Monday, November 21, 2011

AMGA Rock Guide Certification

The American Mountain Guide Association has built a curriculum, staffing, and reputation to support the highest level of rock climbing and guiding certification available in the US.  In late October of this year I completed the final exam in the AMGA Rock Guide program, earning the official label of "Certified Rock Guide".

Indulge me as I tell a bit of my story. The very beginning can be traced to 2000 when I took my first formal rock climbing class.  In that class, a semester long introductory course at the University of Maine, I learned foundational skills as well as had exposure to professional and trained rock guides.  One of the instructors of that course, Jon Tierney, had recently developed the curriculum for what was called the AMGA "Top Rope Site Manager Course".

I finished school while climbing more and more.  I traveled the west, climbing more and more.  I busted myself up skiing in 2002, and climbed to recover.  I moved to Bishop to climb more and more.  I got a job teaching climbing in the Bay Area of California.

I took the above mentioned "Top Rope Site Manager Course" in 2005 in the Eastern Sierra.  In my first lesson in the small world dynamics of the guide community, that course was taught by none other than Jon Tierney of Maine. I worked and climbed more and more.  In 2007 I took yet another AMGA course, the "Rock Instructor Course".  Around that time I got a job with Sierra Mountain Guides in Bishop.  More and more guiding work materialized, making this guiding gig more and more viable.  That course in 2007 marked the beginning of a concerted effort to dive into the guiding career.  I also started parallel training as an Alpine and Ski Guide. I have taken at least one AMGA course or exam every year since 2007.  My training has peaked this year with four extensive and expensive sessions of professional development.  Hopefully each of the next two years I will be able to report on full certification in Alpine and Ski guiding.  What a journey so far!

Now, this journey has been more than a string of courses and exams.  Built into the progression is required field experience between the formal programs.  I have been fortunate to collect that experience while earning a living as a full-time guide.  My field experience has been mentored by employers Neil Satterfield and Howie Schwartz, with crucial input from co-worker and certified guide Viren Perumal.  Early on, employer Richard Bothwell supervised my very first rock guiding and instructing efforts.  All of these guys have held me to a high standard while letting me grow.

Also crucial to the effort have been the folks I have dragged around in the mountains.  After all, "what would be a guide without someone to lead?"  (Attributable to famous French guide Gaston Rebuffat) Far from "guinea pigs", paying guests came to me to achieve their own goals and objectives.  Actual work experience is integral to the ongoing improvement of any professional.  This is a good time to note that, relative to the entire pool of American climbing guides and instructors, very few are formally trained or certified.  There are now just under 200 certified rock guides in the entire country.  Also, on a few occasions, I enlisted the help of "mock clients".  When circumstances left me short of work or appropriate practice opportunities I would contrive guiding challenges with the help of friends, the above mentioned mentors, as well as co-workers starting their own certification processes.  You folks know who you are, and I appreciate your help greatly.

On the exam.  Chad in the yellow helmet is in "guide mode" while Keith examines.
The actual final exam was six days of climbing in Red Rock near Las Vegas, NV.  We climbed short hard routes, long easy routes, and long hard routes.  The seven other candidates and I were tested with route-finding and rope-management challenges, entrusted with high-end risk management decisions, and even laughed once in a while.  An examiner set the tone early by reminding us that "you wouldn't be here if you weren't ready."

While we were asked to "guide like you are used to", the pressure of an exam situation put a little more weight on these particular guiding assignments.  Risk management, the awareness and mitigation of the likelihood and consequence of bad things happening, is the same whether guiding a beginner-for-pay or an examiner.  The smaller things, though, seemed to carry a much greater import.  It is popular to dismiss the stress associated with these exams as unrealistic.  "Our actual guests aren't carrying notebooks around and checking their watches every few minutes."  I would argue that that is not true, and that many of our guests, not to mention employers, hold us to an even higher standard.  I might suggest an analogy to the stress a guide might feel "courting" a potential long term guest.  We are expected to make all the same correct choices, but the consequences of mis-stepping loom much larger.  When all was said and done, the training and experience, fitness and skill, stress-management and planning all paid off for the entire exam group.  When final results were released almost three weeks later we had all passed!

Climbing in the mountains is a gear intensive endeavor.  A guide deals with specialized movements, difficult weather conditions, and a reliance on equipment for safety.  This gear is ever evolving, wears out with use and time, and expires in its capacity for safety.  I have been very fortunate to receive help with the acquisition of gear for these programs.  Most notably, Evolv Performance Climbing Footwear has been kind enough to provide me with climbing and approach shoes for a few years now, as well as involve me in their equipment testing program.  Evolv shoes are very well constructed, comfortable, with performance tuned to your intended style.  Pick a pair of Evolvs that fit well.  You can even mix and match sizes to accommodate mismatched feet like mine.  Choose a model of Evolvs that match your intended use, drop some powder in 'em periodically (key to the olfactory comfort of any technical footwear...) and you can't go wrong.

Shoes for all occasions.  
These guys make great ropes for climbing

In the end, and a bit cliche, this "individual" certification has been a cooperative endeavor.  There are the above mentioned major categories: employers, mentors, clients, and sponsors.  There has also been the more auxiliary, but no less important, support from family, friends, the AMGA, instructors and examiners and significant others.  Once again, indulge me in a big "virtual" thank you to all.

Friday, November 18, 2011


What a journey! And it ain't over yet.
I left Bishop on Thursday afternoon.
I picked up Chad at the Vegas Airport that night.
We climbed 3 days in Red Rock.
We stayed at a reeaally nice hotel.
We ate good bar food each night.
I dropped Chad off at the airport on Sunday night.
I promptly spilled water all over the back of my car.
I slept in said soggy car Sunday night.
I climbed with Ian on Monday.
I sent some climbing gear journeying with Ian, swamped out my car, stashed some more gear out of sight, and checked into the Excalibur for Monday night.
I love hotels. I have stayed maybe 3 nights in my life alone in a hotel. Weird.
I woke at 4:30 am today (Tuesday)
I walked to the airport, about an hour.
I checked in and then flew LAS-JFK.
I followed two sets of customized instructions, my own nose, and google transit directions from JFK to Grand Central Station.
I still fouled it up, missing trains and paying for more trips than I used.
But I did get to give a forceful (and welcome) shove to a woman trying to get inside the repeatedly closing and opening doors of the AirTrain. I didn't get on, but I was first in line for the next.
Cousin Whitney met me at Grand Central and took me to 2 different $1 pizza joints, 1 all-professional bar and her office, all in about 45 minutes.
Now I am on a Poughkeepsie-bound train. Mom and Dad will meet me there and we'll drive the last 1:30 home to Margaretville. Whew!

When you Want it...

A buddy and myself climbed in Red Rock last Monday.  It was, most likely, my last big day of rock climbing before the wintry season ramps up.  I had this roller-coaster ride of motivation, finally fulfilling the promise I'd made to climb.  I imagine Ian had no idea I'd considered bailing.  I hadn't really considered it, really.  'Cause I said I would climb.  Anyway, that's not the real point.  The real point comes from 10 feet of cliff in a day filled with about 700 feet of cliff.  In no particular order, the background:  Ian is about half an inch taller than me.  We climbed "The Walker Spur" in Red Rock- an older-style route, naturally protected with cram-widgets in the cracks.  The crux, the hardest part, is that 10 feet of smooth rock.  There are just enough edges and flakes to make it climb-able, but it all sits immediately over a very flat, 2 foot deep ledge.  And then a big drop below the ledge. The highest useful protection is about 8 feet up.  Getting a chunk of metal in that particular crack and then getting the rope clipped to it is key to the leader's safety. If I were to fall without that bit of gear secured, I would slam into the ledge.  Not cool, not really an option.  I fiddled, strained, reached and got the safety system arranged from that ledge. I really wanted it.  I wanted both the protection, and the attendant confidence.  I wanted to make the moves safely and smoothly.

I worked out the moves, racing past the protection to the next section of more secure climbing.  It all worked out just fine.

