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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Last Ascents

There's a very interesting story in the new Climbing (249) about the recent instability of the famed Leaning Column, a 30-foot pillar that bridges two walls of Devils Tower's distinctive hexagonal corners on the Durrance Route. The 81,000-pound column of phonolite porphyry apparently now can be moved several millimeters by a climber standing atop it. The Durrance Route, pioneered in 1937, is the Tower's most popular summit route, with more than 1,100 ascents a year, according to NPS records. It's the easiest route to the top and has been the target of countless novice climbers who've made the long trek to northeastern Wyoming to tackle the six-pitch climb. My wife tells a funny story about psyching up for the route as part of a Colorado Mountain Club group; they had heard about the so-called Jump Traverse high on the route, and after arriving at the Devils Tower campground the night before their climb they took turns practicing standing broad jumps to see who should get the lead. The Leaning Column seems certain to disappear one day soon, and though the route will still be climbable a bit of history and the foundation of a lot of memories will be lost.

I've often wondered about the last person to climb such formations just before they toppled: the Gendarme at Seneca Rocks, the summit ridge of Mt. Cook in New Zealand, the Old Man of the Mountains in New Hampshire. Could someone have known he was making the last ascent of a climb before it fell off? Did it squeak or rumble threateningly? Has anyone ever made more than one last ascent? Now that would be weird!

My vote for the next climb to fall is the Cobra (a.k.a. ET), a little formation in the Fisher Towers of Utah with a 5.10+ route up it (seen here in a great Kennan Harvey cover shot). You have to do a hard face move on the Cobra's neck, then pull up over the summit cap on jugs. The whole 8-foot-wide caprock is just sitting there, balanced atop a slender column of partially petrified ancient riverbed, tilted at an alarming angle. The rappel anchor is on the uphill side, but still.... I did it once and that was enough. When a couple of friends climbed it a few years ago and asked if I wanted to do it again, I said, "No thanks. I'll just take pictures." Whoever gets the last ascent of this one may well be making his own last ascent.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Snowmass in Summer

That's Greg van Liew, a friend of mine from college, hiking in to ski Snowmass Mountain outside of Aspen-Snowmass, Colorado. This was the first week of July in 1984, and the day after I shot this photo we skied 3,000 vertical feet from just below the 14,092-foot summit right into Snowmass Lake at the base. I was up there in the third week of July last summer, and the gigantic snow mass of Snowmass had almost vanished. Fluke years or global warming? I don't know. Couple of classic pieces of equipment visible in this old picture! Greg is wearing Nike Lava Domes, the shoes that created a category and then inexplicably vanished. And how much you wanna bet he's carrying Fischer Europa 99 skis? Those were the bad old days of telemark skiing—but at least the skis were light.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hope for the Future

I had the great fortune last weekend to climb in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a place I hadn't visited in five or six years, and to do a long route with three inspirational sextogenarians: Jim Donini and the Brits Martin Boysen and Rab Carrington. The four of us teamed up on Monday to climb an 11-pitch route, and the three old guys proved they could still climb circles around a (relatively) young whippersnapper like me.

Each of these three rose to prominence in the 1970s. Donini, of course, is the Doninisaurus, the seemingly ageless climber who pioneered Torre Egger in 1976 and just took over as president of the American Alpine Club; he was the youngest of this crew at 62. Boysen (above right) led the hardest pitches on some of the hardest Himalayan routes of the 1970s; he infamously wedged his knee in a crack halfway up Trango (Nameless) Tower and did so much damage in the extended process of removing it that he was forced to retreat; he returned with his partners the following year, 1976, to make the first ascent of the famous spire. Carrington (above left) made numerous first ascents in South America, including the enormous south wall of Yerupaja in Peru in 1977; his RAB brand of down clothing, sleeping bags and other equipment would be familiar to any American reader of the old Mountain magazines or to any Brit climbing today.

They're all still at it, climbing at a high level. Boysen is a smooth and powerful climber who easily onsights 5.11 crack climbs. Carrington favors face routes; he just redpointed a 5.13a sport climb at age 65. Donini plans to return to Patagonia this coming winter for a third season of attempting a new route on Fitz Roy. It gives one hope for a long life of enjoying the mountains.

