Saturday, January 31, 2009

El Cap Recap

The following is a trip report from a May 2008 ascent of the Salathe:

The pink shadows of a rising sun creep down the granite fortresses that surround us. Morning in Yosemite Valley is so powerful. I jump from the car in front of Lower Cathedral and gorge myself on a view that has escaped my eyes for too long. El Cap roars from the meadows, a colossal wave of tiger striped gold. The feelings that surge through me are different, yet no less potent than those I felt six years earlier when I caught my first glimpse. One reaction remains the same and I feel it to my toes; it is very big and I am very small.

Kj, Paul, and myself are at the base of the Salathe before we know it. Although I haven't climbed a pitch of Yosemite granite for a few years, we are committed to beginning our climb that very day. Kj and Paul have never sailed these seas before and we are hungry for success. We climb the Freeblast that first day, our second climb ever together, and try to adjust our minds and bodies to what lies ahead. I enjoy the climbing, knowing that after today we will face the reality of crushing loads and a huge rack. We rap from Mammoth Terraces in the bright afternoon sun and start the crux which is existing in the Valley.

That night I lie awake, anxious about the day ahead. I am the only one of our team who has climbed El Cap. In fact, I've climbed a fair amount of walls in Yosemite, but never in such a heavy style. I came into wall climbing during the glory days of speed climbing. I can climb quickly, short fix, and tie a clove hitch. These are the very basic skills that have granted me passage in the past, but this will be different. I try to remember my systems from the few times I have hauled a bag. It's not that complicated, but yet, I know we will struggle.

The next day is spent gathering what we need for the wall. Food, ropes, water, rack, clothes, sleeping doesn't sound like much, but it all adds up. Late that afternoon we struggle to the base and begin to jumar frazzled fixed lines. Hauling the first ropelength is a typical nightmare of tangles and clusters. I try to stay psyched. I know this is a crux. Full loads hauled on a slab. It is the definition of pain.

We finally pull the pigs onto Heart Ledge and settle into a nice bivy, definetely the most comfortable of the route for us (we had no ledge and were forced to sleep in less than ideal spots due to crowding on the route). Our spirits rise with the elevation gained. I am so glad to be done with that portion of our adventure.

A stunning sun rise, a cup of coffee and we are off and running, er, well, shuffling. The first day is especially difficult for me. I try to lead quickly and haul like the Incredible Hulk so we can make our goal of El Cap Tower. I make a rookie mistake, forgetting to eat and hydrate like I should. I feel downright sick most of the day and am very relieved when we reach the Alcove as darkness falls. Another party occupys the classic ledge one pitch above, but they can have it. I'm fried. No matter what, El Cap will have it's way with you at some point or the other if you choose to throw yourself in its granite pan.

Clouds swirl about in the morning. The change of weather is a bit suprising really, but we pack our things and start the day. It doesn't take long for the sun to push it's way to the front of the sky and Kj and I soak in rays while Paul leads the second pitch of the day. We make good time to the block, actually catching up to the party in front of us. We decide to bivy at the block, but not after I use our ropes to fix a few pitches. Those four hundred feet of climbing are some of the best on the route for me. I feel the freedom of not having to haul the bags and surge up the enduro corner, free climbing quite a ways up the 5.11 pitch in my approach shoes. Hand jams in golden granite 2000 feet off the deck has me writhing in pleasure.

After an uncomfortable bivy, we set off to finish the climb. Before long I am fixing the ropes after leading the headwall. Long Ledge is quite crowded, and I am forced to construct an akward, but solid anchor. I notice the lines lay over the edge of the ledge, but conciously recognize how smooth the granite is at that point. The boys start jugging as I catch my breath. A few minutes later I take a look at the free line that Kj is jugging and notice a definete core shot that has developed. Holy crap! I recognize that the core is still intact. I know the rope is fine, that it will not break, but that doesn't stop me from exceeding my own strength and holding the rope off the ledge while Kj finishes ascending.

