Sunday, October 14, 2012

Summer Wrap Up

I woke up one day last week and thought somebody had broken into my house.  I heard a strange rustling noise in the living room and slowly crept downstairs to investigate.  I tiptoed through the kitchen as the rustling grew louder.  Preparing to fend off some intruder I jumped around the corner into the living room and promptly started laughing at myself.  There was no one there.  The sound was just a heating vent blowing air into the large fronds of a house plant.  

"Well," I thought to myself, "Heat's on for the first time.  It is officially fall in Seattle."

Hard to believe we're already well into October, right?  Where did the last few months go?  Seems like just yesterday that I was waiting for the sun to wring the spring moisture from this damp corner of the country, my head full of plans and ideas for the summer that lay ahead.  That summer's gone now.  Most of those plans went uncompleted and few of those ideas came to fruition.  But a lot of new plans cropped up, and unexpected opportunities were seized by the horns.  All in all it was a pretty rad couple of months.  

I thought I'd wrap it all up in one neat package for anyone who's interested.  So, here it is. An act in seven parts.  The Highlights of Summer 2012.  

Part I - Yosemite

It all started off with a bang when I got the chance to go to Yosemite in June for a little "business" trip.  

In May my boss, Fitz, had asked me, "Austin, do you want to go climb El Cap next month?" The "Yes" was out of my mouth before he even finished the question, and soon we were driving south on I-5 with a car full of climbing gear and camera equipment.   

For nearly two years Fitz had been documenting the story of climber Craig DeMartino, who lost his right leg in 2003 following a 100-foot ground fall in Colorado.  Craig had since come back to climbing - ticking routes up to 5.12d and climbing The Nose in a day along the way - but he still wanted to complete an all-disabled ascent of El Cap.   He already tried once in 2011, but he and his partner, Jarem Frye, had to turn back a few pitches up Lurking Fear when Jarem's prosthetic leg fell off.  

El Capitan

This year he returned to the valley with Jarem, who lost his left leg to bone cancer at age 14, and added a new member to the team, "One Armed" Pete Davis, who was born without an arm.   Dubbing themselves the "Gimp Monkeys" the trio set their sights on the mega-classic Zodiac, a steep 18 pitch route on El Cap's east face.  

Fitz and I were there to film the ascent as part of a new series that we will be releasing this fall called "The Three Types of Fun."  Joining us was wall-ninja and cameraman extraordinaire, Mikey Schaefer.  Mikey is a legit hardman and expert climber.  He's climbed .13+ cracks, spent weeks of his life on El Cap, and put up gnarly first ascents everywhere from Patagonia to Alaska.  He's more comfortable 2000ft off the ground than I am walking down the street. Fitz and I simply referred to him as "the secret weapon."

The plan was for Fitz and I to push the rope up the route, fixing a line for Mikey along the way so he could film the Gimp Monkeys as they climbed below us.  Even though I'd been to Yosemite twice before, this was my first time climbing El Cap and I was insanely stoked, though I of course tried to act like it was all no big deal.  

The Gimp Monkeys asleep their last night on El Cap | Mikey Schaefer Photo

A couple interesting thing occurred our first night on the wall.  Alex Honnold had loaned Mikey his portaledge for the climb, and when we unpacked the ledge to set up camp we found two ledges inside the bag.  One was a normal BD double ledge, but the other was a strange mini belay ledge, maybe only 2'x4'.  We all had a different reaction to this twist -- Mikey, an ever-constant proponent of the light-is-right school, was not stoked that we were hauling an extra ledge all the way up El Cap.  I was confused as to why Alex even owned a ledge, let alone two, seeing as he seems to only spend a few hours climbing even the biggest of big walls.  Fitz thought it was pretty funny and told Mikey, who's maybe 5'5", that it was his own personal midget ledge for the trip.  

Later that night as we lay in the darkness I heard the sky rip open above us, a loud tearing sound that grew louder by the second.  Holy shit, I thought. Massive rockfall.  We are going to die.  "Jumpers!" Mikey exclaimed, as two black shapes flew past our camp.  I watched with fascination as a dark parachute blossomed behind each figure and made tight circles down to a beach on the Merced river far below.  Awesome.

The camera crew gets a rest in the Gray Circle | Mikey Schaefer Photo

For the next three days the Gimp Monkeys made steady, if slow, progress up the route and for the most part everything went down without a hitch.  It was pretty inspiring to watch Pete lead A3 with one arm and to see Craig bust out a knee-bar with his prosthetic on the classic "Nipple" pitch.  I got to learn the finer points of ledge life, including how to best poop while balancing on a nylon platform perched 1500' off the ground with your friends only a few feet away.  

