2017-09 Chamonix Vacation

Carly early on the Arete des Cosmiques. Compared to the spring when I did it there was very little snow in the beginning.
Carly early on the Arete des Cosmiques. Compared to the spring when I did it there was very little snow in the beginning.

September 5-20, 2017

After the great work trip to Chamonix I had in May I started thinking about going back and having more time for climbing and seeing the valley.  After some asking around it sounded like September was a good month to go as the weather was still mild and the summer tourists had gone.  So Carly and I planned a trip for September.

The trip caught the tail end of a Labor Day visit to New England for Carly and I to see family.  That trip was pretty good seeing her family and mine, as well as the new addition of my nephew.  Seeing New England again reminded me that it was a nice place to live and quite scenic, but not grand like the West typically is.  While we did get to climb at Cathedral Ledge one day, which is one of my favorite crags, the landscape is just not all that exciting.  I was reminded at Cathedral that North East grades are stiff!  A scenic flight around the Rangeley area reveals a lot of hills, lakes, and perhaps something you could pass off as a mountain, but not really.  I’ve now taken off in an airplane from land, snow, and water.  Still on the list is dirt/sand, and perhaps a real stretch would be boat.

Leaving from Boston in a seafood and lobster coma, I headed straight to Chamonix.  Carly would head back to SLC for a few days before coming out to France.  I went from the Geneva airport to some work related activities in Chamonix.  Being at the mothership was good to catch up with people there, but I was really looking forward to getting into the Air BnB we’d rented in downtown Chamonix.  

The day Carly arrived it was pouring.  Thankfully I’d secured the use of the company vehicle, a Renault Kangoo.  The van is a tiny cargo van not a passenger car.  As such it comes with ammenities such as:  four wheels, brakes, seats, steering wheel, all the accoutrements.  Things I found out that it does not come with, good tires, nor anti-lock brakes.  The numerous roundabouts in driving rain in Chamonix were where I found these exciting omissions from the Kangoo’s feature list.

The Kangoo in the parking garage. I'm glad the van wasn't any bigger.
The Kangoo in the parking garage. I’m glad the van wasn’t any bigger.

With us unpacked in our 5th story studio flat and the Kangoo parked in an underground parking structure so low that I instinctively ducked when I walked under the support beams, we were ready to explore the town.  From our vantage point we had a great view down valley and could see the sun set against the mountains.  Luckily Chamonix downtown is small and can be walked in 10 minutes or so.  We were lucky in that we had a number of great food options just a block from our flat.

One of the many dramatic sunsets we saw.
One of the many dramatic sunsets we saw.

The day after Carly’s arrival we slept in and headed to a crag a few villages up valley from Chamonix.  The crag was nothing super special, but it got us out for a hike and we were able to do a 5 pitch route of well bolted slab climbing.  The views were good, even though there was a mid elevation cloud layer that obscured the high mountains.  We were treated to a very close encounter with a chamois, a mountain goat native to the area.  He walked very close to us with little concern for our presence, to the point it was uneasy.  We moved off the climbers/animal path and he walked on by and posed for a few photos.

The following day the weather looked good so we headed up the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique.  Our objective was the super classic Arete des Cosmiques.  Though I had done this in May the route is so classic it is an obvious choice to do again, particularly to warm up for other things.  The day started off splitter and we casually made our way to the base of the route.  A pair of Brits also started up about the same time.  The route was more rock than last time and we leap-frogged with the Brits along the beginning section.  As we got closer to the crux a team of Russians passed us.  This wasn’t all that bad, except the leader thought that Carly and I were good terrain features to use as part of a running belay.  I had to fix this, though not without a rebuke in broken English from the leader.  I indicated that we weren’t part of his terrain belay, the rock was.

Since we were making good time we took a short break to let the Russians pass and have a bite to eat.  We also let the original Brit party we’d been leapfrogging past us as well.  As we finished up we could see there was a clog forming at the crux pitch.  A party we hadn’t seen was waiting behind the Russians and the Brits in behind the new party.  Our splitter day at this point started to fall apart.  Some clouds started coming in and along with it a bit of wind from the Chamonix side.  Waiting just a bit away from the actual queue we were blocked by some rock formations and could watch in relative comfort and disbelief at the mess unfolding.

The beginnings of the turn in weather and in fluidity of the climbing. The Russian team of three is about to create a traffic jam. Note that there's still a fair amount of climbing before getting to the platform.
The beginnings of the turn in weather and in fluidity of the climbing. The Russian team of three is about to create a traffic jam. Note that there’s still a fair amount of climbing before getting to the platform.

The Russian leader went to the top of the of the crux pitch–approximately 50 ft up.  There is an anchor about 20 ft up on a small ledge which is often used with clients since it allows the leader to be just feet away from the client if they have difficulty on the moves.  The crux being a right slanting finger crack with bomber footholds which are perfect for crampon points since the rock has “worn” into crampon point shaped divots.  However this leader went past that before setting the belay.  This complicated the problem that the client had no ability to get through the two moves of crux on his own.  Further complicating it, the client had removed his crampons for some reason despite having them on when they passed us originally.  The client’s soft boots gave him no edging ability on what natural feet are there.  For 20 minutes the client tried to fumble his way through.  To help the leader lowered a rope with knots every 16 inches so the client could haul himself though.  This also was in vain.  Coming on the 30-40 minute mark and now with five parties behind them and coming on 3:40 in the afternoon we queued into position since we didn’t want to have another party skip in front of us.  One party went past everyone on a variant to the right of the crux, a tight hands crack about 20 ft long–something to remember in the future.  The Brits helped teach the client how to put prussiks on the rope and jug up.  Even with a competent user this is a slow process.  The clog lasted about an hour, perhaps a bit more.  It was worrisome since the last cable car down to town is at 5:30 and we still had approximately 1/4 of the route to go.  After the Russians got through the two parties in front of us moved at a reasonable pace.  I did forego the mid anchor on the pitch and go straight through since I was confident Carly would climb the crux without much trouble.  The remaining parties all made it in time for the second to last car.  The deterioration of the weather, the clog at the crux, and the timeline of the cable car all made for a bit more stress than the initial part of the day in the warm sun going at a casual pace.

