Fred's Legacy

Last October, I was tethered to a tree just one pitch below the summit of Liberty Cap, in Yosemite National Park, when I learned that Fred Beckey had died. I learned it from my wife, back home in Washington State, when I’d called asking her to google the words “how to descend Liberty Cap.” I had no idea how to get down from the dark summit, which loomed a pitch above, but I thought we had our route in the bag. Just a mossy 5.8 slab to go. My friend Austin and I had climbed a recently-freed route named Mahtah on an obscure face high above the valley, because we wanted a shadier, higher elevation adventure to escape the heat and crowds of El Cap. We hadn’t scoped a descent, but hadn’t spent much time scoping the route either. I hung in the darkness realizing that I was only up there, clipped to a manzanita 1500’ off the deck, because of my connection with Fred Beckey. I had just chosen this route on the suggestion of friend I’d met three years prior, while out toproping in Leavenworth with Fred.

I’d lowered Fred down from the wall into a dusty and smiling heap below the slab, listening to him talk about wanting to get back up there and give it another go, when a dark haired solo climber cautiously walked over. He quietly introduced himself as Pedro, and asked in a Spanish accent if that was THE Fred Beckey. Pedro, an alpinist from southern Spain, was fresh off an expedition to Alaska. He ended up climbing and staying with me in Leavenworth, and sharing updates from the Revelation Mountains with an ever-inquisitive Fred. I kept in touch with Pedro even while Fred’s health declined and he never made it out climbing with me again. I stayed with Pedro on a trip to Spain and climbed with him, and again in Yosemite Valley. Pedro had recently suggested that I check out Liberty Cap’s route Mahtah, and there I sat: a pitch below the summit, having flashbacks to a grinning Fred and our initial chance meeting at a roadside slab in Leavenworth. 

What makes your climbs memorable? What makes them worthwhile? What brings meaning and significance to our days consumed by schwacking through the wet woods, post-holing around mountains and clawing up rock walls? What makes me, in a recent particular case, want to blindly pad up runout mossy slabs in the dark, with more and more damp, grainy granite between me and the safety of that last bolt? The more I climb—having now been at this sport for 13 years—the more I find its lasting value to be not in the climbing, but in the friendships and human connections sparked when the chips are down. When we inspire one another to try harder, learn more deeply, listen more honestly and send something gnarlier than we could have alone, those partnerships transcend sports.

As a full-time nomadic climber for roughly eight decades, Fred Beckey, who died in late 2017, almost certainly roped up with more individual climbing partners than any other human being. Ever. Those partners include essentially every prominent alpine and rock climber in the USA and Canada from the 1930s to the 1990s. His teammates came from around the world and stretched from the era of jingoistically competitive FAs in the Alps to the expansion of plastic walls into shopping malls and rec centers. Fred made, lost and maintained partners through all of it, without ever tweeting or hashtagging the outdoor industry’s trending topics, and despite having zero Facebook friends. Fred’s partnerships were made by actually speaking with other human beings, either face to face or on the telephone. He’d even meet strangers in person at a climbing area, speak with them about climbing, and then just go climbing. In real life! His major climbing accomplishments have been recounted many times, but his full list of partners is impossible to know. His lists of friends, partners, hosts, local conditions experts and sordid couch mooching opportunities were stored across index cards, rolodex files and his encyclopedic brain. His partners would then often connect when Fred didn’t (or eventually couldn’t) keep pace with his own ambitions and frenetic goals.

It wasn’t only through Fred’s personal climbs that he created these connections. By writing meticulous guidebooks and magazine articles, establishing outstanding new routes and giving reports and photos to the American Alpine Journal, he inspired countless adventures and friendships among people whom he never met, and who haven’t yet been born or picked up a carabiner. The list of best friends and best days on Beckey routes is only going to grow.

It had already been dark for three pitches of the 14-pitch route when I started up the final slab on MahtahBut earlier pitches had followed cracks and corners, features to stick your hands and feet into, or to chimney against. The topo showed two bolts on the last pitch, one of which was just a few meters off the belay. The other sat somewhere in the darkness. I’d done very little pitch-black climbing with just a headlamp. Embarking on the slab I realized how much the ambient reflection from snow and moonlight often aided in nighttime climbing, as well as how much it helped to be following a crack or dihedral in order to orient oneself to the pull of gravity. On the blank friction slab, I couldn’t tell what was nighttime condensation, and what was crystalline mineral. Lighter-toned lichen might blur with cleaned off footholds or quartz bumps. And most disorienting was the lack of true sense of straight up and down, leaving little clue as to how steep the slab was, or how my body angle should be. After a pulse-reducing double quickdraw clip of the lone bolt, I actually tried to downclimb and traverse my way out of the situation by circumnavigating Liberty Cap to an easier summit exit, but all I found were more dead ends and my frozen belayer wondering why my headlamp was growing stronger and closer. I explained the situation to Austin, telling him I was pretty gripped but about to go for it. And then I channeled some Fred Beckey try-hard, figuring that he’d probably managed more than one such feature in climbing boots.

