Tuesday, December 22, 2009
My own fear is claustrophobia. It's not a severe case, but it's bad enough. I first noticed it years ago during a big snowstorm in the Adirondacks, with three of us crammed into a two-man tent. As the walls pressed inward, I felt discomfort rising to panic, and I had to open the door to let fresh air wash over my face—and fresh snow fill the tent. My claustrophobia has gotten slightly worse over time, and now snow caves and squeeze chimneys may give me serious concern. Sometimes on a cold night, with my mummy bag zipped up tight, I'll wake and go into a panic, grasping for the zipper.
I wasn't a prime candidate for caving.
Yet I'd always wanted to try it. I loved the various tourist caves I'd visited—no problem for me in those vast chambers. And if it weren't for my claustrophobia, I knew I'd love caving: the climbing aspect, the feeling of exploration, the strange geologic forms. It was all me. And so when my wife and I visited friends in southwest England last summer, and they offered to take us into a famous local cave, I had to sign on.
People have been exploring Swildon's Hole for more than a century. It's the biggest known cave in the Mendip Hills. The rock inside is polished smooth from thousands of hands and boots, and the floor is clear of obstacles. Our host, a friend and local caver named Steve Cosh, had been inside Swildon's dozens of times. He used to lead youth groups through the cave (we borrowed our headlamps, helmets, wellington boots, and spiffy jumpsuits from his old boss). Swildon's has some serious caving, including many underwater passages, but we weren't going that far. How bad it could be?
Pretty freakin bad. Swildon's has a tiny hut atop its entrance, which is like a manhole with a short ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, the passage turns horizontal and narrows to the point where you have to squirm on your back or stomach. I was third in our party of five, and as soon as I got into the narrows, the old familiar panic began to rise. I squirmed back again, bumping into the feet of a friend, which only made it worse. I've got to get OUT! I shouted. Back on top, I told the others to go ahead. I might or might not follow.
After a moment, I decided to try again. Going last helped. I could still see a glimmer of daylight as I shimmied through that initial passage, and I rationalized that I could always escape, with no one to block my way, if things got bad. My wife and friends were just ahead, encouraging me to follow. The passage was wider now, and I could scurry along on my feet, ducking under the ceiling. But then it narrowed past crawling size again—mandatory belly or back scraping. It was only 10 or 15 feet, and I could hear Steve talking to me from the other side. "Once you're through this one, it gets bigger for quite some time," he said, as if talking to a 14-year-old from one of his hoods in the woods programs. "Just give it a try. If you don't like it, you can go back out."
I was ready to go back out. But I also really wanted to continue. I narrowed my focus to the wall beside me, to the rivulets of water on the limestone, the strange knobs and tendrils of rock. Slowly, I felt my breathing slow, the panicky feeling subside. I decided to go for it. I squirmed through to Steve, and he smiled and pointed the way ahead. "No way," I said. "You go first—I've got to be last in line.
We were underground nearly two hours, exploring Swildon's upper passages. We clambered up and down drop-offs and through streams running along the floor. We climbed down and then back up a eight-foot waterfall. We had to boulder up through a hole named the Toilet Bowl. It was fascinating and beautiful, and at times even fun. My claustrophobia never got too severe after the initial panics, but it was always there, just under the surface, ready to rear up and smother me. I was glad to have entered Swildon's, but I was also very glad to get out.
Walking back to the car, Chris, my wife, was hopping with enthusiasm. She had loved it, couldn't wait to go again. "You're on your own, honey," I told her. Once was enough for me.
At times, I've been known to grow impatient with gripped climbers or with friends who are spooked by heights on a mountain scramble. What is wrong with them? I'll think. But now that I've felt a little taste of what they must be feeling, I hope I remember it the next time I'm with an acrophobe. Neither claustrophia nor acrophobia is an irrational fear, after all. And, of the two, acrophobia has more power to preserve one's life. But caving still seems nuts to me. Get me back to the airy perils of cliffs and ice falls.
In the photo: Yup, that's me, smiling for the camera, but not because I'm enjoying myself. OK, maybe just a little.... Photo by Steve Cosh
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 4:28 PM
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
I just had to laugh when I heard the North Face was suing an upstart company in the Midwest that calls itself the South Butt and sells clothing with parody logos and slogans ("Never Stop Relaxing"). A very similar scenario unfolded about a decade ago when I was running Rock & Ice.
The old Franklin Climbing company had been running a series of full-page ads featuring portraits of interesting climbers posing against a white backdrop. The ads were simple and sharp, and we liked having them in the mag. In early 1999, the company sent us a particularly funny one: a photo of a baby boy sitting on the floor and peering into the front side of his diaper, with the tiny tagline "Never Stop Explorin.' " We thought it was harmless and cute, and if we thought about it at all (which I doubt), we expected the North Face would laugh along.
