., which is way too heavy to be “light and fast.”

We parked it for the night at the “rabbit ears” rock feature on the ridge. The following morning Janelle was not saying much. On the other side of the rabbit ears was a 300 foot rappel down steep rock and snow. At the fixed anchor Janelle broke down. Rappelling was a huge mental commitment to the route, a point of no return, and she was scared.
My ambition exceeded my fears at that point. I told her that I did not want to turn around because of an unforeseen danger. I wanted to go as long as it was "safe". She made me promise that I would turn around if we encountered a section that was too dangerous to be worth it. I said I would. She looked at me saying nothing. I repeated myself with a little more gentleness. She was back on board, so we threw the ends of the rope down the wall.

The rest of that day and the next were full of steep snowy walls, ice faces, rock sections, pulling on fixed lines, sleeping on small snow platforms and a whole lot calories burnt.

(For fear of having a post that is way too long for any Internet user to actually read, I am going to break this up into two separate posts, so stay tuned for part II.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Did you really call it, "Mudstone"?!?

The overused joke is:
Q: “How can you tell its spring time in the desert?”
A: “Cause all the license plates turn green.”
It’s true, Coloradians flock to the Moab area in Eastern Utah to make their goggle tans fade while biking, rafting, hiking, National Parking, climbing, 4-wheeling, canoeing, and RV-ing.

We had our eyes set on completing #28 of our quest, The Titan via the Finger of Fate route in the Fisher Towers group. At 900 feet tall, the Titan is the largest freestanding sandstone tower in North America. Utah is home to several different types of sandstone, all of which vary in hardness. The majority of the Titan is made of “mudstone”, and as its name implies, it is the softest, and scariest, type of sandstone.

Imagine God taking a big handful of extremely wet mud-infused sand, makes a fist, and lets the sloppy contents drip from His hand, creating this tower. The rock is extremely breakable, unconsolidated and crumbly….and we got to climb 700 feet of this stuff!

Many people aid climb up this route, taking two days to get the job done. I hate jugging ropes, and I do not own any aid climbing equipment. This led to the “decision” to do it in a day, and hopefully have enough gear to get the job done.

The waning gibbous moon was high over our heads, birds were singing, and my heart was pounding as we made our way along the well-beaten path at 5:30AM. The first rays of sun hit the top of the Titan as we came to the base of the route.

Gearing up for the first pitch I was kicking myself for not throwing down the money needed to purchase a set of tri-cams, which were “highly recommended” for the route. They work best for protecting the many piton scars on the route. Instead, I had a triple set of black diamond C4’s, a double set of C3’s, and a set of standard sized stoppers. I call this my “Im scared rack”. Its heavy, but I know I’ll have the gear when I need it…hopefully.

Pitch one was slow. Every hold had to be dusted off, tested for strength, and then committed to with a grimace. As I made my way up, little chunks of rock fell down the route. Janelle had to stand back from the wall to prevent getting pelted. I was placing gear like crazy, every 2-3 feet. I did not know if my gear would hold a fall because the rock was so soft.

Janelle hates jugging lines more than I do, so she decided to French-free as she climbed. The backpack was really heavy, and the first pitch is very vertical. The heavy backpack pulled on her while she climbed, making for a very unpleasant experience. She screamed for me to take up the slack as she desperately grabbed for the next piece, hoping it would not rip out on her as she pulled on it. I have learned over the years that when Janelle gets scared she tends to express that fear by screaming at me. Then I take offense and yell back at her for yelling at me, and then our happy-life-plane goes down in flames.

This time I remembered all those other bad experiences, and decided to learn from them. I encouraged her lovingly. Telling her that she could do it, and how much I agreed with her that the heavy backpack does suck. When she arrived at the belay ledge, I gave her space, then looked at her empathically. It worked! She said she didn’t want to lead any of the pitches, but she would follow. With Janelle back on board mentally, I headed up pitch two.

