December 7, 2015

Alpine Pack Review

My first review for OutdoorGearLab just went live. It's a review of alpine climbing packs and you can read it by clicking on this link.

When my editor, McKenzie, asked me to do the review I was psyched. No matter what sort of climbing is your favorite, if you're a climber you nerd out on gear a bit. Even folks who only boulder (arguably the least gear intensive type of climbing) still obsess over the right shoes and the right shoe rubber. As a climber who is pretty keen on alpine climbing and also climbs the occasional big wall, the obsession runs deep. I read on line reviews pretty much every time I purchase something. Most reviews of climbing gear seem to be (a) a regurgitation of the manufacturers marketing materials, and (b) written after only a few days of use. They're also often published in magazines in which the manufacturer advertises. I know a few folks who write/have written for various climbing periodicals and they always seemed like people of integrity to me, but that definitely fits the definition of "conflict of interest".
Glen testing (and posing) with a CiloGear WorkSack.

OutdoorGearLab does things a little differently. First of all, they pay full price for everything. No companies send them free gear and the stuff they test is the same as the stuff climbers buy off the shelf, no prototypes. After the tests they sell the gear at deep discounts at their eBay store. Second, they rarely review just a single item, instead comparing items across a category. Third, their reviews are comprehensive. Each test has three articles in addition to each individual product review. I tested 9 packs. The shortest thing I wrote, one of the product reviews, is over 600 words. The longest, what they call the "Best In Class", which is the main overview article, is over 4000 words. In total I wrote over 14,000 words, which probably doubles the number of words I've written in the last 15 years! Fourth, the testing itself is comprehensive. Each of the 9 packs had at least 20 days in the field. I also did a bunch of weighing, measuring, and photographing at home. During the height of the writing process this definitely felt like a part time job, and I was glad I was doing the writing during the quiet part of my guiding year.

Thanks to everybody who took a photo, posed for a photo, or used a pack and gave me their two cents about it. Many thanks also to me excellent editor, McKenzie Long. If you've got some time to kill at work today, or if you're in the market for a new pack, check it out.

September 27, 2015

The Minaret Traverse

Scott Sinner and I did The Minaret Traverse a couple of weeks ago. We climbed all of the named Minarets in a day, which added up to 20 peaks. I don't think anyone had done exactly this before and though it's a rather arbitrary guideline, all of the rules in climbing are arbitrary. Why climb the Dawn Wall when you can walk up the back side of El Capitan on a trail? It was really fun, particularly the northern half. The rock quality was good when it needed to be and occasionally great.
Scott somewhere in The Minarets.
I'm not 100% sure why I like this kind of thing, but I know that I really really like it. When I started climbing I remember stumbling across an article by Matt Samet in Climbing Magazine about alpine traverses. In the article he climbs The Cirque Traverse (in The Wind River Range), The Grand Traverse (in the Tetons), and The Evolution Traverse (for what might have been it's first onsight) in a long road trip. He may have done another, I can't remember and lost the magazine a long time ago. 

Something in that article was the spark, though it was a while before I had the chops to really turn it into a fire. Obvious natural lines have always drawn my interest (Indian Creek is one of my favorite crags) and I like alpine climbing. Long ridges are the most obvious and aesthetic lines in the mountains and if that ridge takes me across multiple peaks, so much the better. As Josh Wharton said, "What could be better than climbing? More climbing."

After climbing all over the country I was drawn to The Sierra in no small part because of it's ridges. I believe it was Viren Perumal who suggested using Peter Croft's The Good, The Great, And The Awesome as a tick list. What do you know, there are a lot if ridge climbs in there, including four big traverses. One of them draws the eye insatiably every time I'm driving home on the 395. I usually find myself going well under the speed limit on the straightaway past the Mammoth Airport. 

For these reasons and more a few Sundays ago I woke up at three in the morning at a small bivy just east of The Gap, a pass just before the northernmost Minaret. It had been smoky lately (from The Rough Fire) and there was a slight chance of thunderstorms in the forecast. I popped in one earbud from my iPod, so I could get psyched but still converse with Scott, and fired up the stove. I was feeling some nervous anticipation. I wasn't scared about the climbing, but I was excited to finally get my hands on this ridge and I really wanted to send. We got our gear sorted out, Scott turned on his wicked bright alpine-start-routefinding headlamp (essentially the sun in a bottle strapped to his head), and off we went. 

There's not a lot of beta about this traverse. The guidebook write ups vary from inspiring to cryptic but none are particularly useful. I found trip reports online (here, here, here, and here) (oh yeah, and here) but none of those climbers did what I wanted to do: climb all of the peaks named "Minaret" in a day. Somewhere on the third page of search results I came across a Supertopo forum post from a few years ago. Scott Sinner was looking for a partner for this traverse. Most of the folks posting to the thread did not want to climb with Scott and seemed only interested in nay-saying. I barely knew Scott, but he was the only other person I had met who had expressed any interest. I sent him a message to find out if he still was and he replied quickly and in the affirmative. 

