Alpine Girth Hitch

Here is a Tech Tip article I wrote for Climbing Magazine. It generated a slew of comments and concerns, some well-founded and other off base.


Aguja De l'S and Mojon Rojo

After spending a few stormy weeks in the Torres Del Paine, Scott Bennett and I learned that the next 7 days were looking even more stormy! This was bad news as we had only about 10 days left in the trip. Armed with this info and running somewhat low on the tastier food products of our supply, we hiked out of the Torres Del Paine under gigantic loads consisting of packs-strapped-to-packs-strapped-to-packs. We caught the bus back into Puerto Natales and stayed with awesome friends there who run a trakking and kayaking company called Fortaleza Patagonia. They are the most amazing and nicest, most knowledgable guides one could ask for. In addition, both are bilingual. I highly suggest chatting with them if you visit the Paine or Puerto Natales and need local info or want to go kayaking or hiking in the park.

With our friends and a rented Toyota Yaris, we loaded up all our gear and drove (~3hrs) from Natales to El Chalten, where Scott and I thought we would just be bouldering and sport climbing for a week before leaving.

However, after a few days of reacquainting ourselves with actual climbing, a small blip of decent weather showed itself on the forecast for the day or two before I was to take off. We teamed up with a partnerless Steve Swenson, who would have to leave when we did for his return to the states. Steve is a true climbing guru and fount of Himalayan knowledge, and it was great to go climbing with him in the big mountains, not just at a crag in Squamish or Index. The three of us kicked around all kinds of ideas. Given that several accidents had already occurred in Chalten this year, owing (at least in part) to a very limited selection of snow and ice routes climbable between storms, we didn't want to find ourselves queued up behind other parties or climbing a peak we had all done multiple times. We settled on heading (via an approach which was new to all three of us) up to the southern end of the Fitz Roy range.

Scott and Steve - Fitz Roy and Poincenot on the left

We hiked in and left our overnight gear at an amazing bivy boulder/cave a couple thousand feet above Laguna Sucia and ~500' below the edge of the glacier. Nobody was around, which was exactly what we had wanted. The wind was still blowing fairly hard and it was already mid day, so we roped up and brought just a few pieces of gear, eventually rambling up the eastern aspect of Mojon Rojo, which was snow and rock scrambling to a 20' V0 finish. The views over the summit to the Torre Valley were amazing, with wind ripping the clouds through the strainer of the Torres' jagged summits. Armed with knowledge of the glacier and a high camp, we decided to try to climb something early the next morning which we reasonably could manage in gloves and boots.

A few other parties arrived at the bivy cave that evening, but we were the first ones up in the morning and tried to make a b-line for Aguja Saint Exupery. However, we kept running into dead ends in the glacier. After a few attempts at end-running crevasses in the pre-dawn light, we decided that our options were to: A - wait until it was light, and try to re-navigate while probably getting dead-ended. B - try to climbing something on Aguja De l'S which we could reach more easily.
Scott and Steve at the first belay. Aguja Saint Exupery is behind them.
Still following

We settled on option B, and generally followed a combination of the Austrian route (to start) and the Baby Face route for the remainder of the way. After some crotch-deep snow wallowing, I lead up ~100m of steep snow/snice over the bergschrund to build a rock anchor and bring up Steve and Scott. From there I just kept leading, as Scott and Steve quickly followed, often making soup or hot broth or tea at the belays. It snowed lightly all day, but the route was very fun, with interesting and easy ramps and narrow little corners covered in styrofoam snow, but with ample rock pro for both leader and follower. Our line basically traversed the entire east face of the peak from north-to-south, then angled up to the summit pyramid on much easier terrain, before taking 2 final steep pitches to the cumbre. I lead the final 2 pitches with no crampons and 1 ice tool, which, in retrospect, was a bad choice. I had expected more freeclimbable rock but things were very much covered in snow and a thick layer of water ice filled in the cracks. I aided, grunted, and free climbed very slowly as Steve and Scott huddled at the belays and made soup. Highlights included a committing mantle onto a snowy slab with no pro, and a small surprise aid fall, caught with aplomb by the ever-vigilant Mr. Swenson. We took turns standing on the tiny summit being ROCKED by winds from off the ice cap and over the Torre valley, and then downclimbed and rappelled the standard East Face.