The A3 crux comes high on the second pitch. This is where I really wanted those tri-cams. With a #2 C4 cam slotted in vertically, with its outside lobes totally tipped out and barely touching the loose mud, I pulled straight down on it, which allowed me to see the next thin seamed crack up and to my right. I tried unsuccessfully to get in several pieces, and finally sunk a thin offset peenut (stopper). Now I had to commit to it. These two pieces looked horrible, and the one below that was not much better. Meaning if I fell, I would probably go about 40 feet! Carefully I pulled on the C4, then shifted my weight to the peenut stopper, and stood up. The next piece was a rusty fixed knifeblade piton that was bent over at its head. By this point I did not have many other options, so I clipped it, yarded on it, and was through the crux.

The rest of the climb was rowdy. Pitons coming half way out of the rock, 1/8th inch bolts that had been placed 50 years ago, 5 piece anchors connected by sun baked webbing, and a bolt ladder that was missing a lot of bolts. This bolt ladder was placed by the 6 foot 4 inch tall Layton Kor, back in the early 60’s. Standing in the highest rung of my aid slings I was still about 8 inches too short to reach the next drilled piton. After trying every way possible for about 10 minutes, I reached for a double-length sling. Putting on my mental cowboy spurs and wide brimmed hat I took the sling, whipped it around a couple times, then lassoed the piton 5 feet above my head….on the first try! I could not believe it. Amped, I pulled myself up the thin cord, clipped in a quickdraw, and the business was over.

The remainder of the climb went smoothly, and as we topped out dark clouds were on the horizon. Rain + Mudstone = Crumblestone, so we put it in high gear to get back on terra firma.

Back in the parking lot we lounged in Lulu and celebrated our adventure with cold drinks, chips, salsa, and a grand view of that amazing tower. Looking at the tower post climb was a different feeling from looking at it the many other times I had seen it in the past. My eyes could trace each part of the climb. Every aspect of the route now had a tangible feeling associated with it. I had experienced that rock, in a way that only other climbers who have touched the top can look at it. This was an amazing adventure climb.

That evening I told Janelle I would never do that route again. Now that a couple months have past, I would climb the route again in a heartbeat (equipped with tricams of course).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Great Tyrolean Traverse

Our time in Yosemite had been great. Following a few rainy days, we decided to have a “light output” day and give the Lost Arrow Spire a go. Turns out, the hike up to Yosemite Point took just about as much
time as the climb itself.

Let me paint the picture. The walls of the Yosemite Valley are about 3000 feet tall. The Spire pulls away from the wall right at the top,
creating this 200-foot tall rock finger island that towers above it all.

To complete the route, and do the tyrolean traverse back across (traverse through air between two high points), you need three ropes. If your ropes are different thicknesses (like mine) you need to follow the geeky 18-step process below.

Rope A = thickest, Rope B = thinnest, Rope C = medium.

1. Tie the end of rope A to the anchor on the Valley rim (this is the starting point).
2. Rappel down all 200 feet of rope A to the notch between the rim and the spire.
3. Tie the end of rope A to the end of rope B, and the other end of rope B to your harness, which creates a 400 foot leash, connected to the top of the Valley rim.
4. Use rope C to climb/belay like normal. Ropes A and B are being trailed by the climber as you make your way up the Spire.
5. Once on top, pull in the slack of rope B (the leash) to get to rope A. Rope A is now spanning the gap between the rim and the spire.
6. Thread the other end of rope A through the anchor on top of the Spire and tie a tied off truckers hitch on rope A to secure it across the chasm.
7. Climber 1 hooks up a mini-traction to their harness and the rope.
8. Rope B is attached to the climber 1, and put on belay by climber 2.
9. Climber 1 uses a jumar (rope ascender) to pull themselves across, while the mini-traction makes it easy to gain ground (one way cinch) as you go across.
10. Once climber 1 makes it back to valley rim, and are off belay, climber 2 unties the truckers hitch on rope A.
11. Climber 2 ties the end of rope A to the end of rope B and C (B was used to belay climber 1 across).
12. Climber 1 pulls rope B across, which gets the other end of rope A to the valley rim, where climber 1 is.
13. Climber 1 ties the end of rope A to the anchor. Now, both ends of rope A are on the Valley rim side and rope C is spanning the gap as well.
14. Use rope C to shuttle the gear (and camera) back across the chasm.
15. Rope C is then tied to climber 2 and climber 1 puts them on belay with rope C.
16. Climber 2 attaches the mini-traction and pulls himself across the chasm, while being belayed by climber 1
17. Once across, untie one end of rope A from the anchor and pull the other end of the rope, causing the rope to go through the anchor on the Spire and back to the Valley Rim side.
18. Coil all the ropes, high five, walk back down to the Valley floor
to celebrate and eat chips and salsa.