Commiting to the darkness above the bolt was a frightening decision. I tiptoed and balanced my way along faint quartz seams and grainy overlaps, stepping with heightened nerves, caution, almost certainly terrible technique. I feared something as simple as a quick high-step would actually topple me over backward for the ride of my life. After reaching a stunted pine on the summit and and letting out a holler of joy, I cheered on Austin and thanked him for the very frigid and very patient belay. Several days later, re-reading the route description, I saw first ascenionist Cedar Wright call that pitch “the hardest 5.8 slab I’ve ever climbed.” That’s hard for me to say, but it was certainly my slowest. I later told Pedro we’d done the route and finished up in the dark. His response was simply “that slab!”

I am glad to have briefly spent time climbing and skiing with Fred, but even more grateful for the friends like Pedro and Austin, connections made through him and through climbing, who inspire me to try hard and who support me, even when I get gripped on the easy pitches or lose my way in the darkness.


Live Free or Die!™ on Liberty Bell

Here's a topo for a new route on the east face of Liberty Bell from summer 2017, named Live Free or Die!™ after this New Hampshire state motto was suggested by a visiting friend native to the granite state. The route was constructed by Seth Keena-Levin, Nathan Hadley and I last summer. Much heroic toproping and many epic trundles were spread out across 6 weeks of summer. Since about 18million random people used our ropes to rappel from other routes, we expect to be paid back via Mazama store breakfast sandwiches, interest compounded weekly. Nathan and I had originally just thought it would be worthwhile to make an alternate start and/or finish to the Independence Route, via a splitter 5.10 hand crack at the tip of the wall, that had been cleaned and worked on by a mystery party many years ago. But we realized that there were enough grips and grabs on the wall to basically create a separate route nearby.

Live Free or Die!™ shares a few meters and 2 belay stances with the Independence route, so it's possible to do a combo of the routes. The climbing is nearly all techy edging or working along thin flakes, featuring predominately bolted protection. Most will find the first 3 pitches, and pitch 5, to be adequately protected with just QDs, and maybe a finger piece or two. P4, 6, 7, and 8 require a standard cam rack. The crux is a reachy sideways sequence, ending with a downclimb. It features 2 bolts and would be easy to cheat across. It might be more like 5.12b for taller folks.

I made a couple minor freeclimbing changes on the Independence Route. I added 2 non-hanging belays to replace hanging belays (adding a total of 3 bolts) and I removed a piton+fixed head, replacing it with a bolt. These changes were done after much consternation, as I think in general that climbers should be very cautious about changing routes, especially after they've been free climbed. If anyone had issues or concerns about these changes, I'm more than happy to talk or reconsider.

Changes from the Independence: reference the topo in Cascades Rock:

 P3: End this pitch at the new 2-bolt anchor on the nice ledge on the right, even with a dead snag, and below a chimney.

P4: Begin this pitch with the short chimney above the snag. Clip the Pin+Bolt anchor in the triangle alcove, but don't stop and belay. Climb out left (5.11c, original way) for full credit on the route. Or else step right past a new bolt (it replaced a fixed head/KB combo), then past the previously existing bolt.

P5: Same

P6: Crux (or maybe that's really P4) - Stepping right to the flake is much easier if you go across while high. Done this way,  I thought the move felt about V3 (I'm 5'8"), making the whole route go at 5.11something. End this pitch at a bolt/pin belay on a subtle no-hands below the original hanging belay.

P7: 5.11+ This pitch now begins with some of the 5.11+ type climbing that had previously ended P6. After a few meters, you'll encounter the 4bolt+tat hanging belay on the left. Clip the best bolt or two, and keep climbing up the steep overhung corner to M&M Ledge, or a tree and stance a few meters below M&M. I never came to this old aid anchor with a hammer or crowbar, but a good community service would be to remove the 3 oldest bolts, or even better, remove all 4, patch the holes, and place one modern bolt where it makes sense for clipping while leading. Since these old bolts are thin or buttonheads, a hammer and small crowbar should be sufficient.