Fast-forward.  I reached the belay stance and pulled the rope in.  Ian climbed the pitch on top-rope. Far safer, especially in this case.  He got to that same ledge and tried to remove the gear I had placed for my own protection.  Ian, even with his extra height, couldn't reach the protection from the ledge.  What's the difference?  Why could I make it happen and he couldn't?  There's various explanation in the body mechanics of it all.  Skills. Skills we each had access to.  But really, it all comes down to wanting it.  Given my circumstances, as the leader, I wanted to reach that part of the crack more than Ian did.  And that made all the difference.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Five- Getting Home

Greenland 2007: Chapter Five- Getting Home.

After our aborted climb on the Trillingerne Peak we were left with some time to relax, but not enough time to tackle another big mountain. Around this time a pair of climbing women from Seattle were packing their way into the area, sharing our base camp for a couple of nights. Somehow, through the climber-grapevine, someone in our group had gotten in touch with their group before the trips began so all of us knew the others would be around. We eagerly awaited their arrival, making lists of what we'd do "when the Seattle girls come." One plan involved enslaving Darcy's Indian alter ego "Assbache" as our personal servant. We'd build him a little leanto and he'd cook for us. There weren't any trees to hang a leanto from, and none of us could keep a straight face telling knock knock jokes, much less perpetuating any kind of more involved joke. Anyway, when the girls arrived, we were excited to hear news from the world and share info on our stay in Greenland. Annie thinks we were all at our funniest, entertaining the girls with our wit, energy and goofiness.

I was still a bit antsy, jonesin' for another summit, a new view, and some solo travel through the mountains. I woke early on our second to last morning in basecamp and jogged downstream with a jacket some water and a Snickers bar. I forded, hiked and scrambled almost 6000 vertical feet to a peak just above our basecamp, immediately opposite the Fox Jaw Cirque. A big rock pile, obviously man-made, marked the top. Maybe whomever climbed the peak first, and/or whomever built the rock pile named the peak, but we know it only as "Peak 1519" (It's 1,519 meters above sea level).

A view of the Fox Jaw and surroundings, with peaks marked.

I raced back to camp to rejoin the group. We spent one last night in basecamp, entertaining the Seattle girls with our comaraderie. We really were, by then, a pretty tight little group. We had our comic routines, our inside jokes, our climbs that bonded us. We packed up the day before our scheduled boat pick-up and schlepped huge packs out to the beach. We had beer stashed there, as well as some extra booze. We partied down, firing off the unused rifle shells and creatively disposing of extra fuel. We burned some trash and crammed our stuff back into travel bags. And here's where it got interesting.
Before we even left the states, we negotiated with a fellow in Tasiilaq named Dines Michaelsson for charter boat travel from the Kulusuk Airport, by way of grocery stores, to the Fox Jaw Cirque and back to the Airport. He would carry all of us on all those legs for 9000 Danish Kroner (abbreviated DKK. 9000 DKK was at the time about
$1800). When we arrived at the airport, we bought some white gas for our camp stoves and rented a rifle, all from Dines, for another 1000 DKK. Because of the thinly stocked store shelves, shopping for our food was complicated at best. Dines did well to take at least one of us to 3 different stores, eventually getting as much food as we could get at the time. The downside was that we did not all get to visit Tasiilaq, the biggest town in the area. Before he even dropped us off at the Fox Jaw, we agreed to pay Dines yet another 1000 Kroner to take us to Tasiilaq for a couple of days visit on our way home. Now, total charges 11000 DKK. We paid him 5000 on the way in. He owed us a trip from the Fox Jaw to Tasiilaq, and a trip from Tasiilaq to the airport at Kulusuk a couple of days later. And we owed him 6000 Kroner. Seemed pretty simple.
He picked us up in the Fox Jaw as scheduled. We boated through green fjords, walked on an ice berg, checked out native ruins along the way, and enjoyed a magical boat ride through misty towering icebergs into Tasiilaq. On the dock in town, as we're unloading our stuff and trying to find a place to stay until we have to leave. Dines tells us he cannot take us to Kulusuk anymore. We'll have to find another boat. And we still owe him 6000 DKK. We balk at paying him more he deserves, try to appeal to his business sense by reminding him that he had promised us one deal, nothing seems to sway him. Finally, kind of suddenly, he walks off, telling us he's going for the police because we are not paying him. He actually went to get our common acquaintance and the hut owner, Hans Christian. Hans and Dines tracked us down in town, and Hans read us the riot act. He was under the impression that we intended to leave town without paying. We couldn't even figure out how to leave town, much less leave on the sly. We told Hans our side of the story, over the next 24 hours and a couple of meetings, he mediated with Dines, Dines wanted to take us, but for even more money. We reached an agreement- Dines would take us to Kulusuk, we'd split the difference on money, and he'd take us earlier than planned.

We flew to Reykjavik, partied down, and flew on home. Annie and I flew right into San Francisco and back to work. We arrived late on a Thursday and I was guiding on Saturday. Annie met with our boss that Saturday, and he offered her a big-city style high speed job running the guiding business we've worked for. The opportunities and chaos and pace were quite overwhelming but we've adapted. Josh returned to New Hampshire, bought himself a truck and drove across the country to a rock climbing guides' course. Kadin made his way to California where he has now dissapeared into tree trimming or climbing wall construction or something like that. Nate returned to Salt Lake City on that same Thursday night, and drove to Idaho on Friday morning for work. Darcy had a few days to re-enter at home- he bought a house a year ago, and has spent just a few days there. Erin and Jess, the Seattle girls, returned to the States about a month behind us. They climbed a route on the Baby Molar and one on the Right Rabbit Ear. Their trip was marked with blueberries, darkening frosty nights, and visits from foxes that we never really saw.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Four- Tent Life

We did one more big climb, and I scrambled up a peak on my own at the very end of the trip, but before we get into that I'd like to detail a little of our camp life. After all, even though we climbed for up to 26 hours at a time, the vast majority of our time in Greenland was spent not climbing. When not climbing, we hiked around a bit, taking pictures and looking at potential routes. We also played about 800 rounds of cards, specifically Hearts.  None of us have real stressful lives at home.  Heck, we're little more than climbing bums, working only enough to get to the next trip.  But, we still look forward to the down time on expeditions.  Conversations, games, reading, even just sitting around is a welcome and much anticipated part of the process.  Annie thinks she read 10 books while we were out there.  I sewed up all the holes in my clothes that had collected over the years.  Nate wrote in his journal, sometimes writing things that happened two years prior.  Kadin and Darcy probably itched to do more than we did.  There were times when I wanted to get out and do more physical activity, but in general the balance of down time to go time seemed appropriate. 

In a simpler lifestyle, one without communications and little technology (though there were 6 digital cameras, 4 ipods- including some videos, and one little solar charger to feed the beasts...) meal time takes on additional meaning and becomes a much more enjoyable process.  Beyond mere sustenance, planning, cooking and eating meals became events.  One day Josh cooked 12 pizzas.  Each of us ate our fill of pizza that day, but really did nothing else.  Kadin perfected backcountry bread that, of course at the time, seemed better than anything else we had tasted.  Even pasta, usually a simple meal, plugged into a home menu when nothing else comes up, can take multiple steps and approach gourmet status.  One of my favorite meals of all time is backcountry fried pasta.  You cook pasta like usual, any shape is fine, and then fry it in lots of oil until it gets partly crispy.  Add garlic, tons of salt, cheese and pepperoni- delicious.  The frying process had the additional benefit of cooking the stank out of the nasty 8 month-old (and not old in a good way...) Greenlandic cheese.  It actually kinda dissappears.  I lost interest in the pasta dishes, however, when we ran out of pepperoni and began to substitute fish canned in tomato sauce.  Not my favorite. 

Kadin on Pizza Day.

