Don't Miss The Best Pitches Around

I've been working on writing a book to the best alpine and alpine-ish rock climbs in the Cascades, and I have been pondering what the very best pitches are. Either of these pitches is well worth doing on its own, as a day's solitary goal.

Matt Van Biene Photo - FFA of P3 "L&H"

Matt Van Biene Photo - FFA of P3 "L&H"
Here are 2 of them. If you are in the area, PLEASE go do them.

I can see both of these pitches being neglected and ignored, because they are both optional (more difficult) variations to the existing routes. The first one is an optional pitch #3 to "Ellen Pea" and the second pitch is an optional pitch #6+7 on "The Tiger".

Both are well protected and have a couple bolts or good pins but generally require a bunch of small/medium widgets, intricate sequences, powerful crux moves, and PERFECT STONE.
The only semi-decent shot of "Eye of the Tiger" - a direct hard 5.12 variation to "The Tiger" which substitutes for normal pitch 6, 7, 8 in a 45m lead.

P3 of the red line above

The blue line above, leaving the cave

One good idea to keep in mind if you do the "Eye of the Tiger",  a 45m pitch with a lot of steep and powerful climbing on the first half: There is a cramped no-hands stance after all the 5.12 climbing, about 25m up the pitch. Unless you have a really burly following climber, the leader can throw in a couple pieces to clip to with a sling (there's a large fixed wire now) and untie, lowering down the lead end of the rope to the belay in the cave. Haul up the bag, big cams, shoes, tagline, etc etc, and clip them off to a piece here for the follower to pick up once they have done the steeper and harder climbing. Then re-tie-in and lead the rest of the pitch (5.10+) up to the nice belay ledge w/bolts. Nobody has to negotiate anything cruxy with extra weight on their harness, and you don't even need to lead with a tagline.

MVI 1816 from Blake Herrington on Vimeo.


Moonlight Buttress Free Beta Overload

How to not get your stash stolen.
Moonlight Buttress has been climbed in 2 hours free solo, yet still gets done in 2-3 days as a seige-style bigwall. It's a difficult free climb, but certainly not cutting edge. It's also simply an amazing line, stacked with fun pitches. After coming close to sending the route a few years ago, I went back to Zion this fall for a rematch.

Although there is already scads of info in print and on MountainProject about this route, I'll add a bit more beta to the overload.

The pitch grades are my opinion (and relative to Trout Creek or stouter walls in Indian Creek):