Uh-uh. Shortly after the ad appeared, I had to take a call from the company's CEO—the CEO, for cripe's sake—who said he was suing Franklin and that we'd better stop running that ad immediately or he'd sue us too. I groveled a bit (hey, we needed the North Face's advertising money more than we needed a freedom-of-speech case), and the problem went away. The Franklins' problems with TNF eased, too, although probably not as quickly.
This time, though, the legal action may have backfired for TNF. In the age of viral information, the North Face just looks like a bully, and the South Butt had more than 4,400 fans on its Facebook page this morning. They're undoubtedly selling loads more clothes than they ever expected, though I doubt they were prepared for the onslaught of orders.
I also doubt the South Butt will be in business for long. The Franklin incident seemed ridiculous to everyone but TNF, but in this instance I'd say the North Face actually has a very strong case—I mean, South Butt is trying to sell its clothes primarily by trashing the TNF brand. That's not right. But for the North Face, will winning in court mean losing with the public?
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:39 AM
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, prepared this excellent video analysis and reconstruction of the avalanche accident that claimed the life of the great Canadian ice climber Guy Lacelle last Thursday in Montana's Hyalite Canyon. This tragic incident and Doug's timely video are sobering reminders of the dangers that lurk in seemingly innocuous terrain. You just can never let down your guard—ever.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 4:55 PM
Saturday, December 05, 2009
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 8:26 AM
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 11:21 AM
Is it just me, or does it seem misguided that Nepal's cabinet ministers are staging a meeting at Everest base camp to call attention to global warming's threat to the Himalaya? The ministers have flown to Lukla and soon will continue by air to base camp. That's X number of helicopter flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, plus Y flights to Everest base camp, plus Z return flights, all adding up to a nasty output of carbon emissions. The threats to Nepalese mountain communities are real, but is flying around the Himalaya the best way to publicize them?
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 10:19 AM
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Now this looks like fun...
Deep-water soloing above Lake Powell. Photos by Rachel Kemble (upper left, courtesy of Josh Thompson) and Greg D., used with permission. See Mountain Project for more pics, including some enticing walls with not-so-soft landings.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 8:12 AM
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I've launched a new website that I invite you to explore. The Colorado Mountain Journal exclusively covers human-powered mountain sports. All Colorado. Mostly backcountry. I created it to provide news and a bit of inspiration for the sports I enjoy most—climbing, backcountry skiing, hiking, and trail running—in ways I couldn't finding anywhere else, in print or online.
Please take a look and let me know what you think. I'd be grateful for suggestions, critiques, contributions of news and other stories from the Colorado mountains, or links from your site. Have a great holiday!
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 12:18 PM
Monday, November 23, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
"Bullet hard." Can we please retire this phrase in writing about rock climbing? I don't know much about guns and ammo, but I do know that, unless you're talking about armor-piercing rounds, most bullets are made of lead coated with copper. Neither metal is any match for granite—or even solid sandstone. I've even seen "bullet-hard ice" in ad copy. Seriously?
Now, "bulletproof rock" is an acceptable phrase. But "bullet hard" or simply "bullet"—these have got to go.
Got a favorite overworn climbing cliché? Post it in the comments.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 10:15 AM
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
If it were coming from anyone but Andrew Skurka, you'd dismiss the proposed "Great Alaskan-Yukon Loop" as sheer fantasy. But Skurka, whose accomplishments include a 6,875-mile trek around the American West (2007) and a 7,778-mile trek across the continent (2004-05), has the experience and determination to just-maybe pull this one off. Here's how he describes this ski-raft-hiking odyssey on his website:
"The Great Alaskan-Yukon Loop (GAYL) is a 4,500-mile wilderness adventure around the state of Alaska and the Canadian territory of Yukon that connects many of this region's most magnificent natural features, including the Alaska Range, Wrangell's, Lost Coast, Coast Range, Yukon River, Richardson Mountains, and finally the Brooks Range. The GAYL is not an official trail or route; it has never been completed, attempted, and possibly even conceived of until now; it is almost entirely off-trail and it crosses only about 10 roads for its entire length."
