Forbidden Peak, West Ridge

Every year on July 8th, I thank my parents that my birthday comes during the best season. The days are long, everyone is on vacation, and the snow is melting in the high country.

For this year, I climbed on Washington’s best granite bigwall, the Liberty Bell. My friend Blake Herrington has been one of the most active climbers on this wall, freeing many old aid pitches and establishing new lines. We climbed his route “Live Free or Die”, avoiding the very thin 12c crux but enjoying tons of sustained 5.11 face and cracks.

liberty bell

The Early Winter Spires, near Washington Pass. Liberty Bell is the rightmost formation, and the steep East Face is just left of the sun-shade line.

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Blake Herrington

After rapping the big face (it goes quickly with an 80m rope!) we had a lunch of pesto pasta and split an IPA before heading back up. We climbed the first half of “Liberty or Death” into Liberty Crack for another quality granite excursion up to 12a.

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Good stone

Satisfied with our no-falls day, we polished off a few more beers and some decadent walnut brownies while waiting for our friends to finish the mega-classic “Thin Red Line”.

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I slept in lazily the next day, and then drove east along the highway 20. Once I got a bit of cell service, I pulled up a weather forecast and saw rain coming the following day. In order to maximize the week, I should definitely make that a rest day, which meant rallying to get in a climb this afternoon! The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak is on the hallowed “50 Classic Climbs in North America” list, so I turned left in Marblemount to head up into North Cascade National Park.

A gate blocked the road about 3 miles short of the trailhead. Not to be deterred, I parked and pulled out my bike.

After my lazy morning (and midday river swim), it was now 2:45pm. My “fast and light” mountain missions are usually self-imposed challenges, but today I needed to move quickly to avoid the dark and the rain, both of which would arrive around 9pm.

The final 3 miles of biking were incredibly steep, but luckily the worst parts were paved. The humid jungle air had me drenched in sweat by the time I arrived at the trailhead. I tucked my bike in the woods and began running up the trail.

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Repairing the road, I’m guessing it was avalanched

“Running” would be generous though. This was an unofficial climbers’ trail, and in the verdant PNW such approaches can be rugged. Heavily overgrown and covered in fallen trees, I spent half the time semi-crawling and the other half hurdling over logs. At least it was short, and I soon arrived at an idyllic meadow called Boston Basin.

Since I was onsighting, and hadn’t taken much time to study the beta (though had it saved on my phone), I stopped to chat with some climbers lounging at their camp. “You’re going where? Right now?” they asked with concern, “You know that’s a technical climb, right?” I assured them I’d be careful and thanked them for pointing out the trail before jogging off across the green meadows.

Nearing the base of the route, I encountered another friendly climber, who pointed out the steep snow tongue that led up to the ridge.

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Getting the beta

My strategy of approaching so late in the day paid off with good pliable snow conditions, a boon on the steep couloir. My aluminum strap-on crampons and short aluminum ax were minimal but sufficient to feel secure.

I stashed my snow gear and made sure my running shoes were dry before scrambling up the ridge proper. Perhaps a dozen other climbers were descending the mountain, so I had to carefully step around their ropes. Some were a bit chilly, but most were stoked at having climbed such a beautiful peak. All were casting nervous eyes to the clouds that had already begun to envelop us.

The rock climbing on the ridge was spectacular! The dark granite was worn white on the high-traffic path, and the holds were all clean and friendly. Big square cut jugs and perfect jams marked the way. An apparently blank section provided the crux, but my outstretched fingers found a deeply incut lock, and I pulled through with a whoop.

By the time I reached the summit, I was in the clouds and the wind swirled. Time to let gravity do the work and hustle back down!

I again passed the traffic jam of descending climbers, who’d barely moved. Hitting the soft snowfields below the peak, I found ideal conditions for skiing and pretended to make some turns. I stopped to chat with a friendly pair of climbers who snapped this shot:

Screenshot_20180710-175842

 

Facts:

Roundtrip time from normal trailhead: 4 hours and 54 minutes

 

7 miles and 5615′ of vertical gain, from normal trailhead

Gear:

SCARPA Neutron 2 GTX runners

CAMP XLC Aluminum Crampons

CAMP Mini Gaiters

CAMP Corsa Aluminum Axe

Rab M14 gloves

CAMP Sky Carbon trekking poles

CAMP “Skin” Skimo race pack/vest, 15L

0.5L Water bladder with Katadyn BeFree filter cap

2x Granola bars

Phone, headphones

 

 

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Mt Stuart, Complete North Ridge

stuart 4 from Scott Bennett on Vimeo.

 

The North Ridge of Mt Stuart, in Washington’s Cascades, is one of the all time classic alpine rock routes in the country. With over 3000′ of high quality granite arching up the most prominent peak in the area, the route is deservedly popular. I love alpine romps, and have been light on my feet lately, so I decided to attempt the speed record.

