February 9, 2017

A Memorable Season of Lee Vining Ice Climbing

We are in the middle of what is probably the best season of Lee Vining Ice in recent memory.  There's been a flurry of new and potentially new route activity. I've only been swinging tools in this great little venue since 2009, and there are local folks who've been climbing ice here much, much longer than that, but everyone seems to agree that we are having a great winter for water ice.

For me it started with a trip into the canyon with Alyssa Krag-Arnold at the end of November. Some years this is just a scouting mission, but Chouinard Falls was in coming in really well for so early in the season. At that time of year some discretion and restraint is required on the part of climbers to not slow the development of the ice, but we had a good time nonetheless.

Alyssa catching an early season lap on the Tree Route.
On our way out Alyssa indulged me with a belay up the right side of a short pillar in the Narrows I had been looking at. The left side of this pillar is the first part of a two pitch route established by SP Parker and Urmas Franosch. The right side was definitely unclimbed, as I trundled a few choice pieces that day (and a few more on a subsequent ascent). The route starts with some fun edges and hooking, and finishes with a bit of chimneying. Alyssa was patient as I cleaned off snow that had blown into the corner in a few places. At the top, it was a luxury to clip the anchor SP and Urmas had left and lower off. In the spirit of the other Star Wars - themed routes in the area I christened it TK421. Since it goes at about M3 and protects well from good stances it makes a good warm up for the area and for trad protected mixed climbing in general.

I had another good day in the canyon ten days later with Kevin Normoyle, and then hiked in with local legend Doug Nidever. We had heard that Spiral Staircase was in. This is probably the easiest route on the Main Wall and hasn't formed in 5 or 6 years. The route used to have a bolted anchor part way up, but a few years ago Christy McIntire posted a photo on Facebook of those anchors (and a big piece of granite they were still in) on the talus below the cliff. Despite a light drizzle Doug and I were excited to see what the route was like now. The pillar that had been the centerpiece of the route was forming as a thin curtain, which Doug cruised. Above where the old anchors used to be a fat column was forming, but it was way too wet for enjoyable climbing that day.

Yours truly about to traverse over to the thin curtain. It's a rare day when I climb in my Gore-Tex! Photo by Doug Nidever.
A week later I was guiding a winter ascent of Mount Whitney when I received an email from Luke Lydiard. It was a forwarded conversation with visiting climber Chris Wright about an ice route he had climbed on the left side of The Narrows. At first I assumed he was referring to Zippo's Frozen Booger, the only pure ice route I knew of there. Upon looking at the attached photo I was shocked. There was Zippo's on the left side of the photo, but in the center was a formation I had never seen before. I'm not proud to say that I immediately felt some FOMO. I wasn't jealous of a visiting climber scooping a probable first ascent (in fact, I was psyched that our little playground was getting some attention) but I wanted to climb that thing, and it looked so ephemeral that I doubted it would still exist when work and life gave me a chance to get in there.

A FOMO inducing photo, Womp Rat in the center. Taken on December 19 by Chris Wright.
A little over a week later my wife and I hiked in hoping that the route in question, which Chris dubbed Womp Rat. As a photo on Mountain Project shows, it wasn't particularly fat when Chris climbed it, and by this time it had sublimated sufficiently that I didn't think there was enough ice for me to climb. With a sigh, we hiked up to Spiral Staircase for a look at the new column. It had turned into a steep curtain, and it was dry, and there was a sweet belay cave behind it! The cave was big enough for at least 3 folks to hang out comfortably, and exiting it onto the curtain reminded me of Louise Falls in the Canadian Rockies.

On the last day of 2016 Luke and I hiked into the canyon for some mixed climbing. Our warm up was 30 Seconds Of Remorse, a route I hadn't been on since it was put up. This time around the first 30 feet was legit ice climbing, and I didn't remember much of anything about the cool crack that makes up the meat of the route. I'm claiming an Alzheimer's-point. The tat Jed, Thomas and I left on the juniper at the top had been chewed on by some animal, so there's some new cord now.

Before moving up-canyon we stopped for a couple of cool little daggers up and left. The left side of the Narrows is bounded by a small gully feature. This had a little pour-over at the top that was sporting a pair of offset icicles. The route opens with a bit of mellow ice, and then Luke pulled out of a cool rock cave onto the first dagger, and made a delicate transfer onto the second. This little pitch is pretty fun and fairly unique to the area. Before the solstice there's probably not enough moisture for it to form and come mid to late season the whole gully fills in with snow. Like it's namesake, Jawa is a curious and unpredictable little creature, best to hop on if it's in.

