Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chasin' Tail: A hairy first ascent on D-tail

It's time to bail. Adam's got the other rope in the pack. You know you can build safe enough anchors to get down. It's time to bail, it's time to bail, it's time to bail...

As I manage a steep wall of granite puzzle pieces my conciousness battles itself. The voices in my head send conflicting messages.

This is it. You'll never be up here again. Be patient, thread the line through the choss. The rock looks better above. Take it step by step, move by move. Stay in the moment, be in the moment, stay in the moment, be in the moment...

Adam Lawson and I are navigating a new swath of rock on Dragontail's NE face. Well right from Dragons of Eden and Dragonfly, I lead through desperate pitches of choss. I can only connect the passages by tension traversing between the best kitty litter. The runouts are long and the climbing insecure. Adam wants nothing to do with this crap. He's smart. And strong. He's carrying our one pack, laden with an extra rope, food, and a couple of jackets. This sacrifice gives me the ability to sink into my crazy world, find a consistent headspace, and pick my way through the dark, vertical maze.

"That was horrifying". Adam repeats this mantra as he reaches each belay. I try not to meditate on those words despite the fact that my world is dark with lichen, shitty pro, and razor sharp, rope mangling stone.

You're only up here once Jens. Look ahead. Find the path. You can do it.

My physical and mental strength are just enough to push us up into a headwall of solid stone. Finally, the rock shapes up into classic Stuart Range granite. Textured with diorite knobs and lined with continuous crack systems, the last three pitches pull us towards the upper NE Ridge. Arriving at easier ground I breathe a sigh of great relief. I don't even bother to look over the edge at the wall we've just ascended. My head is blown from managing serious risk for so long and I don't even care to look down into the maze of fear below. After a sandwich and a bit of water we arc across the serrated ledges of the NE Ridge. For 1700 feet we traverse over mostly solid rock, finally arriving at the NE summit, a high point where I always end routes that scale this side of Dragontail's mile wide face. The sun is still fairly high in the party cloudy sky. I am excited that we've established such a big, complex new route in a very reasonable amount of time. Adam and I worked well together, each playing our role with pointed assertion.

The setting sun descends with us out of the alpine and back into the forest. Darkness joins us for the final mile to the car. Techno beats give me strength and we barely suffer. I feel a happiness in overcoming my fear. It did not own me today.

Chasin' Tail
IV 5.10 AI
FA Jens Holsten and Adam Lawson, 7/24/2011

Stuart Days

The past few training days in the Stuart Range have focused around enjoying moderate routes new to my partner and I. With a high summer snow pack and reasonably cool temps in the Cascades, Mt. Stuart has remained a place for boots, an ice ax, and a warm jacket.

A few hours after the show...

Right before my trip to California, Joel Kauffman and I raced up the the Stuart Glacier Coulior the day after I gave a slide show at LMS. Joel and I can't seem to not go climbing after slide shows. A few weeks earlier, a Jim Donini presentation sent us into a psyched craze that spun us up Argonaut Peak. The SGC was in amazing condition and we both savored the rime covered mixed climbing on the West Ridge.

Beautiful climbing on the upper West Ridge

The most recent Stuart mission was a nice jaunt up the Razorback Ridge. Geoff Cecil and I thought this seldom done route was fun and worthy. It's no North Ridge, but the rock is beautiful (even under the lichen!) and the snow patches on route made for fun mixed flair. Without a doubt, the highlight of the day was an exhilarating leap over the bergshrund at the bottom of the Sherpa Glacier Coulior. It took me a minute to psyche up, but the stunt turned out to be fun huck.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cloud Racing On Dark Star

Mike's worried look captured my own thoughts exactly. Neither of us wanted to admit to the other that our psyche for a free attempt on Half Dome over the crazy July fourth weekend was fading in the light of sweaty tourists, LA like traffic, and over hyped tools in green.

I had asked Mike Collins to join me on another free attempt of the face Kyle and I had tried a few weeks previously. Hardened from pitch after pitch of California granite, I felt I could send the route this time around. I had worked hard to beat the weakness out of myself in the weeks between and I wanted to finish what I'd started. My heart warred between accomplishing the free climbing goal of my trip and the desire to feel the solitude of nature that is a defining factor for me in this vertical game. I was in no mood to deal with the Big Ditch and its soul sucking vibe. Half Dome could wait. I just wanted to have fun, to breathe clean crisp air, approach under the stars, and climb into the sunrise.