On August 19 of 2015, Colin Haley and Andy Wyatt ran the route car-to-car in 6 hours and 45 minutes. This time had impressed me for years, even more so because they carried a rope, light rack, and at least one helmet.

I decided to go ropeless, having climbed the route before and finding the two short sections of 5.9 to be very secure crack climbing. Of course this is a compromise in safety, but one with which I felt comfortable.

On July 1st, I did a walking recon of the route, hiking in from the Leavenworth side. I climbed the route and descended down the Sherpa Glacier on the east face. Despite having brought an ice ax and crampons, I still found the steep icy descent to be fairly slow*

Knowing that Colin and Andy had set their record approaching from the other side, via Ingalls lake trail, I decided to go for that route. This would allow me to descend the Cascadian Couloir on the mountain’s west side, which is mostly scree with only a short section of snow. I decided to forgo crampons and ax, feeling ok with my trekking pole self-arrest ability (not actually recommended).

The penalty for this easier descent, however, is an extra 2000′ of uphill on the way back to the trailhead, as one must run over Long Pass.

Anyway, I won’t give a narrative account, since everything went smoothly and is therefore a pretty boring story.

Here are my splits:

Trailhead 8:47am

Lake Ingalls 9:53am (1h 6m)

Goat Pass 10:50am (2h 3m)

Base of route 11:16am (2h 29m)

Upper Gendarme 12:33pm (3h 46m)

Summit 12:50pm (4h 3m)

Trailhead 2:44pm (5h 57m)

 

And here’s what I brought:

SCARPA Spin RS Running shoes

wool socks

running shorts

tank top

silly trucker hat

sunglasses

Rab Pulse sun shirt with hood

Rab Windveil windbreaker

CAMP Full Protection shell pants

SCARPA Maestro Mid rock shoes

chalk bag

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra running vest/pack, 8.5L capacity

CAMP Sky Carbon trekking poles

Katadyn BeFree screw-on water filter, with 0.5L bladder

2 bars, a pack of clif shot blocks, a chocolate chip cookie and an apple

Gopro Session 5

Phone, bluetooth headphones

 

*I do think that someone could smash this speed record by approaching from the north side, since it’s more direct and doesn’t have the extra pass to run over on the way out. The trick though is gonna be getting the Sherpa glacier in the right conditions, nice soft snow with all the crevasses and ‘shrunds filled in. My friend Blake Herrington, Leavenworth super-local, thinks you might find these conditions during a sunny warm spell in June, and someone comfortable on snow could boot-ski down very quickly. I look forward to somebody proving him right!

 

 

 

 

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Rainier Infinity Loop

Mount Rainier was probably the first mountain I ever saw, though my mom can’t remember exactly. Sitting on her lap, face pressed to the airplane window, I think I can remember seeing the seamless blanket of clouds, suddenly interrupted by the shining icy dome of the great mountain. Of course, I was an infant, travelling for my first time from our home in Michigan to visit my mom’s friend in Seattle, so this is certainly more imagination than faithful memory. But I’d like to imagine that, from then on, I was set on my course to seek out the mountaintops and regain that perch above the clouds.

above clouds

Last Friday morning I set out on a journey that took me up, down, around and through those clouds, climbing and circling the great icy mountain.

Called the “Infinity Loop”, the idea is simple: complete two ascents of the mountain, traversing over the summit and descending the other side each time. Around the base of the mountain runs a giant loop trail; use this to return to your starting point after each climb. By first returning counter-clockwise, then returning clockwise, you’ll end up covering the entire trail and circumnavigating the mountain.

infinity drawing

 

I started my Infinity loop on Friday morning, June 22nd, at 3:23am. Departing my van at White River trailhead, I ran up the Emmons Glacier route. This direct line up the eastern flank of the great mountain begins at 4200’ elevation in a lush river valley and ascends over 10,000’ calf-burning vertical feet up snowfields and glaciers to the crater rim summit at 14,411’. Having scouted the route with my friend Nate Smith a couple days earlier, I knew that the snow was in great condition and the crevasse crossings were solid, so I felt comfortable moving solo and unroped. I wore running shoes with strap-on aluminum crampons and carried trekking poles. On that first climb, with all the energy and excitement of this huge challenge ahead of me, I moved constantly. I reached the summit after 5 hours and snapped a quick photo without breaking stride. The descent down the south side of the mountain went by in a similar blur, running and sliding down the steep snowfields to reach the trailhead at Paradise in another 2 hours.

sunrise

Clouds filling the White River valley

first summit selfie

The day before, I had carefully assembled all of my gear for this multi-day adventure: 4 different sets of clothing, shoes, and packs. I had one kit for each leg: 1st climb, 1st run, 2nd climb, 2nd run. After the 1st climb, I ran down trails from Paradise to the junction with the Wonderland trail, where I had hidden a duffel bag in the woods. Here I changed clothes and swapped out my climbing pack for a lighter running vest.

shoes

All the shoes. From left to right: 2 pairs of Scarpa Neutron 2 GTX (for both running segments), Scarpa Neutron G, and Scarpa Ribelle boots (for the first and second climb respectively).

