Saturday, November 16, 2013

New Website

My Skagit Alpinism blog is moving over to my new website: All my future bloggings shall be found there...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Domo Blanco and Cerro Electrico

I had a bit of climate shock a couple weeks ago, traveling from the Squamish summer of shirtless sport climbing, down to a snowy, icy El Chalten in mid-winter. I arrived in El Chalten on August 23, and supposedly proper winter had arrived only a few days beforehand. People around town talked of a "pequeno verano" for all of June and July, with way above normal temperatures, sunny weather, and sport climbing around town. I arrived to find El Chalten covered in snow and ice, with temperatures in town hovering around -10C.

It seems that I arrived too late for giveaway winter ascents, but overall I was glad. After all, I've been thinking for several years that I wanted to come to El Chalten in winter, and it would've been disappointing to find it snow-less! Over the past several years I have spent large amounts of time in El Chalten, and one of the biggest downsides for me is missing a lot of the northern hemisphere winter, as I've always been really fond of wintertime. Well, not willing to sacrifice the summer climbing season in the Chalten Massif, obviously I jest needed to get my winter fix down here as well!

I came down here with some ambitious soloing plans, but so far have been spending my time ticking some classic summits that I've always wanted to visit, but have never been high priority in summertime. Part of the reason that I've been scaling back my ambitions is because conditions are far from ideal. The Chalten Massif saw almost zero snow accumulation all fall and winter, and then a few dumps of snow just recently. So, the glaciers are in the worst possible condition: crevasses completely obscured by smooth, fresh, wind-deposited snow, but with snow bridges that are very thin and weak. In addition, ice conditions on the peaks are very poor - mostly it is just powder snow on dry rock. During the first spell of good weather I headed out towards the ice cap with a heavy backpack full of climbing gear. Shortly below Paso Marconi I poked my ski pole through a snowbridge and decided to turn around.

When a second spell of good weather appeared in the weather forecast, I hiked into the Marconi Glacier on Sept. 1st. The next day, my twenty-ninth birthday, I romped up the original route on Cerro Domo Blanco with immaculate weather. The route is technically quite easy (some 50-degree snow ramps and a bit of 3rd-class mixed terrain), but I was still quite stressed, constantly worried that a pocket of snow on the ramp system might avalanche and send me over the cliffs below. Thus, in many areas where I could've easily loped along, I carefully hugged the rock walls, brushing snow off of holds so that I could hang on in case a slab ripped out. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but despite the extra care, and despite plenty of trail-breaking through deep snow, I topped out with plenty of time to spare. Domo Blanco is very centrally-located in the massif, and the views from the summit are fantastic!

On September 6 I used a shorter, more marginal weather window to climb and ski Cerro Electrico. Cerro Electrico is a humble peak amongst the fantastic spires of the Chalten Massif, but its big selling point is the shortest approach of any alpine peak around town (Cerro Solo and Aguja Guillaumet are much longer. Only Cerro Vespignani compares). You start rapidly gaining elevation after only 30 minutes of valley-bottom hiking.

Via the normal route on the eastern side, Cerro Electrico is a mellow glacier climb, perfect for ski mountaineering. Visibility was in and out for most of the day, but on the summit I got some spectacular views of the Chalten peaks. After tagging Cerro Electrico's main summit, I decided to try the northeast summit, which is quite prominent when viewed from Piedra del Fraile or Piedra Negra. From the glacier on Cerro Electrico's normal route, the northeast summit is just a small, 4th-class rock pyramid. The line that I climbed had a bit of M3-ish climbing, which demanded attention mostly just because it was covered in powder snow. Without a rope I didn't really want to down-solo that M3-ish bit, and found a slightly easier way to climb back down.