Dramatic lighting and mountain ranges on the Italian side.

Evenings were spent going out to dinner at the multitude of choices.  We tended to stick with local fare, which is heavy with meat, cheese, and potatoes.  Wine was also plentiful and reasonably priced.  I would say in general, while Chamonix isn’t a bargain, it is not horribly priced.  A nice meal can be had for a little less than 20€ +/- 5€.  When alcohol, apps, and desserts are factored in about it was about an 80€ bill for us.  Breakfasts in France tend to be heavy on the carbs: baguette, butter, and cheese. We were able to find some places with some protein too.

After the Cosmiques we had a day of cragging in town, walking distance from our flat.  This area was basically a city part with a few grid bolted crags.  It was quite pleasant.  The following day we attempted to get some climbing in at the Planpraz cable car station located across the valley from the Aiguille du Midi.  This attempt was fairly doomed from the start based on the weather, but we gave it a try anyway.  After one pitch it started to rain and with some snow still on the ground from the previous day’s precip we decided to just hike up to the Brevent station in the rain.  It has been a while since I hiked in the rain/clouds and it was kind of nice.

This day was a total washout. It poured buckets all day so we spent most of the time hopping shop to shop.
This day was a total washout. It poured buckets all day so we spent most of the time hopping shop to shop.

The following day, the 14th, was a total and expected washout.  Rain in buckets came all day with cloudbase being less than 2000m.  We did touristy stuff all day, browsing the shops, seeing the alpine museum, etc.  For lunch we tried raclette, which is a massive chunk of cheese that is melted at the table and accompanied by potatoes and cured meat.

Friday the 15th the weather was supposed to clear enough to get out and do something up high.  Maxime was able to join us and we went to the Italian side of the range.  To get there there are three options, 1) take the Aiguille du Midi car up and walk across the Vallee Blanc (many hours); 2) drive around the mountains for hours; 3) take the 11.6km tunnel under the mountains (about 30 minutes depending on traffic).  The tunnel was our choice obviously.  The Italian side of Mont Blanc is a much different environment.  While similar in altitude at the base, the plants are very different as the Italian side is drier.  The relief is actually even more abrupt since the valley is less broken on its way up to the summit of Mont Blanc.  This is all viewed in comfort from the cable car which spins 360 as it goes up.

Our modest objective was the Aiguille d’Entrèves traverse.  This climb is a similar ridgeline climb as the Cosmiques.  We roped up for our 60+ minute approach to the ridgeline.  The previous day had deposited 30cm or more of snow in the mountains.  Both Carly and I were happy to have Maxime out in front leading the way across the glaciers.  The lean winter, end of summer, and fresh snowfall made from some nearly invisible crevasses.  Maxime punched a leg through a couple times, but not badly.  Our approach to the climb turned out to be longer than expected and despite the sun rather cold due to the wind.  The upside was clear conditions to view the amazing terrain.  We had a great view of Mont Blanc and some of the satellite peaks.  The terrain for alpine climbing is endless.

Winding our way through the obvious crevasses. I think the two points on the right formation are the Petite Capucin and Gran Capucin.
Winding our way through the obvious crevasses. I think the two points on the right formation are the Petite Capucin and Gran Capucin.

After a fairly easy bergschrund we gained the ridge at its low point and racked up.  Since Maxime had done the route a few times, he let me leade all the pitches.  Carly had the lucky chance to have not one guide, but two–often having a belay from both sides, which is helpful on a knife edge ridge traverse.  The terrain was mixed, mostly rock, but with some snowy bits.  At no point was a piolet required on the ridge.  There isn’t much gear, but in the spots you want it there is some.  The only exception to this is a variation which goes up a large stack of flakes.  The only moves I saw were 10 feet or so of laybacks with no gear.  I gave it a couple up close looks, but decided to bypass around the right.  We finished up the climb mostly on our own, there was one party of a guide and two Swedes that we leapfrogged a few times.  The climbing was quite enjoyable, but still exciting because of the exposure on either side.  View of course were top notch.

Me leading the way along the Aiguille d'Entreves ridge.
Me leading the way along the Aiguille d’Entreves ridge.

We slogged back to the cable car station, but with a quick trip to the Torino “hut” since we had time before the last car.  The Torino hut is essentially a hotel on the mountain.  We walked into the bar area ordered a beer and slice of pie.  Visiting the hut also cut out about ~50m of elevation back to the cable car station as well.  When the new cable car was constructed a few years ago they stabilized the supports for the station by drilling a massive hole into the mountain.  This hole now contains an elevator which goes down to the level of the hut.  As said by Maxime, “The ‘approach’ to the hut can be done in flip flops” as it only requires walking outside for about 50 ft on flat ground.  

Our brief weather window closed after this outing on the Aiguille d’Entrèves.  The weekend and beginning of the week looked much of the same questionable weather:  wind, precip, too cold at mid-elevations.  So with the prospect of not much climbing, even at the crags in town, we decided to take advantage of having a car and go a little abroad for the weekend.  Actually this decision was a laboriously slow one.  With no definitive plans Saturday morning, despite two invites from coworkers, we procrastinated until lunch and then decided to go to Valle dell’Orco.  The idea had come from Maxime and Zoe the night before.  They’d given us a few guidebooks to consider.  Finale seemed like a primo spot to escape the weather, but it was 5-6 hours away and the guidebook was in French.  We opted for the closer and in English location, plus it was plugging gear.

We fueled up the Kangoo and headed toward the Mont Blanc tunnel again.  This time around we hit some heavy truck traffic and took nearly 20 minutes just to get into the tunnel.  Once on the Italian side you travel through what felt like miles of additional tunnels bypassing the quaint towns in the Aosta valley.  Eventually turning off the highway we started making our way to dell’Orco.

As most people know August is a popular month for taking vacation in Europe, it would seem that September in some areas is the down season or at least getting ready for it.  We rolled into the Valle dell’Orco on a tiny road through the most old, quaint, picturesque, and nearly shuttered villages you can imagine.  In Ceresole, the main village near the Sergeant formation, we could only find two open hotels out of the dozen that are on the map.  Even the tourist office was closed.  We decided to splurge and stay at the Grand Hotel in Ceresole, though the current name is much less grand.