All that to say it's pretty involved. There are other ways to do it,
but this worked for us. The exposure is amazing. We were there in the fall, so Yosemite Falls was more of a trickle. Regardless, it was beautiful.

That wrapped up our climbing season for 2010. 27 classic climbs completed, we were still married, and even enjoyed one another’s company!

After a winter of working hard in Crested Butte to beef up the bank account we started the 2011 season with a climb of the notorious mudstone tower north of Moab, Utah, called the Titan. 900 feet of crumbly mud up the highest sandstone tower in North America! That’s next…..

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Big Ditch

Shortly after our pilgrimage to South Lake Tahoe, we had an engine idiot light illuminate on the Lulu's dashboard. Not knowing anything about cars, or how to fix them, we are pretty much at the mercy of the Dodge dealers' prognosis. That led to a rental car and our first (and only) hotel night stay that year. The hotel's bed was not nearly as comfortable, but the long hot shower and hours of mindless TV were pretty nice.

Four days of doing nothing and we were ready to charge again. We picked the van up and headed for Touloume Meadows, on the west side of Yosemite NP. Fairview Dome was in our sites, but the sun was threatening to disappear. We packed quickly, threw in the headlamps, and jogged up the approach least while camera was recording.

This climb is extremely straightforward. Janelle and I were on a roll, so we were able to blast through the route in a very timely fashion. Getting to the top before we knew it, we were greeted with a spectacular sunset over the Sierras. Making it back to the van a good bit before dark was a real confidence booster. We had just completed a sizable climb in a few hours!

That evening we dropped into the Valley. The Yosemite Valley is where rock climbing in the States was born, has grown, and continues to thrive. The most dangerous part of the experience is standing at the El Capitan observation pull off. This 3000' vertical chunk of geology is mesmerizing. So mesmerizing that all of the drivers are looking at it, opposed the road, so its best to stand clear when taking photos.

There are seven classic climbs representing the Valley, which is not over doing it at all in my opinion. We had climbed two of them during past trips (Royal Arches and Middle Cathedral Rock). These are the easiest of the seven, so we had our work cut out for us this time. We did some warm up climbs and then jumped on the Steck-Salathe Route on Sentinal Rock. It is known for its chimneys. Anyone that has ever climbed a chimney knows very well how fun it isn't to wear a backpack during the experience. We opted to leave the 5 pound camera behind to keep the pack sizes as small as possible. It took an entire day to get up the route. That left the night to get down. At the summit the sun tucked behind the horizon, and we dug to the bottom of the pack to get out the headlamps. Turned out, I had left mine in the car.

Not to worry though, I had brought my cell phone (best piece of first-aid equipment we own). With the dim light of the screen, and Janelle's headlamp, we picked our way around the rocks and scrubs. This descent is pretty gnarly the lower you get. At times, I had to put the phone in my mouth so both hands could grab onto the plant life, which suspended me over the darkness that felt really really steep.

Then, I had a eureka moment...remembering that I had downloaded an app on my phone called, "Flashlight" AMAZING! This app turns on the LED bulbs, used for the camera's flash, there are even three brightness settings! By this new found bright light we made our way back down to the trail, and back to the van.

The 5 day forecast was calling for two days of nice weather and then turning to cold crappy weather. The route on Half Dome is on the North side of the Dome, so it receives very little sunlight. We had climbed plenty of cold rock already, and the thought of doing that for 2000 feet made us motivate to get on it asap.

Janelle had reservations about getting on a wall that size, since we had very little, okay zero, big wall experience. Her thought was to do some practice walls to get our systems dialed before attempting it. My mindset was to figure it out as we go. These two mindsets are similar to oil and water. Being the man in the relationship, I forced my way and the next morning we were heading up hill.

