November 17, 2017

Social Media, Me, And Climbing

Recently I've had the chance to spend a few fun days in the mountains with one of my colleagues, Tad McCrea. Tad is a big guy with a big personality, and I like hanging out and climbing with him because of his enthusiasm and the fact that he's great to talk to. Tad holds strong opinions, but he's a good listener and he gives new ideas their due consideration.

One of the things we talked (and joked) about a lot was social media and it's relationship to climbing and climbers. It's a topic that's been on my mind of late, as I've been rethinking my own rocky relationship with Facebook and Instagram. One of the main reasons I'm on social media is to promote myself as a mountain guide. Lately though, I've been wondering if the benefit I get from that self promotion is worth the time-suck and (I'm a little embarrassed to write this) periodic FOMO. Like a hangboard, social media is an amazing tool but it will mess me up if I don't respect it. So, I've decided to try to be a little more disciplined and generally less active on Facebook and Instagram.

Tad in action on some steep neve on Mount Humphreys.
Two articles I've recently read online also deal with this topic. Nick Bullock wrestles with some of the same thoughts and feelings I do (though he does a much better job of writing about them) in this recent blog post (Shifting Thresholds... from October 19, 2017). Admitting to my own FOMO is - in part - inspired by the honesty in his post.

I came across Katie Lambert's article for Climbing Magazine while having a couch day yesterday (Out On A Ledge: The Curated Image from January 9, 2017). She looks at climbing and social media from the other side, that of the consumer. She explores the idea that, "average Joes and Janes can chase fame without backing their stories with either substance or experience" and, "real badass news and quality storytelling get lost in the shuffle".

Her writing really resonated with me. Renown in the climbing world without recognizable climbing achievement doesn't make much sense to me, but it seems to be happening more and more. When we substitute fame for real skill and experience we cheapen words like "epic" and "adventure" because the people using them don't know what a truly epic adventure is. For climbers with less experience this can give a skewed and unrealistic view of what climbing is and what they can expect of themselves. Lambert gives an unsettling example of this happening.

Re-reading the paragraphs above makes me feel like a crusty old guy. That's another thing I like about hanging out with Tad. He's younger than me but he feels even more strongly about this stuff. Maybe I'm not so crusty after all.

September 11, 2017

Lightweight Manifesto

I stumbled across Camp's Lightweight Manifesto the other day.  It's copied below. There's some good food for thought here. Any carpenter, mechanic, or surgeon knows that there's a distinct advantage to using the right tools for the job. Those of us traveling in the mountains can benefit from adopting a similar mindset.


If there is one thing we can do with any piece of equipment to improve its performance, it is to make it lighter. This is a universal truth and it is a driving force at CAMP where we start with purpose-built designs and then trim the fat for a result that has become the world’s lightest line of equipment for climbers, mountaineers, alpinists and ski mountaineers. In the mountains, we are obliged to be prepared for whatever may come our way. This means we cannot skimp on our selections when we choose the right tools for the adventure. Very few mountain adventures require less than 10 pieces of dedicated equipment when we include what we wear, what we eat, how we drink and how we transport it all. A single piece of gear may seem trivial. But a factor of 10 is not trivial at all and this is only for the smallest adventures. 

Now we go deeper into the wilderness, higher in the mountains, or we up the ante with new levels of difficulty. The importance of lightweight increases exponentially. Instead of 10 pieces of gear, we now have 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or more. Even an average rack for sport climbing has more than 20 carabiners. The impact of weight compounds and this is why lightweight is so important. Weight is directly correlated with performance.

We go into the mountains in pursuit of adventure. It is a place where we can come close to the edge of what is possible and from these experiences we are ultimately able to push where the edge exists. This is when we know we’ve made it. A paradigm shift occurs when a discovery or technology fundamentally changes the course of life as we know it. The same progression occurs when mountain athletes make the firm commitment to purpose-built, lightweight gear. One-size-fits-all gear does not fit with meaningful adventures, it inhibits them. It is only when we shed the baggage that we can understand what is really possible. We experience this in life on a daily basis and yet we continue to perpetuate the notion that we can use the same gear for different adventures with very different demands.

