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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Kor in Rifle

Mike Pont recently told me a fun story about the early climbing days in Rifle, Colorado, where he was part of a small crew that bolted many of the classic sport routes in the limestone canyon, back in the early 1990s. Decades earlier, Layton Kor had aid-climbed a couple of routes in the canyon—just a few of the hundreds of new routes he established throughout the American West in the 1950s and ’60s. One day, Kor was fishing for trout in Rifle Creek as Mike and Kurt Smith bolted routes in what would become the Wasteland cave. Kor strolled over to watch the two climbers blasting in bolts with a power drill. "Man," he said, "if I'd had one of those things, you guys would have nothing left!"

Kor, now 70, lives in Arizona and is suffering from kidney disease. Climbers Stewart Green and Steph Davis have organized an online effort to raise money for his deductibles and copays. The Layton Kor Climbing website is packed with great Kor photos and fun prizes for donors. Kudos for this cool effort to help out one of America's greatest rock climbers.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Morning Time-Waster: Tight Turns

Skier and helmet-cam videographer Cody Townsend was coy about the location of this amazing slot, but Steve Romeo of TetonAT identified it: the Terminal Cancer Couloir in Nevada's Ruby Mountains. Skiing Magazine posted the same clip and did a little interview with Townsend.

Q. Can you...give us some tips on how to ski a narrow shot like this?

A. When it comes to skiing a couloir fast, i.e. no mountaineer jump turning, the key is to get a little bit of slide out of the end of your turn. If you full carve slalom turn it, you'll be going out-of-control fast in a matter of moments. The little "slarve" (sliding-carve, aka McConkey Turn) at the end of your turn helps control your speed but it still allows you to keep your tips down the fall line. My last piece of advice: Be in very good shape. It was such a tiring climb and ski that my legs felt like Jet Li had used them for kicking practice once this thing was done.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

McSparseness: Find the Dark Spots on the Map. Go There.

This brilliant map, created by photographer Steve Von Worley, visually represents the density of McDonald's restaurants—all 13,000-plus of them—in the Lower 48. The bright lights of the Golden Arches sprawl across the map in constellations of human yuckiness. So where can we find American wilderness—the black holes of happiness on this map? Best to quote Von Worley himself, who writes on his blog:

"As expected, McDonald’s cluster at the population centers and hug the highway grid. East of the Mississippi, there’s wall-to-wall coverage, except for a handful of meager gaps centered on the Adirondacks, inland Maine, the Everglades, and outlying West Virginia. For maximum McSparseness, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota."

Von Worley calculated that the farthest you can get from a McDonald's in the continental U.S. is in north-central South Dakota: 145 miles by car or 107 miles as the McNugget-hungry crow flies. I'll bet there's a Subway that's closer.

[Tip of the hat to Clyde Soles for pointing out this gem.]


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Link of the Week

There's a great post and discussion at Lou Dawson's Wild Snow site about skiing the 8,000-meter peaks, sparked by various media reports that American Dave Watson "skied K2" this summer. He didn't: He skied on K2, starting from about 8,350 meters on the 8,611-meter peak and descending the notorious Bottleneck on skis; Watson continued down to Camp 3 at ca. 7,250 meters, and then rappeled about 650 meters, past Camp 2 and House's Chimney, before skiing down to advanced base camp. A superb outing, but not a ski descent of K2 by almost anyone's definition.

The definition of "ski descent," and the details of what has been skied on 8,000-meter peaks, is the subject of a long and fascinating series of comments from Watson, the Swedish high-altitude skier Fredrik Ericsson (who also attempted K2 this summer), Andrew McLean, and many other experts. It's a comment trail that stands out for both the caliber of the participants and the civility of the discussion. Well worth reading.

In the photo: Dave Watson's tracks on K2, from the Bottleneck down to the Shoulder (courtesy of


Monday, September 21, 2009

Gear I'm Liking

Here are five pieces of equipment I've been using lately that have become real favorites:

Petzl Reverso 3 belay device. Clean, lightweight, and versatile—this device does it all.

Mountain Hardwear Runout climbing pants. Super-comfortable. Fit well under a harness. Look good enough to wear out to dinner—at least until you smear them with chalk and aluminum grime from your rope.

70-meter ropes. I'm mostly using a Mammut Infinity 9.5, which is incredibly burly despite its slender diameter, but the real point is how I've more or less completely switched over to 70s. A 70-meter cord weighs about 15 percent more than a 60 in the pack, and it's definitely a beast to coil. But the extra length comes in handy so often, whether it's stretching the rope on alpine routes or eliminating an extra rap line while cragging.

Black Diamond C3 cams. My go-to cams for small placements. Though these cams only have three lobes, they feel more secure than similarly sized four-cam units. I'm only using the two largest sizes (red and yellow). Must fix that.

CiloGear 45L WorkSack. Disclaimer: CiloGear is expected to start sponsoring this blog soon. But that doesn't affect my view of this 45-liter pack, which I love for its light weight, clean design, and load-carrying flexibility and comfort. I've only used the pack for backpacking and cragging so far, but there's fresh snow in the mountains above my home this morning—ice season may begin this week!