The Best Water Bottle for Climbing

  • Almost free (though the 24oz of Gatorade costs a few bucks at a gas station)
  • You can open and close them with just your teeth and hold them 1-handed while belaying
  • If you lose, forget, drop, or don't pack it on a trip, it's not a big deal to get another
  • 40g (including tape or cord) vs 187g
That difference of 147g is equal to 2 Snickers and a GU! 





That's Not Alpine Climbing

I've climbed a lot in the mountains, but I've done very little of what I think should be called "alpine climbing". And it's a term that can be meaningless because no 2 people might define it the same way, so we often end up talking past one another, and implying different definitions while using the same words.

The following chart lists most of the possible variables that contribute to a climb being "alpine" or not. Many of the variables, such as distance from road/rescue, operate along a continuum, not a simple yes or no answer. In my opinion, a climb needs to be heavily skewed toward the right side of the chart in order to be "alpine", and the exact same route can reasonably be considered an "alpine climb" during some times of years, but a "backcountry rock climb" in mid summer.

A climb of the N. side of Latok I (none have succeeded) would deal with every single one of the "alpine" metrics/challenges listed above, as well as others I probably forgot about.

A climb of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mtn National Park or Crescent Spire in the Bugaboos won't involve  nearly any of the challenges/metrics above

Just because you are on a rock route which is at or above treeline, you aren't necessarily alpine climbing. Most US and Canadian climbers who aspire to succeed on testpiece routes in the Wind Rivers, at the Incredible Hulk, on the Elephant Perch, or on Snowpatch Spire, will benefit from improved rock climbing skills, and shouldn't waste their time focusing on the fairly minor additional challenges presented by the rock climbs in these locations. Phrases like "weather windows" and "speed is safety" are now used to describe summertime conditions in places like the Sierra, or the Stuart Range, which simply don't require one to climb quickly in order to succeed or to be safe, and which generally have warm, calm, and dry weather in the summer, minimal mixed climbing or mandatory steep snow, and solid, popular rock climbs from 4-14 pitches with walk-off or simple and equipped rappel descents. These places (as well as basically everything in the lower 48, SW BC, the Bugaboos, etc) are more accurately just backcountry rock destinations, with some of the peaks and walls in these areas actually far more roadside than backcountry. Colin Haley briefly touches on his alpine definition here, which he specifically provides in order to contextualize his assertions regarding such a vague term.

We all love to be able to slap labels and distinct definitions onto parts of life which are in reality very nuanced. This urge to label something allows us to let our guards down and quit spending mental energy on a subject. This is especially true when stepping outside our normal purviews and comfort zones, where we want to be able to call something "safe" or "unsafe", "sketchy" or "bomber", etc and then be done thinking about it. I notice this with climbers asking about the best "trad" shoe, or the best "multipitch" shoe -- both being additional distinct definitions that don't really define anything, especially one's footwear needs. And as summer rolls around in the northwest, it's easy to see and hear folks talking once again about creating distinct divides between their "normal" climbing and "alpine" climbing.

For the vast majority of climbers in the US and Canada who aim toward what they call "alpine routes", the desired tick list is a bunch of backcountry rock climbs with few or no "alpine" challenges. One doesn't need to put these routes and ranges on a separate pedestal apart from the multipitch rock in places like Eldorado State Park, the desert towers, Black Canyon, The Needles, Red Rock, Zion, etc.

If you want to succeed on these routes, I suggest rather than focusing on a cardio-first expeditionary style training program like those described in Training For the New Alpinism, simply be a good rock climber first, be good at climbing granite trad pitches specifically, and be good at climbing these trad pitches onsight and fast, without stressing yourself. Then be in decent enough overall fitness that you can handle the approach and hike back to the car without getting destroyed or too tired to rappel and descend safely. Don't focus on what you are already good enough at (the hiking, the glacier walk approach, making coffee at 4AM) if it's the difficulty of the movement on rock that will shut you down.

In my time climbing, I'd say that the only "alpine" climbing I've done has been on Fitz Roy and Cerro Pollone in Patagonia, in the Waddington Range and the Stikine of British Columbia, and in the Ruth Gorge of Alaska. I'd actually say that some of the climbing and attempts I've made in Patagonia during good weather have not even been "alpine climbing", as I've tended toward rock-only routes on some of the smaller peaks there, and the area has good rock, published info, no altitude challenges, many fixed anchors, no lightning, well-protected climbing, and some short routes with easy descents. I've never climbed a difficult or committing mountain route in the Cascades in winter, and nothing I've done in the lower 48 or Bugaboos in the summer has had very many of the alpine climbing challenges shown above.

