Sunday, March 22, 2015

And The Wheels Fell Off

"Maybe climbing isn't my path." A burning sadness settled in with my words. Jessica listened and gently tried to help me see a brighter, broader picture. I had felt her eyes on me all week as I thrashed around with little success on Joshua Tree's endless monzonite domes.  A few days earlier she held my rope as I sagged off at the first bolt of a route I wanted to do over and over again.

Lower me. Try again. Fall. Lower me. Try again. Fall. Lower me. Try again. Fall.

By the fifth or sixth time this happened, it was clear to both of us that I wasn't going to get up the rig that day, but Jess let me keep falling and lowering. I needed an outlet for my pain and wearing out my fingers on a sharp boulder problem I wasn't going to succeed on was my version of punching a wall. 

I had come to Joshua Tree on the Eve of Chad's death. I was looking for something. I'm always looking for something these days. "The Monument" was a place that used to make me feel alive and inspired. In my early 20's I spent every winter there, climbing boldly with my best friends. On this trip, every route seemed scary and hard. I shook my way up routes I used to solo with grace and focus. Sure, the sunsets were beautiful and I laughed a lot around campfires with friends, but something was different. I felt tired and worn out. 

The last night we were there, Jess firmly let me know that how I used to do things wasn't going to work anymore. I had to reform myself. I had to become a beginner again. If I wanted to keep climbing, I would have change my outlook.  I needed to give myself space from what I had let define me. If I didn't want to keep climbing, well, that was just fine too. 

Jessica headed to Arizona to visit family and I came back up to Washington to meet my friend Blake Herrington for a trip to climb ice in the Canadian Rockies. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling very inspired, but I had committed to the trip and wasn't going to back out. Plus, I was looking forward to spending time with our friend Steve Swenson, who would be our gracious host us for the week. 

Although I have climbed a fair amount of frozen stuff over the years, I am a relative beginner when it comes to the cold side of climbing. I had never been to Canada to climb ice and was really interested to see the Rockies.

Blake and I had a great trip. The lack of avy danger allowed us to climb whatever we wanted and we knocked off a host of classics. In the past, a great climbing trip could make up for even a large amount of pain, but as I rolled back into Leavenworth I knew something was different. I was and honestly am, feeling so down, so broken, that it's been hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. It hurts me to not be able to share passion driven tales on this blog anymore. But this is about sharing the climbing life, right? My climbing life at least.

For now, I've canceled an upcoming trip. I've watched my callouses fall off and felt my muscles getting weak. I stowed away my climbing gear so I wouldn't have to look at it anymore. I didn't capitalize on the best winter conditions I have ever seen in the Cascades. I spent too much money on a new refrigerator instead of funneling every penny into the next climbing mission. I'm not sure what's happening. Despite the darkness, I'm proud of myself in other ways. I'm sober. The grief support group I joined makes me feel like I have a chance at happiness again. I have so many wonderful friends and when the depression becomes overwhelming I always pounce out my door and go find them. They are always happy to see me.

One constant that brings me great hope is my attraction to the beauty of the alpine environment. The road that leads from my cabin to the grocery store has stunning views of the Stuart Range. Every time I make the drive I smile, turn up the music, and know that I have lot's of unfinished business in the world's mountains. I don't know when or how I'll be back at it, but it won't be too long I'm sure. Right now, the birds are chirping and spring is here. I'm going bouldering with my friends and I'm alive. There is much to be thankful for. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fall Back: Quick Reflections on Spring and Summer

Since returning home from South America last February my focus has been on survival. The depression and anxiety that follow an event like Chad's death are more powerful than I could have ever imagined. The emotions and depth of sadness surprise me constantly, as do the blessings that trickle in at just the right rate to keep me sane and precariously balanced.

I've continued to climb at a fairly constant pace, but it is different now in some ways. The lens I view my life and climbing from is on a different setting. Rather than constantly making plans for big trips and lofty goals, I'm operating on a more day to day schedule. I wake up, look outside, ask myself what I want to climb that day and then go do it. I've spent time with friends old and new, each person finding (or maintaining) a definitive place in my life. I used to think I only needed the mountains. Now I know it's all about people, the love we can give one another, and as climbers, the experiences we share in high places.

In this post, I thought I would give a quick recap of the spring, summer, and fall. Then, I can get back on track and hopefully provide a more constant stream of material about the coming adventures of my favorite season: Winter!!

