Thursday, August 31, 2006

24 Hours of Climbing

You like to climb all day, but how many routes would you climb if you continued ALL day? As in 24 hours. That's the question that will be answered at the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a novel competition in Arkansas. Starting at noon on September 16, teams of two climbers will attempt to lead as many routes as possible in 24 hours on the 300-plus sandstone routes of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. More points for harder routes within your ability category, and bonuses for traditional leads. As with the legendary 24-hour skiing events, strategy may count as much as strength, with the added factor that sleep-deprived climbing is a hell of a lot more dangerous. Sounds interesting!

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Owen-Grand Link-Up: Day 2

Bob Culp, the longtime Colorado climber, guide, and owner of the Boulder Mountaineer shop, once told me about a partner/client that he particularly favored—not for the guy’s talent on steep rock or ice, but for his ability to move fast on third- and fourth-class terrain. That’s where great climbers really make time in the mountains, and Dave and I would face a lot of that terrain on Day 2 of our Owen-Grand traverse. We started at dawn on the upper half of the Serendipity Arête, failing to find the fourth-class route above our bivy specified by the guidebook. (More like 5.6—or 5.8/5.9 on the direct variation Dave chose.) Nonetheless, we soon scrambled up the super-cool Koven chimney to the summit of Mt. Owen and paused for a moment to enjoy the views of Teewinot and the smoke-filled hills beyond, and to look south and try to spot our line on the north face of the Grand.

Now we embarked on the heart of the Cathedral Traverse, the meat of the famous Grand Traverse of all the Tetons’ central summits. The fact that this traverse has been done in less than seven hours (Rolando Garibotti) seemed to originate from an alternate universe as we picked our way down Owen, across the turreted ridge, and into the Gunsight Notch between the two peaks. Here we roped up again and climbed two long pitches to reach the third-class terrain on the Grandstand, the high shoulder below the Grand’s north ridge. We made only trivial route-finding mistakes on this traverse and rappelled (rather than downclimbed) the steepest sections, and it still took us around three hours to get from Owen to the Grandstand—that’s a little less than half of Rolo’s total time and we didn’t bag a single peak during that period.

I had done the Grand’s north ridge many years ago, and this time we aimed to cherry-pick the best pitches on the north face through the many variations established over the years. After noshing on a bit more paella, we started up the first few pitches of the north ridge and then traversed over to the Italian Cracks variation. Butterflies swirled around Dave as he followed the first long lead, and a bit of graupel pelted our jackets when we reached Second Ledge, the start of the good climbing on the 1953 direct north face route. But the weather remained mostly fine, and the rock was amazingly solid on the golden alpine wall. It was a treat to check off the landmarks on this famous climb and to recall the struggles of so many influential American climbers who had tested themselves here: Durrance, Petzoldt, Gilkey, Unsoeld and Ortenburger, among them. The famous Pendulum Pitch, freed by Dick Emerson in ’53, is still a marvelous and testing pitch: the picture here only shows the second half’s hand traverse; to get here you first have to climb a tricky crack and then squirm across a Thank God Ledge-style break, never quite sure whether to place your hands and feet high or low. At least it’s well-protected—after finding almost no fixed pro all day, I clipped so many old pitons on the Pendulum Pitch that it climbed like a sport route, though falling on our single 9mm still seemed unacceptable.

One more tricky pitch and then some futzing around on icy fourth class (and a 5.9 off-route boulder problem that required roping up), and at last we were on top. Since dawn, we'd done 14 technical pitches and hours of serious scrambling. We sipped the last of the water we had hoarded since Valhalla Canyon and started down toward the Lower Saddle, eager to retank.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Return to the Tetons

I hadn't climbed among the high peaks of the Tetons for at least a decade, and it was high time. Dave Goldstein and I hatched an ambitious plan (too ambitious, as it turned out), and we headed north last week. The Tetons are, of course, one of America's greatest alpine ranges, and I was reminded of their beauty and staggering uplift as we hiked up Cascade Canyon to the north of Teewinot and Mt. Owen. I was pleased to see that Owen's northeast snowfields were hanging in there, and equally pleased to find that the stream crossing to reach the base of Valhalla Canyon was trivial.

Our goal was the Serendipity Arête on Mt. Owen, a steep, stepped ridge on the peak's western flank. The forecast was excellent and we planned to bivy somewhere on Owen, so we weren't worried about an alpine start. We climbed out of the shuttle boat at Jenny Lake at 10:30 a.m. and started the steep climb into Valhalla Canyon a little after noon. We didn't find the good trail until we were halfway up the headwall below the canyon, and then, despite carrying descriptions from two different guidebooks, we couldn't find the start of the route. Actually, the start was well-described and plainly visible, but we didn't believe what we read—the big, orange left-facing corner that marked the start seemed impossibly high above the canyon floor, and so we scrambled around the ledges below for a couple of hours looking for other orange left-facing corners until finally we concluded that the original corner really was the one and continued trudging up the scree gully that led to it. Then I got quad cramps and ... long story short: We didn't reach the start of the roped climbing until 5 p.m., six and a half hours after starting. Black clouds were moving overhead, but no rain fell and only a faint rumble of thunder disturbed the calm, so we decided to carry on.