The quaint village of Ceresole. The Gran Hotel to the left is where we stayed. The National Park is towards the high mountains.
The quaint village of Ceresole. The Gran Hotel to the left is where we stayed. The National Park is towards the high mountains.

Being outside of relatively cosmopolitan and anglicised Chamonix, our chances of finding good native English speakers was lower.  Our first attempts at asking about if there were rooms available and how much they cost was rough.  Luckily the hotel worker spoke a little more French than English.  Carly and I were able to cobble together some basic inquiries and get some info back that there was plenty of rooms.  We opted to get breakfast and dinner included in the price since there weren’t many other options for food anyway.  We weren’t completely sure of the price, but we figured our options were limited anyway.

The hotel was quite nice and freshly renovated on the inside, but much of the exposed structure like ceilings and windows were restored and maintained its original look so as not to look modern.  Dinner came and with a little help from one of the two hotel managers who spoke more English than the first desk worker, we had an amazing 3 course dinner, complete with a liter of wine.  Hey, we weren’t driving anywhere so why not?

Sunday’s weather revealed a bit of snow up in the high mountains ringing the valley.  Our objective though was just a minute or two drive down the road, though the approach from the parking area was steep.  The crags of Valle dell’Orco are a kind of granite and the primary style as in most granite areas is traditional routes via cracks and bolted slabs.  dell’Orco boasts quite a lot of climbing and the largest feature is the Sergeant, named in reference to its superior, El Capitan in Yosemite.  The climbs range from single pitch to many high quality multipitch lines.  Though it was the off-season for the town, there were still what seemed like a normal amount of weekend traffic.  We weren’t able to get on a few lines that we wanted to, but still got some good climbing in.  Grades felt a little stiff, but not quite as bad as North Conway or Little Cottonwood.

We wandered back to the hotel after getting some pitches in and cleaned up.  Dinner didn’t start until 7:30 so we thought we might get a beer in the lobby bar.  While waiting for one of the staff to arrive we started browsing through some of the books available in the reading area.  One of the other hotel managers, Barbara, struck up a conversation with us, though again we went from her limited French to ours and back with heavy English and Italian thrown around in vague attempts it would be understood.  We found out Barbara was an avid climber.  She started pulling guidebooks out of the bookshelf and telling us about her favorite climbs.  She happened to have the same guidebook we did, but in Italian.  She leafed through the pages pointing out classics she recommended and pantomiming the size of the crack with the jamming motion required as well as the difficulty with a eye roll and a “phew!” expression.  It was quite entertaining since climbing is a language all its own and the physical movement can be expressed across language barriers.  Barbara also pulled a book out about ice climbing in the Aosta Valley.  It looked like there is a wealth of good ice in the area.  Something I’ll have to remember if I’m around in Jan-Feb.

Since the weather didn't look good we headed south for better conditions. Here we take a view up at Sergeant in the dell'Orco Valley.
Since the weather didn’t look good we headed south for better conditions. Here we take a view up at Sergeant in the dell’Orco Valley.

The next day, Monday, had quite a bit less people at the crag, though still a few cars.  We were able to jump on Incastromania (6a [5.10]).  This single pitch line starts up a small pillar against the main wall.  Wider hands and hands gets you to the top of the pillar fairly easily.  From there you get right into it with a 12-15 ft section of #1’s.  In this spot the crack is laser splitter, straight, and parallel.  An ancient rigid stemmed Friend collects cobwebs deep inside the crack.  The crack then cuts right, knobbier and a bit wider, solid #2’s.  After traversing about 15 ft the crack then starts angling back up and then left.  It gets more varied in size but is not less than #.5 or #.75.  Some smearing on faces features keeps the climbing right on the grade.  The last bit again traverses right but on #.5 finger locks.  There’s a Thank God flake jug to gun for at the chains.  An all time route anywhere.

The other route we go onto was a classic multipitch called Nautilus (5c [5.9]).  The first two pitches were as far as we got before it started to drizzle so we rapped off.  The climbing to that point was great varied terrain.  All naturally protected and of differing sizes.  At the third pitch we checked out the two options for proceeding.  The normal route goes right across an unprotected slab and into chimney which you shimmy deep inside the wall.  After working your way up, presumably with small gear inside the chimney,  you pop out over a chockstone and continue up to a belay.  We looked at the chimney on the way down and it looked interesting to try.  The alternative was a beautiful arching finger crack in a corner than arched into a roof.  This way upped the grade slightly but also looked fabulous.  We’ll have to save either for another time I guess.  One point I’ll ding the Italians on is their choice of anchors.  Two bomber bolts connected with a piece of 5.5mm cord–weak sauce.

Manky anchor style that passes for the norm at this crag.
Manky anchor style that passes for the norm at this crag.

With the weather getting questionable for being on the rock, we decided to take a drive up the valley and take a look at the Gran Paradiso National Park.  The is essentially the whole valley’s north side, with the road approximately running easy and west.  One point which I was curious were the huge power lines that ran up and down the valley.  I assumed these were to bring electricity to the villages farther up valley and to some of the hotel/refuges near the road.  This however was the opposite reason for them.

As we drove up valley we were treated to stunning vista after vista of the high mountains with the first snows.  The sun was lower in the sky and was periodically masked by the quickly moving thin clouds moving in and around the valley.  Combined with the quaint refuges and homes along the way it is some of the most amazing scenery I have had the opportunity to see.  The timing was absolutely perfect for our drive.  The tiny winding road was fun to drive with the Kangoo.  Switchbacks in the road were so tight that I was in first gear and of course, no guardrails.  Working our way up the valley only got better and better.  Near the top of the valley before it turns northward there is a large dam.  The first semblance of the park was established in 1856 by the then soon to be king of Italy.  He protected the area because the ibex, a mountain goat with massive horns, lived in the area and were being hunted to extinction.  The preserve dedicated the area for hunting only by the royals.  This protected area brought the first trails and mule tracks into the area.  In 1922 the land was turned into Italy’s first National Park and protects some 4,000 ibex now.  Unfortunately weren’t afforded a view of these animals, they must have been in a different area of the park in this transition season.