Friday, September 18, 2009

Alex Honnold: The AAC's Young Climber of the Year (Friday Morning Time Waster)

Alex Honnold will receive the American Alpine Club's Robert Hicks Bates Award for young climbers (25 and under) in October. Talk about well-deserved! At 23, Honnold already has a list of accomplishments that's broad and deep. Check out the video below for just one aspect: extremely difficult desert crack climbs.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mountain Movie Clichés

Attention filmmakers: Enough with the clichéd time-lapse scenes of clouds whipping by mountain peaks! These are usually shot at dawn or sunset, so you get an alpenglow wash across the screen along with the cloudscape. How many mountain films open this way? Far too many. Yeah, we're in a dramatic mountain setting...we get it!

Cliché No. 2: Prayer flags snapping in the breeze.

Cliché No. 3: POV down a gaping crevasse while walking across a ladder in the Khumbu Ice Fall. Move on. We're so over it.

Got a mountain-movie peeve of your own? Share it in the comments.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Highest Tree in the Rockies?

In late August, Dave Goldstein climbed 13,803-foot Vestal Peak in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and about 100 feet below the summit he found a small fir tree. This isn't a shrub or wind-stunted krummholz—the tree (probably a subalpine fir) stands thigh-high. It's growing on an east-facing ledge, with a six-foot rock wall behind it, at around 13,700 feet (4,175 meters).

The usual tree line in Colorado is no higher than about 11,700 feet (3,566m). Is this climate change? Or did this seed just find an unusually sheltered spot to take root? Either way, this could be the highest tree in the Rocky Mountains. Have you seen one that's higher? Let me know.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

San Juans Peakbagging, Day 3 and Out

Still damp from the previous day's storm and with no tent to capture our body heat, neither Dave nor I slept well at 11,000 feet in September in our one-pound down bags. Still, the morning dawned clear, and so we packed up and began the the three-mile hike to Jagged Mountain, leaving most of our gear at the cabin. The ground was still wet in No Name valley, but few other signs of the storm remained, and the walls of Monitor and Animas glowed pink across the valley.

Jagged is one of Colorado's few technical mountains—its summit is a 500-foot-high turreted fin, cresting on one spire at 13,824 feet. To reach Jagged's north face, you hike to a 13,000-foot pass and then traverse steep grassy slopes to the base. The route is rated 5.0 to 5.2, but it's mostly steep scrambling up well-trodden grass hummocks and short boulder problems. Good luck sticking the landing if you blow it, though. We carried a 120-foot length of thin rope and a few pieces of gear, but the only time we actually belayed was when we got off-route in the first few feet and had to traverse a delicate, wet slab to regain the correct line.

On top we looked over to Sunlight, Windom, and Eolus, the 14'ers we'd hoped to climb the next day. We could see Pigeon and Turret, and retrace the rough route we had followed through the Ruby Creek basin to get to No Name. But black clouds already were building over Jagged by 10 a.m., and so we hastily downclimbed and rappeled. (A 120-foot rope is perfect for the three rappels on Jagged, by the way.) By 1 p.m. we were back at the cabin, and we decided to push for the railroad tracks. We walked down No Name Creek, following a good trail until the Animas River, where the route devolved to a game trail through dense patches of blowdown. We spent the night by the tracks, outside an old shed we planned to use for shelter if it rained, and then caught the train back to Silverton in the morning. Once again, the day had dawned clear, and of course we kicked ourselves for not pushing over the pass into Chicago Basin the day before—tent or no tent. But we'd already done plenty—12,000 vertical feet and three peaks in two and a half days. And later in the day, as I was driving home, Dave called me from Telluride. I could hear the rain slapping his car. "You should see the sky—it's completely black," he said. "I can't see a single peak." So I guess we made the right call.


Friday, September 11, 2009

San Juans Peakbagging, Day 2.5

Just after we crossed Ruby–No Name Pass, the storm hit and we scurried down through a boulder field, looking for shelter from the graupel and wind. Eventually we found a hole that we could crawl into. As the storm eased, we emerged and saw a world gone white.

We picked up our packs and continued down steep grassy slopes toward No Name Creek. I had worn boots for this trip but Dave had chosen approach shoes, and now he slipped and fell repeatedly as we plunged into a wet, icy forest. At the foot of the pass, we pushed through a broad stand of head-high willows, soaking us to the skin. After climbing two high 13'ers and crossing two high passes—nearly 5,000 feet of vertical gain and more than 6,000 feet of loss that day—we were tired and ready to stop. Then, as we emerged on the faint trail on the north side of No Name Creek, Dave asked, "Hey, can you check my pack to see if the tent poles are still there?"