For our last big climb Annie and I teamed up with Darcy, whom we hadn't climbed with yet. We never ended up climbing with Josh at all. Annie and Darcy and I set out to do the East Trillingerne Peak. Behind our Fox Jaw Cirque, looming above the summits and walls, were the Trillingerne- Triplet in Danish- Peaks. Storbror, the Big Brother, is the tallest and most difficult. The middle one is remote and pointed. The East Peak is the middle child, and presents the easiest and most accessible route to a Trillingerne summit. To access the Trillingerne Peaks we first hiked to the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut. The hut is owned and maintained by a Danish doctor, Hans Christian Florian. Hans lives in the town of Tasiilaq, skis and climbs all over the area, keeps the climbing records and history of the Ammassalik District and serves as the unofficial liason between visiting climbers and local people. He provided us with info before the trip, invited us to check out the hut, and collected info on our climbs as we left.
We crashed outside of the hut, leaving the beds for a paying group of very attractive Norwegian women and their adventurous fathers. Interaction with this group was our first real touch with the outside world- awkward enough. On top of our fascination with any humans outside of our little group, the novelty of very attractive women was almost too much to handle. Darcy fell in love and couldn't stop talking about them.

Anyway, early one morning we took off from the Hut, traveled about 6 miles along a fairly flat glacier and began our climb. The climb, above the glacier, was 1000 meters of ridge-line scrambling. Mixed into easier blocky terrain were steps of more technical climbing requiring the full gamut of rope techniques. As a party of three we moved more slowly than a route like this requires and found ourselves 12 hours out and only half way UP the climb. 6-8 hours of climbing were ahead of us, as well as 10-12 hours of descending and retracing our steps to the hut and our sleeping bags. We took some pictures, enjoyed the fresh views, and turned around. By that time we were more or less content with our trip, and if anything a bit burnt out on the mental demands of first-ascent and remote rock climbing. These alpine environments, even with a comfy basecamp and seemingly endless pizza supply, tax the brain and stress the nerves. In a sense, a big remote mountain face or ridge is like a battle ground. One must stay on constant guard, strategizing, watching out for dangers, changing the plan as conditions change. Not to mention the weather and possibility of trouble in that realm. All this mental stress, compounded by athletic exertion can wear a body down. We were well trained and somewhat ready for the stresses but still were worn out by the end of the trip. It would have been nice to summit Trillingerne but it also feels nice to have left wanting more.

Next Chapter, getting home. More adventurous than we really bargained for.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Three- Climbing

Now to the climbing! I'll try and give details about the climbing without too much of the boring lingo and statistics that climbers really geek out on. Jed leading on our first climb.

For the uninitiated, here's a rundown of the mechanics of rock climbing like we did and the most basic lingo. We climbed the rock as much as we could using only our hands and feet. The rope and gear are there on the way up only if we fall. We call this "free" climbing. On one climb, on only one occasion, did we use the equipment for upward progress. This is "aid" climbing. The first person up, the leader, ties into one end of our 60 meter rope and heads off. As soon as he or she can she places an anchor point in the rock, usually a really strong piece of metal stuck in a really strong crack in the rock. The right use of the gear results in an anchor that could hold a truck. The rope is clipped into this piece of "protection" so that it can run freely through and the leader can keep going. The leader, as he or she goes, periodically places more protection. Meanwhile, the climber left below, the "belayer" is paying out the rope through a friction device so that it feeds freely as the leader climbs, but can be locked off tight if the leader falls. If the leader falls, for some reason or another- difficult moves, poor balance, a hand or foothold breaks- he or she won't go very far because the rope is attached through intermediate protection points. When the rope runs out or a ledge is reached or the leader runs out of gear, the leader stops and builds an even stronger anchor, ties into it, and the belayer's job changes. Now, the belayer climbs the "pitch" that the leader has already done, removing the gear, kept safe from above by the leader. The team regroups and the process starts over. We count the length of our routes in pitches- our shortest route was 6 pitches, the longest 16. At the top, we celebrate, and try and get down. The easiest way to get down is to walk off the easier side of the mountain. None of the mountains in Greenland had easier sides. So, we "rappelled". Using the same ropes and equipment, we'd build an anchor run the rope through it, slide down the rope in a controlled fashion, build an anchor when the rope runs out, tie into that, pull the rope through the top anchor, and repeat. Yes, we leave the anchor each time we rappel. An expensive proposition, and really like littering. But a necessary evil.

We went to Greenland specifically to climb on a row of peaks already named the "Fox Jaw Cirque." Named so for it's resemblance to the jagged line of teeth in a fox's mouth and for the actual fox skeleton a group found near the bottom of the peaks. We ended up climbing on other peaks also.

Our first climb was on the smallest peak, one named the "Baby Molar". Nate, Annie and I climbed together on one side, and met up at the top with Josh, Kadin and Darcy. We all rappelled together, on this peak getting down was by far the most eventful and involved part. We scrambled down some, then made a few rappels through loose cliffs, rocks raining down as we passed, and into the top of a snow filled gully. We tied all 4 of our ropes together (over 600 feet of rope) and 5 of us rappelled down that one big rope. Darcy let the ropes go and then down climbed the snow. 18 hours after leaving camp we returned. This would be our easiest climb and the shortest day!

Rappelling from the Baby Molar.

The second climb we did, a few peaks up the ridge from the Baby Molar, was on what we named the Rabbit Ears. Kadin, Annie and I made one try at the Left Rabbit ear, rappelling before we reached the top, but having scouted the way. On that failed attempt we still were 24 hours on the move. A few days later Nate, Kadin and I went up and completed the route in 26 hours.

Climb number 3 was a scrambling affair, meaning Kadin and I went out without the ropes and equipment hoping our route would prove easy enough. As it turned out, it was just easy enough, and with weather approaching, being literally untethered proved to be key. We moved quickly and smoothly up and down Peak 1490 , returning to dinner at camp just as it rained on us. This rain, almost 2 weeks into our trip, was the first foul weather we had.

Climb number 4 was our hardest, proudest and most involved. Annie, Nate and I worked for about 5 days on a new route on a feature already named "the Incisor." We actually set out to do the existing route, playing it conservatively on the biggest mountain face in the Fox Jaw. However, we couldn't find exactly where the guy before us had gone, so we wandered up the first half, leaving our ropes hanging anchored to the rock once while we rested up in the valley. Annie and Nate basically led the first part as I helped out, carrying the gear up. We came back to our fixed ropes two days later but didn't make any new ground as it rained on us. More rest, more strategizing, and we went back up psyched. We climbed up our ropes and immediately found anchors left in place on the original route. We followed this route for just a few pitches and then forged our own path to the very top. Actually, we got lost and luckily found a way up. On the top, in approaching clouds, it started to rain. We rappelled 6 hours, soaking ropes, shoes, clothes, everything. But we made it back to the valley floor and our basecamp 24 hours after we had left.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Two- Getting Oriented

Once we settled in to Base camp, our mission was to get oriented to the mountains around us and keep gathering info about the rock climbing.

We went to Greenland basically to climb mountains that no one had ever climbed before. If the mountains that looked cool had already been climbed, we'd "settle" for climbing them by a route that had not been done before. Rock climbing in the States usually starts with consulting a guide book. Guide books have information about where the climb starts, how hard it is, how to navigate tricky sections and how to get back down to level ground. In Greenland (and other remote mountain ranges) this information is much harder to find. If it exists at all. Maybe no one has been where you want to climb. Or maybe they just didn't record or relate any thing they learned while climbing. Times are kinda changing in the rock climbing world. In the "imperialistic age" of rock climbing, you did something new and exciting so you could write about it. With a dwindling supply of new mountains and routes, some choose to record less. Some of us really appreciate the adventure of heading off into the unknown. We could just ignore the guidebooks. But some of us like researching as much as we can. For those of us who like the adventure AND the researching, we must go where we at least think no one has gone before. Places like this are kind of a "non-renewable" resource. As soon as someone writes down what they've done, or draws and publishes a picture of their climbing route, it has officially been done.

So, in Greenland we found a whole range of information available and route records. Before we left we read journal articles about climbs completed. Josh swapped e-mails with people who'd been there before. Nate sat down and talked with a climber who'd been there before. We visited a hut, 3 hours walk from our basecamp, and read the log book to learn more. Finally we could sit in our meadow and look through Dad's spotting scope at the mountains. Finally doing our own on-the-ground research, filling in the gaps of knowledge. We wouldn't know the whole story until we actually climbed the peaks, but we kept looking and dreaming.