The Serendipity is an old-fashioned route, more mountaineering adventure than great rock climb, but it has a few memorable passages. The promised "spectacular knife-edge ridge" that must be climbed à cheval was a stroll, but several "fourth-class" sections required an attentive belay. After six pitches we reached a broad ledge system between Third Tower and Fourth Tower and, though we might have been able to continue to the top before pitch dark, we decided to sleep where we knew the sleeping would be good. Later, we ran into Jack Tackle, who told us he had made the first winter ascent of this route, solo. How long did that take? I asked him. Just a day, he said, car to car. Well, some people are faster than others. Anyway, a planned bivy high on a mountain route is a great experience. Dave had made a paella at home and we packed a 3.5-pound bag of the stuff for this climb. Now we dug in hungrily—it was cold, because we carried no stove, but it tasted great. I laid out a small pad, stuffed a skimpy sleeping bag inside my bivy sack, spread the rope under my feet, and used my pack for a pillow. I crawled inside but kept my glasses on to watch the first stars appear as the last light faded from the nearby north face of the Grand Teton. That's where we were headed.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Name that Climb

Actually, name the pitch. It's a famous one! This is a preview for a trip report coming soon....

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

My British Vacation IV: Pembroke

Chris and I had tried to climb in Pembroke a few years ago but got skunked by MOD (Ministry of Defense) closures that put the entire area off-limits. We listened to tanks fire and watched helicopters shoot missiles at a buoy in the sea—all very interesting, but no climbing. Someone later told me, "Well you can always climb at St. Govans," but that's not true: Sometimes even the road to St. Govans is closed.

This time, the red flag that indicates military firing was flying all week, but the road to St. Govans was open, and at last we got to sample some Pembrokeshire limestone. It was every bit as good as I'd hoped: steep, solid limestone, just as tricky as bolted sport climbs, but with no bolts. You place your own gear, and the complexity and the pump add significantly to the difficulty. We had only a couple of hours our first day, and we did a fantastic moderate route and then I got bouted on The Butcher, an overhanging arete that Chris followed flawlessly.

After all the beautiful sunshine we'd experienced in Britain this trip, we had begun to think it might never rain, but then it did and we had to take a few days off from climbing to hike around the headlands near St. David and explore the amazing cathedral there. When the rain stopped, finding the climbs by St. David proved a challenge. After an abortive mission to locate a sandstone cliff called Carreg-y-Barcud one evening, I broke down and bought yet another guidebook (my third for this trip), a two-volume behemoth that weighed about 1 pound and cost nearly 25 pounds (around $45). Thus armed, we easily located the short solid crags of Porthclais, where we topropoed a few routes above the incoming tide, and then, after a break for tea and a thunderous downpour, Chris and I walked back to the steep slabs of Carreg-y-Barcud and did a terrific crack climb before dinner. That was $45 well-spent. I guess.

As at every cliff we visited during this trip, none of these seacliffs had anchors at the top. That meant building anchors in boulders and outcrops, or, in many cases, trusting our lives to steel stakes or rebar driven into the turf and tied off. This was a bit hard to take at first, but you quickly get used to it. Even though they flexed a bit, the stakes seemed secure, and some even had an eye for clipping in. In any case, they had to be stronger than the stake anchors some British friends and I used years ago when we climbed the chalk cliffs in Dover: aluminum shelf brackets nicked from the store where we all worked.

For our last day of climbing, we headed back to St. Govans—our first return visit to a crag on this entire trip. (In all, we climbed at 8 crags in 8 days of climbing.) It was a gorgeous day, and it was pure pleasure to have the place already dialed. No searching for the right road, the right path, the right cliff-top, the right rappel anchor, the right route. We fixed a spare rope to a stake and then rappeled back to the beach after each route, bang, bang, bang, climb after beautiful climb. Chris and I agreed that The Arrow, a varied, steep, solid 5.10a might just be the best single-pitch route we'd ever done. And with graceful moves like this head-first jacknife body squeeze, who wouldn't love the 5.9 prow called Front Line?

After three previous visits to Britain in a row characerized by cold rain and gale-force winds, it was a treat to experience the beautiful long northern days in all their summer splendor. I know we'll be back.

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