The approach is steep and gruelling, up the "death slabs" of granite. The haul bag was probably 1,000lbs (I didnt weigh it, just an educated guess), and that made it a little harder. Four people were at the base of the route when we arrived, prepping for the following day. We decided to fix ropes up the first two pitches that evening. This gave us something to do, and a jumpstart for the following morning.

The big question on this route is, one day or two? If you climb it in one day you dont have to haul a big pack, but you better be a fast climber. We decided to do it in two days, which meant we had to haul. Hauling sucks. "Figuring it out as you go" is very slow. Having a climbing partner that is not really into it, because she was forced into it, does not help either. After 4 pitches we had lost steam. Each pitch was taking forever. We did the math to see how long it would take to get to the top: Forever X 23 pitches = too long. So we bailed. I was pissed. Janelle was pissed. We did not talk the entire 3 hours it took to get back to the Valley floor. Turns out, I put on my grumpy pants when I fail at an objective.

Next post will be on the Lost Arrow Spire and Round II, 2011 plans.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Long Walk to Solid Rock

The next morning, after climbing Whitney, we drove up to Bishop, home of the Shat's Bakery, where they make the best bread I've ever tasted. We drifted down each isle ooggolling all the fat filled delights; danishes, huge gooey cinnamon rolls, sourdough bread, hard candies, doughnuts, and much more. $27.58 later we were on their front patio, filling our faces with several wonderful combinations of sugar, flour, yeast, and butter.

By 2:00PM we were still buzzing on the sugar high from breakfast. We went over to the Ranger Station to get the overnight permits and bear canisters needed for Kings Canyon NP. The disenchanted Ranger raised his eyebrow when I told him we were planning to hike the 13 miles to Charlotte Dome that afternoon. No matter, we still had half a dozen doughs, 5 hours of daylight, and motivation to get this route checked off the list.

13 miles is a long approach. Adding to the fun was our heavy overnight packs, and an 11,000 foot pass that we had to hike up and over. I think the trail could have been 7-8 miles, but the trail makers in California really like their switchbacks. The incline is kept at a mere 1% for the majority of the way. When we crested the pass, the sun was on the horizon, and we still had another 7-8 miles to the base of the route. It was a beautiful evening, so we didnt mind hiking until the stars came out. We found a nice place to camp by one of the many alpine lakes, made dinner, and went to sleep under the stars.

Leaving our overnight gear at our campsite, we moved quickly down the remaining 3-4 miles to the base of the route. The trail slowly deteriorated into nothing the closer we got to the dome. Often, we had to reroute to dodge the shrubby "ouchy plants" that grew everywhere (Im a botanist if you couldn't tell). Charlotte Dome gets bigger and bigger the closer you get. It is really impressive. We scrambled across the 20-30 degree granite slabs at its base and made our way to the toe of the 1,300 foot South Face.

4th-classing up the first three pitches brought us to a small ledge where we roped up. The climbing on this Dome is really amazing. Not a loose rock on it, many different features to climb on, from finger cracks, to open chimneys, to rock horns that beg to grabbed hold of, it has it all. And, keeping it at a 5.8 rating (old school 5.7), the pitches go by rather quickly.

Making it to the top in a few hours, we ate our summit sandwiches while we soaked up some warm Californian sun. The descent is a little tricky because you must walk down steep slabs. I can only imagine how high the pucker factor would be if it were wet, or even worse, icy! Thankfully, it was warm and dry as we padded our way down the slabs, back to our bigger packs. Now it was time for a long walk back to the van. When we stopped to pick up our bivy gear we treated our sore toes to a quick soak in the refreshing alpine lake. A billion low angled switchbacks later we were back to the van, and shortly thereafter, in bed. It had been a 17 mile, 1300 feet of climbing, heavy load carrying, 15 hour day.

Next on the list was the Traveler Buttress at Lover's Leap near South Lake Tahoe. This is one of my favorite locations to climb. The campsite is great, the approach is short, and the rock is fantastic.

Traveler Buttress is the name of the classic climb. It shares its start and finish with Corrugation Corner....we did not know this. So we proceeded to climb Corrugation Corner, think it was Traveler! Oops. It wasnt until the top that we looked at our topo a little harder and discovered our mistake. I knew the 5.9 off-width crux felt a little soft...that is because it was a 5.7!