Rumor has it that the northeast summit of Cerro Electrico was previously unclimbed. For sure that's not because of its difficulty (it's just a short, 4th-class detour from the normal route), but simply because, like many still-unclimbed summits in the massif, there hasn't been interest. Anyways, "Cumbre Noreste" isn't really a name, so I'll refer to it as "la Cumbre Roja," which is descriptive, and likely what many people already call it.

A snowy El Chalten:

Looking into the Torre Valley from the top of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado:

Not the best snow up on Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, but the best snow I'd ever skied in August!

A nice view of Cerro Chalten on the way back down from Loma del Pliegue Tumbado:

There is actually a fair amount of waterfall climbing and mixed cragging that one could do in the mountains around Chalten. It is for sure not the quality of the Canadian Rockies or Norway, and most all the approaches are long, but I think could actually be a worthwhile trip for someone who is into adventure waterfall climbing. There was even plenty of ice forming on the wall just across the river from town, and the classic, easiest rock route was climbed with tools and crampons by Herve and Vicente, the day or day before I arrived in town:

Hiking into the Electrico Valley on my first proper foray into the mountains:

Taking a break from my way-too-heavy backpack at the base of the Marconi Glacier. Not much snow for late winter!

Starting to snow as I headed up towards Paso Marconi:

Shortly after it started snowing, I poked my ski pole into this bastard! Hmmm... I think I'll turn around and re-think my options...

A snowy El Chalten the morning that I hiked in for Cerro Domo Blanco:

The Rio Electrico bridge:

Walkin' in a winter wonderland...

Oooh, magical...

Looking up at the awesome west face of Cerro Piergiorgio while post-holing up to the original route on Domo Blanco:

Self-portrait part way up Domo Blanco, with the Marconi Peaks behind:

A nice view of Cerro Piergiorgio from near the top of Domo Blanco:

Looking down to the Marconi Glacier from near the top of Domo Blanco:

Cerro Chalten and the Supercanaleta from near the top of Domo Blanco:

Looking at the Torres (all stacked in front of one another from this direction) from the summit of Domo Blanco:

Looking west out to the ice cap and Cerro Mariano Moreno. Domo Blanco actually has three summits, and I thought the central one might be higher than the east summit that I arrived to first, so I went over to be sure... Of course, from the central summit the east summit looked highest afterall...

Looking down the Torre Valley, and out towards Lago Viedma:

Evening on the Marconi Glacier. Cerro Domo Blanco is the buttressed blob to the right of Cerro Piergiorgio:

Hiking up to the glacier on the east side of Cerro Electrico:

Looking northeast towards Lago Viedma from partway up Cerro Electrico's east-face glacier:

Getting near the top of Cerro Electrico now...

On the summit of Cerro Electrico... I think I'll relax a bit and watch Chalten come out of the clouds...

Thar she blows!

Looking northeast from the summit of Cerro Electrico, towards Cerro Gorra Blanca, Cerro Neumayer and Cerro Cagliero:

Looking down to Laguna Piedras Blancas:

Yeah, that's not a bad view!

The snow was far from perfect, and I was on my approach skis in mountaineering boots... but skiing is skiing - that is, freakin' fun regardless!

La Cumbre Roja. I climbed up just left of the central rib.

On the way up la Cumbre Roja:

The one tricky bit was at the top. I climbed on the right on the way up, which felt about M3-ish, but found a slightly easier way on the left for the downclimb:

Some snowy fourth-class rock just below the top of la Cumbre Roja:

The summit of la Cumbre Roja:

This photo is from down in the Electrico Valley during my first trip up towards Paso Marconi. La Cumbre Roja is the obvious red summit.

Some more nice turns further down Cerro Electrico's east glacier:

Fuck, I love skiing!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer in Squamish - Dedication to Rock

When I finally finished university in early 2009 I was just about ready to explode, and for the next three years I was nearly always on back-to-back alpine climbing trips, making extended annual visits to Chamonix, Alaska, Pakistan and Patagonia. For three years I think I averaged about 180 days per year on glaciers! It was an amazing stint, and I felt very happy to be following my dreams in inspiring places. The one problem, however, is that I was progressing very slowly as a climber. One paradox with high-level alpine climbing, is that to some degree the more you do it, the worse you become at it. It is pretty standard to come home from an alpine climbing trip, especially one at high altitude, in worse physical fitness than when you left, particularly for hard technical climbing.

