Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The First Day of School

Colin and I had our first day of big wall school as it were on the University Wall in Squamish.  In addition to being our introduction to wall climbing systems, it was also my vertical bachelor party.  Thus, we took along some excess weight mostly in the form of beer.  We learned a lot about how to rig a haul, haul the pig, set up and live on ledge.

More than anything I learned that I like free climbing a lot more.  Don't get me wrong, I completely look forward to spending some time on El Capitan climbing routes that largely go free with long sections of aid or even some of the easier aid routes.  However, considering that I already don't have enough time to climb, I'm not convinced that I want to spend any of it learning to hang from increasingly sparser and poorer protection.  That being said I do enjoy that aid climbing puts you in amazing positions and with all the luxuries and comfort of the ground.  It's quasi-vertical camping.

Slab-hauling to the base of the U-Wall

Colin cleaning the first pitch... looks like a better free pitch than aid!

You can tell you're new at wallin' when you take a picture of easy hook placements....

Big Wall cuisine

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Lessons From History

After repeating the Beckey-Chouinard on South Howser Tower I spent some time looking through pictures of my original ascent.  I'm struck by this picture from my original ascent which was taken at the base as we changed into rock shoes.  Specifically, I'm amazed by how big this pack is (35L and filled to the brim).  What could I possibly have taken?  More specifically, what should I have left out?  To answer this question I'm going to compare and contrast the two ascents packing list.

2005:  Full shank climbing boots, ice axe, crampon (half set), camelback, food, rain pants and jacket, puffy jacket, soft shell jacket.
2012:  Approach shoes, ice axe, crampon (half set), camelback, food, rain pants and jacket, puffy jacket, windbreaker, sil tarp or sleeping bag.

Looking about the packing lists, is I actually brought MORE gear on the second ascent but somehow brought a pack only half the size.

I'm sure most of us have passed somebody on the trail with a massive pack for a short trip and thought "What did they pack?"  Here's my theory:  It's not the necessary items that make the difference its all the non-essentials that alter pack weight and size.  The massive caveat being that doing without a "necessary" item will obviously make a difference.  For example I brought approach shoes instead of boots which saved space and weight, and worked given the conditions. Also, we could have done without the sleeping bag and sil-tarp for our planned bivy but would have frozen in the predicted rain.

For a 1-1.5 day climb, aside from basic clothing and whatever gear you're forced to carry over, how much junk could you possibly need?  You'll need a couple liters of water (plan on being dehydrated by the end), about 8-10 bars, headlamp, gloves and hat if its ends up being colder than anticipated, blue bag for mid-route deuce, 20 feet of rap tat and that's about it.  I would advocate for leaving the ten-essentials at the base and only taking what is needed for upward and downward progress and survival for the interim between the two.  Streamline your packing by taking care of tasks ahead of time.  Instead of bringing sunscreen make sure to lather up in the morning and leave it in camp.  Forget the extra batteries, make sure to put a fresh set in before every big climb.  In fact forget anything for which "extra" is written down on the packing list.

A good objective is use everything that you bring on a route and when you get down to the base and say you've done that, then you know you packed well.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Onsite Rappeling in the Bugaboos

With Rob in from Chicago for just over a week, we knew that we had a narrow window to work with.  Typical weather in the Bugaboos leaves something to be desired.  Thankfully for us, Rob's airline itinerary coincided with the 48 hours of good weather needed to get us into the range, on to- and off-of a big route with only a short dousing.  

Though, I'd climbed the Beckey-Chouinard years previously I have always wanted to return in part because its an amazing route and also because, at the time, the route had pushed me to my limit and our "in-a-day" ascent became a 26 hour suffer-fest.  Rob and I wanted to improve on that experience by going faster, lighter and climbing in better style.

We planned for another single day push, but clouds rolled in during the night causing us to rethink our plan and hit the snooze button.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) the dawn broke clear and we decided to saunter over to East Creek, bivy and climb the next day after some predicted evening rain.  In the end, our desire to climb trumped our desire for comfort and we headed out just after midday with small packs, a down sleeping bag and a sil-tarp.  