"In March 2010 I will begin the GAYL in the village of Kotzebue, located on the Chukchi Sea in northwestern Alaska. I will ski south to join the historic Iditarod Trail, which I'll follow southeast into the Alaska Range. Spring will arrive as I am traversing this range, which is home to North America's tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley. Near the eastern end of this range I will begin packrafting the Copper River and its tributaries towards the ocean. After several hundred miles along the rugged Lost Coast, I will trek the historic Chilkoot Pass Trail from the Inside Passage to the Yukon River, which I will float to Dawson City. A route through the Ogilvie Mountains, down the Miner River, and through the Richardson Mountains will link me into the eastern edge of the Brooks Range, which I will finish traversing just before Fall finally succumbs to Winter again."
Mind blowing. Who knows if this is possible, or if Skurka will even find the resources to attempt it. But this sort of uncertainty is the nature of real adventure.
By the way, Skurka is looking for a better name for his project. Leave a comment with your suggestion, or you can post it directly at his website.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 1:02 PM
Monday, November 16, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Will Gadd will attempt to climb near-vertical ice for 24 hours straight in early January during the Ouray Ice Festival, as a benefit for the dZi Foundation. Gadd will be climbing the classic WI4 Pick O' the Vic. If he manages to complete the 150-foot route three times an hour, he'll be right around 11,000 vertical feet for the day. Think of the late-night heckling opportunities!
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:56 AM
Friday, November 06, 2009
Yesterday, the blind Colorado climber Erik Weihenmayer climbed the Naked Edge (5.11b, 8 or 9 pitches) in Eldorado Canyon. Weihenmayer climbed with Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, and Charley Mace, a longtime friend and climbing partner. Cedar Wright filmed the ascent, so someday we'll be able to see it for ourselves.
The five main pitches of the Edge are comprised of near-vertical to overhanging sandstone, notorious for tiny holds and complex sequences. Three of pitches are 5.11, and one is a very tricky 5.10. Weihenmayer had never been on the route, yet Robinson and Wright said he only fell once or twice on each pitch, except for the final overhanging lieback and hand crack. Both men marveled at Weihenmayer's ability to quickly figure out 5.11 moves, and both said it might be the most impressive climbing feat they'd ever seen.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:58 AM
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Joe Puryear has just posted one of his superb desert trip reports (24 towers in 20 days) at SuperTopo. Buried in the post, in a caption to Joe's photo of the Cobra in the Fisher Towers, was this nugget:
"A warning to all about the Cobra: the Cobra shuddered and swayed twice while we were on it. I've never heard of or had it do that before. Fun times..."
I climbed the Cobra many years ago, but when a group of friends repeated it recently after doing nearby Ancient Arts, I stayed on the ground and took photos. One time up the Cobra was fun; twice seemed like pushing my luck. The summit is a tilted block merely balanced on a spindly neck of pebbly stone. The tower didn't shudder or sway when I climbed it, nor when my friends did it a couple of years ago. But if the Cobra is swaying now, it may be about to strike. Who will get the "last ascent?" And who will get snake-bit?
Postscript: A friend from Europe wrote after reading this item: "I feel the final sentences in your post incite people to do something which perhaps they shouldn't. Surely if the block is unstable, if it took millions of years to form in the fragile desert ecosystem, then perhaps we climbers should lead by example and call it a day." Come to think of it, he's right. To protect this cool, unique formation—to say nothing of climbers' lives—this climb ought to be "retired" for good.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 2:35 PM
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
After taking a brief gander at the crux of pitch one, a poorly protected lieback, Jack opted for a bulging but well-protected variation to the right. Good stuff.
The party ahead of us hadn't liked the look of the second pitch, which follows a steep corner to a leftward traverse under a big roof; the leader bailed after about 15 feet, citing a lack of pro. Attempting the first ascent, Greg Sievers had taken a 25-footer from this roof. Neither of these facts gave me much confidence as Jack handed me our jumbo rack of rock gear, but, on the other hand, I could see that Bullet suited my style. The angle was less than vertical, and tiny footholds dotted the icy rock. I'm no good on really steep routes—rock or ice—because I don't have the strength and confidence for sustained overhangs, but on good days I can stand on small holds for a long time and work out moves and protection. This was a good day, and as I moved up the corner I was able to find decent pro every few feet. Below the roof, I spent many minutes balancing on monopoints and carefully slotting tiny wired nuts and C3 cams into the ceiling. The slab below the roof was nearly blank, but I could see jugs at the far side. When I was more or less happy with the pro, I committed to the traverse and quickly but carefully dry-tooled across the slab to reach a good stance and more pro.