In May, I left my home in Leavenworth and traveled to Yosemite Valley. At the time, I was feeling desperate, unsure of what to do or where to go. I needed to get back to my roots. Even though I climbed for many years prior to visiting Yosemite in the early 2000's, every move I've made in my life since was connected to my time in the Big Ditch. I arrived to old friends, many of whom had lofty ambitions. As much as I tried, my first few days were depressing and I almost left. I felt paralyzed with fear. The big walls, as close to the road and as solid as they are, seemed too intense. I climbed poorly, always envisioning the worst scenarios. Fortunately, my friends were compassionate to my feelings and never made me feel bad about bailing off climbs that were no problem for them. It took a week to sort my heart out and the partnership of Quinn Brett and Josh Lavigne to help me feel strong enough emotionally to go after some cool objectives. We climbed some rad pitches, but our best day was on the classic South Face of Mt. Watkins. We managed to climb the route in eight hours which I thought was pretty good for three people who barely knew each other and who hadn't really climbed together. Quinn has a good recap of the ascent here.
Josh, Quinn, and I after a fun day on Watkins

Later in the trip, I had the opportunity to try and lead all of the Romulan Warbird (Fifi Buttress), a really nice route pioneered by one of my favorite characters in the community, Dan McDevitt. Years later, with Dan's encouragement, Lucho Rivera freed the route, finding nine pitches of steep, super fun climbing. The Warbird features a crux 5.12c pitch sandwiched between two other 5.12b pitches and a stack of 5.11. Lucho has been a close friend for years and when he offered to belay and follow me on the route, I couldn't say no. I didn't send the 5.12c pitch that day, but I felt I had made some progress during my time in Yosemite. Usually, I would be frustrated with a failure, but merely trying to lead a hard, multi-pitch (for me) route was a step in the right direction. After almost giving up and heading home the first week, it felt good to make some progress in regaining my confidence.

After spending a few weeks back at home in Leavenworth, I decided to take Quinn up on her offer to show me the amazing climbing in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. This trip injected a full dose of psyche into my blood stream. RMNP is freaking awesome and climbing the Diamond for my first time was a dream come true. What a rad and unique piece of stone. We climbed Ariana and enjoyed a perfect day in the park. Quinn put a nice piece of writing together about that day here. I climbed on a host of other fun routes around Estes Park and really enjoyed the running there too!
Quinn soaks in the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park

I returned to Leavenworth in early July with intentions to focus on a link up of my three favorite rock routes in the Stuart Range: Let it Burn (Colchuck Balanced Rock), Drangons of Eden (Dragontail Peak), and Der Sportsman (Prusik Peak). Blake Herrington was the perfect partner for the job and on July 27th we spent 23 hours and 45 minutes tracing an aesthetic line through our backyard peaks. In preparation, we also made a free link up of Dragons of Eden and Der Sportsman the week prior to the triple dip. Check out this article  on for the full story.
Blake leads pitch 3 on LIB a few hours into our link up
Photo by Max Hasson

I also used my time at home to squeeze in as much climbing at Index as I could. The long days of summer mean I can work full time and squeeze in evening sessions on some of Washington's (the world's?) finest routes. I managed to climb some great pitches I'd never done before and really enjoyed sharing the stoke with my close friend Jessica Campbell. I've had a lot of fun watching her blossom into one of the best rock climbers I know. 
Stepping through on Bobcat Cringe, one of the finest thin cracks at Index 
Photo by Blake Herrington

My final summer excursion was a mini-road trip with my good friend Mark Westman. We coaxed my beater Subaru through the heat and scored a wonderful week at Elephant's Perch in Idaho. The Perch is stunning and the climbing is brilliant. I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said about this amazing venue. If you have not been, please, please go. It is rad. We climbed The Fine Line, Myopia, Astro-Elephant, and Sunrise Book. Each of these routes were phenomenal, but Myopia took the cake. It must be one of the finest alpine rock climbs in the States with brilliant stemming and thin crack climbing forever. Wow! When rain came to the Sawtooths, Mark and I pointed the Subi north and headed for Squamish. We had a great week there also, climbing the classics and soaking in the summer scene.
Mark and I stoked atop The Perch! 
Photo by Mark Westman

So, there it is. A very abbreviated recap of the past few months. There are many, many climbs that I'm not mentioning or forgetting. I'm feeling very psyched for the winter ahead. Sharpen your tools and wax your skis. It's on! Oh yeah, but make sure to stay in good rock shape too. Winter high pressure windows at Index are for sending!!
Myself enjoying another Squamish classic, Sentry Box
Photo by James Lucas

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chad and I

Even though we both grew up in Seattle, I finally met Chad Kellogg three years ago on the wind swept streets of El Chalten, Patagonia. A mediocre weather window had appeared and we were both partnerless. "Solid" was the word that came to mind after chatting with him a bit. He was fit, open-minded, motivated, and kind. There was no doubt in my mind about his ability or temperament. We didn't need a warm up to test our partnership and a day later we left town for a shot at Fitz Roy. "Chadderbox" replayed story after story from his varied, adventurous, challenging, and beautiful life. We discovered on the approach that we shared a similar vision for our climbing, lots of mutual friends, and even had the same birthday, although Chad was ten years older than I. We got pummeled by rain the next day and my ticket back home was up. Chad went on to climb Cerro Torre for his first time with Bjorn Eivind Artun on that trip and when he returned home, we made plans to climb in Patagonia the next season.

