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Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Morning Time Waster: 33 Years Ago on Ben Nevis

John Cunningham soloing a pastiche of routes on Ben Nevis in 1976. This understated, beautiful film was shot by Charles Grosbeck and produced by Yvon Chouinard. Watching Cunningham's speed and technique, it's easy to see why Scottish climbing and equipment were so influential on the development of modern ice climbing. Tragically, Cunningham died in 1980 when a wave swept him into the sea below the cliffs of Anglesey.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Revolver Carabiner for Glacier Travel

Andrew McLean has posted an interesting idea at his often excellent Straight Chuter blog: Carry a DMM Revolver locking carabiner instead of a pulley in your crevasse-rescue kit for glacier travel. The idea is not that the Revolver has less friction than the average pulley—McLean's thinking is that this ’biner can serve many different purposes in glacial mountaineering and skiing, while the pulley really has only one use. Gear that does double or triple duty is good gear for lightweight ascents.

I'd be wary of the pulley (and, for that matter, the gate) icing up on this carabiner, which was designed for rock climbing. But it definitely seems like a worthwhile idea to experiment with.

McLean's blog has a few other interesting posts on glacier gear, including ropes and snow anchors.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You Gotta Love Colorado

Yesterday: Just my wife and I, all by ourselves, at the mega-popular Cactus Cliff at Shelf Road; rock climbing in T-shirts (at least for a while); pale sun gleaming off the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains. The calm before the storm.

Today: A foot of snow on my deck at noon, and it's not supposed to stop snowing until tomorrow night.

Later Today: Went skiing in the nearby open space late this afternoon. Pretty sticky, nasty snow and a stiff wind in the face, but, as they often say about alpine climbing, it doesn't have to be fun to be fun. Enzo sure liked it.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Banff Photo Contest Winners

It looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings, but in fact it's Canadian Nathalie Daoust's image from Switzerland, the grand-prize winner in the 2009 Banff Mountain Photography Competition. Three of my favorites from the other winners:

Look very closely at that last one: There's a North Vancouver mountain biker suspended in a dew drop. No Photoshop involved, swears photographer Jordan Manley, just a good eye and painstaking set-up.

See all the 2009 winners at the Banff Centre website.


Friday, October 23, 2009

The Ultimate Tick List

At Rock & Ice, we once published a supplement called the Ultimate Tick List. We surveyed readers for their recommendations of the absolute best boulder problems and rock, ice, and alpine climbs in North America, and then compiled the answers into a list of 500 climbs to go at. As often happens in these surveys, the response rate wasn't as great as we'd have liked, and some geographic areas were woefully under-represented. We editors had to do some backing and filling, and mistakes were made. One climb was listed twice (under slightly different names), and somehow the short, slick, forgettable sport climb Deck Chairs on the Titanic at Table Mountain made it onto the list of the absolute best climbs in Colorado. But it was still a cool project, and readers seemed to like it. Climbers love hit lists.

Now, the excellent Mountain Project website has created a new method for generating tick lists. Using a secret algorithm that weighs star ratings and other factors, Mountain Project automatically generates a list of "The Classics" for each area it covers, whether that area is Boulder (3,201 routes in the database this morning) or the west face of the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon (20 routes). It's a slick gizmo, and it seems to work pretty well, though of course it's easy to quibble. Example: The Wasp, a 95-foot route on a small crag in Rocky Mountain National Park is picked as one of Colorado's most classic "alpine rock" routes. Really? Overall, though, Mountain Project has created a very useful tool.

I wondered if I could create a personal Ultimate Tick List by looking at Mountain Project's lists of classics at several areas where I've done a lot of climbing over the years. How many climbs would I have missed in the grades I usually climb, which top out at 5.11 on rock these days? Were there entire areas I should be moving to the top of my hit list? I looked at Eldorado Canyon in Colorado, Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire, the Moab area in Utah, Yosemite Valley, Colorado ice & mixed, and Colorado alpine rock.

Eldorado was a bust: I've already done all 20 routes on the classics list, though I'm sure I could find some hidden gems if I drilled down to the lists at individual crags or sectors. At Cathedral Ledge, I found only one climb I hadn't done, and it's a beauty: Camber, a two-pitch partly bolted route that didn't exist when I did most of my New Hampshire climbing, back in the ’80s. That's definitely worth putting on the list. I suppose I also should add the Prow, because I've only aid-climbed it. A free attempt certainly needs to be on my list. Liquid Sky (5.13b)? I don't think so. The list of 20 classics in the Moab area held two routes in Indian Creek Canyon I haven't done—nice to know about, but not worth a trip in their own right.

Yosemite Valley was more interesting. Midnight Lightning was out—I'll never get farther than fondling the starting holds on that one. But I realized I'd never done some moderate classics, like Nutcracker or Sons and Yesterday. And though I've done three El Cap routes, one of them is not the Nose. Hmmm.....