We met for beers to talk strategy and logistics. I wanted to get the earliest start we could without compromising a good night's sleep. My frequent partner Aaron Richards pointed out that if you're going to climb in the dark no matter what you might as well do it first, when you're fresh. Scott had the brilliant idea of going north to south, so as to front-load the more technical climbing. I had learned from experience that it's best to, whenever possible, shift walking to the end of the day. So we camped at The Gap and started real early.

In the interest of encouraging more people to climb this thing I included more notes about our particular route than I usually do. Please understand that in endeavors like this a sense of urgency is necessary and quality note taking often fell by the wayside. For clarity I capitalize an aspect (Southeast for example) when it's in the official name of an established route that I'm sure we climbed. This happened rarely. 

From The Gap we slogged uphill and north over talus and scree on the west side of Waller Minaret until we could turn east and scramble up 4th class to the summit. We retraced our steps to The Gap and then headed up the West Ridge of Leonard, a fun 4th and low 5th class scramble on mostly good rock. Folks call this the West Ridge, but since it comes directly from The Gap "Northwest Ridge" might be more accurate. Climbing down to the notch between Leonard and Turner Minarets was not memorable, but the excellent 5.7 climbing out of that notch was. We went slightly downhill to the west and then followed a crack system on good rock for a while passing an old piton in the process. 
A cool polished ramp on the west side of Turner (or was it Jensen?) Minaret.
Somewhere above this we walked up a cool polished ramp on the east side of the peak then climbed a really fun low 5th class corner with a finger and hand crack in the back. However, one or both of these climbing items could have come on the way up Jensen Minaret, as I can't particularly recall how we got to it's summit from Turner Minaret. I definitely recall how we got off of Jensen though. This was the first time we got out the rope. We probably could have down-climbed all of this terrain, but I think rapping was ultimately faster. We made one rappel from near the summit to a ledgy area. From here we climbed down and skier's left, on unlikely looking terrain, closer to the ridge crest. Then we made two more rappels, interspersed with some scrambling. The last rap put us in the chute on the west side of North Notch. Scrambling up North Notch Minaret was fairly easy, but I think we might have rapped off the top because there was a really good station already there.
A fun corner of Jensen (or was it Turner?) Minaret.
Next came Dyer Minaret, which Scott and I both thought was some of the best climbing on the whole thing. From Highway 395 near the Mammoth Airport you can pick out the little finger of Dyer sitting above North Notch. The northwest ridge is steep and exposed 5.6 - 7 on really good rock. The small summit of Dyer featured a rap station with a fixed pin and stopper equalized with a horn. One 30m rappel (watch the ends of your rope!) down the northeast face got us down to easier terrain. There's a good bivy for two on this side of the peak, from above it looked like a little nest jutting out into space. We climbed over the west shoulder of Dyer and down to the notch between it and Dawson Minaret.
Scott on Dawson Minaret. Jensen Minaret looms behind.
On Dawson we followed low 5th class ramps up and around the west side of the peak to the notch between it and Bedayan Minaret. Then we turned north and climbed up making moves up to about 5.7. Once again we were happy to take advantage of a not-bad in situ rap station. We climbed Bedayan by it's northeast face, which was mostly 4th class. This was notable because it was the only time we climbed a peak in the northern half of the traverse on it's east (our left) side.
I don't remember much about how we got up Rice Minaret, but my notes say "west-northwest ridge". I do remember making a shortish rap from a bomber natural feature down a cool looking tight corner/chimney. Getting onto the summit ridge of Eichhorn Minaret was walking. It was literally class 2/3. At one point I wished aloud for trekking poles.
Scott pulling onto Eichorn's summit ridge. Clyde Minaret is on the right.
There are several big towers between Eichorn and Michael Minarets. We traveled around these towers on the west, passing the big plaque memorializing Pete Starr, and dropping into and then climbing out of the tight gullies that separate them to reach the Portal. We passed through the Portal and climbed the face above and left of it. The rock was impeccable and the climbing was never harder than 5.6, which was good because the face was quite steep. I don't think we took the path of least resistance but it was fun. As we topped out it started to drizzle briefly. Three rappels got us down.