It is our human responsibility to become the best we can become and as mountain athletes, it is our responsibility to pursue adventure in the most meaningful ways. We will never do this while we are carrying unnecessary baggage. We will be held back, we will not maximize our enjoyment, we will not achieve our best results, and we will increasingly put ourselves in harm’s way if we do not come prepared. 
Preparedness is the consequence of an entire system that combines mind, body and spirit with all the other stuff we need to get the job done. If the job has anything to do with human mobility, the system must not be weighed down with unnecessary bulk or weight. It must be optimized to get the job done with the highest level of efficiency.

Innovations in materials, technologies, designs and manufacturing have met with fierce competition in the outdoor industry to marvelous effect. But marketing still remains a powerful force. We believe the message is very often entirely wrong. Go anywhere, do anything gear is a fallacy. What is real is that purpose-built gear will serve its purpose and the greater efficiency with which it can achieve that purpose, the better will be the result.

For the highest level of enjoyment, for top-level results, for pushing our limits (wherever they may be), we urge every mountain athlete to make the shift to purpose-built lightweight gear and we encourage them to do it with urgency. The next level awaits.


You can view the manifesto on Camp's website. I am not sponsored by Camp.

August 15, 2017

The Kaweah Traverse

Recently Kevin Burkhart and I climbed the Kaweah Traverse in Sequoia National Park. Ours was the third or maybe fourth ascent of the traverse and the first time (that I know of) that it's been guided. 

Yours truly on the approach with most of the traverse in the background. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.
In a big mountain range full of fantastic alpine ridges, the Kaweahs are a bit of an anomaly. This group of 13,000 foot peaks are not, for the most part, made up of the granite for which the range is famous. Instead they are of a rock that is significantly lower in quality. The original Kaweah Traverse was accomplished by Andy Selters, Claude Fiddler, and Danny Whitmore in July of 1997. This trio traversed about two miles of ridge line, from Black Kaweah to Second Kaweah, taking on 6 other named 13'ers and a bunch of unnamed bumps and towers in between. Climbing California's High Sierra rates the traverse IV 5.9. There is minimal information available about the route. 

I think Kevin first mentioned the Kaweahs to me when he, his wife Heather, and I did the Palisade Traverse (Thunderbolt to Sill) several years ago. As someone who is fond of Sierra ridges it was on my radar, and the fact that he brought it up piqued my interest. Here was somebody as interested in this obscure route as I was!

A year passed and Kevin returned to the Eastern Sierra last summer to climb the Sun Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag. Again the Kaweahs were spoken of. Then we had one of snowiest winters ever. I knew that we would need to bivy on the ridge to succeed, and that meant we would need snow to melt for water. As soon as it became clear to me that there would be no lack of snow, I reached out to Kevin and the planning began. 

Kevin somewhere on the East Ridge of Black Kaweah.
I was up front with Kevin right from the start that not only had I not done the traverse, I had never even been in that part of the range before. Some climbers want their guide to be intimately familiar with the route and peak(s), but Kevin was fine with the fact that it would be an onsight for me. On a route of this nature that could mean backtracking or doing more or harder climbing. We had, I think, built some trust on our previous two trips, and I think he was looking forward to something with a few more unknowns than usual. Without the unknown, after all, there is no adventure. 

A climb of this nature also required that I put some serious trust in Kevin. Though I brought guide skills, climbing experience (and alpine ridge experience in particular) to the table, this climb would need to be a real partnership to manage the risks posed by loose rock and unknown terrain.  Kevin is an experienced trad climber, and has done a ton of 4th and low-5th class around the country. This somewhat rare pairing of skills was combined with some serious interest in this route. Kevin's research meant that not only did he get local beta for an approach that cut our hiking distance almost in half, but he also went in with eyes wide open about the loose rock, something that I think is necessary for success on the Kaweah Traverse. Though there were a number of surprises along the way, low quality rock was never one of them. 