Our paths didn't cross again until the next year in South America. We were both so busy! Since I had last seen him, Chad had attempted the speed record on Everest, made a bold solo bid on Nepal's highest unclimbed peak, Lunag Ri, and made the second ascent (solo!) of Jobo Rinjang, another proud mountain in the same region. Chad's self portrait on top of Jobo says it all. One hand holds the camera, the other flashes the "hang loose" sign, his tremendous smile back lit by an infinite stretch of high, snowy peaks.

Our time in Patagonia that year was mostly filled with foul weather, but on the last week of my trip we made two attempts at the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre. Our second attempt ended near the final headwall as snow and ice crashed around us. Despite climbing at night, it was too warm on the Torres. We had an exciting descent and I left for home utterly trashed, but psyched on the experience we had shared on such a beautiful spire. A few days after I left, Chad and Colin Haley forged the third "fair means" ascent of Cerro Torre via "The Corkscrew", an unbelievable journey that begins on the SE Ridge before finishing on the classic West Face. To this day, I am so very happy that Chad and Colin had success on such an incredibly awesome route.
Chad and I kicking it at the Col de la Patienca

Even while Chad and I climbed in South America, we talked feverishly about an objective back home. I had a strong desire to make a full traverse of the Southern and Northern Picket Ranges deep in the North Cascades. It turned out that Chad had attempted to traverse the southern portion with Dylan Johnson years earlier. When I asked him to join me that coming summer, he was all in. We spent seven days adrift on the ridge that July, fighting stormy weather, and doing our best to trace an elegant line through a maze of chossy peaks. Neither of us realized the impact this experience would make on us. As we stumbled out to our car Chad declared our Pickets enchainment one of the top five experiences of his climbing life. My mind quickly shuffled through all of his amazing accomplishments and I felt honored to have shared an adventure that found it's place among his finest.
Chad and I on top of Mt. Fury on day 4 of our Pickets mission

Not only was our Pickets Traverse valuable as a climbing adventure, it also cemented our friendship and climbing partnership. As soon as we got home, Chad took up the pen and got right to work on a series of grants we hoped would help take us to Tibet in the fall of 2014. We heard that we had been awarded the Mugs Stump as well as several other grants when we were hanging out in, where else,  Chalten this past season. Chad was ecstatic about the support, truly reminding me of a child's enthusiasm when they open their Christmas gift and see it is exactly what they asked for. Pure, soulful joy. The adventures were lining up just as we had envisioned and we could see the path ahead.
Chad and I having fun climbing crappy WA ice in the Entiat River Valley

Last season in Patagonia was a fairly stormy one. Early in our trip, Chad and I made strong efforts on Cerro Stanhardt and Fitz Roy, but gusty (understatement) winds and snow turned us back each time. On Stanhardt we sat for 9 hours on a ledge while the storm raged. Of course, by the time we bailed and were back in our tent at Niponino, the sky was blue. As a result, we brought a bivy sack when we tried the Supercanaleta a week later. Our plan was not to get skunked again and we spent a whole night and morning three quarters up the route with a thin sheet of nylon over our heads waiting for the freight train like winds to abate. "It's gonna break, I know it." and "How's it looking now?" being common conversational pieces.
Chad nestles into another padless bivy among the rocks on night 6 in the Pickets. These scenarios were truly fun for Chad!

We eventually bailed. On our descent, a Russian climber almost plummeted to his death when he threaded his rappel device incorrectly. He leaned back, fell and grabbed the ropes in front of him, narrowly avoiding a 2000 foot tomahawk down the mountain. "Super sketchy," Chad declared.

If summits are all that matter, Chad and I actually failed on almost all of our climbs. In fact, the only two summits we stood on together (besides the many we rambled over on the Pickets Traverse) were Dragontail in the Central Cascades and Fitz Roy. The main reason for this was that we always tried to pick the most unlikely or difficult route that we could. If we came up with an idea where success seemed likely, we shut it down and chose something a bit more absurd. In fact, The Affanasieff was the first route we chose together that was not at our limits. We had considered the conditions in the range and our lack of success that season, and decided we wanted to climb Fitz Roy, and that we would chose a route we knew we could do. Of course, we left the door of possibility cracked and chose to approach from the Torre Valley so that we could make use of any good weather remaining after climbing Fitz Roy to climb something in the Torres too.