The first run was the shorter section of the Wonderland, curving around the southeast corner of the mountain and covering about 30 miles back to White River. After a long descent down to Box Canyon, I climbed up ridges and through high valleys before reaching Fryingpan gap, the highpoint of the Wonderland trail at ~6700’. Here the trail was completely covered by snow, making navigation tricky. I was lucky to have footprints to follow for most of it, and my phone’s gps was handy when I felt lost.

snow ohanapecosh

Deep snow in the Ohanapecosh River Valley

fryingpan

The Wonderland trail highpoint, Fryingpan Gap

Like the first climb, the first running section felt amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling. My legs were powerful and precise, my lungs seemed bottomless, and with each signpost I was surprised by how much mileage I’d covered.

I reached White River and my van by 7:30pm on Friday evening, having completed roughly 50 miles of the challenge within the first 16 hours! I was feeling great and rewarded myself with a long break at my camper van. I took a shower, made a hot meal, massaged and iced my feet, and laid down for a quick nap. When my alarm went off at 10pm however, I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof. Always eager for an excuse to stay in bed, I turned off the alarm and closed my eyes. It wasn’t until 3am that I next awoke and checked the time, and thankfully the rain had stopped. After frying some eggs and making a pot of coffee, I grabbed my 2nd climbing pack and headed back out.

It was déjà vu, heading back up the same trail I’d done the previous morning. Except instead of bottomless exuberance and a healthy trot, I felt heavy and slow. Little jolts of pain accompanied every step, and I began to feel nauseated and feverish too. I sat down after a couple miles. It was much colder this morning, and I bundled up in my puffy coat and felt sorry for myself. The van, with heater and comfy bed, was just back down the trail. I’d already climbed the mountain, and really enjoyed it. What was the point of going out and suffering now? The contrast between the purposeful drive of the previous morning and hazy indecision of today was obvious. Putting off the decision, I stood up and started trudging uphill. If I was gonna bail, I’d procrastinate first and walk a bit further.

From that point, I just focused on each step and tried to forget the immensity of the mountain ahead of me. 8 hours later, I was on the top again. 3 hours slower than my first climb, but not horrible.

crossed legs

crossed legs 2

My slower pace on the second climb allowed for more photos (:

Descending, I felt re energized. It was all downhill ahead of me, just a bit of trail running and I’d be done. This was quite optimistic.

second summit

2nd summit

descent trail

The descent trail

Back at Paradise, I decided to celebrate being done with the climbing by sitting down for a big meal at the visitor center café. Greasy pizza, a chicken Caesar salad, blueberry cheesecake, and iced coffee all hit the spot. Yum (: With wifi and comfy chairs, I really enjoyed the visitor center rest stop, and it was hard to leave.

lunch

Again I found my hidden duffel bag and swapped out clothing, footwear and packs. My running vest for this final section was much heavier though. Not only was this section of the Wonderland much longer, over 60 miles, but it also was more remote. With many of the trailheads and roads on the west and north sides still closed for the winter, I’d be very committed. I packed my satellite phone, which I’d use to check in with a friend who would monitor my progress and start a rescue if I got into trouble. I also had to be prepared to survive on my own though, so I packed extra clothing, plenty of food, and an extra phone battery so I wouldn’t run out of podcasts.

One way in which I kept my pack light, on all the running sections of the Infinity, was by carrying very little water. I used a 12oz flexible bottle with a built-in filter, so I could scoop up water from the abundant streams and waterfalls that lined the trail.

water bottle filter

Nothing else to do now but run around the mountain. I did that for the next 30 hours.

Some highlights, lowlights, and disorganized thoughts:

-At the beginning, I passed by many open roads and trailheads, and I had lots of company on the trail. I waved to families picnicking and kids building rock towers in the creek. I came here with my family when I was 12 or so, and I have great memories of hiking with my three little brothers.