Looking north from Red Kaweah with Black Kaweah, Pyramidal Pinnacle, and Koontz Pinnacle in view.

There is minimal information available about the route. In the interest of adding to that I include slightly more beta than I might normally, but please understand that in endeavors like this a sense of urgency is necessary and quality note taking often fell by the wayside.

We left Mineral King a little after 9am. Kevin's route to the Big Arroyo, our basecamp, wound over Glacier and Hands and Knees Passes and through the Little Five Lakes Basin following trails, abandoned trails, and our noses. Towards the end of the day we shed our shoes for several creek crossings, some of them more than knee deep, fast, and cold. Near the old Big Arroyo ranger cabin we ran into a backcountry ranger who warned us that the Kaweahs had a lot of loose rock and that it could be snowy up there. We spent the night comfortably under my tarp.

The next morning there was no alarm. I thought we'd be working hard each day on the route and wanted to leave our basecamp well rested from the hike in. After a leisurely breakfast we started hiking northeast uphill through open woods and granite slabs. eventually we reached the treeline. That ranger was right, there was a lot of snow, and we were happy for it. The last mile or so of our approach to Black Kaweah would have been endless talus was it not covered in supportive snow. 

We took the Southwest Face route to the summit. It was fairly straightforward and soon we were on top snacking and snapping photos of the peaks laid out ahead of us. From the summit we descended directly east on technical terrain and got onto the east ridge via a convenient ledge. Looking back later that day, we saw that we could have accessed that ledge much more easily by backtracking a bit. The east ridge was exposed, loose, 4th to low 5th class...and surprisingly fun. Our only snafu came on the one rappel we made but that was quickly fixed and soon we were hiking up the northwest slopes of Pyramidal Pinnacle looking for a place to spend the night. There were a number of snow patches and many semi-flat sites, but for some reason I wanted to keep hiking. Before too long I saw it, a cave! With a shout I ran over to it, expecting the floor to be filled with sharp rocks or guano or both. Instead it was almost-completely-level sand and small gravel, a comfortable size for two grown men. A few moments of work from Kevin, the high-end custom carpenter, and it was perfect. Just a few steps away was a snowfield melting into liquid in the late afternoon sun. Excellent views back up the east ridge of Black Kaweah were the icing on the cake that is my new favorite bivy spot.
Soaking up the view from my new favorite bivy spot.

The following day we left the magnificent cave a little after 7am. We scrambled up to the summit of Pyramidal Pinnacle with ease, and soon found ourselves downclimbing exposed 4th and low 5th class. We could have gone back down the way we came and wrapped around to the other side of the Pinnacle on easier terrain, but we wanted to keep our traverse as true as we could, riding the skyline. A short rappel completed our descent to the notch with Koontz Pinnacle.

Some unnecessary but fun 5th class climbing brought us to the top of Koontz Pinnacle, which has a classic Sierra summit block. In his guidebook Peaks, Passes, and Trails RJ Secor mentions that Koontz Pinnacle is not shown on the USGS Triple Divide Peak 7.5 minute map. It seemed to us, after sitting up there with the gps on my phone, that in fact its Pyramidal Pinnacle that's not shown on the quad. 
Me on top of Koontz Pinnacle. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.

Traveling along the ridge from Koontz was fun but became involved, eventually necessitating a 40m rappel. This was followed by a hike up Red Kaweah, one of the easier peaks on the traverse. There was some kind of butterfly migration happening and hundreds of orange and black butterflies led us along the ridge and up to the summit. Getting off the other side was more complicated, we made one rappel that I can recall.