Even though Chad didn't make it down from Fitz Roy, he did make it up. Our climb of the Afanasieff was more time consuming than we had imagined. We beat ice out of the cracks to make progress and moved carefully over loose terrain. Despite conditions not being perfect, we had a blast and Chad was obviously in his element. For him, alpine climbing was Type 1 fun. He enjoyed it so, so much. On top, at his request, I took extra photos of him flashing the hang loose sign with Cerro Torre poking at the sky just over his shoulder.

Since we were hoping to return to the Torre Valley after our climb, rather than Chalten, Chad and I chose to make our descent down the Supercanaleta. It was a warm day, so when we reached the start of the couloir and the rappels we sat on a ledge for a few hours and reveled in our position. We chatted and enjoyed each other's company. In retrospect, I am thankful we were able to spend such quality time together on such a rad perch. By this point, our friendship was easy and fluid. We talked about girls, climbing, and food (pretty simple minded dudes!). When the sun became less intense we began to rap.

I'm not going to go into the details of the accident. Needless to say, Chad was struck by a rock only a few rappels in and was killed instantly. Initially, I considered chucking myself off the mountain. The moment overwhelmed me beyond comprehension and dying too seemed like the only way to escape the nightmare. Quickly though, I recognized that I had to live. I had to return to Chad's friends and family to tell them what had happened. Rapping away from him was bar none, the most fucked up moment of my entire existence and I hope I never, ever feel such darkness again. My descent was long and trying. I became soaked by waterfalls and my ropes, always tangled, refused to slide down the couloir. Two times they became stuck above me and I was forced to climb up the couloir with my chincy axe and tennis shoes with strap on crampons to retrieve them. After finally passing the bergshrund, I sat in the snow and yelled into the night. The mountains stood fast in the full moon light and loneliness cut me like a wickedly sharp knife. "NOOOOOOO!!!" I screamed again and again.

The next morning, after having spent a few hours warding off the hypothermia that was taking over my body, I began stumbling towards Piedra del Fraile, often sinking to my knees in tears and utter disbelief. When I arrived there I ran into Henry, a Californian who had just climbed Guillomet. I told him what had happened and broke down. He sat silently next to me, his arm around my shoulder as I cried. After radioing the park service headquarters in Chalten, Henry and I hiked the last few miles to the road.

After only two days, I was on a flight home. Despite the physical difficulties of my descent, I realized I faced much greater emotional challenges ahead. As an alpinist, my body was trained to not sleep, to deal with pain, and to always keep going. But I had and have no idea or skills to overcome the sorrow that clenches my soul. Only through the love of the climbing community, my family, and my friends have I been able to catch glimpses of joy and a future beyond this traumatic event. I have continued to climb partly because I don't know what else to do and partly because despite Chad's death, I believe it to be a beautiful and worthy path to walk. I began the sport at seven years old. I'm now nearly 32. I don't know any other way but to return to the hills seeking answers. I'm not convinced this is best, but I'm trying as hard as I can to salvage my spirit with the means that I have.

Now, six months later, Chad is still at the forefront of my mind and heart. One minute I feel great happiness, the next finds me on my knees in tears. Some days I tie in and climb better than I ever have. Others find me quaking with fear and calling the day early. Some nights I drink too much and stare at my wall in stunned disbelief. Others, I spend running trails or scrambling favorite routes around my home, loving my life. It is a mixed bag and all I can do is take it day by day.

Chad Kellogg was without a doubt, one of the finest humans I've ever met. He was beyond inspiring, but also transparent about the struggles he had overcome and those he grappled with until the end. I found myself, through his friendship, becoming the person I knew I could be and wanted to be. I'm fighting to reestablish myself on that path of transformation, both to honor Chad and most importantly, out of love for myself.