My point is not to have folks simply ignore potential challenges or dangers in their way, but instead I'm trying to encourage everyone to examine the meaning behind the labels which get thrown around, in order to see what's truly behind them. Do they make sense to use and hold separate in your mind? You might find that the big, scary, boogey-man term of "alpine climbing" is actually a sheep (or mountain goat) in wolf's clothing.


Fitz Roy

Myself following the final ridge pitch on the Supercanaleta. Austin Siadak photo

I've now spent parts of 4 seasons (Austral summers) in Patagonia, at the southern end of Argentina/Chile. Although this region has become en-vogue as the popular rock climbing center for folks chasing splitter granite, my experiences here have always been more along the lines of waiting out weather, making empanadas, glaring at bad forecasts, cleaning ice from cracks, and lots of windy hiking. It's an amazing and beautiful area, but don't let the insta-tweet-gram-book feeds fool you, it's mostly a bunch of stir-crazy smelly climber dudes complaining about the weather.

In the past few years there have been a few excellent 3-6 day weather windows allowing for access to (in the words of guidebook author Rolo Garibotti) the area's "most precious gift" - its splitter and clean granite. But there has been a lot of storming as well. My first time here (Jan/Feb 2008), not a single team from any country climbed Fitz Roy or any of the peaks in the Torre group. My second season, in 2011 with Scott Bennett, I experienced my only good rock-climbing weather, and we accomplished a long rock route for which we'd won a grant. I returned with Scott in 2014, climbing a bit (and getting snowed on at our camp below treeline) - that year saw mostly very bad weather until a single very good week in mid February, when the Fitz Traverse was done, but after we'd left. This year has been a return to the cold, wind, and low pressure that I think is more honestly representative of Patagonia. An update from Rolo:

In deference to the reality of these mountains, I recently teamed up with fellow Washingtonian Austin Siadak to climb a long snow, ice, and mixed route, the Supercanaleta ("massive chimney") on the area's tallest peak, Cerro Fitz Roy. The weather was predicted to be ok (sea level pressure about 1005, no precip, winds measured below "10") for about 30 hours. It ended up being good for about 18. Our climb took us 21.

Typical weather forecast - the obsession of Chalten climbers.

We hiked in (7hrs - 4500' gain) during the afternoon, reaching our bivi site about 9:30 PM. After putting up the tent, sorting gear, boiling water, eating, melting snow for the next day, and getting our ducks in a row, we only laid down for about 80 minutes (neither of us slept) before our 1:30AM alarms sounded and we began to go.

We made a great team and most of our decision making -- from gear, to timing, to risk tolerance -- was in sync from the start. The route ascends about 5,000' of climbing, with a long singular snow and ice couloir, some water ice, then a total of about 18-20 pitches of iced-up rock or rimed-up rock. The technical pitches are very traversing and wandering, mostly back and forth across steep rock faces. If one found this section in dry and "rock-climbing" conditions, I think that the climbing would be fantastic and pretty easy. But given that we did the whole thing in boots, 'pons, gloves, and puffy jackets, it was surprisingly slow and difficult. I haven't done much climbing like this, and found it exceedingly awkward, though fun to wrap my head around the "anything goes" style of frontpointing on pitons, double-cascades-knee mantles while pulling on a camalot, etc. We both definitely ice (and mixed) climbed like "rock climbers". High in the couloir, when it was still dark, I got smashed in the face with an ice chunk and blood instantly started pouring from my mouth and nose. It rung my bell a little bit to be sure, but also made that part of my face go numb. I reached up wtih a gloved hand to feel my nose and see if it felt "broken" (whatever that would feel like") and I inadvertently turned off my headlamp. I knew Austin (and 3 other teams) were down below me in the chimney, so I had a serious fear of passing out from exertion/blood loss/grossness, and tumbling, sans headlamp, down the couloir into them. I slammed both tools into the sinker neve, and hollered down to Austin to come have a look while I breath deeply and kept my eyes closed and nise pinched. Like many head wounds (especially amid physical exertion) it had bled profusely but really wasn't too damaging. I got things clotted and we soon finished up the singular couloir as daylight emerged. After a weird off-route adventure leading the first or second roped pitch, I turned the sharp end to Austin, who, despite also having limited experience in this style, was psyched to lead after drafting my steps up the long couloir. Austin CRUSHED, and ended up leading the whole remainder, zigging around the upper mountain with speed and confidence. We realized at one point that it would have been easier to climb many of the pitches if they were 5.12 tips cracks, rather than leaning 5.9 or 5.10 hand and offwidth cracks, since the "rock" ratings, topos, and styles meant basically nothing given the condition of the pitches, and our tools and crampon-clad feet.

Our route follows the deep cleft in the peak's right side.

