Saturday, March 07, 2020

RUFA Squaw Peak

On the summit of Squaw Peak with RUFA-founder Jared Campbell and photo bombed by Seth Myer

Ever since my best friend Mark Oveson moved away to Provo, Utah, we’ve been making an effort to get together regular, mostly for weekend adventures. These have mostly been climbing adventures, but the last year and this year I came out for an event called Running Up For Air (RUFA). This is a series of events (Ogden, Salt Lake City, Colorado, and now Provo) that raises money and awareness about the brown cloud that claims mountain cities at the base of mountains. RUFA was founded and still largely driven by outdoor super-athlete Jared Campbell. I met Jared a couple of years ago. Mark recruited him to drag me up the 22-pitch Squawstruck sport climb. He’s a super nice, extremely modest guy. I was mostly motivated by him to enter RUFA.

The RUFA format is unique for a trail running race. The events always involve doing laps up and down a specific peak. The race has different time durations, ranging from 3 hours to 24 hours, across all the RUFA races. The winner is the person that does the most laps in the least amount of time. Partial laps don’t count, so part of the calculations one must make is asking whether they have time to complete another lap. If not, there is no point (at least in the race results) in going for another lap.


Mark used to be a very accomplished ultra runner, but a horrible infection in his ankle destroyed that joint. He an still move pretty well with a special carbon-fiber brace that transfers the load from his foot up to the top of his lower leg. This braced saved him from amputation, but he hasn’t returned to ultra running…yet. Despite this, he’s still very involved in the ultra running community mostly through his passion for the sport, but also through his great website and phone app, OpenSplitTime.com. This awesome site/app is an incredible tool for tracking results in real time and also for planning your effort. Mark’s software is used at the RUFA events and he was on hand for the both of the events I did.

It’s definitely a bit strange for me to be running these things without Mark. He was always way more talented at going long. While he does get tired, I didn’t see much of it, because I’m poop out first and he’d have to shepherd me to the finish (these are for ultra adventures we did together). We’ve never raced an ultra together, though I’ve paced him at Hard Rock a couple of times. It isn’t that strange, because I’ve only done three ultras in my life. Actually, counting the RUFAs, I’ve now done five official ultras, but Mark and I have done many an ultra adventure. But Mark is positive and upbeat and isn’t moping around the start/finish area lamenting the fact that he isn’t out there showing me how to do it

Last year I did the 24-hour version of the RUFA Grandeur Peak. It was really snowy and cold and I spent hours (all told) in the warming tent at the base, between laps. I’m pretty slow, but at that event I was the last man standing and I do take some pride in that. I finished after 23 hours. Granted, with lots of time sitting by the fire, but it wasn’t like I did one lap and then slept by the fire for 18 hours and then did a second lap.

The good news about this first version of RUFA Squaw Peak (Provo) as that the longest option offered was 12 hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m). There were also two separate 6-hour races (starting at 7 a.m. and noon). I’ve been lazy this winter and have only done two adventures of note (Top Ten Flatiron Climbs in a Day and an ascent of San Luis Peak). Other than that, I’ve just been doing Green Mountain (4-5 miles and 2400 vertical feet) two or three times a week. Last year I was doing the Skyline every month (16-17 miles, 6000 vertical feet) and even did a double Skyline to prepare for RUFA. But with RUFA you can quit after any number of laps, so I wasn’t going to be a liability out on the course, regardless of my fitness,
The amazing Jared Campbell

I’d been up Squaw Peak once before — when I climbed Squawstruck with Jared. So, I’d been down the trail, but not up it. Each lap on Squaw Peak was 7.5 miles long with 2800 feet of climbing. I figured that I should be able to do four laps (30 miles and 11,000 vertical feet). Those numbers are huge and I hadn’t done much to prepare for that, but 12 hours in a long time. My goal was five laps, because four laps really shouldn’t have been hard enough. My philosophy about races is that they should involve some serious suffering. Otherwise, you can just go do the same thing without entering a race.