Crossing back over Eichorn we dipped into a bowl on the southwest side of the summit ridge to avoid it's sharpest parts. A little bit of exposed 5th class downclimbing got us onto the northwest ridge of Clyde Minaret and from there to it's summit. From here we followed Croft's path in reverse. Down to Amphitheater Lake for a welcome drink of water, up to Amphitheater Col and over the first bump of Adams Minaret to it's true summit, which involved some 4th class scrambling. Somewhere in there we waited 30 minutes for a thunderstorm we couldn't see (because of the smoke) but that sounded really quite loud and close.
We found this cool little piece of obsidian on our way up to Amphitheater Col. It looked like some kind of arrowhead or man-made tool to us. Anybody out there have any ideas/expertise in this sort of stuff?
Back down to the lake and up the Southwest Face of Ken Minaret to it's summit, where we made a few 5th class moves near the top. We retraced our steps back down and hopped talus over to South Notch Minaret. This little tower had what might have been the hardest climbing of the whole route, we weren't surprised everyone skips it.  We climbed it by the northwest face, which had consistent class 5 climbing on good rock up to maybe 5.8 or so, and descended with two short raps.

Now a bunch of talus walking led to Starr Minaret. We cached the climbing gear somewhere on the way and climbed Starr as the light faded. Our route to the summit was not the easiest way up and the descent even less so, but eventually we found our way back to the gear and hiked up Kehrlein Minaret. I had been on Kehrlein before, on a previous attempt traveling the other direction with my friend Dale Apgar. It's east ridge is the most complicated terrain feature connecting two minarets that we would travel on. I felt confident that we wouldn't get lost and would take a generally efficient route. Little did I know that our time getting from Kehrlein to Pridham Minaret would be well over 4 times the average time it took us to get between all the other summits. Though morale was still high and we were both still functioning well mentally the 17 summits before this one were making themselves felt. We moved more slowly in the dark, and made five rappels as we ground our way east. I don't know if I speak for Scott on this but I hope to never climb Kehrlein Minaret again. 

From the top of Pridham we could see Reigelhuth looming in the dark when we turned our headlamps off. Robotically we hiked over to it and climbed steep low 5th class terrain on the south side of it's west end. We stumbled, down-climbed, and butt slid down some loose gully and picked up a path that took us to the trail by the outlet of Minaret Lake. 

Success! As is common for me on these things, I was just glad to be done and figured I'd probably feel good about it later. I was more excited about the supplies we had cached by the outlet on our way in. We snacked (Fritos!), changed headlamp batteries, and psyched ourselves up for the death march back to The Gap.

This area is worthy of more climber traffic. The northern Minarets in particular (from The Gap to Clyde Minaret) were fun and engaging and certainly not the nightmare of loose rock and routefinding that they're often made out to be. Most of the skepticism I've heard about the Minarets has been from folks who have done minimal actual climbing there. If The North Ridge Of Conness or The Incredible Hulk is your standard for alpine rock quality, be prepared to be disappointed in The Minarets and in every other mountain range in the lower 48. Come to the Minarets understanding that these are mountains and that mountains (especially those that aren't overrun by other climbers) often contain some loose rock and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the climbing. If you are interested in this traverse (or part of it) and want more beta feel free to get in touch.

July 8, 2015

On Being Well Rounded

Recently, I got home from my second expedition up the West Buttress of Denali. Between the two trips I've guided a total of 15 climbers on the mountain. It's a very diverse group, all of these folks had worked hard before and during the expedition and had a strong desire to go to the summit, but that's where their similarities end. Climbers on these expeditions came from different countries, different generations, and even slightly different socioeconomic backgrounds. Perhaps the most striking of their differences was in climbing background.

A sort of a sunset at 14,000 feet. The full moon hangs over Mount Hunter, with Mount Foraker to the right. The classic Sultana Ridge is the sun-shade line on Foraker.
All had some mountaineering experience. Some had some more extensive alpine climbing mileage. A few folks on each trip had done a lot of technical climbing. These difference became glaringly obvious on two of the sections many regard as the cruxes of the expedition: the Fixed Lines above the 14,000 foot camp, and the Autobahn (a section of fixed pickets above the 17,000 foot camp). Both of these sections of the route are steep, and both require the climber to have a basic grasp of moving together as a roped team, and an understanding of how to operate a carabiner. I know this second skill sounds a bit sarcastic, but bear with me because it's not.

Eating salmon with the pick of my ice axe. I forgot my spoon this day.
Denali suitors who had extensive technical climbing experience on rock and ice were comfortable with the steeper terrain of the Fixed Lines and Autobahn. The very act of standing on these slopes did not tire or unnerve them. Their previous climbing experience gave them experiential, not just intellectual, knowledge of how rope systems can add security to steep terrain. Spending time handling ropes and carabiners in a variety of steep rock and ice situations meant that they had a fundamental understanding of how to clip and unclip rope from carabiner. They had no problem doing either with big bulky gloves (or mittens) when they were cold and tired.