Summiting Fitz Roy and staring down at the entire range, as the ominous "wall of hate" engulfed the western peaks, was a surreal and amazing experience, and we spent about 2 minutes on top. I lead the rappels (about 30 in all) back down the Supercanaleta direct, building a couple stations from stoppers, and relying on just one "dubious" anchor (a single so-so knifeblade, which I had bounce-tested). The rappels took us about 5 or 5.5hrs, though with better weather and visibility or knowledge, we would have stopped rapping a bit higher, to downclimb the initial 200-300m. The weather shut down us a few hours from the bottom, but we managed to fight the new snow and raging spindrift to make it down around midnight. We crashed in our tent 40minutes from the base (limping and cramping massively from dehydration) and made hot drinks and food until passing out from exhaustion. Apart from the 80 or 90 minutes of laying down prior to our ascent, we'd been on the go for 36 hours, and had ascended a total of more than 10,000'. It snowed all night and all the next day as we packed up and trudged the 6-7 hours back to the road.

After parts of 4 seasons here, I'd never summited Fitz Roy, or eaten at the local ice cream shop, "Domo Blanco". First time for everything!

Nuts and Bolts

  • 1x 60m 8.4mm half rope, 1x 60mm esprit escape static tag line
  • 1x cams from red c3 to #3, with 2x #.75
  • half rack of stoppers
  • 2 scews
  • 10-12 slings
  • Could have used a few more small stoppers, or another red camalot
  • 1.5 liters of water carried on route, with 2 JB brewing/melting stops
  • 2 Packs on route, but both super lightweight (20L, 35L)


Washington Pass in Rock&Ice

I wrote an article for the August 2016 issue of Rock & Ice about some of the best summer climbing in the region - new routes at Washington Pass.


Washington Sandbags

Jessica Campbell gets after it on a local testpiece
"Washington IS a sandbag!" said my friend Jessica Campbell, after returning
from a trip to the New River Gorge and Red River Gorge. 
And I somewhat agree, although I'd say it's more specific than that. To me, Index and Leavenworth have tough grades (the dreaded Hwy 2 vortex!), but so does Smith Rock and Trout Creek. Meanwhile, Newhalem, Washington Pass, and Little Si aren't nearly so tough, and ovciously neither is vantage or a lot of the roped climbing in the Icicle Canyon (or further afield, squamish). But we in Washington do lack a stacked crag of simple, friendly, juggy, and easy-to-read 5.11, 5.12, or 5.13 sport routes. There are a lot of strong folks in the area who would have certainly ticked far harder grades if they climbed with the same frequency, skill, and strength, but lived in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, or many other states. On the subject of grades and sandbags, I wanted to come up with the biggest sandbag at every grade from 5.8 to 5.14. After chatting with a few local friends, here's a start:

Pat McNerthney - CBR - Photo: Supertopo
5.8 - Chimney on the West Face of Colchuck Balanced Rock
More than a few 5.11 climbers have called this pitch the crux of the .11+ route.

5.9 - Damnation Crack Leavenworth
The classic old-school 5.9 wide pitch. Want to climb 5.9 in Yosemite? Here's your training tool.

Honorable mention: Prusik Peak's Burgner-Stanley Route (retro upgraded to .10- in Cascades Rock)

5.10a - Sagittarius - Index
To the first anchor at the ringing flake, this pitch gets the nod for the most intimidating and hardest .10- in the area. The full .11b version is no pushover for the grade either.

5.10b - The Sting - Leavenworth
The "approach pitch" to the 5.11 splitter classic R.O.T.C. 
This pitch might be the harder of the 2, and is often wet, always a little grainy, and generally a slap in the face.

5.10c - P1 Boving-Pollock - S. Early Winters Spire
This is one of the few serious/sandbag pitches at WA Pass.
Honorable mention: Lamplighter P1. (AKA P1 of Heaven's Gate)

5.10d - P3 NAD - Index 
Mike Pond on Ellen Pea, P2
There are always a lot of tough routes with "d" grades.
Honorable mentions: Ellen Pea P2, Slow Children - Index

5.11a - Newest Industry - Index
A bolted 5.11a on perfect rock. 
Sounds like a nice warmup for the real climbing later on...

Honorable mentions: Toothless - Leavenworth, Hang Dog - Leavenworth, Rhythm & Bolts - Index

5.11b - Heironymous Bosch - Index
Hard vertical boulder problems that you can't read.

Honorable mentions: Full Sagittarius, Phone Calls from the Dead, Narrow Arrow Overhang (to 2nd anchor) (all Index)

5.11c - Tadpole - Index
Good no-holds flare training for Yosemite!

