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)