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