After the researching and scouting, the boating and the flying, the hiking and the grocery shopping, actual rock climbing was much welcome. This is what we'd trained for. This is what we came for. We climbed in groups of three, usually two groups out on different peaks and different routes, sometimes talking to each other with small radios.A rock climbing day in Greenland starts with a bit of a walk. We'd walk up a grassy and mossy slope and onto the glacial moraine. Moraine is basically huge piles of unsorted sand, rocks and boulders, somehow perched well above the angle of repose. Walking on moraine is a "two steps forward and one step back" kind of exercise.

There's Annie hiking to the base of a climb, on the moraine and in the fog.

Above the grass and moraine, but before getting on the rocks, is the glacier itself. Glaciers are picturesque, novel to us 'Mericans, and present a unique logistical challenge. Glaciers are moving masses of ice, cracking as they move and covering and uncovering with snow as the seasons change. New snow in the winter accumulates, filling in the cracks. In the spring, at least some of the surface snow melts, exposing the cracks. The cracks, or crevasses to be more correct, are slippery, cold, and taper evenly from the surface width to nothing at about 100 feet down. Translation, you don't want to fall into one. If you do fall into one, you really don't want to fall too far. To prevent this, first we like to travel either when we can see all the cracks, and can just walk around them. We'd call this a "dry" glacier and just walk to where we want to go. The next best scenario is to walk on a completely snow-covered glacier. That mid-winter scenario, where the crevasses are covered and usually filled in, leaves us a smooth unblemished surface to walk on, but still some uncertainty as to whether the cracks are really completely filled in. Against that uncertainty, we tie ourselves together, 2-3-4 people depending, along a single rope about 30 feet apart. If someone unexpectedly falls in a crack, the others on the rope can hold their weight while the fallen climber climbs back out or is hauled back out. The 'tweener season, where some cracks are exposed and others are barely covered, is even harder for glacier navigation. Simply, we're even more likely to fall in the hidden holes. And we have to walk around or jump over the cracks we can see. Pretty much all of our climbing in Greenland was on glaciers in the transitional period. And, all of us fell in at least once. Annie was the first to go in and I actually fell in the same crack twice, once going to a climb, and again on the way back home. After the glaciers, at long last, is the climbing. We'll get into that in the next chapter.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter One- Getting to Greenland

The Greenland story basically begins with our buddy Josh, the common thread and organizer of our group. I've known Josh since 2003, when we met in the Bishop substitute teacher world. Through other connections actually, we ended up living together. Before I met Josh, Annie had met him while hitch hiking one day. Kadin and Josh met in 2nd grade, raced salamanders across New Hampshire mud puddles and now climb together on far flung mountains. Darcy impressed Josh as they worked together for the National Outdoor Leadership school. Darcy is a Canadian teaching rock climbing in an Indian accent for a US company in South America. Nate is a ridiculously strong rock climber, grew up racing mountain bikes in California and is studying to be a doctor of outdoor things. Really. We're still not sure how he's connected to the group.
Josh started bringing us and the details of the trip together in early 2006.
Team Greenland '07 clockwise from top: Kadin, Darcy, Josh, Nate, Annie, Jed

We swapped e-mails, bought tickets, trained, saved money, and talked about polar bears for about a year. Then we all met up in Iceland, THE portal for East Greenland. But you wouldn't know it wandering around Reykjavik. Everyone there seemed more concerned with four wheel drives, hot springs and sweet night clubs. But it served our purpose.

In Greenland, straight off the plane, icebergs and big rocky mountains and people that looked really different greeted us. We landed in Greenland on a dirt airstrip next to a tiny airport terminal. The east coast of Greenland has no year round ports. Everything comes in either on an expensive, small plane to that dirt airstrip, or on a ship on one of about four trips each year. The boat trips come during the ice free four months of summer, separated by a month each. Truly remote, very exotic feeling; way excited 'Mericans. Our group excitement was quickly tempered by reality. We had arrived before the first ship. Plane space for us, and the grocery stores, was way too expensive to fill with food. We had none, the stores in the area had little more. We scoured the stores of the three small towns in the Ammassalik district- Kulusuk, Kummiit, and Tasiilaq. The shopping took us many hours of slow-boating through icebergs, many frantic moments in the aisles and tense minutes as the back woods credit card scanners beamed our numbers to who knows where. It all seemed pretty stressful at the time. We ended up with a serviceable food supply for the first half of the trip. Complete sustenance would require a mid-trip trek out to Kummiit after the supply ship arrived.

Once we were at least semi-satisfied with our food supply, our charter-boat driver Dines dropped us on the greening tundra at the head of the Tasillaq fjord. We schlepped almost a ton of food, camping gear and climbing equipment seven miles to a beautiful meadow in the middle of braided glacial rivers. Purple, rugged fireweed bloomed first, random yellow flowers followed, and blueberries came out just as we were leaving.
Walking to basecamp, along tidal mud flats in Tasiilaq Fjord.


It's a good sign, really.  I'm obsessed right now with fantasizing about international travel.  I mean, travel to exotic locales has been a passion and the source of dreams for a long time.  I have dabbled some with foreign travel, but haven't realized my greater ambitions.  And I'm ready.  I am ready to travel.  The past year or so has been a period of re-organization for me.  More ambitious "extra-curricular" adventures have been pushed to the back burner.  Now I'm ready! 

What prompted the change?  Well, predominantly it was a trip with Billy. Billy came from SoCal for 4 days of custom guiding in the peaks here.  He's young, psyched, well-read, fit, and motivated on the big mountains of the world.  I told him he's a bad influence: "Making" me revisit dreams of Asia and South America and Canada.  As a motivating tool, I'm going to re-publish some blog entries from years ago.  My last big expedition, actually, was in 2007 to Greenland.  The pictures and stories are wonderfully motivating.  It was a great trip!  I wrote it up with some pictures for a blog I used then.  In the interest of consolidation, I'll bring it back here.  We also got some publicity here.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In some circles, particularly this rock climbing community, its a bit of a cliche: "head to the desert in the fall". Good weather, comfy camping, quality rock climbing, company of friends. All is found in our mountain deserts this time of year. Normally I squirm at these conventions, habits, cliches. But, as a wise friend has pointed out, conventions are conventional for a reason. Fall in the American Southwest Desert is awesome!

I just spent about 10 days in Red Rocks near Las Vegas. I drove to and fro through Death Valley. On the way back I seriously laid down in the above pictured sand dune near Owens Lake. Days and days of going hard amid the noise of cars and Vegas and wind and the quiet screaming of stress and critique inside my own head had caught up with me. Flopping out of the car and onto the quiet sand that evening was pure joy!

I'm back in the Sierra for a few days, but will again head east into the desert next week. This time, hopefully northern Arizona.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Evolution Traverse, Part 3: Style Matters, Matters of Style

I hinted at a couple of stylistic points in the previous post.  Historically, the Traverse has been undertaken with a minimum, if any, of rope work.  The first ascent was completely free-solo.  Subsequent ascents have included a rope for rappelling over the hardest bits.  Possibly, no complete ascents have been made while attempting to manage the consequences of a slip on 5th class terrain.  For a variety of reasons, Alex and I chose to use a rope and protect the spots where likelihood and consequence of a fall aligned unacceptably.   Shall we discuss the more philosophical side of these stylistic variations?

First of all,  let us distinguish between climbing style and climbing ethics, as I see it.  Climbing ethics include everything that might directly influence someone else or, to be less anthropocentric, the integrity of the rock.  Anything that would alter or affect the rock, the mountain, wildlife etc. is a breach of climbing ethics.  Bolts, pitons, aggressive "cleaning" of rock, and trash are all well-established issues of climbing ethics.  Different areas have different standards and different people have different ideas on these things.  Ethics also must be stretched to include trundling, chalk, rappel slings, footprints and the like.  We have an impact out there.  Some of these impacts are more debatable than others.  I won't speak to them here, mainly 'cause I'm too chicken to do so. Style, however, is our topic here.  Style includes questions like free-solo or not; self-contained or done with cached gear; one push or camping out; on-sight, or loaded with information.  The brunt of this stylistic "debate" (mainly a debate inside my own head, for what its worth...) with the Evolution Traverse focuses on the use of the rope. 

