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Friday, August 31, 2007

Mass Wasting

Since I mentioned our new route in the Indian Peaks in my post yesterday, I figured I might as well show off a couple of pictures. The route climbs the west face of the eastern buttress of Shoshoni Peak (12,967 feet). It had five pitches, mostly 5.8 or so with a devious crux pitch of 5.10b (shown with your correspondent deviously placing every piece on his rack after enduring a run-out traverse below). And, yes, we chucked a lot of loose rock off the face. That, along with some stomach problems for my partner, Greg Sievers, yielded the route name: Mass Wasting.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Trundler Talks

The young man who threw a rock off a Wind Rivers cliff and killed NOLS Rocky Mountain Director Pete Absolon (photo, right) earlier this month has spoken to the press, giving an interview to the Casper Star-Tribune. It's a good read, and it does make you feel a little sorry for the fellow, who looked over the edge of the cliff just in time to see his errant missile strike and kill Absolon. He clearly didn't intend any harm, and he was not charged with any wrongdoing. (He was lucky: In the mid-’90s, three guys pled guilty to negligent endangerment and paid large fines after killing a climber in a similar trundling incident on Granite Peak in Montana.) While I can feel some pity for the guy, I sympathize more with the NOLS leader quoted in the story, who said, "We recognize that he is hurting, but we are also working on filling a big void in our community and a family here in Lander." Throwing rocks off a cliff, he said, is just plain irresponsible.

And yet...and yet.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was high on a cliff in the popular Indian Peaks, hucking off huge rocks all day. A friend and I were climbing a new route on a 500-foot face, and loose rocks lined the cracks and lay on the ledges. We had to chuck them off or we might kill each other with a careless placement of our feet or errant tug of the rope. But what if one of those rocks had bounced all the way to the trail below? What if a hiker decided to take a shortcut and started up the gully leading to our route during a quiet spell in our bombardment? Would we have watched in horror as a rock plunged toward its unwitting mark? Without intending any disrespect toward Absolon, many of the decisions we make in life do tread the "fine line between clever and stupid," to paraphrase David St. Hubbins. I can only hope I never cross that line like the Wind River trundler did.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Innocent Bystanders?

Dave MacLeod has finished his E10 project, To Hell and Back, at Hell's Lum crag in Scotland, creating one of the world's most dangerous extreme rock climbs. E10 6c translates to 5.13c X—the kind of route that only the best rock climbers could ascend, even with perfect protection. But this one has no pro at all in its crux second half, and a slip there is likely to be fatal.

MacLeod originally planned to attempt the route during the BBC's Great Climb program, but the live broadcast was cancelled because of persistent rain. However, a small film crew stuck around because MacLeod was still psyched to finish the route. By all accounts, it was a harrowing performance on Friday when he finally did the climb. You can read Dave's typically personal and honest account here . And there's a fascinating insider perspective from Dave Brown, one of the film crew, at the Hot Aches blog.

On the big day, Brown was hanging with his camera right at the crux passage of the climb, where a key hold often was damp, and soon he became a participant and not just a voyeur: "The tension at the crag was horrendous," Brown writes. "Dave tied on ready to lead and called up to me for an evaluation of how wet the hold was? What a damn question to ask. Of course I want the film ‘in the can’, but MacLeod is a friend, and I don’t want him dead. So I looked at the hold. Probably only the bit for his pinky was wet by now, maybe in the time it takes for him to reach the hold it would be wet only for the second finger? What do I know? I couldn’t do that move even if it was bone dry. I gave him the thumbs up, and he set off."

Read the whole's amazing stuff. I feel for Brown, who was unwittingly put in a terrible position. What if, after Brown's thumbs-up, MacLeod had slipped to his death from that wet hold? Would Brown be to blame? Certainly he'd blame himself. Even aside from the go or no-go decision on the wet hold, who knows how much pressure the presence of the film crew that week might have put on MacLeod, consciously or not. Had things gone badly, I might have shared some blame, too, in a small way, because, in the course of several interviews with MacLeod for an article appearing soon in Climbing magazine, I asked him if his recent decision to back off a bold climb in Wales meant that he'd lost his head for such "death routes." In going To Hell and Back, was MacLeod trying to prove he still had it? He would emphatically deny it, but, had things gone the wrong way, we'd all be asking ourselves that sort of question.