Our last day we woke up three pitches from the top and it was my job to get us there.  The first pitch featured some 5.9 liebacks off the belay to reach an 80ft off-width crack that varied from 4-5" wide for its entire length.  I think it goes free at 5.10d, but after three days on the wall and with a full aid rack on my shoulders I was not about to free climb this beast.  The problem was, we only had a two big cams on our rack -- both old #4 BD Camalots -- so I'd have to leapfrog them both to aid up the crack.  

At the bottom everything was fine, the cams were bomber and I cruised up the C1 crack.  But as I got higher the crack slowly widened and the placements became frightening umbrellas.  I was very aware that I had no gear for a long ways below those umbrellas.  I yelled down to Mikey, asking him why hadn't we brought along a #5?  He assured me that BD didn't even make #5 cams when he had first climbed Zodiac -- when he was 17! -- and that I would be just fine.  100 feet above him I wasn't so sure, but I had no choice but to continue.  

The process was simple, if terrifying -- place a cam, watch it slide around awkwardly and open too far, get scared, take the cam out, place it again, watch it umbrella outward, pray that the piece I was standing on didn't blow, accept the umbrella, step up gingerly onto the piece, breathe a sigh of relief, watch the cam suddenly shift, shit my pants, pray to a God I don't believe in, step higher onto the piece, slump onto my fifi, take out the lower cam, pray again that the piece I was standing on wouldn't blow, place the next cam, repeat. Over and over. 

At the very top of the wide section I swear it got ever so slightly wider and I really started to sweat.  I tried to calmly remind myself that this was just C1 -- or, at least it would be if you had a #5 or two -- but I couldn't ignore the A5 fall potential.  I was standing on questionable pieces 80ft above my last pro.  If I fell here, or if a piece slipped, I'd take a 200ft whipper.  

I made another umbrella'd placement, stepped up, and looked over to see a perfect hand crack in an overlap right next to my face.  Ohmyfuckinggodyesyesyes! I sank a bomber #2, made a few more moves out a small roof and shouted down, "Off belay!"

After that puckerfest it was no problem to link the last two pitches to the top, and I let out a huge holler as I mantled over the lip and onto flat ground above.  A few hours later I stumbled exhausted into a dark El Cap meadow.  A blanket of bright stars covered the silent valley.  I looked up at El Cap, not quite sure whether or not we had really just climbed it.  A trio of headlamps shone high on Zodiac -- the Gimp Monkeys settling in for their last night on the wall -- and I yelled up the loudest monkey call I could muster.  

The following day I jugged back up the East Ledges to help film the Gimp Monkeys as they topped out the route.  Pete led the last pitch in style and gladly accepted one of the cold beers I had hiked up from the valley floor.  A few minutes later they all stood on top, Jarem and Craig a little shaky on their prosthetics after not having stood on flat ground for five days.  Their overwhelming joy at finishing such a long journey -- for Craig a dream more than two years in the making -- pushed aside all exhaustion.  They sat on top laughing like little kids, giddy with excitement, and soon all of us -- me, Fitz, Mikey, and others who had come to help out -- were laughing with them.  

Craig examines the next pitch while Jarem jugs below | Mikey Schaefer Photo

Climbing with Craig, Pete, and Jarem was one of the most inspiring things I have ever been a part of.  Those guys truly are amazing, and I mean that literally.  I am amazed whenever I am with them.  I am amazed not because of the things they do -- though big wall climbing without a limb is SUPER impressive -- but because of they attitude with which they approach it.  They each have every reason to think, "Oh, I'm disabled, I'm hurt, I can't do that," but they flat out refuse to accept excuses.  As Pete told me, "I simply refuse to believe that my disability is a limitation.  Having one arm is a pretty minor inconvenience, really, and that's just my perception. Attitude is everything.  The right attitude and one arm will beat the wrong attitude and two arms, every time."   

That is something I have carried with me all summer, and I hope I always will.  We are all capable of so much more than we ever believe possible, and you can either make excuses for why you can't do this or can't accomplish that, or you can go out and try to do it.  Maybe you'll fail.  It's possible.  But maybe you'll succeed, and at the end of the day I think we'd all rather know that we tried and failed than regret never trying in the first place.  Maybe that sounds cliche or cheesy.  But I think it's something else -- true.  