  1. 50ish meters of sandy and steppy 5.8-5.10a ending at the left side of a large belay ledge with a tree, well left of the rest of the route. Take all the gear and slings.
  2. Move right to another ledge and follow a short lieback crack up to much larger triangular ledge where you could continue up/left for Sheer Lunacy, where a bolt ladder goes up, and where the free route climbs straight right. The standout feature of this pitch is that you could deck from the crux (~.10c) which is about 12' above the ledge. In all seriousness it is one of the headiest bits on the route. Just don't fall. All draws/slings and a double set to .5 camalot, single .75, #1. Feels like 5.10+
  3. The bolted .11c pitch, which moves right and a tiny bit down. Bring 5 draws and a red camalot. If you left the red camalot behind, your follower faces a fairly real swinging fall at the crux. A green camalot looked too small to work. Feels like Eldo/Index 5.11a
  4. The flakes pitch to the Rocker Block - .10d and feels like it.- Take a double set and all the draws. If you are under 5'10 or so, expect to have to do a few extra hard moves going straight up before stepping left at a higher point where tall folks can span over. After the step left, clip a bolt and then go HARD left again along easy ground. Straight up option has no pro. 
  5. Jump off the ledge and make some face moves and a mantle (V2/V3?) past 3 bolts. The corner above is probably no harder than 5.11-. This pitch gets a 5.12 rating due to the first 10' but it would be a seriously soft tick for the grade. I'd call it 5.11- V3- . Take all gear and slings 
  6. The crux for big-fingered technicians with no endurance. Take all the cams, no wires, and 1 or 2 draws. Layback to the flare, and jam to the anchor. A blue and green alien are nice to save for the flare or just above. Feels like .12b or so.
  7. The chimney to corner - bring the green camalot, all purples, all yellows, and 1 sling. The crux is spinning around from a chimney to a layback, sticking the 180-degree turn, and then not pumping out at the top. Pants help, as does not having anything (water or shoes) clipped to either side of your harness, as you end up scumming both sides pretty extensively. The crack slowly narrows from green camalot (very briefly) to yellow aliens. Most of the time it is purple camalots. Feels like the most physical and calorie-intensive pitch. 5.12- 
  8. The first splitter on the face pitch has more pods and generally thinner openings than the next pitch. The business comes in the first half of the pitch. Take 4x purples, 4x yellows, 3x green aliens, 1x blue alien. Feels like 5.11+/12a
  9. Be ready to crank high feet and pull hard on a tough size for the first 10m. 4-5 purple camalots will get you through it. Finish the pitch with a bit of finger crack and face climbing - 2x green alien, 2x yellow, all your purples - mid5.12 (easier if your fingers are big)
  10. Skip the hanging aid belay and link the last 2 into a 40m pitch. Rated .12a, feels like 5.11c. Bring all runners and gear, and bring the wires, which weren't useful until now. Nothing harder than 5.10 after the first anchor. 
My suggested rack for someone climbing at or near their limit on 5.12 pitches. This will provide ample gear on the meat of the route, with no need to run it out, but it will require some minor runouts on 5.10 terrain on the first/last pitches. The route goes into the shade around 1pm.

1x Blue Alien (Purple TCU)
3x Green Alien
5x Yellow Alien
5x Purple Camalot
1x Green Camalot
1x Red Camalot (could be skipped except that it seems the only option between bolts on P3)
4-5 mid sized wires (BD 6-9 or so) - really not worth bringing except on P10
2-3 draws, 2-3 slings

Random tidbits of advice for MLB:

It's easy to hike up to the top in advance to stash water/shoes/etc and the route tops out near a Y-shaped tree just north of a gully/chimney, and north of visible bolts in dark rock which are on Lunar X. But the walk down is on a paved and sandy path and can be done barefoot if you left shoes at the base. The approach is only 20min, so leaving shoes at the base and going back for them is trivial as well (though you'd want a second pair of shoes to use to cross the river and re-hike back up to the route to get your first pair). We both brought sandals and 1L of water up the route. We actually hauled this stuff (and the extra cams) on a few spots, as we had plenty of time and didn't want this gear clanking around on our waists. Simply clip to the anchor with a sling and lower down the lead end of the rope to haul on any pitch without bringing a tag line. Each pitch in the heart of the route is 35m or less, so this is no problem. You can't do this on the 5.11 bolted traverse or the final (linked) pitch. If you aren't sure about your ability on this route, just go give it a shot! You can also rappel the whole thing with a single 70m (not the best idea since you are likely rapping through parties, but certainly worth knowing if you think you may need to bail.) I definitely do not think that a second rope/tag line is worth the hassles on this climb. Rappelling down the final few hundred feet of steppy terrain used to require 1 rappel that was just over 35m, but there is a new anchor (and a tree one could use as well) so this second-to-last rappel should be no problem with 1x 70m.

 I had climbed Moonlight (MLB) once before, with sausage-fingered Scott Bennett. I think it was Scott's second time on the route, and he redpointed it that day. I recall being pretty sick (hacking up some green slime at numerous cruxes and belays) and I also recall Scott volunteering 4 or 5 of our mid-sized cams to be lent out to a lost French team we met at the base. ("oh, you guys are looking for Touchstone Wall? Well, you should just climb this thing, it's called Moonlight Buttress. It's really fun. You can't get lost. Blake wont mind trying to onsite the crux with just half a rack. You'll definitely send. It's not even 8a!") 