Scott and Aguja St. Exupery

We were back in camp before dark and spent a nice night relaxing and asking Steven questions abut his upcoming Karakoram book and his numerous trips to central Asia, and the presence of the abominable snowman claimed to have been seen by Reinhold Messner, et al. For the record, Steve does not, even under intense scrutiny, admit to ever being a yeti.

The next day we hiked out, made pizza in Chalten (dough pre-made and rising during our trip to the mountains) and I caught the bus out of town, with Scott and Steve leaving the next day.


Torres Del Paine

I spent most of January 2014 in the Torres Del Paine of Chilean Patagonia. It was my first time to this range of Patagonia, and the area has some of the world's most amazing peaks. The three "towers" (north, central, south) are well-known and famous, but the Paine also holds other amazing peaks that are not so visible from the trailhead. These mountains are only about 90 or 100 miles from the vastly more popular (among climbers) peaks of the Fitz Roy and Chalten ranges, so the weather is generally the same in both parks. (very bad) Unlike Fitz Roy and the nearby peaks, accessed by an ever-growing international crowd living in a booming city, the climbing in the Paine almost certainly requires an expedition-style approach, with a backcountry camp, or camps, and no quick access to the outside world.

I was climbing with Scott Bennett, and we had big plans to try and freeclimb routes on the west face of the central tower, such as Wild Wild West (Cosgrove-Smith) or Via Delle Mamme. Unfortunately, the longest decent weather span we had during three weeks was about a day, and things usually take at least that long simply to clear of the ice and snow that accumulates. It was cold and blustery, even snowing in our low camp on a couple of days. We ended up climbing a free variation to the "Vuelo Del Condor" ((Pennings-Tague) on the east wall of the Cuerno Este, but this rock climb, like many on the Cuernos, does not summit. Cuerno is Spanish for 'horn' and the cuernos are peaks which are topped by striking caps of (sometimes very overhanging) horrendously compact and friable shale. There is essentially no snow and ice or gully climbing in the Paine, just steep walls and towers. Unlike the climbing in the Chalten/Fitz Roy area, you can't really go swing tools and wear gloves and boots to climb in marginal days. It's rock climbing or no climbing at all, so the range is less forgiving during very bad weather.

We based out of a low camp in the highest stand of trees the Bader Valley, reached via a ~10-12 mile hike from the trailhead at the Hosteleria de los Torres. This was a remote and beautiful locale, but if you are ever headed to the Paine, we found that the rock quality and freeclimbing options in the Bader Valley, despite being in the center of the range, were generally sub-standard relative to the rock quality in either direction. We wanted to climb a super chossy line somewhere else, and name it "I can't believe it's not Bader." However, this is probably also the most sheltered valley in the Paine, so it could be a good option for very marginal weather windows. The head of this valley is glaciated and has a beautiful alpine lake and a dirty moraine lake, as well as easy access to the peak such as the Cuernos (Este, Principal, Norte) the Mascara, Hoja, Espada, and the South Tower of Paine.

Here are a few good points of beta for climbing in the area:

  • There is no grocery or supply seller anywhere near the park. Buy everything you need in Puerto Natales, and then take a bus to the park with your provisions. The bus ride is ~2hrs.
  • Apply online in advance for a free climbing permit at least a week before you go. You'll need proof of rescue insurance, such as with an AAC membership. 
  • As a climber, you will ride the bus PAST the park entrance, on to the official administration building, then enter and have the park officials sign off that you can go climbing, then re-board the bus, return to the park entrance, and then catch a bus transfer for the final ~15min ride to the trailhead/camping/Hosteria de los Torres. We never saw any rangers or were asked about our climbing gear, so we certainly could have gone without a permit, but if you were to encounter a ranger and not have one, they might turn you back. 
  • Depending on your base camp of choice and climbing area of choice, you may be wise to hire a pack horse (Pinchero) or a porter or to for load-carrying assistance. Most of the climbing is done from the French Valley (Cerro Catedral, Cota 2000, Aleta de Tiburon) or the Silencio Valley or Ascencio Valley (Torres Del Paine). 
  • For help arranging a porter, pack horse, navigating the park rules, or finding a place to stay in Puerto Natales, your best bet is to go see Cristian, the owner of Fortaleza Patagonia in Puerto Natales. He has climbed in the parked and seemingly knows everyone and everything important in the region. The company office is located in downtown Puerto Natales.