Every once and a while, I feel really great about a lead. Bullet required some skill, but the real key was patience and mind control—the willingness to hang in there on tiny, tenuous holds until I'd done what had to be done with the gear, and then—and only then—switch to confident but controlled aggressiveness for the short run-out to good holds. Whether it's traditional rock climbing, steep ice, or dicey aid, the best climbers seem to muster this combination of patience and aggression at will. It rarely happens for me, and it's just so satisfying when it does.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:01 AM
Monday, November 02, 2009
Steve House's excellent Beyond the Mountain (reviewed here, with a follow-up note here) took the prize for Mountain Literature. Sarah Garlick's climbing geology book Flakes, Jugs, and Splitters won for Mountain Exposition. And the book I'm perhaps most keen to see is The Alps: A Bird's Eye View, by Slovenian photographer Matevz Lenarcic, who captured his aerial images from an ultralight motorized glider. Other winners: The Great Polar Journey: In the Footsteps of Nansen, by Børge Ousland; The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer, by David Roberts; Royal Robbins: To be Brave—My Life, Volume One, by Royal Robbins; and In the Bear's House, by Bruce Hunter.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:58 AM
Friday, October 30, 2009
John Cunningham soloing a pastiche of routes on Ben Nevis in 1976. This understated, beautiful film was shot by Charles Grosbeck and produced by Yvon Chouinard. Watching Cunningham's speed and technique, it's easy to see why Scottish climbing and equipment were so influential on the development of modern ice climbing. Tragically, Cunningham died in 1980 when a wave swept him into the sea below the cliffs of Anglesey.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:41 AM
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I'd be wary of the pulley (and, for that matter, the gate) icing up on this carabiner, which was designed for rock climbing. But it definitely seems like a worthwhile idea to experiment with.
McLean's blog has a few other interesting posts on glacier gear, including ropes and snow anchors.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 10:34 AM
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Yesterday: Just my wife and I, all by ourselves, at the mega-popular Cactus Cliff at Shelf Road; rock climbing in T-shirts (at least for a while); pale sun gleaming off the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains. The calm before the storm.
Today: A foot of snow on my deck at noon, and it's not supposed to stop snowing until tomorrow night.
Later Today: Went skiing in the nearby open space late this afternoon. Pretty sticky, nasty snow and a stiff wind in the face, but, as they often say about alpine climbing, it doesn't have to be fun to be fun. Enzo sure liked it.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 1:52 PM
Monday, October 26, 2009
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 2:01 PM
Friday, October 23, 2009
At Rock & Ice, we once published a supplement called the Ultimate Tick List. We surveyed readers for their recommendations of the absolute best boulder problems and rock, ice, and alpine climbs in North America, and then compiled the answers into a list of 500 climbs to go at. As often happens in these surveys, the response rate wasn't as great as we'd have liked, and some geographic areas were woefully under-represented. We editors had to do some backing and filling, and mistakes were made. One climb was listed twice (under slightly different names), and somehow the short, slick, forgettable sport climb Deck Chairs on the Titanic at Table Mountain made it onto the list of the absolute best climbs in Colorado. But it was still a cool project, and readers seemed to like it. Climbers love hit lists.
Now, the excellent Mountain Project website has created a new method for generating tick lists. Using a secret algorithm that weighs star ratings and other factors, Mountain Project automatically generates a list of "The Classics" for each area it covers, whether that area is Boulder (3,201 routes in the database this morning) or the west face of the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon (20 routes). It's a slick gizmo, and it seems to work pretty well, though of course it's easy to quibble. Example: The Wasp, a 95-foot route on a small crag in Rocky Mountain National Park is picked as one of Colorado's most classic "alpine rock" routes. Really? Overall, though, Mountain Project has created a very useful tool.
I wondered if I could create a personal Ultimate Tick List by looking at Mountain Project's lists of classics at several areas where I've done a lot of climbing over the years. How many climbs would I have missed in the grades I usually climb, which top out at 5.11 on rock these days? Were there entire areas I should be moving to the top of my hit list? I looked at Eldorado Canyon in Colorado, Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire, the Moab area in Utah, Yosemite Valley, Colorado ice & mixed, and Colorado alpine rock.
Eldorado was a bust: I've already done all 20 routes on the classics list, though I'm sure I could find some hidden gems if I drilled down to the lists at individual crags or sectors. At Cathedral Ledge, I found only one climb I hadn't done, and it's a beauty: Camber, a two-pitch partly bolted route that didn't exist when I did most of my New Hampshire climbing, back in the ’80s. That's definitely worth putting on the list. I suppose I also should add the Prow, because I've only aid-climbed it. A free attempt certainly needs to be on my list. Liquid Sky (5.13b)? I don't think so. The list of 20 classics in the Moab area held two routes in Indian Creek Canyon I haven't done—nice to know about, but not worth a trip in their own right.