I fell getting off the belay ledge on P5 (the rocker block) but got the section clean second go. I actually did end up onsighting the crux, almost, stopping at an aid belay mid-pitch. I think with my relatively small fingers, that this traditional crux (Peter Croft .13b, now ~.12c?) isn't the hardest lead. This pitch was and is growing easier, as the locks open up to accept green and yellow alien sized pieces (and digits). For me, and likely other small-fingered folks, the changing corner on P7 and the 10m of splitter purple camalots on P9 marked other, more difficult sections, with no standout moves, but sustained splitterness too tight for ringlocks, and too wide for fingerlocks.

This pic, taken by our friend Jenny,
shows a bored Max yawning
after finishing the cruxes.
This time I was joined by Max Tepfer, and we teamed up for a no-falls day of the route. It was very hot, so we didn't leave the campground until 11AM, and still ended up waiting in the shade at belays atop P1, P2, and P4 as the rest of the route went into the shade. It felt good to never really come close to falling, and to share the day with Max's redpoint, as he had tried the route before as well.

A good Trout Creek MLB training day would be: 2x Alchemy, 2x the bottom 1/2 of Mayfly, 2x the bottom half of Gateway, and 2x (just one side, laybacking only) of a stem box route like Space Between.

I wanted to continue working toward a multi-year goal of ticking the "7Cs", classic "12d-ish" freeclimbs in all of North America's premiere climbing areas. It was nice to cross MLB off the list.

After MLB we climbed Shune's Buttress. A fun route with a really good first pitch, and second-to-last pitch. Save some small gear for the crux atop P1 and save a red or yellow camalot to supplement the
Max on a short face climbing pitch (#4) of Shune's Buttress
single bolt on the second to last belay.

All the rappels except for the first one would be fine with a single 70m, but the first rappel is about 41m long. (watch ends with an 80! know your reepschnur trickery) If the anchor was to be moved up, then the route wouldn't require two ropes. Even with 2 ropes, we used a single 70m for all rappels after the first, as there are large chimneys to eat your rope. 

Our rope got stuck on rappel #1, and we both discussed and agreed that there didn't seem to be any loose rocks or blocks up there (and the rope was stuck well to our right) so we felt convinced that it was snagged on a tree, and pulling was our best option. We rigged up a 3:1 hauling system (think crevasse rescue) and we were essentially hauling our own stuck rope down the cliff. Max clipped a Micro Traxion to his belay loop and we put the rope through this pulley, which uses teeth like a jumar to only allow the rope to pass in one direction. We also tied a Klemheist (prusik equivalent) around the rope a few feet above Max, between where it came down from the stuck point and Max's Micro Trax. We then clipped a carabiner to the free end of the Klemheist, and clipped the loose end of the rope (what we pulled on) through this carabiner so the rope was going down from the tree to Max's pulley, up to the carabiner on the Klemheist, and then down into our hands to be yarded on. We simultaneously pulled down, and the Micro Traxion pully would "bite" down on any rope that came through, not allowing our progress to be lost as we loosened and slid the klemheist a few feet back up the rope and repeated the process. Each time we would pull down, we could see a tree above us shaking. After a few tugs-of-war with the spiky oak, we managed to  begin lifting Max up the wall and also break off the tree, which came sailing down the wall still attached to our rope.

Without Max's handy Micro Traxion (which I usually would not have had with me) we could have substituted a GriGri or a guide-style belay plate, used in "guide mode" where the stuck tree is basically set up as the climber, and the "anchor" is the belay loop of a hanging person. This would have captured our progress as we pulled in rope, but would have added more friction, so we might have needed an additional re-direct of the rope for more mechanical advantage. For our Klemheist we used Max's small loop of 5mm/6mm cord, but could have used a dyneema runner. We also contemplated cutting the rope (and nearly decided to). We had a small knife with us, but without one (and since our belay gave us no access to a sharp stones or ice tools) we would have had to tension the rope and then use the edge of a lobe of our biggest piece (#5 camalot) to grind/hit the rope until it snapped. It's good to have these kind of tricks in mind, even if you generally carry dedicated tools for the job.
Max unties our rope from the tree after we pulled it off the mountain

