Saturday, June 6, 2009

Yosemite Update

My comment about Hetch Hetchy being more peaceful on the Memorial Day weekend than Yosemite Valley provoked a comment chiding me for not supporting restoration of the Hetch Hetchy to its origianl, pre-damming condition. I had no idea that anyone was proposing restoration of that flooded valley, but learned with a bit of internet research that an organization called "Restore Hetch Hetchy" is proposing exactly that. It's an interesting idea. Check out their website (find it by serching one the organization's name).

Marc and I finished his week here by climbing Munginella and making an attempt on Royal Arches. I managed to turn the relatively tame Munginella (3 pitch, 5.6) into something of an adventure. After Marc led the first pitch without incident, I started up pitch two as a thunderstorm threatened. Not content to climb the obvious corner, I headed right to have a look around an arete. As I got twenty or thirty feet up, it started to sprinkle. I realized I was off route, but I spotted a bolt and two rivets on the arete above me. I decided I had a better chance of beating the hard rain to the top if I kept on up the arete than if I took the time to go down and get back on route. So, up I went.

I'll just get up and clip that first rivet. Hmmm. This is pretty thin. Ahh. There's the rivet; got it clipped; that's better. But its still might thin on this arete, and the raindrops aren't helping the friction on these smears. But here's the bolt. That's solid. Now for the last rivet, Got it; but now where do I go? No more pro above, better traverse left to that big crack. This is a bit thin, but then I am Traverso Man. Yep, there is the crack, nice big cam goes right in. Whew! Its getting wetter and wetter; I better get this rope up to the top before things get too slippery to climb. Those cracks at the top look good. I'll head for them and combine pitches two and three.

I got up to the cracks (nice 5.7 hand ones), but the rope drag created by clipping the bolts and rivets on the extreme right edge of the face and then putting that cam into that crack at the left edge is horrendous! I can barely pull the rope up. And it's really raining hard now, making the hand cracks very slippery. I decide it's time for some imprompt aid (aka French Free). I plug a cam into a crack, clip myself to it, lean back, and pull for all I am worth to get 4 feet of slack so I can make a second, higher placement. As the rain pours down, the second cam goes in and I repeat the process, achieving another 4 or 5 feet of slack. I fumble a bit and then get the third and final cam in. Using my legs to lift, I get just enough additional slack to top out and sling a tree. I'm up, but very wet and cold. Looking down, I notice that Marc has found and donned the rain jacket I brought along in our pack. Well, no point in both of us getting hypo thermia.

After a bit of discussion as to whether Marc should follow me up or I should try to rap back to him, Marc heads up. I am surprised at how quickly he is able to climb the very thin arete, which is now running with water. He explans that some tugs on the draws I had attached to the rivets and bolts helped his progress. He soon joins me at the top and we make haste down the walk off as the rain starts to let up.

The next day, Marc's last in the Valley, we get up at 4:30 am to attempt Royal Arches (5.7, 15 pitches). We make it slightly less than half way up before the buildiing thunderheads persuade us that we sould rap off. it's a fun climb and I really want to go back and finish it.

The partner I had lined up for the next few days had car trouble and had to bail.
So I did some touring about and a bit of solo aid practice. My aid skills are really improving.

Valerie flew into SF and she and I drove back to the Valley yesterday. Ezzie's alternator cdrapped out near Sonora. Fortunately, witrh the help of a spare battery we limped far enough to find an auto parts store that sold us a replacement. We installed it in the parking lot, with some help from two mechanics who were passing by and hlep us get the serpentine belt back on. Ezzie ran great the rest of the trip.

While I was gone there was a pretty good storm in the Park, with enough snow to shut Tioga Pass briefly and turn the ground white at Crane Flat (6000 feet). The floor of our tent got wet, so I bought a tarp to cover it. I had a good time showing Valerie the Valley and taking pictures of the sights. Today was cold and cloudy with afternoon rain. We managed to do some top roping in the morning, including a couple of tough cracks (5.8/5.9??). This afternoon in light rain we practiced aid on the overhanging LeConte boulder. Val was a star, sending her first aid route in fine style!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Return to Yosemite

There it was: El Capitan. On Thursday, May 14, 2009, after 38 years and a mostly uneventful cross country drive in Ezzie, the Captain loomed, huge and sharp, above me. The images of the Valley I had brought with me, a mixture of fuzzy memories and photos from guidebooks and magazines, were nothing compared to the sharp, overpowering reality of the magnificent rock walls. I immediately called Lois on my cell phone and gushed.

With advice from a friendly climber, I found a free, roadside campsite among the towering trees of the Stanislaus National Forest. Of course, it has no facilities, not even bear boxes to keep food safe from Yosemite's lumbering, furry pests. But it is a beautiful spot, and I am hoping that the bears accustomed to mooching people food will all be down in the Valley nabbing picnic baskets.

Saturday and Sunday I had Big Wall School with a guide from Yosemite Climbing School and Guide Service. The idea was that I would do the two day school and then a two day wall climb of a route on the Washington Column. We started at Swan Slab where the guide led a crack on aid. He then asked what grade I am comfortable free climbing, and I told him 5.7, some 5.8. He immediately said, "Well, this is a 5.9, you can warm up on it" [on top rope]. I took a deep breath and started up. It was hard, but I made it and felt pretty good until the guide said that someone my age who struggled on that crack would probably not make it up the Column. He reminisced about a similarly old client who had suffered a heart attack Maybe, he suggested, I should get in better shape before trying a wall.