I flew out Friday and took a couple of trains from the airport to Lehi, where Mark worked. He picked me up at the depot and then gave me a tour of the super cool office at MX. I met his entire team and everyone was super nice. They have tons of perks at this company and free drinks and snacks galore. We got some lunch and then headed to Mark’s climbing gym: The Quarry. This is nice gym. It was crowded, as it was late afternoon on Friday and one section of the gym is like a canyon and people were everywhere. We did a number of fun climbs, but I was already tired from the enduro session Derek and I had done at Movement that morning.

Mark’s family was busy with wedding preparations for their daughter Alice. While they were at the wedding shower, Mark and I went to the movies where I received a bit of an ego bash. I hang out with lots of young, fit people and I’m deluded enough to think I’m one of the gang. I rarely look in the mirror and while I sometimes feel pretty slow, stiff, and clumsy chasing after these guys, I don’t specifically feel old. When we went to buy our tickets, the guy selling them looks at us (okay, he looked at me) and then asks, “Any seniors?” Seniors?! But always interested in a bargain, I asked how old you had to be, saying I was just forty seventeen. Turns out I wasn’t old enough. So, not only did I look old, but I still didn’t get the discount.
I think this is lap four. Fading big time.
Mark was up early (4:30 a.m.) and off the start start by 5 a.m. The trailhead for Squaw Peak is only a mile from Mark’s house, so he let me sleep an extra 30 minutes and drive separately. I got there at 5:45 and was the last 12-hour racer to check in. This race was really small, with about 45 total runners in all events and just 16 in the 12-hour event. Any time the numbers are this small I feel I have a good chance of finishing DFL. But someone has to be last and when I am last my choices will be: finish last or stay home and sit on the couch. I think I’ll be okay with last in that situation.

We start in the dark and use headlamps for at least 30 minutes. One guy takes off like a rocket and is out of sight in less than a minute. He’d go on to win the race easily. A short, older dude with long hair goes off the front next and soon he’s out of sight too. I’m running along real easy. It’s uphill but very gradually for the first half mile. The road/trail is completely dry for this first half mile and then, at the upper gate, the trail immediately goes to 100% ice coverage. I should have stopped immediately and spiked up, but get going for a bit. I was in third place. Clearly the race wasn’t full of Kyle Richardsons. I didn’t think I was going too fast, but I was running. It was the only time I’d run this section. I walked 95% of the uphill terrain in this race.

When I stopped to spike up, an older guy came by me. We exchanged names and I recognized his: Seth Myer. I’d checked out the Squaw Peak segment on Strava and found him. He had done one workout where he’d done four laps. Damn. He said his goal was five laps and I said that was mine as well. We stayed together, pretty much, the entire first ascent. Two thirds of the way up Jason One (there will be another Jason) came by us with his dog — a pit bull mix. He was running, albeit slowly, while we were hiking. Seth topped out in fourth place and me right behind him in fifth. Jared was on top and he gave me a big hug and we took a photo together.

Seth quickly left me behind on the descent. I knew it was going to be a long day and was just trying to be smooth and get down as easily as possible. The trail was entirely snowpacked and generally quite good. There were a couple of very steep sections that were icy at first and then slushy, as the day was pretty warm. While the trail was packed nicely, it was extremely narrow — one person width — and if you stepped off this narrow path, you plunged up to your crotch. Passing people was an issue and I’m sure everyone plunged deep in the snow multiple times. Early on, it was an inconvenience. Later, when I was really tired, it was difficult to get out of these holes. On the descent, I caught and passed Jason One, mainly because his dog was lagging. And it was blocking the trail! :-)

In order to get in five laps, I had to average 2:24 per lap. Mark and I talked about this and decided that 2:10 laps was a good place to start, to bank a little time for the slower laps to come, but not too fast that I’d blowup. I was running down the road, thinking I was all alone, when Jason Two passed me. He was running well. I was doing my usual shuffle. Still, I finished my first lap around 1:50. I walked into the aid station and surveyed all the great food, including bacon, quesadillas, bars, cookies, etc. But one item caught my eye.