After taping the line, we settle into a long rest period. Long Ledge is a most spectacular hang and we soak it up, snacking and enjoying our incredible position. For the first time I concede mentally that we will make the top. We sure as hell aren't going down from here! This confidence doesn't ease the pain I feel in the off widths that gaurd the top, but we summit in time to watch the sun set. We revel in what we have accomplished as a team. I am truly proud of our effort. Although we all had definite strengths and weaknesses, the sum of our abilities was enough. I feel an especially overwhelming sense of gratitude seeing Kj on top. I knew how much he wanted this summit.

Personally, I gave my all on this wall. The hauling killed me. I am not a big guy, so hauling added a whole dimension of physical exertion that threatened to take hold of not only my muscles, but my brain. Although we did not over pack, I have never taken such a load up the Captain. No matter how you cut it, a team of three climbing for many days in the vertical environment will assure a full load. I'd like to say I'll never climb El Cap in this style again, but when you add up the laughs, triumphs, and disasters of an ascent of this sort, you realize that it was absolutely worth it...and that before long you'll be breaking your back again on the steely walls of El Capitan.

Friday, January 30, 2009

End Of An Era...

My concentration is broken by Ginnie Joe's friendly smile. I look up, the piece of duct tape I was working with still stuck to my fingers. "I thought you said that jacket would never head up another mountain?", she said jokingly. She's right. I did say that, but I also wasn't expecting Sol to call and suggest we leave that very evening for Colfax Peak (near Mt. Baker). We laughed as I continued to patch my tattered North Face. Never say never.

That jacket did suffer through a few more climbs. It was quite comical really. It had certainly lost more than half the down that was once present (probably more). The reality of a worked piece of equipment came into focus during a particularily cold open bivy on an intimidating solo effort. I never wore the jacket again after that long night.

Although it was in no way shameful to throw this jacket in the trash, it sat for weeks on my front porch. I just could not get rid of it. Everytime I picked it up, the memories flooded through my mind. I spent the majority of my life in this jacket over the last few years (there were other jackets before this one). Dirtbagging across the deserts of the west, climbing big walls and long free routes, resting between boulder problems, new routes and classic lines in the alpine, belaying a sport lead on a crisp day, sinking tools into ice, being sick halfway across the globe, passing a cold night on an airy perch...the list goes on.

Just the other day as I was packing to leave for Cali, I noticed the jacket on the porch. "Time to deal with this", I said to myself. I quickly snatched the jacket up and...I sat there staring at it for a minute. I felt like a heroin addict who swears he is about to throw the needle away. It is hard to part with those items that have at some level been a symbol of a certain way of life.

I had my moment with Old Red (my jacket) and stuffed it in the trash. As cheesy as it sounds, I immediatly felt like I had entered a new period in my life as a climber. The adventures that I had in the jacket have brought me to a point I have never been to before. I have always had an unbridaled enthusiasm for climbing and practiced all of its disciplines, but now, I know what climbs truly inspire me. I spend more focused time training for those objectives. I understand elements of the climbing game that had eluded me before. Of course, I still have so much to learn.

Knowing that Old Red was dead, I have found a new jacket, particularily for an expedition Max and I will take in a few months to try and establish the first free route up Alaska's Burkett Needle. I will be there in New Blue, launching into the next phase of my climbing life.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Figures On A Landscape

I'm currently enjoying a few rest days before my flight out to meet my good friend Lucho in San Fran. The weather is looking quite good for some Yosemite granite, but only time will tell. It is the middle of winter after all. Anyway, I came across a few photos that were taken of Max and I on Dragonscar, a route we climbed on Dragontail a few years ago. We were very surprised to receive the photos from a climber who had been on the Colchuck Glacier while we were climbing. Thanks for snapping the shots! They do well at summing up my love for, lightweight movement in spectacular positions.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Get It While You Can...

Conditions in the Icicle Canyon have been absolutely stellar the last few days. Iced slabs, frozen turf, and hard snow has made for super fun climbing. Monday was spent introducing Jess to climbing ice. The day started on a sunny slab and ended in a very fun ice and mixed line on Icicle Buttress that we completed in 4 pitches. A nice first day on ice for someone who has yet to wear crampons!
I had to work on tuesday so an early start was in order, who could be willing???
Rise and shine!