Generally speaking, notable repeats of routes are completed in a "better" style than they were first done.  Better style is subjective, of course.  However, few will argue that Peter Croft heading along that ridge with little more than a water bottle and extra jacket isn't the purest style.  The only possible "improvement" on his style would be to do it on the first try with no prior knowledge of the route.  (Croft did a few recon trips, covering the entire distance in a couple of prior attempts). He set a very high bar!  That bar, the style Croft chose, and most subsequent completions have chosen (or, more skeptically, felt locked into by an ignorance of, or unwillingness to use, safe and efficient rope techniques... more on that later) is stylistically very pure.  It is, however, a style that leaves the aspirants vulnerable to the consequences of even a slight mistake.

Now, with the bar up there in the stratosphere, what are we to do?  I am generally a strong proponent of the continued advancement of style.  I am also strongly in favor of improved, or at least "acceptable", safety margins.   In the case of style and safety, with the Evolution Traverse, improvements are mutually exclusive.  Sure, very good rock climbers can be very very confident in their ability to avoid falling.  Also, not dealing with the rope speeds up the climber and minimizes his or her exposure to other hazards like weather or darkness.  I can argue on good authority, however, that good planning is a far more effective way of minimizing exposure to objective hazards, regardless of rope strategy chosen. 

As a mountain professional and one aspiring to a life-long relationship with the mountains I am ready to accept some stylistic regression in the interest of significant improvements in safety margin.  Bringing camping gear and ropes (etc... all the accoutrement really) made us far less vulnerable to the real, and really possible, screw-ups that cost climbers their lives. 

As an admitted "traditionalist", I value stylistic progression.  (Ironic terminology, right?  A traditionalist valuing progression?) Anyway, I believe we should get better in order to better meet the challenges and uncertainty a route or mountain experience provides, rather than "dumb it down" to our level.  How do I reconcile all this then?  In one view, taking more time and more gear on the Evolution Traverse is a regression in style.  However, we made a progression in safety, with very little ethical compromise.  (We used a hand-full of fixed (but not hammered) rappel anchors, cleaned up a couple others, and left one or two of our own.) 

In closing, I am willing to suggest that overall we made a progressive move with our style on the Evolution Traverse, protecting ourselves in a fashion that will not adversely affect your experience up there.  If other's experiences can serve to demystify a route, let our endeavor up there prove that big traverses like this can be done while maintaining some level of external risk management.  The techniques used to accomplish that are a different topic.  At the very least, should you choose to tackle one of these big traverses, choose your style knowing that roping up is an option. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Evolution Traverse, Part 2: Foundations

At its simplest, the Evolution Traverse is a ridgeline, a geologic feature. In addition, however, the "climb" is also an accumulation of experiences and stories and history. The Evolution Traverse is not special that way. In fact, most climbs of its size and significance have a much longer, richer history. What sets the Evolution Traverse apart is its relatively short history. The early history, the pre-history, if you will, is well documented in Peter Croft's book "The Good, the Great, and the Awesome." In short, in 1999 the author connected the dots along this ridgeline, based on some of his own reconnaissance and prior travels in the area. His chosen style, in fact his claim to world-wide-climber-fame, was a single day, free solo effort.
Traversing means being creative.  And looking down on the world.

The ensuing years have brought repeated successful ascents by a variety of climbers. Most, if not all, of these subsequent ascents were undertaken with some variation of Croft's free solo strategy. Some of the down-climbing sections were rappelled, but the prevailing wisdom has been that free-soloing is the way to complete this beast. Using a rope adds security but takes time.

Here's a brief, hopefully to-be-expanded, list of the known history of the complete Evolution Traverse. Information gathered from magazines, internet, rumors, first-hand knowledge, and summit registers. Entries limited to full, complete traverses, as described in Peter's book. Can we fill in the many gaps in this timeline?

Each of these complete traverses is a story in itself.  Not to mention the failed attempts, the unrecorded and unspoken completions, and the dreams of traverse aspirants. 

Yours Truly.  On the clock.  "Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 15 yards"
Each climber has his or her own story that brings them to the Traverse.  For Alex and I, here's a bit of our story.  I am a full-time, year-round mountain guide based here in Bishop.  I have lived in the Eastern Sierra for 9 years, maturing as a climber and guide here in the shadow of the Evolution peaks.  When I moved here, Croft's book was brand new and the Evolution traverse was the pinnacle of one's Sierra aspirations.  Possibly it hadn't been repeated at the time.  The route has since been somewhat demystified, but that intimidation, the historical importance of the route, has loomed large in my mind.  My climbing abilities and competence have grown in both an organic and structured fashion.  A combination of influences and motivations and life-lessons has combined to leave me leave me thoroughly mediocre across the board when it comes to mountain travel.  I ski, rock climb, alpine climb, and travel.  I have done river expeditions, bicycle trips, been involved in thriving and decroding relationships, and visit my distant family for weeks at a time.  I train as a mountain guide, as an athlete, and as a mountain traveler.  I work in the mountains full-time now, but that wasn't always the case.  I can hang with the best in most mountain situations, but I'm not setting any records in any arena.  With regards to the skills required for the Evolution Traverse, I can walk a long, long time.  As fast as walking can go.  And I have what's been described as "well above average rope skills".

Alex skiing, after slogging, all in sheepy terrain. Whew
Alex is a Phd neuroscientist, turned rock climber and wildlife biologist.  She is a fireball of motivation and a natural athlete.  She has traveled the world, climbing in each hemisphere.  She took 2 years off of work to climb once.  She can also hang in any mountain travel arena.  Don't second-guess her assessment of gully travel, she's not wrong.  She's capable and willing, heck, she's  psyched, to be miserably cold and dirty and hungry.  She has snowboarded off huge volcanoes, kite-skied in Patagonia and followed a meat-head ski tourist on some of the most boring slog-ski trips in the Eastern Sierra.  Her kite-skiing endeavor, for the record, was her first time on skis as an adult.  Her child-hood ski story would fit handily into a few pages of the family scrapbook.  As a rock climber, she is strong.  Like, way strong.  Physical.  In the high-stakes game of one-upsmanship, one-upsmanship of the "what will we leave behind" variety, don't call her bluff.  She's not bluffing.  She is very nice to me.  I think she's beautiful.  Unlike many mountain athletes, she strives for balance: A balance that she could, if she wants to, sustain for her entire life.  This fireball won't burn out nor fade away. 

Our powers combined this past winter when we teamed up for said slog ski tours.  We have since climbed together in Red Rocks, Tahquitz, Joshua Tree, and of course, the High Sierra.  We have also pursued our own missions this summer.  Myself, like a bazillion days of awesome alpine guiding.  For Alex, she chases sheep.  Mostly via spreadsheets lately, but sometimes she goes out into sheepy (read, loose and unappealing to humans) terrain to listen to radio beeps and pick up shit.  She also motivates a motley crew of civilized climbing partners to send big agendas and then drink nice wine.  I don't really fit there, what with my cheesy teen-pop music and crappy beer tastes.

Said Lone Pine Peak Trip
Winchell.  Shake down "cruise"
Our Evolution Traverse aspirations really congealed with a July ascent of Lone Pine Peak's North Ridge.  We agreed on when to use the rope and when to not.  We moved at similar paces.  We both dug that ridge style.  We signed up and set aside some dates. 

We had our own ideas about how this thing should be tackled.  Neither of us are free-soloists.  We wanted the security the rope would provide.  That meant we'd take more time.  With free-soloists (and those using a rope just for rappels) taking about 16 hours on the ridge, the extra time some belaying would require would push us into multiple days.  Since, in our experience, roped travel on this sort of terrain takes about twice as much time as free-soloing, we estimated just over 30 hours of climbing time.  Check my math, that sound right?  That's a long time moving.  We would have to sleep at some point.  Then, question is, do we do one night out and do two 15-16 hour days?  All with camping gear and climbing gear on our backs?  Man, that sounded miserable.  How about 3 days, 2 nights?  Nice civilized 10 hour days on the go, watching the sun set and rise from camp... man, sounds like a good time.  That's what we decided to try.  We would hike in one day, climb 3 days with 2 nights on the ridge, have another night at our "base camp", and hike out on the 5th day.  Awesome.