A week before the event the race director sent out an email to all participants, asking if anyone had an specific dietary restrictions or requests. This was very cool. I’d never heard of that being done before. I sure they were sensitive to vegans or gluten-free runners. I responded that I was a strict Hostess diet and would love Hohos or Ding Dongs. Sure enough, on the food table, was a container of Ding Dongs. I said, “Alright! I requested these.” All the aid station workers immediately responded, “Ah, you’re the Ding Dong Guy.” So, not only do I look like a senior citizen, but I have a totally bitchin’ nickname. Needless to say, I was attracting lots of long-legged ultra chicks.

After a quick bathroom stop, I was headed back up the trail at 1:55, well ahead of pace and back in fifth place. I walked the entire way, but I was moving well and climbing well. I’d seen Seth heading out on his second lap when I was still running down, so I was surprised to catch him about halfway up. I figured he’d just run by me on the descent. I then caught and passed Jason Two. I tagged the top and descended well, doing this lap in about 1:43. I was quick at the turn around and heading up for lap 3 at 3:45 into the day.

At the start of lap three I entertained the crazy thought of six laps. I was on pace for it and for a good 30 minutes or more I fantasized about being fit enough to pull it off. Then reality descended around me. I made it in pretty good shape, but it didn’t feel anything like the magic of lap 2. Dang. One good lap.

During the race, you get to know everyone by sight and one guy in a yellow jacket gave me encouragement, saying that the second place runner wasn’t that far ahead of me. When he descended by me, I knew he was still more than ten minutes ahead of me, but I clearly closing the gap, as I’d meet him higher on the hill. On the descent, I tried to get as low as possible before I ran into Jason Two and Seth. I was stretching out my gap over them. Cool. The top three finishers get a mug as an award and I was currently in third place and growing attached to this unseen mug. I was also noticing these two fit running chicks, but not as much as I should have.

I pushed just a bit on the descent, for a silly reason. Mark’s oldest daughter, Mallory, has the female record on this peak (which I didn’t approach), but she also had the record for three laps: 5:51. I wanted to beat her time. She was supposed to be in this race and while I would have loved running with her a bit, I was pretty sure she’d have dropped me. Alas, she got injured skiing and didn’t sign up for the race. I came down well and finished three laps around 5:35. Mark greeted me when I came in and said “Dude, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to have to do six laps.” But by then, I knew I couldn’t do it. I was hurting and knew I couldn’t make it. This was a nice mental release, as I had more than six hours to get in two more laps and make my goal. Except, now I had another goal.

When I came in at the end of my third lap, Mark told me that the guy in second place had dropped. So, I was now in second place. I told myself right from the start that I wouldn’t be racing anyone until the last lap and it was likely I wouldn’t be able to race anyone at that point. I certainly wasn’t going to start on lap four, but I was thinking about it and trying to keep moving efficiently. My feet were cold and soaked. Mark got my bag and I changed into fresh, neoprene-like socks. They felt so good. Dry feet lifted my spirits a bit, but I was starting to be bothered by pain to the top of my left foot.

Lap four was the toughest mentally, because it was very hard yet still a long way from the finish. Knowing I had another lap to go made the suffering of the fourth ascent difficult for me. The climb seemed to go on forever. I was moving slow and getting passed by 6-hour runners. I tagged the top and stumbled back down to the finish. My feet were cold and soaked again and the top of my left foot was really hurting. I had Mark get my bag again and I changed from my Mutant’s into my Neutron G’s. These shoes are Gortex and have a built-in gaitor. I wasn’t wearing them to begin with because the Mutants are more comfortable for me, but changing into a dry pair of socks and dry shoes was heaven. This is a huge difference between doing races with full-on support at regular intervals and real adventures, where you are on your own from the start to the finish.

