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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Days in the Park

On Tuesday I got a last-minute assignment from Backpacker and quickly laid plans for a two-day traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park, via the summit of Longs Peak. The forecast was perfect for Wednesday and Thursday, and this late in the season I had no time to lose.

The idea was to walk from Grand Lake up East Inlet Creek, then over Boulder-Grand Pass to Thunder Lake in Wild Basin. After camping there I'd go cross-country to the base of Longs' south face, climb the peak via Keplinger's Couloir, and descend the Keyhole Route and north-side trails to return to the Bear Lake area. I wasn't sure how the cross-country legs would work, but the route came together beautifully. The East Inlet Creek drainage is my new favorite valley in Rocky Mountain National Park—maybe on the entire Front Range. The east side of the Park is dramatic, with all those glacial cirques, but the west side has a lush, wild feel, and East Inlet Creek is simply gorgeous, especially in fall colors. I had expected Keplinger's to be a tedious scree-slog, but it wasn't bad at all. On top of the 14,259-foot peak it was calm and warm enough to sit comfortably in a light sweater—remarkable for late September. I was the only one of seven people who summited that afternoon who'd brought crampons, and I zipped past everyone by plunge-stepping down the icy snow in the Trough. Then it was just a long easy walk out to the car, with the afternoon sun lighting up the russet and gold ground cover on Longs' broad northern slopes.

This hike comprised about two-thirds of a big loop that I'll describe next year in Backpacker. We'll be recommending four to five days to cover this segment, so doing it in two was physically punishing. But mentally—what a treat!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Yuji Attempting El Cap Double-Header

Japan's Yuji Hirayama has arrived in California to attempt an extraordinary double-header on the Nose of El Capitan: a free ascent of the route (5.14a), followed by an attempt to improve the speed record he set in July with Hans Florine. If successful, Hirayama would be the fifth person to free-climb the Nose (if you count Scott Burke's ascent which included top-roping the Great Roof free). As for speed, Hirayama and Florine believe they can slice as much as 15 minutes from their 2:43:43 record if they rest an extra day between attempts—last summer they speed-climbed the route four times in ten days. Gamba, Yuji!


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

World Championships of Buildering

There's a Buildering World Championships? Who knew? In fact, the first "world championship" of bouldering on buildings, bridge abutments, and underpasses was held in Cologne, Germany, in 2006, and the second is slated for October in the industrial Ruhrpott area, in and around Essen in western Germany. There's even a defending world champion of buildering: Christian "Benky" Benk. Who knew? I'd never  heard of this buildering competition, but I wasn't surprised to learn that Udo Neumann, the German photographer and filmmaker, was one of the men behind it. Neumann, co-author of the seminal Performance Rock Climbing with Dale Goddard way back in 1994, has always been keen on experimentation. I remember sitting in a van at Smith Rock and listening to Udo and Dale rave about the genius of Linus Pauling and how bananas were the secret to climbing power. But I digress...

The first World Championships of Buildering looked like a somewhat ragtag affair (see the video below), but from Udo's scouting photos the problems this year look intriguing and really fun (and likely illegal). The climbers will rove among various monuments, bridges, and buildings, using buses and trains to reach remote problems. "Granite, sandstone, concrete, bronze—you’ll get it all under your fingers," Udo writes at his website. "Who among you has climbed on bronze before? Can you imagine?"

Quirky, sure, but I could easily see this catching on. Imagine a buildering festival in Manhattan or downtown Tokyo, with problems carefully chosen (and vetted with the authorities) for crowd appeal. It would be an eye-opener and a genuine celebration of the fun in climbing, unlike the grim affairs that "real" competitions often seem to be. Call it the anti-World Cup. Brrring! Is that Red Bull on the line?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

El Cap Free Solo: Only a Matter of Time

Last summer I wrote here that someone would free-solo a route on El Capitan within five years. A year later, I believe I might have been too conservative. The unthinkable may happen much sooner. Today we learn that Alex Honnold, 23, has free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome: 23 pitches, up to 5.12a. Honnold's solo comes exactly a month after Dean Potter free-soloed a 600-foot route called Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) on the north face of the Eiger. When Royal Robbins and company made the first ascent of Half Dome's 2,000-foot northwest face in 1957, the obvious next step in big-wall climbing history was the main face of El Capitan, which Warren Harding and partners completed about a year and a half later. The next step is obvious today, too.

Let me be clear: I have not asked either Honnold or Potter if he plans to attempt an El Cap free-solo. But surely the thought must lie somewhere in their minds, either simmering in the back or blazing at the front. Both men have soloed routes technically as difficult as El Cap's easiest free climb: Free Rider (5.12d). Both also have completed long, difficult solos, demonstrating they can hold it together for hours. But Free Rider is much more demanding than any climb that has been soloed before, with multiple 5.12 pitches and some extremely insecure moves. On his Eiger solo, Potter climbed with a five-pound BASE parachute on his back, an emergency back-up that might have saved his life if he slipped. So far, Honnold has worn only shoes and a chalk bag.