A great view of the awesome road, mountains, and lakes.
A great view of the awesome road, mountains, and lakes.

Despite being immediately adjacent to a National Park a large dam was built in 1951 along with a hydroelectric plant.  The dam is very tastefully built and the major blemish it creates are the large power lines bringing electricity down valley to the lowlands.  If you Google Gran Paradiso dam you may have seen some of the mountain goats walking across its steep surface.  

At this point near the dam we spotted some sheep on steep rocky outcrop broken up by some grassy areas.  As we followed the road around this outcrop the source of the sheep became clear.  A shepherd was letting his flock out.  I wish I had the courage to ask for a photo.  He fit the picturesque stereotype of a crusty old shepherd.  His three Border Collies were taking care of keeping the sheep moving.  It was a nice scene.

Another mile or so up the road, but perhaps 10 switchbacks we got to the height of the pass.  Here there was another refuge, perhaps closed that you could walk a short way into.  The pass gave a wonderful view down into the valley.  The low sun highlighted the wispy clouds moving up the valley below us.  Sheep streamed in single file around back towards what I presume was the shepherd’s house.  The amazingly windy road slithered down the valley, over a smaller dam and out of sight.  This drive was one of the highlights of the trip.

2017-09-18_33509

At the top of the pass we looked into the other side of the valley as few flakes flew through the air.  I decided that the Kangoo’s lack of ABS and shitty tires meant we should get to lower elevations where snow wouldn’t be falling, plus we’d reached the high point of the valley and it seemed logical to head back.  We headed back down valley with the intent to sleep lower down in the valley and perhaps climb at another crag.  This plan however didn’t come to pass.  Each of the small villages lower down than Ceresole were nearly boarded up.  As our plan turned from place to stay to just place to eat, we did stop at one area with what looked to be an open restaurant.  At closer inspection we saw a bunch of employees or at least local residents chatting around an otherwise closed up restaurant.  We contemplated our potential dinner of Probars as we got back in the car.  Luckily the way back brought us through Ivrea, which is a city.  Here we were able to find a pizza restaurant and get some pretty darn good pizza.  We arrived back in Chamonix around 11pm or so I think. 

Tuesday the 19th, we visited the office as I had a few last minute things to attend to as well as drop off the van.  We were also able to coordinate dinner plans with Robert for that evening.  Since our first choice of restaurant was randomly closed (hooray French culture!) we went to the same place we went on our first night.  It was a fitting end to a great trip.  I’m already thinking of next time.

Chamonix in May

Panoramic from the bridge at the Midi station.
Panoramic from the bridge at the Midi station.

May 6-25, 2017

What a trip is all I have to say to start.  

In November 2016 I headed to Chamonix, France to feel out a seemingly unbelievable opportunity.  That trip was my first to Chamonix and I didn’t get a peek at the riches that the area has for mountain scenery and fun.  The clouds hung low for the duration of that trip and snow fell frequently.  Since that date things have accelerated significantly and at the beginning of May it was time to return for a longer and more productive trip to solidify the gel that has started setting.  In short the opportunity was to work with Blue Ice, a small Chamonix based climbing company.  I would go along with Bill Belcourt to discuss opening an additional office in Salt Lake City.  We would head the hardgoods design effort here in SLC and softgoods would continue out of Chamonix.  Six months after the project kicked off we are six strong in Salt Lake and augmenting the team of 13 in Chamonix.  Stay tuned to see what we’re working on…

As for the trip.  Adam and I headed out at the beginning of May just as one of the team from France was leaving a visit to the US.  The itinerary was to visit a number of suppliers, climb, ski, and live in France for the bulk of May.  Check, check, check, and check.

Looking up the cable for the telepherique.
Looking up the cable for the telepherique.

In Nov. ’16 I didn’t get to witness the scale since the place was socked in and we didn’t get out for any climbing.  This time however, our ride in from Geneva left us with a clear view of the magnitude of topography that is Chamonix.  The elevation at the cable car, téléphérique as it’s called, in town is 3,379′ (1030 m).  The top of the Aiguille du Midi which the téléphérique brings you to is 12,604′ (3,842 m).  Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, is 15,774′ (4,808 m) and only 3.4 mi (5.4km) away.  I thought that Salt Lake City had some of the best relief in the world and it is only half of that of Chamonix.  The scale is mind blowing.  Looking up at the peaks from the center of town almost hurts your neck in how high you have to look.

While there was quite a bit of working on the trip we were able to get out and do some fun in the hills and mountains.

Travel

Skiing the Grand Envers variation of the Vallee Blanche

Ablon Sport Climbing

Cosmique Arete

2017-01-21 thru 22 Porter Fork and Promise Land

Brett breaking trail the last little bit before we switched over.
Brett breaking trail the last little bit before we switched over.

January 21-22, 2017

Well what a goddamn mess is all I have to say.  The canyons were screwed, no police screening cars getting up canyon and no snow removal.  These added up to a mess trying to get up into Little Cottonwood.  We scrapped our original plan and decided to head toward Millcreek and ski there with Kelly.  We ended up doing a bunch of skinning and very little skiing.  The surprise storm, predicted to be 4-5″ overnight turned into 8-10″ at the house with high precipitation rates, was even more in the canyons.  It was all very light, which was good, but very sensitive.  We ended up at the end of Main Porter Fork and just switched over and skied out because of the sensitive snow.  Still a fun day out and the toboggan run out was fun.

The next day we skied Promise Land with Brett, a friend out from CT, but now who lives in Colorado.  Conditions weren’t quite as pleasant.  In between storms the skies cleared a little, but the window shut quickly.  Winds picked up and temps were cold.  We switched over before the summit of 10,420′.  The run down was pretty darn good.

Desert Shield 2016

 

In full aid mode around the corner.
In full aid mode around the corner.

