Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Poser

Yours truly heads up on an interesting little line at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, New Hampshire. It's easy to feel like an ice stud when the "route" is only 30 feet long. Fun and fragile climbing. Photo and no-handed belay by David Rosenstein.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Denali Quota: No News and Good News

Mainstream media jumped on the "news" that Denali National Park has established a cap of 1,500 on climbing permits for Mt. McKinley in its new Backcountry Management Plan, finalized this month. Denali has not yet seen 1,500 attempts in a season; the record was 1,340 last year, about 20 percent above the average for the 1990s. But if 2,000 climbers suddenly did apply for permits, the new cap would be a blessing (though administering it likely would be a big headache for the NPS). The West Buttress route, which most mountaineers attempt, is already severely overcrowded during peak season, diminishing the experience for everyone. A cap sucks when it keeps you off the mountain the year you want to go, but it truly is a case of being the greatest good for the greatest number.

Incidentally, the media have reported that one justification for the cap is safety. This may indeed have been part of the NPS rationale, but statistics don't back it up. The American Alpine Club last year produced a fascinating report on perception vs. reality in the risks and costs of mountaineering, and one section showed that while the number of attempts on Denali grew from an annual average of 751 in the 1980s to 1,240 in the first five years of this decade, the ratio of fatalities per attempt has fallen 93 percent in the same period. Along with better gear and training, the NPS' educational efforts, and better-trained and equipped rescue services, the AAC report attributes the decline in fatalities to more people on the popular routes. More clmbers in the area generally equals quicker rescue.

Thanks to dogged work by the AAC, Denali's final management plan is largely positive for climbers. Among other things, it caps guided climbers at 25 percent of the total on Denali, toughens human-waste standards so North America's highest peak will stay relatively clean (a big problem as warmer springs melt back glaciers, exposing god knows what), and establishes a climbing-only zone in the Little Switzerland area of the park to limit glacier landings for cruise-ship tourists.

Read the Denali Backcountry Mangement Plan here.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

It Could Happen to You...

Rob Raker recently told me a funny story. Annette Bunge, Rob's wife and the mistress of Morrison bouldering, was touring a New York crag with Russ Clune, and Russ was pointing out the routes and spraying beta about cruxes. He wanted to show her a key hold well off the ground, so he picked up a rock and lobbed it up toward the route. The stone bounced off the wall, plunged toward earth, and hit Annette square in the face just as she looked up, breaking her nose. Doh!

OK, the story seemed funnier when Rob told it....

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Yellowstone Day Three: Wolves

In 1995 and 1996, 31 gray wolves were realeased into the Yellowstone ecosystem. Ten years later, there are more than 250 wolves living in the Yellowstone area in around 30 packs, and more than 900 in the northern Rockies. In early February the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service gave notice that it intends to remove the northern Rockies wolves from the endangered and threatened species list, subject to Wyoming developing an acceptable management plan for wolves (as Idaho and Montana already have done). Chris and I had dreamed of seeing a wolf in Yellowstone, but we were under the impression that most sightings occurred in the northeastern part of the park, in the Lamar Valley. But now there are wolf packs throughout the park, as seen in this 2005 map from the park's web site. And when we arrived at Old Faithful, we learned that wolves had been spotted there recently, hunting for elk that gather in they geyser basins.

On Day Three of our trip, we skied to Biscuit Basin and back on a cold day that started bright and turned blustery and gray. During our ski the day before, we hadn't seen a single mammal, so we were on the alert in the more promising terrain around the hot springs, where warm snow keeps the snow to a minimum, exposing grass for easy grazing. And sure enough, bison were everywhere. We were sitting in the trail eating lunch when this fellow appeared over the hill and marched right down the trail; we scrambled to get out of the way, and the bison didn't even glance at us as it marched over our lunch spot.