Climbing with camping gear is hard.  Heavy backpacks really matter.  So we brainstormed together to get those packs as light as possible.  And then, like good boyscouts, we gave our "system" a try.  We crammed a day of climbing and a night on the ground into the approach for one of my work trips.  We "traversed" Mt. Winchell in the Palisades as part of my approach to meet a client back there.  Worked out awesome, and we got to try our system. We had some adjustments to make, but we thought it would work.  Like our experience on Lone Pine Peak, our Winchell climb gave us the confidence we needed to proceed.

All that was left then was to stay acclimated, stay healthy, and have good weather.  We had 2 out of 3.  As our long-set-aside dates approached, the forecast morphed into a round of thunderstorms.  We seem to get those here.  This summer, we've had big cycles once every 3 weeks or so. Those intervening 3 weeks are awesome, but the 4 or 5 days thunderstorm cycles can be burly.  This session was forecast to overlap with the first 2 days of our 5 day window.  The back end of our window was fine.  Following our 5 day allotment, we each had built a cushion day, and then had big agendas starting day 2, Post-Evolution.  Watching the weather, debating, discussing, consulting the Norwegians, all led to postponing the trip one day.  I mean, who needs a "cushion"?  We'd be sleeping on a sliver of foam, why not extend the austerity to our rest allotment too?  So, we had intended to walk in on a Saturday, but we pushed it back to Sunday.

That's the background, really.  If you are super interested in what we packed and how to better measure your preparedness for something like this, let me know.  I go back and forth on creating a blog post or info page for the Traverse.  What are we supposed to do?  The body of information available will increase with more and more completions.  That will (and has already, for sure!) make this route more attainable.  But it will also reduce the adventure component.  Hmmmm, the big questions.  For now, stand by for more of our story!

All this is thanks to:
Sierra Mountain Guides (and awesome clients!)
and Sage To Summit

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Evolution Traverse, Part 1

Whatever? Whatever!
That's the summit of Mt. Warlow in the Evolution group of peaks in the High Sierra. And that's Alex. She's smiling because its funny to make the "W" symbol, and because we are psyched to be nearly finishing the Evolution Traverse!
The Evolution Traverse is a high altitude rock climb that connects 8 (or 10 or more, depending on how you count) peaks in a spectacular chunk of the world's greatest (?) mountain range. This particular combination of peaks, logically connected by technical ridgeline, was first traversed in its entirety in 1999. The route and its challenges and history first came into the periphery of my awareness ten years ago. It has gradually crept into my head, until this year, in the end of August, we spent 5 days fully consumed in its challenges and splendor.

Now, there are a number of things that made this experience special to me. This was the first big endeavor Alex and I undertook together. This traverse is the "youngest" major climb I have ever been involved with. It is also perhaps the hardest route I have ever completed.
I hope to expand on our experience out there here in these pages. The impact of it all is still sinking in. For someone who makes a life and a living out of challenging himself and others in the mountains, looking closely at a single endeavor is a different sort of exercise. As I type now, just 3 weeks later, I am lying in a windy tent in the Palisades group of peaks. Since the Evolution Traverse I have made 4 more significant trips to the mountains. Indulge me as I attempt to look back and look closer at this one trip, all while continuing to live a life.

We sent, thanks to
Sierra Mountain Guides (and awesome clients!)
and Sage To Summit

Photo Gallery

Friday, September 9, 2011

The first few weeks of August were almost "normal". Guiding in the palisades, climbing for fun in Tuolumne Meadows, hanging topropes on cliffs near Bishop: that's how we roll. The catch, the real highlight, was the nature of the toprope hanging. Sierra Mountain Guides was employed to rig ropes and do risk management for the filming of a Korean television commercial. Stay tuned for more of the story and some of the footage. If not an actual finished product. Crazy August stuff in the life of a mountain guide.

We opened August with a rowdy round of thunderstorms. I managed to escape the worst of it, but folks out in the mountains suffered lightning, torrential rains, flash flooding and the torn earth following floods. Two folks and myself headed into a clean scrubbed and storm-cleared Whitney zone immediately following the worst of the storm. We had spectacular lighting on the clearing clouds. We also motored up the classic East Face route, encountering no chalk and some freshly moved boulders. Like a virgin experience. Tom and Suzy left their kids at summer camp to join me on what could hardly be called an "escape" from the rigors of family life. Nice work team.

Wow. Its been a while. And what's happened since I last posted? Roughly, Chronologically: tons of work, a brush with show business, a really burly Palisades trip, I watched a guy explode on impact with the face of Half Dome, we climbed the Evolution Traverse, I bonded with great people through the prior two events, I have been in touch with some of my oldest friends, I wracked my body with a depleting 10 day binge in the mountains, family's towns back east have been ravaged by flooding, baby's giggles have made me cry, as well as the peaceful tragedy of expressions that can accompany the other end of life. I hope to write up much of what has gone on in my crazy world. I hope to capture the intensity with words and pictures. I hope to make well thought-out contributions to this blog, but also to continue to post stream-of-consciousness style rants like this one. Stay tuned, hang

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Athleticism, for real!
I grabbed a solo day yesterday. And it was awesome. My work schedule has me well acclimated, somewhat rested, and coiled like a spring! I have had excellent trips, with really enjoyable folks and objectives. Guiding is mentally and physically and emotionally engagine. But solo time in the mountains can make it purely physical. And that is what yesterday was about. The route I chose (or, really, part of a route) turned out to have reasonable route-finding, minimal objective hazards, and fit perfectly into a 12 hour spurt of activity. I spent basically that entire 12 hour period moving, keeping my heart rate and exertion near 75% of my max. Perfection, in my book. When one moves at that rate, reflection and sight-seeing fade to the periphery. Its just movement. When one is alone and on reasonable terrain, technical challenges simply spread out the impact and demands over more
of the body. Never did I fear for my safety. With the intention of only scouting a portion of the Evolution Traverse, the pressure normally associated with finishing the objective was a non-issue. Once again, all added up to pure movement. Mountain athleticism at its purest, in my book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Here I am, at Carl's Jr pigging out on fast food. For weeks I've been watching a couple of humming birds incubate, hatch and then grow to bulge up out of the nest. What a simple pleasure that has been. Simple for me, but apparently not for the parents of these fast-growing, fast metabolizing critters. Looks like a lot of work. Not so simple after all.

And then, here at the fast food joint, I overheard two teenaged employees. One says to the other "do you know that diet soda is worse for you than regular?" The other replied in the affirmative, and it was therefore a fact. Everything, from the candid way in which it was brought up, through the brevity of the conversation, to the underlying understanding of nutrition suggests simplicity. And what an admirable way to exist. Now, I happen to agree with the sentiment expressed. But I know it isn't that simple. My mind races through the questions, defenses, exceptions and qualifiers one must attach to what these kids simply agreed was a fact.

Will these kids one day wake up and look at questions like "which is worse, diet or regular soda?" With a more sophisticated (fancy word for jaded and cynical?) View? Or will they gradually accumulate life experience that encourages them to look more skeptically, more empirically, at the world?

Do any of us really stop "growing" that way? If not desirable, is it inevitable? Do I now have simplistic views of the world that I will look back at and question one day? If pressed, I would have to say that my pendulum has swung waaaay away from the simplistic view these kids have expressed. I view even the most clear-cut situations through a lens of contrived complications. How do I get it swung back towards reality? Not the naive reality of a teenager, but also far from the skeptical reality of my jaded early 30's. Food for thought, food for fattening, and food for comfort, all at your local Carl's Jr.

Classic Ridges!

Ridges Rock! As Peter Croft says, "it's like being on the summit all day long." They also happen to be somewhat easier climbing than their adjacent faces, they dry faster, and they keep one above the rockfall and avalanche hazard that plague some mountain sides. Here in the Sierra, we have amazing ridges. The most famous are the big granite gendarme'd traverses: The Palisade Traverse, the Evolution Traverse, and their smaller cousins all along the range. But it doesn't have to be a multi-peak traverse, nor does it have to be in the granite zone. In fact, some of our best climbs are the single day, "roadside" ascents on the front-range peaks. Up north that means metamorphic ridging. When I first moved to Bishop the Nevahbe Ridge was real trendy. Seemed like everyone was giving it a go and coming back to tell their tale. Funny how even the most permanent of geologic features can come and go in fashion. Alex and I did an ascent of the Nevahbe Ridge a couple weeks back. I had never jumped on the bandwagon back in the early 2000's, but I am glad we finally got there.