Nonetheless, the lesson continued, mostly with practice jugging and cleaning routes. Steep ones and overhanging ones and low angle faces. Sunday, I jugged a 180 foot face 4 times with almost no rest. My guide assured me the Column would be harder. At one point, he said, "You've done this four times, now. You ought to be getting better at it than you are." He frequently repeated the opinion that I am not fit enough to do a climb on the Column.

About 3 pm on Sunday afternoon, as we took a water break, the guide askede if I had reconsidered doing the column that week. I repsonded by saying that you [the guide] seem to be quite frustrated with me. If so, I said, we ought not to go on a climb together. At this his tone softened and he said, "You're not the problem, Bill. I am feeling a lot of pressure and am not ready to take a client up the Column." When we got back to the guide service office, he arrange for another guide to take me on the climb up the column. Unfortunately, I had to cancel that climb a day later because I got sick.

After recovering, I spent the week doing solo aid practice using my Silent Partner. It went well. I led and cleaned the incredibly overhanging LeComte boulder and a couple of C1 crack routes.

On Saturday, May 23rd, Marc arrived from Las Vegas. It was the Memorial Day Weekend. The Valley was jammed with people and the roads were a bumper to bumper traffic jam. We did the LeCompte boulder that afternoon and then retreated back to the National Forest to camp. To avoid Valley gridlock, we spent the next two days (Sunday and Monday) climbing in the high country near Tanaya Lake, doing two fun 5-6 pitch routes: West End and South Crack. On the latter I led the 5.9 direct start, which involved very thing face climbing and a fingertip layback. Tuesday saw us back in the Valley doing a two pitch aid route, called oddly enough "Aid Crack." Each of the 90 foot pitches took us 2 hours to lead and clean. Decent time for two beginners.

On Sunday evening we made a trip to the Hetch-Hetchy dam and reservoir. Marc, who is the Chief Engineer for the Las Vegas Water Authority, was like a kid in a candy store running around to look at all the facilities. Although John Muir lost the fight in the early 1900s to prevent the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy valley, I had to think that on this holiday weekend, the flooded valley was a lot more peaceful than the "preserved" Yosemite.

Today is a rest day for this old man; I have beaten my feet up pretty well. Marc is off on a hike; no rest for him.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Remorseless Old Foe

Wolfeboro, NH. February 15. 2009. The bedroom is dark. My sister’s house, quiet. The big red digits on the night table read “2:00 am.” My wife Lois lies next to me, breathing regularly. I don’t have to get up for two more hours, but I am too excited to sleep. Today is the day! The day my younger daughter Valerie (23) and I are to attempt to climb Mount Washington. As I lie in the dark, I think.

Returning to climbing after a 35-40 year layoff has gotten me to thinking about time and what its passage means. For physicists it’s the fourth dimension, but a peculiar one in which we can travel in only one direction and cannot (at least in a low-speed Newtonian world) affect the rate at which we go through it. I know a ballad in which time is “that remorseless old foe” that robs us of youth and strength, inexorably leading us to our graves. I am still the same person with the same legs and feet who in the 1960s could run a mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds and climb Mount Rainier without bothering with rest steps. But time has, without my consent or choice, changed me. Now I am happy to run 12 minute mile pace on the tread mill in the gym and the rest step is my salvation on even modest hills. Still, I have been repeatedly surprised at how much climbing I have been able to do in the last two years. This attempt to make a winter ascent of Washington will test again how just how much I can still do.

In one sense, this climb had its genesis at Thanksgiving just past. Lois, Valerie, our older daughter Karen and I spent the holiday visiting my 97 year old mother in New Hampshire. We took one afternoon to drive up to Pinkham Notch where we walked about a half mile up the Tuckerman ravine trail and then stopped in the AMC lodge. As I wandered around, checking out the weather reports and books for sale, Valerie studied the large molded relief map of the Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. The map shows not only the configuration of the range but also the locations of every one of the more than 150+ deaths that have occurred there, most on Mount Washington itself.

Valerie came over to me. “How hard is it to climb Mount Washington?” I told her that in summer it is just a long uphill hike as long as the weather is good. But she explained, “No, I want to climb it in winter.” Before I had time to think that idea through sensibly, I offered to do the climb with her. She enthusiastically accepted.

I soon began to wonder if I were physically up to the climb. Would that remorseless old foe let me do it? As described here in an earlier post, I conducted a test climb part way up with acceptable results. Val reassured me that I was underrating my own toughness. “You’re forgetting the grit factor, Dad. You’re the best I know at ignoring physical pain. You’ll be fine.” I still had my doubts.

In a second sense, this trip, or at least its meaning for me, had its routes in my childhood in the 1950s. My sister and I spent most of each summer with my mother at the cabin she had built with her own hands on the shore of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. My father joined us for his two-week vacation from the plastics factory. There were pine woods to play in, a lake for swimming and boating, and nearby hills to hike. It was during those summers that my mother taught me how to swim, to swing an ax, to build a campfire (even when the wood was wet), to paddle a canoe. It was a time and place for a boy to imagine great things.

