Monday, June 22, 2009

Motivation and Training, SWAG Part 1 - Mar. 18

Being bit by the mountaineering bug this past summer I was dreading the onslaught of the winter season. I normally loath the winter, icy roads, less daylight, rejoicing in a cultural obligation to consume and provide materialistic gratification, all culminating in a state of obese depression brought on by a lack of motivation to reach beyond my remote control. Each winter adding a little additional mortar to the wall of complacency. This winter was different though, I'd found a compulsion that doesn't pack into the closet or hang in the garage. To the contrary, mountaineering thrives on adverse conditions, adds to the reward. Until this point my adventures as a weekend warrior wondering up well oiled grooves with 10 essentials neatly packed into my Walmart backpack could scarcely be considered mountaineering and would likely offend those who call themselves mountaineers.

Winter was just what I needed, the opportunity to transform a hobby driven by the pursuit of aesthetics and physical achievement into a lifestyle motivated by introspection and to the greatest degree exploration of personal boundaries. I say lifestyle because as it seems, I've become the type person that I used to quietly laugh at, the kind that hugs trees. I had long before attempted to swear off Christmas on principal alone but now I find myself refusing plastic bags, carrying reusable totes made entirely of hemp, if only I could smoke them life would be complete. Don't be confused though, I'm not a hippie, you don't find hippies climbing mountains. Without clarity of mind, mountains will make you dead.

Winter Mountaineering Clinic Part 1, X-Rock Durango Co. Knots, Rocks and Ropes - Mar. 18

I was fired up about the chance to continue my pursuits testing my metal against the elements, I was also a little scared. Even the easiest of climbs, or hikes for that matter are a whole different game in the winter. For a few months I'd been researching different schools for more technical alpine experience, specifically winter mountaineering. Skills and cost were my primary concern, I don't have the kind of money that adventurous doctors and lawyers shell out for a trophy ascent of Everest nor do I want to participate a dude ranch equivalent of a winter camping trip. A few schools stood out, Colorado Mountain Club's winter mountaineering course for one. Overall this seemed like a reasonable school for my requirements, probably the best bang for the buck but I had a few reservations. The first of which was their prerequisite of participation in more remedial outdoor courses prior to winter mountaineering. What I discerned as the like of hiking 101, basic compass skills, etc. While these are important skills, I was looking for something a little more advanced and frankly could be using my time more efficiently. Secondly, CMC structures their courses over a longer period of time, typically five weeks with field trips on the weekends if I recall. While this works well for the working professional I was more interested in an slightly more immersive experience, one that would give a more realistic taste of expedition. Finally, a bit of deal closer for me was an encounter with a CMC guide (not currently guiding for CMC) I had on a previous climb of Andrews Glacier. In short of what I described in my write up of this trip, I felt both the man and a fellow climber had made an extremely poor decision to venture out onto a frozen lake. Later in the day I caught up to the pair on my descent and learned that one was planning a guided trip back to this area, my impression was that man was not in the physical shape to be leading a strong group nor was he acting in a very responsible way. Overall to me this reflected poorly. By no means do I feel CMC is not a reputable school, just not what I was looking for.

Ultimately I decided on Southwest Adventure Guides and was enrolled in a 5 day course to take place in Durango Colorado. Over the next month I made preparations buying any remaining gear which I hadn't already purchased and on the afternoon of March 17th I was on my way. Arriving in Durango I set up at a hotel where I would sleep the first two nights, each day spent learning and practicing technical skills. My initial impression prior to beginning the course was good, I was pleased with SWAG's followup, ensuring that all preparations were made. I was a little concerned that SWAG had indicated that it wasn't necessary for me to meet them at their offices the day prior to the course to go over logistics of the trip (which is customary for out of state participants). I had a course itinerary but wasn't sure what if not all gear I would need for our first day or where we be spending it. As a result dressed for full winter conditions and brought my entire extended day pack to the first meeting. Shortly after arriving I met Keeton Disser office manager, and Matt Pickren our technical climbing guide, both of whom made me feel quite welcome. Finally I met Mike Nault the only other fellow client, this was a pleasant surprise as it made the guide to client ratio one to two. After a quick gear check we were off to X-Rock a local Durango trad hot spot.

We spent the remainder of the day in a crash course leaning technical rock skills including knots, rope management, anchors, etc. Climbing trad routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.9. In retrospect it was a great first experience with technical rock climbing, my only regret was being dressed for winter on a summer like day at low altitude...

