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.

May 1, 2017

Lone Pine Peak - Winter Chimney

In early March my colleague Andy Stephen and I climbed the Winter Chimney on Lone Pine Peak. This route has been on my radar ever since reading this trip report. This fun route is worth doing for anybody who is interested in alpine climbing and the Sierra Nevada. All of the photos below are Andy's, as I lost my phone that morning (more on that below).

Andy and I were guiding a trip up the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney in early March, so it made sense to stick around Lone Pine and tick this route. After celebrating a successful Whitney summit with burgers and shakes at The Mount Whitney Restaurant I ran a few errands in town and we drove up the Tuttle Creek Road as far as Andy could rally his minivan (a lot farther than I expected).

Though it seemed like we made a plan about what time to wake up in the morning I definitely misunderstood as it was Andy's voice, not the notes of "Illuminate" (my alpine start ringtone) that woke me up the next morning. Andy was a gentleman about it, and several cups of coffee and some unnecessary vehicle shenanigans later we started huffing up the road to the Stonehouse.

Neither of us had ever been there, so we spent a few minutes exploring the place. About 25 minutes later, after we had left the Stonehouse, crossed Tuttle Creek, and were stopping to put away headlamps and put on sunscreen I noticed my phone was missing. Andy was gracious and patient throughout the agitated searching and backtracking that ensued. I felt like an idiot, but after 1.5 hours of frantic looking I also felt like I wasn't going to find it. It being a clear day the temperatures were rising, and we were concerned that it might be too warm on the route after all the time we just burned. We decided to continue up the approach anyway. After all we were there, and at least we could get the approach figured out for a subsequent trip.

The slope of big boulders that precedes the gullies didn't seem too bad, probably because much of it was covered in supportive snow. All the snow meant that we engaged in only minimal scrambling to get up the first and second gullies (about 2000 feet of elevation gain) to the Winter Chimney drainage. We definitely felt the time wasted in the phone search here, the gullies were fully in the sun, the snow wasn't super firm, and it was hot. A bit more hiking (probably to about 10,200ft) and we could see the Winter Chimney route and there was definitely ice!
In the bottom of the Winter Chimney drainage. Andy Stephen photo.

Kicking out a stance at the base of our first pitch. Andy Stephen photo.
A few more minutes of slogging and Andy and I were kicking out a platform at the base of the first pitch. From here on up it got progressively cooler, and I began to regret peeling off my long underwear at a break at the bottom of the first gully.

The first pitch was about 30m of nice WI2. Andy quickly got the rope up there and brought me into a cave at the base of a bombay chimney. One wall of the chimney was covered with thin but well bonded (and clear!) ice. A few body-lengths into this lead and I couldn't wind up to swing my ice tools anymore, it was too narrow. At this point I started chimneying in earnest and headed directly out, slinging a seemingly bomber chockstone along the way. Once out of the slot I continued up some ice, then snow, and brought Andy up.
In the first chimney. Andy Stephen photo.
A long pitch of mellow snow above the first chimney. Andy Stephen photo.
From this point we could see the whole upper part of the route. We hiked up maybe 60m of snow and I augered in as Andy took the next lead. It was one of the classiest pitches on the route: a bit of thin ice to some drytooling around a big chockstone with ice pouring over the top, then more moderate ice to another belay in a cave below another chimney, this one topped by a roof.

Once again it was my lead and once again I found myself using a stimulating combination of ice climbing technique and chimney technique. Before long I arrived at the roof. It was kinda long and all dry rock. I wasn't particularly high on trying to pull it with boots and crampons on, so I cast about for an escape. I found a tight tunnel-through behind the roof. Tools went first, then me in just the right orientation, and last my pack dangling from my harness. I belayed in a jumble of boulders just above.
Looking down the first part of one of the better pitches on the route. Andy Stephen photo.
Andy took the next pitch and again it was a great lead, starting with some run-out dry tooling on positive edges as the chimney shrunk down to a corner and finishing with better protected mixed climbing in that corner. This pitch took us to the top, where the wind was ripping. With little more than a fist bump between us we coiled the rope and started hustling across the summit plateau to the start of the descent.

I think this route deserves more action, so below are a few thoughts future climbers of this route might find useful.

I think the ice on this route is formed from snow melting on the summit plateau above. A healthy winter snowpack with some period of melt-freeze action prior to the climb probably provides ideal conditions. Mid to late winter is probably best. That will also give the approach the most time to fill in with possibly helpful snow. The chimney where the route proper exists receives little direct sunlight in the winter (it was cold in there) so refreezing is probably a given too.

We clearly encountered a lot more snow and ice on the route than the 2007 team did. I believe the first three pitches of the Winter Chimney proper that they climbed were covered by snow on the day Andy and I were there. The first pitch we roped up for was the one they described as, "a beautiful 100 foot pitch of baby blue water ice".

We brought one pair of rock shoes for an emergency and they stayed in the bottom of Andy's pack. The only spot where they could have been useful is maybe pulling the roof that I tunneled around. I often find that bringing multiple types of footwear (on any type of climb) ultimately slows things down. Deciding if and when to switch and then doing so often seems to take a lot longer than just making do with what you're wearing. Anyway, it was cold enough that day that putting on rock shoes would definitely have meant risking a cold injury.

After reading some horror stories about the descent I spent some time at home sussing it out on Google Earth.

In summary:

2200 - 2400 feet of easy snow climbing, interspersed with occasional bits of 4th class scrambling led through the first and second gullies. Then we pitched out as follows:

1: 30m WI2
2: 30m Icy chimney
60m snow walk
3: 30m WI 3 M3
4: 28m Icy cave tunnel-through
5: 35m WI3 M3 glory pitch

We brought a couple of ice screws, stoppers, and cams to a #3. The smaller cams (.2 - .75) seemed to get more use. We brought a couple of knifeblades but didn't use them.

