Sunday, December 29, 2013

Patagonia: lessons from a bigger scale

Poincenot, via the Whillans-Cochrane, 550 meters 70 degrees M4 5.9+

How can I describe the size of this place? How can I describe the dizzying gulfs of air below us as we claw our way towards the summit of Poincenot, glaciers splayed below like blue tongues cascading into tortured icefalls, and the Torre spires emerging from whorls of cloud across a valley too deep to comprehend? The sheer scale here is beyond anything I’ve seen, like the fabric sheets of the Bugaboos stretched across a much larger bedframe of terrain. 

After a mile-long glacier traverse, 500m of snow climbing and an intricate ice chimney, we spend the afternoon picking our way up the massive upper flank of Poincenot, probing the folds of the mountain for the path of least resistance to the top. As only Neal has rock shoes, we have to find a path that goes at 5.9 or less for us to follow.  The wind picks up and streamers of cloud begin coursing overhead, signaling that our ventanilla, “little window” of weather will not last as long as we hoped. Eventually we spot a 3rd class ramp that leads to a 20m corner of technical rock right below a notch between two summits; the best option? We roll the dice and scramble the ramp; Neale climbs the corner in rock shoes as an airborne litter of rime and snow assails our faces, carried over the crest of the peak by the wind. Seth and I follow the pitch in our mountain boots, scrapping up the delicate footholds and pawing our feet uselessly at the handcrack. Somehow we both free climb high enough to grab the next cam. It’s a game of only one rule: upward progress. It’s ugly, but I learn I can climb 5.10 with these massive boots I’ve only used for climbing ice; not the first or last new thing I will learn here in Patagonia.


I crawl up the final blocks to the notch and am rendered breathless, both figuratively by the view of Fitz Roy streaming plumes of fresh wind-born cloud, and literally as the wind’s vacuum sucks the air from my throat. It is all I can do to sit and gaze at the mighty peak getting ravaged by the gale, the air above me aloft with flecks of ice and snow. Seth and Neale join and we take stock; to the right a thin fingercrack cuts a steep wall, to the left a gentle slabs runs up to a crack filled with ice.  I know I can climb the slab, but can I balance there, run out, long enough to chip out a gear placement in the raucous wind? And keep going up the slab, gambling that my friction will overcome the gusts? It’s my first mission in Patagonia, my first weather window only 3 days in country, and I feel lucky enough to make it this high up a mountain. Neale and Seth agree; we admire the view of Fitz another minute, high-five our high point, and turn around to contemplate the long descent.

“…Naught without prudence, for the carelessness of a single step can ruin the happiness of a lifetime.” 

The words of climbing literature throb in my head as I remove my gloves to downclimb a 4th class step, searching for another rappel anchor while Neale and Seth pull the ropes. Beneath my feet lies a near-vertical drop over 1000 meters to the glacier. Up here, the consequences of a mistake are very clear.

How do you descend from a 500 meter spire, moving safely through vertical terrain and objective hazards? Inside, a voice called ego pleads without reason to be out of the danger zone, to be safe on flat ground. In a glance we see this silent plea in each other’s eyes; we don’t dare voice it. In this austere world of rock, wind, and vertical sky, where a single mistake can kill you, when the child inside you yearns for nothing but safety, how do you make it down? With patience. Without ego, without panic. Without fear? A little much to ask for this guy, for us mere mortals. At moments of doubt, staring down unfathomable distances of rough terrain, I feel a swell of terror rising in my chest. But the wave must not break. As alpinists, we make that commitment before we leave the ground. I acknowledge the wave, relax into its motion and let it pass. “If it weren’t for climbing we’d all be surfers,” the sage said. Maybe we still are.

So how do you descend from a 500 meter spire? Calmly. A compilation of small steps, executed with precision. One. Two. Ten Thousand.

That's how we stumbled into camp watching the sun rise the second time that day, 26 hours later. Tired, thirsty, happy to sit down, with big grins on our exhausted faces.

 Approaching toward Guillamet, 2AM

 Dawn at Paso Guillamet

 "I don't think we're in Colorado any more."

 the Cathedral in morning light

Starting up the Whillans snow ramp

Neale on the ramp

the mixed chimney

Seth Adams, stoked

Neale crushing the off-route corner, while we wondered how the hell we would follow it in mountain boots.