Less than a mile from Old Faithful, we saw our first wolf tracks. A straight line of saucer-sized paw prints—unmistakeable. The wolf had been walking along the boardwalk through the geyser basin and then jumped down to the snow. A few minutes later, we heard the wolves for the first time: low, almost moaning sounds, not quite a howl, definitely not the yips of coyotes. Soon we heard two separate groups on the ridge to our east. It seemed quite obvious that they were communicating.

We kept a sharp eye now, but we were not rewarded. (Well, other than seeing the geyser basins' other astounding sights and wildlife.) That night we went to a lecture by Dr. James Halfpenny, a renowned tracker and naturalist, about the wolf reintroduction project. Wolves, he said, live an average of only about 4.5 years in the wild; an 8-year-old is an old wolf. More than half the wolf deaths come at human hands (mostly those that wander outside protected areas and attack livestock), and one of the big fears is that wolves inside the park will become habituated to humans, like the black bears in Yosemite, leading to destructive encounters in which the wolves inevitably will be the losers. (The wolf program remains hugely controversial; Halfpenny showed us WOLFH8R and DIEWOLF license plates.) We learned that at least two people in the audience had seen wolves that morning, within a few hundred yards of where Chris and I had seen the tracks and heard the animals' calls. We had just missed them.

Next morning, we had to catch the Snow Coach at 9 a.m., but Chris and I gobbled down breakfast and ran back out to the geyser basin for a last look. We we were coming back along the boardwalk when Chris glanced behind her and said, "Look! A wolf!" Nope. It was only a big coyote, trotting across the warm volcanic sand and up onto the boardwalk. But the wolves are out there, and it was a joy to hear them; we are sure we'll be back to see them.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yellowstone: Days One and Two

Unless you're snowmobiling or winter camping, either of which seems stupidly cold when the temps bottom out at -26F as they did last Saturday, your ride to the Old Faithful area in Yellowstone is a Snow Coach. These vintage vehicles look like stretch Super Beetles on treads, with a top speed of around 40 mph. The long journey in drives home Old Faithful's isolation in winter: It's an hour and a half from Jackson to Flagg Ranch, at the south entrance of the park, and then another 42 miles by Snow Coach, or about 3 hours at frequent-stop interpretive-tour speed. In the end, you're more than 80 miles from the nearest big town, surrounded by deep woods with more than five feet of snow on the ground. No wonder wolves and grizzlies thrive here. It's wild wilderness and yet ... the Old Faithful area seems disappointingly busy at first, with a slew of lodges, cabins, employee housing and offices filling the valley and snow machines buzzing everywhere. (The housekeeping staff gets around by snowmobile, for example, with mops and brooms poking off the back.) Still, it was cool to be staying at a hotel (in a cabin, actually) at the center of one of the world's busiest national parks and see no cars. It's far less crowded and the vibe is distinctly different in winter, when people actually ski to breakfast, than it is in summer, when fat tourons are hard-pressed to stagger from the parking lot to the boardwalk to gape at Old Faithful.

We caught the obligatory first sighting of the big geyser going off that evening, but it wasn't till we got away from the road (unplowed, but still a busy road) the following morning that Yellowstone's grandeur sunk in. We hitched a ride on a Snow Coach back up the road to the Continental Divide, and then enjoyed a long, beautiful ski down Spring Creek. It was totally silent once we were in the canyon, and enormous, puffy snow pillows clung to every snag and rock face. Halfway down, we hung a left for Lone Star Geyser on a groomed track (new this year on certain trails in the Old Faithful area) and lunched in a meadow by the geyser. It was a little after 1 p.m., some folks were getting ready to leave, and they told us the last eruption had been at 10:20 that morning, according to the register.The geyser erupts every 3 hours, so it was just about to go off, in other words. These guys had skied all the way out here and were leaving just before the geyser they had come to see was going to erupt. What was their hurry? Were they hankering to get back to the Parcheesi board at the Snow Lodge? Whatever. Lone Star erupted 5 minutes after they left, and we were all alone to see it.