Friday, June 12, 2009

You're Not Realy Climbing

So I like to alpine climb, anyone who is seriously into alpine climbing or technical climbing for that matter has at some point faced the battle between alpine and technical. Some who technical climb look at climbing a 14er like it's not really climbing, you're just walking up a long hill so what makes it a challenge outside of endurance anyway right. Those who alpine climb fail to see the beauty of technical climbing... you're just driving up to a wall scaling it then heading home right?

The thing about alpine climbing is that it's a battle of attrition, just like technical climbing challenges your calculations, you situational awareness, alpine climbing challenges you logistically, makes you think of the overall picture, you're not just in it for the crux, you're in it for the summit. Many have come before you and each has battled the internal will to continue.

I also enjoy technical climbing, though I thoroughly enjoy technical alpine climbing. What I find disheartining about technical climbing (referencing a recent read of climbing magazine) is that unless you're getting first ascent of a route, every step is planned out, you're either doing it the most efficient way or you're wasting energy. Up until the crux then your faced with a complex problem of which you need to find the solution, many of which before you have faced. If you're skilled you solve the riddle in the same way or even better. With alpine climbing you are the riddle, many before you have faced the same problem but ultimately the solution is personal fortitude.

I really don't like to read that John is climbing this route and he is now at the two move crux of the climb. If he grabs left and jams his right foot above the shoulder he'll have it. To me this is contrived, the solution has already been determined. Rather I prefer I solutions that test the will.

I also prefer the consequences of alpine climbing, when technical climbing your almost exclusively in situations where given a gear failure you would most certainly fall to you're death. But in a sense the consequences are a crutch, because it would be crazy to climb this portion unprotected you can rely on the rope as safety mechanism. Whereas in many cases while alpine climbing it's not technical enough to require a rope but a slip, be it on a non vertical slope would result in the same conclusion. Take walking a flat knife edge with 1500 ft. vertical drop on either side for example. The traverse may only be a walk but the fall is just as fatal, except in this case more often than not you're safety net is you not the rope.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mt. Yale (Southwest Face), 14,196 Ft. - Feb 21, 2009

After taking some down time from my last climb in January, weather was looking good and I was looking for another climb, preferably in a new neck of the woods. Having never seen the Sawatch mountain range or at least no memory of I decided Mt. Yale at 14,196 ft. would make a good adventure for this Saturday morning. In true fashion I prepped Friday evening and around 4:00AM Saturday was up and on the road to Buena Vista. Initially I was a little nervous about the day in general, the weather forecast was showing some activity towards the North but nothing as far south as Yale and it's neighbors. Leaving my apartment the roads in Denver were slushy and slick and with a three hour plus drive ahead of me I was a little uncomfortable with driving through mostly unfamiliar lands. With the weather in mind I chose to take US285 to US24 (adjacent to Yale) rather than I70 to US24 as I suspected the the high mountain passes would be bit harder driving that far North. This was a good choice, as it turned out once I passed Bailey the weather cleared up, opening the sky to a nearly full moon. After a few hours I was nearly In Buena Vista and was greeted by my first views of the collegiate group including a spectacular view of Mt. Princeton and a mostly obscured view of Yale. I pulled off the road to snap a couple shots shortly after sun rise.

Arriving at the trail head shortly after 7:00 I was suited up and started on the approach. Mostly easy going, I snowshoed recently broken trail though Denny Creek following the Western slope of Yale. Beautiful landscape though unfortunately not very picturesque being hard to see the forest through the trees. Nearly an hour or so into the approach the tree cover began to thin as the trail ascended more directly up Yale's West face. About this time I began to hear the familiar sound of snowshoes crunching on hard snow but I'd yet run into another person. I briefly stopped to survey the surroundings hoping to identify where the nose was coming from. It was a bit odd because I would occasionally hear the crunching but I couldn't see anyone nor make out the directing the sound was coming from.

Continuing on I came to a point where the trial that I'd been following split, one path continuing on, another heading East in a quite direct route up the adjacent slope. Scanning the terrain ahead I could see that the tracks had stopped about 50 yards ahead and the split heading up the slope was actually the same tracks after back tracking. It was here I first noticed a fellow climber, now nearly at the top of the slope which mind you appeared a daunting task and definitely not the standard route towards Yale's summit. I began to wonder what could have been his motivation for choosing to climb here? Did he go further and find the terrain unmanageable, maybe he was game for a challenge? I was faced with a typical decision, should I follow or continue along the standard route? One thing that I learned very early on my back wood challenges is that you shouldn't follow tracks just because they're there and appear to go in the right direction. Despite knowing this, there was an instance when I was following a winter trail system, mind you on a climb yet to be done from the perspective of this blog, where I chose to follow what I thought was obviously the path to where I was planning on camping for the night. Camping after a quite long approach and prior to a big climb that I'd been salivating over for some time. As it turns out in this instance I ended up in the wrong place well after dark. This was a real problem because I was now separated from my destination by a very steep ridge line, backtracking was definitely not an option given the time nor was climbing the ridge, at least not with a full camping pack. But with writing like climbing it's important to keep focus on the current situation. I you climb a typical weekend hot spot peak you will without doubt come across someone who despite being on the same peak as you and heading in the same direction, is most certainly not heading to the same destination. I took a moment to check my GPS and confirmed that the standard route would intersect the top of this slope so ultimately I would end up where I wanted to be. With that in mind I scanned the terrain looking for a good line and determined that though difficult it was doable, off or up that is I went.