November 19-20, 2016

A couple years ago Aaron and I had a hairbrained idea that we’d do some aid climbing Zion.  The problem was neither of us knew how to aid climb much so that trip was a bit of a bust.  I’ve still wanted to do some aid climbing on a big-wall down there but hadn’t had anyone who knew the game to go along with.  A couple weeks back I went with Matt Berry to do Desert Shield (5.11a C3).  He’s been ticking off the classics down there slowly and upping the aid difficulty and this would be his first C3.

The route begins with some mandatory free climbing for three pitches that bring you to a possible bivy ledge.  The ledge has a small grill installed into the rock with an ice screw.  It isn’t often that you get to sleep on a ledge and grill steaks so we opted to go heavy and do that.  The alternative would be to fix ropes the first day, stay in town, then come back the next day to finish it off.

I did the first three pitches, poorly.  P1 is moderate and didn’t have much difficulty, just a bit of wandering climbing.  The second pitch is the 5.11a one.  It is a great 170 ft pitch of climbing with face, slab, and crack.  My head wasn’t screwed on properly and I ended up making it a marathon of a hangdog.  Pulling, tensioning in, french freeing, basically all sorts of shenanigans to just get up it.  This was unfortunate because it was a great bit of climbing that I can do, I just wasn’t able to at the time.

Being the leader I hauled and belayed Matt up.  We dropped our stuff off at the bivy ledge and then Matt go to the aid climbing for P4.  While not necessary to do for this pitch, he wanted to get into the groove and prepare for the harder pitches.  He missed the anchor for P4 and went to P5, with heinous rope drag of course.  So bad that he had to rap down the rope he fixed just to clean the gear.

With the work done for the day we settled into our bivy to drink beers and sip whiskey.  The ledge is large enough for two plus, and is protected from the outside by the pinnacle of rock that forms the ledge.  This allows going unroped to be a safe option since you’d have to fall up a three foot barrier in order to fall off the ledge.  Nevertheless we opted to rope in for sleeping as there was some slopiness to the ground towards squeeze chimneys on either side.  The night was pleasant without any wind or precip.  

Home sweet home for the evening.  The ledge is big enough and protected enough that unroping is safe, though we did stay roped at night when sleeping.
Home sweet home for the evening. The ledge is big enough and protected enough that unroping is safe, though we did stay roped at night when sleeping.

The next day we jugged up the fixed ropes to get to the real aid climbing.  P6 starts off to the left of the massive slightly overhanging shield of rock.  This pitch is a bolt ladder going from easier ground out onto the overhanging rock and in full exposure to the rest Zion.  Matt lead the pitch quickly and even made a couple hook moves as necessary to reach the bolts.  For me following this pitch was a little heady since you’re going from a nice ledge into hanging terrain and traversing slightly right to boot.

Once getting out onto the main face the full value of exposure is obvious.  We were 180′ or so above our bivy ledge which was 350′ or 400′ off the valley floor–with nothing but air between my legs it was exhilarating.

Matt chugged on the next pitch which was one of the C3 pitches consisting of small brass offsets for progression and protection.  This route hasn’t been freed as far as I know and I don’t see how it ever could be.  There’s no features to the face and the crack is only a couple quarters wide in many areas.  Matt had no noticeable difficulties to me on the pitch.  He wasn’t fast, but methodical and tested every piece before moving to it.

The beginning of the small offset nut section.  Some of the nuts are about 1.5 quarters thick.
The beginning of the small offset nut section. Some of the nuts are about 1.5 quarters thick.

The eighth pitch is much like the first but a little less consistent in the crack.  By this time in the day we had some other climbers sharing my hanging belay and the clouds started getting dark.  We could feel some rain and the other party decided to bail given the rain and the additional wait it would take to get to the top with us in front of them for the last pitch.  Part way up P8 Matt noticed it was raining a little and we decided it would be prudent to bail.  He was at a bolt (a shitty one), and we were running a little late on time anyway.  He fixed a couple extra small pieces and lowered back to the belay where we started to rap down to our bivy to collect the rest of our stuff.  The raps down to the bivy were two double rope raps and because the wall was slightly overhanging created about +20′ of space between you and the rock as you went down, exciting!

We packed up and were bummed that we didn’t finish the route entirely, but I think it was the right call to bail.  Matt was at a good spot to do it and wet sandstone is fragile and is dangerous to climb on.  Perhaps I’ll go back to finish it but at least I’d like to go back to do the second pitch clean.

Indian Creek October 2016

Erik enjoying a brew and the sunset behind the North Sixshooter.
Erik enjoying a brew and the sunset behind the North Sixshooter.

October 29-30, 2016

Indian Creek is a world renowned climbing location.  Utah’s stunning desert scenery, endless sandstone splitter cracks and the piles and piles of cams to get up them.  Despite this I’ve had a conflicted opinion of the area.  I don’t frequent Indian Creek as much as some and the last time was almost a year ago.  There are a number of reasons for my critical view of the Creek and each time I go down there my feelings are reinforced.

First, and perhaps the least popular reason why I don’t sing from the mountain tops about how good the creek is:  monotony.  Who loves a splitter crack, everyone right?  Sure.  As awesome as perfect hands sounds for 130′, once you’ve done it, it sort of loses its novelty.  Generic Crack (5.10-) and Supercrack (5.10) are a good examples.  My Creek aficionado friends don’t bother with these routes.  Jam-jam torque-torque, rinse and repeat.  Does that mean that I don’t want to climb a crack like that?  No, but I don’t want to do it every weekend between October and the end of November.  “But there are so many other sizes of crack, and it is rare that a route takes only one size cam for its entirety, Pete!”  Very true.  However when the pro list is 5-#1, 4-#2, 2-#3.  You can’t tell me there is a whole lot of variety on the route.  As the saying goes “variety is the spice of life” some variability makes things interesting.  How much fun would a treadwall with a hand crack be?  Not much fun in my opinion.

“Working out the beta” for a route is something that rarely happens in the Creek.  For sure there are the occasional routes with some face holds, a wide bit, or a changing corner, that require some thought.  I did a route called Funny Farm (5.11+) during this trip which fit this description.  A dwindling finger tip crack in a left facing corner has a bolt once the crack disappears.  None in our party could figure out the beta to work through this section.  We all aided on the bolt and pulled through that spot.  To the best we could tell it involved a hip scum to stem transition none of us could do.  This type of climb is in a small minority at the Creek.