The first of many loads down | Mikey Schaefer Photo
After the Captain, the Gimp Monkeys and Fitz headed out, but I decided to take the opportunity of being in Yosemite to do a little more climbing.  My good friend and underground crusher John Roark was around for awhile and we paired up for a couple of awesome routes.  

First up was the ultra-classic Freeblast, the first 10 pitches of the Salathe Wall/Freerider on El Cap.  The climb offers hundreds of feet of awesome cracks and cryptic slab, and while I fell a couple times on the crux slabs, John sent in proud onsight fashion.  Despite getting slowed down by a Korean team that was aiding the route we thoroughly enjoyed both the climbing and the extra Jolly Ranchers that I had brought along.

Nearing the top of Freeblast, still nowhere near the top of the Captain | John Roark Photo

After Freeblast we gave ourselves a nice 20hr break before beginning the hike up to our main objective: Half Dome.

Hiking up to the base of Half Dome | John Roark Photo

Ever since my first trip to Yosemite in the spring of 2010 I've wanted to climb the imposing NW Face of this iconic granite monolith.  It is rightfully one of the most beautiful rock formations in the world and it is steeped in climbing history.  From the valley floor it just seems so improbable that one could free climb up the sheer face, and as I hiked up the "Death Slabs" approach I was extremely excited but also a little nervous.  Our plan was to bivy at the base of the route and then climb the entire 2,000ft face in a single day.  I was pretty confident in our abilities, but I also knew that this would be one of the biggest technical climbs I had ever set out to accomplish.  Sleep did not come easy.

Sunset on Half Dome | John Roark Photo

Our alarm went off at 4:30am, I pounded some oatmeal and coffee at 5:00, and we started climbing at 5:30.  The plan was for the leader to free/aid climb as quickly as possible, short-fixing along the way so that the second could jug up the rope with our small daypack.  John crushed his first block and I arrived at the top of Pitch 9 a mere three hours after we left the ground.  Awesome.  John handed me the rack, we switched shoes, and I was off.  After a couple botched attempts at the Robbins Traverse I figured out the moves and quickly got into a groove, constantly spurred on by John's encouraging mantra: "You gotta CHARGE bro!"

The climbing on the route is really pretty stellar and we continued to make good time up through the chimneys, even after a short miscommunication when I tried to link three pitches into one.  At one point I found myself cruising up a fantastic, overhanging 5.7 chimney, looking down between my legs at the 1000+ feet of air beneath me, and I couldn't help but shout for the pure joy of it.

This was my first time ever short-fixing on a route and it was a damn fun way to climb.  Near the end of my first block I found myself jamming up a splitter 5.9 hand crack and looked left to see John swinging into a lower-out and jugging up at warp speed.  Here we were, thousands of feet above the valley below, climbing simultaneously up perfect granite, a couple monkeys just having fun.  I couldn't help but think, "This is so fucking COOL!"
Heading into the chimneys | John Roark Photo

Soaring with the birds 4500ft above the valley floor | John Roark Photo
We stopped for a short lunch break on Big Sandy ledge, only five or six pitches from the top.  By now we knew that we were easily going to send in a day, and we were able to soak in the incredible views of Yosemite Valley to the west and the Tuolumne high country to the east.  We could even hear tourists a few hundred feet above, looking over the edge and shouting, "Hey!  Look, there's CLIMBERS down there!" We both smiled.

John took the lead again and gave some more proud onsight efforts on the Zig-Zags, coming pretty close to sending.  I got to lead the famous "Thank God Ledge" pitch, a memorable experience if there ever is one, and then headed off on the last aid pitch of the route.  I was moving perhaps a little too quickly and as I stepped up onto a small offset Alien I heard a loud "PING" and went flying down and right, bouncing along the wall and spinning around to look at the valley 4500ft below as John caught my fall.  "YEAH MAN, THAT WAS SICK!" John yelled.  I pulled back up, figured out the move, and was soon mantleling the summit blocks until I had nowhere else to go.  I fixed the rope for John, stumbled to a safe stance, and shook off my harness.  He took off his own harness 12.5 hours after we left the ground.  

From the summit I looked west to where I could just make out the shadow of El Capitan down in the valley.  I was so incredibly stoked to have climbed the two biggest walls in the Valley in less than a week.  We hiked down the Cables route on the backside of Half Dome - seriously more dangerous and scary than ANY of the climbing we had just done - and made it back down to the valley just in time to catch the absolute last shuttle of the night, saving ourselves an extra two mile walk back to Camp 4.