Dark Star is the buttress cascading down from the summit of Temple Crag. These beautiful shots were taken by my friend Leor Pantilat two days before our ascent.

"I'm over it man," I said, a wave of guilty pleasure washing over me. The feeling of guilt was due to leaving a project undone. The pleasure came from knowing that we were going to do something fun and beautiful, although at the time I didn't know what it would be.

Mike racing the clouds and winning!

Once we shifted our focus it was not hard to pick a line. The Sierra was wracked in a pattern of daily thunderstorms so we needed an objective that was manageable in a short morning. Of course, we wanted to go as big as possible even considering the weather. When Mike suggested Dark Star, one of the Sierra's longest technical routes (but technically easy at 5.10 b/c) I agreed wholeheartedly.

We packed a few cams and nuts for the pitches we would belay, and psyched up for a long simul solo of the rest. Stars poked at the blackness as we hit the trail. Soon we were at the base of Temple Crag, the massive chunk of granite that Dark Star cuts in half. I was blown away by the beauty of the line. Half Dome was beyond rad, but I knew we had chosen our route wisely. No one was around except a million mosquitos and a marmot or two. A blood red sunrise lit black clouds for only a minute before fading into the dull gray of an overcast morning.

The never ending scramble of joy!

The following hours blended into a kaleidoscope of twisting ridges, craggy gendarmes, and juggy climbing on chunky, quartz laced granite. Before long we sat on top, The Palisades cradling our airy position. I feasted my eyes on an array of mountains I had never seen before as cloud shadows raced across the desert miles below. Dark Star was no Half Dome in terms of difficulty, but it was bright enough to satisfy my desires.

No cigar on H-Dome (I'll be back very soon), but I am having fun and that's what counts!

Our descent was quick, but hot. The clouds constructed themselves with predictable order and by the time we were back at Mike's Bishop was falling into an afternoon of warm rain, while the mountains blacked out, drunk on thunderheads. Once again, I sat in Mike's garden with a cold brew and tired legs. Once again I let soothing nature wash over me. Once again, I drained the bottle.

Heaven's At 9,000 Feet

The past few weeks I have spent some quality time climbing and living near Tioga Pass at the "9,000 foot bivy", a spot I have used for years to avoid the mayhem of camping in Yosemite National Park. Even on days I didn't have a partner I could access awesome trad, sport, and alpine rambling from this beautiful spot.

Liana and Lucho enjoying a beautiful morning at the 9,000 bivy

Just up the road from the bivy is the the Private Property Cliff, a unique swath of gold granite littered with holds of all types. Many of my friends in the area spend shady afternoons sending rope stretching pitches on this inspiring wall. Days usually start with a romp in T-Meadows and end at the PP Cliff fighting for the chains on the latest project. I hit that groove for a few days between less relaxed (which means more relaxed!) objectives in the high Sierra. I also scrambled up the NE ridge of North Peak on a rest/sick (the flu in Cali...how does that work?) day from this point.

Mike Collins savoring the flavor of climbing at the PP cliff (Dan M. photo)

James Lucas weathers an altitude related motivation problem...life at 9 grand ain't easy!

Whenever I arrive for a stint at the 9,000 bivy I always am happy to run into the same great people. Dan McDevitt, a fixture around Yosemite for many years, is assured to be there, his genuine love of climbing and the Sierra always as refreshing as the crashing creek that flows through the campsite. Lucho Rivera might be on his tailgate, waiting for the shade to fall over the afternoon project or resting for another bout on a rad route on the Hulk. New faces always emerge, each one as friendly as the next. Old friends pull in and out as they journey in this land of granite. Big thanks to all the kind folks that hang with me during my stints there!

Morning warm up in the Meadows. OZ is dreamy!!

Evening session at PP. Myself on Silver Bullet, another amazing Dan McDevitt route!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Alpine Ice in the Range of Light

"Those your ice axes?" The ranger gave me a boggled look through the dusty air of Camp 4. Yosemite's heat dripped from my sweaty forehead as I claimed my 6 by 6 foot patch of beaten earth. "Yep," I replied. "I'm hoping to explore the many different sides of Sierra over the next few weeks." The lady in green furrowed her brow and moved on to bother someone else. Just as I was reflecting on the dire Yosemite scene, a mangy squirrel ran off with one of my Powerbars. I just got here and I was already dreaming of granite peaks shrouded in the peace of nature. Kyle and I had found beauty high on Half Dome, but the ugliness of the Ditch stabbed at me the minute he left me alone in the mayhem of Yosemite Village.