Yosemite Valley was more interesting. Midnight Lightning was out—I'll never get farther than fondling the starting holds on that one. But I realized I'd never done some moderate classics, like Nutcracker or Sons and Yesterday. And though I've done three El Cap routes, one of them is not the Nose. Hmmm.....
I was also surprised to see how many classic routes I still haven't done in Colorado's high mountains: the Little Bear-Blanca traverse, Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle, Syke's Sickle on Spearhead, and Pervertical Sanctuary on the Diamond. Makes me wish winter weren't coming on so I could get after this list.
On the other hand, the richest lode of undone classics I found is just about to come into season. I was astonished to see that I had never climbed almost half the classic routes on the Colorado ice and mixed list. Most of these are in southwestern Colorado, a six-hour drive from home, but that's a pretty lame excuse. So here's my goal for the 2009-2010 ice season: Finish the list. I may have to find someone to drag me up the Talisman (WI6 M6), and one or two of these routes may never come into condition this year, but the winter is long and, for the moment at least, my motivation is high.
Mountain Project's Classics lists offer a great tool for planning visits to unfamiliar areas, and you may be surprised at what you learn about old familiar crags. However, I did notice that Deck Chairs on the Titanic made the list for Table Mountain. No system is perfect.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:33 AM
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
If you're the type who dismisses climbing films as amateurish assemblages of clips cobbled together with no story line and a boorish soundtrack—in a phrase: climbing porn—do yourself a favor and check out Progression, the latest film from Big Up Productions (i.e., brothers Josh and Brett Lowell plus Cooper Roberts). It will change your perception of what a climbing film can be.
Progression is a collection of mini-stories about major ascents and ground-breaking climbers—in that way, it's similar to past films of the type. But the quality of the photography, the camera angles, the storytelling, and above all the editing raise Progression to a new level, surpassing even the high bar set by previous Big Up titles. Each segment is compelling—Progression even manages to make lead-climbing competitions feel super-exciting—and the transitions are smooth. The filmmakers assume they have knowledgeable viewers, and they adhere to the storyteller's mantra: Show, don't tell. When Adam Ondra makes 18 big moves above his last pro on the second ascent of Papichulo (5.15a), the narrator doesn't have to tell us, "Look at that run-out!" and Josh Lowell doesn't. When Kevin Jorgeson's belayer fumbles with the Gri-gri just as Jorgeson is about to attempt the second ascent of the Groove (E11), the film doesn't comment. We get it.
Watching Progression, I realized this film does for hard rock climbing in the year 2008 what the American Alpine Journal (which I help edit) does for alpine and big-wall routes around the world: It selects and documents many of the best routes of the year for posterity. But Progression (along with Big Up's Dosage series of annual videos from years past) does this in a visceral way that print can never achieve. It makes me jealous of the filmmakers—imagine if it were possible to create such a work for alpine climbing each year!
Big Up is offering Progression in both DVD and downloadable forms; the download costs just $19.95 (a saving of 10 bucks), but it's a 1.8 GB file, so you need a good connection, and it doesn't come with the many extras included with the DVD. These include a long segment on Tommy Caldwell and Justen Sjong's first free ascent of Magic Mushroom on El Cap, which only gets a tease in the final cut of the film. Still, the HD download version looks great on my computer and gives me the opportunity to open the film whenever I'm bored at work.
By the way, the film has a long segment on Caldwell's super-project on El Cap's southeast face, but doesn't ever name the route. At the time, Caldwell was trying to maintain a not-too-well-kept-secret. The route is Mescalito, and Tommy and Kevin Jorgeson are back on it this fall.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 11:20 AM
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
After several false starts due to illness and road closures, Jack Roberts and I made it to Pikes Peak yesterday and climbed the classic ice route Total Abandon. This climb forms occasionally in the fall on the right side of a dramatic granite buttress on Pikes' north face, starting about 900 feet below the 14,115-foot summit. The approach is more akin to a Chamonix cable-car lift than the usual American wilderness slog: To get to the route, you drive up the Pikes Peak toll road ($10/person), park at 13,400 feet, and follow the so-called Hero Traverse for an hour. But you have to be fast: The road doesn't open until 9 a.m. in late fall, and there's a $100 per hour fine if you don't make it down to the gate by 5 p.m.
There's also the problem of knowing if the road will even open for the day. We started calling on Monday afternoon, hoping to climb the route this week, but the toll road was closed on the upper mountain Tuesday and Wednesday because of snow and high winds. With a better forecast for Thursday, we called again Wednesday afternoon, but the staff wouldn't commit to opening the road the next day. Since we live two hours' drive away, we decided to pack both rock and ice gear, plan to arrive soon after the gate opened at 9, and hope for the best. When we arrived, we were told the road was only open to the 16-mile mark—two miles short of the Hero Traverse—but with clear skies overhead we figured they'd probably get the road open by the time we got there. And that's what happened: A ranger had blocked the road just above the parking area, but that was OK with us. We had no intention of driving to the summit.