Summit Psyche!
I spent most of the next day voraciously consuming the leftover food of fattened tourists at the Lodge Cafeteria.  My body was pretty beat from Zodiac, Freeblast, and Half Dome, and though I wanted nothing more than to rest for days on end I knew that I had one more big climb to do.  My great friend Keith Share had called me earlier in the week, letting me know that he'd be in the valley that weekend and wondering if I'd want to go climb the Steck-Salathe on Saturday.  I had gotten off El Cap on Sunday. We had climbed Freeblast on Tuesday.  Half Dome on Thursday.  Today was Friday. The Steck-Salathe?  Tomorrow? 


The Steck-Salathe, an impressive route that soars up a brooding formation known as The Sentinel, is widely known as one of the most classic, and most burly, routes in Yosemite.  Even though it "goes" at a modest-sounding 5.10b, almost every one of its 16 pitches involves strenuous off-width climbing.  Now, normally I like myself a little OW, but the thought of putting my body through such a wringer when I was already so wrecked sounded terrible.  And yet, I couldn't just say "No" when one of my favorite partners was asking me to go climb one of the most classic routes in Yosemite.

#yolo. Right?

The Sentinel

And so I found myself at the base of the route at 8:00am the next morning.  I'll spare the ugly details, but suffice to say that I found out firsthand what it truly means to "bonk" on a climb.  After two weeks of throwing my body against Yosemite's grand walls I had nothing left to give.  Everything was actually quite enjoyable until the last four pitches, but the famous squeeze chimneys became a horrendous reenactment of my birth, 24 years after the original.  I struggled upward, screaming, sliding against the wickedly smooth walls.  By the last pitch I had to take on a section that I knew I should be able to climb easily, but just didn't have any gas left to send.  I have NEVER been so thoroughly thrashed by a piece of stone.  We topped out in the dark, got lost in the descent gully, and finally threw our gear into the trunk of Keith's car 21 hours after the day had begun.  

A day later I loaded my gear onto a bus headed out of Yosemite, eased my aching body into a window seat, and took one last long look at El Cap as we motored west toward Merced.  As I stared at The Heart bathed in golden light I wished I could have done a few more routes, maybe gone a little bigger.  I've felt this way every time I've ever left Yosemite, and probably always will.  But I couldn't be too unhappy -- El Cap, Half Dome, and The Sentinel, all in a couple weeks? Not bad for a business trip.

Part II - Mt. Stuart

In mid-July a couple good friends from Boston came out to Seattle to do some good ol' fashioned Cascade mountaineerin'.  I unfortunately couldn't join them for their first climb, the Ptarmigan Ridge on Mt. Rainier, but I was all-hands-on-deck for their second objective: the complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, car to car, in a day.

Despite the fact that I grew up in Seattle and now spend most all of my time either climbing, filming climbing, or editing climbing films, I had actually done very little climbing in Washington before this summer.  I didn't learn to climb until I went to college back in Boston and I'd rarely been home for any real length of time in the past five years.  And so it was that I still hadn't climbed Mt. Stuart, one of the true gems of the entire Cascade Range.  

Man, I had no idea what I was missing!

The North Ridge of Mt. Stuart takes the center rib of rock

We rumbled into Leavenworth on a blistering hot July evening - 95 degrees at 7pm - and took refuge inside a local pizza shop.  A couple hours and a few slices later I mentioned to the guys, "Hey, we should probably go get this car shuttle thing set up so we aren't up all night."  We wanted to approach the 3000' North Ridge from the north side, but we didn't want to have to circle all the way around the mountain at the end of the day, so our genius plan was to drop off a second car at a trailhead on the backside of Stuart.  What we failed to realize is just how far away that trailhead actually was.  I thought it was about a 15min drive from Leavenworth.  After looking at a map we realized it was more like 50min away.  Shit.  Zach and Reggie volunteered to go drop off the car while JLo and I packed all the gear. In the end I didn't get to sleep until after midnight, and our 1:45 alarm came way too soon.

I had heard a lot of differing reports on what it would be like to climb the North Ridge in a day -- some people told me it was cruiser, others mentioned unplanned bivouacs high on the route.  I really didn't know what to expect, I just knew that we needed to move fast.  Unfortunately our start was the opposite of fast.  JLo and Reggie climbed ahead of Zach and I, and as JLo followed the first pitch he dropped his headlamp down the cliff.  Zach and I had scrambled partway up the first pitch already, and Zach had to lower down to get the headlamp.  A few minutes later, as I squeezed through the wide crack on pitch one the crack ripped my sunglasses off my neck, sending them skittering down the cliff below.  Once again Zach  rigged a rudimentary rappel and went down to retrieve my glasses.  