The Unstoppable Smile

It was a gray Washington winter day, tromping around looking for frozen cascades that had survived the end of our week-long "ice season". Chad Kellogg, Jens Holsten and I had just climbed the two wettest pitches any one of us had done. I lead the easy first pitch, a slurpee beneath a waterfall to a cave with water pouring all around us and puddled at our feet. Chad probably pulled out both screws by just wiggly them out from the slush. Chad then stepped out of the cave on lead and we could hear the 33-degree water pounding onto his head from hundreds of feet above. We thought he would be able to step out from beneath the shower, but it covered the entire width of the ice flow so he just clawed his way up. Chad didn't bother shouting down to us, partly because if he'd open his mouth it would fill with ice water. Whenever he'd raise a tool, water would run down his arms inside his jacket, soaking him from the inside-out. 

Shivering in the cave, Jens even admitted that he could at least "understand why some people don't like ice climbing." 

When Jens and I reached a soaking-wet Chad after he'd been standing immobile at the belay for the past 10 minutes, his smile was ear-to-ear and there was nowhere you could imagine him rather being.


Fall is for Sending, Not Falling

As usual, fall has provided a great mix of climbing
opportunities in Leavenworth and around the northwest, with everything from excellent roped rock climbing to bouldering and skiing along with waterfall ice. I took a quick visit to the sandstone and limestone of Mt. Charleston and Red Rock, NV, doing some short sport climbing, a 4-person party ascent of Epinephrine, and a ego-deflating non send of Texas Tower Direct. I also made a few short trips to central Oregon, where the amazing walls of Trout Creek and Smith Rock beckoned. At the American Alpine Club Craggin' Classic, I teamed up with Ben Rueck for the 10-hour "Crushfest" climbing competition. We came in second place, having onsighted and redpointed 67 pitches along the front side at Smith, an even mix of sport and trad routes.

At Trout Creek I "succeeded" in linking all the moves and cleanly TRing the open project left of Gateway. This line is going to be the hardest thing yet at the wall, with a couple boulder problems requiring some serious power and steel finger tips. It will be well protected with small cams and RPs. Trout's at-one-point hardest route, May Fly, put up by my friend Cody Scarpella and repeated by Tommy Caldwell, was repeated this fall by myself, Max Tepfer, and impressively flashed by Mikey Schaefer. It takes a narrowing 5.11/5.12 finger crack which ends at the same height that a nearby finger crack begins, requiring a ~V4 crux and amazing lower 5.11 climbing to the chains. Check out Cody working (and whipping) before the FA (starts at 3:40).

An hour west across the pass from Leavenworth, in Index, a couple days of climbing and working out beta with Jens Holsten and Ben Gilkison resulted in redpointing Narrow Arrow Direct, a gymnastic 5.12c pitch with the crux just below the ledge atop the pitch. I'd like to send every pitch on the "Narrow Arrow" by next spring, and now I've done the two (by far) most difficult lines.

The bouldering this fall was also excellent, with many pleasant, dry, but mid-temperature sunny days. I continued to fall off what might be the closest boulder problem to my house, "Fridge Left" (V8).  But I did manage to complete the classic "WAS" (V8) on my first visit to the problem with a big rowdy crew of locals.