So we went back to the base, ate some lunch at the van, and then went back up to do the actual Traveler Buttress. It too is a great route. You just cant go wrong at Lovers Leap, even if your not on the route you think you're on!

Monday, January 24, 2011

It Takes Nuts to Climb Mt Whitney

California - where the gas is stupid expensive and the alpine climbing is simply off-the-hook good. The High Sierras are home to some prime time routes, of which I’ve only done a handful, so I was excited to get back there.
The drive from CO to CA is a long one, so we broke it up with a stop in Moab, UT to climb sandstone with a couple Crested Butte friends. From there to Mt Whitney we passed the time by listening to a book on the ipod. I just don’t understand why Harry and Hermione don’t get together, they seem perfect for each other.

Wanting to bypass the annoyance of getting an overnight permit we decided to climb the East Face of Whitney in one long day. We had created a routine of reading the chapter in the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America book to pump us up for the climb. Every chapter has an Equipment section at its end. “Chocks work extremely well, and a selection of 6-8 is sufficient.” We decided it would be fun to do this climb old-school style, and heed the author’s recommendation.

That night we tried to sleep at the trailhead, but the constant stream of fellow hikers getting an “alpine start” put a damper on our effort as they excitedly walked by the van. We finally got up at 4:00AM and hit the trail an hour later.

I had been here to climb the East Ridge a few years prior, so finding the way was not a problem. The fire red morning sun kissed the pale cliffs that make up the range as we made our way up the nearly unbroken granite slabs. We were wearing shorts, a privilege one can experience in the alpine environment few other places in the world, so the sun provided a welcome increase in air temp.

As we scrambled up to the base of the route we heard voices….crap. Not that having other people on the route was unexpected, rather it would slow us down and we didn’t really bring enough clothing to spend the night. There was a party of three finishing up the first pitch, and another party of two waiting to begin. We surveyed the scene, dropped our packs, and began shooting the bull with our newly found climbing buddies.

The climbing on the first pitch was pretty chill. That is, if you don’t look down. If you decide to look down, your stomach might drop a little because there is nothing but air for about 1000 feet. As Janelle led the first pitch there were several fixed pitons along the way, so our stoppers (chocks) were not needed. Once across, we passed the first two guys as we simul-climbed the next several hundred feet. We then did a short pitch to get up on the ridge that divides the two faces followed by a scramble down to a big sandy ledge.

That is where we caught up to the party of three. We perched ourselves on a two foot wide ledge and pulled the parking break. Hanging our feet over the abyss we meet our new friends. They were a married couple who were professional photographers from Italy, Dan Patitucci, here to get some photos of their backpacks in action. Awesome! What a perfect job. Their buddy was having trouble with the next part of the route, so I had time to pepper them with 101 questions about their job.

We eventually got going again, but not before seven other climbers were on the route with us! Welcome to California climbing. The next part of the climb was more like scrambling, so we un-roped and cruised up until the terrain got hard again. During that time Janelle started getting quiet. Anytime that happens I know something is up. Roped up now, I led a full 60-meter pitch and made the anchor. By the time Janelle got up to the belay she felt horrible. The ugly hand of altitude sickness was squeezing her head pretty hard. She bit the bullet, took the lead, and charged for the top. As we pulled away from the other climbers we had about 10 minutes of personal alpine experience, that is, until we got to the summit.

There is very little distance from the end of the technical terrain to the true summit. So you pull over the last big boulder and it’s like you are instantly teleported to the Verizon Wireless store the morning that the iphone goes on sale. People are everywhere. Nearly everyone looks at you slack-jawed, wondering where the heck you came from. “How did you get up here?” is the popular question.

Janelle continued to feel like poo-poo, so she lay down to sleep off the headache. I soaked in the victory and yet another spectacular view. Do you realize just how unbelievably beautiful this country is? Amazing.

We joined up with the crew from Italy on the descent, and the 101 questions turned into 404. I really enjoy talking to people who make a successful living “by their own boot-straps” while still pursuing their passions.