Those with less technical experience were nervous on the steeper slopes. They didn't feel comfortable standing upright and sometimes assumed positions that seemed more secure but were more tiring. They didn't feel comfortable resting with their weight on the fixed rope. Clipping and unclipping was difficult and stressful. If the weather was bad and they were tired, all of these things were magnified. It was as if those with less technical experience were given a slightly harder mountain to climb.

Spud and Mike cruising to camp at 17,200. This is one of my favorite sections of the route.
In my time guiding in The Cascades* I worked with many climbers who were not interested in rock climbing at all. Some of them preferred to gut it out on obscure moderate alpine ice climbs that were in less-than-optimal condition rather than choose a classic route that might involve some 4th or low-5th class rock to get to or from the ice. Some thought they were too old to rock climb. Others thought that because they didn't look like Sharma shirtless they had no hope on the rock. Still others scoffed at rock climbing as something that couldn't benefit their mountaineering career in any way.

It might be the great variety of climbing available here in the Eastern Sierra colors my viewpoint on this issue, but it seems to me that having a breadth of experiences is beneficial no matter what part of the climbing buffet is your favorite. Some of the connections are obvious: bouldering can help you deal with powerful or dynamic moves on a sport climb. Sport climbing lets you work on movement skills you can bring to trad routes. Trad skills let you climb big walls and rocky peaks. But the connections could be more subtle. Projecting a boulder problem or sport route can help the mountaineer embrace the process of climbing a big peak and deal with the inevitable occasional setback or failure. The benfits could work the other way too. The experienced alpine climber knows that the summit is a very small part of a much bigger thing, and can bring that knowledge to working a challenging pitch at the crag.

On an expedition the little things can be pretty sweet, like having your name written in Sriracha on a quesadilla.
No matter what your preferred way of engaging with climbing, being well rounded (or even attempting to be) is beneficial. A bigger skill set puts more items on the menu of things you can do. As Josh Wharton said in a climbing video once, "What could be better than climbing? More climbing."

I was going to to mention a bunch of accomplished climbers who were known to be well rounded when a colleague pointed out that I don't need to drop famous names when I guide well rounded climbers all the time. He's right. I don't need to name drop Alex Lowe and Ueli Steck when I personally know Brett and Lee and Clay. I've been lucky to share a rope with climbers who like to eat from every part of the climbing buffet. Next time you find yourself joking that, "sport climbing is neither" remember that it's all just climbing and consider trying something new. You might like it.

"Do not use parking brake on glacier". From the dashboard of the de Havilland Beaver we flew off the glacier in.

*I meet folks who hold these views in The Sierra too, but in much smaller numbers.

May 4, 2015

Blind Date With New Ice Climbing Gear

Late this winter I had the privilege of spending just over three weeks in the Canadian Rockies. Two of the three weeks were spent ice climbing and one skiing. I don't usually like to bring untried gear on longer trips. In this case we were returning to town most nights so the commitment factor was low, and I ended up using 5 new pieces of equipment that worked pretty well. All of this stuff saw at least 12 days of hard use, some of it more.

Hoping the holes line up while drilling with the Petzl Laser Speed Light. Photo by Ethan Miller.

Petzl Laser Speed Light 21cm ice screw

When I'm building an anchor with ice screws I like one of those screws to be 21cm long. This is also the preferred length for building V-threads. The tube of the Laser Speed Light is made of aluminum instead of the usual steel. This makes the screw a lot lighter. In fact, the weight difference between the 21cm Petzl and the 22cm Black Diamond Express ice screw is 58 grams, the equivalent of about 2 Oz carabiners. They also seem to start a lot more easily than the BD screws, maybe due to the bigger teeth and the big C-shaped cutout at the base of those teeth. The lower profile hanger means less chipping away of troublesome spots in the ice and the single big clip-in point is simpler to use. These screws also come in an all-steel version. I like them so much I'm thinking about ditching my BD screws for a set. Anyone interested in buying a bunch of nice and sharp Black Diamond Turbo Express Screws?

OR Cathode light puffy jacket

This lightweight synthetic insulated jacket was a go-to for me on this trip, mainly because it fits me really well. Most days my upper body layers consisted of a base layer, an R1 hoody, and this jacket. When things got chilly I pulled a bigger puffy on over everything. The Cathode fits my skinny form well with a long cut in the arms and body. This means that it stays tucked into my harness while I'm climbing and covers my wrists well. Good wrist coverage keeps the blood flowing through arteries in my wrists warm, so that my hands stay warmer and I can wear thinner, more dextrous gloves.