I wish this post was something more conclusive, but the reality is, I will never come full circle with this experience. It will never be ok and I'll feel it's gravity until my last days. Still, I promise to myself, Chad, and you, my precious friends, that I will make it through this, hopefully rendering a more loving, balanced, and passionate soul.
Chad steps onto the Challenger Glacier. Just as the dawn's first rays warmed us that cold, final morning on the Pickets Traverse, so has Chad's spirit permeated my being. I will forever feel that light in my life, hopefully passing bits of it on to others I make contact with.
Thank you Chad

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Patagonia Tune Up: A First Winter Ascent of Argonaut Peak's NW Buttress

In the eight years that I've lived in the Leavenworth area, the Stuart Range has been my training and molding ground. These jagged peaks picked up where the American West left off. After years of dirtbagging in places like Yosemite, J-Tree, and Indian Creek, I "settled down" in Leavenworth, Washington. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was about to become an alpine climber. 
Year after year I return to the Stuart Range, seeking new challenges that inspire me. These days, I am most interested in climbing these peaks in winter. A route that would take me half a day in summer all of the sudden becomes a much more complicated affair. The road to the trailhead is closed, adding an extra four miles of hiking on the front and back end of a winter mission. You feel a remoteness that just can't be had in summer and there are so many more variables to consider.
The last few years I have accomplished some of my winter goals. The strong partners I climbed with eased my burden and I enjoyed the camaraderie of our experiences. This winter, I desired something new. I wanted to complete a first winter ascent of an aesthetic route by myself.
My first view of Argonaut Peak on 12/29/2013
Knowing the conditions were fairly dry in the range, I thought a rock buttress would be a good choice. My first thought was Sherpa Peak's North Ridge (someone go get this thing!), an elegant and classic route on a seldom visited peak. Despite being included in Jim Nelson's Classic Climbs book, it had never seen a winter ascent. I considered this option, but also recognized that I would be in Argentina soon and needed to be ready and fresh for the big time. Sherpa was totally doable, but I only had one day to climb in the middle of a busy work week and decided the effort would tap me more than necessary. I finally settled on Argonaut Peak's NW Buttress. It was a shorter, easier route on a mountain I knew fairly well. Most importantly, I thought it was a nice looking line.
NOAA called for sunny skies...should I bail?!
I hiked in after work on Saturday and made camp at the junction where the Colchuck Lake trail branches off the Stuart Lake Trail. There wasn't much snow to that point, but the ice was insane. Every step was tedious and I fell many times. How I wished for more snow!!
After a good nights sleep I set off. The dawn brought a surprise for me. Instead of the sunny skies that were forecasted, the peaks were obscured in windy clouds and snow flurries. As I approached the mountain I could tell that despite dry conditions, the rock was covered in furry white stuff called rime. As wind and moisture raked the peaks, it become more prominent. On the pocket snow field below my route the wind actually pushed me around as I racked up. I wondered if I should bail as the weather was much worse than I imagined it would be. I finally decided I was ok for now and that I should keep going until I couldn't anymore. I climbed a 40 - 50 degree couloir for 400 feet to a notch at the base of the buttress. It was tiring work as the snow was not firm and was the culmination of a 13 mile approach with a heavy pack (you carry all the gear when you solo!).

It's hard to tell, but this step on the buttress involved face climbing verglased 5.6 for 80 meters. I choose to belay myself on this stretch due to the slippery rock. Higher, the rime became so prevalent that everything was covered in the furry white stuff.
It was a cloudy day, but the views from the buttress were still beautiful
Looking up at the route, it was clear I wouldn't be wearing the rock shoes I had brought. It was much to cold and the rime covering the rock would require crampons. I put one ice tool away and clipped the other to my side. I free soloed the first step, but when more difficult ground presented itself, I broke out my rope and belayed myself through the difficulties. The climbing was typical Stuart Range winter fare. Rime covered rock climbing with the occasional stretch of alpine ice and crucial moss sticks.
It was interesting to be in my own world up there. There were points where my eyes followed my rope down into the mist and I almost forgot that no one was down there. I was alone. The weather worsened as I got higher, but I barely noticed as I was so focused. My only hope was that the wind would not pick up more. I didn't have goggles and I knew how debilitating that could be in these conditions. How would I descend if I couldn't open my eyes to see! 
On top, hoping that I could see well enough to descend efficiently
After a nice mixed pitch with some actual sticks in ice, I finally hit the summit. I took a quick photo and started descending in high winds. Some down climbing and three rappels put me on the south side of the peak. With darkness only 20 minutes away, I chose not to return via the approach I had taken in the morning. While this approach (Mountaineer's Creek) is not too tricky, it does require off trail maneuvers and I knew in my tired state I would most likely get lost and walk in circles. Therefore, I began a soul sucking trek through shin deep snow around Colchuck Peak. Once I arrived at the col between Colchuck and Dragontail, all I needed to do was descend an easy glacier, after which I would pick up an actual trail that would lead me back to the junction where I had bivied the previous evening.
The rest of my descent was straight forward, but movement was constant. I finally returned to my car at 10:30 PM, seven hours after I left the summit.
Now, I'm drying my gear and packing my bags to head south. This was the last climb before my season in Patagonia begins. I'm ready and psyched.