Nope. The sleeve of poles and pegs had been stripped from his pack during one of his tumbles or in the dense brush. Dave volunteered to march back through the willows to the last place we had stopped for a break, but it was hopeless. The poles were gone. (Since I had last fixed the poles to Dave's pack, I should blame myself, but I'm only human. Let's split the blame 50-50.) We had four nights ahead of us, a forecast promising a "monsoonal surge" from the remnants of Hurricane Jimena, and no tent.

Dave had read of an abandoned mining cabin a ways down No Name Creek—farther from Jagged Mountain, but perhaps offering a bit of shelter—and so we headed that way. The cabin's roof had gaping holes but was intact in one corner, and as we brewed hot drinks and stripped out of wet clothes, we rigged the tent as a tarp inside the ramshackle structure. It seemed better than nothing. Continuing our full plan—Jagged Mountain and then the high traverse to Chicago Basin for two more days of climbing—now seemed out of the question, given the gloomy forecast. But we could still climb Jagged in the morning, assuming we got any sleep that night.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

San Juans Peakbagging, Day 2

Pigeon Peak was easier than we'd been led to expect—the route was purported to have some 4th class climbing, but we scarcely even used our hands. But the view from the top was spectacular, including a look to the northeast to Jagged Peak. We hoped to sleep at Jagged's foot that same night, and it looked a long, long way away.

After dropping back to our packs at around 12,000 feet, we contoured around Pigeon's south side and up to a saddle at about 13,100 feet. From here we climbed the west side of Turret Peak (13,835 feet) and quickly dropped back to the saddle for lunch. We’d been following two guys from Texas who had been surprised to see us show up in the remote campsite below Pigeon (“We thought you were ghosts!”), but now we left them and plunged into the isolated Ruby Creek drainage. We wouldn’t see another soul for about 24 hours—a huge contrast with busy Chicago Basin, just to our south.

Ruby Creek may be the most wild and beautiful spot I’ve seen in Colorado. It's ringed by 13’ers bristling with gray and orange granite buttresses, many of which have never been climbed. A braided creek winds across the flat floor of the upper basin, like a scene from Alaska or the Canadian Rockies. Although the Ruby Creek drainage has been frequented by Outward Bound crews and other hikers for years, it appeared untrammeled. If a grizzly had splashed across the creek or a wolf loped across the tundra, it wouldn’t have seemed the least bit out of place.

Black clouds piled up as we climbed toward Ruby–No Name Pass to leave this magical basin. After an ill-advised creek-side detour through some willows, I’d lost Dave—he was far ahead. Fearful of the impending storm, I pushed as hard as I could to catch him. We crested the 12,800-foot pass, and then, just down the other side, wind and hail slammed into us. Our plan for the coming days was about to be severely altered.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

San Juans Peakbagging, Day 1

Dave Goldstein wanted to bag the four high 13'ers in the Weminuche Wilderness that he hadn't already ticked, and I'd never climbed any of these remote mountains in southwestern Colorado, so we laid plans for a five-day trip that would take in all four peaks by traversing some high, trail-less passes. In the end, we only got three of the four peaks, in two and a half days, but the experience was unforgettable.

Although you can walk to the isolated outpost of Needleton, where our approach began, most backpackers take the Durango & Silverton Railroad. For $89 round-trip (including a $10 charge for loading your pack into a boxcar), you can ride the historic narrow-gauge train for an hour instead of walking an eight-mile trail. No brainer.

All of the other hikers on the train were headed to Chicago Basin, the high camp for three Colorado 14'ers. Dave and I turned in the opposite direction. After about a quarter-mile of pleasant walking, we started clambering more or less straight uphill, with only an intermittent scrape of a trail to follow. The train had dropped us off just before 4 p.m., so we had only about three hours before dark to climb 3,500 vertical feet to the foot of Pigeon Mountain (13,972 feet). Fortunately, we did not get lost, and by evening we were pitching our little tent at the base of the west face. We dove into the tent early—the next day was going to be huge.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Across the Alps the Hard Way

Canadian Max Turgeon pulled off a lovely solo, self-supported, unmotorized traverse of the Alps, from Chamonix to Trieste, climbing classic big faces along the way, over 18 days in August. The stats are impressive: 1,236 kilometers of cycling, with 12,879 meters of elevation gain; 6,990 vertical meters of hiking; and 6,080 meters of climbing. But what's really impressive is how little gear he carried. The equipment in the tiny bike pack and day pack in these photos is it. Turgeon slept in gites and huts and bought food along the way. And he didn't change his clothes. At the end, "I almost threw them in the garbage, he said, "because I was afraid they wouldn't let me on the train."

Enjoying superb weather, Turgeon soloed seven classic Alpine routes: the Cassin route on the northeast face of the Piz Badile, the Vinatzer-Castiglioni on the south face of the Marmolada, the Wiessner route on the northeast face of the Civetta, the Spigolo Alvera-Pompanin on the south face of the Tofane di Rozes, the Spigolo Dibona on Cima Grande, the Spigolog Demuth on Cime Ovest, and the Skalaska route on the north face of Triglav in Slovenia. On Day 18 he swam in the Adriatic Sea.

Now that's a summer vacation. Well done, Max!