The hood works really well over a helmet. Several similar, popular jackets have hoods that are designed to fit under helmets, which I find less than useless. I have to take my helmet off to take the hood on or off, which is a pain. If I do try to wear the hood over my helmet it pulls the whole jacket up and untucks it from my harness, so now I'm colder and the jacket obstructs the view of my gear loops. The hood on the Cathode, combined with the (for me) great fit means I stay warmer and am able to access the tools I need to climb.

The hood stays on my head no matter what and doesn't interfere with the fit of the jacket. Photo by Aaron Richards.
Dry Guy Circulator boot dryers

I knew we were going to want to climb every day and that we'd have minimal time to dry boots out. Wet feet are cold feet, so I borrowed a trick from road tripping skiers, electric boot dryers. It seems like there are a few brands and models of these. The Circulator is simple to use, just plug it in and stick 'em in your boots. They're small and travel well. I found they completely dry out a pair of ice boots overnight. Of course everyone on a trip wants to borrow them, and my partners and I found that two ice climbers can get almost completely dry boots by switching at some point in the night.

Innate Cha Vacuum Bottle thermos

For me this is a crucial item for winter day trips. I've had a hard time finding a good one over the years. For a while I had a model from REI that was okay but got destroyed when I backed over my climbing pack (long story). This was replaced by a Petzl branded thermos from Liquid Solutions. Just when I would get the lid on tight enough to not leak in my pack it would pop loose. I figured that Canadian skiers and ice climbers would never tolerate a sub-par thermos, and picked up this model from Innate at a shop in Canmore. The lid was easy to operate with gloves on. It takes up less pack space than the Petzl thermos, despite having the same inner volume. It kept tea and coffee piping hot. Best of all, I could crank the lid down tight enough to ensure no surprises in my pack.

Aaron sipping some hot tea.

April 6, 2015

Liberty Crack and Backbone Ridge

Here's one from the vault, about a couple of routes I climbed while living and working in the Cascades in the summer of 2008.

With my regular climbing partner back East for a family visit, I had to recruit another. A co-worker had some time off, so we made plans to tick two routes. We piled our gear into Mike’s car Friday evening and set off for Leavenworth. Our first objective: The Backbone Ridge (IV, 5.9) on Dragontail Peak. This rib of rock rises 2000 feet from just above Colchuck Lake to the summit. After a few hours of sleep in the parking lot we started hiking. A few more hours and we were taking off our headlamps at the lake and stashing snacks for the return hike.
Two hundred feet from the base of the route we encountered our first major obstacle, a really firm snow slope. Of course, we were in sneakers. We crossed using some chopped steps (we had one ice axe) and availing ourselves of the friction provided by debris on the snow’s surface. After the snow we kept our sneakers on and scrambled up to the base of the second pitch, which climbs a long offwidth.

Mike liking the offwidth. Note the sleeveless track jersey, his secret weapon for the wide stuff.
Most climbers do not relish offwidth cracks (cracks that are too wide for a fist, but too narrow to climb into). Climbers often abbreviate the term as “O.W.” One Joshua Tree guide claims this stands for “other way”, as in, go the other way. Because most find this crack size odious, they don’t often practice it. The upshot of this avoidance is that when mandatory offwidths are encountered climbers are unprepared and have a more difficult and unpleasant experience than they might otherwise, reinforcing their previous notions. It’s a vicious cycle. The other result of this distaste for offwidths is that they often get a harder rating than they should. A good example of this is Vertigo's “Half Moon” offwidth pitch (III 5.9, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire). Some claim this to be the crux, but those with even a modicum of technique (and the sense to remove their pack) will find that it’s not so bad.

The offwidth on Backbone Ridge is fun. It’s in a right facing corner, which allows for stemming and hip scumming. The lower half is easily protected with mid-sized pieces and slung chockstones. After this, I pushed a big cam ahead of me for 30 feet until I could leave the offwidth for a comfy belay ledge. Easier terrain along the ridge crest and to it’s left followed. Soon we were simulclimbing up a ledge system on the Fin, a huge clean face that forms the upper part of the route. Part of the way up, Mike picked a nice looking finger crack (the actual crux of the route we took) and led us to the narrow upper edge of the Fin. From here, more simulclimbing took us to the top.

Leading on the Fin.
We lounged on the summit for an hour and a half; eating, taking pictures, goofing around, eating some more, and putting the climbing gear away. Hiking and glissading brought us to the top of Asgaard Pass, where we picked up the trail and made the 6-mile hike back to the car. Thirteen miles of hiking and 2000 feet of climbing had earned us some pizza, so we headed into Leavenworth for an overpriced pie.

Sunday morning we slept in and went for a swim. That afternoon we packed up and drove north to Washington Pass. Our objective was Liberty Crack (IV 5.10 C1), a 1200-foot aid and free route on the east face of Liberty Bell. We knew the route was going to take us a long time. Monday morning found us on our second predawn start.