I headed up on my last lap without hesitation. If I had taken a rest for any length of time, I might have dropped. I knew I had to do lap five, so the earlier I started the earlier I’d finish. Leaving the aid station went by Jason Two coming in. He said, “Going for five, huh?” I took that as a hint that he might drop after four. That would give me a cushion on my current place. I ran into Seth way up there. I knew he was no threat. But I was moving slow, slow, slow. I down shifted to tiny steps, as I didn’t have the power to take regular strides.

A big guy came by me halfway up. He was doing his second lap. Another guy was right behind him, but he wasn’t part of the race. His name was Tate and we hiked together clear to the summit. He’s a sophomore at BYU and chatting with him helped pass the time and keep my mind off how far I had to go. Eventually we topped out.

At the summit, no one was standing there ready to check me in. It was getting cold on top and everyone was in the tent pitched here. I got my water bottle filled, thinking I might be in danger of cramping. Each time I took on or off my spikes from the third lap on, I cramped up a bit. On the ascents, I was on the verge of cramping my lower shins, which I’ve never cramped before. Also, my feet nearly cramped a couple of times. I knew I was on edge. I also ate a donut up here. Props to the organizers for getting donuts to the summit.

I headed down, hoping to just shuffle easy and walk a lot of it. But then, just three minutes down from the top, I ran into Jason Two. Uh oh. He had closed on me. I figured it would take him six minutes to ascend what I had descended in three minutes, so I had maybe a 9-minute lead. Now, finally, I was racing, running scared. It turned out that the two women were above Jason and I didn’t realize they were my biggest threat. I don’t know why I didn’t put this together. I think it was because they were pretty far back on the first lap. They had been running very consistently, while I had three pretty fast laps and now two slow laps. But the fear of Jason Two was enough.

I ran as hard as I could, which was slow. Seriously. But it felt fast, as I didn’t have much control and I was so weak. I made three or four mistakes with my balance and got a foot off the packed trail. I plunged into mid-thigh and pitched forward onto my face. I was surprised each time that I didn’t cramp either in falling or extracting myself. Each time I felt my pursuers getting closer, knowing they weren’t burying themself in the snow. The bottoms of my feet got hot as I slide forward in them with each footfall. I got these shoes in a larger size to keep my feet warmer, but they require a very thick sock and I wasn’t wearing one. So pain resided every part of my body.

At the bottom of the steep section I caught the big guy and he stepped aside for me, but he needn’t have done that. I only caught him because I was in a controlled fall. Once on the less steep terrain I slowed, though still tried to maintain some cadence. He moved on by me. I looked back once, but there was no point. With 1.5 miles to go, if I had seen anyone, it was over. They would pass me by. I was going about as fast as I thought I could and still last to the finish. So, I just put my head down and went.

Three quarters of a mile before the finish, I ran into Mark, coming up the trail to finish with me. He gave me props, but I immediately told me about my chasers and my fear of being caught. I ran to the end of the ice and sat on the steps. I had Mark pull off my spikes, because I thought I’d cramp if I did it myself. I had just a half mile to go now and on dry ground. Now if we saw someone I would respond with everything I had. Later, when telling this story, someone said, “Ah, you didn’t want to get chick-ed, huh?” No, that wasn’t it at all. First, I wasn’t even thinking about the girls, wrongly assuming it was Jason Two that was my problem. Secondly, I get chick-ed all the time, by so many women that it isn’t a thing for me. Getting chick-ed is only a thing for guys that are very close to the speed of the fastest women. Now, granted, that was the situation here, but I didn’t know it.