In my opinion, climbing at the Creek doesn’t make you a better climber.  It makes you better at climbing splitter desert cracks.  There is certainly some carryover to other rock types.  If you can ring-lock in sandstone, then the same move on granite will be a bit easier.  However the applicability to other rock types is minimal in my opinion.  No one I know who can get themselves up a 5.12 finger crack in the Creek can bring that accomplishment to a 5.12 granite crack–that is unless they are already a 5.12 climber across the board.  If you’re sending 5.10 or 5.11 on granite, and you get up a 5.12 in the Creek doesn’t mean you have a chance on a 5.12 granite finger crack.  For many years I was focused on traditional climbing and eschewed clipping bolts.  I’ve realized that the best and most well rounded climbers I know aren’t Creek fanatics, they clip bolts on limestone, plug gear on granite, climb ice, pull cobbles in Maple, and spend the occasional weekend in the Creek.  Diversity in climbing increases your repertoire of skills to succeed in more areas.  The more climbing areas that are accessible to you, the more fun you can have.

Crowds.  As the pejorative saying goes, “Indian Creek, best crag in Colorado.”  Or “How do you know it is springtime in the Creek?  All the license plates turn green.”  Colorado’s license plate is green mountains silhouette against a white sky.  In the 4 years of climbing in the Creek the crowds have gotten worse–from Colorado and Utah.  Many of the weekends I’ve been there are popular weekends anywhere, Halloween and Thanksgiving.  However the crowds are increasing, just as they are across the climbing world everywhere.  The blessing and curse of increased popularity in climbing.  For areas of like Indian Creek with limited oversight this is a big problem.  

Just getting to a crag is a problem.  Limited, usually unmaintained, and certainly unmanaged parking at most crags creates a cluster fuck of parking.  Cars parked all cattywampus, once you’ve made the typically semi gnarly drive out to a particular crag and there’s already seven cars you are kind of committed to climbing in that area.  So you park in the sagebrush, as little as you can anyway, and hump up to the crag.  As you hike up you see another Tacoma pull in next to you, or across some dubious spot that will make it difficult for the existing vehicles to get out.  

Once you get up to the crag the next crux is confronted–finding a route to climb.  While Mountain Project says there’s about 1,000 routes in the Creek it is rare you can walk up to any given crag and have your pick of the routes.  Since the ante to climb at the Creek is 5.10, there are very few routes easier than that, and not many people can climb 5.12 at the Creek, the crowds get compressed into the 5.10-.11 range.  Hours long top rope queues from groups of people with five, six, or seven people in them–which I have been guilty of too.  Since the party of seven only has maybe two leaders it means that anything they climb will be taken for a couple hours or more.  Many crags have much more undeveloped climbable terrain too.  I’d be willing to bet that they aren’t developed because many of the lines aren’t quite as splitter, diverging from the romantic ideal of Indian Creek.  Route development is a thankless, difficult, and expensive activity.  More choices, perhaps even expanded into the moderate grades, wouldn’t solve anything though.  If more climbs were available, especially moderates, it would mean increased attendance, which is sort of not possible given the limited parking.  

Almost no one day trips the Creek.  From Salt Lake it is 5.5 hours if you don’t have traffic.  More typically on a Friday afternoon it will be 6-6.5 hours with traffic, food, and gas stops.  From Colorado it is shorter, Grand Junction climbers only drive about 2.5 hours.  Since very few are there for only the day it means that everyone else has to stay somewhere.  Creek Pasture, Superbowl, and Hamburger Rock are the “easy” camping areas to get into.  These fill up the quickest on a good weekend since they require neither a high clearance vehicle nor skills to drive a normal passenger car off-road.  Hamburger Rock has charged a fee for a while, but as of September 1, 2016 Superbowl and Creek Pasture are charging as well.  Some of the entitled climbing community think that this outrageous [1], [2], [3].  Apparently construction and maintenance of sites, campground roads, fire rings, and most importantly toilets, is something that doesn’t require money.  Saying that taxes should take care of this is a naive position to take.  Users must financially support their recreational areas directly.  

While the fees haven’t been in place long, my experience this weekend has me wondering how long it will take before there is a major issue with camping in the Creek.  Since less people are interested in paying the $5/night to camp at the easy campgrounds they will migrate to more difficult, but free areas.  Bridger Jacks camping requires either higher clearance or some skill in driving off-road so it fills up a little slower, but will still be pretty full on any given weekend.  This weekend it was very full, with most sites having 2-3 cars or more.  In addition to this the rising popularity of camper vans has people staying in non-camping parking areas such as the Beef Basin lot.  Arguably since there’s no tent it should be fine for a van to stay overnight in a parking lot like that.  However, when there’s a dozen or more vans and sleeper-cap trucks overnight in the lot, how long will it be before there’s an access problem?  Similarly I witnessed large groups of people camping at trailheads.  Specifically this was at the first parking area for Cliffs of Insanity.  There were about 4-5 vehicles with with folding tables lined up like a buffet line, hardly low impact or Leave No Trace compliant.  

All dispersed camping requires full pack-in pack-out, including solid human waste.  I’d be willing to bet there is a very small percentage of users doing this.  I will be quick to admit that I have dug catholes when I couldn’t wait for a proper toilet.  However, I have recently realized that WAG bags aren’t expensive nor all that gross to use, even multiple times.  For those not willing to buy them, there are homemade alternatives.  With hundreds of people on any given weekend how long will it be before there’s a human waste problem?  I’m sure some people might argue there’s already a problem in this area.

So enough bitching.  Utah’s desert areas are an amazing place.  Clearly that is why people visit.  Some of these issues may improve if the Bears Ears National Monument happens.  I am not familiar enough with that plan to comment, but the continued trend in the Creek doesn’t bode well for access.  The solution is more respect for the limited resource, which means financially supporting the area via camping fees, Access Fund membership, following Leave No Trace practices, and perhaps not making quite so many trips there.