I have been sleeping in snow caves since I was ten years old, climbing glaciers since I was eleven, and throughout highschool and university I spent a humongous amount of time alpine climbing in the Cascades. Thus, I developed a massive alpine experience repertoire when I was young, but unlike most serious climbers my age, I missed out on the rock training. I didn't start semi-regularly visiting a climbing gym until I was nineteen, and I never tried redpointing (as opposed to making an onsight attempt then moving on) a sport route until I was twenty-two, when I climbed my first 5.12a. Hard free-climbing continues to be my greatest weakness as an alpinist, and therefore where I have the most space to grow and improve, and I find that personal improvement is always very motivating.

A couple years ago I made a conscious decision not to visit the Himalaya for a few years, and instead focus all my energy on Patagonian alpinism in the austral summer, and training to improve myself as a climber during the northern hemisphere summer. It's not that I burnt out on back-to-back alpine trips - quite to the contrary, I have to remain disciplined to NOT constantly plan alpine adventures, and instead dedicate myself to rock climbing for the bulk of the summer. In essence I am sacrificing some opportunities to try amazing objectives, with the hope that while I may attempt fewer objectives, I will be more skilled, and attempt more difficult objectives.

So, 2013 has been the third summer in a row that I have spent mostly training in Squamish. I do really consider it training, but I guess that the word "training" doesn't really do justice to enjoying myself on world-class boulders, sport climbs and trad climbs. Add in the best weather in North America for the months of July, August and September, and the fact that my wonderful girlfriend lives in Squamish, is a hard rock climber herself, and is keen to rock climb with me all summer, and I can deal with missing out on the Himalaya for a few years!

One mistake that I made this summer was getting involved in route development here in Squamish. Along with my girlfriend, Sarah, and Jeremy Frimer, I spent about twelve days working on a crag near the top of the new soon-to-be-running gondola that we are calling the "Ultraviolet Cliff." It was a good experience, and I'm glad to have helped contribute something to the local climbing community that I feel is of value... but I hope to remember not to get involved again! Holy smokes, route development is A LOT of work! The experience has definitely given me a large appreciation for the group of local Squamish climbers who do a large amount of route development year after year. Thanks guys! Oh, and if you're curious about the crag that we've been working on, Jeremy has posted some inforation on it here:

I had a bit of a setback this spring when I fractured my cheek-bone in the St. Elias mountains, but all in all I had a good head-start on my rock climbing season this year by not spending 60 days in the Central Alaska Range! My springtime head start, combined with a bunch of time spent sport climbing this year, has resulted in some of my best "sends," and of course it's always nice to get a bit of positive confirmation that my "training" is working! A week or so ago, Sarah sent the classic highball boulder problem that we'd been trying, "Resurrection" (V9), and then this past Saturday I managed to send it as well - my first V9! The next day (yesterday), the unhealthy frequency with which we've been going sport climbing was justified when I sent "Freewill" (5.13c), by far my hardest redpoint. "Freewill," on The Big Show wall, was established in 1995 by local Squamish badass Jola Sandford, and at the time was one of the hardest routes in the world established by a woman. It is a one bolt and one boulder problem extension of "Gom Jabbar" (5.13b), established in 1993 by Keith Reid, the first person to realize the potential of The Big Show.

