Stoked for the Season

With exactly one month of winter remaining, it's not too early (is it ever?) to get excited about long rock climbs in the mountains. Alpine rock routes, for me, are the most enjoyable climbs. And are even more-so when you get to mix in some logistical challenges, difficult, gymnastic movement, snow or glacial considerations, and an unclimbed wall. Having perfect stone doesn't hurt either.

In the 'spirit of the stoke' here's a video I scrapped together with footage and photos taken on such a climb last summer, a route my friend named "Fire on the Mountain" - Sloan Peak, North Cascades.

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I would like the experience at some point this year of launching up a wall and into the unknown...

The above was written by my friend Rad Roberts last spring, acutely distilling an alpinist's desire for exploration into one line of email. But desire is a foe ill-suited to stormy Northwest weather. So after a summer of missed chances, a forecasted few days of sun was all we needed to put plans into action.

We left Seattle at 5AM, en route to Sloan Peak (7,800'). The Southwest face was 1,500' of solid-looking stone in an accessible location. It had never been climbed...

Rad so strongly wanted to launch into the unknown, so I let him take the first pitch, a mossy chimney to who-knows-where. From atop the chimney progress slows, but movement is interjected with whoops of joys and grunts of desperation. I prepare to get sandbagged. Instead of the vegetated corner, Rad's following a line of previously-unseen --and overhanging-- splitter cracks. Forty more feet and he's off belay, 15 meters of slack pulled up, and I'm on.

I reacquaint myself with backpack-clad squirming, lean a right shoulder into the wall and pray the rubber on my comically blown-out shoes will adhere for a few more moves. The climbing is phenomenal, and well-protected. I trundle some blocks and barely hang on between desperate finger locks.

We trace a line up thin cracks and delicately-featured rock. Dodging left around a huge roof, Rad dances up a right-facing dihedral, belaying along a major ledge system 400' up.

We survey our situation: time, water, location... and I'm off. With another steep unknown wall looming, it's time for some speed.

The rock here is even cleaner. My pitch flows without hesitation. This is why we climb. Reach up for the jam, stem out to the knob, 3 more moves to a stance and gear...
At 50 meters I ease onto a pedestal, and I'm staring at a rusty Lost Arrow Piton! We suspect someone had come across the long ledge which splits the face and also belayed atop the pillar.*

Rad's lead starts out with what we'd expected to be 30' of unprotected overhanging face climbing. It was actually 31 feet. But instead of no protection, he found a hidden cam placement, and was able to sling a protruding granite knob. The rock is unlike any I've seen in the Cascades. Huge fins, dikes, and scoops facilitate steep face climbing... and set up Rad for the sting in the tail, tight fingers in an overhanging corner.

Two more long pitches, and the angle relents. It's 7pm, we've been out of water for hours and have one micro headlamp. But I've never summited Sloan, and if we don't summit, is it a complete route? We eschew the most circuitous parts of the corkscrew scramble and solo directly to the top.

Forest fire smoke surrounds us, holding a place in the sky for gathering darkness. We begin downclimbing to the East. And soon we're rappeling into a glacial moat framed by moonlit rock and snow.

The final crux: 2 people, one ice tool, 0 crampons, and an icy late-season glacier. Some minor bollard shenanigans and creative nut-tool usage land us at rocks below the snow, where the sound of flowing water has drawn us. We split our last chocolate bar, drink a liter each, and smile. We're no longer racing the dark. And suddenly we're not benighted on a strange descent without the proper equipment. Now we're two friends at the the end of a long day, awed by the stars and thrilled with the climb. As simple sugar and satisfaction course through our veins we breath deeply and head off the snow, across the rock, and down into the night.

Mt. Sloan's SW Face "Fire on the Mountain" 1,500' 5.10++

Ground-up, boltless, onsight, and Seattle-to-Seattle in 23 hours.

* We learned the pitons were used as aid pieces by a pair of climbers who had attempted this face after traversing in from a ledge 400' up. They'd been stormed off from near pitch 6. Our routes share 1-2 pitches.


Training Time

Winter is a time that many folks take stock of the past year - mountains they've climbed, rivers they've run - and maybe spend some time going over their outdoors 'to-do' lists for the upcoming season. Whether we're talking geometry, racquetball, or rock-climbing, it's been proven that we're more likely to improve if we set specific, measurable, short-term goals for performance. I was reading SuperFreakonomics and came across a passage that related:

K. Anders Ericsson is the ringleader of a merry band of relative-age scholars scattered across the globe. He is now a professor at Florida State University, where he uses empirical research to learn what share of talent is 'natural' and how the rest of it is acquired. His conclusion: the trait we commonly call 'raw talent' is vastly overrated. 'A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with,' he says. 'But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.' Or, put another way, expert performers - whether in soccer or piano playing, surgery or computer programming - are nearly always made, not born.