Fall Ride with Matt

2016-09-24_29008

September 24, 2016

Got out for a great ride yesterday with Matt.  We were supposed to be a trio but Andrew got scared away by the rain in the morning.  We pushed our start time until just before lunch to give things a chance to dry out.  We made the right decision and had a great ride up to Huntsville all via back roads.  The clearing storm made for some wonderful skyscapes, as well as contrast between autumn and the impending winter as seen by the snow up high.  Pics are a mix of my Canon G12 and new iPhone 7 shooting in RAW.  Can you tell which ones are which?

Fourth of July in the Wind River 2016

Temple Peak and Deep Lake from the North Summit of Haystack.
Temple Peak and Deep Lake from the North Summit of Haystack.

July 1-4, 2016

For a month or two leading up to the Fourth of July long weekend Carly and I had been trying to decide on a destination.  We hemmed and hawed, but when it came down to it we decided on the Wind River Range, otherwise known as the Winds.  Are first we were worried about snow and then it was the bugs and then it was the people.  In the end we were able to bypass both the snow and people, but didn’t skip the bugs.

Friday we left from SLC at a less than opportune time, 5:30 pm, but that was as early as Carly could get out of work.  Unfortunately we hit some traffic in Park City of all places.  There was an accident and Google routed us off the highway.  While there must have been a supercomputer crunching the new route as faster, it was horrendously slow.  I think just sticking to the highway would have been better.

As we finally got through Park City and started racking up the miles we ended up in Evanston, WY.  This is a border town which is good for a liquor and food stop.  Our new favorite place in Evanston was closed for the long weekend so we had to settle for Subway.  Trying to make the best use of our time we split up.  Carly headed to Subway while I went to the liquor store, gas, and Autozone (for an extra quart of oil for the CRV).  I was able to do all that before Carly had even come close to getting our food.  The Subway was swamped, there were three workers, but they didn’t have an interest in easing the bottleneck of assembling the veggie portion of the sandwiches.  The bread and meat girl just did her thing.  The cashier, would idly chat to the veggie assembler as the sandwiches piled up in the queue.  Very irritating.

Beautiful sunset on the road to the Wind River Range.
Beautiful sunset on the road to the Wind River Range.

Finally we got to the 50 or so miles of dirt road heading towards the Big Sandy Trailhead.  The weekend’s weather was mixed with a typical alpine forecast of afternoon thunderstorms.  We saw this was true on our way in as it was pretty dark and inclement.  The occasional flash of lightning silhouetted the mountains as we drove.

Getting closer we ended up stopping at the same spot where Matt, Jamie and I had stopped before our Labor Day trip in 2013.  Rather than setting up the tent we slept in the CRV.  Unfortunately, the length of the flattened seats wasn’t quite enough for my six foot frame leaving me with a restless night’s sleep.

Saturday morning we drove the last 20 minutes or so into Big Sandy Trailhead.  Thankfully the lot wasn’t nearly as full as the previous time I was here.  We found a great parking spot just across from the start of the trail and the bathrooms.  While packing our bags and making coffee we spotted our friend Kelly and her partner Vlad.  We knew they were headed up but didn’t know if we’d see them or now.  It turned out they followed us in on the dirt roads as well.  Our other friends Matt and Leanne we saw had hiked in the previous night based on the logbook at the trailhead.

The hike in is pretty easy as the Big Sandy Trailhead is around 9000′ of elevation.  Our objective wasn’t the Cirque of the Towers, which is the popular spot, we were headed towards Clear Lake and Deep Lake.  As we got through the first portion of the hike and reached the end of Big Sandy Lake about 5 miles from the start, we had lunch with Kelly and Vlad.  While eating we could see clouds rolling in and thunder intermittently.  We each parted ways to our respective sections of the range.  While crossing some of the wide open marsh and streams at the east end of Big Sandy Lake, we started getting a few pieces of hail.  We hurried along across the last few streams and under the shelter of a large set of pines.  From here the skies opened up and it hailed for about 30 minutes.  The even reminded me of my hike with Dave and Phyli on Grand Mesa.

After making our way across the open marsh of the far side of Big Sandy Lake we took refuge under some large pines.  The hail and thunder kept going for about 40 minutes.  This storm is when Matt and Leanne had to bail from Pingora.
After making our way across the open marsh of the far side of Big Sandy Lake we took refuge under some large pines. The hail and thunder kept going for about 40 minutes. This storm is when Matt and Leanne had to bail from Pingora.

Eventually the storm subsided enough for us to continue to our camping area.  As we approached Clear Lake and Haystack Mountain we were amazed at the scenery.  The alpine lake and forests are always breathtaking.  The massive west face of Haystack looked wet and we hoped it would dry out enough for climbing the next day.

We found a one of the only flat and somewhat dry spots at the base of the north summit of Haystack.  A few more rumbles of thunder hastened our retreat into the tent while another little cell rolled through.  Thankfully the skies cleared and the sun came out and it was quite pleasant.  Another friend was also headed out towards our direction for some camping.  We were able to get Coty on the radio and let him know where we were camped.  While making dinner he strolled in and joined us in enjoying the view across Clear Lake.

Sunday we woke early and had a quick breakfast of hard boiled eggs and bacon, both pre-cooked at home.  We headed up the drainage to the north of Haystack to reach the exposed ridge and end up at the base of the north face.  While on the ridge the wind picked up.  It was cold despite being sunny.  When we reached the base of what our intended route was we had a hard time standing at times due to the gusty wind.  Another party who was also there for the same route tried to huddle out of the wind in some rocks.  After a little discussion Carly and I decided that our intended route wasn’t as obvious as we’d like, especially with the wind being the way it was.  We opted to go for a very easy, but sure fire way to get to the summit.

Part way up the consilation prize.  Our intendend route wasn't obvious and it was cold and windy so we went with a easy way to the summit.
Part way up the consolation prize. Our intended route wasn’t obvious and it was cold and windy so we went with a easy way to the summit.