5.11d - Swim P1 - Index
Honorable mentions: basically every .11+ at Index, especially on the upper wall

5.12a - Rise and Fall P1 - Index
Given either .12a or .12a/b, this one's a laughable sandbag. Both hard to decipher and hard to climb, it took prolific Index strongman Mikey Schaefer more effort than the nearby newly-freed Town Crier (.12d) or Green Drag-On (.13a).

5.12b - Numbah Ten - Index
Just push apart the two halves of the lower town wall...

5.12c - Last Waltz, Smith Rock
Not Washington, but why does Smith have so many hard 5.12c pitches? Is this the hardest? 

Honorable mention: Technicians of the Sacred, P1 - Index.

5.12d - Never Never Crack - Leavenworth
Todd Skinner overhanging thin-hands testpiece. Redpointed just once or twice more. Will never be downgraded.

5.13a - Rock a Rolla - Leavenworth
A simple 20m overhanging and well-bolted route, climbing a plumb line with lots of big holds. AKA a nonstop barrage of quality V4-V7 bouldering with a single quasi-legit stem stance.

Honorable mention: Narrow Arrow Overhang - Index

5.13, 5.13+, 5.13-

Anything at Little Si or Equinox stand out? Amandla (short) is no pushover at .13b/c

City Park should probably be on there somewhere, but it first needs an established grade before that grade could be considered a sandbag or not.


The Fine Line of Bailing - 3rd Pillar of Nalumasortoq

I spent August in Greenland, specifically along the Tasermiut Fjord of SE Greenland. The area was breathtaking, with some of the largest granite walls on earth. Despite both succeeding and failing on bigger objectives during our trip to Greenland, the most memorable climb of the trip in my mind is one that ended after just half a day on route, but included nearly everything I love about remote, adventurous climbing on huge mountains and walls. Writing about those ups and downs of emotion and ascension has been much more memorable than simply recounting our team's obvious success or failure. These in-between "gray areas" are where climbing becomes contemplative.

Scott Bennett, Bryan Gilmore, and myself had set out to climb the south pillar (the right, or 3rd pillar) of Nalumasortoq, as seen from our camp along Tasermiut Fjord. We figured that this route would be a fast-drying and great choice for our poor weather, as it had recently rained for 10 days or so, and several of the non-rain days still held fog and swirling clouds trapped against the peaks. We'd left much of our climbing hardware stashed in a boulder cave below Nalumasortoq, and we wanted the fastest-drying terrain in the area, and figured that a SSW-facing overhanging pillar would be it.

A day before we set out to climb, we started up the valley from our camp, and hiked for 5 hours or so up a river valley and across a small rubble-strewn glacier. Amid creaking rocks and receding remnant ice we created a bivy site for our small tent, and took some sunset photos before settling the alarms for very early in the morning. We'd try to climb the 750m 5.11+ route "Non C'é Due Senza Tre" (AKA the Italian route) on Nalumasortoq. Normally a route of that length and difficulty wouldn't be a huge challenge for us, but the huge amount of unknown is what makes remote, expedition, and alpine climbing so difficult. Seldom is the topo (or simple list of length and grade) a complete picture of the challenge. 

This route has a convoluted history, which we didn't know until coming home and doing more research. It was attempted, up to pitch 8, in 1996 by a British/Welsh team. A British climber ended up taking a long fall aiding up P8 and badly injuring his back and leg, resulting in an end to their attempt and expedition. The pillar was "completed" (given a name, and graded 5.11c and A3) by an Italian team 4 years later, and I somehow eventually acquired and read about the route in the 2001 AAJ (published years before I was a climber, but featuring American uber-crusher Mike Pennings on the cover).

 However, 2 years after that, an american team (Steve Su, Ari Menitove, Chris Chitty) attempted a "repeat" and came close to freeing this line, while also realizing that the Italians had almost certainly not completed the route, instead rappelling from a narrow, sweeping ledge 200' below the top. The Americans bivied and finished the route via a very steep, wet offwidth located 60m right of the pillar's crest. Ari and Steve Su were nice enough to fill us in on some beta about the area before our trip. A few years later (in 2003) Americans Micah Dash and Thad Friday made 6 separate attempts over a month to complete the route, and eventually finished the climb (and made an all free ascent) over 2 days. It was 23 pitches, 5.11+ R.  In reality, both the FA and FFA of the "Italian route" were done by American teams. There remained some hardware placed by the Welsh party ('96) the Italians (2000) and the American FFA team (2003). Reading Micah's article about their half-dozen tries on the route, I was reminded of wisdom my partner Bryan had picked up from the great Steve House: "You never get up anything the FIRST time..."

