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Monday, August 31, 2009

So Close...

Stefan Griebel and Charlie Nuttelman finished the Longs Peak Triathlon in 10 hours 36 minutes—that's about six minutes shy of the fastest known time for the round-trip from Boulder to the northernmost 14'er in the Rockies by bike, running, and climbing, set by Neal Beidleman and Kevin Cooney way back in 1990. The two lost time because of big crowds on the Diamond during one of the last perfect weather days of the season, along with the tactical goof of stashing climbing shoes on Broadway, part way up the east face of Longs Peak, instead of the base—Nuttelman was forced to solo the 500-foot North Chimney (up to 5.6) in his running shoes, slowing him considerably. Despite running down from the summit to the trailhead in 1:09 (!!!), they couldn't make up enough time. Still, the two were philosophical about the effort. In a great trip report posted on his blog, Nuttelman said, "This journey will remain vivid in my memory for the rest of my days. More importantly, I knew that we had left everything we had on the table; record or no record, there is much satisfaction out of knowing that you tried your best and gave it your all."

In the photo: Charlie Nuttelman (left) and Stefan Griebel relaxing at the end of the Longs Peak Triathlon. Photo by Bill Wright.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Le Mot Juste

A small group of climbers stood around the kitchen at the end of a fun party. (My wife and I had hosted a dinner for the dZi Foundation with guests Jim Nowak, executive director, and Ben Ayers, Nepal director.) Naturally, we started comparing injuries and tweaks: the hand that wouldn't open fully, the loose shoulder, the creaky knees. Said Nowak: "It's an organ recital."


Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Morning Time-Waster

Coloradans Stefan Griebel and Charlie Nuttelman are attempting to set a new record for the so-called Longs Peak Triathlon today, and you can track their progress live because Griebel is carrying a SPOT tracking device that's uploading to this web page. The Longs Peak Triathlon has several permutations, but each involves biking from north Boulder to the Longs Peak trailhead (43 miles), running up the trail to the base of the east face (6.5 miles), and climbing the Diamond by the Casual Route (5.10); some aspirants do the round-trip. The fastest known time for the variation Griebel and Nuttelman are attempting—a round trip with gear cached on the mountain —is 10:30 (Beidleman-Cooney, 1990).

Griebel and Nuttelman left the intersection of Broadway and U.S. 36 in north Boulder at just after 5 this morning. As I write, about 1 hour 20 minutes later, they are part way along the steep climb up South St. Vrain Canyon. If all goes well, they should be back in Boulder by midafternoon.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Beyond the Mountain: The Slide Show

In my review of Steve House's Beyond the Mountain earlier this week, I neglected to mention a key theme that runs through the book: partnership. Indeed, as House says in a new narrated slide show at the Tin Shed, "I see [this] as a book about partnership." I can't argue, and his short online show on the subject is well worth watching. If you want to see House speak about his climbs and partners in person, he begins an extended book tour next week.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Annals of Obsession

Climbing all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks is a game that few have chosen to play—Ed Viesturs is the only American to complete the task. It's expensive, dangerous, and it usually requires many years of commitment. (Viesturs spent 16 years bagging all of them.) So imagine the obsession that would prompt someone to climb them all again—that's what Basque climber Juanito Oiarzabal has announced he'll do. The 53-year-old, who finished his first round on the 8,000-meter peaks in 1999 and then lost all his toes to frostbite while descending from the summit of K2 in 2004, told ExplorersWeb, "I already climbed seven of them twice, so the project is definitely underway.” Oy vey.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Beyond the Mountain

Steve House's first book, Beyond the Mountain, may not be a masterpiece, but it's the rare climbing book that I felt compelled to read cover to cover in just a few sittings, and it's certainly the best work about modern extreme alpinism in many years. And unlike some recent books on the subject, Beyond the Mountain is not just a collection of previously published articles but an entirely new work. The result is a revealing—but ultimately inconclusive—look into the life and mind of an extraordinary climber.

I used the word "extreme" above deliberately, as House is one of the rare American climbers whose feats—solo and with various partners—deserve the term, and because his uncompromising approach has often appeared extreme to other climbers. The book is framed by House's three attempts on Nanga Parbat spanning most of his adult life. Although he begins his prologue by writing "I've never been a storyteller," he is, in fact, a skillful writer. His accounts are rich with detail, and he is good with dialogue, capturing the distinctive voices of his willful partners. I'd read or edited accounts of many of the climbs covered in Beyond the Mountain, but the stories of his new routes in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, and Pakistan still felt fresh. And some of them were entirely unfamiliar: House's teenage exposure to hard-core European alpinism during a school exchange to Slovenia, his first expedition to Nanga Parbat, a terrifying solo crevasse epic in the Mont Blanc massif.