*An account of the first winter ascent of the NW Buttress of Argonaut Peak
*Summit was gained on December 29, 2013
*Ascent was made by Jens Holsten

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. A Week of Washington Ice

I love climbing ice in Washington. When temperatures plummet, my mind relentlessly computes aspect, temperature, elevation, and snowpack into a vision of what might be in. Each day I drive the canyons of Leavenworth and watch the routes I'm interested in. They start as a sliver of ice amidst a crashing water fall or a veneer of snow stuck to a rock wall. Days later, with the right conditions, these routes develop into something climbable. It happens fast and you have to be ready when it all lines up.

This December's cold snap produced some great ice around the Northwest. More snow would have created the perfect scenario, but I wasn't complaining. With a bone dry fall behind us and very little snow on the ground, I shelved some mixed projects and focused on pure water ice climbs instead. Drury Falls, a beautiful formation just a few minutes away from my house started to come together. Each day I would stand on the highway and check it's progress. Soon the blotches of ice became more cohesive. It started to look climbable. Then, the temps fell another ten degrees and dense clouds obscured the sun for three straight days. It was go time.

I called Craig Pope and Vern Nelson Jr. These guys are my ice partners in crime. Long before others  have even began thinking about ice, these guys are prowling the state, envisioning the future and dreaming of the day it all comes together.

The crux of climbing Drury Falls comes before the first pitch. One needs to cross the Tumwater River, a rumbling, powerful stretch of water, just to reach the climb. We found our place amongst those who have struggled with this crossing, nearly losing control of our boat on attempt number one. We rethought our strategy, headed down the road to a safer crossing, and finally made it across. After that it was all gravy.
Crossing the Tumwater in the right spot...this kind of boating I can handle!
photo by Craig Pope
The approach to Drury is a terrain trap if I've ever seen one, but the low snowpack made it as safe as it could ever be. I relished being in such an awesome place at the right time. It's neat to find yourself in places that are usually off limits. After some precarious boulder hopping rambling ice forced us into our crampons and we hooped and hollered our way upwards. 
Craig and I rambling
Photo by Vern Nelson Jr.
The ice got a bit steeper, but was still dead easy and we continued the super fun group solo.
Craig and I climbing
Photo by VNJ
We came to the steepest portion of the climb and decided to rope up. Three fun pitches of featured ice brought us to the top of the falls, an amazing place that offered a perspective I had never had before. Thousands of feet below headlights snaked along the highway. I felt close to home, but far away at the same time.
Myself leading our first pitch of roped climbing
Photo by VNJ
Vern leading our pitch two
Photo by Craig Pope
After Drury, I took a few days to work, but couldn't help but ramble around the Icicle each afternoon. Leavenworth ice is a lot like its rock. It's usually low angle and the lines, while in a beautiful setting, aren't necessarily mind blowing (there are exceptions). Still, they are fun and I look at it like going for a run. It's just nice to get out.
Out for an afternoon ramble in the Sword Gully. This gully is super fun with about 600 feet of stepped ice to WI3
Photo by Max Hasson
An afternoon or two later, Max Hasson and Jon Pobst joined me for a route that I had eyed for many years. Just right of the Warrior Wall, we connected often thin, but sometimes thick ice runnels for three 80 meter pitches of spicy fun. Our first mixed pitch was especially thin and bordered on the limit of what I was willing to risk on a Monday afternoon after work. When I drove by the next afternoon, our climb was nothing more than a wet slab. The definition of "here today, gone tomorrow".
Climbing in the Warrior Wall zone
Photo by Max Hasson
A few more days of work and rambling had me itching to get on something steeper. Last season, Kurt Hicks and I had visited the Entiat, a quiet canyon outside of Wenatchee that offers aesthetic climbs in a peaceful setting. We didn't climb as warm temperatures and unstable ice conditions signaled the end of our season. Despite not swinging the tools that day, my eye spotted the "fang like" pillar of What Do Ardenvars Eat?  It was a line that inspired me with all the right ingredients: A beautiful position, an elegant form, and engaging climbing. Last weekend, Blake Herrington, Chad Kellogg, and I headed back to see if WDAE was hanging in there. It was (I think it's gone now...), and we had a great time climbing the steep, shimmering tube of ice. We soloed up a beautiful second pitch too. What a route!
Myself leading What Do Ardenvars Eat?
Photo by Blake Herrington
Another perspective of What Do Ardenvars Eat?
Photo by Blake Herrington
After rapping off of WDAE, we hopped over to Tyee Falls. It was the wettest ice climb any of us had ever done. For once, I was able to see through my blinders, telling Blake that "I guess I understood why some people don't like ice climbing." Soaking wet and shivering we rapped off and ran for the car. Temps were rising, the season was slipping...time to go to Patagonia!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mainsail: A New Route in the Icicle

If my writing seems like a bunch of senseless dribble, scroll down for a video link of Mainsail!!