The Torre group emerged from the clouds to give us this spectacular view

We were blessed with a mystical Specter of the Brocken at our brew-up ledge on the descent

Myself, Neale and Seth at our high point.

Descending across the glacier on a clear night, in the middle of the Whillans ramp you can see the headlamps of an Argentine party cruising through the night.

Back to camp, 26 hours later, pretty psyched to drink water and sit the f*&% down. I couldn't have picked better guys to spend a super long day in the mountains with.

Some of these photos are from Seth Adams, an outlandish rogue who is not to be trusted, but check out his blog at and you may encounter genuine entertainment amidst spiteful vitriol.

Monday, November 4, 2013

There and Back Again...a tale inspired by Bilbo Baggins

Well, we tried. It's one thing to top out Astrodog and stumble through the bushes muttering platitudes to tourists and crack a beer on the tailgate. It's another thing to top out, mutter same platitudes, and look across the canyon and realize the full significance of the beer still being on the other side. Didn't have time, heat, or light for the Scenic Cruise, but we sure did get to enjoy the cruise gulley both directions! Next season...

And thanks to Noah Gostout, the wise, for his suggestion that we did not succeed because we didn't wear jorts. "Men in jorts," he asserts, "don't need daylight, heat, or time." I'll have to ponder the ramifications of that one...

The permit I've been dreaming of filling out for a long time.  Well I guess this wasn't the last one.

autumn morning light in the Black 

38 degree rock + no sun = cold hands

David sampling the goodness

 David high on the route, getting psyched to send the crux.

wahoo! no matter how late it is a Tyrolean across a raging river is pretty fun

young, unemployed, and setting a new standard for STOKE

David Fay and I have had a very productive fall season in the Front Range, with great adventures every weekend. It helps that he's not working, so every time I drag my tired ass back home on Friday he's there full of piss and vinegar, packing my car telling me to hurry up so we can head out.

Recently he set a new standard for the stoke of the young and unemployed, when on my way back from a field trip with my geology class I received this masterpiece in my email inbox. I never before received planning info for a climbing mission that involved labelled figures, or a scale bar. At least David learned something in college. Geology nerds, woohoo!

This is surely a new frontier of trip planning, and I hope it will inspire future generations to get mad STOKED and engage in crushing on an unprecedented level:

Risk Analysis

With the government debacle waging on, the prospect of an open National Park appears smaller and smaller each day. Therefore I have taken the initiative to outline the risks and rewards associated with a North-South Rim link up.

We have the benefit of entering and leaving the depths of the canyon under the cover of night. The North Rim of the Black Canyon barely qualifies as a national park with no entrance fees, dirt roads and a lonely ranger station. Even though its only 1/4 of a mile from the South Rim (as the bird flies), its at least a 2 hour drive or a burly descent into the chasms of the Black. This 1/4 mile of land stands to be so heinously unappealing that no permanent trails have been built to enter it from the South and it seems only the deranged attempt to venture there. Just as climbers have been left at peace the last few weeks on El Cap, I expect that we will not encounter another soul within the canyon. Yet, I believe it is important that we do not completely top out the South Chasm View Wall. Standing at the foot of pedestrian trails leave us susceptible up to unnecessary risks.

Figure 1
Inline image 1
--It's safe to assume that roads going into National Parks will be closed. This is an optimistic parking location, within the park. This route would add 3.1 miles of flat walking to the beginning and end of our day. An extended approach may require bikes to access the trailhead (think beater bikes).

Figure 2
Inline image 2
--Driving directions from Caramillo St with alternate approach beta.

Figure 3Inline image 3
--Close up of alternate approach.  A direct westward approach from Highway 92 allows us to join the Black Canyon Rd within the park, diminishing the duration of time in which we are exposed.  And increasing the probability of gaining proximal access to the trailhead.  Scale bar in bottom left included for reference.  

A Short List of Risks and Possible Outcomes

Worst Case Scenario: We walk into the park at 2:30am. We are confronted. We are asked to leave and escorted out. (I will bring my Nation Parks Pass to encourage positive interactions)

Middle Case Scenario: We climb to top of South Chasm View Wall. We are confronted. We are asked to leave. We have to hitchhike back to our car on the North Rim, but we sent Astro Dog and we're stoked.