-Around midnight, I was running through a thick cold fog in a valley. After a long winding ascent, I popped out above the fog layer and was treated to an unforgettable view. The sky above was crystal clear and the moon was 2/3 full. The mountain glittered white, and far to the west the lights of the big cities twinkled. I could see the Puget sound snaking down, and the tendrils of fog creeping up all the valleys from the ocean. The air was warmer and drier than it had been, which was a relief. There was total silence, and no evidence of other people besides the far-off city lights.

foggy forest

-Around 2am, the desire to close my eyes became overwhelming. It was too cold to bed down for the night though. I had no bivy gear, and the cool damp air would quickly start me shivering. I had a lighter and firestarters, but in the wet forest it would be difficult to keep a warm fire going for very long while trying to sleep. So, I adopted a cyclical strategy: I put on all my layers, including waterproof pants and jacket. I would run/hike at full output until I was on the verge of overheating. Then I’d quickly lay down, put my head on my pack, and fall instantly to sleep. Maybe 10-20 minutes later I’d awaken chilly and get moving again. Another run would re-warm my body, and I could repeat the process. I got through the coldest part of the night in this way, and the sunrise was a relief.

selfie

-With the coming of daylight I was optimistic, and reestablished a quick pace. The whole Wonderland trail is characterized by steep hills. Circling the mountain, it climbs every radiating ridge and drops into every river valley. It’s tempting to try and average out a slower pace on the uphills with a breakneck pace on the descents. This took a toll on my knees and ankles though, and after one particularly steep descent (from Ipsut pass down to the Carbon river), my knees had swollen to the point of bursting. Despite icing them in the glacial river, I had pushed them beyond the point of recovery. I was unable to run on the remaining 20ish miles.

-I leaned hard on my poles for the next ~5000 feet of vertical, hiking up from the muddy Carbon river, past the snout of a big ugly glacier, and up to a gorgeous high meadow.

carbon glacier

Ugly Carbon Glacier

-Maybe it was the loneliness of 60+ hours solo, but at this stage I’d entirely switched from music to podcasts and audiobooks. I particularly enjoy the pop-physics book “Reality is not what it seems” by Carlo Rovelli.

-This is obvious, but circumnavigating a mountain as massive as Mount Rainier is really a good way to get a sense of its scale and multiple facets. The mountain would come in and out of view as I bobbed up and down between valleys and ridges. Each fresh view would bring new features into relief.

north side

rotation

trail

sunset

-At 9:45pm on Sunday night, I reached my van at White River and finished the Infinity Loop. Total time 66 hours and 22 minutes.

Thanks for reading!

And thanks to Nate Smith for all the helpful beta and encouragement, and also keeping track of me.

-Scott Bennett

earth screen

Stats: I didn’t keep a GPS track of the entire journey. I tried record my progress with a phone app, but hadn’t practiced with this app and the recording would stop every time I lost GPS signal (all the time). So the image above is a reconstruction I made on Google Earth. I think it shows the elevation profile pretty well, but underestimates the total mileage by smoothing out the constant switchbacks. Based on my friends Nate and Sarah’s GPS track on the Infinity last year, and adding up mileages on maps, my best guess is 120-130 miles in total. If the Google earth elevation profile is roughly accurate, the loop includes 45,535′ of vertical gain.

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New Tech Page: Hydration

how not to hydrate

While it is mostly water, PBR is unfortunately not the best way to hydrate while climbing. Click here to learn some more effective tricks. Photos by Matt Van Biene, http://vanbienephotography.com/

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No Record is Safe on the Edge

The "Naked Edge" follows the prominent arete in the center of this photo.

The “Naked Edge” follows the prominent arete in the center of this photo.

The competition is heating up for Colorado’s most coveted speed climbing record: the Naked Edge. A friendly rivalry, plenty of support from the community, and of course the crazy fun of the challenge have built this once-obscure pursuit into a (still very obscure) local institution.

edge record

A different sort of Edge Record

As recently as 2006, the record was a stately 1 hour and 38 minutes, measured roundtrip from the bridge over South Boulder Creek. Bob Rotert, a mentor of mine, claimed the record at 1:22, climbing with Dave Vaughan. Blake Herrington and I cut it to 1:13 in 2010, but it wasn’t until the powerhouse team of Stefan Griebel and Jason Wells got involved that the record dropped below an hour (49 minutes in 2012). I teamed up with visiting crusher Brad Gobright in 2013 and shaved a few minutes of that (44m). Stefan and Jason responded this year by dropping it to 40 minutes, but they weren’t satisfied until they’d tried again and set the insane time of 35 minutes and 1 second!

bob on the edge

Bob Rotert on a non-record, but still smokin’ fast, ascent of the Edge in 2010.

Brad, who grew up in Southern California and spent his formative climbing years in Yosemite, decided to spend a summer season out here on the Front Range this year. I suspect the Naked Edge record was foremost among his motivations.

Brad "Bradical!" Gobright on the Eldo classic "Musta Been High" (5.13R). Photo by Rob Kepley.