Miles later we were back at the van. We soaked our feet in a snow fed stream, ate chips and salsa, busted into some yuppy cane sugar soda from Whole Foods (Janelle is trying to kick my Coke habit for me), and life was good.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Smiley, Party of Six

“Wanna go climb a 14er with us this weekend?” I asked into the cell phone as soon as we got into cell service coming back from climbing the Petit Grepon. Jake, my good friend since 4th grade, was on the other end. “Of course” he said, “let’s talk more when you get here.”

By the time we arrived at his place in Lafayette, CO, he was already trying to get out of his newly appointed fatherhood responsibilities for the next three days with his wife, Becca, and maintain a happy marriage. Their new twin girls were still the size of footballs. Since mother’s work is never done, this was a tough sell.

Becca is an amazing woman. The following day she cooked us breakfast and wished us well on our adventure. As we piled in the Sprinter, I’m pretty sure (but not positive) that she grabbed Jacob by the throat, pulled his ear to her lips, and said in a loud forceful whisper, “If you die, and leave me here with our babies, alone, I swear I’m going to kill you!” Then smiled, kissed him on the cheek warmly, and shut the door. You might be able to argue the logic, but you can’t argue the point.

We hit 25 minutes of bumper to bumper in Denver, which made me want to chew off my own hands and throw them at something. You see, we live in a small mountain town and the only traffic jam happens when the ranchers drive 500 head of cattle down the road to switch pastures. And that only happens in the Spring and Fall. So I have lost all patience for waiting on other cars. “How do people do it?” we wondered aloud. Our answer: Money, lots of money, and a health plan that includes dental coverage.

South-central Colorado is great. The mountains are tall, the ranches are big, and the people are friendly. We rolled into Westcliffe, where the elevation is 17 times greater than its population, and met up with the rest of our team. Janelle’s younger brother, Owen, came down from Aspen, and Steve and Melody Hanford came from Bailey.

The Hanfords worked as rafting guides in Buena Vista just after the turn of the century, and we have stayed in touch since then through various climbing adventures. It was great to see them again. We had dinner in Westcliffe and then made our way to the trailhead. Excited hunters, eager to get some meat early the next morning for opening day of rifle season, joined us at the trailhead “campground.”

At 3:00AM the hunters fired up their un-muffled four-wheelers and were off. We got up an hour later, ate some oatmeal, and continued up the too-rough-for-our-rig road on foot. The miles passed quickly as we talked to our friends, catching one another up with our current affairs.

Creston Needle is very striking. The Ellingwood Ledges route is visible from miles away, cutting up through the sky like…..something really sharp, and big. We rounded the alpine lake at its base and headed up the talus field to the base of the climb. There were already five other people on the route! I guess it was a weekend, and it is a classic route. Several rocks came shooting down, dislodged from the climbers above. So we waited at the base for them to climb much higher, thus eliminating the danger.

Janelle led Owen and Melody and I took Jake and Steve. Janelle climbed the first pitch, made an anchor, and started belaying her team up to her simultaneously. I started climbing right on the heels of Melody, clipped in to the anchor Janelle had made, and belayed Steve and Jake up. While I was doing that, Janelle started leading the next pitch. Soon we were on lower angle ledges (the name sake), so we coiled the ropes and scrambled several hundred feet.

The mountain tipped back again, and it was time to rope up. So Janelle and I went back to work. Climbing, trailing two ropes, and belaying our friends as they climbed at the same time. It was pretty cool to be right next to Janelle at every belay ledge. Normally she is either climbing or belaying me, so we don’t get to see one another very much during the climb.

At 1:00PM we arrived at our self-declared “lunch ledge” and busted out the sandwiches. We were livin’ the dream, soaking up the warm afternoon sun, laughing, and lazily enjoying the view.

The final section presented the crux of the route. The climbing turned out to be really enjoyable. We crested the summit ridge and touched the top at 14,197’.

The way down was sporty with several sections of scrambling and some exposed steps. This, along with general fatigue, brought the conversations to a halt. We made it down without any drama, and headed back down the jeep road to Lulu. A couple miles before arriving at the van we had to bust out the headlamps for the second time that day….indicating it really was a long day.

Back inside Lulu we brought forth the bounty and enjoyed chips and salsa, refreshing beverages, war-stories of the day, and ideas of our next adventure together. Hopefully that will be sooner than later.