And, above it all to excite that imagination hovered Mount Washington, highest peak east of the Mississippi and north of someplace in North Carolina,. The top thousand feet are bare granite. It has the worst weather in the world (they say); the highest wind speed ever recorded on the face of the planet occurred there. It has a cog railroad to its summit; my Dad, whom time claimed 5 years ago, told of hiking up the tracks when he was a boy. As of about 1960, over 50 people had died trying to climb it.

I didn’t get the chance to try until I was 14 years old. That summer, on a trip from summer camp, I hiked the Presidential Range from North to South. The day we traversed Washington was bright blue, sunny and warm. It was the best place I had ever been, high up among the crags where I could look down on the rocky bones of the earth covered in all but a few places by a blanket of trees. I fell in love. I wanted to climb mountains, big ones. In later years I climbed Washington quite a few more times (several in winter), and took trips West to climb the Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier, Longs Peak and a bunch of other mountains. I also climbed rock in the Gunks and Yosemite, and did a little ice climbing (we cut steps).

But by the early 70s I had gotten busy with law school and then my legal career. I stopped climbing and for almost 35 years ate and drank too much and exercised far too little. I got seriously out of shape. In the mid 90s, when I was in my forties, Lois and I took Karen and Valerie up Mount Washington via the cog railroad. I remember looking out the window of the train at backpackers making their way to the summit and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do that again.” I had surrendered to the old foe without a fight. Even though Karen inspired me to get back into rock climbing two years ago, I have remained unpersuaded that I have the aerobic endurance to climb a real mountain. Washington in winter would make a good test.

I look again at the clock; it’s 3:58 am. I get up and turn off the alarm before it wakes Lois. I pull on my clothes and hear Valerie moving around in the next room, getting ready too. Downstairs I flip on the coffee maker; heat the Gatorade and fill the water bottles. We finish stuffing gear in our packs and climb into Ezzie the minivan. Val drives because, as she says, “Dad, you drive too slow in the morning when you’re trying to wake up. If we want to stay on schedule, we need me to drive.” She gets us to Pinkham Notch at 6 am, right on schedule despite my repeated warnings about the speed traps I imagine the local constabulary have set just to delay us. Our schedule is to make the summit by 12:30 pm. At 1 pm we will turn around and head down even if we have not reached the top.

From Pinkham our route heads up the Tuckerman Ravine trail, a narrow bumpy dirt road that is covered with packed snow frosted with a layer of dry, squeaky powder. We plan to follow the Tuck trail until its junction with the Lions Head Winter Trail about a mile and thre quarters ahead. From there we will follow the latter trail to tree line and then climb west along the Lions Head ridge, cross the Alpine Meadow, and turn toward the north to ascend the cone. The elevation at Pinkham is 2000 feet above sea level; that at the summit, 6288 feet. We have a climb of almost 4300 vertical feet in front of us.

At about 6:30 am, just as the light of day is beginning to improve visibility, we set out, stopping briefly to take pictures of each other at the beginning of the trail where a sign displays the level of avalanche danger ahead. As the light strengthens we see around us a beautiful day. The powder snow covering the ground and clinging to the trees is pure white. The sky is above us is blue, with a few clouds near the tops of the surrounding hills. Our crampons squeak in the dry powder as we walk.

I had stressed to Valerie that the secret to staying warm in the mountains in the winter is not to get hot and sweaty. I start with three thin layers, she with five. Ten minutes up the trail I persuade her to shed one. I had also explained that while I thought I could do this climb, I was going to have to set a slow steady pace, with the emphasis on slow. So we walk slowly and soon are passed by two groups that had started just after us: a couple and a ten person group from New Hampshire College.

Despite our slow pace, after an hour or so we catch up to the college group for the first of several times. They are taking a break and we decide to do the same, being sure to eat and drink to keep our energy and hydration up. Another half hour of steady walking brings us to the beginning of the winter Lions Head trail. There is also summer trail, but it is too prone to avalanches for acceptably safe winter use.

I tell Valerie, “This is where the fun begins. It’s going to be the steepest part of the climb.” True, but it starts harmlessly enough as a path through a quiet world of snow covered fir trees. Shortly though it starts to climb. Soon we are using the French flat foot technique I taught Valerie a couple of days before. One walks sideways up the hill, crossing one foot over the other and using the ice ax on the uphill side for balance. We are moving well until we came to the steepest section, where we catch up with the college group again. Some of their members are having trouble negotiating what they describe as very steep ice covered with powder snow. I’m glad that I included a little technical ice climbing in Valerie’s training. When our turn comes, we have no problem front pointing up the ice using our axes and some handy tree routes for hand holds. After a little less than an hour on this steep stuff, we come to tree line.

The wind, which had not been much of a factor while we were in the trees, is blowing quite briskly here. The sky above us is still clear, but there are clouds sitting on the summit. They worry me a bit. I tell Valerie, “Welcome to Mount Washington in winter.” To myself I think, “It’s just the same as it was back in 1965.” Yes, I can be the same person in the same three-dimensionsal spot as I was years ago. But the passage of time, or my travel through it, means it's not the same at all. What is time that it can separate me from my younger self and from the memory of a place in which I am standing?