Writing about such ascents gives me a queasy feeling. No matter how objective one tries to be, a story about soloing has the effect of glorifying it. I do not think Potter, Honnold, or other soloists are motivated primarily or even significantly by publicity, but surely they are not unaffected by it. Do journalists and their eager readers become, in effect, participants in these dangerous climbs—and are we complicit when the worst happens? Like many climbers, I'm fascinated and impressed by hard free-soloing, and at the same time I'm frightened and even repelled by the act. How can someone put his life on the line like that? And for what? Yet I might ask the same questions of many climbers whose feats I cover and admire: I am fascinated and impressed by alpinists who attempt lightweight ascents on the world's harshest peaks, and I fear for them too.

History provides some guidance: Climbers have been pushing themselves beyond the bounds of what most would consider reasonable since long before the advent of corporate sponsorship. Some of the most impressive and dangerous ascents in climbing history have been carried out in obscurity, far from the media glare. We cannot fully explain the motivations behind hard soloing and other forms of extreme climbing. We can only marvel and hope.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Winter is Coming

I've been super-excited about rock climbing in the past few weeks, and my worn-out old body is responding. I've surprised myself with some hard onsights (for me), despite having done no real training. The force of gravity seems to drop as my spirits rise in the cool, clear weather of September.

And so it's with mixed feelings that I contemplate this seasonal fact: Within three weeks of today, the first ice climbs will be completed in Colorado. Sometime in the next few weeks we'll get a heavy snowstorm in the mountains, and autumn routes like the Smear of Fear on Longs Peak will quickly freeze up. Maybe the rumored big ice on Mt. Evans will come into shape. (It wasn't quite there when I walked in last September 30 and took this photo.) When routes like this do appear, they will only last a couple of weeks, and you have to seize the day if you want to climb them. And all I want to do is go rock climbing.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

CO Avalanche Center Loses Major Funding

This Friday night the annual Avalanche Jam, a benefit for the
Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), was supposed to take place in the parking lot of Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. Hosted by Backcountry Access, the fund-raiser put $15,000 in the avalanche center's pockets last year. But today organizers sent an e-mail saying they had to pull the plug on the event, because "the permitting process proved too much." On top of that, the CAIC has lost $10,000 in funding from a major annual donor. This is grim news for skiers, climbers, and others who depend on the CAIC's daily forecasts to get them through the snowy season. But there is something winter-lovers can do to help.

Join the Friends of the CAIC. It's a no-brainer. Donors support the avalanche center's in-depth regional conditions reports, the best weather forecasts available for the Colorado mountains, and research and education designed to prevent deadly accidents. Friends who donate $30 get the center's informative Beacon newsletter and a morning forecast e-mail. Donors over $45 also get an afternoon forecast by e-mail. I just renewed my membership, and you should too. As the old saying goes, "The life you save may be your own."


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Avalanches: The Herd Mentality

I've been thinking about the avalanche last week near Mont Blanc that killed eight climbers. I was on the slopes of Mont Blanc du Tacul just last September, approaching the Chèré Couloir , an ice line on the triangular rocky buttress just left of the slopes that avalanched. As we walked up toward the base of the climb, my partner, John Harlin, cautioned me against wandering too close to the ice slopes to our right. At the time this seemed silly. Sure, I could see the big seracs perched overhead, but there were dozens of people plodding up and down the climbers' track that zigzagged along the face that morning. How dangerous could it be?

Avalanche professionals are well aware of the perils of this sort of thinking. When a steep slope is carved up by ski tracks, it must be safe, right? After your buddy skis an unbroken field of powder, it obviously ain't gonna slide, right? Avalanche pros urge skiers to make their own decisions, but humans are herd animals and there is a false sense of safety in numbers.

I remember walking toward Windy Corner on Denali and passing enormous green blocks of ice along the climbers' trail. These desk-size ice boulders had obviously tumbled thousands of feet down the West Buttress and would have obliterated anyone traversing the slope. We hurried past this spot as quickly as our lungs and tired legs would allow, yet two separate parties of climbers had chosen to stop here for lunch, leaning their bodies against the ice blocks that seemed to have been placed there like magical back rests.

The dangers of the herd mentality are greater on often-guided peaks like Mont Blanc. The average climber thinks: If the guides are going up, it must be safe. But even though professional guides may have the background and skills to assess the risks better than you or I, they're still tossing the dice each time they traverse a slope under seracs. It's still a gamble.

The risks on Mont Blanc du Tacul are well-known. An avalanche in almost the exact same spot killed a climber as recently as 2005. But last week it was quickly back to business as usual on this slope, one of the standard routes toward Western Europe's highest peak, with numerous parties criss-crossing the deadly avalanche debris, no doubt aware of the accident but unwilling to change plans. Sometimes humans aren't the smartest animals.