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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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Upwards we crawled, tracing narrow snow ramps and icy steps. Luckily, the frozen conditions held the loose and weathered rock together.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!!
One benefit of the 2013 flood: fat ice in the mountains!
Word got around quickly here on the Front Range. Local superhero Topher Donahue was ahead of the curve on September 30th, hiking up to Long’s Peak to nab an early season ascent of the Smear of Fear. In a blog post, he lamented the fact that, adding insult to the injury of the flood, the Government Shutdown would prevent climbers from enjoying the one benefit of our historically wet season.
Some daring climbers ran the blockade and climbed anyway, but rumors quickly spread of aggressive rangers camped out on the trail, looking to bust climbers. In addition to the normal risks of winter climbing, the prospect of Federal trespassing charges dissuaded most.
So, when the Colorado state government put up the cash ($40k/day!!) to reopen the park, Front Range ice climbers quickly sharpened their tools.
Yesterday, Rob Coppolillo and I hiked up to climb the Smear. One of the most ephemeral, and notorious, ice climbs on the Front Range, the Smear follows a thin ribbon of ice plastered to blank granite on the Lower East Face of Long’s Peak.
We managed to climb the first three pitches, including the crux WI5 R pitches, but bailed below the final WI4 pitch as darkness encroached. The leads were at the limit of my comfort zone, with the ice often too thin to accept screws. That, combined with our leisurely late start, left us hiking out in the dark.
I went on a hike up Fourmile Canyon, past the junction with Gold Run, towards Wall Street. I was impressed both by the natural destruction, and also by the human energy going into recovery. I’ll show some photos in this post, and I’ll try to give location info. This post won’t be as detailed as the previous few, though, as my GPS enabled camera broke, so I borrowed my girlfriend’s old SLR.
Also, I don’t want to be too invasive or voyeuristic, so I won’t post many photos of houses. I do have lots of these photos, so if you live up there and want to see conditions, email me at Scottbennett08@gmail.com
First, though, a bear:
Though we’ve frequently seen bears in our yard, I’d never seen them on our porch until the past week. This one has been hanging around and getting nosy. Our neighbor, who works for OSMP, speculates that they’re stressed because they’re trying to put on fat for the winter. Berries, which often grow low in drainages, have been severely damaged, so we’re likely to see bears getting bolder and more creative. Everyone, both in the mountains and in town, needs to secure their homes and trash to prevent bears from becoming habituated to human food.
This is about a half mile below the Fourmile/Goldrun Junction, at:
40° 2’50.22″N 105°22’2.18″W
You can see the last post for more photos of this area.
This worker is deepening the channel and building back up the roadbed. Impressive!
This house, tragically, seems to be a victim of the creek’s new path. These photos were taken 2.5 hours apart, at 1:30pm and 4pm on 9.18.13. As you can see the house is slowly being undercut.
This little ATV carried a 6 man Xcel team into Wall Street. The road is cut off both and up and down canyon, but they managed to get over from Gold Hill on an old mining road. They were hard at work righting fallen power poles and restoring electricity.
Propane tanks were frequent casualties, and I actually spoke with a resident who claims to have watched one explode during the flood. Cuidado!!
OK, that’s all for now. As I said, I know mountain folks value their privacy, so I didn’t post many photos of homes. I have some pictures from 5161, 5216, 5311 5853, email me at email@example.com if you live there.
Road conditions: Fourmile Canyon drive is passable to high-clearance vehicles all the way to the Goldrun/Fourmile junction. It remains closed, though.
Past the junction, both Fourmile and Gold Run are impassable. I’ve heard that it’s possible to access Sunset from Gold Hill, via the Switzerland Trail. Once in the canyon, a high-clearance vehicle can supposedly make it downcanyon to mile marker 8.
This is all opinion and speculation, and conditions are changing daily. Use your own judgement and travel at your own risk.
I hiked up to the Goldrun/Fourmile Junction on the evening of the 15th, and again last night (the 16th). I was amazed to see that significant road repairs had already been started in a few spots!!
It wasn’t clear to me whether the work had been done by the county, or just residents. I saw some rental equipment, and have heard that the residents around there are extremely resourceful.
Also, the road is definitely NOT SAFE and NOT OPEN! Please do not try to drive there. The repairs appear to be improvised measures to allow for limited access to homes.
Here are a couple before/after photos of the damage on the 15th and the repairs on the 16th.
It looks like here, and in another spot up canyon, work has been done to remove the undercut, overhanging chunks of asphalt. This is great, as they won’t fall off and pollute the stream.
40° 2’50.22″N 105°22’2.18″W
In this next spot, the road was completely swept away. I thought it would take weeks to fix. But, sure enough, there’s a crude gravel bridge in place now. WOW!
40° 2’54.45″N 105°22’4.59″W:
40° 2’59.66″N 105°22’4.42″W
Again, here one lane has been made passable, and some of the overhanging asphalt has been removed.
OK, just wanted to update everyone on the impressive and fast work being done. Again, the road is NOT OPEN OR SAFE, please don’t travel there.