We snack again and put on our alpine gear: balaclavas with face masks, dark glasses, wind shells and hoods. Conditions don’t seem severe enough to warrant our Gore-Tex wind pants. I had worried about the snow conditions above tree line. Will the powder snow have collected in deep drifts that will slow our progress? But the footing seems fine, hard packed snow and occasional ice. I take a compass reading and check to see if my GPS device (my best Christmas present – thanks Lois) is working and fixing on the right waypoints. It is. I remind Val to keep looking back to fix the descent route in her mind, and we start up.

In less time than I had anticipated, we climb to the summit of Lions Head, a small rock outcrop with great view into Tuckerman Ravine. We take a few pictures and push on across the Alpine Meadow. The wind is blowing hard here, but not so that we can’t talk to each other. The hand signals we had agreed on the night before aren’t needed. At one point the trail gets quite icy and runs near the edge of Tuckerman ravine. I worry that Val might get blown off her feet and over the edge. I point out to her that neither of us wants to fall down that way. She says nothing, but is probably thinking, “Gee Dad. I sure am glad you mentioned that. I was just about to jump over the edge. Good thing I brought you along.” I also check her face for frostbite several times and remind her to keep her nose covered. At this point I am very anxious to make the summit and don’t want to have to turn back because my daughter’s nose is frozen. A better father might worry about his daughter’s nose; I worry about making the summit.

We come to some a steep snowfield. As I lead up, I am briefly transported to back Mount Rainier in 1968. I use my feet to kick steps into the snow and my ice ax for balance on the uphill side just as I had then. For a monument I have travelled backwards through that fourth dimension. But just as quickly I am back on Mount Washington, stopping to catch my breath as other parties climb past this tired old man.

By the time we start up the cone proper, the clouds have lifted off the summit and it is, at least temporarily, that much sought after thing: a bluebird day. I turn to Valerie and say, “You know, we are going to make it.” And we do. The last quarter of a mile is hard for me. I think the altitude is finally starting to affect me, so I set an even slower pace. But at 11:24 am we climb onto the summit of Mount Washington; Valerie for the first time, I for the first time in 40 years. The wind is blowing about 30-40 mph. The temperature is +8 F. The sky is bright blue and the snow is white. There are no other colors. We put on our puffy jackets (mine a relic from the 60s) and find a friendly climber to take pictures of us by the summit sign. In the lee of a building, we eat and drink again and then head down.

It takes us three hours to make the descent. It’s easier on the heart and lungs than the climb, but much harder on the knee and ankle points. At Lions Head we walk down into the clouds. It's 1:00 pm and people are still coming up in the fog. They are less scared of this mountain than I. We arrive at the bottom almost simultaneously with the college group. I am tired and beat up, but happy. The old man actually climbed Mount Washington in winter! The remorseless foe had a bad day. Valerie is tired, but not as much as I, and much less beat up. She is trying to persuade me to take her and Karen out for some technical ice tomorrow. I am thinking about a hot bath and bed.

At some point on the ride back to Wolfeboro (Val drove again) I talked about time, how its passage changes some things and doesn’t change others. I have known Valerie since she was born 23 ½ years ago; I hope to know her for another 20 or more. For all of that time, each of us has been and will remain at core the same person. But our-one way trips through time have changed not only our physical attributes, but also our relationship. When Valerie was three, I was in charge and she, dependent and physically limited. I made her angry then by refusing to take her on a hike up a small hill called Mount Major. I didn’t think she was old enough to make a trip I and her older sister Karen could do. Val still remembers and resents my refusal. In a few years she will be visiting me, likely in a nursing home, and will have to help me get in and out of bed. She will be the capable one, the one in charge, and I will be the dependent one. Time will have made all the difference. But our trajectories through time allowed us, on this day, February 15, 2009, to be climbing partners both able to make a winter ascent of Mount Washington as a team. I am so very grateful.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest 2009

“Back in the Day” (that would be the 60s for me) climbing was a fringe activity. Only a few, strange, obsessed folks climbed. We proudly accepted the skepticism and even derision of most everyone we knew. We were crazy to climb and proud of it. Most of the best climbers were poverty stricken bums, who sacrificed even a decent place to live for the chance to travel the country by thumb from cliff to mountain. Equipment was hard to get. REI had only one store. It was in a loft in Seattle. I bought most of my gear from Peter Limmer’s boot shop in North Conway, NH, a place I got to only about twice a year. There were very few climbers offering guide services; it was a point of honor never to hire one. We learned from books, our friends and our mistakes. Even so, an astonishing number of us survived.

Nowadays climbing is almost mainstream. There are climbing gyms where six year olds are taken by their adoring, suburban parents for birthday parties, and young singles go to pick up hot bodies. A multitude of outdoor gear companies sponsor “athletes” and advertize in slick, mass circulation climbing mags. The Gunks are crowded on nice weekends; I have even waited in line to get on a climb. Guide services abound and, there are certification programs to assure that guides know whereof they teach. Corporations hire guides to take their employees out for team building weekends. There are stores selling climbing gear in every third strip mall. Being a climber is little if any stranger or crazier than being a skier or golfer.

In short, popularity has ruined climbing. Are you sure?