It's a sweet adventure. Relatively easy, and straightforward, scrambling keeps one on the very crest of this geologic marvel. Rock types switch from one step to the next while the view stays spectacular. One can begin scrambling just a few hundred yards from the car. That doesn't mean the approach is easy though. McGee Creek guards the approach, and on a big melt year like this one, that crossing can be burly. Check out our strategy:

The descent was fairly chill, if not exactly certain. We spent about equal time on snow and scree. At the end we rigged a sweet tyrolean traverse across the river, rather than reverse the sketchy tree-to-tree transfer.

The Nevahbe was a good tune-up for the alpine climbing season, as well as a lovely social day out in the mountains.

The very next week Alex and I climbed the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak. This route is one I had done way back in 2004 as one of my first big alpine climbs in the range. It was a serious outing for me then. It is still a serious outing, and it was nice to return and climb in a similar style with far greater confidence in route-finding, movement, and risk-management abilities. Alex is a rock-star alpine climbing partner, and rallied for a committing climb in uncertain conditions while under the weather with allergies. The wind both buffetted us on the ridge and stirred up allergens that seem to plague so many desert denizens in a wet spring like we have had. We climbed and climbed, using the rope just a little, and less and and less as the climb went on. It's fair to say we got in the groove. What a day we had!

Snow Climbing

The past few weeks have been chock full of guiding and instructing snow climbing. Of all the "disciplines" of climbing, snow climbing is probably the most overlooked. Rock climbers and ice climbers consider the snow to be something that just covers the approach, or something that complicates the route. Peakbaggers often try and avoid the snow as much as possible. Even when forced onto the snow, otherwise accomplished climbers do not necessarily know what to do with themselves. The best strategy, I am finding, is to treat it as the unique and challenging medium that it is. Disregarding the huge avalanche component of snow travel (that's a whole 'nuther course, quite literally), it is still a complicated force to reckon with. Climbing up and down on snow is not the same as "just walking". The surface is slippery, variable, and often steep. The consequences of slipping are sometimes nonexistent, but sometimes very significant. One must assess which skills and equipment are needed for progress as well as for stopping a fall. Not to mention actually having those skills and equipment in place and well practiced.

To say the least, it is a full-on climbing discipline of its own and dedicated training and instruction helps. In the last month I have done seven different trips with at least a minor snow-travel instruction component. On most of those, snow travel instruction was the main thrust of the course. For years now I have brainstormed with students, other guides, and accomplished snow-travelers. The main challenge has been identifying exactly what makes snow different under foot and what skill, experience and judgement need to be accumulated before one can be comfortable, efficient and safe there. Secondary has been the discussion of the pedagogy of snow-travel instruction. Finally, there are the challenges associated with instructing snow skills on an ever changing medium.

I feel like we are getting it now: getting people psyched and well-prepared for long, comfortable, efficient and safe "careers" clambering about on big snowy mountains. It's an awesome feeling to significantly change another's capacity and abilities and perspective in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment.

Highlights of this past month included a group of fathers whipping themselves down a steep slope and safely stopping these accellerating "falls". After each giggling lap back up they'd again plunge down like the little kids they're raising. What a trip! Another highlight was a summit of Mt. Ritter via the SE glacier route. Possibly the most classic wilderness snow climb in the Sierra, Mt. Ritter couldn't have been in better condition.

What does this all mean for the recreational climber out there? All I am trying to say is that climbing snowy routes on mountains can be an enjoyable experience with the right movement and risk-management skills and equipment. It doesn't have to be the oft-derided epic "slog". I mean, with the right conditions and terrain, one can slide down almost as fast as a skier can. And if it's almost as cool as skiing, that's pretty damn cool! Even if your goal is alpine rock climbing, or scrambling, or even high-country backpacking, coming up to speed with some snow skills can expand your options and make those snowy bits even more efficient. Learn to move well on snow and you save your energy and stress for the truly hard parts. Think about it...

Early June

June seems to be a "shoulder" season, no matter how much we want it to be summer. I have certain expectations about what conditions we will find in the mountains in each month. For instance, April brings full winter storms, powder skiing, and longer days. Occasionally the skiing and climbing can be spring-like in April. May can go either way. It can be warm and sunny, with corn skiing and dry high-country rock climbs. It can be stormy and windy with short periods of powder skiing between sunny episodes. I have somewhat twisted expectations of what June can be like. I always picture it as summer, and I always seem to be let down. It is still cold, it can still storm, rock climbs up high are still not as dry as one would hope. Especially this year! Man, was it grim up high this year. I mean, I skied powder snow on May 30!

So, we changed it up. I spent a bunch of time "cragging", sometimes really cold. One notable day at Benton Crags was like mid-winter in the Gorge. Gnarly.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Training for the Ultimate Training Day

Tension between training for life and living to train.

Am I preparing, or just doing? When does preparation give way to just doing?

All this comes to mind because spring means renewing the skills, fitness and head-space for rock climbing. Mountain sports come in seasons. Obvious, right? Mainly, ski season, and climbing season. Fitness and preparation for alpine climbing, backcountry skiing and ice climbing seems to stay real all year-round. Or, in other words, little specific preparation is required to be able to step into one of those venues at any time. But rock climbing isn't so "general" in its demands. For me anyway. To function in steep rocky environments I need focused preparation on a seasonal basis. Each year I improve as compared to the last, but there is a parallel improvement in performance through the season. And I am tackling the early part of the rock-climbing curve right now. Fortunately, I have scored a schedule that allows an immersion course in climbing re-entry. I spent 5 days in Red Rock near Vegas, then 4 days in Idyllwild, then a day and a half in Joshua Tree. World class rock climbing, excellent partners, the distraction-free atmosphere of destination, and motivation. The planets, so far, are aligning for a sweet climbing season!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alaska Stuff...

What's all this about Alaska? What the heck went on up there? Good questions, glad you asked.

How about a bulleted list, sloppily integrated with some pictures and video? Ok, if you insist, in rough chronological order:

  • Massive amounts of pop-diva music. Y'all oughta know that its now cool for raccoon-eyed, granola-eating 30-something dudes to rock out to Rihanna. Really. Believe me.
  • AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guides Course. Whatever.
  • Butterflies
  • Great Peers, making great turns, great laughs, and a great video (see, I told you female pop-stars are "in"):

  • A friggin' Helicopter ride. On my birthday. Wicked!
  • Incredible, glaciated wilderness mountains. Forever, as far as the eye can see, infinite...
  • On the course, a few good turns. Yours truly, making, you know, "guide turns".

  • Whiteouts, studying, planning, changing plans, planning for changing plans.
  • Packing and unpacking. Repeat. Daily. More than daily sometimes.

  • And then it got fun! Yeah, even more fun! You see, I invited 3 friends to fly up from "South America" to join me post-course. The plan was to ski whatever was the most fun. Or Mount Sanford, if conditions agreed. We opted for fun, and chased good snow over to Valdez. (Course skiing was at Hatcher Pass, Girdwood, and Turnagain Pass. Basically near Anchorage)
  • Some of the themes were consistent with the course days. Specifically, great people, rockin' skiing, the same make and model of rented minivan, white-outs, and the Alaska Factor. That state is huge, with many huge mountain ranges, each with many huge and inspiring mountains, all covered in beautiful and fat snow. Even on a "poor" snow year, we found world-class skiing almost every day.
  • The change in company, though, brought some important changes. We went into "vacation" mode. The "Alaska Alpine Start" is about 10 am. Days are long. Snow goes through the daily softening slowly. And refreezes even more slowly.
  • We shared decision-making, eased into terrain, and contrived lame photo-shoots.
  • We also changed up the sound-track. Less Ke$ha, more Rob/White Zombie. Superbeast.
  • Ate cheezy poofs and high-latitude Mexican food like they were going out of style.
  • John piloted us safely along Alaska's wilderness roads.
  • Steve cooked us breakfast each day. For real!
  • Scott has written it all up far more thoroughly than I. And more eloquently, with better pictures. Why reinvent the wheel? Check out Scott's Blog.