Scott finds the safe path (and avoids the fixed mank)
Our morning of ascent began, as it always does on these alpine starts, with a too-early alarm wakeup,  scalding hot Via coffee gulped down between gluey dollops of oatmeal, and some last-minute packing and wondering if the weather would finally clear. Our previous climb had been an all-frozen and mostly-free (I think Bryan freed the whole shebang) ascent of Nalumasortoq's 'Left Pillar' (650m 5.12+ FFA Martin/O'Neill), its 19 pitches had taken place amid some snow flurries and near-frozen fog with zero sun or blue sky until low on the descent. The three of us donned axes and pons over our approach tennis shoes and made a quick jaunt up a small pocket glacier to the start of the climb. The route began with an amazingly clean and splitter thin hands crack slicing up a scoured slab. Although this would be a 4-star pitch at any crag in the world, all I can remember was how cold my hands and feet were, and trying to race up this splitter without having to take off my shoes and socks or thin gloves. It might have been 5.10- or 5.7, but as pitch 1 of a route of this size, it was just about climbing as fast and casually as possible.

Many or all of the belays were bolted (the route has been rappelled), but a British team had recently ripped half of the p2 belay anchor out of the wall on their attempt. It wasn't clear if the threaded machine bolt ever even had a sleeve on it, or if the sleeve was somehow detached and still in the wall. In order to remedy this situation, we wrapped the bolt shaft in some duct tape and smashed it into the wall with a rock. Alpine shim = Bomber!

After three pitches we did a bit of scrambling and arrived at the base of the main pillar itself, unable to find a belay anchor shown on our topo. Maybe this talus-covered ledge had previously held 10m of snow, which would have allowed us to reach a bleak-looking piton (and maybe one bolt?) anchor now hanging above our heads on an otherwise blank wall, but we found ourselves unsure of where to go. Scott continued leading his block, and wisely chose to follow his own routefinding and FA instinct, beginning on the far right and making a long, loose, marginally-protected traverse left above the (apparently off-route) fixed hardware, gaining a tat-strewn belay perch. Despite having 3 different bolts (all in fairly significant stages of decay) and a possible jingus piece of pro behind a small flake, we hung nervously and gingerly from the 4-piece anchor, which Scott had wisely set very low under this arrangement of dubious anchor points. In retrospect, I think that the 2 completely rusted rivet bolts were relics of the '96 Welsh team, while the mis-drilled aluminum petzl hanger was placed for some free climbing protection in 2002 or 2003, as the start of the next pitch could easily have resulted in a factor-2 fall. Above we could see at least 1 more bolt, but reaching it looked like it would require at least 10m of wet and very difficult face climbing straight above the belay. And given the state of decay, corrosion, and bad location of fixed hardware we'd encountered in Greenland, it wasn't clear if Scott should even climb toward it. Scott eventually climbed straight right off our belay and methodically whittled in a bunch of halfway-decent pro behind flakes and grooves, veering steeply upward and then back left into the bomber corner we'd come to reach. These two pitches involved key routefinding and judgement moments, and I feel like Scott did a great job getting us through them quickly and safely, rather than blindly charging toward the old (off-route, or aid) bolts. Since we were climbing in a team of 3 with 2 dynamic ropes, these pitches actually were dispatched by switching over into half-rope technique mid pitch, and having both followers belaying the leader on one rope each. The overall challenges of these pitches belied their moderate freeclimbing grades.

After a straightforward steep corner, I took the lead for what we though would be the heart of the route - several hundred meters of amazing-looking cracks and corners on the pillar crest. It appeared to have water streaks in many spots, but we were happy to have routefinding challenges over . I began up an immaculate huge white corner, like something out of the Needles in California. Although this pitch was just marked as 5.11c or maybe 5.11+ on our topos, it exemplifies so much that I love about these kinds of routes. Low on the pitch, upon looking up at the long stretch of tips or sub-tips looming overhead, I had Bryan and Scott grab a rock off the belay ledge and clip into into a chalk bag on the tag line. I hauled up the rock while perched on a small stance, and used it to bash vigorously on a couple pitons which were coated in a healthy layer of rust, the only fixed pro on the pitch. The corner looked to remain mostly a seam for the next 50m, but without pitons. Above this point I climbed steadily if nervously. Luckily for me, both sides of the very obtuse corner would occasionally hold a small and squared-off crimp edge, making for great footholds to complement the tips and finger openings. However, I was having a rough time trusting the smears of tiny feet while feeling wool socks, cold toes, and oversized shoes slipping on slick or wet granite. I came very close to trying to bail out of this lead, either by finding a good piece and lowering off, or resorting to aid and taking my shoes and socks off to warm my feet, depump, and get my head together. But I kept whittling away at the lead, and after ~30m I arrived at a small ledge where I could finally get in a bomber red camalot. I'd placed nearly every small cam or RP on our rack (a double set from tips on up), but was still looking at another 100' of the same.