Brad “Bradical!” Gobright on the Eldo classic “Musta Been High” (5.13R). Photo by Rob Kepley. http://robkepley.photomerchant.net/

On Monday, we cleared our schedules and planned to spend the entire day in Eldorado. Arriving at 11ish, we began up the Edge right away. A team of three was already on the route and enjoying the perfect, unseasonably crisp, June day. While initially frustrated that we were stuck behind a big group, we made the most of our time by repeatedly top-roping each pitch as we waited for the team above to advance. I think we each logged three or four laps on the crux pitches on that ascent! By 4:30pm, we were back down, having completed a typical 5 hour roundtrip.

Stefan and Jason race across the finish line earlier this year. Photo by Bill Wright. http://billwright510climbing.blogspot.com/

Stefan and Jason race across the finish line earlier this year. Photo by Bill Wright. http://billwright510climbing.blogspot.com/

As I mentioned, the competition for this obscure honor is very friendly, and we invited the current record holders Stefan and Jason out to Eldo to watch our attempt that evening. They excitedly obliged, and Stefan showed up in dress clothes straight from work! Word got around among Eldo aficionados, and by the time we were racking up about 20 people had gathered to witness the run. Only in Boulder would such an esoteric event draw a crowd!

Once everyone was in position, Brad and I strapped on our climbing shoes and walked to the designated starting line, in the center of the bridge. With a shout, we were off and running! Immediately, I felt sick, and contemplated stopping the race, resting, and starting again. But perhaps those were just nervous jitters; by the time I reached the rock and started climbing I was narrowly focused. We soloed the approach pitches up the “Ramp Route” (5.6), and then pulled out the short but exposed “Cave Pitch” (5.8) and up to the base of the Naked Edge itself.

Instead of my description of the climb, maybe author Steve Levin’s authoritative “Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide” will give a more objective overview:

Levin's Edge entry

Duckie!

Once Brad and I were both on the starting ledge, I uncoiled the rope and dropped it to him. He slapped on the grigri and I was off! Instead of stopping at each anchor along the route, in traditional style, we had opted to “simul-climb” the route. This meant that, once the rope came tight on Brad, he simply began climbing behind me. His body weight would provide me with a belay, if I were to fall. The danger, however, comes if Brad falls: I would be ripped off the wall and dragged down to my last piece of protection. To prevent this, we clipped a simple one-way camming device, a Kong Duck, to the anchors above the first pitch. The device allowed my rope to move upwards as I climbed, but would not allow the rope to move down, if Brad were to fall.

Documenting our climb, Eldo aficionado’s Bill Wright and Mark Oveson had climbed up to the starting ledge to shoot photos and film the first pitch. Bill’s report, as well as video, can be found on his blog.

telescope 2

Two photos, taken 3 minutes and 5 seconds apart, show me and then Brad at the same point on pitch one. These were taken with a point-and-shoot camera through a telescope! Photos by Clémence Bacquet.

Having practiced the route that morning, we felt comfortable going light on the rack, bringing just 5 cams for the entire 6 pitch route. I placed three of them on the first pitch, but for most of the route I just clipped the occasional bolt or fixed piton. While this allowed us to move quickly, not constantly stopped to place or remove gear, it also meant that falling was an unattractive option. Fortunately, most of the route is so steep and exposed that even a massive fall would likely hit nothing but air.

Between pitches 3 and 4, a large sloping ledge provides the first break in the routes steepness. Unfortunately, as I mantled onto the ledge, my rope snaked back into a crack. I didn’t notice until I was well into the next pitch, but suddenly I couldn’t pull up slack. My rope was stuck, and I was too! Brad motored up the easy ground on pitch 3, and quickly spotted my problem. He climbed up to the crack, and with much cursing and grunting yanked the jammed cord out of the rock. We were free and moving again!

Pulling around the arete onto the final steep headwall, my heart was racing and I couldn’t control my breathing. I hesitated for a second, thinking I should take a break and regain control, but then decided “Fuck it, I’ll rest on top”. My forearms burning from lack of oxygen as I laybacked up the overhanging crack, but within seconds it was over.

Another telescope shot, with Brad laybacking the final pitch. Photo by Clémence Bacquet.

 

Instead of building a belay on the sloping summit ridge, I simply began walking down the other side, still tied in. With the rope running over the entire mountain, Brad would now be protected if he fell on the final pitch. A minute later, I heard a massive cheer erupt from the road below, and then saw Brad pop up over the top. We would later find out that, from the moment I started on the Edge to when Brad topped out was just 16 minutes! We still, however, had the riskiest part of the challenge ahead: the descent! Over a hundred meters of exposed 4th-class downclimbing lay between us and the descent trail, and we slowed here to avoid the “cartwheel of death”. With my rock shoes still on, though, I felt agile hopping and scrambling down the immense slabs. Back on the trail, we picked up the pace and pounded our poor feet, not wanting to waste a second. I rounded the corner and the bridge came into view, with a big crowd waiting and cheering. Brad and I crossed the finish line together, and Stefan (the official timer) shouted: “under 30 minutes!”.