Knowing we needed to move a LOT faster, I kicked into high gear and sped up the following two pitches as quick as I could.  After the third pitch we began to simul-climb and I raced up the ridge, mantleling blocks and pulling moves like a man possessed.  The climbing was extremely enjoyable -- lots of 4th and low 5th with a couple harder moves every now and then -- and we covered ground quickly.  By 10:30am we were more than halfway up the route and I knew we would have no trouble climbing it in a day.  We continued to simul-climb until we hit the Great Gendarme, a three pitch rock tower high on the route, where we enjoyed fantastic crack climbing in a ridiculous position thousands of feet above the glacier below.  Zach and I tagged the summit at 3pm and we were both pretty psyched at how awesome the route had been.

Myself and Zach on the summit of Mt. Stuart

JLo and Reggie joined us on top some time later, and we all began the long descent down the Cascadian Coulouir.  Without axes we engaged in some shenanigans to get past an icy snowfield, and then enjoyed a couple thousand feet of exciting glissades.  None of us were quite sure how far we had to hike to the trailhead, and at one point as we slogged up Longs Pass in fading light Zach mentioned that he thought we should maybe just open bivy and continue in the morning.  With nothing more than a light down jacket I was adamantly opposed to such an option, and I rallied the troops into a Normandy-like siege of the final snowfield up and over the pass.  A few miles later we reached the trailhead just before needing to pull out our headlamps.

Still psyched after 18hrs on the move | Jeff Longcor Photo

After 19hrs on the go we were all incredibly tired, but we still had to drive back to Leavenworth.  Ugh. We arrived back at our first car at midnight, 22hrs after our day had begun.  We piled out of my van, congratulated each other on such an awesome day in the mountains, and promptly proceeded to Pass. The Fuck. Out.

Part III - Washington Pass aka "Alpine Casual"

I spent much of July in Seattle editing a couple new films, and as a result my climbing mainly consisted of pulling plastic at the Seattle Bouldering Project or morning trips to the UW wall on my way to work.  I did manage to get out to Index a couple of times and even did a little sport climbing (gasp!) at Exit 32, but by the end of the month I needed another adventure in the mountains.  I called up the always-psyched Matt Van Biene, recently returned from a three week expedition to Alaska's Ruth Gorge, and asked him if he wanted to head to Washington Pass for the weekend.  He was down like a clown and we planned to meet in Mazama on Friday night.

I originally met Matt in Indian Creek last fall and we've since become great friends and partners in both climbing and business.  Matt is an awesome photographer/videographer - check out his website here - and we've teamed up this year on multiple videos everywhere from Ouray, to Indian Creek, to our home state of Washington.  He also crushes the stone and knows how to Get It Done in the mountains.  Since I had never been up to Washington Pass, he'd be the perfect tour guide.

Matt doesn't take himself too seriously
Over pizza in Winthrop we discussed our plans for the weekend.  Matt suggested a linkup of a couple different routes on the North and South Early Winter Spires for Saturday, and I asked how early we should set the alarm.  5:00?  6:00?  To me, climbing 15+ pitches in the apine after a couple mile approach usually means getting up before the roosters.  Matt started laughing, and I was worried I had seriously underestimated our objectives.  Did we need to get up even earlier?  

"Dude," he said, "this is Washington Pass.  Alpine Casual."

Those words seem like they could never co-exist, but thanks to a couple state politicians in the 1960s who decided Washington should build a highway through the North Cascades, they do.  Highway 20 carves through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Lower 48, and right below the Liberty Bell group of spires at Washington Pass it makes a tight hairpin turn, providing roadside access to some of the best alpine climbing in the country.  

After an enjoyable 7:30 wakeup and lethargic breakfast at the Mazama store we finally motored up to the Pass around 9:00.  We ambled up the approach trail, the trees slowly thinning as we entered an alpine world of rock and snow.  The views were spectacular -- a theme for the entire weekend -- and we were quickly racking up under our first route, the Northwest Corners (5.9+) on North Early Winter Spire.  Given the multitude of snow-white mountain goats running around the base of the cliff we substituted our typical monkey calls for goats calls, and we let loose with a cacophony of bleating as we scrambled up the spire.  We linked the route in four pitches and were surprised to hit the summit only an hour or so after starting.  This is a super fun and moderate climb that should be on anyone's to-do list up at the Pass.  