My wife, Chris, and I had come to Yellowstone hoping mostly to see wildlife, but the snow apparently was too deep along this ski tour for the big beasts to get around. As we skied back to Old Faithful along the Firehole River, we saw tracks of small animals everywhere but no critters. Later we'd realize there were bison and other animals all around Old Faithful, but we didn't see a single mammal that day. It was starting to feel like a bust, but that night we signed up for a "Stars and Steam" tour and rode a Snow Coach several miles away to Fountain Paint Pot, and through the frosted windows we saw bison by the bajillion. At Fountain Paint Pot, we walked up the boardwalk under a bedazzling sky. Chris and I were in front when our guide said, "Whoa there, c'mon back." Just ahead, a bison was standing stock-still in a fuming spring or steam jet, trying to stay warm on a subzero night. The huge, silent animal, wreathed in steam, was an otherworldly, almost hallucinatory apparation, like the elephant I once saw walking across mudflats in Thailand. A superb cap to the day. Next up: Wolves!

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Worst Flight Ever?

No, not the worst flight, but it was a doozy. We were headed to Jackson Hole for three days of skiing in Yellowstone. The schedule called for a late, after-work flight, a little after 8 p.m. By the time we got to the airport, we already had the bad news: Flight delayed to 11:55 p.m. Thank you, Newark. It was below zero and snowing in Denver and much worse in Jackson, and we feared the worst—a canceled flight would have screwed our entire trip. We had a snow coach into Old Faithful scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday, and there were no flights open in the morning. Our plane finally arrived from Newark around midnight, and we boarded hopefully. Then the nightmare began. First someone puked in the back, and they had to order up a cleaning crew and replace the seat cushion. Then the pilot sighed—actually sighed, over the PA—and announced that the bags from Newark still hadn't been off-loaded, and ours weren't on yet. I was dozing on and off, and I experienced the weird feeling that they were de-icing the plane right at the terminal gate, and that we backed out, pulled a 180 and accelerated into takeoff right there. It was 2 a.m. and we were in the air—that's all I cared about. We arrived in Jackson Hole just after 3 a.m., waited an ungodly amount of time for our bags (it was 3 a.m., we were the only plane to arrive for hours, for God's sake, what was the hang-up?), and drove into town to get a couple of hours of sleep. Elapsed time from home: 11.5 hours. Driving time to Jackson in winter: approximately 8 to 9 hours. But we got there! Next up: Reports from Yellowstone in winter.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

There be Dragons

Mark Richey—ace alpinist, retired president of the American Alpine Club, business owner, family man, generally level-headed guy—swears he saw a sea monster in January. Richey was climbing an ice pillar high above Lake Willoughby in far northern Vermont with Joe Terravecchia, and both of them saw what Richey described as a 20- to 25-foot humped creature that swam around the unfrozen lake for 45 minutes before diving and disappearing. He said it looked just like, well, Nessie. To those who have seen the Lake Willoughby monster before, he goes by Willie. And apparently he's not the only sea creature plumbing the depths of northern Vermont. Lake Champlain has Champy, and Lake Memphremagog has Gog (or Memphre, depending who you ask). Skeptics abound, of course. Sightings of Vermont's sea serpents have been ascribed to bobbing logs, beavers towing bushes and swimming moose. Cornered later, Terravecchia allowed, "It could have been a sturgeon." But Richey is sticking to his story. Willie's 1,600-acre home lake is 300 feet deep and it's hard to see much of the surface from anywhere except, say, hundreds of feet up an ice climb. Since the combination of well-formed ice climbs and an unfrozen lake surface is quite rare, who knows? Maybe these guys really did see something. Or maybe it was just the whiskey talking.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Farewell to the AAC Board

Last weekend I was in New Hampshire for the American Alpine Club's annual Mountain Fest and my final board meeting as secretary of the club. I can't say I'll miss those board meetings, which are all-day affairs that get increasingly tedious as the afternoon wears on. What I will miss is the fact that those meetings guaranteed I'd see some of my favorite people at least three or four times a year.