I had never been on Pikes Peak. Although it towers 8,000 feet over Colorado Springs, the mountain seems like a bland hump from a distance. I was surprised at how beautiful and complex the peak appeared up-close. Negotiating the Hero Traverse into the north face cirque, we saw countless pink-granite buttresses and intriguing gullies. The views made me want to return in spring, when this basin is filled with corn snow, and in summer for high-altitude rock climbs.
We turned a corner and were happy to see a line of white ice on our route, deep in a dark corner. The late road opening had forced perhaps the latest alpine start I'd ever experienced—we didn't rope up until around 11:15—but the three-pitch route went smoothly: A thin ribbon of sticky ice and short mixed steps; a very steep chimney with ice on the left wall and rock on the right, made awkward because both of us wore packs; and a long, somewhat tedious escape pitch of steep snow with occasional tenuous chockstones to surmount. At nearly 14,000 feet, we were not moving quickly, but even so we were back at the car by 3 p.m. There, we found a flat tire on Jack's car.
Changing a tire at 13,400 feet in mid-October is no joy, but we still had plenty of time to spare before the 5 p.m. penalty hour would begin. Even with the flat and a stop for a repair on the way home, we were back in Boulder less than 12 hours after leaving—one of the strangest and yet most satisfying alpine days I've done in years.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:45 AM
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Will Gadd has been posting a fascinating series of mini-essays on training and competition at his always-excellent blog, and his "Random Training Thoughts #5: Mental is particularly interesting. This paragraph really jumped out at me, vis-à-vis my own climbing:
"Worry about the things you can control, and get them right. Don't show up with your blown-out laces about to break. Be well-fed, well-hydrated, well-dressed, etc., etc. This a really deep well to look down once you get going on it..."
So true. Basically it's piss-poor preparation equals piss-poor performance. We all know it, but how often do we look deep into that well and make the changes we ought to? Speaking specifically of competition, Gadd continues:
"You can't control other people's results, or even your own. You can only control how well you perform. If you perform well you'll get a good result, but worrying about the result is wasted energy."
I rarely train intensively for my sports, and I compete even less often, but Gadd's advice just as well to the "non-competitive" climbing I love, especially alpine climbing with its many variables. If you prepare well, make good decisions about the things you can't control (weather, snow conditions, etc.), and enjoy the climb itself more than the summit, you'll be a happy and successful climber.
But don't take my word for it. Read Will's excellent posts for yourself.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 9:33 AM
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
A number of years ago, I climbed from the 14,000-foot camp on Denali to the Football Field at 19,500 feet in six or seven hours. I was very well acclimatized to 14,000 feet, and I didn't feel any symptoms of acute mountain sickness other than being very tired. Yet, according to an article in the October Outside, I likely experienced some brain damage during this ascent.
Douglas Fields, a climber and neuroscientist, reported on the work of Spanish neuroradiologist Nicholás Fayed, who has studied brain scans of mountaineers returning from relatively low peaks around the world. It's long been known that high-altitude mountaineers may experience some permanent changes in their brains—and resulting loss of function—after climbing over 8,000 meters without supplementary oxygen. But Fayed and colleagues are documenting abnormalities in the brains of climbers on peaks as low as Mont Blanc (15,771 feet).
The good news? Doctors believe that proper acclimatization—averaging no more than 1,000 to 2,000 feet per day of ascent during a big climb—can prevent this kind of damage. The bad news? Few climbers have the time or patience to go that slow.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:41 AM
Monday, October 12, 2009
1) The road past Brainard Lake to the Indian Peaks trailheads was open unusually late this fall.
2) Ice has already been climbed this month on Pikes Peak and in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jack Roberts, my climbing partner, had climbed near Longs Peak just a couple of days earlier.
3. Jeff Lowe had said "good mixed lines" occasionally form on the north side of Little Pawnee Peak, above Brainard Lake.
4. Snow had fallen off and on in these mountains for a couple of weeks, the perfect setup for melt-freeze autumn mixed climbing.
1. About a foot of snow on the ground at 11,000.
2. Almost no ice. Seems like it's been too cloudy and cold in this drainage to form ice. No melting, too much freezing.
Oh well. Sometimes you just have to go look for yourselves.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:33 AM
Saturday, October 10, 2009
"Depending on the conditions, I wear any and all of the Archwood Flextrek packs." —Steve Climber, the outdoors' ultimate enthusiast.