Cole and I climbed a worthy path up Careno Crag as the snow started to blanket the Icicle.
Glad I got to play in the canyon the last few daysas I am flying to Cali on's time to hang up the tools and head south. Long, sunny (hopefully), free routes here I come!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stuart Range Fun

Last year, I finally introduced myself to winter climbing in the Cascades. Guess what? I found it hard, unforgiving, and oh, so fun. I figured I slogged more than 80 miles that winter trying to get up something, anything in the mountains. I failed on every effort because of avalanche conditions and unconsolidated snow each time. Incredibly, this year has featured radically different conditions, and in the last few weeks I have stood on top of four peaks. Cole Allan and I spent January 13-16 at Colchuck Lake.
We found wonderful cramponing everywhere we went and climbed the North Buttress Coulior on Colchuck and a fun gully on Enchantment Peak that had difficulties up to WI3 and 5.7.
We also ran around the Enchantment Plateau in a virtual fairy land. Easy travel led us to the top of Little Annapurna where we soaked in more great views.
At each summit I looked towards Mt. Stuart and it's jaw dropping North Ridge clad in a winter coat of rock, snow, and ice. So far, conditions had been great...just what I was hoping for. The easy routes we had completed had given us a great idea of conditions in the region and allowed
us to study the main event in detail.
We left Colchuck Lake on the 16th of January and returned home to Peshastin to work and rest for a few days. During this time we decided we would indeed try the second winter ascent of the Complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. Colin Haley and Mark Bunker had succeeded on this much sought after objective a few years ago and I had been inspired to do the same ever since.
Cole and I formulated a game plan while we rested and decided on an all out light and fast style. One rope, a little food, a pocket rocket, one sleeping bag, one pad, tools, crampons, a rack, and some clothing was all we would take. Since I have intricate knowledge of the area and the ridge, I would lead the whole route with Cole following. We knew the weather was steady and that we were fit.
We hit the trail at 7:30 pm (I was working all day) on January 19 and made it to the bivy boulder at the base of the route by 3:00 am. Here we melted water, tried to sleep a bit, and prepared our minds. Soon the sky was ablaze with an incredible sun rise and we were off and running.
I led steep snow and neve to wear it ended in vertical rock. I set a belay, took off my boots, put my tools away, put my numb toes in a pair of beat up mythos and started charging up dry, cold rock. I led through several beautiful 5.7-5.9 pitches quickly. On the hardest pitches Cole (aka The Hass) jugged with both packs. The climbing became more mixed as we moved up the lower part of the North Ridge, but I kept the rock shoes on, even when climbing ice and snow. I pounded my gloved fists into the snow instead of getting the tools out, while connecting patches of icy rock. This full on monkey style had us at the notch at a reasonable hour that afternoon. We watched the sun sink in the west and cuddled together in our ghetto gear as long as we could stand it, which was quite a while actually. At 3am we left our bivy with tools in hand and boots on our feet. I led pitch after pitch of mixed fun, all of which was in great condition. I was leading across a snowfield towards the base of the Great Gendarme when the sun came up. The colors left us awe struck and we felt blessed to be where we were. Although the Gendarme pitches were a bit icier than the lower part of the route, I still donned the rock shoes. I made quick work of the pitches and The Hass jugged like an animal with both packs. Once on top of the gendarme we climbed more mixed ground to the summit. The route had taken us about 30 hours and had been one of the best in recent memory. Every foot of climbing had been classic, the positions unbeatable, and the views...oh, the views.
From the summit we descended quickly down the Sherpa Glacier Coulior and after a few hours were hiking out of the valley. We stopped every few feet to look back at the amazing ridge, but finally got on our way, arriving in Peshastin at 9 pm that evening.
The Complete North Ridge in winter has been a goal of mine for a few years and to succeed on my first try was a true blessing. Cole had a great attitude. We share a true love for climbing and refuse to to give up. This passion got us up the ridge. I can only wonder...what's next?