Climbing up the north side of Michael's Pinnacle was forgettable, but the summit register was not. Placed by Jim Koontz himself in 1953, it had a transcription from Charles Michael's original register and had been signed by a who's who of Kaweah climbers, including the only other parties we knew of who did the traverse. It's a piece of Sierra history. I'm not normally particularly excited to sign summit registers, but I was honored to sign this one. That is, until we discovered the pen didn't work. Kicking ourselves for not bringing a pen, we continued south in the dwindling daylight, eventually dropping off the crest a bit to a bivy overlooking Kaweah Basin. 
The Michael's Pinnacle summit register. It could use a new pen and container.
Looking east towards Williamson and Whitney from our second bivy. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.

In the morning the towers seemed to go on and on and included two 20m rappels, but eventually we found ourselves in front of Squaretop. We traversed onto the west side over at least one rib to get to the Northwest Face route which brought us quickly to the summit. 

A time consuming gully took us down to the col before Bilko Pinnacle. Here fun 4th class on a rib over to the west side of the col brought us to the summit and our first good views of Grey (aka Second, aka False) Kaweah. 
Kevin sailing the seas of choss somewhere on the ridge.

Tales of a spat between the first ascensionists and 5.9 climbing had us wondering if one of the towers before us would contain the crux. Instead we found (on I believe the second tower) enjoyable 5.7 climbing on some of the best rock on the ridge. Before long we were fist bumping on top. I know I felt like we were getting away with something. 

We still had a lot of daylight left, and both of us felt like it would make a lot of sense to include Mount Kaweah, the tallest of the Kaweah peaks. It was only a matter of some class 2 hiking, so we signed that summit register too. Our big winter had left snow still parked on the west face of the peak, and a 1500 foot standing glissade sped our descent and put smiles on our faces.

While Kevin and I both enjoyed this traverse neither of us feel a need to do it again. Climbers who are dying to send this one would be well-advised to do some of the other big (and higher quality) traverses first. Though this one isn't as long as the full Palisade or Evolution Traverses, the decision making and risk management is probably harder. Couple this with the low level but continuous loose rock and the Kaweah Traverse is likely as difficult as those longer ones. As Kevin put it, “this one is for the Sierra ridge 'choss-isseur'”.
Somewhere in the Kaweahs. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.


July 9, 2017

Backcountry Water Strategies

Running out of water is no big deal if it's the end of the day and there is only a short walk between you and the car. It is a big deal if you're partway through a route that's taking longer than you expected, or if you hope to recover quickly and send again tomorrow.

While creeks and lakes aren't usually readily available on alpine routes, snow is often not far away in most major mountain ranges. Even here in the sunny Sierra snow lingers in nooks and crannies throughout the summer. I've topped up my water supply from a melting snow patch on top of Mount Darwin even as late as the end of August.

If you've got a stove and fuel turning that snow into water is easy. It was above freezing on top of Mount Darwin that day in August, so I just set my bottle upright on the ground under the edge of the snow patch where it could catch the drip. Sometimes it's a bit trickier than that. In May Mik and I were descending from an ascent of the Freezy Nuts Couloir on Werewolf Tower in the Ruth Gorge. The climb had taken a bit longer than expected and Mik had run out of water. Just to be clear, he's tougher than I am and could have easily just continued down and drank his fill when we were back at camp. However, there was no need for him to remain thirsty.

We had paused for a break in the downclimbing at a flat spot below a small rock band. The rock band was running with water from snow melting above, but it was just a thin film of liquid. A simple trick allowed us to fill Mik's empty bottle with about a liter of water in just a few minutes. He pressed a dyneema sling onto the wet rock. This conducted water directly into his bottle.


Obviously this was a fairly hands-on operation. If we had more time, wanted to collect more water, or wanted to multitask we could have placed some gear in the rock, clipped the sling to it, and set the bottle upright in the snow with the end of the sling inside. Quickdraws or a cordelette could also be used for this task, and could be clipped to each other if more length is required.

May 30, 2017

Thoughts On Alpine Climbing

I just read a really good blog post on the Outdoor Research website. "Want To Climb In Patagonia? Read This First" had some great ideas that I imagine were applicable to the first-timer down there (I've never been) but I think are relevant to anybody early in their alpine career.