Unknown climbers near the summit of South Early Winter Spire
After a quick rappel down the east side we hiked back over to our second objective, the West Face (5.11a?) of North Early Winter Spire.  This fantastic route shares the first two pitches of the Northwest Corners before veering right onto the west face proper.  Steep splitter cracks in clean white granite typify this classic line.  The crux pitch climbs a striking, thin finger crack that shoots straight up a blank face.  These are some of my favorite climbs -- when the line can't be more obvious and there are no alternatives.  After a few technical moves down low and some painfully tight tips locks the crack opens up into a pleasant finger crack and we sounded off with more joyful goat bleats as we climbed higher and higher.  

When we got to the summit of North Early Winter for the second time that day we turned around to see paragliders soaring in circles around the peaks.  Wow!  What an awesomely unexpected sight!  For a few minutes our heads filled with fantasies of gliding into remote alpine climbs before we realized it was probably a bad idea.  We finished off the first day with a solo lap up the Southeast Arete on South Early Winter Spire, and then sprinted down the trail to the cold beers we had stashed in the creek that morning.  Nothing beats the alpine beer stash.  

Paragliders flying high over Washington Pass

The next morning we got an equally relaxed start before hiking up to attempt The Hitchiker (5.11) on South Early Winter Spire.  This route is a relatively recent addition to the Pass and links corners and face features for 900ft up the steep east face of the spire.  I haven't climbed many of Bryan Burdo's routes, but I gotta say, he found a winner with this one.  The stone quality is remarkable, every pitch is 5.10 or 5.11, and almost all of them end at comfy belay ledges.  Like any climber, I suppose, I'd like to think that I'm halfway decent at scrambling up heaps of stone.  Ultimately though, it's definitely not everyday that I onsight multiple pitches of 5.11, so I was pretty stoked when Matt and I reached the summit with a no-falls ascent under our belts.   Maybe the route is a little soft for the grade, but it is certainly a fun day in the mountains.  

Matt cruising through the first 5.11 traverse on The Hitchhiker

I have to admit, for the past few years I've always considered Washington a place with fantastic natural beauty but not that much good climbing.  Compared to the other amazing places I've had a chance to climb -- Yosemite, Smith Rock, Indian Creek, Rocky Mountain National Park, the High Sierra -- well, it frankly just didn't seem to compare.  But when I stood atop The Hitchhiker and looked out upon the veritable sea of peaks that are the North Cascades, at a lifetime's worth of climbing that I have only begun to explore, I finally realized just how much this place has to offer and how stoked I am to explore it.  

Matt pulling the last moves of the final 5.11 pitch on The Hitchhiker
Matt soaking in the view atop South Early Winter Spire

Part IV - Oh Canada!

August was a pretty crazy month.  I spent the first two weeks editing like crazy to finish a new film and send it off to several film festivals.  Many, many hours were spent in front of a computer and many, many cups of coffee were consumed.  After weeks in the edit cave I didn't just want some time off, I needed it.  As luck would have it, my buddy Keith Share had just begun a month's stay up in Squamish, so I packed my bags and made the three hour journey north with the intention to do nothing but climb for an entire week.  

Keith learning how to climb horizontal roof off-widths

And climb we did.  Normally I'd take a rest day on a trip longer than three or four days, but I was so eager to get out and explore Squamish -- a place I had never been before -- that I got in some sort of climbing every one of the seven days I was there.    Overhanging sport climbs, short and powerful boulders, long trad routes, we did it all.  I didn't accomplish anything groundbreaking on this trip, and got my ass handed to me on some of the boulders, but it was a lot of fun and a good learning experience to climb some styles that I don't normally try.  

Some of the highlights for me were High Plains Drifter (5.11c) and the fantastic crack climbs at Nightmare Rock in Murrin Park, including Hypertension (5.11a), Claim Jumper (5.11d) and Sentry Box (5.12a).  There is so much rock around Squamish it's kind of hard to believe, and I know I'll be making some more trips up there in the future. 

Keith finishing up the first pitch of High Plains Drifter

Part V - First Ascent

Easily one of the coolest things I did all summer was put up my first first ascent.  In August, Fitz invited me to join him and his friend, Dave Burdick, on a mission to clean a new route that Dave had been working on up in Darrington, WA.  Dave's the type of guy who makes weekend trips from Seattle to the Bugaboos or the Alaska Range, and has numerous proud FAs in the mountains under his belt, so I knew the line was going to be good.

