As we have done in the past, Carly and I put various climbing destinations in the calendar through the summer to help motivate us to go to different locations. While we haven’t been 100% successful in going to all the places we entered, we’ve gotten some good trips this summer so far. One of the bigger ones was another trip back to the Winds and the Cirque of the Towers.
Two years ago we went to the Winds, but to a new area. That trip turned out good, but weather kept us from climbing too much. This year we planned for August, typically a little more stable weather month.
For this trip we decided to go to the center of it all in the Winds climbing, the Cirque of the Towers. I’d been here before a number of years ago. Similar to that trip the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) was on the ticklist. In addition was Pingora.
Not unlike the last two times I’d been to Big Sandy Trailhead, I was amazed at the number of cars. There were again perhaps 200 cars at the trailhead and unfortunately the parking is probably designed for only 1/2 of that at best. We squeezed in and did our final packing. This really included just going through our packs and leaving out anything we thought we didn’t really need. Still our packs were 36 and 42 lbs for Carly and I.
The hike in is about 8 miles and ~2000′ of elevation change. We decided to get a little more sleep and leave Thursday morning drive to Big Sandy Trailhead. This unfortunately necessitated much of the hike being during the peak heat of the day. Luckily the hike is scenic and the first 5 miles are relatively easy.
Cresting Jackass Pass and getting the full view into the cirque is a great reward for all the dusty miles traveled. The temperature cooled and the gargoyle like spires of granite tower overhead. After finding a campsite, not a trivial task, we made some food and enjoyed the view.
Early Friday we set off towards the spine of granite that we’d seen illuminated brightly against a shadowy backdrop of north facing walls. The East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) was our objective. I did this route last time in the Cirque, but it is classic enough to warrant a second, third or even more visit. This time I had a slightly better idea of what the climb entailed and therefore better gear. Proper climbing shoes and larger gear to protect the many wide hand traverses.
Starting off we ran into a party of 4 gents who included Peter Metcalf. His group, and the group of two strong girls who caught up to us, were all a pleasure to share the route with.
Carly opted for me to lead the “sidewalk pitch.” A 18″ wide, 30 deg tilted plank of granite that kicks off the climbing. I recall this pitch being gripping last time. A little warmer temps, real climbing shoes, and not on-sighting all made it a bit easier this time.
Carly took over the next block of leads and we simul-climbed for the next few pitches. After that we caught up to the other parties at the first chimney tunnel. Metcalf was leading and got a little off route trying to find the piton pitch. The trouble is the pitch is an improbable traverse with little protection save for 3 pitons nearly a dozen feet apart. After that pitch we all spaced out again and we were able to climb at our own paces. We ended up being bringing up the rear.
The route was much more casual the second time around. Better gear, shoes, and technique on the shorter sections all helped in that.
We had expected to meet up with our friends Mark and Jess. There definitely is no cell reception in the Cirque of the Towers, so it makes syncing up with people more challenging. We’d expected to see Mark and Jess the same day we hiked in, but did not. At the end of the second day we’d still hadn’t seen them either. We’d figured that something came up and they stayed in Wild Iris. Not about to let that slow us down we decided to do the South Buttress of Pingora for our second route on Saturday.
The South Buttress of Pingora isn’t the most iconic on the peak, but it is perhaps one of the least committing, which is what drew us to it. There’s really only 2-3 pitches of technical climbing and mostly easy scrambling otherwise.
Starting at a leisurely 9am we hiked to the base and scrambled up the shoulder to begin the technical climbing. I’d hoped to simul or do a long pitch to get to the base of the proper climbing, but the ledgy nature of the beginning of the route made me think otherwise of doing this.
Once into the proper climbing it was quite good. Just enough protection to keep it safe enough and just enough insecurity to keep you alert. At the base of the “K-cracks” we again ran into Metcalf and his pals. They were a great bunch and got a few pictures of me and I of them.
The right K-crack is a bit tricky and keeps your attention, particularly through the crux. After that pitch it is an easy couple hundred feet to the summit. We met a few Irish pensioners at the top enjoying the “wilderness” that the American West offers compared to much of Europe.
On returning back to camp after Pingora we finally met up with Mark and Jess. They’d had some confusion to our actual objective and so had been looking for us the last couple days. We caught up and made some food while the sun shown. We agreed to take Pancho, their dog, the next morning to allow them to get a climb in.
Packing up camp on the morning of our hike out we were afforded another great sunrise. In fact the weather the entire weekend was fabulously clear, not a hint of rain. The wildfires made it a little smokey, but not bad.
