11.14.2018

Getting Better at Getting Better

What expenditures of your time or money are the most efficient at generating improvement in your totality of climbing accomplishments?


  • Guidebooks - Buying a book and consistently browsing through it for inspiration and information is an underrated mechanism towards actually getting yourself to the top of something.
  • Meaningful partnerships - Climb with ambitious climbers who challenge you. Be reluctant to consistently climb with others who are complacent or who are worse climbers than you.
  • Learn your weaknesses - When you team up with a climber who is (broadly) worse than you, find specific ways that he or she is more competent. Learn about their specific strengths.
  • Guiding - Find a specific highly-accomplished guide/instructor. Pay them for a day of climbing on a specific route or at a new crag that you feel would otherwise be slightly above your ability to tackle. Ask many many questions. Include the question "How would you be doing this if I were your partner and not a paying student". 
  • Classes - Be reluctant to substitute social and political capital for competency in choosing instruction or knowledge sources.
  • Advice Skepticism - The person who "achieves the most via the least" likely has far greater insight into achieving goals than does someone who has "achieved the most with the most".

11.06.2018

Dials Not Switches



I just spent a weekend instructing climbing skills at an American Alpine Club event in Bishop. One takeaway from talking with a wide range of climbers: binary thinking (all/nothing, single solution, etc) is far too common and usually misses the point of a change or improvement.

Most challenges in life aren't going to be solved by "a solution" or "the solution" but instead by a variety of complementary nudges that move us in one direction via small increments. Hearing someone on the radio talk about "THE solution to climate change" is as silly as being asked "THE way to climb long routes faster". Often we may not even know for sure that these changes will steer us directly at a solution so much as slowly steer us away from an error or distraction. (It's why this well-reasoned website is called "Less Wrong", not "More Correct".)

After suggesting to someone that for their upcoming planned goal climb they don't bring along their cumbersome and tangleable personal anchor daisy chain or several very large HMS lockers, they incredulously looked at me and asked "Will that really make the difference?" But this question misses the point. They were thinking in switches, not dials. It will make a difference, and that difference will help move the dial towards where they want to be.

11.01.2018

Footwork and Headspace: Underrated.



Freedom or Death 5.12a

Earlier this year I got the chance to climb around on the East Face of Liberty Bell with my friend Scott Bennett, who had just completed a continuous push of running the 100+ mile Wonderland Trail while climbing Mt. Rainier twice. Scott was in very very good cardio and "suffering" shape, but had hardly been rock climbing and basically lacked any kind of forearm or finger strength, and was barely able to comfortably wear rock shoes. We decided to go rock climbing.

Despite having (a couple days earlier) fallen off a .12a permadrawed sport climb that he'd done before, Scott was able to style his was up the onsight of the long crux pitch of "Freedom or Death" while fighting off heinous mosquitos and despite already having just climbed and rappelled the whole East Face via "Live Free or Die!". The mosquito swarm, tiny holds, and sloppy shoes didn't hold him back because the long crux pitch relies on intricate footwork, careful planning, slab balance skills, and maintaining a cool head. It's also a pitch that I'm sure would be more difficult than the .12a sport climb for 90% of climbers. It was a stark reminder that for most granite climbing, knowing how to climb correctly and calmly is far more important than what you have on your feet or how many pounds you can dangle off your waist while you fingerboard.



(Freedom or Death - climbers is Chris Allen, photos Forest Woodward)











10.27.2018

Stop Trying So Hard (AKA the TC Production Function)

Blogging generally, including this blog, has seemed to fall out of use. I do think that blogs are generally underrated and deserve somewhat of a comeback, as a good means of posting frequent updates or links which will remain searchable, browsable, and commentable, without the self-obsessed nature and privacy concerns of facebook or instagram.

You are probably falling off "easy" terrain at a sub-optimally low rate. You're probably trying too hard when you climb, and it is making you unnecessarily tired. I know I am.

Alex Honnold stumbles onto a peculiar and little-discussed element of the Tommy Caldwell long route performance algorithm: don't try any harder than minimum necessary. Be barely not falling, even on easy terrain.


"I've seen him just randomly fall off many times."
"In some ways that's the more efficient way to climb."

The exception would be on extremely runout and non-steep terrain, when a fall on easy ground would be disastrous.

6.17.2018

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.


11.16.2017

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.

9.18.2017

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! 


2x:

+

1x: 

6.14.2017

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.

1.14.2017

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)




11.02.2016

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.