Myself near the end of a long, demanding lead 

Rather than belay on this small sloping stance, I lowered 15m or 20m down the pitch and cleaned most of the small cams that I'd placed. I wouldn't bring up Scott and Bryan to where I was, but instead would keep heading up towards what I hoped would be a bolted belay. In this silly yet fantastic world of trying to freeclimb routes like these, I'd still consider this to be free climbing. Rather than belay up my followers and do 2 separate 30m pitches via natural ledges, I'd resupply with gear from below and then keep going. The friction and rope weight from dragging up 20lbs of ropes would add some real challenge to the top of the corner. To climb the entire 60m without back-cleaning, I think most folks would happily place at least 4 or 5 each blue and green alien sizes.

The next pitch is almost certainly the pitch where the initial Welsh attempt stopped due to a long, injurious fall. I moved 5m up and left from the belay, and found myself peering up a very shallow and obtuse corner, which was running with water. Rather than a finger or hand crack, there was a closed-off seam which wouldn't accept cams, and which featured a string of 4 bashed-in copperheads. Unfortunately, 3 of the 4 had been rusted and broken, no longer featuring a cable to clip as protection. I gingerly reached up and clipped the only remaining head with my tag line, and down-stemmed to the belay. After pulling on the rope with about 15lb of force, the remaining hardware snapped, and the rope came whipping down to the belay. Test result: negative. This pitch had been the aid crux, and also perhaps the mental freeclimbing crux, but had gone free at 5.11a R by Ari Menitove. Micah Dash and Thad Friday had also freed this section. So I hung at the belay staring down at a soaring thin corner I'd just push us through, having climbing past my self-doubts, but now hesitating beneath a short section of climbing that I'd been excited about testing myself on. We had no pitons (though the presence of 4 copperheads gave us doubt that the flare would take pins) and no bolts. If we had bolts, would we feel justified in placing them? Would we feel compelled to ask the Italian non-FA "FA" team? The Americans who actually made the FA and freed this pitch? Or the other Americans (one now deceased) who made the FFA of the whole route? I looked up at the pitch again, tested a few smears along the wet sides of the corner, accepted that we'd have at least 10m of factor-2 terrain above some sharp ledges and flakes, and decided that I didn't want to commit to the corner. Knowing that others before me had sent this pitch, climbers I'd long read about and admired, I was feeling pretty low. As Bryan and Scott both also demurred from committing to the runout, we set up our harness for going down rather than up.

Pouting as we prepare to bail
When the route was freed, the 4 fixed heads above the belay were at most 7 years old. Now they are likely 20 years old and in a natural watercourse, which likely explains why they are all now broken stubs of metal. I'd like to think I can climb 5.11 R, but that day and in those conditions I couldn't. In the end, I think we made the right choice but I will never know if we could have pushed through and sent or not. I'd certainly suggest that the next team bring a few (stainless steel) bolts and hangers.

Movies in the tent

Approaching Nalumasortoq

More nice weather on our climb day


Friends Don't Let Friends Belay

I've just returned to Washington from a trip to Greenland with friends Scott Bennett and Bryan Gilmore. Among bunch of climbing, fishing, crosswords, bailures, and tent-sitting, one of the biggest revelations from the trip was that multipitch climbing shouldn't typically involve belaying a follower.

  • Lead, and clove hitch to the belay. This automatically puts the leader "off belay" and fixes the rope for the follower to begin immediately.
  • The follower should then TR-solo the pitch, and not be tied in to the rope.
  • Upon reaching the belay, the follower should clip in with a tether or daisy chain, and then simply pull up a few meters of the dangling rope, clip it through a progress capture device which is hung from some part of the anchor, and throw the leader on belay to lead the next pitch. As the the leader moves up, the follower/belayer just pulls up a few meters at a time of rope, which is never all brought up to the belay or stacked.


Next Step Climbing Clinics in WA

If you are stuck on a plateau in your climbing, want to get faster and lighter on multipitch climbs, hone your crack technique, or prep for some larger alpine goals, I'm offering a series off 100% personalized instructional clinics in September - and I would be able to meet up with you at various climbing areas around Washington for a day or two of specific instruction in whatever area you want to improve!

  • Any days September 2nd - 12th
  • Index, WA Pass, Leavenworth, or any PNW route you want!
  • Run via Mountain Madness guide service