Best Case Scenario: We park at the trailhead and scamper down the SOB gully under the cover of night. We find the tyrolean first try and Drew crosses it first with both packs. I'm stoked so I walk across the rope like a slackline, balancing on top. We climb the first few pitches by headlamp and arrive at the crux just as the sun is rising. I go for the onsight and send it! Then we figure that we have a little extra time and that Drew has been dying to send this pitch, so we pull the ropes and he gives it a go on the sharp end. Drew paces a bomber purple C3 and commits. Having dialed in the moves on his last few gos, he flows through the sequences and we top out Astro Dog by 10am. We return to the tyrolean with enough daylight to deem a light lunch by the river both worthy and necessary. After feasting on watermelon and cantaloupe stashed in the water on our way over to keep them cool, we turn our sights towards The Cruise. The Cruise is only 5.10--in Black--so we, well, cruise it and top out as the sun sets over the horizon. We get naked. And walk back to the car in the dark. As far as we can tell, nobody saw us.

A Short List of Rewards

--Eating a cantaloup for breakfest--Getting to role play a Covert Opps Mission. 
"Where is the safe zone?"
"There is no safe zone in enemy territory. Keep moving."


"Dude. I left the map and compass in the car. We're fucked."
"Woah, calm down its going to be alright. We know Terrain Association. These walls are big. We'll find them."

--Drinking beer at the car
--Drinking whiskey on route
--Sending the crux of Astro Dog

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What Would Jimmy Dunn Do?

The situation: Friday afternoon. Borderline-legal parking spot. Packs stocked with two nights provisions, rope, and a double rack. 2.5 hours of daylight, thirty minutes till the road closes. A forest guarded by “No Trespassing.” And again, the solution is made apparent by asking the obvious question: What would Jimmy Dunn do?

We shoulder packs, glance both ways, and scramble up into the woods.

The conundrum was how best to approach our destination, a lone crag of granite perched high on the shoulders of Pikes Peak. Option A: hike ten miles, gaining 4,000 feet of elevation. Option B: hitchhike up the Pikes Peak highway, which the city's custodial staff have graciously denied to overnight parking because tourists are more profitable than locals. Road closes at 5. It's 4:30. The rangers, notorious for their brusque demeanor and zero tolerance for any behavior outside the normalcy of their fee-collecting regimen, will be patrolling the highway, but a few cars might still be making the drive up. It's decision time; either take the chance on the highway or drive back to Manitou and start a 5-hour hike. Do we take the chance? I pose the question, our eyes meet, and we decide without a word.

Forty minutes later we disembark from the sports car driven by a friendly ARMY cavalry scout. It's near sunset at 13,000 feet and a sharp wind bites though our button-down shirts (gotta look respectable to catch a ride). We don warmer jackets in the lee of a boulder and hike out into the wilderness. Above looms the steep north face of Pikes Peak; below stretches the vast sprawl of Colorado Springs. Labyrinthine neighborhoods studded with deciduous trees intersperse with cubic facets of strip malls, all connected by arterial boulevards into a vast humming circuit board that stretches out into the plains, into a limitless horizon.

We scramble over boulders and trace sinuous grassy ledges down the ridge, pausing to gaze at the various crags on the peak, scoping for steep rock, scoping for promising lines. As dusk settles in, the grid below flickers in the lights of its eternal day. The city will forge ahead without pause, despite darkness, rain, and change of seasons. A billion bits of information and half a million beating hearts quivering in suspended animation in the tireless web of commerce that we call modern life. In some sequestered corner of that throbbing matrix lie my overflowing inbox, my credit card bills, my chores, my rent, my pending applications, my insecurities, my fears.

We downclimb a small step and reach a steep scree field. Our feet sink past the ankles as we bound down the slope in gaping strides, descending in laughter towards the pines below. In the dark forest we eat a simple meal and sip hot tea, staring up through ponderosa silhouettes at clean, steep granite etched against crisp stars, promise of hard things to come tomorrow. I fall asleep without a care in the world.

Waking up in paradise, David Fay scoping the goodness

Chekhov said if you place a pistol on the mantle in the first act, it must go of by the third. Accordingly, if you hike in two #5s, two #6s, and a #4 Bigbro, you might as well use them.