OK, this clip is a year old. But it hasn't been on the Mountain World before, and it's still pretty funny. "You can dominate the landscape!"
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 10:53 AM
Friday, October 09, 2009
Loveland opened Wednesday with an 74-inch base and eight inches of fresh powder. A-Basin will open today, but later than scheduled because they're still digging out the chairlifts. Believe it? Then you likely also trust the resorts' regular snow reports. Dartmouth professors have proved what we already know: "Ski resorts self-report 23 percent more natural snowfall on weekends," even though "there is no such weekend effect in government precipitation data." Amusingly, the study noted that such exaggeration fell sharply last winter after people started posting real-time iPhone reports at SkiReport.com.
BTW, the part about Loveland and Arapahoe Basin opening this week is true. Colorado has had an exceptionally cold, wet fall. Really.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:43 AM
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Is it just me, or does it seem crazy that slabs—the routes that feel least secure to climb, where you might grease off at any moment, and where it's nearly guaranteed that you won't fall cleanly into empty space—are almost always protected with widely spaced bolts? Why aren't slabs better protected?
Of course there are historical reasons for this. In the old days, climbs were established on the lead, and the leader could only stop moving and hand-drill a bolt if he could find a ledge or a minuscule foothold to stand on. No wonder the bolts were far apart. Today, almost every bolted climb is established on rappel, and the only limit to the number of bolts the first ascensionist places is stinginess. Or is it? There's also a weird foreshortening effect that somehow makes bolts look closer together (from the ground) on low-angle terrain than they do on overhangs, and this works against adequate bolting on slabs. A line of bolts that would look perfectly natural on a steep limestone sport climb might look obscene on a granite slab. And it's a kinesthetic too: You tend to cover ground much quicker on slabs (once you stop quaking and start moving), and so you come up on the bolts quicker.
Still, grade for grade, most climbers are much more likely to fall from a slab climb than a vertical climb, and for historic, aesthetic, and kinesthetic reasons, they're going to fall a lot farther. It just doesn't seem right.
[Photo: Jason Kaplan/MountainProject.com]
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:18 PM
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 1:09 PM
If this doesn't make you want to go to Alaska, nothing will. Click here for a gorgeous narrated slide show of a 33-day tour of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park: 25 days on foot, eight days in a raft. Zero days on trails. Zero non-ranger visitors encountered. Incredible photos.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 12:49 PM
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Steve "Crusher" Bartlett came by the other day to show me the layout of a super-cool new book he's doing on the desert towers of the Colorado Plateau. It's a collection of Crusher's research and personal anecdotes, plus other people's stories. (He's reproducing my 1997 story from Rock & Ice about tower routes in Utah's Monument Basin; that's me belaying Dave Goldstein on the cover, during a hammerless ascent of the Shark's Fin's wicked-steep northeast arête.) The coolest thing about Crusher's book, which he expects to have out in early 2010 (Sharp End Books), is the wealth of historical photos he's managed to dig up. I found a few old familiar shots of Layton Kor and the like, but I'd never seen dozens and dozens of the other images in the coffee-table book.
The digging Crusher has done is a huge service to fans of climbing history, and it makes me wonder what other great photos from important American climbing areas are languishing in elderly climbers' closets, the Kodachrome slides slowly fading. Hopefully, other climber-authors will be as inspired as Crusher has been to root out these gems before they're lost forever.
A couple of other interesting books in the works: Stewart Green and Cameron Burns are both working on Layton Kor books (a scrapbook of Kor stories and a biography—amazing there hasn't been one yet), and Joe Josephson is writing a book about Todd Skinner.
The Stone Masters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, with photos by Dean Fidelman and text by John Long, will be available any day. Should be very good, and very popular, though I confess I'm just about over the whole Yosemite in the ’70s thing.
Finally, three esteemed Canadian authors and photographers, Chris Atkinson, Kevin McLane, and Marc Piché, are teaming up on the Alpine Canada Book Project, which will produce two books: a selected-climbs guidebook and a coffee-table book, both about Canada's finest mountain routes. Due out in 2010. Interestingly, the books are being copublished by Elaho Press and Arc'teryx, the gear and clothing maker, just as Patagonia Inc. recently published Steve House's memoir. Have we come to the point where enlisting a big corporate backer is the only way to get important climbing books published?
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 8:46 AM
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Mike Pont recently told me a fun story about the early climbing days in Rifle, Colorado, where he was part of a small crew that bolted many of the classic sport routes in the limestone canyon, back in the early 1990s. Decades earlier, Layton Kor had aid-climbed a couple of routes in the canyon—just a few of the hundreds of new routes he established throughout the American West in the 1950s and ’60s. One day, Kor was fishing for trout in Rifle Creek as Mike and Kurt Smith bolted routes in what would become the Wasteland cave. Kor strolled over to watch the two climbers blasting in bolts with a power drill. "Man," he said, "if I'd had one of those things, you guys would have nothing left!"