I feel for MacLeod, too, who felt terrible about the burden he'd placed on the surrounding cast, which included his wife, Claire, who was holding one of the belay ropes while he climbed. But, it must be said, his friends, his family, and the media all were there because they wanted to be. Really, none of us are innocent bystanders.

So many questions are posed by such a climb, but like many great and bold climbers, MacLeod, despite trying his best to explain himself, is unable to answer the foremost question: Why? At least not in a way that will satisfy most of us. He just leaves us to marvel at his ascents, and to hope they all go well.

The BBC plans to show this wild footage before the end of the year. Hopefully, a DVD will be released so people in other countries can watch it, too—if they dare.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Soul of the Heights

Looks like this is the year for Big Books from legends of the Golden Age in Yosemite Valley. First came Glen Denny's gorgeous retrospective Yosemite in the Sixties. Now, Falcon is releasing Ed Cooper's climbing memoir, an 8.5 x 11 hardcover packed with Cooper's beautiful photos and stories from his landmark climbs of the ’50s and ’60s. Cooper was the Pacific Northwest's "first climbing bum," according to his publisher, and unlike many of the Yosemite icons he traveled widely and did influential routes well beyond his home mountains. Along with many notable climbs in the North Cascades, Cooper did such hard routes as the East Face of Bugaboo Spire (the peak on the book's cover), the Willis Wall on Mt. Rainier, the amazing Grand Wall at Squamish, and, of course, the Dihedral Wall in Yosemite Valley. This ought to be a book well-worth a couple of hours in a big armchair.


Friday, August 24, 2007

But Could He Do It While Joggling?

Tony Krupicka, who won the 2006 Leadville Trail 100 in his first summer of ultramarathons, did it again last weekend, and he knocked more than 47 minutes off his time, finishing in 16:14:35. The 24-year-old from Colorado Springs has now run the second- and third-fastest times ever on Leadville's grueling course, which tops out at 12,600 feet. He's also closed within 32 minutes of the seemingly unbeatable record that Matt Carpenter set in 2005.

But could he do it while joggling?

I guess I should have known that joggling is a sport. According to those know-it-alls at Wikipedia , several Indian tribes joggled in olden days. Owen Morse (pictured at right) ran an 11.68 100-meter dash while juggling three balls. (The piker slowed to 13.8 seconds with five balls.) Zach Warren joggled a 2:52 marathon. So, Tony Krupicka, you may be a rising star, but have you got the balls to run a mountain ultra this way?

(Tip of the hat to GoBlog for the joggling links.)


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Black Magic

The Black Wall on Mt. Evans is one of my favorite alpine climbing venues in Colorado, and a few weeks ago I got back up there after several years' absence. This high-altitude crag tops out at 13,200 feet and has very good granite. Yet, despite one of the shortest approaches to an alpine cliff in the state—a one-hour drive from Denver and then an hour's hike from the Summit Lake parking area at 12,830 feet—the Black Wall isn't very popular. Could be the fact that there are no easy routes up here—the classic of the cliff, Good Evans, is a five-pitch 5.11a. Or it could be the severe weather. For some reason, Mt. Evans seems to attract more storms—and fiercer ones—than the popular peaks farther north. In any case, I've never seen another party climbing when I've been up there.

Ten years ago, I put up two new routes on the cliffs left of the Black Wall's main face in a single August week. By far the better of the two was Captain Calamari, which I climbed with Greg Crouch. It takes the sunny, sharp-edged outside corner line in the foreground of the photo above. (The prominent prow behind it is Roofer Madness, a possibly unrepeated eight-pitch 5.11c put up by Greg Cameron and George Lowe.) Greg and I climbed five good pitches before the second sleet storm of the day drove us into an ugly corner to escape. Someday I need to go back and finish the line, continuing up the prow. This could be the easiest line in the area, at 5.9+, but the key pitch is long and run-out, with a potentially dangerous crux just above the belay, so it's still not that easy.

Earlier this month, Dave Goldstein and I climbed Cannonball Corner, the huge right-facing corner system to the right of Good Evans. It was a pretty good line, marred by a lot of big loose flakes and very wet climbing in the last 75 feet. The main Black Wall is steep! From the fifth belay, you look straight down more than 600 feet to the snow and talus at the base. All in all, we thought it was a good route, but probably not one that bears repeating. The best part of the day was the clear, stable weather—a first in my experience on Evans—which allowed us to hike around after the climb and scope new routes. There's plenty still to do!


Wednesday, August 22, 2007


As someone who loves traveling and climbing in Europe, I'm dismayed by the ever-weakening dollar. Five years ago, my dollar would have bought a euro and change; today it buys less than 75 cents. In other words, everything is at least 33 percent more expensive. Dave Goldstein and I were lamenting this fact as we hiked out to a climb the other day, and he said something along these lines: "You can blame Bush, and I will every chance I get, but Cheney is the one calling all the shots. We ought to rename the dollar the Dick."

So there you have it: Next time you're wondering why a draft beer at a pub or brasserie costs the equivalent of more than six bucks, blame the shrinking Dick.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Help Me, I Think I'm Falling...

I was poring over Glen Denny's amazing, must-read photographic retrospective, Yosemite in the Sixties, when I spotted this nugget under a photo of Michael Covington sorting gear in Camp 4: "Mike Covington, for whom Joni Mitchell wrote 'Michael from Mountains,' 1969."


It turns out Covington was a singer-songwriter good enough to be offered a recording contract before he dropped out of the music biz to start the Fantasy Ridge guide service in Rocky Mountain National Park and later Denali National Park. Covington, who now lives in Telluride, was instrumental in the rapid rise in climbing standards in Colorado during the 1970s, both through his own climbs and through the guides he hired for the summer in Estes Park—including luminaries like Billy Westbay and John Bachar. But before that he was a pal of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. And, apparently, an intimate of Joni Mitchell. "Michael from Mountains" was written in 1968, the year before Denny took Covington's photo. The chorus goes:

Michael from mountains
Go where you will go to
Know that I will know you
Someday I may know you very well

Fantasy, indeed!


Monday, August 20, 2007

No Great Climb

Hideous weather forced the cancellation of the BBC's "Great Climb" live broadcast in Scotland, and untold thousands of pounds washed away down Cairngorm's sodden hillsides. I pity the producer who proposes the next "Great Climb" to the BBC. "So, here's the pitch: We want to do a live broadcast of a team of climbers doing a new route on Ben Nevis! Wind? It's never windy in Scotland...."

It's too bad: A lot of talented people put a lot of effort into this program. But that's the nature of live outdoor adventure, which is why such programs are so rare.

One good thing that may still come out of the "Great Climb" is a great new climb. Dave MacLeod seemed awfully psyched about the potential new routes he'd discovered at Hell's Lum crag in the Cairngorm. After scrubbing and top-roping the overhanging lines, he felt like one would be E8 or E9 (poorly protected 5.13) and the other might be E10 (unprotected hard 5.13). If he can get some decent weather, it wouldn't surprise me at all if MacLeod is back in Cairngorm before the end of the summer, with or without a camera crew.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

My Summer Vacation

At the beginning of June, Greg Sievers and I rode our bikes up to the Indian Peaks, high above Boulder. It was like a summer bike ride, but different too.

The higher we got, the less like summer it became.

After camping for a night, we climbed a big route, the 2,000-foot northwest face of Apache Peak. It might have been a new route, but then again maybe not.

Then I went to the City of Rocks. It was fun! I got to jump real high on this climb. I got to climb Donini's Crack with Jim Donini. It didn't look too bad, so I just put one wrap of of tape around the back of my hands. The tape slipped, I fell off, and I still have an oozing gobie on my hand two months later. Jim said, "I soloed that thing in 1973." Sometimes I hate that man.

After a quick trip to the Tetons, I had to do some work. I had less than two weeks to complete my section of the American Alpine Journal. I was supposed to be working on this project all winter, but you know how deadlines are. So, it was not a very fun two weeks.

Finally it was time for our big trip of the summer: Africa! My wife had been to Africa twice already, but not me. I asked her, "Why would you want to go again?" But now I know.

Our group camped for two weeks straight in the bush of Botswana. We saw every animal you'd want to see, and then some. At night, we could hear elephants ripping up trees behind our tents and lions moaning in the near distance. Hyenas and jackals picked bones from our campfire. Back home, people asked us, "Were there fences? Were their guards?" No, there were not.