 Who says you can't climb 9 pitches in a day on a 3 pitch high feature? David on the last pitch of the route we saved for after dinner.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Emptying Out

 This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow…[mountains] serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.”
                                                                                                -Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Springtime and footloose, on the road again, Tucker and I hitting our stride. After two days of hard crack climbing in Zion we rally west to Red Rocks, Nevada and leave the car on a cool evening with rack and bivy gear, bound for the Rainbow Wall. After an hour of scrambling up a boulder-choked gulley and schwacking through copses of tough manzanita we emerge at a clean slab split in two by a silver knife: a thin veneer of water trickling down the sandstone, glimmering with the shine of another world. The trickle passes up into darkness, then beyond to the towering walls of the Rainbow Mountain cirque, our destination, looming stoic beneath a wan quarter moon.

In these moments we perceive the earth in the vastness of its form. Two small self-regulating sacks of ninety-eight degree blood and sinew and dreams alone in the indifferent terrain of this planet: deep gulleys and sheer walls of stone that climb straight into the infinite sky. A lot to behold; the unfettered space can feel overwhelming, but just as quickly I breathe the cool air, feel the sweat soaking my back under my wet shirt, and revel in the beauty of the place. Then nothing to do but shoulder the pack and begin scrambling up the smooth slab, all attention focused on tiny nuances for foot smears and hand holds. We spread sleeping bags under a boulder, drink a beer, cook a simple meal, and fall asleep with the dome of stars cut in half by the dark bulk of the Rainbow Wall.

We wake in the early morning to fierce winds buffeting our sleeping bags. Violent gusts whirl up the canyon in some invisible vortex, unceasing through the graying hours into the dawn. We peek outside our boulder bivy and the wall looms grey and menacing under a leaden sky. Tucker is almost knocked over by a gust as he takes a piss. Maybe this foul weather is an excuse to descend back to car, camp, and comfort.  Sheltering the stove in the back of the cave we make oat porridge and coffee; we sip the bitter brew watching the canyon wake up beneath the fits and tantrums of an angry sky. Eventually we shoulder the rope and rack and begin walking up the slabs towards the wall. Might as well check it out. We zip our jackets tight and steady ourselves as whirling gusts blast our bodies.

It turns out, by some miracle of aerodynamics, the vertex of the Rainbow Wall is sheltered from the harrying wind.  We’re at the base of one of the country’s finest 5.12 free climbs with a small selection of nuts and cams, a dozen quickdraws, one rope, a few Cliff bars and a quart and a half of water. These are the moments we try so hard and make so many sacrifices to create. It’s on.

The corner continues unceasingly toward the sky. The bullet-hard rock offers just enough imperfections for upward passage: an edge here, a slivered crack there, a mottled texture to press on. At times the features seem to peter out completely and the leader pauses, breathing, stemmed in position and trying to read the puzzle. Every time, subtle features emerge offering exquisite movement. The gear is solid, but well spread, keeping us always in calm focus on the sharp end.

There is a curious relationship between the difficulty of climbing moves and the analytical engagement of our mind. On easy terrain, the mind is free to sit back and enjoy the simple sensation of movement. As difficulty increases, the mind engages, reading the rock and indentifying discrete moves. Harder still, the mind scans the next twenty feet, analyzing incredible subtleties of angle, texture and size, formulating a complex sequence of moves while the body waits, breathing, poised at the stance, ready to pounce. The mental engagement increases toward a crescendo of analysis as the holds thin out to the limit of our ability to read the moves, and in these cruxes we are locked into an iron focus where nothing else gets in. These are great climbs.

What happens when the holds thin out a little more, beyond the threshold of what we can read into moves? Stemmed into a tenuous stance on the sharp end, searching, looking, analyzing in vain, what happens when we can’t visualize the way forward? For years this was my stopping point. I would take and aid, or try a desperate throw that I knew was pointless and fall. I could not move upward into the realm beyond my perception.

High in the upper dihedral of the Rainbow Wall I’m stemmed below a smooth bulge, breathing and searching, asking for holds which I know aren’t there. Every feature within reach appears useless, too small to pull on. Five feet higher there’s a jug. It’s my onsight attempt; my mind is churning with information and speculation at a nauseating rate. I’m judging the fall distance (short), the holds (useless), the move (can’t see it), how much I want to onsight this pitch (a LOT, my ego is on board and cheering). I make a desperate attempt to crimp on nothings and fall with a grunt.