"In Canada..."

I won't lie. I am fascinated with Canada. And things Canadian. Some of my most vivid childhood family vacation memories are from Canada. I was once granted honorary Canadian status. My first wild partying experiences were in Canada. There was a time when I had visited a greater percentage of Canadian Provinces than I had visited US States. But then they went and split the Northwest Territories in two, and I kept plugging away at the State visits. Anyway, I dig Canada. I also have a coupon for free admission to any Canadian National Park. Sweet.

As if I wasn't already fully enamored with our 51st state, I've gone and started this guide-training regimen. When it comes to avalanche training and awareness, backcountry ski guiding, ski-guide instruction and ski clothing and equipment manufacturing, them Canadians are unparalleled. It's enough to drive an already obsessed person over the edge. Every other sentence out of AMGA and AIARE instructors starts with "Well, in Canada...". They just seem to get it. They have huge mountains, great snow, and reasonable access options. Roadside, wilderness, helicopters, huts, even railroads. However, I must confess that, aside from a weird trip to Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, I have not yet skied in Canada. Weird, eh? Nonetheless, I think I am obsessed with Canadian "ski touring" (as they call it). These guide-trainers have me sold.

On top of all that, I was fortunate enough to receive a full-tuition scholarship for my AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide Course that finished up a few weeks back. And it's a Canadian company that funded the generous honor! ArcTeryx is based in British Columbia and no one will argue that they make the absolute best mountain clothes, climbing harnesses and backpacks. Quite the flattering endorsement, to have them supporting my mission. To boot, I like using their stuff. I tromped all over Alaska in April in their ski pants, carried my overnight gear in a pack they made, and tied in with one of their innovative harnesses. To be clear, the pack I used is one they no longer make. But, whatever. I'm psyched with their stuff, their support, and their Canadian-ness. And that's what it's all a-boot, eh?
ArcTeryx pants, pack, and acres of sick Alaskan powder. Alaska is like Canada, but better!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Longest Journey Home...
And it keeps going. On and on, this feels like the most extended homecoming ever. I'll flesh out the real good stuff with some proper entries, but let me work through this stuff in reverse chronological order. That'll make your brain hurt like mine does. I'm scheduled to fly into Mammoth tonight at 5. Mammoth is forecast to get 2-4 inches of snow this afternoon. We'll see. Right now I am at LAX. Flew here on a quickie from Seattle. Endured a 12 hour, bench-sleeping, bad-news-receiving layover there. Got to Seattle via a short cloudy sparsely attended flight from Anchorage. Spent sunday touristing around gritty Anchoragua. Saturday we ferried from Valdez to Whittier, and drove thence to Anchorage. We were supposed to Ferry on Friday, but it was cancelled for a coast guard inspection. So we touristed around gritty, shoulder-season Valdez. Highlight that day was the annual
May Day "fly-in". Pretty cool. Watched the Super Cubs practice for the STOL competition. Those things could land and take off crosswise on a 4 lane road. Thursday we began our journey towards home. We woke up in the wilderness and skied a couple thousand feet of amazing powder for breakfast. Then a lite version of an Alaskan bushwhacking slog exit. Definitely the only portion of our home bound travel that went more smoothly than we anticipated. Before that we were in the blessedly simple, and cruelly subtle in its dangers, wilds of high Alaska. That's where the entertainment lies, but a write up of that deserves a clearer mind, more comfortable writing atmosphere, and rosier outlook. For now join the darkness of a grueling trip home.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Here's a teaser from Alaska!

Time's tight up here. I'm just past the middle of my AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guides Course. These things are all consuming, in a good way. Its supposed to be full immersion, and we get that and then some. I'll write it all more thoroughly, but for now you'll have to be content knowing we've skied powder, corn, ice, breakable crust, bottomless mashed potatoes, and huge glaciated runs. We've gotten to the top of these runs via feet, skis, crampons, and a helicopter ride. I've learned a ton, and will learn more.

These next three days are the "Aspirant exam" portion, during which we will be assessed for our competence. Aw jeez!

Check back for more later!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Not in the mountains...

"Take your Jed to work" day at Fish and Game

I'm on a little "stay-cation", between my busiest winter work season ever, and a long spring trip to Alaska. And it's awesome. I've done things I would never do otherwise, like volunteer to collar and monitor endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, gone rock climbing, moved into my car, rested a ton, exercised for less than an hour at a time, socialized like never before, and ate too much chocolatey desserts. Pretty luxurious.

I've also skied Mount Tom and practiced rescue skills in preparation for my course in Alaska, but those are not vacation-like things, so they don't count.

Howie in the big mountains!

All this, and I still am managing to get some business-type stuff done. Ooh-Rah!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sometimes it takes a fall...

Not just to find "what you're made of".

Not just to show you can "recover".

But to inspire and justify absolute triumph!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Best Ice Climbing Season Ever?

The Bard-Harrington Wall in mid-March. What a season we had!

With all the attention on record snowfall, amazing powder skiing, and warm spring temperatures, I'm beginning to forget about what a great ice climbing season we had here on the Eastside. From my perspective, it couldn't have been better! So, here's a little recap.

All my ice climbing this past season came in one of two forms. I either worked, or climbed for "fun" with my friend Christy. It's funny looking back at such a busy season with so many partners and clients around and realize that I only climbed "recreationally" with one person. But she's a rock star, and a blast, and motivated, and nice. Couldn't ask for more, really! And clients are great friends, excellent partners and strong athletes. Certainly blurs the line between fun and "work".

Christy and I started the season back in early December with a day of top-roping at Chouinard Falls. I was fresh off a month of not climbing at all (mainly partying around the country...) and she was diving back into ice climbing after a pretty burly, but in the end, brief, "exit" from the sport. She can elaborate if she likes... I'll just say that she has overcome, and then some!

My next, and perhaps most important, ice climbing session was 5 days in Ouray, CO just before Christmas. I took the inaugural AMGA Ice Instructor Course, and my whole world is better because of it. Check out a more detailed report on this course here.

Around the Holidays I worked a ton of ice climbing. We had fresh snow, stormy weather, and whacky approach conditions.

Check out this video for a summary of post-Christmas approach drama.

Excellent "full" conditions for beginner ice climbing on New Years Day 2011!

January brought an even mix of personal climbing and work climbing, all with the constant undertones of the best kind of soap opera. Lee Vining 90210 at it's most entertaining!

Christy and I climbed Photoshop on the Bard-Harrington in early January, possibly the first ones up for the season. The Bard-Harrington Wall in Lee Vining Canyon has been called California's biggest reliable ice climbing area. It certainly is big (3-4 or more pitches), and more reliable than other climbs of its size. Even then, it only comes into truly great condition once every few years. This was one of those years!

Mid-month Taylor and I climbed up the main portion of that wall. Also, possibly the first ones up there for the year. Again, the "conditions" videos tell the stories better:

Photoshop (pardon the production issues. Things were "transitional" on the admin end...)

Bard-Harrington with big, bad Taylor!

At the very end of January Christy and I climbed the Bard-Harrington again in somewhat thin conditions. Coincidentally, there was a professional photo-shoot going on. We scored some "publicity" here and here.

February brought a whole pile of beginner climbers to the Eastern Sierra. What a joy it was for all of us at Sierra Mountain Guides to share sweet conditions and beautiful scenery with a wide range of folks. All of us got out in both Lee Vining and June Lake areas teaching tons of skills and pitches! Awesome!

Things warm up, and wind down, in Lee Vining Canyon in March. Sun hits the top of the routes, and eventually entire walls. Warmer air temps plus these sunny conditions eventually erode the ice. However, if you've been training all season, have your systems down and pay close attention to the potentially warming temperatures, there's no better time to blast up many pitches of plastic ice in the Canyon. My highlight for March, and the end of my ice season, was a custom day with strong and motivated Andy. We estimated that we got in 350 meters of ice 4 that day!