After making great time in the waning daylight, we turned our headlamps on at the final pitch and made it to the summit an hour or two later.  Unfortunately on the rappel we blew the onsite and were unable to find the descent route that night.  For future descensionists the first rappel goes skier's right!

We tossed down the ropes, pulled out the sleeping bag and settled in for a few hours until first light illuminated the descent and we made our escape.  

Despite having to bivy for a few hours, I'm pretty happy with our style on this route as we expected to bivouac having started so late in the day.  Additionally the weather held out just long enough that we only got rained on during the walk back to the route's base and our packs.  Being on the receiving end of weather induced failure, it was satisfying to watch several parties rap the route that day in the rain knowing that we had just capitalized on the narrow weather window.

The Beckey-Chouinard

Beautiful 5.9 corner mid-route
Rob following before the ledges at about half-height

The fatigue setting in...
Rob showing his respect to Scotland

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

COG (Climb of Girth)

Until recently I have been unaware of the latest entry into the climber's vernacular:  MOG.  For those of you not learned in climber speak, a MOG is a man of girth... we'll apparently this last weekend was a COG (climb of girth).  Colin and I teamed up for the Girth Pillar and had a great if not adventurous time.  We made good time throughout our climb even considering the two pairs of boots, axes and crampons that the follower was force to carry.
There isn't any section on this route that is amazing but the entire package makes it worth climbing.  Many (most?) people seem to approach via the N Ridge bypass which makes it a considerably shorter climb and easier due to lack of ice climbing terrain and required gear.  I'm glad we climbed it via the Ice Cliff Glacier but it was a lot of work.  We encountered three pitches on the Ice Cliff that we felt were belay worthy, but if you had two tools you likely would just solo through (but then you have to carry two tools).
Our excitement factor was multiplied by a surprisingly active Ice Cliff Glacier and a rock fall incident that destroyed one backpack and put two core shots in our lead line.  Misadventures aside we rallied and finished the climb in good time and were still friends at the end of the story.

Climbing down low on the L to R leading ramp to the Girth Pillar

Colin jugging up to our hanging belay on the Girth Pillar

Me leading the 5.11 section on the second pitch

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Adventures in Meth-opotamia

The climbing at the Index Town Walls is perhaps the biggest draw to the Sky Valley aside from the meth cookers.  The climbing can get you just as high... without all those bugs crawling under your skin.

Jason and I ran out for an after-work session up at the upper town wall.  It had been about ten years since I'd been on Heaven's Gate which is a fantastic sport multipitch line about fifty yards left of Davis-Holland.  There isn't a bad section on this route and developers bolted it very well (albeit a tad conservatively in some sections).  Bring 14 draws, leave the trad rack hanging at the first belay and a single 70m rope will get you up and down.  In my mind this route is on par with Davis-Holland an ought to have a line at the bottom.  

Jason climbing Lamplighter (Heaven's Gate's first pitch).

Jason nearing the top of the second pitch.

Jason on the third pitch.  The route finishes up the obvious
double roofs above with a definite crux at the second roof.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Come to Washington Pass for the Crack

This summer started out right with a great day out and a route scratched from the tick list.  Though Washington Pass has some of the best alpine climbing in the state, I've actually climbed there very little.  Though low lying fruit abounded, Chris and I opted to try Freedom Rider an entirely free route on the E Face of Liberty Bell.  

There should be a line at the base of this route.  After two easy and somewhat loose pitches one reaches the crux third pitch.  The third pitch is either a reportedly scary and runout 10d or an 11b offwidth.  We chose the offwidth and days later I still look like I got attacked by a bear.  

After the crux pitch, the route briefly joins the Liberty Crack route where it surmounts the aptly named "rotten block" then heads off right.  A massive chimney feature leads into Medusa's Roof which is one of the most unique pitches I've ever climbed.  Back-to-foot chimney moves lead horizontally out from the belay then overcome a massive chockstone and follow a splitter crack to the belay.

It was fun to climb with Chris who has spent many days climbing at Washington Pass and had previously climbed all the pitches on Freedom Rider beyond the rotten block.  