We left the car at the small pond just east of the pass and followed faint climbers’ trails uphill through the woods. Horizontal bands of lighter rock partway up the face made the route easy to find. Unfortunately, another firm snow slope lay ahead. This time Mike took the lead, chopping steps with a rock until we were able to chimney down into the moat between snow and rock, with a hand and foot on each, and traverse over to the start.

We divided the route in half. The first block was mine and started with three pitches of aid climbing. I find approach shoes the best thing to wear for aid, but I wore my climbing shoes instead. Wearing them made me more inclined to get out of my aiders to make the occasional free move. Climbing shoes are also pretty uncomfortable in aiders, so there was extra motivation to get to the anchors.

The moment I started up the first pitch the mosquitoes were swarming. As I knew I would be warming up on lead, my windbreaker was off and I was just in a short-sleeved shirt. I remember none of the first pitch, just fending off the mosquitoes. As Mike jugged up to the belay I tried to think of excuses to quit. When he got there he had a positive attitude and didn’t really complain about the bugs. This gave me enough of a mental boost to keep going and the higher we got off the ground the less of an issue they became. The aid pitches were straightforward. The only marginal placements were a few fixed copperheads with frayed wires on the third pitch. The third pitch also featured the most bomber hook placement I have ever seen. I’ve read it could be bypassed with cams or nuts but why bother when a hook is easy to place and clean? One short lead of 5.10 and one long lead of 5.8 and my block ended on a ledge.
Looking down from just above “The Lithuanian Lip”, a prominent roof on pitch 2.
Mike linked two short pitches to “The Rotten Block”, a belay where it was easier to sit than stand. Next was a really long lead that started off with a little aid (Mike was glad to have an aider here) and stretched out to about halfway through what most guidebooks call pitch 9. A pitch of low fifth class chimneys followed and then Mike led what we both agreed was the best pitch of the route. It was a long left facing corner with good rock and fun, sustained climbing. Another 150 feet of low fifth class climbing and we unroped to scramble up the top of the Beckey route. On the summit we met a pair of climbers who agreed to join forces and turn two rappels into one with both of our ropes. Before long we were at the car, changing into flip-flops and strategizing how to stay awake for the long drive home.

Summit shot atop Liberty Bell.

Our rack for The Backbone:
  • 1 set of nuts
  • 1 ea. green – red Alien
  • 1 ea. #.75 – #3, #6 BD C4
Our rack for Liberty Crack:
  • 1 set of nuts
  • 1 set of HB offsets
  • #.5, #1, #1.5 Tricam
  • 1 ea. 0 TCU
  • 2 ea. #.4 - #2 BD C4 (or similar) including 2/3 and 3/4 Metolius Offset TCUs
  • 1 ea. #3, #4 BD C4
  • 1 ea. BD Grappling Hook
The offset gear was really useful (especially the nuts) but not indispensable. A second set of regular nuts would suffice.

The Liberty Bell Group. South Early Winter Spire, North Early Winter Spire, Lexington Tower, Concord Tower (not visible), and Liberty Bell (l to r). Liberty Bell's east face is in the shade.

March 3, 2015

Choosing The Right Boots For Alpine Climbing

Recently, I was having an email conversation with a client about what boots he should get for his trip. By the time the conversation was over I realized I had written some fairly useful information about alpine climbing boots, which could be handy for anyone planning a trip. This blog post grew from that seed.

Of all the gear we bring with us on an alpine climb, boots are one of the most important pieces. It's much easier to make do with the wrong jacket or harness. Having the wrong boots can stop a climb in it's tracks, and it's worth doing the research and trying on as many as possible to find the perfect pair for your route.

I use Scarpa and La Sportiva as examples here because I'm most familiar with their products. This is because they are the most widely available in the U.S. and they also fit my feet well. There are a lot of other good boot companies out there, including Kayland, Zamberlan, Asolo, Lowa, Boreal, and Salewa. It's all about what fits.

"Shank" is a term that historically has referred to a metal bar or plate running the length of the boot sole to add stiffness. "Full shank" boots are very stiff longitudinally and are appropriate for water ice and steep alpine ice climbing. "3/4 shank" boots are softer fore-to-aft and hike and climb rock better than boots with a full shank but do not climb water ice or steep alpine ice very well. These days manufacturers create that stiffness with different materials, but we still use the terms to refer to the performance characteristics of the boots.

What follows is a list of the basic types of mountain boots, with pros and cons, and examples of models in italics. 

My high mileage La Sportiva Trango S Evo. The "red boot" is the classic three season climbing boot. One size 42.5 boot weighs 740g or 26.1oz.