In the final five minutes I had Mark check behind us three times. All clear. I finished in 10h35m, doing 37 miles and just under 14,000 vertical feet. I got second place, though that isn’t very meaningful to me. If all my current adventure partners were in this race, I’d have been last. By a good margin. So, placement wasn’t really meaningful to me. I was happy to make my goal of five laps and to get it done with a sizable time cushion. The winner of the race didn’t think he had time for a sixth lap, so he stopped after five laps as well.

The two women came in just four minutes after me. Four minutes in a race that lasted 10.5 hours. It certainly added an aspect to this event that I didn’t expect. Physically, I’m slower now than when I was younger, of course, but the burning competitive urge is still there, though mostly dormant, waiting for just the right time to reanimate.

Jason Two came in 20 minutes or more after me, but the fear of him allowed me to hold off the women. Seth was still out there when I left for a shower and a bed, but I knew he’d comfortable finish the fifth lap. The support at this race was great and all the runners seemed very nice. I enjoyed this experience, though the last couple of laps were Type 2-ish fun.

Mark was so supportive and so helpful to me. Just getting my bag twice probably saved me those four minutes. He showers me with genuine praise. No mention of his past glory, which far exceeds this effort. He’s just excited that I pushed myself towards a tough goal and I made it. This sort of thing is so curious. There isn’t the achievement of climbing a peak. Or breaking a specific time for a specific distance, like a 10K. This is just: go suffer for 12 hours. That’s just strange, isn’t it? I can see how most of the population, obviously not us trail runners, would think such a thing is just silly. And they’d be right.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Flatirons Top Ten in Winter...Again

Derek high on the First Flatiron

“Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. They make you late for dinner.”

— Bilbo Baggins, on adventures

The first time Derek climbed the Maiden, at ten years old, he slept on top of it. The first time he led 5.9 trad was 700 feet up the Touchstone Wall in Zion. The first time he ever did an “ultra” was when he linked ten 14er ascents over 20 hours. The first time he even climbed a mixed pitch was when he led the crux pitch on the Amy Route in Patagonia. So, it seemed appropriate that his first time doing Roach’s Flatiron’s Top Ten would be in winter.


Today we completed the third linking of Top Ten in winter and the first time all the routes had been led. It’s uncomfortable for me to even mention that, as the only reason Danny and I didn’t lead all the routes when we did the Top Ten was because it was my lead and I wimped out. Danny, not wanting to embarrass me, just followed suit and we top-roped the route. There are some who disdain the distinction between leading all the routes, or even climbing up them. They prefer the cleverness of downclimbing some routes. To each his own, but climbing up them all is a distinctly different outing.  While we did go faster than Danny and I did a year ago, I think the concept of a winter FKT is suspect, as it is largely (not entirely, of course) determined by weather and conditions and not on the speed of the climbers. That said, Peter Bakwin did the Top Ten earlier this winter, solo, in just 11.5 hours. That’s badass, no doubt, and the only solo of the Top Ten in winter.
Derek setting up the last rappel off the Third Flatiron
I’d scoped out the bushwhack from the Third to GMP the Thursday before our attempt and then took Derek on it the Saturday before. He hated it. It is unpleasant and it is slow, but it saves a lot of vertical feet. With that option out, it changes the order of the routes, as I didn’t want to drop all the way down to the Royal Arch Trail, then all the way up to GMP and then all the way down to the Mesa Trail. Starting in the south now looked like a better sequence — this is the order Danny and I did them in. I wanted to start at NCAR, though, in the middle, so that I could do some hiking in the dark at the beginning and end of the day, as this is very low stress compared to climbing in the dark, which we’d still have to do. But Derek didn’t like this strategy. He very much wanted to get the First and Third done early. Since that was my original plan, I agreed. But Derek still didn’t want to do the bushwhack, so our plan was to descend to the Royal Arch Trail behind the Third Flatiron (this is also non-trivial this time of year) and then hike all the way back up to Green Mountain Pinnacle.