It is a bit comical to have redpointed 5.13c, as I've only ever climbed two 13a's before, and I've never climbed 5.13b. Having put in about 18 tries goes to show how much of a difference extensive rehearsal makes. Aside from ruthless rehearsal, I think the only reason I redpointed a grade so far above my normal level is because "Freewill" caters exactly to my strengths. I am generally a weanie when sport climbing, always scared to fall, but "Freewill" is so radically overhanging and the falls so obviously safe that for once I could let go of my fear completely. The route is also largely about endurance (the hardest moves are only V5 I'd estimate), which is generally a strength of mine. And lastly, the crux sequence is powerful moves off of sinker fingerlocks, and I've always felt better on fingerlocks than any other type of hold or jam.

The experience of redpointing a hard sport climb has certainly been rewarding, and I'll definitely try to do it again, but it also makes me realize just how specific the accomplishment is. So, now I've "sent" a 5.13c, but I'm sure I'll still get gripped leading 5.7 chimneys on El Cap, and I'll almost certainly get a big smackdown any time I try to onsight 5.11 at Index. Just goes to show that the numbers don't really mean all that much compared to the context - onsight vs. redpoint, sport vs. trad, finger cracks vs. offwidths, Index grades vs. Kalymnos grades, etc, etc, etc... But, anyways, it's been fun training!

Fern Webb leading "Emerald Frond" (5.9), at the Ultraviolet Cliff:

Seth Adams leading the four-star "Ruby's Corner" (5.10a), at the Ultraviolet Cliff:

Seth Adams leading "Fifteen Kilometre Crack" 5.11a/b or 5.8, A0), at the Ultraviolet Cliff:

Nick Elson leading the showpiece route of the Ultraviolet Cliff, "Dead Bernardo's Crack" (5.11c):

Nick Elson near the top of "Dead Bernardo's Crack" (5.11c), at Ultraviolet Cliff:

Fern Webb cleaning the anchors on "Fifteen Kilometre Crack" 5.11a/b or 5.8, A0), with Sky Pilot and Copilot in the background:

One thing I like about living near glaciers is you always have the option to go do a bit of ice climbing, even in mid summer. Sarah nearing the toe of the Matier Glacier, above Joffre Lakes:

Sarah climbing on the Matier Glacier:

Looking down on the Joffre Lakes from the Matier Glacier. I like this photo because the recent terminal moraines are so clearly and elegantly visible in the upper lake:

Sarah climbing out of a crevasse on the Matier Glacier:

Sarah on the Matier Glacier:

Sarah top-roping some gently overhanging ice on the Matier Glacier:

Sarah and I went out one day recently on the Chief with local photographer Chris Christie, to try and make a few cool photos, and have a go at the 5.12a pitch on the Lower Black Dyke. Photo by Chris Christie:

I tried to onsight the pitch, but ran out of gas after the first few bolts. I've heard some people speculate that this pitch is no longer 5.12a because some holds have broken off. I think it actually is 5.12a, but because there is no chalk on it you get really pumped groping around trying to find the right holds. If it were as chalked-up as the average 5.12a at Pet Wall or Cheakamus, I don't think it would feel any harder. There was one scary, hollow, block, about the size of a small microwave, but otherwise the pitch was reasonably solid. If someone took the time (in mid-winter!) to re-clean the Lower Black Dyke, I think it has the potential to be a super cool route. There are so many climbers in Squamish these days who are up for the grade that I bet it would see more traffic than it did after the last cleaning. Photo by Chris Christie:

Sarah having a go on the same pitch. Photo by Chris Christie:

Myself on the lower part of "Freewill," a few days before sending. Photo by our friend Jamie Finlayson, who could offer helpful beta and encouragement, considering that he often warms up with a burn on "Freewill!":

A couple moves higher on "Freewill." Photo by Jamie Finlayson:

As usual, cutting my feet midway through the crux fingerlock sequence. Photo by Jamie Finlayson:

Sarah sending "Heifer Down," (5.12d), at the same crag. Photo by Jamie Finlayson.

Sarah working the lower part of "Freewill." Photo by Jamie Finlayson:

Sarah catching some air on "Freewill." Photo by Jamie Finlayson: