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Friday, March 28, 2008

A Friend in Need

I'm not sure if I'm smiling or grimacing in this photo. I might be smiling, because I've just reached the top of a beautiful route: the Psychedelic Wall on Ben Nevis in Scotland. Or I might be grimacing, because the ropes have just come tight at my waist, and I still have to climb over the little cornice atop the cliff, and my last pro is about 50 feet below me. I was climbing with Des Rubens, a Scottish climber, as part of the British Mountaineering Council's biannual winter meet, which assembles climbers from all over the world to sample Scottish ice with British hosts. I usually climb with 60-meter ropes; Des was using 50s. I'd misjudged the available rope, and now I was at the cords'—and my wits'—end.

Fortunately, at that moment another climber at the international meet, Maciej Ciesielski from Poland, happened to stroll by and notice my predicament. He quickly built an anchor a few feet back from the lip, allowing me to high-step onto the summit plateau. We got a good laugh out of it later that night at the pub. A year later, just a few days ago, Maciej sent me this photo, bringing back a flood of good memories. (I wrote about the experience in Scotland in a five-part blog series called Rime and Punishment at

The international meet was unforgettable: On this single day on Ben Nevis, I shared ropes and laughs with climbers from Belgium, England, Israel, Italy, Poland, and Scotland. With the dollar in the depths, it's not easy to travel to Europe and have experiences like this. Fortunately for American climbers, an international meet is coming to the U.S. this fall. The American Alpine Club is hosting a meet that will bring climbers from as many as 25 countries to sample the unique sandstone cracks and towers of the Utah desert in early October. U.S. hosts are needed, and if you're comfortable leading 5.10 at Indian Creek and enjoy meeting climbers from around the world, I highly suggest you check this out. I guarantee it will be a week of climbing you'll never forget.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Brain Freeze

I'd been scheming a long new route in Rocky Mountain National Park for almost a year, ever since I spotted the line last spring on the south face of Mt. Otis, right behind the spire called Zowie. I figured it would be in perfect shape in March, and I certainly didn't think there was any hurry: Not many people like these kinds of routes to begin with, and the odds of someone else spotting this one seemed pretty low. But in mid-February I opened the First Ascents page on Mountain Project and discovered that two lads, Andy Grauch and Chris Sheridan, had beaten me to my route. They called it Brain Freeze, after the intense ice cream headaches they got from continuous spindrift in the chimney, and their pictures and description made it look just as good as I had hoped.

Second ascents aren't first ascents, but I still wanted to do the line. So, earlier this week, Jack Roberts and I skied up to Mt. Otis on a cloudy morning, with snow threatening. It took longer than we expected to get to the base of the route—it always does—and we didn't start climbing until after 10. After a short band of snowy rock climbing and a snow gully, we arrived at the meat of the route. A diagonal chimney called the Changing Gullies Pitch was filled with a ribbon of ice. From below, this appeared to dead-end, but after about 60 feet of fun climbing, the route intersected another, deeper chimney that shot up about 400 feet toward the summit ridge. This was the business: sustained snow groveling, dry tooling, and chimneying with crampons. At its best, the groove narrowed to a boot width and you could jam a foot in the icy crack. At its worst, soft vertical snow filled the chimney and you had to wudge up the groove using every inch of your body for friction on the walls.

Just as I was beginning to panic amid the worst of this insecure stuff, I poked an axe through the snow wall and revealed a cave behind. I squirmed into the gap and stood up: a cozy, flat-floored room, sheltered from the wind and the spindrift that by now was pouring down the route. Jack wasn't too tickled when he got there and eyed the next pitch: The cave walls were plastered with enormous snow blobs, and the exit looked fierce and intimidating. Spindrift funneled down the narrow groove at the lip of the roof like it was spraying from a snow-making gun. But once Jack committed to climbing, he found it wasn't too bad. A key hex placement and a tied-off chockstone high in the roof safeguarded the moves, and the walls turned out to be covered with footholds. At the lip of the roof, we both spun around twice to maximize the use of the holds, and at one point we could sit relatively comfortably above the void, looking straight down the chimney below. Wild.

The route didn't let up above, with more sustained chimneying and dry tooling. Near the top, we deviated from the first-ascent line, choosing what seemed to be the more direct and logical line for our sixth pitch. This appeared from below to be a short, moderate rock band, but the corner I chose steepened to vertical just as the footholds disappeared. We both thought this pumpy dry-tooling section was the crux of the route, though we just may have been tired. Fortunately, the pro was very good.

At the top, it was snowing hard and the wind was up. We weren't sure how to find the gully we had planned to descend, so we decided to rap the route, which turned out to be a good call. Andy and Chris, the first-ascent team, had struggled to descend in a whiteout and didn't make it to their car until 3 a.m., having left their skis at the base; they had to return the next weekend on snowshoes to retrieve their gear. We were down to our packs in an hour and a half and ready for the fun ski out on several inches of fresh snow.

I don't know why more people don't do routes like this; it's actually hard to find partners for these big spring routes in the mountains. Yes, they're exhausting days, and I have a big blister on my left heel from skiing in mountain boots, and the climbing is inelegant and sometimes scary and cold. But the rewards from a day like this, when all of one's skills and desire are tested, seem so much greater to me than a day of rock climbing in the sun. Maybe I'm just a masochist.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Lizard King

The March issue of 5280 has my story about Albert Ellingwood and the 1920 first ascent of Colorado's Lizard Head peak, likely the first major rock climb in the United States where a rope and pitons—and the understanding of how to use them—were employed. Ellingwood (at right in the picture, with Lizard Head partner Barton Hoag) was the first American climber to seek out difficulty for its own sake; previous mountaineers had always sought the easiest way to a summit. Ellingwood even took the unprecedented step of returning to a peak after he had already climbed it, in order to try a more difficult line, the most famous example being his bold climb of the northern buttress of Crestone Needle (aka Ellingwood Ledges) in southern Colorado, which he pioneered in 1925, nine years after making the peak's first ascent. "Difficulty has a charm that is irresistible to many," he wrote. "The enthusiastic alpinist is completely happy only if his skill is severely taxed." With these sentiments and his astounding climbs, Ellingwood laid the foundation for all modern American climbing.

You have to buy 5280 to see my story, but you can read Ellingwood's first-person account of Lizard Head's ascent here.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Corliss in Outside

In the February issue of Outside I reported on BASE jumper Jeb Corliss' plan to sky-dive without a parachute and safely land in front of a huge Vegas crowd. Although Corliss is always willing to talk, he didn't want to spill the beans on the exact details of this plan, but I talked to enough wing-suit pilots, friends of Corliss, and stunt experts to piece together a good look at how he'll probably do it. Outside illustrator Kevin Hand did a superb artist's rendering of the scheme; you'll have to buy the magazine to see the full drawing, but you can read the story here. Corliss says he needs $2 million to stage the stunt—sure seems like it would be money well spent for a TV-casino joint venture. It would be an amazing thing to witness.


Tuesday Morning Time Waster

Sure, it's a low-hanging piƱata, but this spoof of "Everest: Beyond the Limit" is extremely well done.