We left Chautauqua Park at 6 a.m., headed for the First Flatiron. We scrambled this entirely in the dark. We moved deliberately. In the cold and in the dark, this climb seems harder, but we know it well. Still, we relied more on our fingers than we do when scrambling in the light of day and the warmth of summer. The temperature was 21 degrees when we started, but no wind. Conditions throughout the day would be embarrassingly pleasant. I wore my jacket for half of the approach to the First and then never put it on again.
Soloing up the chimney on Green Mountain Pinnacle
The First went well and we were back down on the ground inside of an hour. Once on the ground, I noticed a headlamp coming our way. The person called out “Good morning” and I recognized the voice. Jeff Valliere was headed up Green via the First Flatiron Trail, a route known pretty much only to scramblers, but a nice way to avoid the ice on the standard route. We both had places to be, so we didn’t break stride as we said hello and traded plans.

The link to the Third went well, with hardly any postholing or nasty talus. Now in the light, the Third went smoothly, but at the top we had our first issue. We only carried one 30-meter rope for this adventure and this necessitated using a special device called the Escaper. This is a Chinese-finger-trap-like sling that grips the rope when under tension. The rope is retrieved from below by pulling and releasing the lower end while a clever bungy moves the Chinese finger-trap up the rope it grips. Under ideal circumstances, this works well, though it generally takes 20-30 tugs on the rope to get it to release. The number of tugs can be reduced by reducing the tail of the rope protruding from the trap…but if you guess wrong and use too short of a tail…it’s all over. But for the device to work at all, it needs to be able to “bounce back”, meaning the rope needs to be completely free of tension. For this to happen the knot attaching the climbing rope to the device must be free to move up and down. If there is an edge that catches it, the device won’t work. If the device isn’t free hanging, then the friction of the knot on the low-angle rock can prevent a usable “bounce back.” This was the case on the first rappel from the top of the Third Flatiron. We experienced the same thing on our recon, but thought the main problem was that we threaded the device into both chains at the top. For this device to work best, it need to use a single anchor point. Otherwise the friction can be too great for the “bounce back.” This does require, at times, rapping off a single bolt.
Derek high on the Fatiron
With no success, I dropped the rope down to the intermediate rappel anchor and down climbed the last pitch of the Third. I tried again at this intermediate anchor and it was working, so I rappelled on it. Derek tests the retrieval before I rappel down. Also, I’m the only one actually using this device, as Derek rappels on a line clipped directly to the anchor. We got the rope down and then did the last rappel to the ground. Unfortunately, there is an edge which prevented the “bounce back” from working. Ugh. I had to leave a sling here so that I could extend the Escaper far enough so that the knot wasn’t an issue.

Once on the ground, I immediately led back up to the same anchor, via the route Friday’s Folly. This is such an excellent pitch and we were glad that most of it faces south and we were full-on in the sun. We repeated the rappel and retrieved the rope yet again. At this point, Derek tells me that he is feeling stronger today and is good-to-go on the bushwhack. Sweet. On our recon, failure to put on his Microspikes, feeling tired, getting frustrated, and lagging behind me, caused this link to take 60 minutes. This time we did it in 31 minutes.
Rapping the Maiden on a single line attached to the Escaper
We soloed up the awesome chimney on Green Mountain Pinnacle to the top. I wore the rope on my back to rappel off. On our recon I did the 4th class descent to the east, but it is exposed and time consuming. The Escaper worked easily here and soon we were descending toward Sentinel Pass, excited to have four classics done. We now had a very long hike down to the Fatiron.

We descended to the pass and then down the Woods Quarry Trail to the Mesa Trail, which we took south to the approach trail for the Fatiron. Along the way we ran into Minion Kevin Smith. He was doing the Double Mesa, so it was a quick hello-goodbye. On the way up to the Fatiron I lost the climbers’ trail and veered too far to the north. The woods are so dense you can’t locate any landmarks, despite being near huge rocks. My instincts led me in the correct direction though and we didn’t lose but a couple of minutes.
Starting up the North Face of the Matron
We scrambled up the first piece of this huge rock and then down to the lip of the overhang that splits the two sections. There is a fixed anchor here, but it is too high up for a single 30-meter rope. I had brought a leaver sling with rappel rings on it to loop over a lower horn. We had to simul-rappel since we had both only brought Grigris. This went easily and we scrambled the much shorter second part and repeated the simul-rappel off the summit.