This portion was a bit difficult, route finding was challenging with many downed trees and steep snow, but still early in the day I was fueled and mustered through it. Reaching the top of the slop I paused to snap a few photos of the climb and surrounding mountain peaks. Those of which I now had a spectacular view.

Shortly after I could see that I was nearing treeline and got my first view of the summit of Yale, still quite far. Pictures hardly ever do justice to distance nor exposure. For example, a shot down a highly exposed ridge often appears as a gentle slope, whereas a slip on this gentle slope would likely end in a serious problem. In this picture, the summit which is "right over there" is actually at least two or three hours away. Someone could be climbing this slope and would be completely indiscernible.

From here Yale's summit grew as I approached, the snow became less and more wind blown so I opted to loose the weight of my snowshoes. As I approached what would surely be another even more daunting portion of the ascent I noticed that the sky, completely clear, had taken on a dark blue hue. I've read stories of how when climbing peaks as high as the seven summits, you can actually see the curvature of the earth and being that high the atmosphere thins out enough to give the sky a dark blue appearance. There have been days climbing that I too saw a noticeable difference in the color of the sky. Then again 14,000 feet is no 5,280, your eyes see it, you lungs feel it and unfortunately this day so did my skin. About this time I began to notice that skin was burning. Not the kind of burning you feel sitting out at the pool, where you feel strong radiant heat and know you're getting crispy. This is actually quite different, you don't feel heat like on a hot day, you feel UV, and its not till it's too late that you typically even notice. Comparable to sunburning your eyes (which despite excellent sunglasses I still do on occasion) while skiing.

Now that the views had opened up significantly I could again see the fellow climber, bobbing up and down behind small concaves in the terrain and large rocks. For a short time I followed him far in the distance until I could make out that he was in fact coming back. This isn't rare, as I recall on almost every bigger climb I've done, someone ahead of me has turned around. After about 15 minutes we met up, he was from Oklahoma, visiting to do some skiing the following day in Breckenridge and figured he crab a 14er today. He proclaimed that he'd had enough, surmising that the summit was at least another 2 hours away, now being noon. I quietly disagreed with this thinking "no way I can make that ridge in a half hour and the summit within the hour". We parted ways and I continued on... and by the way I was wrong.

Nearing the ridge, I again paused to snap some shots of the adjacent false summit, the remaining climb to the ridge and the surrounding basin, now looking like the view from an airplane. As the other climbing had guessed the ramaining climb to the summit took a little over two hours. From the summit view were spectacular as always, including a great view of Princeton to the South, and Harvard (among others?) to the North.

On the summit I was joined by another climber who told me that he was along with friend who had decided to stay down below the summit to take a nap, to exhausted to continue. He, as well as two others who joined shortly after had skinned up and fortunately for them would be skiing out. I was envious as the climb taken a lot out of me. I rested a bit then began the second half of the trip. The descent is a mixed blessing, often easier always challenging. You have gravity and momentum working for and against you and it's well understood that the majority of alpine climbing accidents happen on the descent. Think about climbing a latter, it's tough climbing up but how often do you descent the latter facing out? And for good reason.

Stopping about a half hour down from the summit now around 3:30 I ate lunch resting and refueling. As always it was a time for reflection and internal gloating. Uneventful up until the descent of the lower slope which had been difficult earlier in the day. Now wet from the days sun the slope was very slick, not enough snow for a wet slide but too little snow to get any worthwhile penetration which made for many falls a few that were dangerous. One fall in fact sent me glissading some and tumbling more than I would like to. I immediately attempted to self arrest, my butt, back and elbows smashing on rocks as I made unwanted but quick progress towards the bottom of the slope. Pictures of Bear Gyles tumbling end over end flashing though my mind I eventually arrested. Not hurt more seriously than bumbs and bruises I was a little shook up from this, realizing that an injury this far out would not be good. I composed myself and continued on. Finally making it back to relatively flat ground I mustered my way back out constantly thinking I should take up skinning.

As I later described it six hours up, one and a half "controlled fall" down.

Additional Photos