When I joined the AAC many years ago, it was more out of a sense of obligation than any expectation I'd get much out of it. I was active in the climbing industry, and it seemed important to support the leading national organization devoted to alpine climbing. I knew I'd get the annual American Alpine Journal and Accidents in North American Mountaineering, and I had a vague idea that my membership entitled me to free rescue insurance. What I didn't know was that my $75 dues pays for much, much more. The AAC suffered an image problem then and now (stodgy, elitist old farts, out of touch with modern climbing), and it has failed to get the word out about all the great things it accomplishes, including pioneering waste-removal methods from Denali to Indian Creek, funding a major revegetation project in the Khumbu region, leading the fight against absurd new regulations in Peru, mailing books and videos to members from its 18,000-volume library free of charge, and offering thousands of dollars of annual grants, covering both cutting-edge alpine climbs and first steps into the world's greatest mountains by climbers under 25. The list goes on and on and on. Last week's board meeting was jammed with action items, from proposals for AAC-run climbers' campgrounds just outside the Gunks and Joshua Tree to a planned summit meeting at which the club will determine priorities for a major new committment to conservation of the mountain environment.

All good stuff, but what really keeps me involved with the AAC is what I mentioned earlier: the friendships. "Fellowship" is a musty, old-fashioned word that perhaps is redolent of the AAC's elitist past, but nonetheless it's what I value most in the club. If I hadn't gotten involved, I might never have become friends and climbing partners with such amazing individuals as Mark Richey, Jim Ansara, Charlie Sassara, John Harlin, Doug Chabot, Bob Craig, Ralph Tingey, Steve Swenson, Mike Lewis, Kim Reynolds, Charley Mace, Nick Clinch and many, many others. Now that I'm off the board, I won't be quite as involved in the AAC as I have been these past six years, but the friendships I've made will enrich the rest of my life. I'd say that's worth 75 bucks a year.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

The Titan: Day Two

We knew it was going to take us all day to finish off the Titan, and fortunately the weather had improved dramatically. We left the car just as it got light around 7:30, reached the base at 8:30, and started up the fixed lines a few minutes later. Steve Levin was first on the sharp end again, and after a few aid moves he entered the dark chimney of the third pitch. "Into the mud zone," he said, smiling grimly. In Alpinist 8, Crusher Bartlett described these next two pitches, the Sundevil chimney, as "what appears to be a large—and leaky—rectum. Once inside this, two pitches of dirty maneuvers—the climbing that dares not speak its name." Actually, they were among the best pitches of the route, combining moderately tricky aid with indescribable free climbing. Steve moved quickly for the first half of the third pitch, manteling and stemming on the curtains of petrified mud that line the center of the chimney. But after he disappeared from sight he slowed dramatically, and soon I heard the ping, ping—or rather, on the Titan's soft rock, the thok, thok—of a piton being driven. We had aspired to climb hammerless, but the days are very short in early February, and we wanted even more to get to the top. In the end we placed three pitons on the route, gently tapping sawed-off angles into existing holes.

Pitch four began with 20 feet of sketchy aid (one pin), leading to 80 feet of extremely weird and enjoyable canyoneering. The climbing consisted of stemming on relatively clean smears on either side of the chimney, while grasping the sides and backs of columns of dried mud for handholds. It was almost like climbing limestone tufas, except I dared not pull very hard or big globs of mud would just shear off in my hands. The pro was ancient bolts, as much as 25 feet apart. (Later I was told that there were probably more bolts buried under mud.) It was only about 5.7 or 5.8, but a fall was unthinkable and yet all too likely.