So how do we 'make' ourselves into what we want to be good at? Be a better friend to someone by working at improving your listening or attentiveness. Be a better chef by trying new techniques and focusing on learning something new every time you cook a meal. And make yourself better able to climb mountains, literal or otherwise, by breaking the herculean task into its parts and practicing each one.

With a work schedule that leaves most mornings free, I have no excuses for not getting my daily dose of training in for some upcoming mountain adventures. Apart from regular lifting and cycling, I've been reveling in local rock cragging, which is really accessible even in the heart of winter. For example, my friend Scott Bennet climbed outdoor rock 16 days in January, without leaving the Denver/Boulder area!

In the spirit of month-late New Years Resolutions, and improving my own climbing, I've set some personal goals:

Short Term
  1. Redpoint "Bone Crusher" - 5.12b/c crack route of overhanging ringlocks
  2. Link up Wunsch's Dihedral, Mississippi Half-Step, and The Regular Route in the South Platte with Scott Bennett
  3. Lead "The Astroman of Eldorado Canyon" Suparete->Doub-Griffith-> Mellow Yellow
Jesse and the Coors Brewery

Long Term
  1. Freeclimb the Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks while working at the Red Rock Rendezvous
  2. Link up The Warrior on Cactus Flower Tower with Woman of Mountain Dreams on Mt. Wilson.
  3. Climb the North Ridge of Mt. Ambition as part of an expedition-style trip this summer.
Mt. Ambition

Yesterday morning concluded with a fun ski tour led by friends Pete and Jason (and canine companions Echo & Prusik). I still can't believe how much sun they get around here...

After running up the Flatiron one day, Jesse Huey and I went out to investigate a wall of brilliant crack climbs on the sunny slopes above the Coors brewery in Golden, CO.

For anyone who sees the mountains on a can of Coors Beer, or gets "Tap the Rockies" stuck in their head after watching a TV commercial, Golden might disappoint. It's home to the American Alpine Club office and American Mountaineering Museum, but the town is basically a desolate suburb, smooshed between Denver and the foothills.

NPR told me the air temperature was 20 degrees as I left home, but the cactus-clad slopes of Table Mountain absorb solar radiation regardless of air temperatures. Jesse and I both want to head back to try and get the redpoint lead of "The Bone Crusher" - a solid 5.12 crack climb with an overhanging crux section of particularly insecure jams.

Jesse in a T-shirt, with snow on the ground and air temps in the 20s...

Two of my longer-term goals involve climbs in Red Rock, Nevada. Red Rock is an awesome Fall/Winter/Spring destination because it is located just 15 minutes from Las Vegas (Cheap or Free flights!) and has everything from steep sport crags to 20-pitch ridge climbs. I'll be there for a week in March, teaching a couple basic climbing clinics as part of the Red Rock Rendezvous event.

Outdoor Research, a Seattle company that has been awesome about providing gear on my recent trips, is an event sponsor. Most of the classes are geared toward basics, but this year there are interesting topics like "better camp cooking" and expedition planning. Last year, the author of the mental training book "Rock Warrior's Way" was teaching classes, and I'd love to listen to his class this time around. For anyone who'd like a partner or guide to get up some of Red Rock's long classics, my friends Alasdair Turner and Kurt Hicks will both be working in the area this spring, guiding for Bellingham's own American Alpine Institute and teaching at the event as well.


Washington - Taken for Granted

The American Alpine Club gives out several different grants each year, and has just announced the winners of the Mugs Stump Award - one of its highest-paying (and most selective) grants.

Five of the six recipient teams include at least one climber from Washington!

Not too shabby for a backwater state with chossy rock and too much moss...

I better be careful with this shirt... I might get sued!


The Spraydown...

I enjoy making lists, whether they be of my favorite climbs, to-do climbs, or do-not-repeat climbs. Somewhere in the process of listing the 10 best 5.10 routes in the Cascades, I started compiling a list of my own personal "bests". And for whatever reason, the following routes or days stand out as milestones in my time as a climber. Of course none of these routes were done alone, which makes them more team accomplishments than anything else.