The final day in the area took us to the famous Cathedral limestone crag near Saint George, Utah.
An actual tufa-in-training
This wall was stacked with amazing routes from .12- to .14+ and features some actual tufas and big pockets reminiscent of Spain. It felt nice to end our 4th-day-on with an onsight of a polished and pumpy "Speaking in Tongues", one of the steep .12b routes in the main cave, and then scrap out a tough-guy-TR-flash of a nearby .12c. The central route, "Golden", forms an amazing .14b up the center of the cave, and it struck me as one of the more inspiring hard sport routes I've seen in the states. The Cathedral and Wailing Wall (it's all one wall, just less cave-like on the right) receive no sun at all, so it has to be a warm day to head there, but I hope to be back some day!

The Cathedral, in all its sporto-glory


Fall Migration

After an incredibly hot summer, it finally feels as though autumn is settling in for Leavenworth and Index. And one of the traditions of many climbers is to head south in the fall. I am no exception, and generally try and make my way to the desert, or at the very least to central Oregon's destination climbing areas. I spent last weekend teaching a clinic at the American Alpine Club Craggin' Classic event at Smith Rock State Park, and got to climb at Trout Creek and at Smith.

Max on the FA

A big thumbs-up to Max "Crusher" Tepfer, who sent the newest local testpiece and established one of Oregon's hardest crack climbs with his FA of "The Compleat Angler" at Trout Creek. I showed up just in time to hold the rope for his redpoint.

Max then graciously spent that afternoon belaying me on another area open project, which I hope to
return to this fall.

It's officially a route! The hallowed crag-copy of the guidebook gets an update.

In Smith, I climbed a bit with Steven Swenson, and snapped some semi-decent photos of him flashing "Moons of Pluto" on the shady back side of the main area.


Summer Cascades Roundup and Topos

I devoted most of my climbing energy and time this summer to the Cascades, and was fortunate to get to do many routes which I had overlooked for years, primarily around Washington Pass and Mt. Stuart. In writing, photographing, and making topos of these routes, I ended up with several passable-quality topos for routes which had no published topos, or only very basic ones. I also had a great week-long trip to Idaho to climb in the Sawtooth Range, ticking some classics on the Elephant's Perch.

In addition to including some topos below, I've  had fun remembering the alpine rock routes I did this summer - I definitely managed to cram lots of climbing in!

  • Solid Gold - Prusik Peak (via skis after climbing Triple Couloirs)
  • The Scoop - CBR (in running shoes, without a harness - long story)
  • West Face NEWS and SW Rib SEWS - Via skis with 8th grade Stehekin buddy
  • Boving-Pollock - SEWS (with my wife)
  • Independence Route - Liberty Bell (2/3 of the line with Sol Wertkin, then the whole thing with Madaleine Sorkin)
  • Thin Red Line - Liberty Bell (with Madaleine Sorkin)
  • Liberty and Injustice for All - Liberty Bell (neither Jens nor I sent this new classic, on a cold and drippy fall attempt)
  • Freedom or Death - Liberty Bell (redpointed the route and rapped the whole E. face)
  • Barber Pole - Liberty Bell (stashing mission with Madaleine)
  • Lexington E Face - (with photographer and friends in a party ascent)
  • Supercave Wall - Ellen Pea (with Colin Moorhead)
  • Supercave Wall - "Cracks to the future"/L&H Route - (FFA of the 5.12 pitch I had cleaned in '13)
  • Supercave Wall - The Tiger (FA of new route, with Colin Moorhead)
  • Supercave Wall - The Eye of the Tiger (FFA of the harder direct variation)
  • Springbok Arete - Les Cornes w/direct start (first time finally getting up something in SW BC alpine)
  • The Scoop - Colchuck Balanced Rock (climbed with Forest and another team for photos)
  • Let it Burn - CBR (lead entire route in 3:45 as part of linkup)
  • Dragons of Eden - Dragontail (followed Jens during linkup - lead most of this the week prior - did not onsite it)
  • Der Sportsman - Prusik (climbed it 2 times in late July)
  • Boving-Christensen - Dragontail (not as scared as reported to be - see topo)
  • Fine Line - Elephant Perch (awesome. Hot!)
  • Astro-Elephant to Sunrise Book - Elephant Perch (the 5.9 is .10c, the .12- also about .10c)
  • Boomer's Story - Elephant Perch (1 hang following the 5.13- second pitch)
And I didn't make it to: Slesse, Girth Pillar, Liberty Crack, Big Kangaroo, West Stuart Wall, Colchuck Peak, The Tempest, the complete L&H route, Vanishing Point, Tooth&Claw, N. Face of SEWS, Mojo Rising, Serpentine Crack, Cutthroat Wall, Clean Break, ...