Luke about to transfer to the second pillar. As I write this, pretty much everything from the level of his helmet on down is covered in snow.
More guiding and a heck of a lot of snow kept me away from Lee Vining for a few more weeks. When I returned I found myself bulldozing a trail up to Chouinard Falls for two father and son pairs. It's always fun to observe family groups in action (particularly when it's not your own) and watching these two generations encourage and teach each other was pretty cool. As we hiked through the Narrows I was thrilled to see that the left side was thick with ice, even more than it had been a few weeks before! The whole drive home I schemed about who I could drag out there with me.

The Narrows left side about 3 weeks after the possible first ascent of Womp Rat, and after the first round of our January snowpocalypse.

Jess warming up on a very Scottish TK421. You can see where I tunneled through the snow at the top.
Once again my wonderful wife obliged. After a very snowy warm up we crossed over to the left side of the Narrows. A trio of older gentlemen was running laps on a fat looking Zippo's Frozen Booger, So we proceeded up Womp Rat, which was fatter than on the first ascent. Then we climbed a slightly easier yellow and gold colored icicle just to the right. I haven't found any record of this one, and it seems even more rare than Womp Rat, which I thought of as a rare route. We named it C3PO for it's color. At some point in late December Viren Perumal climbed the thicker, bluer flow to the right. It starts in a right facing corner and can be seen forming in Chris' photo above. Since it's right next to 3PO and it's blue he's calling it R2D2.

A week or two ago I saw a photo of a climber in the Narrows on Instagram. He mentioned R2D2 in the caption, so I guess the word is getting out!

It's a small community of serious ice and mixed climbers here in the Eastern Sierra, and when all this stuff was starting to come in I was communicating with Chris about whether his rig was in fact a first ascent or not. I think the truth is, who knows. Many climbers more talented than I have visited Lee Vining Canyon over the years. Many of the canyon's early first ascensionists didn't even see fit to name their routes and most only acquired names to distinguish them in conversation. That being said, I've seen Zippo's form a few times but didn't even know that ice ever came down where these new routes are, never mind enough to climb. This makes me suspect that they are way more rare. I think posting routes like this on Mountain Project and claiming the first ascent is okay, as long as we're open to the possibility that our ascent isn't the first. If some other climber came first, putting the route information out there in public might even give us chance to get that story and find out a bit more about the history of this cool arena. If you know anything about early ice and mixed ascents in Lee Vining Canyon please contact me.

January 13, 2017

AT Boots and Bindings

I recently came across this video of a talk from last year's Northwest Snow And Avalanche Workshop. I don't often have the patience to watch something this long (about 25 minutes) all the way through, but I'm glad I did. The speaker, Jeff Campbell, is a lifelong skier doing PHD research on ski injuries and had some very interesting stuff to say on the topic of boot and binding compatibility. I think it's worth a watch for those who spend time in the backcountry on skis.

November 30, 2016

Luci Light Review

I've been using the Luci Original by MPOWERD for the last two years. I have no idea how many days it's been used for, but it's been all over the place with me. It's a small, solar powered, inflatable lantern. I've never owned any kind of lantern before, as the time (and dollar) cost of dealing with batteries or fuel never seemed worth it. Now that I've got this one I use it a lot and would definitely buy another, they're a great value.

At first I just used Luci for car camping, and it's been great for our fall pilgrimages to Indian Creek. It makes cooking dinner at the picnic table in the dark a lot more pleasant, and we'll sometimes bring it into the tent with us for reading or hanging out. Then I realized that I can hang this unit from the hatch on the back of my truck's canopy, and that made pre-dawn starts at trail heads a lot better. It also means it's easier to get everyone's gear sorted out and back to them at the end of the day.

The Luci light gives great area illumination when hung from the hatch on my truck canopy. I don't know what's up with the "ghost light" next to the real one.
This fall I climbed The Shield on El Capitan with my colleague Chad. Chad takes his Luci light into the backcountry with him (it's 2.5cm by 12.7cm when collapsed), and brought it up El Cap with us. I was skeptical when we were packing up, but our very first night on the wall I realized that it made our bivies a lot nicer. It easily lights up all of the area covered by the portaledge so it's easier to keep track of stuff and you're less likely to drop things. Well worth 125 more grams in the haulbag (that's 4.4oz).

MPOWERD claims that the Luci Original charges in 7 hours of direct sunlight and goes for 12 hours on the brightest setting. I haven't done any timed tests, but in The Creek we typically use it for a few hours each night and it easily goes several nights without a purposeful recharge (the lantern often spends the day in our crate full of "kitchen" stuff). A few times a week I'll deflate it and set it on the dashboard while we're at the crag for the day. While we were on El Cap Chad would often clip it to his harness to let it get a little sun. Overall I don't think that much about charging it and it always works.