We collected Pancho and headed out. He was a little confused at first why these other random people were taking him away from his owners, but after a mile or so we got into the groove and we made reasonable time. Again we ran into Metcalf and crew on the hike. Everyone was impressed the Pancho carried his own pack. Little did they know it contained not only his shit in a bag, but ours as well.
A few tenths of a mile from Big Sandy is a lodge which offer cabins, pack animal outfitting and burgers & beers. After making it back to the van and a copious soak in the river and our own beers we headed to the lodge for our first fresh meal in a few days. The burgers weren’t the best I’ve had, but they were certainly tasty and hit the spot, along with the cold brews.
With the demise of my spring alpine climbing objective, Carly introduced the idea of skiing Mount Shasta. It is a relatively moderate climb and ski, but entails about 7300′ of ascent. This was a good swap since the total time involved is minimal. It is an 11 hour drive away and the route is doable in a day. This compares well to an Alaska trip which would take about a week or more. We kept training through April and kept an eye on the weather for conditions.
Unfortunately our first potential weekend opportunity had poor weather. Especially unfortunate because the conditions the preceding week were amazing. Between the NWS weather forecast and the mountain webcam, we had pretty good information on the conditions so there was no need to start driving unless the conditions were good. With my approaching work trip, we decided on a late week day. The weather looked good and we both could spare the 2 days out of the office.
The trailhead was pretty nice in that we didn’t have to worry about sleeping in the van. At some areas like the Tetons this is not completely allowed and the change was nice. We started at about 5:15am under clear skies. “Good” conditions for spring skiing are clear days and nights. The clear days melt the snow a little and help it consolidate. The clear nights allow the snow to refreeze and be supportable. We got the clear night, but as the morning went on and we climbed up Avalanche Gulch, there were some high clouds that kept the snow from starting to soften and allow quicker travel.
Working through the lower gully we got clear of the trees and saw the route. The route is straightforward in that it just follows a drainage to a ridge then cuts left and to the summit. We skinned to Helen Lake, a bit less than halfway. From there we decided to boot with the skis on our backs. This proved to be about the same speed but a little less work.
The terrain is pretty moderate, but the section from Helen Lake to Thumb Rock is the steepest, though still pretty easy walking. Carly was much faster than me on the way up. I think I had not hydrated the previous day and as a result my legs were a constant battle to stave off cramps. Once we reached Thumb Rock it was pretty clear we were well behind our expected schedule. Later in the year when thunderstorms would be a concern this would have been an issue. After eating lunch and resting up we made for Misery Hill, named since it is slog which isn’t actually the summit, which is out of view still. The snow conditions here were very firm and didn’t seem like there was a hope of softening at all. Once at the top of the hill it is 1/10th of a mile or so along a moderately flat ridge to the summit block. The summit itself is about 100 vertical feet up from a nice broad flat spot which is good for resting.
The summit is relatively small and we enjoyed the views with just a bit of wind. The view from the summit shows just how prominent that Shasta really is. There are a couple sub-peaks and another reasonably tall volcano to the south, but everything else is just a tiny hill in comparison.
After summiting the fun began! Well, not quite yet. The ski from the summit to Thumb Rock was not very good and a bit dangerous in spots. Because of the altitude, wind, and temps the snow up here wouldn’t soften. This resulted in an icy careful descent to Thumb Rock. This was not one of Carly’s favorite moments, nor me. From Thumb Rock we booted down a little way until the snow got better and swapped back into skis. For the next 4000′ it was the best corn skiing I’ve done. The terrain is moderate and enormous so you can ski as fast as you want, anywhere you want. This was the highlight for sure. Doubly the highlight as the weekend streams of climbers and skiers were slogging uphill in the corn as we were carving smooth turns.
The last 1000′ or so feet of skiing when to slop, again this is expected. While not hard it wasn’t as fun as the previous section so it just meant keeping some speed on the flats. Luckily the snow extends to all but the last 100 or so feet to the trailhead so we were able to ski all the way. For being our first volcano it was quite an experience, not one I would repeat without the amazing corn skiing in the middle. The sentiment is shared by Carly.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After returning from Creeksgiving a little early to a nice layer of fresh snow, Carly and I went skiing at Snowbird. Despite the limited trails open it was a good day. The following day Matt and I headed towards the Sundial near Lake Blanche for what is going to become probably my annual first ice of the season climb. A long walk for a single pitch of ice, but it is quite beautiful there.