There's always next year!

  • Boving-Christensen on Dragontail Peak

  • Dragons of Eden - Dragontail Peak

  • Solid Gold - Prusik Peak


Surviving the Best Pitch in the Pickets

The most recent issue of Alpinist magazine (summer '14) included a great feature and mountain profile on the Picket Range of Washington State.

I wrote the following for Alpinist about my one and only in the Pickets, with a long-time climbing partner - and they ran the article on their website.

The block had fractured cleanly, and may have already been broken and waiting for hundreds of years. It was on the cleanest, steepest and—for me—best route in the Cascades' Picket Range. The East Ridge of Inspiration Peak, a crest of swirling and gnarled black and white stone, was first climbed by Fred Beckey, Dave Collins and Ed Cooper in 1958. The fine-grained metamorphic rock has fractured into clean edges and sharp, biting flakes, providing a welcome reprieve from the down-sloping choss and lichen gardens adorning peaks in both directions.
The best pitch, on this, the best route, follows a straight-in hand crack connecting flakes and edges up high, to the terraced and blocky terrain low down. It cuts through a blank slab, and its existence remains hidden until arriving at the base, a slanting pillar cleanly sheared off into a stance the size of a doormat. The splitter is one of those features—a geologic anomaly more than a predictable system—that connects the key dots and makes a route go, when it feels like it should dead-end. Climbing these pitches is like sneaking through an open window that was somehow, against all odds, left unlocked. It feels absurdly easy and a little bit like cheating. And it leads exactly where it should, exactly where a climber would want it to. The crack is a passage through the best pitch on the wall. But the block sat perched, more guillotine than windowpane. The best pitch in the Pickets was waiting to slam shut.
Sol Wertkin and I, a team of Washington climbers in our twenties, were attempting the second ascent of the Southern Pickets Traverse. We had done a few new routes together in the North Cascades, myself a 20-year-old undergrad and Sol the stronger veteran a decade my senior. The Southern Traverse is a multi-day choss tour following a ridge of mostly 5.8 filth amid some of the best views and wildest terrain in the country. It covers 14 named peaks and an equal number of unlabeled bumps and towers. Sol and I hadn't made it as far as we had hoped on Day 1, becoming disoriented amid unnamed spires between the McMillan Peaks. The itinerary of the first ascent, done by Pickets veterans Mark Bunker, Colin Haley and Wayne Wallace, provided a benchmark we hoped to catch up to by the end of our second full climbing day.

Unlike nearby mounts Terror and Fury, the name "Inspiration" doesn't compote with ominous area reputation. Low on the route, the rock was living up to our expectations, inspiring us to rally our heavy packs. These, finally, were holds I could trust and features I could pull out on without tedious testing. I started up the splitter. Sol slipped off his climbing shoes and wiggled bare toes stained red by spending 24 of the past 36 hours in a new pair of Moccasyms. Our single lifeline, an 8mm half rope, dangled freely below as I spaced out our three hand-sized pieces.