Best of all, though we carried rain gear in our packs all day, the rain held off until the precise moment we reached the car.  Nothing better than hitting a weather window perfectly... makes going to work all weekend, in the rain, more bearable.

Chris on the approach (if you can call a 30-min stroll and approach!)

A little spice at the end of pitch two, face climbing between cracks.

Chris about to pull over the chockstone on Medusa's Roof. 

Even the townspeople came out to see...

Friday, March 30, 2012

Too Cold to Fire

Colin and I headed to Alaska just after the official start of Spring.  We were the first climbing party to fly in this season (other than the winter big-mountain soloists).  We didn't get anything done besides taking our gear for a walk a couple times... unfortunately it took two airplane rides and a car rental to get our gear to the glacier so we could walk it.

I can't really describe how cold it was except to stay that everything froze, quickly.  It was a big effort for us to stay warm in base camp and it was impossible to stay warm while climbing, alpine bivying or belaying.  The results of the trip are still disappointing and will probably cut even deeper as temps improve and people start sending climbs.

Though a complete failure from a climbing standpoint we did get to spend a week in one of the most beautiful places in the world, explore some potential new lines and see an amazing show of the aurora borealis.

We'll both be back to Alaska... but not in March.

Looks warm in the sun, but I don't think we felt north of zero

Skiing toward Mtn. House from Peak 11,300

What we did in the 10 hours we weren't in sleeping bags

The morning after a miserable night

Flying out of the Ruth Gorge

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Best Ice Crag in North America

Sorry Banff, you too Cody.  Colorado, you weren't even in the running...  

Lake Willoughby, VT takes its rightful spot as the best ice crag in North America.  Over the length of about two miles ice spills off Mt. Pisgah forming many sustained difficult ice climbs.  There's no contrievance at Willoughby.  Most are independent lines on independent features... and they're proud.  Essentially everything is harder than Wi4 and many are harder than Wi5.  A few of the prouder features fall plumb-line for three rope stretching pitches.  The best part might be the approach: a ten minute stroll up a hillside.

Don't get me wrong, there is more proud climbing within a three hour radius of Banff than there is within three hours of Lake Willoughby but on a crag-to-crag basis its the best and is a lot of room for futuristic lines  on par with anything that the Stanley Headwall or Trophy Wall have to offer.

Given its easy access from urban centers and major international airports, for my money, I'll be back next year for sure...

Andrew about to top-out on a Willoughby Pillar.  

This is the NE's worst year in decades...
and there were still about ten individual lines in.

Cruising up an Underwood Canyon classic...

The NE:  Climb Free or Die!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Blue Light Special

Though I had spent most of the past week in a benadryl and illness induced coma, the high pressure system and a couple motivated partners spurred me to consciousness.  Though I ended up drafting on my partners more than usual (especial at camp) still manage to lead a couple solid blocks of leads and together we completed a first winter ascent on a big route in good style.  Surprisingly everything went to plan.  We made it to the bivouac on day one with minimal night climbing, made it to the summit and back down to our packs in the daylight, even the snowmobile ran on our trip out!

Our line followed the buttress between the two prominent couloir systems

Jens has to be the most knowledgeable person for the Stuart Range.  He claims something like 180+ trips into the range... I thought I was bored of the area after maybe 18 trips! Unfortunately the line was nearly devoid of climbable ice being mostly comprised of frozen turf, snowy rock and icy cracks.  It wasn't dry enough to take off the crampons or even holster the tools for a pitch nor was it icy enough to prevent complete dulling of those points.  A small price to pay... gear is meant to be used after all.

The Blue Light Special 
Me scraping up the lower buttress on day one
We climbed in blocks of 2-4 pitches depending on terrain.  On the first day Jens and I both lead a three pitch block which brought us to a rappel and a short traversing pitch to the narrow bivouac ledge.  There is nothing I love more than an alpine bivy where you have to guy the tent to keep it from rolling off a cliff and stay tied in for the entire night... sleeping with a helmet on gives you bonus points.