Brad and I reclaimed the record with a time of 29 minutes and 53 seconds. While Stefan and Jason congratulated us, though, I could already see the look in their eyes: they’d be back up there soon, and no matter how fast, no record is safe on the Naked Edge.

edge beers

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New Tech Page: Melting Snow in a Jetboil

Learn from my mistakes and don’t melt your jacket! Here’s how to safely ignore the manufacture’s warnings and melt snow in a Jetboil.

jb 1

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Mermoz

“And yet we all have known flights when, of a sudden, each for himself, it has seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality… Where there has come premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.

Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran foul of the Black Hole region, off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then the night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, an hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom.

mermoz

Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea.

 Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.”

-Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind Sand and Stars, 1939

As with my last post about Guillamet, I’ve excerpted a bit of this wonderful little book. I’m not sure what message I’m trying to convey with this passage, mostly I just want to share something beautiful. I can’t sufficiently praise this memoir, which remembers a lifetime of adventure and friendship in a style both haunting and celebratory. May we all lead lives so rich, and leave behind a memorial so timeless.

Jean Mermoz, the subject of the above passage and the namesake of a mountain in Argentine Patagonia, was a French aviator who lived from 1901 to 1936. He pioneered many air routes in Argentina and Chile, and is remember as one of the leading pilots of his era. Along with four crewmen, he was lost while crossing the Atlantic between Senegal and Brazil.

In the story that follows, Graham Zimmerman and I climb the Argentina Route on Aguja Mermoz. I instinctively want to make some self-deprecating comment here, about how our little adventures pale in comparison to the real explorers of days past. But I’ll refrain for now, and simply note that experience is subjective; there’s no objective metric of “adventure”; and anytime we set out to map the frontiers of our own abilities, we do so with the smiling support of our predecessors.

———————

Graham and I called it quits on our single-push attempt on Fitz Roy, twenty minutes after leaving basecamp.

We’d left our tent in pre-dawn darkness, but instead of the refreshing bite of crisp night air, we set out through a strangely warm, almost soupy, atmosphere. Stepping off the bedrock of camp, onto the Guillamet Glacier, we sank into mashed-potato snow.

bw predawn

After gamely slogging a few hundred meters, we stopped to reconsider our plans. Ambitiously, we had dreamt of a long push up the California route on Fitz Roy. This would require much walking on the horrible snow, however, and the warm conditions might present objective hazards. We grudgingly decided not to fight with reality, and (in true Graham Z fashion) “re-stoked” for another objective: the Argentina Route on Aguja Mermoz.

Familiar with this zone, having climbed on the West Face of Guillamet a week earlier, we opted to use the Geordani Ridge to access the West Face of Mermoz. See my previous post about the various approaching options in the area.

bw5
bw giordani ridge

“Do you think the Wall of Hate is coming towards us?” Graham asked as we hung at a belay, a few pitches up Mermoz. To the west, thick clouds did indeed obscure our view of the next range and the icecap beyond. “I dunno, I’ll shoot some photos while you climb,” I answer, eager to see Graham off on the next pitch. I lined up Aguja Pollone in my viewfinder and snapped a shot. Thirty minutes later, as Graham neared the end of his lead, I framed the same shot and snapped again. Comparing the two, it didn’t look like the wall of clouds was advancing. Rather, it swirled and condensed, perhaps driven by the respiration of the Earth itself.

It seems to be a universal human proclivity, the attribution of emotion to non-human entities. We looked west and saw intention in those masses of water vapor; malevolence in the meteorology. Like all biases and blindspots, these tell us more about ourselves than the forces we stubbornly anthropomorphize.

bw pollone

Upwards we crawled, tracing narrow snow ramps and icy steps. Luckily, the frozen conditions held the loose and weathered rock together.

bw3 bw2

Higher, we swapped boots for climbing shoes and delicately navigated up a complex of flakes and cracks. Not having any beta on this route, we relied on old pitons to keep us on track.

bw4

Bw graham leading corner

bw piton
bw profile
As we gained the summit ridge, the clouds broke. The rock firmed up, and we rode the clean crest of this granite wave in high spirits.

bw graham on ridge bw ridge ridin

From the summit, Fitz Roy appeared briefly through the clouds. It seemed absurd that something so massive could come in and out of view so rapidly.

bw fitz

bw summit shot

While descending, we of course congratulated ourselves for “listening to the gods” and making the smart decision to bail on the Fitz Roy plan, accepting a smaller objective for a shallower weather window. Consciously, I know that the climate is a deterministic, insentient system; it’s rules are complex, but theoretically knowable. The ways in which our subconscious interprets our environment, however, draw on powers of observation and wisdom that are sometimes inaccessible to our conscious mind. These subconscious impressions are often communicated through emotion and feeling. It is not, therefore, irrational to have a reverence and respect for the “spirits” of nature, be they gods, ghosts, or Gaia herself. What we are truly acknowledging is the collective wisdom of ourselves and our ancestors, expressed though our common language of wonderment.