Three Season: La Sportiva Trango Cube, Trango S Evo (the red boots); Scarpa Charmoz Pro. Uninsulated, 3/4 shank. Appropriate for use in the summer, on warmer spring and fall trips depending on conditions, and on shorter/less steep alpine ice. Lots of ankle mobility and very light. Climbs rock relatively well, does okay on moderate alpine ice. Not very good for water ice or steep, sustained alpine ice. Compatible with strap-on and "semi-auto" crampon bindings. The red boots changed the paradigm for this category and led the way in current lightweight developments. 
La Sportiva Trango Extreme Evo Light GTX, a single boot with a long name.
La Sportiva Nepal Evo Women's single boot. One size 39.5 boot weighs 970g or 34.4oz.

Single Boots: La Sportiva Nepal Cube, Nepal Evo, Trango Extreme Evo Lt (the silver boots); Scarpa Mont Blanc, Mont Blanc Pro and Rebel Pro. Insulated, full shank. Appropriate for use on winter day trips and sustained steep alpine or water ice. Can be used for winter overnights (I've used them for a 5 day trip) but keeping your feet dry becomes big challenge as the trip goes on. Wet feet are cold feet. The silver boots and Rebel Pro are at the lighter end of this category. Both weigh less but have less support and less insulation (particularly the Rebels) than other single boots. Single boots are what folks are using for most winter climbing in the lower 48 and lower altitude Canada, and for sustained summer ice in The Sierra and Cascades. Compatible with all crampon bindings. 

The toe area of a three season boot (left) and single boot (right). Note the prominent reinforced lip or "welt" on the single boot. This is for fully automatic crampon bindings, the kind with the wire in front. All single, 1.5, and double mountain boots have a welt in the front. If your mountain boot doesn't, it's not good for ice climbing.
1.5 Boots: This is a new category in the last 5 years or so. Insulated, full shank. It's a single boot with an integrated gaiter that covers the whole thing. Performs like a single boot, but warmer. Kind of a niche boot. Might be a bit easier to dry out on overnights. Will keep your feet warm year-round in the lower 48 and lower altitude Canada; and lower altitude Alaska after mid-May if you're careful. A bit warm for lower 48 in the summer. Compatible with all crampon bindings. La Sportiva Batura; Scarpa Phantom Guide.
La Sportiva Spantik, a double boot.

Double Boots: Insulated, full shank, with a removable liner. You can take the liner into your sleeping bag at night and dry it out. This lets you have dry (and therefore warm) feet day after day. Sometimes called "6000 meter boots", which refers to the sort of altitudes they're used at. Heavy. Stiff uppers don't handle rock or mixed climbing as well, though the Phantom 6000's are alright. Appropriate for really cold conditions and long trips, Alaska and higher altitude Canada. Compatible with all crampon bindings. La Sportiva Baruntse and Spantik; Scarpa Phantom 6000.

So what to get? For folks who are involved in any outdoor pursuit (climbing, backpacking, mountain and road biking, skiing and snowboarding, paddling) at any even remotely serious level the idea of a "quiver of one" for gear doesn't work. There's no perfect boot for everything, and the more things you do the more true that becomes. A pair of double boots will keep your feet warm and dry in the gnarliest conditions this continent has to offer, but wearing them on a summer ascent of Mount Rainer's Disappointment Cleaver or Polemonium Peak's V-Notch Couloir will have you hating life. On the other hand, spend a few days at any water ice crag in the lower 48 and you're bound to see some poor soul trying to climb steep ice in three season boots.

The only alpine climbers who own one pair of boots are those who haven't bought their second pair yet. Those who own two pairs usually either own a pair of three season boots and a pair of singles, or a pair of single boots and a pair of doubles.

Fit is the most important selection criteria. Weight comes second. If gear shops near you carry several different models, rejoice. If not, several online retailers offer free return shipping. Order a few different models, wear them around the house for a week, and then decide. You can't try on too many different pairs. Aftermarket insoles (like Superfeet) can do wonders for improving fit. The liners of double boots can be thermo-formed (or "cooked") to your feet at a good ski shop, look for the most grizzled boot-fitter on staff. Some climbing shops (like Mammoth Mountaineering) also offer this service.

Alpine climbing is a gear intensive sport. All that gear costs money. If you don't want to buy a lot of gear, you have other choices from the climbing buffet. Bouldering and sport climbing are both great ways to enjoy the vertical realm with a lot less equipment. If you still want to go to the mountains, get the right boots for your trip. They last a long time and have a reasonable resale value if you end up deciding that alpine climbing is not for you.