I just finished three days of clinics at the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest put on by (gasp!) a guide service: International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway. As I sat down to write, I realized how wonderful it is to have events like this one, which didn’t exist back in the day. As a brand new ice climber, I was able, in three days of instruction, to get knowledge and skills it would have taken me at least a season, probably two, to acquire in the old days. I met some great people, both folks I might climb with in the future and some of the pros I read about in the magazines. Events like this one combined with the ready availability of the best gear and the partner-finding potential of the internet make climbing so much more accessible than in the past. I am climbing more, learning faster and having more fun than I did “Back in the Day.”

My first Ice Fest clinic, billed as Introduction to Mixed Climbing, took me out to a little cliff called Trollville near Jackson, NH. As we dropped our packs, our instructor pointed to a couple of steep ice flows and said, “We’ll warm up on these grade 4s and then move around the corner for the real stuff.” The other three students nodded confidently and started putting on their crampons. I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into; I had never climbed anything nearly as steep as these “warmup” climbs. The guide may have noticed the stricken look on my face, for he pointed to a spot a little farther down the cliff and added, “There is a grade 3+ over there if anyone wants to start on it.” I did! Belayed by a doctor who said he was planning an ice climbing trip to Katahdin in a couple of weeks, struggled up the easy route. So far so good.
I entertained the idea of just repeating this same route all day, but could not face the humiliation that plan would entail. So I tried what looked to be the easier of the two steep grade 4s. Despite being hit in the helmet by a chink of ice near the bottom of the climb, I got up it. Cool.

As I was lowered off, I expected the guide to say something like, “Nice work.” Instead he looked over at me and hollered, “Bill, what happened to your head?” That was disconcerting. What had happened to my head? Maybe that chunk of ice? I put my hand up to my forehead and it came away red. Blood, on my hand and on the ice by my feet. I guess that chunk had hit more than my helmet. Once I was back down, the emergency team swung into action. First, and most importantly, my fellow students got several pictures of my bloody head. Then I was surrounded by a guide, the doctor, my friend Carolyn and another student who is an army medic, all wielding first aid kits. Sadly for these ever so prepared first responders, my injury turned out to be nothing more than three small, albeit bloody scrapes on my forehead. They contented themselves with application of a band aid, and we went back to climbing. After I clambered up the other grade 4, we all moved down the cliff to the “real stuff.”

Now the rest of the trouble began. Mixed climbing involves using ice tools (axes and crampons) to climb routes composed of both ice and rock. The “easy” mixed route had a little ice at the start and then a gigantic rock overhang. I immediately scratched that one off the list of possible for Bill. Again taking pity on the newbie (me), our guide set up a top rope on a nearby climb that started with about 80 feet of steep ice followed by some rock foolishness at the top. Although the guide said it was about a grade 5, it was the only climb in this area that looked remotely doable for me. Unless I wanted to stand around and watch the others climb all afternoon, I was going to have to try it.

The Katahdin-bound doctor gave it a try first, getting part way up before lowering off. Not a good sign for me. Nonetheless, being without any alternative, I tied in and began to work my way up. I managed about 45 feet of the ice before my arms gave out and I, too, lowered off. Actually, I felt pretty good about my effort. It was steep and strenuous, but I felt in control (until my arms gave out) and I learned some useful techniques for climbing steep ice. I then spent some time watching the other members of the group climb the mixed stuff. Carolyn made it up the giant overhang on her second try; I was so proud for her. Our guide astonished us all by doing an even harder mixed route, using tiny holds with his axes and crampons. The army medic, a young man from Vermont, got three quarters of the way up the same route. Very impressive.

I tried the steep ice again, this time making it about 70 feet up. Our guide then did it and showed me how I could have gotten a good rest at a lower angle spot two-thirds of the way up. If I had, I think I would have made it all the way. Next time. I didn’t get any mixed climbing practice, but I did learn a bit about steep ice and greatly expanded my view of what I am capable of doing. A good day.

On Friday night I went to the slide show and dry tooling exhibition at the Cranmore Ski Area’s climbing Gym. Kevin Mahoney and Freddie Wilkinson put on a slide show and talk about their trip to Nepal to climb an incredible Himalayan ice route. They named it the New Hampshire Route. Many, many years ago I hoped to become an expedition climber and go to the great ranges. I never made it, but now it is a treat to meet climbers who have.

My next clinic was Snow and Ice Anchors. In the morning we did ice. I learned some fine points of placing ice screws and equalizing two and three point anchors. But, best of all, we made V-threads. I’ve read about this method of drilling two, intersecting holes into the ice and passing a sling or rope through them. But had never before made one or even seen one made. I was very excited to have my holes intersect as planned on my first try. In the afternoon we moved to snow anchors, using our mountaineering ice axes and snow pickets to construct anchors. Then we did snow bollards: large teardrop shaped trenches cut into the snow to make a large, central pillar around which the rope is passed. I have read about bollards but never thought they would work. Wouldn’t the rope just cut through the snow and fall down the slope. Not if the snow is firm enough. The bollard I made held three of us throwing our weight on the rope.