Late fall saw a big early snowfall and then a prolonged clear cold snap. I teamed up with old buddy Kurt Hicks and his friend Dustin to climb the rarely-in-condition Drury Falls above Leavenworth. Drury is one of the iconic ice climbs of the northwest, with an often-dangerous approach, a mandatory river crossing, and a little less than 1,000' of water ice. The early cold stretch with low snow made the approach perfect, and we avoided the sketchy rapids and pre-dawn boat shenanigans by simply rowing across Lake Jolanda below the whitewater, then hiking the opposite bank. The descent is generally mellow and made via tree rappels to the left of the route.
There are 2 ~55m approach pitches below, out of view.

Finally, I headed out to the Entiat Valley for some obscure local ice with Chad "(peak)crusher" Kellogg and Jens "(grape)crusher" Holsten. There are AT LEAST  twice as many major flows which form up during a cold snap than you would expect from the guidebook. Jens sent the WI5 column "What do Ardenvoirs Eat?" and we then ramblied up the CLASSIC second pitch (much easier). To end the day Chad and I lead the 2-pitch "Tyee Falls" - which was similar to climbing slushy snice beneath the gutter of a house, the only difference being that one could not simply traverse or move out from beneath this gutter, because it was the entire route (except the classy cave belay).


Spain Story - Climbing Magazine

I had a story published in the October 2013 issue of Climbing Magazine about a trip last Feb/March to Spain.  Here is a snippet, the entire article has now been posted online by Climbing Magazine.


Mt. Bute - West Face Free & Coast Range Adventures

'86 Foweraker-Serl 5.10 A2 
 '13 Herrington-Sorkin 5.12-
The Coast Mountains of British Columbia hold many of North America's most spectacular granite walls and peaks, and are often ignored by alpinists heading (farther) north into Southeast or South-Central Alaska. These peaks are hard and expensive to reach, and seldom very glamorous. I first became aware of one of the range's outstanding peaks, Mt. Bute, several years ago, when a team of three climbers from Squamish won a Mugs Stump Grant to travel there, then succeeded in establishing a monstrous ridge climb gaining roughly 6,000 (School of Rock 2009 Martinello-Kay-Sinnes 5.11 A2). The trio describe Bute's West Face in their Mugs Stump report as "certainly one of the finest pure rock features in the Coast Range; it deserves a free ascent."  


Bugaboos Pictures

In July I made my first trip to BC's Bugaboo Provincial Park with old friend Nate Farr. We didn't venture onto the Howser Towers or the more remote East Creek Basin, as nearly every day's weather called for some amount of precip. I was impressed with how well-organized and managed the scene at Applebee Campground has become, thanks mostly to BC parks' upkeep and climbers' good wilderness practices. The camping had spots to hang food, metal lockers, posted weather forecasts, well-kept outhouses, and easy access to the big East Face of Snowpatch Spire and the South Face of Bugaboo Spire. For climbs on these features, you only need tennis shoes and a light axe or trekking poles. I never put on my crampons. If you are only doing routes that you'll rappel, bringing big clunky boots will keep your feet dry, but will obviously be a pain-in-the-arch for the steep 3hr hike in.


Stuart Range Quadruple Header

The immaculate West Face of Colchuck Balanced Rock - climb #1 of the day.
Garrett Grove Photo

I always try a big car-to-car day around the time of the summer solstice, and this year I lured my friend Max Tepfer to come up from central Oregon and join me for a 4-climb linkup in the Stuart Range, close to my home in Leavenworth.

Max is a Smith Rock and Trout Creek crusher who stays in cardio shape guding clients around the Oregon Volcanoes. He had 1 day off work between guiding at Smith, so he was psyched to try for a big crazy day. He was literally in the area for 30 hours, 22 of which were spent climbing. He commuted 6 hours each way to make the day happen, and was onsighting nearly every route.


Washington Pass Freedom

I've made a couple early-season visits to Washington Pass this Spring, combining some skiing with climbs of some routes I hadn't done before. I was also able to team up with Graham Zimmerman to establish a new direct freeclimbing start to the left of the aid pitches on Mojo Rising, South Early Winter Spire.