The book's epigraph is the Bonatti quote, "What is there, beyond the mountain, if not the man?" For House and his peers, they are one and the same: The style and difficulty of one's climbs distills the essence of the climber himself. With their exceedingly high standards, House and his partners have been faulted for their elitist attitude toward climbs and climbers that don't measure up. However, I found less of the alpine "Brotherhood" in Beyond the Mountain and more humility and self-deprecation. House recognizes that whatever exalted state he may find at the crux of a hard climb is fleeting, that "success is empty," as he writes in his prologue. "When I climb, I know I will descend. When I grow to love my partners I know that they may die.... The sum is zero, and so the goals become the plotlines to our lives." Is such a plot meaningful enough to sustain a man, to complete a life? Are the sacrifices—the failed marriage, the meager material rewards—worth those gossamer successes, those few transcendent moments in the mountains? Such questions may be unanswerable, and perhaps wisely, House doesn't try to give us a firm answer.

(He is also honest, and not too apologetic, about the taints of his chosen super-light style of alpinism: the littering of excess gear abandoned on summit pushes, the climbs "completed" without summits.)

House's storytelling didn't always work for me (particularly in the chronological back-and-forth of the final Nanga Parbat tale), and the book could have used another proofreading. But on the whole Beyond the Mountain is a richly rewarding work. Above all, House succeeds in humanizing an activity—an extreme—that few humans will ever experience.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dreaming of Zion

I spent a lot of time in Zion during the ’90s, doing many of the classic walls and putting up two new aid routes, but I barely scratched the surface of the free-climbing potential. After perusing Bryan Bird's new Zion Climbing: Free and Clean from Supertopo, I'm fully stoked for some all-free (or at least attempted all-free) return trips to southwestern Utah's stunning national park.

The new Zion guide follows the now-fully-dialed Supertopo format, with clean presentation, detailed topos, color photos, and a smattering of historical essays. Renan Ozturk's phantasmagoric paintings also enliven the pages, though you'll be squinting if you try to copy one of his topos to carry it up a route. Most of the classic free and aid big-wall routes are covered in depth, including details on Zion's notoriously difficult descents. But I'm most excited about the many, many cragging areas I'd only heard rumors of: Cragmont, Kung Fu Theater, the Confluence, and more. There's soooo much to do.

Looking over the routes I've done, I found the topos and descriptions to be clear and accurate, with one exception: The topo to Wigs in Space on Red Arch Mountain has a number of inaccuracies, including not even showing the crux pitch, a fun 5.11 up double finger cracks. (The topo calls it C1; there's a good description of the route on Mountain Project.) Since both of my new routes in Zion were aid climbs with extensive use of pitons and beaks, I had to ask Supertopo publisher Chris Mcnamara why he didn't include nailing routes. He gave a good answer: "Because nailing routes change so fast—by the time five people climbed a route, it would be way different. Also, I just don't think Zion nailing is that sustainable. If someone doesn't go up there and actively create nut placements, a lot of those nailing routes are just going to turn into beat-out eyesores."

I also wondered why Bird, a Zion local, didn't include the fantastic climbs of the Kolob Canyons, in Zion's high country, even though he did cover a route in the intriguing Eagle Crags south of the park entrance and a couple of the white domes to the east. Bird: "I didn't feel as thought I was the right guy for the job. I have climbed a ton of routes in the main canyon, but very little in Kolob." Anyway, part of the Zion experience has always been exploration. It's cool to leave a bit of mystery to some of the routes.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not Ready for Prime Time

Backpacker magazine produces super-cool "fly-over" trip reports on big hikes, using Google Earth technology, video, and other whiz-bang techniques. In conjunction with my feature article in the July-August issue about a big loop hike through Rocky Mountain National Park, the mag created this five-minute online tour. It's a slick piece of work by map editor Kris Wagner and the rest of the team—if you can get past my cheesy segments. One comment on YouTube nicely summed up my performance: "1:22 to 1:37 is pretty scary...."


Monday, August 17, 2009


For the last few months, I've been wearing Five Ten's Prisms as my primary rock shoe. When I first got the Prisms, I was skeptical of Five Ten's patented Faceted Edge Technology, in which two sections of the outside edge of the sole in the forefoot are squared off for greater contact with the rock. Was this a gimmick? I mean, who thinks so much about outside edging? Once the shoes were broken in, though, I didn't care if my backstepping performance had improved: I just liked the shoes. They're snug yet comfortable, well-constructed, and they feel super-precise on the kind of small-hold technical climbing that I prefer.

And a funny thing has happened: As I've worn the shoes, I've found myself paying more attention to my outside edging, and maybe feeling a bit more comfortable in a goofy stance on small holds. I'm still curious how well the Prism' faceted edge technology will fare in a resole. Assuming a good resoler can make them work, I give the Prisms a thumbs-up.

Photo: Not making the best use of the Five Ten Prisms' patented Faceted Edge Technology. Moosehorn crags, Utah. Photo by Chris Blackmon.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Consolation

"He died doing what he loved."

My wife hates that phrase, and after resisting for years, I'm coming to see her point. But wait, you say: Surely it’s better to die in an avalanche while skiing untracked powder or by falling from a favorite crag than to be mangled in a car crash or waste away in a cancer ward. Right? I used to think so, but this sad summer, when so many friends have died while climbing, “doing what he loved” feels like a feeble attempt to ease the pain of the living. The statement is accurate, but it's nowhere near adequate.