The Independence Route-V 5.12A R

From the free climber's perspective, the east face of Liberty Bell is perhaps the most overlooked "big" wall in the Cascades. Sure, many people tackle Liberty Crack and Thin Red Line in a traditional wall style, but it is a true rarity to hear of a free ascent of the east face. This past summer, I was able to spend a bit of time climbing in the area and realized that nothing in the Cascades can offer a similar experience-hard free climbing, on beautifully featured stone, in an incredible alpine setting.

The Independence Route, one of the big three 1960's aid climbs to breach the east face, had always held my interest. There is a great topo of the route in the Beckey guide detailing a free ascent by Steve Risse and Kieth Hertel. As far as I knew no one had repeated the route free. From the few reports I had heard of people aiding the route, I expected challenging, scary free climbing. The Beckey book also said the route was done with "some preplaced gear and inspection". How would it feel from the ground up? Only time would tell.

My first effort on the route was with my freind Sol Werkin. Right away the climbing was tedious and the gear thin. Although I fell off that first day, we got to the top of the route, and I was happy to have climbed through the runouts in a ground up style. I did not expect an on sight as most Cascade lines of this magnitude are chalkless and dirty and require a certain knowledge of the terrain to succeed. As we descended in the night I felt I had that certain knowledge now and vowed I would return the next week.
A few days later I returned with Max Hasson and started up the route again. We quickly dispatched the first few pitches of climbing, both of which had fun, quality moves up to 5.11A.
The next pitch, 5.11+ R, was a serious lead. I placed a funny nut right before the hardest climbing and then made delicate moves until I was well above the piece. Perched on two small holds I made a controlled dead point to a nice edge. The crux was over, but the climbing remained difficult and slabby. Right near the end of the long pitch I blew a slippery holdless slab sequence and fell onto the rope. No!
I immediatly rehearsed the move, and lowered to the belay, pulling out the gear I had placed. On big free ascents you have to remain positive. Back at the belay I rested, ate a bar, and gave Max (see picture) a frustrated look or two. Once I had gathered myself I started up the pitch and quickly arrived at the anchor, glad I didn't slip off the slab again. Max then led a nice 5.11B pitch up cracks and through a fun roof.
This put us at the base of the crux 5.12 lead. The moves off the belay on this pitch were difficult and very thin. An intricate slab sequence led to a big move to a small tree (gotta love the Cascades).
I swung right on the tree like a monkey and established myself in a long, flaring corner system. Insecure jams, body scumming, and balancy moves saw me at the anchor not long after starting. Max followed cleanly and quickly racked up for another pitch of mid 5.11.
At this point we knew we had the route. As I followed Max up the last hard pitch I made sure to enjoy the moves and exposure. There is nothing like hanging off a solid jam, eyes scanning a rugged mountain scene. I soon arrived at the large ledge that marked the end of the hard climbing. We put away the tag line, and tailored our small haul bag into a backpack. Soon we were blitzing fun, easy climbing to the summit.

As we sat on the top we soaked in the incredible view and talked excitedly about free climbing on the east face. Why are more people not up here we wondered??!!
Later that summer I ran into Mikey Shaefer. He had just freed Thin Red Line at mid 5.12. The quality of the route was amazing he said. Right at the end of the season I was able to get on the route (cold weather and a battered body kept me from the send) and confirmed its classic free climbing status. Although a bit more difficult than the Independence Route, it is not nearly as mental. I am excited to return next season and send both Thin Red Line and Liberty Crack. Three, high standard free climbs now exist on the east face of Liberty Bell and in the future I dream of a link up of all three routes. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 23, 2009

All Along The Watchtower

A traditional climber at heart, I am compelled by the beauty of the stone I move on. The routes that call me are not forced up blank walls, but instead link features such as cracks, corners, and ridges. A suddle and exciting connection of natural weaknesses through the gut of a massive wall seems perfect to me. But the mountain only defines part of my inspiration. The human element is also important. Two people moving up a canvas of stone using only their physical prowess, skill, and mental intuition ties it all together.