The splitter peters out just as face holds reappear, and I stemmed rightward onto a square edge, expecting a few meters of easy face climbing to bring me to a belay. Rather than stepping on to a hold, I had the sudden sensation of stepping through a hold and was falling rightward, out of the crack, my right leg passing through billowing dust and a gap newly vacated. Below me, and falling much faster, was a squared-off block of gneiss. I probably thought rockor falling and probably screamed as much. Sol heard something, or saw something, and that probably saved our lives.
I don't know how many September freezing rainstorms, March blizzards and August sunrises it had taken to shear the block away from the wall. But it had cracked along a base slanting steeply down and out. The result was a small oven of stone balanced on a hidden slab, imbedded into the face. With one careless foot placement, I had turned our window through the wall into a trapdoor.

Sol jumped back from his stance, coming tight against the clove hitch keeping him on the wall. An impossible limbo bend, like something from an action movie, kept him mostly free from the line of fire. The smell of gunpowder and smashing echoes surrounded us. I had fallen but been unhurt. Sol's rock shoes had taken a pounding, and he had a few cuts on his legs and feet. But our packs, the rope and ourselves were fundamentally unharmed. I blinked amid the sudden silence.
The words between us were predictable and meaningless after establishing that we were both OK. I trembled up the pitch and mentally limped along the final stretch to the summit and down the other side. The night ended with us both "oozing" upward on vertical 5.10 choss pitches as we accidentally climbed a new route on The Pyramid in near darkness. A bivy was hacked out. Water was melted. Inspiration lay behind us. We looked ahead to Terror.

The next morning dawned cloudy, but we didn't need the pretense of a storm to compel our retreat. We reached an old logging road late the next day, following hours of storm-soaked forest rappels, slide alder navigation and one morale-rebuilding brew stop to drink tea under a boulder as the rain poured around us. Having survived its best pitch, five years ago, I haven't climbed in the Pickets since.


The Tiger - 1,000' 5.12 10 pitches

A new route at Washington Pass, 40 minutes from the road, and on some of the best rock in the range!
Colin Moorhead on "The Tiger" P3 5.11c


Home-Field Triple Header

On July 27, Jens Holsten and I completed a long-dreamt goal of climbing 3 peaks in the Stuart Range via 3 different classic modern freeclimbs, each around 5.12a, and doing it in 24 hours.


Independence Route and East Face Info

The Independence Route, along with Thin Red Line, and Liberty Crack, comprise the 3 classic bigwall aid routes to breach one of the proudest faces in the Cascades, the eastern aspect of Liberty Bell. Despite other routes and variations with good climbing, the wall remains fairly obscure and quiet, seeing few climbers and few redpoint ascents. In reality, Liberty Bell's big wall is an excellent climbing face with a laughably short approach, many fixed anchors, and remaining potential.


Red Rock Desert Linkup

A couple months ago I had the good fortune to get to do a bit of climbing in Red Rock, Nevada, with my friend Scott Bennett. Scott is generally enthusiastic and optimistic about trying big goals and with minimal faffery, minimal gear, and minimal sleep/water/food.

The plan was to up the ante of this 2007 Jeremy Collins/Ben Williams linkup and climb Rainbow Wall (Original Route 1,200' 5.12b) Cloud Tower Complete (1,000' 5.12a A0) and Levitation 29 (1,000' 5.11). We managed the linkup, starting around 6:30AM from the Pine Creek trailhead, and returning to the car roughly 16 hours later. 1 rope, 2L of Water, 12 QDs, and singles to #3 camalot, with doubles from fingers to #1.