January 23, 2015

The Dawn Wall, The New York Times, and being cool

Every person who isn't in a coma right now (and maybe some who are, medical science still doesn't totally understand what's going on in there) knows that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson finally sent the Dawn Wall. That's because, unlike a lot of other climbing feats, this one made it into the mainstream media. Brian Williams talked about it in his nightly newscast, Melissa Block from NPR spoke with Kevin and Tommy on the air, and on January 4 The New York Times ran a piece about it. I didn't read that article, but I did read something Brendan Leonard wrote in the Adventure Journal that collected the best of the negative comments from the Times article.

Reading those negative comments was depressing. My wife and my buddy Vic both reminded me that the comments weren't that big of a deal, and that there were probably lots of good comments on the article too. They're right on both counts, internet comments should be taken lightly, and many of the over 500 comments on the article are positive. Still, it irked me to see people hating on a major achievement in a pursuit that's so important to me. The haters are probably voting citizens, and with their votes help shape public policy and the way our public lands are managed for recreation.

Most of the negative comments had their roots in a lack of understanding of the basic facts of what those guys were doing. If their opinion of what was going on was more informed maybe it would be more positive, maybe they would be more likely to encourage their elected officials to support and protect recreational opportunities.

So here's the call to action: next time a member of the non-climbing public stops you to ask about what you're doing, whether you're at a backcountry trailhead with a rope on your pack, or at a front country crag walking back to your car, be cool. Answer their questions. Their interest in our crazy passion is totally sensible, and the fact that you just sent your project does not make you a better person than them. This is an opportunity to create an ally or an enemy for climbers. Which would you rather have?

January 12, 2015

Parker Canyon Ice Climbing

I got a text from Ryan the other day. He had heard that the Parker Canyon Ice was in and wanted to know if I was interested. I definitely was. If you look carefully, you can see the ice in Parker Canyon from 395 between June Lake and Lee Vining. I find myself on that stretch of highway frequently in the winter and have often looked and wondered. It was time to go find out.

Ryan leads the warm up.
Like the ice in Lundy Canyon, Parker is best climbed early in the season, when it's been cold but there's been no snow. The roads that lead to the trailheads for both these areas are gated and not plowed in the winter. Usually mid-January would be too late, but we were hoping the dry winter we've been having thus far would make a visit possible. SP Parker's Eastern Sierra Ice lists two routes to the trailhead, one for 2wd vehicles and one for 4wd. The 4wd approach saves 1.7 miles of hiking and 550 feet of elevation in each direction. We hopped in Ryan's truck and took the 4wd approach.

Persistent snow ended our drive about a mile and 500 feet of vertical short of the end of the 4wd approach. So right away we were only saving 0.7 miles of hiking and pretty much no elevation. While the extra hiking wasn't that big of a deal, the persistent snow was. Parker Canyon runs southwest to northeast and it's floor and southern walls don't see much sun. Those aspects, where most of our approach lay, was mostly snow-covered. The snow was unconsolidated and a few inches to just over a knee deep in places. A little post-holing isn't really that much to complain about, but it in this case it was coupled with bushwhacking through alders and willows. In all we post-holed and bushwhacked for about 3.5 miles and up about 2100 feet to get to the ice.

Parker Canyon ice looking nice and fat.
While the approach might be the toughest of any of the winter ice climbing area in The Eastern Sierra, the ice is pretty fantastic. There are two main flows on the left (north facing) side of the cirque at the head of the canyon. We climbed both and they were nice and fat. The left one was over 30 meters high and offered a few different lines. The right flow was a bit taller and wider. All the lines we took checked in at about WI 3+. It looks like it's possible to walk off from these climbs (and SP's guidebook confirms that) but we brought 60 meter twin ropes so rapping off of V-threads was pretty expeditious. There are several other flows to the climber's right on a more southerly aspect that we didn't climb, including a line called "The Cleft".

The head of Parker Canyon with two main flows over on the left, "The Cleft" stands out on the right.
The ice was really good, but the access was a bit of a pain. If I was going back I would plan to go when there was less snow, probably earlier in the season. Though this wouldn't improve the bushwhacking, it would eliminate the post-holing and enable us to drive to the end of the 4wd approach road. These improvements would take a lot of the sting out of the approach. With less snow, I would make sure I had either a 70 meter single rope or two ropes. If you're looking to save weight on the approach by bringing less rope (say a single 60 meter) I would plan on figuring out the walk offs.

After prepping the site, Ryan onsights another V-thread.

January 5, 2015

Adventure and The Dawn Wall

Chris Kalman has written an interesting little piece on The Dawn Wall Project on the website Fringe's Folly. He uses what's happening on El Cap right now to open a discussion about adventure and climbing. It's thought-provoking reading. Remember that with this sort of thing there probably isn't an ultimate right or wrong and that this sort of topic attracts all kinds of rabid internet commenters.