Over the weekend I did another trip up to the Tetons. For this second in a month trip up I went with Matt and Patrick. We’d all been thinking of day tripping the Grand for a while. Patrick hadn’t summited at all and Matt hadn’t been up in a while. I’d already done the Grand by part of the same route earlier in August, but I was keen to see how I could hold up against them during car to car attempt.
Leaving work a little early we sped up to Jackson so we could hit the grocery store and stock up on snacks, post-climb beers, and a few other necessities. After taking probably a little more time than we should have we settled in to Lupine Meadows Trailhead around 10:30 pm for a short bivy. We woke around 3 am and were on the trail in less than an hour. It did take a bit of time to pack up the truck and such which accounted for a little more time.
Once on the trail the game began. Matt and Patrick would slowly pull away, especially on the steeper sections. I’d catch up went they stopped and we’d all fuel and change layers. It was surprisingly warm for as early as it was. Our trip through the forest and on the switchbacks was largely uneventful aside from a large buck sighting from about 35 feet away.
As we got to the Meadows the sun started warming up the high peaks. While sunset is a wonderful event, I would say that I enjoy sunrises more. There’s an anticipation of the day to come that joins a sunrise. Sunrise is a deep breath and sunset is a sighing exhale.
All in all we made reasonably good time to the Lower Saddle, passing a few parties along the way. Finding base of the route wasn’t too bad as we’d timed things such that there was plenty of light to see. I’ve done the Full Exum twice but not just the Upper. The approach is pretty straightforward. Wall Street is the early highlight of the route. A broad sloping ramp that looks very steep from afar is actually easier than some of the approach until the last ten feet. In that last few feet the ramp pinches off to just 6-8 inches wide. Either an upper way via a foot traverse, which I did, can be taken or going lower and having some sloping hands with some reasonable feet. Matt and Patrick went this way.
Once on the route proper we started simul climbing with Patrick at the lead. He lead the length of the route in about 6 pitches, stopping only when gear ran out or when the ledges were too big to pass up.
Weather was quite a bit different than when Carly and I were up at the beginning of August. At that time we got baked under the high altitude sun, calm winds, and warm temperatures. This time I wore a puffy for about half of it. The wind whipped, snow fell (a little), and the sun was obscured. We saw precip off in the distance for much of the climb but there was never a major danger than any of us saw so we continued on. We summited around 11:20 am.
On the way down we heard some major rockfall from over by the Middle Teton. About 45 minutes later we heard a chopper and saw the yellow NPS rescue helicopter. It headed up the South Fork to the opposite side of the Middle Teton. While the rockfall wasn’t a contributor, there was a climber that slipped and fell on a moderate route on the opposite side of the mountain. He was rescued by the rangers and short-hauled out to Lupine Meadows before going to the hospital. Not sure of the extent of the injuries but it would seem he is largely OK.
Once hitting the Meadows Patrick cranked up the pace. We were in striking distance of a sub-12 hour attempt so he didn’t want to miss the opportunity. As such he started jogging down the trail. Matt and Patrick are far better trail runners than I so I’m sure I slowed them down a bit, particularly once we got to the non-rocky portion of the trail. Nevertheless we were a team so I pushed on and was sort of able to keep pace (though they were going slower for me than they probably would have). Only in the last half mile or so did they drop me and make a break for the finish line. After nearly 12 hours on the move I was pretty tired and my legs just couldn’t keep up so I had to walk a few hundred yards in the final leg. Luckily I was able to finish strong and run into the finish line. 11:57:35.
I’d been going on and on about how beautiful the Tetons were to Carly for a while and that we should go up there and climb. Earlier this year I finally said we should just put it on the calendar and do it. Luckily weather cooperated and we went up over the weekend and were able to summit.
Unlike my last trip up the Grand my commentary will be much shorter. Carly and I headed up Thursday night after work and bivied in the car at Lupine Meadows since the camping areas were full and it was 11pm when we finally arrived. After a restless night we quickly headed to the Ranger Station so we could secure a backcountry camping permit for Garnet Canyon at the Moraine. This is the same camping area as Chris and I used and is a pretty good spot to stage an attempt on the Grand. It doesn’t quite get you as far up as the Saddle but the conditions are a bit better and it doesn’t require lugging a heavy pack quite as far.
Luckily we got a permit, but not until Saturday night which meant we bummed around Friday sorting gear and generally hanging out before our hike in. The plan was to hike in Saturday, climb the Grand Sunday, and hike out Monday.