We climbed Movable Stoned Voyage, a 5.10 link-up in the Black Canyon, as two ropes of two. Boysen and Carrington (leading pitch 8 at left) bickered fondly like an old married couple. Their rack was sparse, and they seemed to leave a third of the pieces at each belay. They raced up their leads. Rain threatened halfway up the route and then fell hard during the last pitch. No one seeemed too bothered by the weather—I think I was the only one carrying a raincoat.

I had met Boysen a few years earlier at Indian Creek, where I backed off a sketchy, runout face-climbing finish to a crack climb and then watched him storm right up it. I had been confused about who he was—somehow I had thought the legendary Martin Boysen had been killed in the mountains. As we finished our climb in the Black, I told this to Donini (following pitch 8 in the photo above). Donini of course told this to Martin and Rab back at the campground. Boysen laughed. "I'm not dead yet!" he said.


Friday, May 19, 2006

That Crag Named

George Bell was right that this picture shows silhouettes of Cutler sandstone formations. But he had the wrong area of towers. This photo shows Dave Goldstein headed back up the overhanging prow of the Shark's Fin in Monument Basin, Utah, on our second day of climbing. (The Shark's Fin is on the right, Mars tower on the left.) The prow is one of the best and steepest aid climbs in the desert, and it goes hammerless with trickery (assuming two crucial fixed pins are still in place). Would it go free? I think it might, to a 5.12 climber unfraid of big-time runouts and sketchy rock. Anyway, the route is steep—assuming the gear held, you wouldn't hit anything in a fall...


Thursday, May 18, 2006


One That Got Away

While we're on the subject of cover typos, this one is a beauty—and it didn't get caught at the press check. What's wrong with this picture? (Other than the tights that Isabelle Patissier is wearing—wait, check that: Nothing wrong with those.) This boo-boo on R&I's March 1994 cover didn't happen on my watch. The mistake might have caused an unhappy anniversary for R&I owner George Bracksieck, but he was laughing about it by the time I arrived on the scene a few months later. And, no, this wasn't a Schlock & Vice edition.


Monday, May 15, 2006

Yosemite Portaits

I saw a fun slideshow by Corey Rich the other night, put on by the American Alpine Club. Corey was in town to promote his new book, My Favorite Place, a collection of photographs and stories about top outdoor athletes. Nice work. Probably because he knew I was going to be there, Corey kindly gave me some credit for helping to launch his career when I was at Rock & Ice, by giving him some creative assignments. That's like saying the bat boy was instrumental in Joe DiMaggio's career—Corey has so much talent that he could have been working for Weekly Plumbing News and he'd quickly have been noticed by New York magazines and ad agencies.

Probably also because he knew I was going to be there, Corey told the story about an expensive and embarassing mistake we made at R&I. One of his assignments was to shoot a series of portraits of climbers just as they topped out on El Capitan after days on the wall. He hauled a bank of batteries and lights up there and set up a little studio on top, and the resulting images were memorable. One of them, of El Cap free climbers Thomas and Alexander Huber, made the cover, under the banner title "Yosemite Portraits." Except that's not what the cover we printed said. See anything wrong with this picture? We didn't. That cover type must have been read by 15 different people in the production process, from editors to designers to the workers at our printer in Salt Lake City. I personally press-checked that issue, and I OK'd the color proofs as they rolled off the roaring press. I fine-tuned the color but obviously didn't read what I was proofing. After approving the cover, I returned to the customer lounge at Hudson Printing, a cramped room with a phone, a TV with no cable, and a lumpy couch on which I spent too many nights because we couldn't afford a motel, and I called Aaron Gulley, the managing editor at the time. I was chatting with him about the issue and I said the cover looked great and... "Holy shit!" I had just noticed that we had misspelled "Portraits" in 72-point type.

What to do? Reprinting the cover was going to cost about $5,000. That's a lot of eighth-page ads down the drain, I can tell you that. Would anyone even notice? (We didn't, after all.) Yet this issue also would appear at the Outdoor Retailer trade show a few days later. Someone undoubtedly would notice there! And there was the small matter that we had put Corey's byline on the front cover, right by that word "Portaits." Hemming and hawing, I called Corey and asked him what he thought. He was loathe to pass judgment but eventually allowed that, if it were up to him, he'd redo it. That's what Aaron thought. And, in the end, that's what I thought, too. I bit the bullet and ordered the change. And so the "Yosemite Portaits" cover of Rock & Ice is printed here first.