I was also surprised to see how many classic routes I still haven't done in Colorado's high mountains: the Little Bear-Blanca traverse, Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak, Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle, Syke's Sickle on Spearhead, and Pervertical Sanctuary on the Diamond. Makes me wish winter weren't coming on so I could get after this list.

On the other hand, the richest lode of undone classics I found is just about to come into season. I was astonished to see that I had never climbed almost half the classic routes on the Colorado ice and mixed list. Most of these are in southwestern Colorado, a six-hour drive from home, but that's a pretty lame excuse. So here's my goal for the 2009-2010 ice season: Finish the list. I may have to find someone to drag me up the Talisman (WI6 M6), and one or two of these routes may never come into condition this year, but the winter is long and, for the moment at least, my motivation is high.

Mountain Project's Classics lists offer a great tool for planning visits to unfamiliar areas, and you may be surprised at what you learn about old familiar crags. However, I did notice that Deck Chairs on the Titanic made the list for Table Mountain. No system is perfect.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: "Progression"

If you're the type who dismisses climbing films as amateurish assemblages of clips cobbled together with no story line and a boorish soundtrack—in a phrase: climbing porn—do yourself a favor and check out Progression, the latest film from Big Up Productions (i.e., brothers Josh and Brett Lowell plus Cooper Roberts). It will change your perception of what a climbing film can be.

Progression is a collection of mini-stories about major ascents and ground-breaking climbers—in that way, it's similar to past films of the type. But the quality of the photography, the camera angles, the storytelling, and above all the editing raise Progression to a new level, surpassing even the high bar set by previous Big Up titles. Each segment is compelling—Progression even manages to make lead-climbing competitions feel super-exciting—and the transitions are smooth. The filmmakers assume they have knowledgeable viewers, and they adhere to the storyteller's mantra: Show, don't tell. When Adam Ondra makes 18 big moves above his last pro on the second ascent of Papichulo (5.15a), the narrator doesn't have to tell us, "Look at that run-out!" and Josh Lowell doesn't. When Kevin Jorgeson's belayer fumbles with the Gri-gri just as Jorgeson is about to attempt the second ascent of the Groove (E11), the film doesn't comment. We get it.

Watching Progression, I realized this film does for hard rock climbing in the year 2008 what the American Alpine Journal (which I help edit) does for alpine and big-wall routes around the world: It selects and documents many of the best routes of the year for posterity. But Progression (along with Big Up's Dosage series of annual videos from years past) does this in a visceral way that print can never achieve. It makes me jealous of the filmmakers—imagine if it were possible to create such a work for alpine climbing each year!

Big Up is offering Progression in both DVD and downloadable forms; the download costs just $19.95 (a saving of 10 bucks), but it's a 1.8 GB file, so you need a good connection, and it doesn't come with the many extras included with the DVD. These include a long segment on Tommy Caldwell and Justen Sjong's first free ascent of Magic Mushroom on El Cap, which only gets a tease in the final cut of the film. Still, the HD download version looks great on my computer and gives me the opportunity to open the film whenever I'm bored at work.

By the way, the film has a long segment on Caldwell's super-project on El Cap's southeast face, but doesn't ever name the route. At the time, Caldwell was trying to maintain a not-too-well-kept-secret. The route is Mescalito, and Tommy and Kevin Jorgeson are back on it this fall.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday Morning Time Waster II

"Bit of a sneaky line there!"


Tuesday Morning Time Waster

"Mom, come here, there's a black guy down here!"


Friday, October 16, 2009

Total Abandon!

After several false starts due to illness and road closures, Jack Roberts and I made it to Pikes Peak yesterday and climbed the classic ice route Total Abandon. This climb forms occasionally in the fall on the right side of a dramatic granite buttress on Pikes' north face, starting about 900 feet below the 14,115-foot summit. The approach is more akin to a Chamonix cable-car lift than the usual American wilderness slog: To get to the route, you drive up the Pikes Peak toll road ($10/person), park at 13,400 feet, and follow the so-called Hero Traverse for an hour. But you have to be fast: The road doesn't open until 9 a.m. in late fall, and there's a $100 per hour fine if you don't make it down to the gate by 5 p.m.

There's also the problem of knowing if the road will even open for the day. We started calling on Monday afternoon, hoping to climb the route this week, but the toll road was closed on the upper mountain Tuesday and Wednesday because of snow and high winds. With a better forecast for Thursday, we called again Wednesday afternoon, but the staff wouldn't commit to opening the road the next day. Since we live two hours' drive away, we decided to pack both rock and ice gear, plan to arrive soon after the gate opened at 9, and hope for the best. When we arrived, we were told the road was only open to the 16-mile mark—two miles short of the Hero Traverse—but with clear skies overhead we figured they'd probably get the road open by the time we got there. And that's what happened: A ranger had blocked the road just above the parking area, but that was OK with us. We had no intention of driving to the summit.