Dave's proposed route was located on the back side of Exfoliation Dome, and the easiest way to approach the route was actually to climb a 1500' 5.9 up the front side and then rap down the back, cleaning as we went.  We spent the afternoon installing rap anchors, digging dirt and roots out of cracks, scrubbing lichen and moss from holds, and generally covering ourselves in as much dust and filth as possible.  The west side of the Cascades does not give up new lines without a fight.

As we rapped down the face at the end of the day we realized that the route had the potential to be pretty stellar.  Splitter cracks, steep dihedrals, and crucial face holds all connected into a quality 6-pitch line that probably wouldn't be harder than 5.11.  Sick! Psyche was high, and even a classic Cascades bushwhack back down to the car couldn't dampen our spirits.

A few weeks later I returned to the route with Dave and our friend Zac West.  Zac is solid in the mountains, and even though he was battling a stomach bug he was fired up for the FA. Fitz unfortunately couldn't accompany us because he had broken his ankle after a 60' whipper on Mt. Baring the week before.  Gnarly.

I won't go into full detail here, because Dave has a good write-up already over at CascadeClimbers, but the long and short of it is that we sent, the route was awesome, and we were psyched.  We named the route Snake Charmer to go with the wall's "Witch Doctor" theme.  Check out a few photos below, as well as the route topo here.

Myself on the first pitch of Snake Charmer | Zac West Photo
Zac following awesome liebacks on P3, 5.10
The crux (5.11-) is an awesome leaning seam, steeper than it appears in this photo

A mere week after the first ascent we learned that a massive rockfall swept the face to the left of our route.  Luckily it appears to have avoided the route entirely, though Exfoliation Dome is certainly living up to its name.  Since we established this route in early September it has already seen a couple of repeats, and I'm hopeful that it will get the attention it deserves and turn into a moderate multi-pitch classic only a short drive from Seattle.

Part VI - North Cascades

One of the great joys in my life is the fact that my younger brother, Ian, is also one of my best friends in this world.  After a few typical years of mutual loathing and despise as teenagers, we reconciled our differences, first through music and then through our love of the outdoors.  We've had the opportunity to go on adventures everywhere from Washington's Olympic and Cascades mountains, to the canyon country of the desert southwest, even all the way down to the rugged peaks of Patagonia.  We try to get out for at least one long hike together every year and this summer we planned a trip to the North Cascades.

There's not much to say about this trip except that it was a rejuvenating and fantastic week in the mountains.  While climbing has consumed much of my time outdoors in recent years, I still love the chance to just hike through these massive valleys and ridges.  Often on a long climb I have to focus much of my attention and energy on the route itself, and I don't get the chance to enjoy my position and the scenery as much as I might like.  On a long hike, however, you have nothing but time to look around, and on this trip I stopped often to appreciate the impressive and majestic beauty of the mountains.

A glimpse of the Picket Range

The view from Copper Ridge
Ian surveying the land from Copper Ridge
Looking west from Copper Ridge
The Chilliwack Valley shrouded in clouds at sunrise

Part VII - Final Days

Since summer decided to stick around well into September I had the chance to get in a couple final adventures after my hike in the North Cascades.  Work was slow one week, so Matt Van Biene and I headed out to Index to spend a couple days climbing up at the Upper Town Wall.  

This dark granite cliff looms above the small town of Index, WA, and is one of the least-known stellar climbing areas in the country.  That's probably because the climbing season can be pretty short -- in the winter it's raining and you can't climb, in the spring it's still raining and you can't climb, in the summer it's sunny but the Upper Wall is usually still seeping from all the rain that fell in the spring so you can't climb, and in the fall it often starts raining again before you get a chance to climb.  

As such, we were not about to let the dry conditions and cooler temps of late September simply pass us by.  Our first morning we hiked up and hopped on the Davis-Holland to Lovin' Arms (5.10c), a route touted as perhaps the best multi-pitch 5.10 in the entire state of Washington.  Neither of us had climbed it before and we wondered whether it would live up to the hype.  

Within the first 10 feet the climbing was really good -- perfect finger locks and hand jams in a small corner -- and as I moved higher I found more great 5.10 climbing up a long corner system that features great jams and liebacking.  After I linked the first two pitches Matt took over, pulling past a small roof and into hidden terrain above.  He yelled down that the climbing was awesome, and as I followed I saw why -- interesting and techy stemming past small gear, requiring just enough concentration to make the moves thoroughly enjoyable.  