——————————–

Huge congratulations to Graham Zimmerman and Mark Allen for their nomination for the 2013 Piolet d’Or! This is highest honor that we alpinists can bestow on our peers, and these fine gentleman are truly deserving. Good luck in France!!

My ideas about the conscious and subconscious, and the communication between the two, come in large part from the book “Incognito”, by neuroscientist David Eagleman. I highly recommend it.

Finally, I want to close this post by mentioning the late great Chad Kellogg. For all of us that dream and aspire, you were an inspiration. You will be remembered… you will be missed. There are many tributes out there, written by folks who knew Chad better than I did. Here’s a short but evocative memory from my friend Blake Herrington.

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Bossanova

“I once read, Guillamet, a tale in which your adventures were celebrated. I have an old score to settle with the infidel who wrote it. You were described as abounding with the witty sallies of the street Arab, as if courage consisted in demeaning oneself to school banter in the midst of danger and the hour of death. The man did not know you, Guillamet! You never felt the need of cheapening your adversaries before confronting them. When you saw a foul storm you said to yourself, ‘Here is a foul storm.’ You accepted it, and you took its measure.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind Sand and Stars

Exupery and Guillamet in Argentina, 1930.

Exupery and Guillamet in Argentina, 1930.

W Face Guill, potential
On the northern end of the Chaltén massif, the ultimate granite peak, before the range transitions to less coherent rock, is known as Aguja Guillamet. Named for the pilot Henri Guillamet, this peak is dwarfed by its southern neighbors, but it offers fantastic granite and plentiful opportunity for first ascents. All that, and one of the shortest approaches in the range, I don’t know why it doesn’t see more attention! The steep and clean West face was the site of my first ever new route, Las Vent’uras, with Blake Herrington in 2011. In 2012, I returned with Cheyne Lempe and established the first free route on the face, Manos al Cielo. While enjoying the gorgeous handcracks of that route, I looked right and spotted another line of perfect orange dihedrals and splitters.

During the past two years, I’ve shared the photo at right with many fellow climbers, encouraging all of them give it a go. Despite my best efforts, though, when I arrived this season this plum was still unpicked. It was not hard to convince Graham that we should hike up there and put in a proper effort!

On the morning of December 5th, Graham and I left camp pre-dawn and cramponed up steep snow to a pass on the lower Northwest ridge of Aguja Guillamet. On the other side, we made a long, rising traverse across a snowfield to reach the right side of the West Face of Guillamet. A note on this approach: in good conditions it goes quickly, and aluminum strap-on crampons, sneakers, and one light axe per climber is sufficient. A few days later, however, we would return to this approach to attempt the West Face of Mermoz and found the snow to be very thin and poorly bonded to the rock slab beneath. Fearing avalanches, we opted for a higher approach. See the photos below for beta on the higher and lower approach options.

Approach options for Bossanova, Manos al Cielo, Argentina Route on Mermoz, etc. The Yellow line is the lower NW ridge of Guillamet (the Geordani Ridge). This photo was taken in very dry conditions, the lower approach is often completely snow in early season. The higher approach involves one 30m rappel, down a small spur on the W Face.

Approach options for Bossanova, Manos al Cielo, Argentina Route on Mermoz, etc. The Yellow line is the lower NW ridge of Guillamet (the Geordani Ridge). This photo was taken in very dry conditions, the lower approach is often completely snow in early season. The higher approach involves one 30m rappel, down a small spur on the W Face.

A photo from Piedras Negras basecamp, again showing the NW (Geordani) Ridge in yellow, and the higher and lower approach options for the W Face.

A photo from Piedras Negras basecamp, again showing the NW (Geordani) Ridge in yellow, and the higher and lower approach options for the W Face.

Starting a few meters to the right of “Manos”, I led up a shallow dihedral. Ensconsed in a much larger chimney system, this section of the face sees little sun, allowing snow and ice to persist in the cracks after everything higher has already been cleaned. There was nothing to do but embrace the screaming barfies and jam the frigid cracks, but I was relieved to find a perfect belay ledge just 40m up, and happily stopped our “warm-up” pitch short. From here to the summit ridge, I would use our 80m 9.2mm Edelweiss rope to full advantage, running the next pitches to at least 75m each.

more guill beta

The right side of the West Face of Guillamet, with “Manos al Cielo” in red and “Bossanova” in yellow.

guill beta photo

The starts of “Manos” and “Bossanova”, again in red and yellow respectively. “Manos” continues up the obvious system.