All Along The Watchtower fits my criteria for a world class route and then some. Hidden away on the elusive, yet accesable west face of the North Howser Tower, it takes a direct line to the summit. My good freind Max Hasson and I shared the dream of completing a one day team free ascent of this route. Judging from past parties experiences on the wall, we knew our goal would demand perfection all day long. Fitness and technical granite skills were one half of the equation. The other half encompassed the mind game. We had to be calmly focused, even in the most intense moments. We certainly did not expect to fail, but we also knew success was a long shot that depended on many factors. Our plan was to take it step by step, stay in the moment, and do our best.
July 17th, Peshastin, WA:
I step over a duffle bag, start the coffee process, and walk out the front door. The warm summer dawn is comfortable and I can't help but feel a bit giddy at the thought of our adventure ahead. Soon I am called back inside by boiling water and before long we're on the move.

July 19:
We are here, which is nice, because Max's rig is classic climbers fare. Solid, but aged. My senses perk as I step out of the car. Sweet smelling alpine flowers, clarity of high air, a tickle on my neck from a pesky fly. We tediously stuff the food and gear into packs and step onto the trail. Psyched.

July 20th:
Plunging steps into the East Creek Basin, we notice two climbers surfing golden granite high on the Minerate. They are obviously free climbing difficult terrain in a fast, light weight style. Inspired, I pick up my pace, hopping over rubble strewn about the snout of the glacier. Soon we are settling into an incredible camp site. The weather is splitter and we decide to only stay for a few hours before setting off.

July 21st-July 22nd:
The stars are clear in the black sky. The winds are calm and the air has a soft crispness to it. As I slither out of my sleeping bag I notice Max's headlamp illuminate the sides of the tent twenty yards away. Gametime. We down coffee and oats as we watch the two climbers we saw yesterday rap the Minerate. Their small voices grow bigger as they descend and soon they are running towards our camp, all smiles under failing head torches. Nico Favarase and Sean Villinuevo, two Belgians known for climbing in pure style on the world's biggest free climbs, eagerly describe their ascent and wish us the best of luck on ours. Chatting with Nico and Sean under a moonlit South Howser Tower at 2 am energizes us more than the caffiene buzzing through our veins. We turn our backs on camp and execute the approach. My light footwear makes hard snow more interesting than usual, but we have fun moving in the night under the Howsers.

It is plenty light by the time we begin the climb.

Polished stone and wonderful cracks turn out to be not so perfect when we find they dead end. We make our only route finding error very early, make the correction and keep moving. Midday finds us at the base of the most beautiful corner I've ever seen. An absolutely splitter system, the corner provides clean 5.11 climbing for many pitches.

Near its top the corner arches left. We are suprised to find the seepy feature is quite thin. I immediatly recognize the slabby sequence of credit card dancing under the arch. Not the tips underclinging I expected. Although I give the pitch everything my dehydrated body has to offer, I fall off in a fire of light as day blends to night. Max also gives the pitch his best on the follow, but pulls on a few pieces. There will be no free ascent, but we are proud of our effort and keep moving. One last painful pitch delivers us to easy climbing and a snowpatch where we start brewing some much needed water. At first light we are off. The rope put away, we solo in a most incredible position.

We foot shuffle, straddle, and hand traverse the snaking ridge that leads to the top. Soon we are on the summit watching clouds dart across the morning sky. We enjoy ourselves for a bit, laughing and lounging, but eventually start to make our way down the east face.

Soon we are on the glacier, dodging snow sloughs from the sunny walls above. We move quickly through the danger zone and gain the Vowell Glacier. From here, simple heel plunges carry us quickly towards our base camp. As I throw my pack in the talus next to our tent I notice Nico and Sean running over. Their psyche is like one thousand cups of coffee and the energy fuels Max and I for another 6 hours. Music, noodles, and a bit of whiskey are the staples of this party.
We talk excitedly about everything from the raddest routes on the world's greates walls to moves we love on our local rocks.
At some point we finally decide to lay down and catch some rest. I bivy outside, the South Howser Tower rearing above my head. A smile of satisfaction creases my face. I am happy with our effort, but I also begin to dissect every decision we made. Was the pack too heavy? Did we not pace ourselves correctly? The free ascent was at our fingertips...How can we improve our techniques? As always, there are ways to improve and lessons learned. Surely we will apply what we have learned to many other great walls.