I had never been on Pikes Peak. Although it towers 8,000 feet over Colorado Springs, the mountain seems like a bland hump from a distance. I was surprised at how beautiful and complex the peak appeared up-close. Negotiating the Hero Traverse into the north face cirque, we saw countless pink-granite buttresses and intriguing gullies. The views made me want to return in spring, when this basin is filled with corn snow, and in summer for high-altitude rock climbs.

We turned a corner and were happy to see a line of white ice on our route, deep in a dark corner. The late road opening had forced perhaps the latest alpine start I'd ever experienced—we didn't rope up until around 11:15—but the three-pitch route went smoothly: A thin ribbon of sticky ice and short mixed steps; a very steep chimney with ice on the left wall and rock on the right, made awkward because both of us wore packs; and a long, somewhat tedious escape pitch of steep snow with occasional tenuous chockstones to surmount. At nearly 14,000 feet, we were not moving quickly, but even so we were back at the car by 3 p.m. There, we found a flat tire on Jack's car.

Changing a tire at 13,400 feet in mid-October is no joy, but we still had plenty of time to spare before the 5 p.m. penalty hour would begin. Even with the flat and a stop for a repair on the way home, we were back in Boulder less than 12 hours after leaving—one of the strangest and yet most satisfying alpine days I've done in years.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Wisdom of Will

Will Gadd has been posting a fascinating series of mini-essays on training and competition at his always-excellent blog, and his "Random Training Thoughts #5: Mental is particularly interesting. This paragraph really jumped out at me, vis-à-vis my own climbing:

"Worry about the things you can control, and get them right. Don't show up with your blown-out laces about to break. Be well-fed, well-hydrated, well-dressed, etc., etc. This a really deep well to look down once you get going on it..."

So true. Basically it's piss-poor preparation equals piss-poor performance. We all know it, but how often do we look deep into that well and make the changes we ought to? Speaking specifically of competition, Gadd continues:

"You can't control other people's results, or even your own. You can only control how well you perform. If you perform well you'll get a good result, but worrying about the result is wasted energy."

I rarely train intensively for my sports, and I compete even less often, but Gadd's advice just as well to the "non-competitive" climbing I love, especially alpine climbing with its many variables. If you prepare well, make good decisions about the things you can't control (weather, snow conditions, etc.), and enjoy the climb itself more than the summit, you'll be a happy and successful climber.

But don't take my word for it. Read Will's excellent posts for yourself.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Altitude: It's More Dangerous Than You Thought

A number of years ago, I climbed from the 14,000-foot camp on Denali to the Football Field at 19,500 feet in six or seven hours. I was very well acclimatized to 14,000 feet, and I didn't feel any symptoms of acute mountain sickness other than being very tired. Yet, according to an article in the October Outside, I likely experienced some brain damage during this ascent.

Douglas Fields, a climber and neuroscientist, reported on the work of Spanish neuroradiologist Nicholás Fayed, who has studied brain scans of mountaineers returning from relatively low peaks around the world. It's long been known that high-altitude mountaineers may experience some permanent changes in their brains—and resulting loss of function—after climbing over 8,000 meters without supplementary oxygen. But Fayed and colleagues are documenting abnormalities in the brains of climbers on peaks as low as Mont Blanc (15,771 feet).

The good news? Doctors believe that proper acclimatization—averaging no more than 1,000 to 2,000 feet per day of ascent during a big climb—can prevent this kind of damage. The bad news? Few climbers have the time or patience to go that slow.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking the Tools for a Walk

The Setup:
1) The road past Brainard Lake to the Indian Peaks trailheads was open unusually late this fall.
2) Ice has already been climbed this month on Pikes Peak and in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jack Roberts, my climbing partner, had climbed near Longs Peak just a couple of days earlier.
3. Jeff Lowe had said "good mixed lines" occasionally form on the north side of Little Pawnee Peak, above Brainard Lake.
4. Snow had fallen off and on in these mountains for a couple of weeks, the perfect setup for melt-freeze autumn mixed climbing.

The Reality:
1. About a foot of snow on the ground at 11,000.
2. Almost no ice. Seems like it's been too cloudy and cold in this drainage to form ice. No melting, too much freezing.

Oh well. Sometimes you just have to go look for yourselves.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

If It's Good Enough for Steve Climber, It's Good Enough for Me

"Depending on the conditions, I wear any and all of the Archwood Flextrek packs." —Steve Climber, the outdoors' ultimate enthusiast.

OK, this clip is a year old. But it hasn't been on the Mountain World before, and it's still pretty funny. "You can dominate the landscape!"