Another nice thing about this lantern is MPOWERD's mission. Luci sales in developed countries help them get Luci lights to folks without electricity in the developing world at lower prices.

Deflated and inflated, my breath fogged it up a little bit.

The one drawback to Luci does seem tied to it's light weight and pack-ability: it's a little flimsy. While you wouldn't want to toss this lantern in the bottom of your pack (or haulbag). It can definitely survive in the lid. Chad's unit sprung a little leak and wasn't quite as firm when inflated, but this didn't seem to effect the usable light very much.

Luci comes in 9 different models, including a smaller version, and several models that are colored or frosted. In my experience these versions seemed to have less usable light, though that light was a bit less harsh. Since I got mine I've been noticing them at every gear shop I walk into, often right by the cash register.

September 11, 2016

How Do Your Slings Look?

Getting the most life out of your climbing gear is not only a smart financial decision, but it's also good for the environment. The materials our stuff is made of (various metals and petroleum products) have a high environmental cost. That being said, pushing our equipment beyond what it was designed for is kinda dumb.

It's not the end of the world for clothing or camping gear, but taking the equipment we use to protect us in the event of a fall out of it's intended application (or beyond it's intended lifespan) can have serious consequences. When climbers (myself included) look at a worn out piece of gear and say, "oh, it's fine" that's a great example of poor decision making. That decision is usually not based on any actual scientific data. Instead it's most often based on some combination of laziness, a short sighted need for that piece of equipment, and frugality.

What brings all this to mind is a study I recently came across from The German Alpine Club. Every time we go climbing (unless it's bouldering) we're using slings (runners, quickdraws, etc) of some kind. They don't last forever. This study took a look at the strength of sling material as it ages, and if there is any correlation between a haggard appearance and a loss of strength. Pretty interesting reading.

I am not a scientist and have no science background. I'm pretty sure that for something to become accepted science it takes more than one study. That being said, the above paper presents information that is waaaay more fact based than guessing and hoping for the best. If you're interested in a bit more reading on sling material selection and use (or just have some time to kill at work) check out this article from Rock And Ice magazine and this video and article from DMM. Both look at appropriate applications for plain nylon and dyneema slings and quickdraws. There are more links at the bottom of the DMM article if you really want to fall down the rabbit hole.

July 30, 2016

Third Pillar Of Dana - Leave No Trace on the approach

The Third Pillar of Dana has one of the better approaches in the Sierra. It's easy to follow, fairly direct, and really pretty. 

This climbers path travels around Tioga Lake and winds through the woods before following a creek up into Glacier Canyon. Eventually it wanders through a lovely alpine meadow dotted with granite boulders and disappears a few minutes before climbers reach the top of the route. In the summer wildflowers add all sorts of color to the whole thing. 

In many places this path is an aesthetically pleasing single track. However, around 10,500 feet (I'm guessing at this altitude from memory and the map, not a gps waypoint), the path passes through several marshy areas and in a few places is starting to become wide and messy.

"Travel and camp on durable surfaces" is a basic Leave No Trace principle. In the case of the Third Pillar approach this should be fairly easy; just walk right in the middle of the path. The human impact is already there, and this durable surface (bare ground) can take the abuse. 

What's going wrong in this area around 10,500 feet is that us climbers are not walking in the middle of the trail. When we get to these marshy sections we skirt around the edges, killing the plants there and slowly widening the way. Why are we doing this? It's wet and muddy there. 

What should be a narrow path....
That's right, I'm calling out my fellow climbers for being afraid to get their shoes a little wet or muddy. It seems odd that a group of humans that will live in their cars for months on end, forgo showers, and purposely put themselves in physically and mentally challenging situations are unwilling to get their approach shoes dirty, but that's the explanation for the unnecessary impact. We might feel badass when we're romping up the last pitch of The Third Pillar, but we can't manage to do the right thing when faced with a few feet of muddy trail. Not so tough after all. 

If a call out won't work, how about the reality of the situation? I've been lucky enough to climb The Third Pillar of Dana twice so far this summer, once while guiding and once with my wife. I wore a different pair approach shoes each time and each time I tried walking directly through the muddy sections of the path. I took the photos below just after. Not so bad, right? The mud barely made it past the rands. 

"But what if my approach shoes have mesh on them and some of that muddy water makes its way in" you ask. This is a mountain range known for its fair weather. If you walk right through the mud and your feet get a little wet and dirty, fear not gentle reader, they'll dry out in the warm California sunshine and light winds that you'll get over the rest of your day of climbing.