Our hike in was pretty good. Our packs were heavy but not nearly as heavy as some of our fellow climbers. I was able to get by with 35 liter and a couple things strapped to the outside. Carly used a 70 liter that was largely empty. We were able to split weight OK, but not perfectly.
Climb day we awoke at 3:30am under a brightly lit full moon. Aside from packing my pack I was able to the great majority of the approach without a headlamp due to the moon. We left camp at about 4:00 and got to the Lower Saddle about 45 minutes later. An hour later we arrived at the base of the Lower Exum.
During the approach we saw two headlamps in front of us but they were well off the approach trail and we eventually met up with them. Sam and Seth (SLC and Kentucky) didn’t have good beta for the approach and therefore fell in behind me since I’d already done the route once before. Since I got them to the base of the route they didn’t have any qualms having Carly and I head up first.
Unlike the last time I was able to stay more or less on route at the third pitch, which last time we did incorrectly. The third pitch is still a bit tricky with some chimney and squeezing but not too bad. Were climbing effectively and weren’t in danger of being passed by Seth and Sam, nor the team behind them. Carly loved the Black Face pitch as did I (I did the 5.7 rather than the 5.9 like last time). Once on the Upper Exum we did have to wait a bit at the Golden Staircase since there isn’t much room to pass there. However after that we moved pretty well and were able to simul-climb and pass a number of parties along the way to the summit. We reached the summit at around 2 pm.
The descent was uneventful as we followed an Exum guide, Garrick, down. Our dehydrated chili that I’d made for the trip tasted awesome when we finally got back to the tent around 6pm.
Monday we headed out and enjoyed beers and salsa in the parking lot while enjoying the view of Teewinot. Carly’s Grand weekend couldn’t have gone more smoothly or with better weather. It was kind of on the hot side actually and we wished we hadn’t brought some of the warmer layers, but that’s just how things go in the alpine. We’re looking forward to the next time and the next route.
The weekend temperatures were predicted to be the first in SLC of 2015 that broke the triple digits. Despite the cool and rainy May we had June came back with a vengeance. As I write and the final hours of June 2015 come to a close the record for the average temperature for June of 75.7° (1988) will be broken, with something around 77°. Doesn’t sound so bad but check whatever your average June temps historically are to compare.
So to get out of the oven in the valley Carly, Matt, and I decided to make a summer ascent of the North Ridge of the Pfeifferhorn. The three of us along with Eric attempted the route back in the winter, when it is more traditionally done. That outing was a disappointing one to say the least. This time we were sure inclement weather wasn’t going to cause any issues, nor was lack of daylight since the sun sets at 9 pm this time of year.
Matt met us at our house around 10 am and we got moving. We were a little behind schedule as was Matt since he had to get some food for lunch/breakfast for the weekend. It wasn’t a big deal since, again, there is plenty of daylight for the 4 mile hike in and the climb. We planned for an overnight in Maybird Gulch to enjoy the cool fresh air and the alpine environment.
Approaching the White Pine trailhead we were dismayed that it seemed the entire city of Salt Lake had decided to hike the trail that day. Parking overflowed onto the road for a hundred yards before and after the entrance to the trailhead. Feeling lucky that our alpine start of 11 am would score us a spot in the lot we ventured in. We were rewarded with a spot only one over from the start of the trail. Score! Who’d want to walk an extra hundred yards before their 4 mile hike right?
Setting off it was hot in the sun and we wandered up the trail heading towards Red Pine. The Wasatch is unusually green and lush this time of year despite the heat. The May rains really made all the plants pop. Numerous little spring and runoff crossed the trail. Despite the low snow the creek draining Red Pine was flowing swiftly and strongly.
Heading up towards Maybird reduced the number of people we passed significantly. I say passed since no one ever passed us to my recollection on hour hike in. It seems as though my training during the fall-winter-spring is still paying off. Matt is still is good shape, when not injured. Running near marathon trail runs will do that though I guess. Carly on the other hand hasn’t had much time to workout with school and work duties. Regardless she kept up really well. I don’t really remember having to wait for her much at all.
Pulling into Maybird we were greeted with alpine sounds of birds, gentle wind through the tall thin evergreens, and the distant sounds of a cascade. Maybird has two small ponds of snow run-off that we passed before entering the talus. Only ever being here in the winter before I wasn’t expecting the vast expanse of talus that there was. Maybird Gulch is rimmed by the Pfeifferhorn’s East Ridge to the south, North Ridge to the west and another unnamed ridge to the east. The whole area is about 1/2 a mile deep and 1/4 mile wide. This entire area is granite blocks of talus–making for slow walking as there’s no trail.