Ice Fest ended for me with another ice climbing clinic, this time a mellower one. Six of us went out with guide Freddie Wilkinson, whose articles I have read and enjoyed in several publications. He took us to the amphitheater at Frankenstein cliff in Crawford Notch where we climbed several grade three routes, including the Blobs and the Cave. The temperatures were relatively warm (30s F.), so the ice was a bit softer than I had previously experienced. The tools went in easily and stuck. Freddie is a great teacher and our group developed a very supportive spirit. It was a great, fun day.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ice Fest and am grateful that events like this one exist. I’m so glad popularity has ruined climbing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Valerie's Climb

Valerie wants to climb New Hampshire's Mount Washington in winter. She's my younger daughter (23) and a fine athlete, although not really climber. I think she has fastened on this goal because it's hard. Mount Washington is only 6288 feet tall, but it is renowned for fierce winds, low temps and terrible storms. This morning I checked the web site for the summit weather station; the conditions are typical: temperature -11 F., wind 60 mph from the west, wind chill -47 F. Atypically, it is one of those rare days when the summit is not socked in with freezing fog.

In a rash moment, I told Valerie I would do the climb with her. I climbed to the summit (these days I guess I am supposed to say I "summited") several times in the '60s, but have not been up there since. As I thought about this little adventure, I began to wonder if I have the strength and stamina to make it up. After all, in 1968 when I was last up there, I could run a mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Yesterday I was happy to finish a three mile run with a burst of 12 minute pace.

I decided a test was in order. Last week, while in NH for ice climbing lessons (see below), I took a day to see how I would do on the mountain. I got my gear together, including my mountaineering ice ax, crampons, warm clothes, balaclava, etc., etc. and set out up the Tuckerman Ravine trail from the AMC Pinkham Notch camp. My sister had considered going with me. But she, poor thing, still has to work for a living, so I wound up going solo. My plan was to hike up the relatively easy Tuckerman trail and then follow the Lions Head winter trail up to tree line at about 4500 feet. I figured that by timing how long it took me to climb to tree line, I could tell if I move fast enough to make the summit and back in a 10 or 11 hour day.

The day was sunny and bright, with the summit predicted to have a high temperature of 6 F., wind at 60 miles an hour, and wind chill -20 to -30 F. A decent day. I started at 9 a.m. and walked slowly up the Tuck trail, stopping occasionally to sip hot Gatorade from my sock enshrouded water bottle. The only other person I saw all day was a hiker who started about a minute before me; he soon disappeared up the trail. By 10:30 a.m. I was at the junction with the Lions Head trail, where I took a short snack break. So far so good.

I followed the Lions Head trail through the woods. In short order it got quite steep. This being the winter Lions Head trail (the summer tail is deemed too prone to avalanches for safe winter use) it has no switchbacks angling across the slope. No. It just goes up! I used the pied a plat or "flat footing" technique I had learned in my ice climbing lessons until the trail got really steep. Then I switched to single-ax front-point technique, which got me nicely through the steepest parts. In reasonably good time I was at tree line, where the wind started to pick up and the light snow left by a recent storm, to blow horizontally. I felt pretty good, so I decided to go on a little farther to see what conditions on the bare, rocky slopes were like. The temperature was probably about 10 F. and the wind blowing at 20-30 mph. I soon pulled my balaclava over my face to protect against frostbite, but felt no need of either my down jacket or wind pants.

After a little less than an hour of slow climbing through drifting snow, I reached a spot about 5000 feet above sea level from which I could see up to the tops of towers on the summit, and down into the magnificent Tuckerman Ravine. I thought about going farther up, but decided it was not a very smart idea to go solo too far above tree line. I checked my watch -- it was 12:30 p.m. -- and headed down.

I glisaded most of the way down the Lion Head Trail, down-climbing only the steepest parts. As I neared the bottom on the Tuckerman Trail, I saw a cute little Pine Martin bounding along in front of me. He was only the second mammal I had seen all day (the first being the hiker who left me in the dust).

The time was 2 p.m. when I arrived at the Pinkham notch camp. The climb from Pinkham at an elevation of 2030 feet to 5000 feet and back had taken me 5 hours, leaving me 6 hours out of an 11 hour climbing day to do the top 1200 feet up and down. The last 1200 feet are without doubt the hardest and slowest, due to the thinner air at 5-6000 feet, much worse footing in drifted snow, and the cold and high wind. But, based on handling the first 3000 feet in 5 hours, I think I can make the rest in less than the remaining 6 hours of my 11 hour day, providing Valerie and I can find a day with decent weather.

I called her and told her the trip is on. We are planning to try the climb in mid-February, after the North Conway Ice Fest I am going to attend. I'll report.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hating Ice for Fun

When as a teenager I was first expressing an interest in climbing (circa 1963) my mother produced from somewhere a thick tomb on mountaineering technique written in about 1890 by an Englishman named, I think, Geoffrey Young. I don’t remember much about the book except that it had a tan cover, recommended wearing hobnail boots, and inveighed strongly against ever using a foothold on rock or ice unless that hold is bigger than your foot is wide. This principle, of course, made climbing rock of any difficulty at all impossible and mandated the cutting of big steps in snow and ice.

It is amazing how humans can create “rules” that limit their ability to achieve. For many years, the insuperable four-minute-mile barrier held back distance runners.

Rock climbers abandoned the requirement that every foothold be at least 3-4 inches wide early in the 20th century as they began the exploration of the limits of human ability that has given us the 5.15 climbs done by today’s hard kids. But on ice the story was different. The belief in the necessity for cutting nice big steps persisted until almost 1970. Only in the late 1960s did Yvon Chouinard import front point technique into North America from Europe. Jim McCarthy of Gunks rock fame brought that technique East by leading the first front point, no-steps-cut ice ascent of Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington in 1970, the year I graduated from college.