Getting the kit ready at Mike's house

The next few days I worked my way towards Mt. Mendal, a peak accessed from Bishop, CA. I met Mike Collins at the Tioga cliff along the way and he graciously voulenteered his old Toyota Camery to take me up the twisting road to the Lamark Lakes trailhead. Big thanks Mike!

Ready to have some fun in a new mountain range!

Mt. Mendal is one of California's most classy north faces, two prominent ice lines snaking through steep shattered granite. I had brought my tools south intent on soloing the shadowed wall.

Day one I approached the peak through snow laden cols pinched by lunar landscapes of orange boulders. The pristine nature of the high Sierra was inspiring and I spent the evening watching the sinking sun play a light show on my route.

Mt. Mendal

A crisp, windy weather system lingered to my west the next morning as I cramponed towards Mendal. The wind pushed me around on the small glacier below the face. I relished the interesting weather and the day's alpine feel.

Time to climb!

Crossing the schrund I punched my way up the initial neve apron, aiming for the right coulior, California's classic path of alpine ice. For the next 800 feet I made my way through a variety of conditions. Neve gave way to unconsolidated snow over rock. Thankfully, water ice clogged the mixed finish. The climbing in this upper section was beyond enjoyable. Stemming up blocky rock with my tools securly in a grey runnel of ice was heavenly. A funky cornice capping the gash brought me back to reality as I stemmed carefully between snow and stone.

Cruising in the lower coulior

I drew a cold breath, scratched my frontpoints into asmall rock edge and mantled into a wind swept notch. Verglassed rock climbing on the south side brought me to the rime choked high point as thunderheads raced over my head. I scrambled down loose terrain toward the big snowfield that separated me from my tent. The way was not as straight forward as I'd hoped and the steep pebble strewn ledge systems forced me into my rock shoes. An old pin lashed to a faded white sling sat at the brink of the final step. I lowered myself off the ledge, found my feet and then the edge of the snow.


A festival of glissading shot me down towards Bishop only a few hours ahead of the snowy system's front teeth. Sipping beer in Mike's garden I savored my first high Sierra climb as the Range of Light faded into the darkness of storm. The air was heavy with moisture and wind cool like blue glaciers. I let the soothing nature wash over me and then I drained the bottle.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Arena

Pack straps cut into my shoulders as I pull up spongy fixed lines towards Half Dome's NW face. "I'm off the rope!" I yell, smearing up a slab and into a tangle of manzanita. Streaks of water paint the 2,000 foot face above us and smear their way through rocks and trees to the Valley below. "This is so rad!," Kyle exclaims as he thrashes towards me. "This is what it's all about brother," I counter as we both absorb the scale of wall above. It's Kyle's first time in one of the greatest rock arenas on earth, Yosemite Valley.

Although Kyle O'meara had never climbed more than 5 pitches off the deck, I never hesitated to ask him to join me for a free attempt of H-Dome. His drive and athleticism stood up to the task. Fortunetely, the weird finger injuries that slowed us during the months leading to this trip were healed enough to attempt the route. Unfortunetely,the recent break from rock scaling had taken a toll on prowess. We both knew it was a bit silly to expect to arrive in Yosemite and fire a free ascent our first day in the Valley. That noted, we had to try.

Kyle taking in the view

The next morning I kicked steps up a grimy snow cone and started jamming the first pitch. I was immediatly flooded with the purity of perfect granite. Hooping and hollering up shady stone, we cut over into the first free variation. I led off into a stout pitch of wide 5.11. Out of shape and lacking flow, I stalled for a minute as my feet oozed off the slick dimples I stemmed between.

You should see this wall mom! Nothing like a chat with folks under H-Dome...

Attitude is everything and just to be attached to this big, beautiful wall was special enough. I let the free ascent go and catapulted up ledgy scrambling, into shadowed chimneys, and onto a headwall of glittereing corners. The sun burned our skin and sucked the moisture from our mouths. Wind blown water droplets from the melting summit snow patch provided the only relief from our firey circumstance. Later, we scrambled to an empty summit, the sun just leaving the sky. Kyle beamed with joy through the dehydration. It was hard to believe he had never climbed in Yosemite.

So good!

Even though we didn't achieve our goal of free climbing the route, I was proud of our effort. We had believed it was possible, entered the arena, and gave it everything we had. We'll be back soon, in shape and familiar with the terrain. The rope will never be weighted and we will follow our fingers to the top of the mountain.

Even better!