Pretty awesome exposure on day two... the void looking right back...
 Colin lead out on day two.  His block had some amazing exposure.  I mentioned to Colin that it was like looking into the void, then realizing it was staring back at you (Nietzsche?).  Jens with his vast area experience knew every turn of the upper ridge and ended up taking another block with long simul-climbing sections.  I took the final block which culminated in a complex pitch to the windy summit anchor.
Jens negotiating the hurricane winds at the summit
It's pretty rare that an alpine climb works out... but this one did in essentially every aspect.  Colin even made it to his party in Seattle on day two!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The NW Ice Cycle

Just some more local ice that nobody is getting after...

The NW Ice Cycle
Will Gadd made up a Rockies Ice Cycle for his GravSports webpage.  Though ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies is magnitudes greater than the NW, I’ve created the NW Ice Cycle (hint, there is a lot of driving).  As a NW based ice climber I’ve hunted for ice with varying success and still managed to rack up 30-40 days each season.  Though I would never advise that anyone both be an ice climber and live in the NW but if necessary hopefully this will help you enjoy a long season and progress as an ice climber.
There just isn’t a lot of ice in the NW.  Though there are plenty of climbers who rack up double digit days climbing only in the NW you will spend a lot of low quality days on mediocre climbs without sustained difficulties.  If you want to increase the difficulty of what you’re climbing each season you need to climb what we do have: rock.  Establish a drytooling crag on some low quality crag to get used to climbing with your tools and crampons as well as developing some sport specific strengths and skills.
Summer:  Enjoy the good weather and climb lots of rock.  Your rock training will translate to ice skills once it gets cold.  True prophets of the sport will develop a local mixed crag where they can train in the fall and winter when there is no local climbable ice, or when schedule dictates a quick session.
Late Summer/Early Fall:  If you’re keen the serac climbing is in good shape this time of year.    Serac climbing is pretty mundane so most climbers will (should) opt for some crisp fall rock climbing.  If you have a local drytooling crag this is a great time to get a session or two.  If you get comfortable climbing with tools and crampons now, it won’t feel awkward when the early season ice forms.  Regardless, start doing some pull-ups.
October:  There is always a window for early season alpine ice in October in the NW.  Despite the message boards, I have climbed routes in excellent condition when everyone says that “nothing is in.”  Look for high elevation routes (Colfax, etc.) and go for it, there almost always in by mid-month.  This is also an awesome time to head to the Rockies.  If you get there before the snow starts dumping you can climb alpine on the Icefields Parkway or hit one of the many alpine-esque ice routes around Canmore.  Distant areas like the Sphynx in Montana or the Beartooths in Wyoming can be great now too.
November:  This is a month to travel.  Get as many days as you can, that way you’ll be honed when the climbs come in at home.  Bozeman, Cody and Banff should all be in condition by now.  The weather is probably too poor to climb high elevation ice in the NW and there won’t be any low elevation ice.  If atypical weather occurs there will be ice at elevation in the NW and it needs to be climbed.  Between trips you could be climbing at your local mixed crag if you bothered to make one over the summer.  Since you probably didn’t you’re like 98% of NW climbers and are watching the boards religiously while more inspired climbers have already racked up 10+ days.
December - February:  This is basically the  ice season in the NW.  It varies year to year but if you know where and when to climb you can climb almost every weekend these months.  If you get a strong arctic front it is really easy to find local climbs because everything is in on the West side.  Watch the telemetry and look for areas like Leavenworth, Banks Lake and Vantage when the East side is cold but its wet everywhere else.  Strobach Mountain is the best ice climbing in Washington.  In fact, if you consider the Motherload crag it is probably one of the best in North America.  I’ve climbed extensively from Banff, Cody, Colorado, Utah, California and New England and the only crags better than Strobach are Lake Willoughby, VT, the Stanley Headwall, BC and the Trophy Wall, AB.  It’s that good.  In all my trips to Strobach I’ve never even seen another climber, by far the most underused resource in Washington.  If there isn’t a lot of ice formed or it’s a bit warm try climbing the mixed lines on Icicle Creek Road.  It’s Little Bavaria’s answer to Scottish climbing and there are probably 300+ lines along the road that are only touched by a handful of climbers.
March:  Time to travel again.  Banff in March is amazing.  The days are long, the temperatures are moderate, the climbs are fat and the snow has settled.  Take a week because you will have the place to yourself.  Everyone is tired of ice from the winter, but because you’re from the PNW and haven’t seen any ice so far you’ll be stoked and alone on the climbs.  This is a great time to be rewarded for a season of poor conditions and hunting for ice.  Though there are exceptions, in general, the days are too long for climbs to form in the NW but alpine routes are possible and should be considered if conditions permit. 
April-Early Summer:  The ice sticks around for a long time in the alpine.  I know of routes like the NW Couloir of Eldorado getting climbed in July as fat ice routes.  There is no reason that the start of rock season should indicate the end of NW ice climbing.  There are hundreds of fat alpine ice routes waiting for a willing climber who has an imagination (and a bookmark of the Scurlock photo-gallery).  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Land of the Living and of the Dead