After three pitches of climbing, me on the first and third, and Carly in the second, we reached near the north summit.  Resting out of the wind for a few minutes we untied and scrambled over the talus to reach the north summit.  The views were awesome though cold and blustery.  We could see into the Cirque of the Towers and wondered how our friends were doing there.  We summited around 10:30 which allowed us to get back down to camp with plenty of time to retreat to the tent when the eventual afternoon t-storm rolled through.

Coty had hiked around and up to Deep Lake while we were out climbing and gave us a rundown of the area.  We decided that would probably be a good plan for the next day, Monday.  We’d made tentative plans to try and meet Matt and Leanne back at the cars around 1 or 2 pm for beers.

Monday morning came and we slept in until 7:30 or so.  A quick oatmeal and boiled egg breakfast and we headed up to Deep Lake.  The area between Deep and Clear Lakes is a massive slab of granite.  Over the years soil and plants have taken hold, but as we hiked higher the plants gave way to more and more rock.  After about 30 minutes we reached the shore of Deep Lake.  From here was got an unobstructed view of the precipitous face of East Temple.  I really would like to learn more about the climbs on this peak.  I’m not sure that they are within my ability but it is an impressive mountain.

After a short break we continued up the tiny trail towards Temple Lake, which is over a small ridge separating the Deep/Clear Lake drainage from the next one to the west.  The snow melt was in full swing and at times the trail was just a small stream requiring us to tiptoe around it on wet grass.  We reached the top of the ridge and were granted a view down into Temple Lake, which still had ice and snow on it in spots.  The weather was great and the sun was out.  It was a great spot for a snack.  We were completely by ourselves.

Hiking over the shoulder between Deep Lake and Temple Lake.
Hiking over the shoulder between Deep Lake and Temple Lake.

Heading back down to Clear Lake we struck camp and headed out.  Thankfully the way out wasn’t marred by any inclement weather, though we did hear a couple rumbles of thunder.  Getting Coty on the radio we learned we was well a head of us and had just been passed by Matt and Leanne, which meant we’d all get to the cars around the same time.  The seven mile hike went quickly on the way out, though it was a little hot–thank god for the breeze to cool things off and keep the mosquitoes at bay.  We reached the cars and were able to swap stories of the weekend over ice cold beers (thanks to a sweet cooler).  A great end to a mountain weekend.

Ruth Gorge 2016

One of the blankest faces around, the N. Face of Mt. Johnson.
One of the blankest faces around, the N. Face of Mt. Johnson.

April 16-28, 2016

After too long a break I finally went back to Alaska with Matt to attempt Peak 11,300 on the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier.  However, as it turned out we never accomplished much in the way of climbing.

Months of training were put in, not just in 2015-2016 season, but also in 2014-2015.  That winter I never even packed a bag for AK, despite having ambitions to go.  Matt had an injury and I was without a definite partner.  Couple that with almost non-existent weather windows that year and I didn’t do anything that season.  Fast forward to this year and we questioned if we should postpone because of unsettled weather forecasts.  We considered the Cascades, we considered pushing things out a few weeks, we considered just rock climbing.  In the end we considered that many hours spent hiking up hills, running and lifting would be wasted if we didn’t give our original plan a shot.  In the end the mind was weakest link.  As a result we didn’t get much more than the top of a couloir.

Conditions also played a part in that there was a lot of snow in the AK Range at the end of March and first few days of April.  We flew in on April 18 and had a string of clear, warm weather.  The result was sluffing of snow on high steep faces, ice fall, rock fall, unconsolidated wet snow in the sun.  All things that aren’t confidence inspiring for climbing.

Finding some friends at the cook tent.
Finding some friends at the cook tent.

The many hours spent in camp were comfortable because of the temperatures and sun.  We got some reading in, some drinking in, and enjoyed the quiet that is the glacier.  We had some good mates on the glacier.  A couple young Germans, Max and Christof; and two Quebecois, Bernie and Martin.  These guys had a bit better luck than we did with climbing, but not too much better.

After only seven days on the glacier out of a planned twelve, we pulled the plug and returned to town.  In a fortunate twist of fate, our friends Kim and Andy, who were in a different section of the range and who had great conditions, were also flying out.  Paul, owner of TAT, was a bit early for our pickup and flew inside camp to give us a quicker load up.

We called for a pick up about a week early. Paul was early on pick up day and helped save us a long walk to the plane by landing basically in our camp. The left wing tip is overhanging our camp. Friends and super-couple Kim and Andy headed out with us.
We called for a pick up about a week early. Paul was early on pickup day and helped save us a long walk to the plane by landing basically in our camp. The left wing tip is overhanging our camp. Friends and super-couple Kim and Andy headed out with us.

The next few days were spent making the Talkeetna Main St. Traverse:  breakfast at the Roadhouse, back to bunkhouse for a few hours of napping, reading, internetting, lunch someplace, commence beer intake, continue until evening and dinner at the brewpub.  Rinse and repeat.  Talkeetna’s a pretty small town.

The Great Chimney on Mt. Olympus

Matt on our P3 which was the last pitch.  This was the only really tricky move.  Luckily there's a nice #2 camalot crack right here.
Matt on our P3 which was the last pitch. This was the only really tricky move. Luckily there’s a nice #2 camalot crack right here.

March 12, 2016

Saturday Matt and I headed up to the Great Chimney on Mt. Olympus.  I’ve spied this line for a while as it is very obvious from the valley and I can even see some it from my house.  The only trouble it is a haul to get up there.  Parking at Neff’s Canyon and hiking up the trail isn’t too bad.  It is the long gully slog that was the tiring part.  Luckily our beta was indicated possible post holing for the bulk of the gully so we opted for snowshoes, which were well worth it.  The climb itself was only three pitches for us.  I think the usual first winter/spring pitch is covered in snow right now.  We tromped up about 400′ of vertical to get from our packs in the main gully to the base of what was exposed chimney.  The first pitch had poor protection and some insecure climbing.  Matt did a great job on this one.  I headed up the deep dark second pitch, which I think is usually P3.  This pitch was a full 60m for us and I took my sweet time doing it.  The pro was tricky and dubious at times .  The climbing was awkward, particularly when stemming and surmounting chockstones was required.  The final pitch was short and relatively straightforward, though the snow was not as well consolidated.  Great day out training for AK.