My few adventures into ice climbing in my first climbing life all took place in the 1960s and involved cutting lots of steps with my 3 foot long, wooden shafted ice ax. It was hard work that involved overheating and freezing at virtually the same time. It made rock climbing seem like a paradise. I stayed away from ice as much as possible.

Since I got back into rock climbing two and a half years ago, ice climbing has reared its ugly head from time to time. I see pictures of cool looking routes in glossy mags and the American Alpine Journal. My Gunks partner Carolyn is a devoted ice climber and occasionally has suggested I try it. My brother in law Dan is not a climber but lives in New Hampshire and loves winter sports. He has mentioned giving ice climbing a try. He even owns a pair of ancient axes.

Last winter I barely dodged the bullet. I succumbed to Dan’s entreaties and agreed to schedule a one-day Introduction to Ice Climbing class for the two of us with International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, N.H. Imagine my relief when I called and learned all the classes in our time-window were already full. Another winter without ice climbing, sweet.
This winter, though, something strange happened. Maybe it was Carolyn’s enthusiasm or the pretty pics in the magazines. The idea of trying some ice climbing started making clandestine appearances in my head. I didn’t think I would like it, but felt I should give it a try. They say that a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different result. But maybe insanity also consists of deciding to try a difficult, potentially dangerous sport because you think you won’t like it.

In any event, I decided to try ice. I bought a book with a bright red cover. A whole chapter is devoted to staying warm in sub zero temperatures by wearing very little insulating clothing. Swell. I told Dan I would schedule two days of lessons for us. I called Carolyn and asked her if she would take me out and show me how it is done. I was insane.

On Sunday, January 4th, as the weather babblers on TV and Radio were heralding the arrival of a record setting cold snap, I packed my cold weather gear and crampons (I had gotten them for my aborted trip to the Tetons) and headed for New Paltz. Next day was bright, blue and cold. With rented ice axes (these days everyone calls them “tools”) I met up with Carolyn and her friend Lee. We headed for an area called the playground. At least the name sounded non-threatening. I was a bit disappointed to learn that Lee had climbed ice half a dozen times before. I had hoped that he was also a beginner.

As we stood under the 30 foot high ice cliff, I realized I was feeling what novices must feel about rock climbing. I was looking up at the smooth, shiny, seemingly steep ice and wondering, “How in the Hell does anyone climb that.” Even more to the point, I was wondering how I would climb it.

Carolyn was great. She talked me through each step of the process from what to wear to when to put on my crampons and how to swing my axes, respecting my ego and tender feelings by casting her advice in the form of “What I [Carolyn] do is X,” so I would not feel she was lecturing to me. Watching her and Lee climb the cliff was a bit encouraging. I began to see how the techniques might work for me. My turn came and I stepped up to the ice and began, just as Carolyn had instructed: reach up and drive the pick of one ax into the ice, test it, step up 6-8” at a time on the front points of my crampons making sure to form a stable triangle with the ax and crampons, step up again until my arm holding ax is in a bent, locked off position, reach up and place the other ax, and repeat the process. After a couple of ax placements, I realized I was actually climbing the ice. Then, I looked up and couldn’t see any good holds above me. Oh, oh! But wait. I don’t need holds. I can make them. So I worked on, soon reaching the anchor at the top. I think I screamed with excitement. I felt like screaming anyway. I had actually climbed a short easy ice cliff!

And you know what? It was fun. I’m not sure what makes it fun, but it is. Maybe it’s the motion itself; swinging the axes and kicking in the front points on the crampons is so different from rock climbing. The sense of climbing something that looks so completely un-climbable is cool. Then there is the beauty: the ice sparkled in the sun and stood out like a jeweled castle against the blue sky. As Lee and I watched Carolyn climbing, it occurred to me that she looked just like those picture in the AAJ of alpinists high on big mountains. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to be at a belay half way up a big climb and watching Carolyn leading the crux so we could follow her to the top.” And I actually meant it. Don’t ask why I thought that would be great, but I did.

So I dropped my thoughts of trying to get back the money I had paid EMS for the ice lessons Dan and I were scheduled to take later in the week and headed Ezzie, the faithful mini-van, to NH. Despite temps hovering around zero F., the lessons were excellent. We stayed remarkably warm; we learned a lot; Dan got hooked. On the second day, we climbed two Grade WI3s called Thresher and Goofer’s. The latter is one pitch about 180 feet long. I was surprised at how long I could stand on my front points without coming apart.

Yesterday I bought axes (I mean “ice tools”) and signed up for three clinics at the North Conway Ice Fest in early February. Tomorrow Dan, my sister Cassie and I are going back to Cathedral to top-rope some ice. I am, most definitely, insane.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Couldn't Catch a Cat

George and I set out on Sunday, November 16th, the last day of my second trip to Red Rock, to climb Schaefer’s Delight on Whiskey Peak. We got to the base to find a party of three just starting, so we headed a few yards right to Ballentine’s Blast, a 400 foot 5.7 that gets two stars in Handren’s book. It was the first time George and I had climbed together since he broke his ankle on our attempt to do Tunnel Vision last February. I described in an earlier post his tough, determined self rescue from that mishap. I was glad to learn that he is enthusiastically back to climbing.