Scoping a good camping spot on a grassy spot not too far from a stream we ditched our overnight packs and headed towards the low end of the ridge. A lot of blocks and boulders and a little bit of snow later we got to the ridge. The first bit of the climb is a fun scramble with low difficulty and commitment we did in our running shoes. As the ridge went on though we needed to switch into our climbing shoes and get the rope out. The lower crux of the ridge is probably the hardest overall. There’s a fairly unprotectable slab which really isn’t too difficult in rock shoes. I did wonder how it’d be in mountain boots–I’m sure I’ll find out this winter.
Simul-climbing on a single rope we made better time than if we’d pitched it out. As we got to one of the first actual belays we all remarked at the large, and growing, black cloud to the southeast. Since I was confident there wasn’t any weather forecasted and that we couldn’t hear any thunder I wasn’t too worried, but I, along with Matt and Carly, kept a close eye on that cloud. Eventually when the cloud reached us it just started disappearing with nothing to show for it. Our luck held.
Reaching our high point from our winter attempt, I grabbed the meager rack and started climbing, taking over for Matt. Our three cams and set of nuts went quickly even though I rarely placed them and after about 300 feet of climbing I stopped at a logical belay to bring them up and collect more gear. Along the way we were able to see some mountain goats hanging out in the gully next to the ridge. Along with some rather interesting “climbers” that decided to ascend the gully in their Tevas.
Moving on I ran the next “pitch” out and went through all the slings, all the cams, and all but two of the nuts. At a certain point I realized that Matt, at the other end of the rope and Carly in the middle, probably had taken everything out that I’d put in. Given that we were “unprotected” I found a decent rock and just threw the rope over it for a terrain belay. Perfect alpine style. By this time the terrain had slacked off quite a bit and it was mostly scrambling on loose rocks and sand. We all met up again and shortened the rope to about 15 ft between each of us. This allow us all to be within visual and still provided some amount of protection as if one of us slipped the other could snug up the rope and help us regain our balance.
Finally after 5 hours on route we summited around 7:30 pm. Weather was great, just warm enough not to be chilly and not hot enough to be sweaty. We enjoyed the view for a bit, packed up our stuff and switched over to running shoes again. Carly complained of being a bit loopy–probably a result of the long exposure to the sun and the 11,000′ altitude–so we decided to head down to camp.
Unfortunately the logistics of a summer ascent with an overnight are exceptionally poor. As my friends to the north say, “ya can’t get they-ahh from hee-yahhhh”. The descent off the Pfeiff is to go down the East Ridge, which is the normal “hiking” route. While it is a hiking trail it is scrambly in parts over some boulders and talus. We did this and once reaching Red Pine we ducked behind the ridge separating Maybird and Red Pine. Our though here was that we could contour along something besides talus back to just over the ridge from our camp. Once lined up with our camp (verified by GPS) we’d pop over the small ridge via a weakness and stroll into camp. This plan only half worked. There was still considerable talus and some snow (which was the easy part) to deal with. Just as we popped over the ridge via the aforementioned weakness, we were greeted by an awesome sunset over the Oquirrhs (thank you copious SLC polution for making it so red).
And so came the best part of my day. Carly and I had each carried up two Fat Tire cans with us on the hike and stashed them in a snowbank only 50 yards from our campsite. I’m not going to say these were the two best beers (bee-ahs for you Mainers out there) I’ve ever had, but let’s just say they are very much in the top 5.
Sunday we headed back to the fork between Maybird and Red Pine. There we dropped our packs in the woods. Matt made a trail run from there up to the summit of the Pfeiff again via the East Ridge. Carly and I decided to to do something similar, but just up to the lake. The trail unfortunately was a bit steeper than either of us could really run and so we mainly did a power hike for the steeps and some light running on the flat sections. Once at the lake we enjoyed the cascade, cool breezes, and birds singing while we waited for Matt. Luckily Matt had brought his little walk-talkies and we were able to keep in touch for most of his run.
We eventually met back up and started back for the car. As we descended the progressively thicker and hotter air became apparent. In the last mile or so to the car we wondered why we’d “escaped” the heat and gone to the mountains since much of the trail is in the sun near the end. While the average temps here are higher than in the east where I was, there is everything to be said about altitude. It makes the sun hotter, the shade cooler, and the lungs burn a bit more–and all of that is just fine with me.