Dangling above the void, the wheel of my fevered brain gradually slows down. I notice the cool wind, what a blessing it feels on my sweaty neck. A raptor glides beneath us in perfect repose, searching for prey with keen eyes. The rock itself is captivating, deep maroon with crimson blotches, dappled with green lichen. This whole cliff is just the aggregate collection of billions of sand grains, heaped up long ago in sinusoidal dunes by driving winds in the blistering heat of a vast Jurassic desert. Buried beneath the ground for eons, these solitary grains were compacted and glued together into something more solid, and as our continent slowly rose again in its unfathomable cycles of bulging and sagging, the earth has been carved away by the incessant grinding of snows and rivers to reveal this exquisite memory of an ancient desert.

My pulse has calmed to its regular steady rhythm. I pull back up to the bolt and stem up to my high point again. Having already tried to solve this puzzle with my brain, I simply look at the rock, the subtle features, the jug above, and accept. This is reality. There is nothing more. Accepting this, my mind lets go with a great sigh. In the vacuum left by its absence, beautiful silence rushes in. A hawk cry pierces the air, the wind rustles my hair. There is no more “I”. There is stone and texture and breath. Pressing with both palms I make an improbable step, another stem, another press, all on the “nothings” of before, and thus poised like a spring I look up and fix a soft gaze on the jug. The bottom of my mind drops out into the silence everywhere; I am empty, clean, a piece of the wind. Three limbs press, the stone presses back, and outstretched fingers close on the jug.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The aesthetics of line

the west face of Battleship Mountain

What is it that makes certain lines worth so much work? Whether in stone or in snow, certain lines seem so clean, so aesthetic, that some of us are called compulsively to struggle for them, as if the purity of the line is worth our sacrifice of toil and pain and danger. 

Skinning up the Battleship Mountain bowl in the late afternoon at the end of a long day of ski touring, forcing an exhausting pace to beat the shadows creeping across the bowl, I look back gasping for breath and see the straight, slender line of our skin track slicing cleanly through the pristine snow. My chest is heaving in the thin air and my thighs burn, but the simple line of our track evokes the perfect splitter cracks on Windgate sandstone that we struggled so hard to climb last week in the sunny desert. Now, deep in the snow-locked wilderness of the San Juan mountains, I feel a similar buoyancy lift my spirit and spur me to turn once again upward.

I slide one more foot forward to follow Tucker, who breaks trail into the immaculate white above with dogged tenacity. My legs and lungs scream for rest but the sun is fading quickly towards the western crags and every foot up gains another glorious foot down; I let my eyes focus and drift on the white glare above and let my discomfort dissolve in the silence, my only thoughts willing my legs forward. 

At the last gnarled tree in the bowl we stop and breathe. On one side lies a wind-etched cornice, its sinuous curve and the promised leap off it tempting our young brazen minds, but the landing is in a wind-loaded lee slope; too dangerous to ski today, it will remain another piece of wilderness we can only look at in admiration. 

Dangerous slopes now encroach from both sides, but a slender rib offers safe passage for another few hundred feet. We could ski from here; the shadows creep quickly toward us and we’ve already earned a 1500 ft run of completely untracked open slope, but this rib is enchanting. We grin, knowing the turns up there will be immaculate.

“Ten minutes more, man.  If we crank it out.”

We glance at the approaching shade, the sun-drenched rib above. No discussion is necessary.

Cutting switchbacks up the steep rib I can feel the exposure increasing and can see the sun out of the corner of my eye dropping into the teeth of the next ridge. I contract my stomach on each step to aid my weary thighs; each kick-turn is a feat of balance. I can’t help but wondering at the silliness of our endeavor; the altitude we gain with each arduous switchback will add a mere second to our descent. At what point is it no longer worth it? These questions don’t help the climbing, and I focus on the shimmering snow. As the earth falls away beneath us with each step and each breath, the sensation is that of ascending into a realm of pure light.

At the last inflection before the rib curves upward into the wind-scoured crest of the bowl we stop and breathe. Craggy peaks tower in every direction, wind-scourged plumes of snow catch fire in the dying sunlight. The shadows have engulfed the Battleship bowl and leave only a slim line of sunlit snow, directly below us.

High amongst this sea of mountains and gaping valleys, we perform the rituals of descent in contented silence: removing skins, tightening buckles, closing zippers, donning hats. After more than an hour of toil, we’ve earned this line. One more look around to take in the panorama of peaks etching the deepening sky, and we drop in. The world becomes silent; all we know is rhythm.