April 6, 2017

MSR Hydromedary

I just noticed that MSR no longer makes their hydration bladder, the Hydromedary. This is too bad, because this was probably the best hydration bladder ever made. Not a perfect one, but the best one.

What made it great? It wasn't the lid. The lid was a pretty basic screw top without the added keeper, or positive locking sensation of Camelbak brand lid. The bite valve and on/off valve were also sub-par compared to the corresponding Camelbak parts. Both were a lot bulkier, which was annoying when I tried to stuff them through hydration ports on various packs. No worries there though, both of those MSR parts were easily swapped out for Camelbak bite valve and on/off valve. Yes, MSR will sell you a kit to convert your dromedary bag into a hydration bladder, but these have their downsides and are just not quite the same for the dedicated hydration system user.

What made the MSR Hydromedary better than every other bladder was the fabric. It was made of 200d Cordura. This made it way more durable than any hydration bladder from Camelbak, Platypus, Osprey, or any other manufacturer. I use mine a lot in the warmer months and it's still going strong after 4 years. It gets crammed into backpacks along with climbing gear and other hard sided stuff. On a big wall I like to pack the bladder about halfway down the top haulbag and let the hose stick out the top of the bag so I can easily drink but not have to manage another item out of the bag.

If you are a hydration bladder user and want the best one they're still out there for sale on the internet, get them before they're gone!

March 26, 2017

Ice Climbing and Experience

Ice climbing is one of my favorite types of climbing to guide. This winter I was lucky to facilitate movement on frozen water for a number of my regular clients (or "repeat offenders" as I sometimes refer to them). Two of them that I climbed with almost back - to - back are in very different places in their ice climbing careers. These two climbers have vastly different levels of experience, but each seems to (knowingly or not) take maximum advantage of that experience.

Kevin is in the second ice climbing phase of his life. The first ended before I ever picked up an ice tool. Kevin and I had spent a bunch of days rock climbing and a few mellow days on the ice when he got in touch about an ice climbing road trip. With a little effort plans came together and mid-February found us in Hyalite Canyon, just outside of Bozeman, MT. Though Kevin might still be getting the feel for all of the new gear, especially the boots, his ice climbing technique, stamina, and stoke haven't gotten rusty at all and he seemed to draw on a deep well of experience to climb hard four days in a row. He was up as early as me every day, and every bit as excited during the drive to the trailhead.
Kevin points back up at The Matrix (WI4- M4-5) after climbing it in what we thought were fairly fat conditions.

Though the trip was a success by many metrics, the high point for me came on the second pitch of a three pitch route called Cleopatra's Needle, when the rope running from my belay device down to Kevin stopped moving. We had been climbing increasingly difficult ice every day and Kevin followed each pitch perfunctorily, always pulling the final bulge smoothly and with a smile. As a guide I try to bring clients to a place (mentally or physically or both) where they are challenged. This is where the most learning and growth happens, and where the most fun is had. I was a little concerned that though we were ratcheting up the difficulty Kevin wasn't being challenged enough. Now he was at the bottom of the sustained pillar that defines the route, and the rope stopped moving for an entire half a minute. Finally, something made this steep ice climbing machine stop and think!  After that brief pause he started up again, and before too long he came into view with his usual grin, psyched on the pitch he just sent.

Jesse had climbed ice two days in his life, one at the Roadside Ice in June Lake and one with me on North Peak, when we met in Lee Vining a few days after the Hyalite trip. Though he doesn't have Kevin's depth of experience in the frozen vertical, he can match him in enthusiasm, and I think his "beginner's mind" can be an asset. Jesse and I were originally scheduled for a Monday and Tuesday, but severe weather forced us back a few days to a Friday and Saturday. I encourage clients to book ice climbing days mid-week as much as possible. Despite the fact that this can be difficult for climbers with 9-5 jobs and families, they often get much more out of their climbing days than when we go to Lee Vining Canyon on a weekend, because of the crowds.

Jesse and I got an early start on Friday, and managed to get in a bunch of laps on the left side of Chouinard Falls before things got a little too busy there. Recognizing that Spiral Staircase over on The Main Wall was in, and is somewhat rare, it seemed like a great way to finish off our first day and to show Jesse his first multi-pitch water ice route. He did well, hooking through the finish to the first pitch on what was probably the most sustained steep ice he had climbed to that point.

Jesse traversing over to the anchor on the classic finish to the first pitch of Spiral Staircase (WI4-).
Our second day started with a quick lap up what was left of C3PO in the Narrows before walking up-canyon and finding that both The Chimney Route/Photoshop and The Fischer King both had parties on them. Heel-Toe, however, looked formed up and nobody was on it. It even looked like the left finish was covered in ice! The first pitch can be thought-provoking for the leader, but is no more than interesting for the follower, and I was confident that we could bail from anywhere on the route if we needed to, so up we went. Jesse cruised the first pitch and we broke the second pitch into two, stopping at the ledge where the two finishes bifurcate. Looking ahead from here I now saw that the ice covering the left finish from below was several inches thick but detached from the cliff behind by about an inch. Oh well. A little dry tooling number got us past this and up to the top. Though this was certainly a step up for Jesse, he shined. I think this is due, in part, to his "beginner's mind".

As climbers we often assume that having more experience always trumps having less. Climbing with these two guys in quick succession was a great lesson in the fact that there are advantages to being at either end of the experience spectrum.

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.