We didn't do much climbing on this trip. Chris did the girdle traverse of a 4,000-year-old baobab. I climbed the World's Largest Aardvark, but I did not summit. The summit cone was unprotected, and even though Botswana is a very nice country, I did not want to visit its hospitals.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

BBC and Climbing: The Python Perspective

Writing yesterday about the BBC's forthcoming "Great Climb" broadcast from Cairngorm, Scotland, reminded me of another legendary ascent that was filmed for television: the ill-fated attempt on the North Face of Uxbridge Road.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

5.13 Death Route: Live!

This is either going to be the most boring event ever televised or the most gripping. Depending on when you tune in, it might be both.

On Saturday, August 18, BBC Scotland will broadcast The Great Climb, featuring four ascents in the Cairngorm Mountains, with live coverage from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. local time (6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mountain time). Shorter versions will air nationwide in Great Britain, and the show will be webcast at the interactive Great Climb website . The idea is to feature several well-known climbers, including Barry Blanchard (Canada), Ed February (South Africa), Ben Heason (England), and Araceli Segarra (Spain), climbing a variety of multipitch granite routes, from easy to moderately desperate. But the showpiece will be Dave MacLeod and Dave Cuthbertson's attempt to climb a hard and dangerous new route on live television. (The Great Climb is modeled after a famous BBC film of the first ascent of Scotland's Old Man of Hoy 40 years ago.) Last spring, MacLeod climbed the hardest traditional route in the world, Rhapsody, an unprotected extension to a crack climb in Scotland established 23 years earlier by Cuthbertson. For the TV show, MacLeod was thinking about trying a very stout route rated E8 or E9 (poorly protected 5.13), but last week, as he outlines at his blog, he discovered an unclimbed line that would go at roughly E10—that translates to hard 5.13 with a ground-fall if you blow it, as seen MacLeod's Telustrator image above.

It's hard to imagine ESPN ponying up hundreds of thousands of dollars to broadcast, say, Chris Sharma going bolt to bolt on a new route on live television for six hours straight. ESPN banished climbing from the X Games because it was so boring to watch. Yet the Scottish show might be compelling. They've got good characters and several climbs to intercut, for one, and of course there's the vicarious gripfest of watching someone try an unclimbed route with potentially fatal consequences. It's like Nascar in slow motion.

As a practical matter, the Scottish weather likely will prevent any such madness. The forecast for Saturday is for wind and rain, following nearly a week of crag-soaking rain. But, just in case, I might have to get up early and watch for a while.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Trad, Man

Shades of the old "Sport climbing is neither" bumper stickers, but without the bitterness. Thanks to Patagonia's superb Cleanest Line blog for spotting this one.


Sunday, August 12, 2007


Penitente Canyon, in Colorado's San Luis Valley, is one of those places that, like Joshua Tree, has a cool vibe but only so-so climbing. Lots of people love Penitente because it has a concentration of closely bolted, moderate sport climbs, but to me these short climbs are too fingery and repetitive. Still, I head down there once a year or so just because I like the setting so much. The views across the valley to the Sangre de Cristos, looming over the Great Sand Dunes, are gorgeous. And the twisting, dry canyons seem to retain whispers of their mysterious past, symbolized by the faded virgin Mary painted high on the main canyon wall. This area was a center of Los Hermanos Penitentes, Spanish settlers who practiced flagellation and ritual cross-bearing as testaments to their faith. Though the main canyon is crowded on weekends, the nearby Witches Canyon and the Rock Garden are often empty and spooky, the silence broken only by the fuff...fuff...fuff of a raven flying overhead.

I find a day and a half is plenty on these routes, and by then the skin of my fingers is usually destroyed anyway. But some people can't seem to get enough of the area. Mike Anderson, who has made the first free ascents of 10 major routes in Zion National Park, earned some of his technical mastery on Penitente's testy sport routes. As of last spring, he had climbed all but two of the climbs in the main canyon, including many 5.12 and 5.13 finger-wreckers, and he'll probably finish them off once the temperature drops this fall. Talk about self-flagellation!


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Earth to Mountain World!

"Mountain World, come in please."

"Mountain World, come in please."


"We've been trying to make contact for almost two months now! Where the hell are you?"


"Is that you? Are you there?"

Bzzt... back ...bzzt...bzzzt.... soon ....

"I'm not getting anything, Robin, are you? Let's get the hell down from here."