Last week my friend Craig Luebben was killed while climbing in the North Cascades. He was 49. Last week, too, the great Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin died at home at age 100. Cassin, of course, didn’t shy from risk. He began climbing new routes in the early 1930s, when gear and techniques were still primitive, and he completed major new routes in the Alps (including the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses), on Denali, and in Peru during a climbing career that spanned about half a century.

Craig also enjoyed the pleasures of risk, especially earlier in his climbing life—I remember once in the early 1990s watching him solo the Rigid Designator ice column in Vail one afternoon, and then learning that he had already free-soloed Bridalveil Falls and the Ames Ice Hose, on the other side of the state, that same day. However, as Craig aged, married, and had a daughter, Giluia, he dedicated most of his time to reducing risks for climbers: through guiding, teaching, writing instructional books, and field-testing gear. Although he succeeded on very difficult and sometimes dangerous climbs, he was among the most methodical and careful climbers I’ve ever tied in with. For the most part, he avoided high-altitude mountaineering, climbing’s deadliest game. Yet Craig died young and Cassin lived to 100 and died in bed. It doesn’t seem fair.

I know for certain that Craig Luebben did not want to die “doing what he loved.” He loved his young family—he loved living—too much to take any satisfaction in seeing his life cut short while climbing. When I saw Craig last—ironically, at a memorial in July for Jonny Copp, Micah Dash, and Wade Johnson—he told me with his big, enthusiastic smile how much he had enjoyed teaching Giulia to ski, and how much he looked forward to skiing with her this coming winter. Craig wanted to grow old and ski and climb and hike with Giulia and Silvia until his creaky bones could move no more.

I’m struggling this summer. Right now, climbing seems excessively dangerous and cruelly unfair—it cuts down even the most cautious among us. Yet I continue to climb. And though I can’t imagine a life without climbing, the loss of several friends in one summer makes continuing feel like a form of madness.

Three days ago I stood beneath a crag in the Uintas in eastern Utah, satisfied with the route I’d just led, pleased to watch my wife smoothly climbing above me, relaxed and happy in the warm sunshine at 10,000 feet, and I found myself staring at the fingers of my right hand, loose but ready around the rope a few inches from my belay device, and suddenly I had a vision of how easy it would be to make a careless mistake and let go at the wrong time. We were sport climbing on half-pitch routes—among the safest climbing that’s possible—yet my belay hand seemed too weak, the margins too thin, the responsibility too great. I wanted to call to Chris to come down to the relative safety of the flat earth, to take our chances with the perils of I-80 and irreversible aging. But I didn’t. She was having too much fun; I was having too much fun; this is what we do.

My friend and colleague Kelly Cordes just wrote a beautiful short piece in the new Alpine Briefs about his struggle with the death of Jonny Copp this summer in China. In one passage, Kelly wrote:

…We console ourselves with talk of inspiration and memories, and how the ones we lost wouldn’t want us to be sad. We whisper wistful “if onlys,” but it remains undeniable that the risks were part of the person, as all of our experiences make us who we are—that the close calls and willingness to go came with the love and laughter and joy and inspiration, and you can not go back and remove one component from an integral whole. It was him. All of it.

I couldn’t agree more—the risks, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the joys of climbing shaped Jonny and shaped Craig, and they’ve shaped me, too. But I don’t want to die doing what I love. I want to die like Cassin, looking back on a lifetime of doing it. The lesson for me in Craig’s death—and Jonny’s and Micah’s and John Bachar’s, and so many others over the years—is not to quit climbing. The lesson is to focus more intently when I’m doing it, so I can draw even more from climbing’s infinite trials and gifts, and so, with great care and a bit of luck, I won’t die in the process.


Wednesday Morning Time Waster

A fun video of Renan Ozturk and Zach Smith's recent trip to the Ruth Gorge in Alaska, where they did a 12-hour ascent of the classic Cobra Pillar on Mt. Barrill and made a serious attempt on the "Tooth Traverse," an elegant dream of a link-up from the Sugar Tooth to the Moose's Tooth. This video was first posted in the Journal section of Black Diamond's rich and active new website—an excellent time-waster in its own right.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Alpine Briefs 4

The fourth edition of Alpine Briefs has been published. Check it out!


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Mysteries of the North

Nancy Hansen, the NewsNet editor for the Alpine Club of Canada, spotted this unusual climber car at the parking lot for Bugaboo Provincial Park on July 23. This stretch limo drove some 40 kilometers of logging roads to park at the trailhead for the granite spires of the Bugaboos. (The posts around it support wire fencing designed to keep porcupines from gnawing on hoses and tires.) But what climber-celebrity began the rugged approach to the Bugs in such style? David Lee Roth? Arthur Sulzberger Jr.? Tom Cruise?

Inquiring minds want to know.