After I got back to Boulder, I decided to have some fun with our freelance proofreader, the climber and skier Andy Moore, who didn't get a chance to see the cover before we went to press. I sure wish he had: We sent him the screwed-up version, and, sure enough, he spotted the mistake and sent back the "proof" with a sticky note that said, "Hey, is this really the cover??? If so, there's a big mistake. (Is it too late to get this changed?)." I keep the "Portaits" cover and Andy's note in my office at home—a reminder to always check my work!


Friday, May 12, 2006

Time for Mea Culpa?

So, how soon until we see a Dean Potter mea culpa ad like this one from Kurt Smith and the Access Fund? This was published in 1996 after Smith was busted for using a power drill to replace bolts on the Muir Wall of El Cap. Smith went on to become a major fund-raiser for the Access Fund. My guess is that if Potter has any hope of saving his job as a Patagonia "ambassador" after whipping up an enormous shit-storm for his bosses by climbing Delicate Arch, something like this ad campaign is going to be part of his plea bargain.

Patagonia is in a real bind here. On the one hand, the company has always celebrated its anti-authoritarian roots in climbing and surfing. This is a company whose heritage dates back to the 60s and whose founder, Yvon Chouinard, was busted on at least one occasion. On the other hand, the company has made a longterm, deep and highly visible commitment to environmentalism and responsible use of natural resources. Patagonia has been mostly quiet on the Delicate Arch debacle, but a strange statement emailed by a Patagonia spokeswoman to Utah newspapers and other media outlets earlier this week reflects the company's ambivalence. Excerpts:

"Patagonia's Ambassadors are known for pushing the limits of their sports. In the course of their actions, sometimes they unintentionally create unavoidable controversy.... Patagonia had no prior knowledge of Dean's intent or plans to climb Delicate Arch. As a policy, Patagonia neither endorses nor condemns our Ambassador's individual activities. We trust that our athletes are the best judge of their own actions, and rely on them to act with care for themselves and the natural environment.

"'From the early days in the Tetons to the rebelliousness of Yosemite's Camp Four, every generation of climbers has had its run-ins with government regulations that attempt to restrict climber's freedom of expression,' notes Casey Sheahan, Patagonia's President and CEO. 'At Patagonia, we don't control the ways our sponsored athletes conduct themselves except to encourage respect for environment and uncommon approaches to every challenge. Dean is at the pinnacle of clean, solo climbing, makes decisions for himself, and has our complete support.'

And later: "We are currently looking into the situation and working with Dean to make sure we come to a reasonable resolution. We have always been a group of people that mixes things up and we tend not to work with people that are 'by the book.' The last thing we want to do is alienate people, especially our customers and long-term cohorts."

My guess is that very soon (probably today, before the weekend) Patagonia will take a much more public and stronger stance, and that we'll soon see if Potter is canned or enters a Kurt Smith-style rehabilitation campaign.


Name That Crag II

I'll be impressed if anyone gets this one. Hint: We're not in California, Toto. You must name the rock being ascended to win. Answer in a week.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ambassador Potter

Perfect. Thanks to "Arrow" at


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Old Man of Hoy

One of my favorite climbing adventures involved a climb we never even got to attempt. A couple of years ago, my wife and I tried to do the Old Man of Hoy off the far northeastern coast of Scotland. The Old Man is a great classic of world climbing, not so much for the quality of its climbing but for its isolation, spectacular setting and history. First climbed by the great trio of Rusty Baillle, Chris Bonington and Tom Patey, the Old Man is 450 feet high, and the easiest route is 5.10. It looks a bit like Castleton Tower in Utah, but with foul weather, a treacherous approach, pitches covered with grass, and seabirds that puke on trespassers in defense of their nests.

It's a long, long way to Hoy from just about anywhere. You have to get to Scotland, then drive for many hours to catch a ferry to the Orkney Islands, then another ferry to the sparsely populated island of Hoy. We spent almost a week in Orkney, a paradise for bird watching and archaeological sites (the oldest house in Europe, among other things). We had not booked a place to stay on Hoy because we wanted to time our visit there for the best weather. Bad luck for us: We ended up trying to go the weekend of the Hoy Half Marathon, and every bed on the island (not that many) was taken. Through great luck, the manager of the place we were staying in Stromness, port for the ferry to Hoy, used to live in Rackwick Bay, the trailhead for the Old Man, and she still knew the few people who lived there. She was kind enough to start callling around, and before long we had a cottage by the bay.

We arrived at our cottage in the dark in a driving rain. The road ended about 200 yards from the cottage (in the middle of the photo above). I ran through the rain, found my way inside, and flicked the lights to alert my wife. In the morning, the rain had stopped but the wind was pounding, even though we were still sheltered from the worst of it by the headland that framed one side of Rackwick Bay—the headland beyond which the Old Man stands. Well, you have to try. We packed up, found the trail, and walked about 45 minutes up and over the seaside hills to the Old Man. Waterfalls blew right back up over the cliffs onto the headland, and at the viewpoint that overlooks the Old Man I could lean hard into the wind without falling. I suppose we could have braved the steep and exposed goat trail that switchbacks down through wet grass to the Old Man's base on a bench by the sea. But my wife delivered the ultimatum—no climb—and I didn't put up any fight.

The next day we hiked up with our gear again, but this time we really were just going through the motions. The wind had eased slightly, but now rain fell every 30 minutes. We hunkered down on the point opposite the Old Man to watch the puffins perched on the ledges at the end of the second pitch. Then we hiked back to our cottage. Naturally, by the time we got there the sun had reappeared. No matter. This is one of the few climbs I've really wanted to do that, in the end, I didn't have any regrets about not doing. The climbing looked OK, but what really makes the Old Man special is its splendid and isolated setting. We spent two nights lounging at our cozy and romantic cottage, and each day after our outing to the Old Man we explored the beaches and hills by Rackwick Bay, one of the most extraordinary and beautiful places I've ever seen. A climb would have been nice, but we got what we came for.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tardivel: Still After It

The amazing Pierre Tardivel, who has notched more than 70 first ski descents and skied from the south summit of Everest in a 25-year career, is taking advantage of this year's exceptional snow load in the Alps to carve off more ticks. Tardivel and Jérémy Janody have done four firsts in the last two months. At right, the line of "Bond'zai" on the east face of Pointe d'Areu, skied in mid-March. At left, the line of "Arav'extrem," which flirts with the ice gully Aravicimes on the north face of Puré de Joux, skied in early April. Both peaks are in the Aravis Range, between Annecy and Chamonix. There's more, too: Check here , here and here for accounts and photos of Tardivel's latest descents. Forty-two years old, and still after it. Amazing.


Monday, May 01, 2006

Points Days

There's a thread on Front Range Bouldering speculating about who's done the most boulder problems in a day (a French guy apparently did over 500 on a well-dialed circuit at Fontainebleau), and that got me thinking about "points days." The concept is simple: Add up the grade of each route (or problem) you do for the day's point total. So, for example, yesterday I climbed six short routes at Eldo with a group of friends: 5.8, 5.9, 5.10a, 5.9, 5.9, 5.11c. Points for the day: 56. If you do a multipitch route, you can count each pitch separately; I suppose you could assign a fraction to letter grades (5.11c = 11.75), but c'mon, this is just a game. Or is it?

I remember people in the Gunks back in the '80s trying to amass big points days—the closely spaced routes at the Gunks made it one of the few crags good for this sort of thing in the pre-sport climbing era. (Joshua Tree was another). 100 points at any crag is a big day for most climbers. Think about it: That's 10 pitches of 5.10 or 13 pitches of 5.8. Not extreme, especially at a sport crag, but most people will have lost a bit of skin by the end of the day. It's much harder to amass 100 points in bouldering: That takes 10 V10 problems or 20 V5s. According to a post on Front Range Bouldering, Andy Raether once did more than 100 problems at Hueco Tanks from V0 to V4 in half a day. Hmmm... how many points do you get for a V0? At roughly the equivalent of 5.7 or 5.8 climbing, it's not exactly nothing. Suffice to say that Raether must have scored at least 200 on this skin-burning outing.

Just for kicks, I added up Tommy Caldwell's two free routes in a day on El Cap last fall. It's not precise, because I don't know exactly where Tommy linked pitches (he did 51 total pitches between the Nose and Free Rider, compared with the 65 guidebook pitches). But even if I'm off by 10 or 20 points, the total adds another perspective to his landmark achievement: I put it at around 538 points.