Fall in Leavenworth is a busy time of year. In my line of work, it's one long day after the next as we process tens of thousands of pounds of grapes each week and then nurture the young wines as they begin their life journey. Precious time not spent in the cellar ticks by in a frantic rush to get the ski kit together, plan the next winter in Chalten, and climb in the beautiful crisp weather that makes fall in central Washington so pleasant.

The past few years I have been struggling with my rock game. A weird mass of scar tissue in my right hand causes tightness and as a result, reoccurring finger injuries. Finally healthy enough to start progressing towards harder routes, I joined Blake Herrington at Trout Creek in late September. Blake is an absolute animal and I can barely keep up with him at the crag. He ran my out of shape ass ragged on that first weekend and with each pumping pitch and torqueing finger lock that we did, I felt the weakness leaving my body. At that point, inspired to the max, I chose to do whatever it took to regain some of my fitness and confidence on the stone.

Filling my free time with trips to Trout Creek, Smith Rocks, and Index instead of only mountain climbs (there were some of those too!), I felt some of my strength return. In the back of my mind, I decided to continue building my fitness with the goal of finishing an old project I had bolted down the Icicle. It was a beautiful arĂȘte with an amazing position, a cool series of movements, and an inspiring backdrop. I spent the month of October getting on the rock as much as possible knowing I would need the pre-winter conditions of November to tick the proj.

When the good conditions rolled around, Jessica Campbell gave me a top rope catch on the arĂȘte. I hadn't been on it for two years, but was quickly able to remember the movements, although I wasn't able to link many of the moves. A few more bouldering sessions and I returned. Temps were 10 degrees colder and I made my first lead attempt of the route, falling once and linking moves I hadn't been able to before.

At this point I stopped buying beer (well, as much beer), did a few more sit ups each night, climbed on some plastic for raw power, and returned with my longtime friend, Max Hasson, to try and capture the ascent on film. I was not at all nervous about climbing in front of the camera. What I was nervous about was the fact that soon deep snows would overtake the route and my life. At this point in the season it was hard not to only think about skiing!!

That day I was able to complete Mainsail, my given name to the route. As often occurs on a line you've put a lot of effort into, it suddenly felt quite easy, and I wondered why it took so much time and effort to get it done. All these years I thought it was 5.13 for sure, but I couldn't help but peg it at 5.12d that day. Big numbers are hard to come by on the cliffs of the Icicle. The routes are just too slabby and even insanely hard routes have sandbagged ratings(Never Never Crack, Gutbuster, Rainshadow, etc...). So to be safe, 5.12d it is. I would love to see some of the local folks give it a go and to give me an idea of it's difficulty. The resulting film shows every move of the sequence, so watch it twice and flash the hell out of it!

Check it:

I want to thank Max Hasson for capturing the moment. Not only is a Max an incredible climber (5.12+ flashes, 5.13 redpoints, new routes from Alaska to Patagonia), he is an artist with a unique eye on the world of climbing. Check out for more inspiring trip reports, videos, and photography.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Bugs!

The Bugs!!!!

When Sol Wertkin suggested we fit a quick trip to the Bugaboos into our busy summer schedules, a full force "Yes!" was my answer. The Bugs are an incredible venue. Easily accessed by a few miles of steep trail (and mellow glacier travel if climbing on the Howser Towers), these iconic formations rocket into the British Columbian sky with steep and unrelenting force. For the alpine rock jock, they present a dream canvas of never ending splitters and laser cut corners.