After a somewhat intense night at work and the news of a couple recent climbing deaths the reality of morbidity and mortality, for me, is glaringly present.

I deal with death more than most people.  Through working full time in a busy urban emergency room and then engaging in a recreational activity that is not devoid of risk I have first-hand experience with more debilitating injuries and mortalities than I want to think about.

I forget who to attribute this to, but the quote goes that climbing isn’t worth dying for, but it is worth risking dying for.  I won’t argue with that. 

I’ve never been more engaged in the moment than when I’m climbing, but it is not without risks.  Even miniscule mistakes in climbing can have life-altering, or ending, results.  Most climbers don’t acknowledge the actual consequences of their actions.  There aren’t many climbers that who have confronted climbing’s consequences and still climb with a carefree mindset.  I’m not one of those lucky few.  The lessons learned in the past years have taught me how precious and delicate life is.  I now know how lucky I am to have the ability to pursue my passion, and that in the end, my recreational pursuits are meaningless. 

Life is fragile and transient.  Climbing accomplishments are such a small fragment of a persons’ life that they’re practically inconsequential.  Do what you have passion for, but keep it in perspective.  Climbing is amazing but relationships are important.  It’s hard to remember who had what ascent on which peak and during which season but it is a persons’ relationships that endure.

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. –Thornton Wilder

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter Climbing: Fun, and not just in retrospect

This year winter starts in mid-January.  

Despite an early fall storm and an early start to the ski and ice seasons, January found us with conditions more reminiscent of fall than winter.  Snow was minimal in the alpine leaving many faces dry when typically they would be icy.  In normal years I wouldn't even consider heading for a rock face if I had stable snow and weather in January, but this year is different.  

Taking advantage of the rare conditions, Blake suggested we complete the first winter ascent of Colchuck Balanced Rock West Face.  Aided by a well packed trail due to a Denali training trip (thank you sloglodytes!) and firm neve we had an easy approach on the first day and camped beneath the face.  On the second day we slept in a little to avoid the brutal temperatures completed the climb and started the descent.  We summited just as the sun set and made a hasty descent reaching the car from the summit in just three hours. 

Winter climbing is another game entirely.  The "easy" pitches that collect snow and ice provided the crux and the "hard" steep pitches were mostly straightforward aid, french-free and free climbing.  Blake ripped out a cam while french-freeing on the first pitch setting the tone of the climb and essentially set the tone of the climb.  I found a snow and ice chocked corner that made me dig barehanded in the snow for placements and left me with a rp rat nest anchor.  Blake had an especially exciting snow and turf mantel on the third pitch which would have been made easier by the tools accidentally left at the belay.  The remaining "hard" pitches to the summit were straightforward and devoid of snow.

Blake and I actually had fun while climbing that route.  Winter climbing is rarely enjoyable in the moment and usually in retrospect the miseries are as memorable as the joys.  That we actually enjoyed ourselves should be a statement to the quality of the climbing, the weather and the experience.    

Walking across a frozen Colchuck Lake with CBR W Face in the sun upper left.

Exciting climbing on the "easy" pithces

Jugging the corner
Following the crux pitch

Summiting in the twillight