Bossanova p1

Looking down the first pitch of Bossanova.

The third pitch was the key to accessing the beautiful corner systems. I traversed to the right across four smaller dihedrals, with each transition involving some funky and challenging climbing. On more than one occasion, a blind reach was rewarded with a miracle flake or crimp!

Looking back down the third pitch, which transferred across four small dihedrals to reach the main one.

Looking back down the third pitch.

Another plum, or perhaps a watermelon, awaiting a motivated climber. This 80+m splitter is on the south wall of the big dihedral system between "Manos" and "Bossanova".

Another plum, or perhaps a watermelon, awaiting a motivated climber. This 100+ meter splitter is on the south wall of the big dihedral system between “Manos” and “Bossanova”.

Entering the promised corner, a sense of fear came over me. Though I’d been thinking about this route for two years, I didn’t know quite what size the viciously sustained steep crack would offer. I had brought a triple set of #0.5 to #1 Camalots, picturing unrelenting big-fingers and thin-hands. In this size, I would likely be unable to find good jams with my fat hands, and would be forced to lay-back precariously.

graham jugging p4

But, climbing higher on the next two pitches, I found amazing hand cracks!! Yeehaw!!!!

Graham was feeling a bit under the weather all day, and graciously allowed me to lead every pitch while he followed or jugged with the backpack. What a hero!

graham putting bolt

At a belay in the main dihedral, we lacked sufficient cams to both build a belay and protect the next. We placed one 3/8″ x 1.75″ bolt.

 

The upper pitches, where I thought the climbing would ease, actually proved to be the crux. A steep, and slightly offset, #0.5-0.75 camalot sized crack proved too much for me to freeclimb at the end of the day, and I gladly aided through a few sections.

crux pitch2 crux pitch

Higher still, I battled a tight squeeze chimney. After removing my helmet, jacket, and all the other extraneous junk on my harness, I managed to squeeze back in far enough to lasso a wedged chockstone. Tensioning off this, I freed my self from the chimney and bypassed a super-tight offwidth nightmare.

With the final squeeze lead, we gained the ridge to the summit, and enjoyed an amazing sunset as we tagged the top and began our descent.

care bear

scott and graham

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Las Ventanitas

The Solstice of the Austral Summer has come and passed, but if not for the 18 hour days I might not have noticed. It has not felt particularly summer-like here in El Chalten, Patagonia. This has not, of course, dampened the spirits of the many climbers that call this place home for a few months every year. From Northern Argentina to Northern Norway, Alpinists feel the draw of the Chalten and Torre ranges, and the notoriously… difficult… climate only adds to the mystique.

While we have all enjoyed a few beautiful years in the last few, most knew that ten-day weather windows of splitter blue skies were an aberration. In this 2013-14 season, the weather has seemingly regressed to the mean, and we’ve had a smattering of one to one and a half day windows, las ventanitas, often with high winds and storms threatening from across the ice cap. These conditions put a premium on local knowledge, in order to pick the correct objective and nail the timing.

After six awesome weeks in Chalten, I’ve changed venues and am about to hike into the Bader Valley in Torres del Paine National Park. So, in this intermission, I’ll give a little rundown of the season so far, ventanita by ventanita, and give thanks to all of the amazing folk with whom I had the privilege of climbing, and let you all know about some amazing new routes!!

Graham Zimmerman bouldering just outside of town.

Graham Zimmerman bouldering just outside of town.

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Arriving in Chalten

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

El Chalten

El Chalten

Joel Kauffman lowering off a sport climb at La Platea, about 8km up the Rio de las Vueltas from town.

Joel Kauffman lowering off a sport climb at La Platea, about 8km up the Rio de las Vueltas from town.

Graham Zimmerman dons his 'pons, on approach to the Stanhardt Col.

Graham Zimmerman dons his ‘pons, on approach to the Stanhardt Col.

Approaching the Stanhardt Col at sunrise.

Approaching the Stanhardt Col at sunrise.

Graham following the first pitch of Exocet, on Aguja Stanhardt. We bailed a few pitches later in very strong cold winds. We will be back in the Torres soon!

Graham following the first pitch of Exocet, on Aguja Stanhardt. We bailed a few pitches later in very strong cold winds. We will be back in the Torres soon!

Our neighbors, Jan Peter and Walter, celebrating a successful ascent of Fitzroy's Supercanaleta.

Our neighbors, Jan Peter and Walter, celebrating a successful ascent of Fitzroy’s Supercanaleta.

Perrito

Perrito

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