Bill following George's lead up the first pitch. Photo by George Wilson.

George did a very efficient lead of the first pitch of Ballentine’s, about 120 feet up two nice inside corners to a double bolt anchor. My lead came next and was supposed to go up to and over an “overhang,” but all I saw above our belay was a slab ending in a short vertical wall. No overhang, at least to my Gunks-educated eye. So I racked up and went searching for the missing ‘hang.

I didn’t see anything to the left, so I went right up an inside corner that ended in a roof. If that roof was the “overhang,” we needed someone a lot better and stronger than I to climb it. I looked farther right and saw a possible route: a pretty white pillar with rounded holds on its slabby face. That pillar did not look very hard and would probably be easy for many climbers. But climbing it turned out to be one of the most intense experiences I have had on the rock. The following, present-tense description is my attempt to capture how I felt.

Heading right toward the pretty white pillar. Photo by George Wilson.

I put a cam in the 3 inch crack in the back of the corner, climb up a bit farther toward the roof and step right across a 2 foot wide chimney onto the white face. There are holds, but rounded ones with nothing positive on which to get a reassuring grip. The bits of lichen all over the white rock strongly suggest that no one has climbed this way, at least in quite a while. But it looks like the slab will go on mostly friction holds up to a 12 foot high verticle bulge 60 to 70 feet above. I think I can turn the bulge on its right corner where there are small patches of desert varnish that should offer some positive holds and (I hope) some pro. Above the bulge the face eases off again to a slab that looks doable. We have a 70 meter rope that I think will be long enough.

I look around for a place to put another piece, but don’t find anything. I move gingerly from one rounded, sloping hold to the next, easing my way up the white slab. I see a horizontal crack about 30 feet up where it looks like I can put in a cam. I work up toward it, focusing hard on each movement of hand or foot and each weight shift. The lack pro and of anything good and solid to stand on or wrap a hand around is making me nervous. The friction on slopers is good, but what if a foot blows? Ah, there is the crack; not all that I had hoped, but still enough for a cam placement. More cautious smearing and I am just under the verticle bulge, 30 or so feet above that last cam. Not a good time to fall.

Fear rises from my belly through my chest and shoulders to my throat and arms, trying to take control and prevent me from climbing effectively and making good decisions. A contrary force of concentration and will forces that fear back down where it can’t interfere. I focus narrowly on one climbing move at a time, each taking me a foot or two higher. I am getting to the patches of varnish now at the bottom of the bulge. I'm breathing. There are some small slots between patches where I can get in a couple of small nuts. If I equalize them, maybe they will hold a fall. Oh, whom am I kidding? I remarked later to George that they were surely good enough to hold a fall by my cat; he weighs 9 pounds.

I haven’t yet climbed up anything I could not down-climb. But I don’t want to come down. The corner of the bulge, although loose and quite friable, looks like it will go. I move up, searching for the most solid hand and foot holds, testing each before weighting it. The last two moves up the corner are the trickiest, not really hard, but spooky due to the fragile rock and poor protection. I avoid using knobs and ridges for fear they will break. Instead I smear on little, rounded bulges and use my palms on slopers. At the top, just as I am starting to think I may not be able to finish the corner, I see a short, hand-size crack that will be perfect to jam. That’s just what I need. No, it’s formed by a boulder that is quite ready to jump off and fall 250+ feet to the ground. Instead, I test a pointy nubbin on the top of the corner, the hand hold I need to pull the last move. Except, it breaks under mild pressure. Fear is rising again. I find a rounded hold that gives me just enough purchase to make the move over the lip onto the lower angled slab above. Whew!

More friction moves on sloped holds take me to the top of what turns out to be a pretty white pillar. Just as our 70 meter rope is about to run out, I climb onto a nice, big ledge and build the most bomber three piece anchor ever. George comes up and calmly leads us up the last pitch to the top at Lovers ledge.

Bill rapping down the decent gully. Photo by George Wilson.

Later study of Handren’s guidebook, particularly the picture of our route, shows that I was seriously off-route on my lead. I should have gone up over the first vertical wall, which is what Handren referred to as the overhang. But I am very glad I did the pitch described above. It was one of the best experiences I have had rock climbing. But why is that? I’m not sure, but I think the answer lies in the mental/emotional state I was in during the lead. I felt a tension or struggle between my fear on one hand and my will and concentration on the other. My key to climbing effectively was to push the fear away by concentrating on each move, each decision to the exclusion of fear and distraction. What hold should I use for my right foot? How much weight will it hold? How should I shift my weight? Can I use that flake as a handhold? Maybe just for balance? The feeling of committing all my mental and physical effort to just one task -- moving up another few feet of rock – was exhilarating in a way almost no other experiences are for me. Was I scared? Terrified might be more like it. But it is the fear and the very real possibility of disaster that makes possible the complete, exhilarating concentration and sense of mastery of myself.

I have only had these feelings a few other times while climbing: once on Whitehorse slabs doing friction in the rain, once leading a steep 5.7 at Seneca rocks, perhaps a time or two at the Gunks. But none of those experiences was as intense or prolonged as the white pillar next to Ballentine’s.