Index LWS - Guilty as charged

Living only 65 miles from Index, WA, I have become a frequent visitor in my 2.5 years of Leavenworth residency. Even with only a few hours to climb, it is a perfect sport for solo TR laps or a quick after-work stop. Often I will get asked about climbing around my home in Leavenworth, to which I will rave about the bouldering, rave about the alpine climbing, and say that for roped days, I head to Index. Sure 65 miles is a bit of a drive, but with Stevens Pass marking the halfway point, I can combine climbing with skiing or merely observe the changing seasons. And unlike driving from Seattle, I don't have to pause at a single stoplight, stop sign, interchange, or traffic jam. Unlike many of the Leavenworth crags, the longest approach is 25 minutes on a very nice trail, so even living in Leavenworth, I can get to the Upper Town Wall faster than I can make it to many of our "local" climbs. To many climbers, Index sports a 3 or 4 month climbing season. But the walls are in fact climbable 12 months out of the year.  Last winter, within a few days of climbing a 1000' lowland ice climb, I spent a sunny 17-degree afternoon cragging at the Lower Town Wall with Ben "Crusher" Gilkison, while the upper wall sported a 400' ice dagger which crashed to the ground at mid-day. In winter there are no leaves on the trees, the low southern sun beats onto the wall all day, and the friction is at its peak. I have developed an advanced case of what Ben calls "Lower Wall Syndrome". In light of the guidebook aspirations of my friend Matt Van Biene I wanted to describe a few pitches which never get climbed solely for lack of information, and provide a quick list of routes ranked by difficulty.

The obscure-for-no-good-reason routes (and how to get to them)

Each of these is a three or four star classic:

1. P3 of Japanese Gardens 5.11a - Everyone and their mom has climbed the classic Godzilla-P2City Park-Slow Children linkup. Next time you are standing at the base of Slow Children, simply do a belayed walk about 35' to the left, and you will find yourself beneath another stellar finger crack, similar to Slow Children, which pulls an awesome roof and uses the same rack you've already got. This is called P3 of Japanese Gardens. It is just as good as Slow Children. It gets 1% the traffic, and needs more.

2. Leaping Lizards 5.10 - Ever want to go hang a rope on Natural Log Cabin or Narrow Arrow Overhang? How about access 2 awesome 5.10 crack pitches that nobody ever does? (NAD P2, P3) Simply looking for a another warmup?(easily linked through Godzilla in a 50m pitch) - From Godzilla step immediately right, clip a bolt, and then follow the crack and corner up and right, passing a couple more bolts and some gear placements, leading to a memorable final move. This belay ledge allows one to scramble a few meters right and reach the belay between the next two routes.

3/4. Pitch 2 and Pitch 3 of Narrow Arrow Direct 5.10b, 5.10d - Although the first pitch of NAD is 5.12c with a powerful bit of climbing up top, the next two pitches are splitter moderates that take perfect gear the whole way. They are never climbed. Access via: Climbing Shirley and stepping left, climbing Leaping Lizards and belayed scrambling right, or climbing Thin Fingers and belayed scrambling left.

5. Batskins P2 - 5.11d - Some bolts and some gear, some crack climbing and some face moves, some steep bits and a touch of slab, this pitch has the goods. Get to the base of it by rapping 35' down and hard left from atop Godzilla. Or lead all of P1 (5.12b)

6. Sagi-Horse 5.10+/5.11- Climb Sagittarius to the second anchor, then climb out the Iron Horse roof, on the left. This is labeled 5.11+ or 5.12a depending on the guidebook, but it's not that hard. Finishing via the left side of the roof also makes for a straighter rope line and less zig-zaggery.

Grades: Index should stay uniformly sandbagged. It should just be internally-consistently-sandbagged. That is to say, a 5.12b ought to be a touch easier to redpoint than a 5.12c, which is a touch easier than a 5.12d. They can still all be harder than a 5.13 in Indian Creek or a 5.14 in Tensleep, and that's ok. Ben Gilkison, one of the most accomplished LTW climbers ever, had this to say in regards to the grades after putting up a new route over the winter:

Regarding its grade, it felt around 12d to me, give or take.  Who knows though, perhaps it is only like 11d, like everything else at Index -wink.  Officially, I'm calling it 5.12, so nobody thinks I'm a fluffer.  In comparison, I thought it harder than routes like Numbah Ten, Narrow Arrow Direct, Stern Farmer, and Power Horse.  Please, take all this information with a grain of salt, or a heaping spoonful if you prefer.
And similar sentiment has been written by Mikey Schaefer, another of Index's most accomplished climbers:

 I can't really figured what to grade the pitch so I'm going to say Index,11d which in my opinion has ZERO correlation to Yosemite Decimal System. IF it were in Yosemite, it would probably be somewhere closer to 12/12+

So here's my personal ranking of some famous LTW testpieces. I'm 5'8" with no power, short arms, and a propensity to kneebar. Your mileage WILL vary. No Grades given except as bookends. I'll only list routes I've sent, so ideally the list will fill in over time.

Sagi-Horse. December 8th. 17 Degrees.
Shirley 5.11c - Less-than-stellar rock and easier moves lead to a classic stem finish above your gear.

Japanese Gardens P1  - I have done this one too many times to count, but would do it again today. I remember being so psyched and scared leading it for my first time, finding the highest possible pro to place beneath each crux, and clipping the highest wire with a single locker to minimize the fear and fall distance.
Iron Horse (short or long, the cruxes are both before anchor #1)
Ten Percent Meteorological Vinculation P1  - Stellar, keeps you on your toes
Stern Farmer - This seems to be harder for everyone else. Kneebar the crux. Tight hipster jeans help.
Batskins P1 - Being taller would help, but so would being a better climber. Really demanding of good composure up high and a good test of core strength and open-handed power.
Narrow Arrow Direct (right) - 5.11- on steep and big features for 80', to a V5 with the right beta (though refining this beta took Jens Holsten and myself 2 or 3 sessions to get just right) - I could see this being easier than the above last couple routes for a powerful climber good at slopey crimps.
Numbah Ten - This one gets a .12b in the guidebook. When I was working on it, Andrew Philbin remarked that the hardest move of the Full Amandla (.13d) is possibly at bolt #2 of Numbah Ten. Andrew has sent nearly every pitch at the LTW. You do the math...
Power Horse - Climb Iron Horse to the first anchor, but use it merely to clip off all the leftover widgets you wont need for the bolted section above, as you span left and finish via the 2nd half of Amandla. Both guides show (or even describe) a mid 5.13 crux somewhere on the arete, but it is not that hard.
Narrow Arrow Overhang 5.13-  A wild line with a strange history. The climbing to the first anchor was freed by someone long ago, and is 5.10c or so. The climbing from anchor #1 to #2 is a very shallow inset, which is insecure pressing and chimneying protected by RPs behind your butt. This is brilliant 5.11c (ish) - and the top part of the climb is when things get interesting. The next 20', above anchor #2, is a vertical arete which was first toproped cleanly by Chris Schlotfeldt, and he rated these moves 5.12d on TR. Sometime later, two bolts were added as lead protection by someone else. The roof "boulder problem" above this arete had climbed via traversing in from a ledge on the right (sent by roof crackspecialist Dick Cilley, and rated 5.12b, which seems an absurd rating, even for just 15' of climbing. Although LTW .12b has a bit of a mystic about it) - In 2008 Gilkison added an anchor above the roof at the 35m mark (where the climbing changes to 5.9), and sent the whole thing grading it low 5.13.
The roof on NAOverhang between anchors #2 and #3

It sounds like Ben's new route Nobody Tosses A Dwarf! will fall someone in the upper part of that lineup. And after TRing P2 of Stern Farmer, I think it would end up between Batskins and NAD. P2 of Ten PErcent, City Park and Amandla are the only routes harder than these listed, and nobody who has sent one of those has also sent the others. They must both be rated 5.11d.


Alpine Girth Hitch

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


Aguja De l'S and Mojon Rojo

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

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

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

Scott and Steve - Fitz Roy and Poincenot on the left

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

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

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

Scott and Aguja St. Exupery

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

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


Torres Del Paine

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

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

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

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

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