Friday, October 09, 2009

Exaggerated Snow Reports? Say It Ain't So!

Loveland opened Wednesday with an 74-inch base and eight inches of fresh powder. A-Basin will open today, but later than scheduled because they're still digging out the chairlifts. Believe it? Then you likely also trust the resorts' regular snow reports. Dartmouth professors have proved what we already know: "Ski resorts self-report 23 percent more natural snowfall on weekends," even though "there is no such weekend effect in government precipitation data." Amusingly, the study noted that such exaggeration fell sharply last winter after people started posting real-time iPhone reports at

BTW, the part about Loveland and Arapahoe Basin opening this week is true. Colorado has had an exceptionally cold, wet fall. Really.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Department of Weenieness: Slab Division

Is it just me, or does it seem crazy that slabs—the routes that feel least secure to climb, where you might grease off at any moment, and where it's nearly guaranteed that you won't fall cleanly into empty space—are almost always protected with widely spaced bolts? Why aren't slabs better protected?

Of course there are historical reasons for this. In the old days, climbs were established on the lead, and the leader could only stop moving and hand-drill a bolt if he could find a ledge or a minuscule foothold to stand on. No wonder the bolts were far apart. Today, almost every bolted climb is established on rappel, and the only limit to the number of bolts the first ascensionist places is stinginess. Or is it? There's also a weird foreshortening effect that somehow makes bolts look closer together (from the ground) on low-angle terrain than they do on overhangs, and this works against adequate bolting on slabs. A line of bolts that would look perfectly natural on a steep limestone sport climb might look obscene on a granite slab. And it's a kinesthetic too: You tend to cover ground much quicker on slabs (once you stop quaking and start moving), and so you come up on the bolts quicker.

Still, grade for grade, most climbers are much more likely to fall from a slab climb than a vertical climb, and for historic, aesthetic, and kinesthetic reasons, they're going to fall a lot farther. It just doesn't seem right.

[Photo: Jason Kaplan/]


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Wednesday Morning Time Waster: Cross-Country Snowboarding. It's phlat!


Wednesday Morning Time Waster: Wrangell–St. Elias

If this doesn't make you want to go to Alaska, nothing will. Click here for a gorgeous narrated slide show of a 33-day tour of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park: 25 days on foot, eight days in a raft. Zero days on trails. Zero non-ranger visitors encountered. Incredible photos.

Anyone know Gnarwhale, who posted this on Teton Gravity Research, or the other folks in these photos? I'd like to give credit where it's due. This is one of the best trip reports I've ever seen online. Tip of the hat to Fitz Cahall for pointing it out. Update: According to a comment below, Gnarwhale is Jim Harris from Salt Lake City.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Events You'll Never See in the USA

The Pro BASE World Cup: BASE jumping for distance and speed. Uh-huh. Picture this in Yosemite Valley. Not gonna happen.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Book News: Desert Towers, Kor, Skinner, and More

Steve "Crusher" Bartlett came by the other day to show me the layout of a super-cool new book he's doing on the desert towers of the Colorado Plateau. It's a collection of Crusher's research and personal anecdotes, plus other people's stories. (He's reproducing my 1997 story from Rock & Ice about tower routes in Utah's Monument Basin; that's me belaying Dave Goldstein on the cover, during a hammerless ascent of the Shark's Fin's wicked-steep northeast arête.) The coolest thing about Crusher's book, which he expects to have out in early 2010 (Sharp End Books), is the wealth of historical photos he's managed to dig up. I found a few old familiar shots of Layton Kor and the like, but I'd never seen dozens and dozens of the other images in the coffee-table book.

The digging Crusher has done is a huge service to fans of climbing history, and it makes me wonder what other great photos from important American climbing areas are languishing in elderly climbers' closets, the Kodachrome slides slowly fading. Hopefully, other climber-authors will be as inspired as Crusher has been to root out these gems before they're lost forever.

A couple of other interesting books in the works: Stewart Green and Cameron Burns are both working on Layton Kor books (a scrapbook of Kor stories and a biography—amazing there hasn't been one yet), and Joe Josephson is writing a book about Todd Skinner.

The Stone Masters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, with photos by Dean Fidelman and text by John Long, will be available any day. Should be very good, and very popular, though I confess I'm just about over the whole Yosemite in the ’70s thing.

Finally, three esteemed Canadian authors and photographers, Chris Atkinson, Kevin McLane, and Marc Piché, are teaming up on the Alpine Canada Book Project, which will produce two books: a selected-climbs guidebook and a coffee-table book, both about Canada's finest mountain routes. Due out in 2010. Interestingly, the books are being copublished by Elaho Press and Arc'teryx, the gear and clothing maker, just as Patagonia Inc. recently published Steve House's memoir. Have we come to the point where enlisting a big corporate backer is the only way to get important climbing books published?