The fifth pitch looked like real climbing again, with a relatively clean crack up to a roof, crossing a river of frozen mud midstream. Steve found some excitement above the roof, burying a big hook and tying off a mud curtain to pass one tricky section. From the beautiful bivy ledge atop the fifth pitch, it should have been smooth sailing to the top. It was just after 3 p.m., and we felt like we had plenty of time to get to the summit and down before dark. But we had neglected to bring a topo or route description. I remembered a "tension traverse," and it seemed obvious from the belay ledge that this must go right, into another chimney that seemed to lead to the big ledge system just below the summit. When I got to the chimney, I found that, despite two old fixed pins, this line obviously had seen very little traffic. Cakes of mud guarded the holds, and the bulging wide crack threw me off balance. I hung from the upper pin, about 25 feet below an obvious crack that would gain the ledge. I whined and moaned a bit, and below me Steve silently pondered a bivy on the ledge he was standing upon. Finding no alternatives, I started free climbing, burying my hands in the dry mud for purchase and trying to wedge as much of my body as I could into the shallow chimney. Commitment yielded success, and soon I was up on the good ledge below the final easy chimney. (The real route goes left on good rock—5.8 A1. Oh well.) Steve came up and quickly led through to the summit, and minutes later I joined him. I added our names to the register, which is poorly protected and a bit soggy in an open container under a few rocks. (A pity, because it's obviously jammed with history—at least 30 or 40 pages of names.) The view was stunning in the gloaming, but we were not inclined to linger.

With the sun disappearing below the horizon, we started down immediately. Fortunately, rapping the route went extremely smoothly. The sky glowed bright red in the west as we set up the final rappels, and we didn't need the headlamps until we were coiling the ropes on the ground. The walk out, while painful, was infinitely more enjoyable than a night up on the tower would have been if I had to retreat from my off-route excursion on the sixth pitch or if we had hung up a rope during the rappels.

What a route! The Sundevil is not technically extreme, but it requires a full repertoire of desert climbing skills and it offers up just the right level of spice. I'm grateful to Steve for being such a good partner—our first big route together, and one to remember!

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Titan: Day One

Years ago, I bailed near the top of the Titan, the tallest of Utah's Fisher Towers, as darkness loomed with a couple of easy pitches still to go on the Finger of Fate route. So, when Steve Levin said he was interested in doing the Sundevil Chimney on the Titan's steep southern prow, I jumped at another chance to tick the tower. It took a couple of weeks for our schedules and the weather to line up, but on Wednesday night we drove out to Moab. It was pouring rain the next morning as we headed out along the River Road, and the Fishers and the Castleton group were looking Patagonian. But all we had to do was fix a pitch or two, and the bottom of the route is so steep we thought it might be dry. Partway through the approach hike, the sky cleared briefly, lighting up the Sundevil route above us, a foreshortened view that makes it look much shorter than its seven pitches and 800 vertical feet. By the time Steve started up the first pitch, it was cloudy and spitting rain again, but we were sheltered from the wind.

The first pitch is the route's crux aid lead, and we were trying to do the climb hammerless, so Steve had some interesting moves off ball nuts, RPs and Aliens in pin scars, plus a few hook moves.The pitch is steep but generally very clean. Even so, it's hard to imagine Stevie Haston free climbing this, as he did in 2002, at 5.13a. And this is one of the route's cleanest pitches. Higher up, the climbing is much grungier, and many of the free moves must require stacking fingers in pin scars. We agreed that while Haston showed enormous skill and tenacity in freeing the climb, it will never be classic as a free climb. It just doesn't look like much fun—definitely not one of those routes that makes me think, "I wish I could climb 5.13 so I could do this!"

As Steve pulled on his big parka for frigid belay duty at the hanging stance, I sorted the rack and checked out the second pitch. After the marathon first lead, we were hoping to move a little quicker, and fortunately the crack opens up and allows easy, clean aid climbing. Nothing tricky here: Step high in the aiders, hand jam or finger stack for balance, reach high and plug a cam or big nut for the next move. Before long I was at the second belay, admiring the assortment of fixed gear and peering around the corner into the muddy chimneys that make up the next two pitches and give the route much of its great character. We fixed the lead rope, swung back to the first belay, and slid down to the ground, happy to have done what we needed on a crappy weather day. It seemed like we had made great progress, but when we walked back from the tower to rejoin the trail we could see that our ropes extended barely a third of the way up the prow. Tomorrow would have to be a big day!

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