Sol and I left Leavenworth around dinner time and drove a few hours to Metaline Falls, a relic of a mining town tucked up in Washington's quiet northeast corner. We awoke with the sun, eager to arrive at the trailhead as soon as we could. As we pulled up to the border, a sign came into view. They were closed until 8 AM! Figuring we should do something productive with our time, we began packing our bags in front of the gate. The puzzled look as the border guards arrived for their shift was priceless.
Sol putting kit together at the border crossing
By mid afternoon we were humping our load towards Applebee, the main camping zone in the Bugaboos. After ten minutes of hiking, the dark clouds above unleashed their fury. We pushed on, through the stream that used to be the trail. Waterfalls appeared out of nowhere and the spires above lost themselves in a dense mist.
The next morning, we used a bit of sun to dry out our gear on the rock slabs around Applebee before heading for a route on Bugaboo Spire's east face called Divine Intervention. We climbed four pitches of incredible corners before rain sent us rapping. 
Approaching Bugaboo Spire
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol follows pitch one
Following pitch four with a touch of sun before the rain
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Our second day also featured shifty weather, so we choose another moderate adventure close to camp. We settled on the Edwards-Nuefeld, a semi-obscure line of cracks up The Donkey Ears. The climbing, although not as high quality as other objectives in the area, was still wild enough to keep us excited. We hit the cumbre and scrambled back down to camp, where the newly posted weather forecast called for a few sunny days. It was time to get serious.
 Sol cranks a nice 5.10 splitter on the Edwards-Nuefeld
 Sol follows more good 5.10 on the Edwards-Nuefeld
Following high on the Ewards-Nuefeld in worsening weather
Photo by Sol Wertkin
The next morning we packed our kit and booted over the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. Before long we were dropping into East Creek Basin, the jumping off point for routes on the west side of the Howser Towers. Tents dotted the camping area. My previous two trips to the basin felt remote and lonely. This time the place was packed with people. Fortunately, almost everyone there was a friend of ours!
Lots of tents in East Creek Basin = Lots of friends! Super fun times!
Sol and I had thrown around a variety of main objectives for our short stint in the Bugs. We knew we wanted to climb the North Howser Tower's west face, but there were many great routes to choose from. I had climbed the most popular route on the face, All Along the Watchtower, with Max Hasson years ago, so I was keen for something new. The locals suggested that Spicy Red Beans and Rice was the line to do, but the absence of a mid-face snowpatch denied the possibility for water (unless we carried it, which sucks) on a route that would surely take us two days without jumars. By the end of the evening we had decided to tackle a link-up dubbed Under Fire. Under Fire journey's across and through several routes and goes free at mid-5.11. It sounded like a good objective for going light and getting to the summit in a reasonable day. I hadn't been doing much rock climbing either, so the moderate grade was appealing.
Scoping out the upper part of Under Fire (upper pitches seen on the far left)
Sol Wertkin photo
We left camp around 4 am and made the approach with some friends who were on they way to crush The Watchtower. Once at the base of the west face, we parted ways and got down to it.
Alpine start!
Sol took the first block, climbing the giant corner system of the Shooting Gallery route. It was an incredible place to be, although it's named the Shooting Gallery for a reason. I tried to enjoy the views, but spent most of the time with my head down, tucked under whatever protection existed around the belays. Although fairly loose, the climbing in this section was spectacular, especially considering the setting.
 Following cold granite low on Under Fire
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol crushing away
Good climbing, but a bit loose
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol cranks into the sun
Soon, we were out of the Shooting Gallery and climbing a wild (and scary!!) flake system to join The Seventh Rifle for a few pitches.
 A pitch of wild flakes leads into The Seventh Rifle
Photo by Sol Wertkin
More action on the wild flakes
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol continued to crank away, finishing his long lead block around 2:00 PM. We had each planned to lead half the route. Now it was my turn to get the rope up.
 Sol transitioning out of The Seventh Rifle
Sol on a low-angle, but fun wide crack about midway up Under Fire
I took the rack and gave Sol the pack. All of the sudden, our description of the route seemed difficult to follow. Giant gendarmes and gullies created complex terrain. I tried to follow the suggested path, but after a while just started climbing to the top via any way that looked doable. I lead a few nice pitches, the best one a nice crack in a corner ending with an exciting traverse to a belay in the Southwest Face gully.
 Getting started on my lead block
Photo by Sol Wertkin

We continued up the gully on nice rock with good 5.9 climbing, but before long it fizzled into chossville. I cursed myself as we climbed the rubbly slot. Sol was a new dad and this was no terrain for a man in his shoes. Despite the ugly nature of this section, it deposited us right on the summit.

Good climbing in The Southwest Face gully
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Shitty climbing in The Southwest Face gully
Photo by Sol Wertkin
The top of the North Howser Tower is an incredible spot. The highpoint of the Bugaboo Spires, the 360 degree view cannot be beat. Mountains, almost all unknown to me, stretched into blue skies and the sun felt soft and warm.
Sol feeling the stoke after a one day free ascent of the West Face of the North Howser Tower
We enjoyed the cumbre for a few minutes and then funked around trying to find the raps down the northeast side. I really need to start writing these details down as I had no clue where to go despite having done the descent before!

Photo by Sol Wertkin
We were back in camp around 10:30 PM, making for a civilized day on a big face. The following morning we hit the trail back to our car and then made the long drive home. Our 4.5 days in the Bugs had been productive and fun. Furthermore, it was the first time Sol and I had climbed outside of the Cascades together. To stand on such an awesome summit with a such a great friend was the best part of the whole trip for me.