At the top of Pitch 3 we knew there were a couple of different options, but weren't really sure which was best.  I saw a line of shiny bolts heading up a face to the right and figured they looked better than the dark, dirty chimney feature that was directly above us.  About 40' off the belay I found myself brushing dirt off of increasingly smaller edges and no chalk in sight as I worked up the technical face -- strange, I thought, considering this is supposed to be one of the most traveled routes on the wall.  The steepest part of the pitch required delicate footwork and the right sequence, but the building pump in my arms prevented me from executing either.  Air rushed past my ears as I peeled off the wall.  After a couple more falls and some more brushing I figured out the thin, techy sequence and finished it off to the chains, though not without a little fight to get through unexpectedly reachy moves below the anchor.  

"Where the hell are we?" asked Matt as he came up to the belay.  "Not sure," I said, "but I think we're off-route."  We seemed to be smack in the middle of a large face without any obvious ways out.  A thin crack sliced up the wall above us, but it looked pretty dirty and untraveled.  Neither of us were eager to climb it.  Far to the left I saw a bolt, clean rock, and some chalk.  "I think that's the line over there."  

Between us and "there" was an incipient horizontal seam that looked like it might go.  Who knows if anyone had ever climbed it, but Matt pulled through it in style and got us back onto the upper pitches of Lovin' Arms.  Later we would find out that we had accidentally embarked onto a separate route, Senseless Thoughts of Paranoia (5.11c), which is definitely worth doing and should see more traffic than it does.  Supposedly the thin crack above the belay is about as hard as the first pitch of Japanese Gardens.  

As I followed the last 15-20 feet of the final headwall I noticed a lot of slack in the rope and when I topped out I didn't see Matt anywhere.  Confused, I looked around and heard his voice from behind a tree, "Don't look over here, I'm taking a shit." Sure enough, he was, but he had engineered a redirect to keep me on belay even after he took off his harness.  Safety first, kids.    

After a couple rappels and a quick snack we walked along the wall to the base of Heaven's Gate (5.11a), another supposed classic that neither of us had climbed.   The route is unique in a classic Index sort of way in that the first pitch (.10c) is both the easiest and possibly the hardest on the entire climb.  It tackles an overhanging chimney before breaking right into a series of sustained lieback features.  Surprisingly physical for .10c, but hey, it's Index.

After the first pitch the character of the route changes completely, finishing with three pitches of technical face climbing up immaculate edges and juggy overhangs.  At one point I yelled to Matt, "Dude, this thing climbs like it was set in a gym.  It's amazing!"  He laughed and yelled back, "No man, no gym route could even begin to touch this thing!"  This isn't a climb that I would do again -- it is a climb that I will do again.  

I had started to feel some tendonitis flaring up in my elbows so the next morning we chose to warm up on the first two pitches of Beat Box, supposedly both 5.10.  It didn't look like anyone had been on the route in awhile, and I was surprised to hear Matt give a couple grunts as he climbed the first pitch.  I was even more surprised when I followed the pitch -- some of the moves were pretty thin and hard, and I ended up falling a couple times.  It honestly felt more like technical 5.11- than 5.10.  Whatever.  

I took off on the second pitch, climbing up an awesome expanding flake and past a tricky transition into another flake/crack.  Some more amazing big moves and reaches had me shouting down to Matt, "Holy shit that move was so cool!"  The pitch finished with a balancey traverse left and some final difficult moves up a steep wall.  Really great climbing, but harder than I had expected -- we thought both pitches were just as hard as the 5.11 pitches on Heaven's Gate -- and hard enough that my elbows ached as I belayed Matt up.  

I was done face climbing for the day, so Matt suggested an off-width down the way as an alternative.  I wasn't completely sure that 5.11 off-width was the same as taking it easy, but at least it was a crack, right?  Wrong.  The climb started off easy enough, but soon turned into overhanging #5's and #6's.  I thrutched up the wide slot, struggling for every inch gained.  Matt said this thing was 5.11a?  Maybe, but it definitely didn't feel like it.  After climbing at Index so much this summer I have no idea what grades even mean anymore.  The top was ridiculously physical and I had to take more times than I'd like to admit.  Finally I reached the anchor, my arms raw and my elbow in flames.  After that I was done -- bummed about my arm but psyched to have enjoyed a couple awesome days outside, in the sun, on the rock, loving life. 

The next week I ventured out for a solo run up the West Ridge of Mt. Stuart.  A predawn start, beautiful alpine sunrise, magnificent views, empty summit -- hard to beat for a casual day in the hills, and a perfect end to an awesome summer.  

Self-portrait on the West Ridge of Stuart

1 comment:

Jarem Frye said...

Awesome summer Austin! You're an animal man!!!