Climber on Uptown Toodeloo (.12-) with Cynical Pinnacle at left - photo by Garrett Grove

Linkups / Speedy Ascents:
  • 5 Spires in 15 hours: The Foil, The Sabre, The Petit Gripon, Sharkstooth, and Zowie ~22 guidebook pitches, 10 miles, and 5 summits in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Eldo Tour (24 pitches, mostly 5.10 and 5.11): Le Toit, Rosy Crucifixion, The Naked Edge, The Doub-Griffith, Vertigo, and Yellow Spur, Car to car in under 8 hours. All free, except Vertigo, which I lead at the end of the day and did not onsight.
  •  The Naked Edge (all 5 pitches, plus the 5.8 cave pitch were belayed) car-to-car in 73 minutes
  • The Scenic Cruise (14 pitches 5.10+, second time on route) 4hours55 minutes
  • 3 Chief Day - Angel's Crest, High Plains Drifter, Ultimate Everything, and Squamish Buttress. Nearly 50 guidebook pitches in 14 hours. Squamish, B.C.
Long Free Traditional Routes:
  • Astro Dog - Black Canyon's South Rim - V 5.11+ Onsight
  • Levitation 29 - Red Rock Canyon - IV 5.11c (soft in both respects) - Onsight
  • Jupiter II - Red Rock Canyon III 5.11+ - Redpoint
Alpine Routes
'The Cleaner' - Grove Photo

Trad Pitches
  • Bone Crusher - Table Mountain, Colorado 5.12b/c Redpoint
  • The Cleaner - Indian Creek 5.12- Onsight
  • Fingers in a Light Socket - Indian Creek 5.11+ Onsight
  • Uptown Toodeloo - South Platte, Colorado 5.12- Onsight
  • Japanese Gardens - Index, Washington 5.11+ Redpoint
  • The Spoils - Boulder Canyon, Colorado 5.12b Redpoint
Sport Pitches
  • Slammer - Clear Creek, Colorado 5.12b Onsight
  • Sucking My Will to Live - Clear Creek, Colorado 5.12+ Redpoint
  • Freeform - Shelf Road, Colorado 5.12a Onsight
  •  Ten Digit Dialing - Clear Creek, Colorado 5.12c Redpoint
  •  Pearl Jam - Tonsai, Thailand 5.12b Onsight

Cold Comfort

Coming back from Thailand, everything feels extra cold. I usually start shivering when the mercury drops very low, but I think any cold-tolerance I had was destroyed by 5 weeks of tropical temps. So what's a climber to do? On Monday I took my wife out ice climbing, which is conveniently available 10 miles from our house, and 40' from the road. As in this case, there's often an inverse relationship between commitment and comfort.


Wednesday I met up with my partner-in-training Scott Bennett, for 10 pitches of barely-warm-enough rock in Eldorado Canyon. Always a humbling place to climb, high-friction weather was ideal for some of the routes we did, including Suparete and Rosy Crucifixion.

Here's Scott sussing out the very suspect gear of Mickey Mouse Die-Rect.

Throughout the day things got colder and colder, with more clouds moving in to obscure the sun. I think it's fair to add a letter grade to the crux of any pitch in which your tips were too numb to feel the holds, and you had to visually confirm that your hands were in the right spots.

Yesterday I completed a local rite-of-passage by climbing the First (northern) Flatiron, accompanied by another Ex-Washingtonian, Jesse Huey. The Flatirons are a series of several sedimentary spires, with long, slabby east faces and steeper, but smaller, west sides. The direct east face on the third flatiron is reported to be over 1,000' of climbing, but that might be from the trailhead. It's also been done in 14 minutes! Jesse joined me on a spur-of-the-moment decision, and having someone to chat with on the route made the climb a lot more fun.

Going from snow to stone, just like stepping over the glacial moat...

Jesse tries not to lose his head on the slabs

Watching Jesse slide helplessly, luge-style, down the icy trail made the descent a lot more fun as well.
On the theme of cold-weather rock climbing (and some of these apply to ice cragging as well), I got ambitious and wrote a few tips and tricks that I find helpful to managing the cold. But ultimately, the smartest thing might be to practice your simulclimbing or soloing, and just stay moving to keep warm.

Tricks for Cold Climbing
  • Shoes go in the jacket between leads, so you don't have to put on damp and cold shoes.
  • Strap 'hot hands' packets to to your wrists, but not too tightly. We have a lot of blood flowing just under our skin on the wrists. the idea is to warm it without cutting off circulation. Jackets with velcro wrist-cuffs will help as well.
  • Fill your water bottle with warm water or tea in the morning. Hot Gator-ade is also better than you might think.
  • Thermos of Hot Water + thermos lid + Instant Oatmeal packet (Brown sugar flavor) = warm, sweet, hydrating snack
  • Put your energy bar in warm spot (inner jacket pocket) for 10 minutes before chomping down. Chipped teeth (and scary dental bills) make frozen Snickers the real crux of the day.
  • If you don't have a thermos or water-bottle cozy, a wool sock around the bottle will keep your nalgene warm for hours.
  • After sipping from your camelback hose, blow all the water back into the main reservoir at the end of each drink. Water in the hose freezes much sooner than in the bladder inside your pack.
  • With winter winds and extra layers over your ears, hearing commands is especially hard. Learn to communicate belay commands with a simple set of rope tugs.