Kor, now 70, lives in Arizona and is suffering from kidney disease. Climbers Stewart Green and Steph Davis have organized an online effort to raise money for his deductibles and copays. The Layton Kor Climbing website is packed with great Kor photos and fun prizes for donors. Kudos for this cool effort to help out one of America's greatest rock climbers.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:41 AM
Friday, September 25, 2009
Q. Can you...give us some tips on how to ski a narrow shot like this?
A. When it comes to skiing a couloir fast, i.e. no mountaineer jump turning, the key is to get a little bit of slide out of the end of your turn. If you full carve slalom turn it, you'll be going out-of-control fast in a matter of moments. The little "slarve" (sliding-carve, aka McConkey Turn) at the end of your turn helps control your speed but it still allows you to keep your tips down the fall line. My last piece of advice: Be in very good shape. It was such a tiring climb and ski that my legs felt like Jet Li had used them for kicking practice once this thing was done.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:46 AM
Thursday, September 24, 2009
This brilliant map, created by photographer Steve Von Worley, visually represents the density of McDonald's restaurants—all 13,000-plus of them—in the Lower 48. The bright lights of the Golden Arches sprawl across the map in constellations of human yuckiness. So where can we find American wilderness—the black holes of happiness on this map? Best to quote Von Worley himself, who writes on his blog:
"As expected, McDonald’s cluster at the population centers and hug the highway grid. East of the Mississippi, there’s wall-to-wall coverage, except for a handful of meager gaps centered on the Adirondacks, inland Maine, the Everglades, and outlying West Virginia. For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota."
Von Worley calculated that the farthest you can get from a McDonald's in the continental U.S. is in north-central South Dakota: 145 miles by car or 107 miles as the McNugget-hungry crow flies. I'll bet there's a Subway that's closer.
[Tip of the hat to Clyde Soles for pointing out this gem.]
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:31 AM
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
There's a great post and discussion at Lou Dawson's Wild Snow site about skiing the 8,000-meter peaks, sparked by various media reports that American Dave Watson "skied K2" this summer. He didn't: He skied on K2, starting from about 8,350 meters on the 8,611-meter peak and descending the notorious Bottleneck on skis; Watson continued down to Camp 3 at ca. 7,250 meters, and then rappeled about 650 meters, past Camp 2 and House's Chimney, before skiing down to advanced base camp. A superb outing, but not a ski descent of K2 by almost anyone's definition.
The definition of "ski descent," and the details of what has been skied on 8,000-meter peaks, is the subject of a long and fascinating series of comments from Watson, the Swedish high-altitude skier Fredrik Ericsson (who also attempted K2 this summer), Andrew McLean, and many other experts. It's a comment trail that stands out for both the caliber of the participants and the civility of the discussion. Well worth reading.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:33 AM
Monday, September 21, 2009
Mountain Hardwear Runout climbing pants. Super-comfortable. Fit well under a harness. Look good enough to wear out to dinner—at least until you smear them with chalk and aluminum grime from your rope.
70-meter ropes. I'm mostly using a Mammut Infinity 9.5, which is incredibly burly despite its slender diameter, but the real point is how I've more or less completely switched over to 70s. A 70-meter cord weighs about 15 percent more than a 60 in the pack, and it's definitely a beast to coil. But the extra length comes in handy so often, whether it's stretching the rope on alpine routes or eliminating an extra rap line while cragging.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 6:01 AM
Friday, September 18, 2009
Alex Honnold will receive the American Alpine Club's Robert Hicks Bates Award for young climbers (25 and under) in October. Talk about well-deserved! At 23, Honnold already has a list of accomplishments that's broad and deep. Check out the video below for just one aspect: extremely difficult desert crack climbs.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 7:15 AM
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Attention filmmakers: Enough with the clichéd time-lapse scenes of clouds whipping by mountain peaks! These are usually shot at dawn or sunset, so you get an alpenglow wash across the screen along with the cloudscape. How many mountain films open this way? Far too many. Yeah, we're in a dramatic mountain setting...we get it!
Cliché No. 2: Prayer flags snapping in the breeze.
Cliché No. 3: POV down a gaping crevasse while walking across a ladder in the Khumbu Ice Fall. Move on. We're so over it.
Got a mountain-movie peeve of your own? Share it in the comments.
Posted by Dougald MacDonald at 9:36 AM