We did the familiar link over to the Maiden and I led it as one pitch, using one Microtraxion to protect the leader. On all of our roped climbs, I did the leading and we simul-climbed them. When simul-climbing it is best to put the strongest climber in back and Derek is definitely much stronger than me. Also, I knew the climbs very well and could lead them relatively quickly. We took the high traverse across the north face, my preferred route when simul-climbing. It is more difficult than the lower version, but much more direct.
Derek at the crux of the Pellea
Rapping off the Maiden is exciting no matter how you do it, but descending this with an Escaper definitely got my attention. I’d done it before, though. Unfortunately, we had a horrible time getting the rope down. The knot was hitting the lip and not allowing the “bounce back.” I had to solo out the ridge towards the start of the climb, clear to the far notch and still it took endless pulls on the rope. I thought our Top Ten outing might be over. We were going to have to abandon the rope and come back later to retrieve it. But then it came down. I wondered about the wisdom of using this device rather than just taking another 7.8mm 30-meter rope. But we were committed to it. It would have to work or it was over. I definitely had some worries about the pull on the Matron and especially the Back Porch. 
Bill in the midst of the Pellea's crux
The second rappel was a snap and we hiked over the Matron. On the way over we ran into RMR all-star doctors Dale and Allison. Always a treat to meet these angels, especially when I’m not in need of a rescue. On the Matron, I once again led it as one pitch with a Micro. The two rappels went well and the Escaper didn’t have any issues. I had been reducing the amount of tail for all my rappels. A risk, to be sure, but since it was taking 20 bounces or more to get the rope down, I figured it was still safe enough.

With just three to go, I turned my attention to the remaining light. We had a long hike back north to Fern Canyon and then a steep hike uphill to the Pellea. We’d only brought 84 ounces of water for both of us and we were running low. Thirst was becoming an issue. We scooted along the trail the best we could, even trotting the downhill sections, not to lower our elapsed time, but to get as much done before darkness engulfed us and route finding would become a serious challenge.

Starting up the Back Porch
Just above where the North Shanahan Trail hit the Gregory Canyon Trail, we stashed our packs and continued with just harnesses, Grigris, and our rope. I thought we were still moving well, but it took us a pretty long time to catch the hikers in front of us. Was I slowing down?, I thought. No, they are probably just a couple of Boulder super hikers. We peeled off the trail and headed up the slope to the start of the East Face of the Pellea. The crux on this route is thin and the rock is a bit flakey and fragile. Oh, and there’s a good amount of lichen too. Definitely had our full concentration, despite only a 5.4 rating. This rock is also a lot longer than I had remembered. I’m sure my state contributed to that thought. Mountain Project says the route is only 3 pitches long. Felt like more to me. MP also says that the rappel is 60 feet, but we know that it is less than 50 feet, since we reached the ground with our single rope. We had to simul-rappel again, but that’s much better than using the Escaper. Much faster too.

I really started to fade on the long hike up to the Back Porch. For us, this climb started when we left Bear Canyon on the Mesa Trail. It’s over a thousand feet of climbing from there to the top of the Back Porch. It was on this climb that I really started to lag behind Derek. We dumped our packs behind the Front Porch and continued with the rope and rack and, just in case, our headlamps. We also downed the last of our water.

We continued up to the route and geared up well below the start, on the only tiny flat section of the steep, pine-needle-covered slope. For the first fifty feet of my lead I was still in hiking terrain, albeit steep hiking. Climbing this route confirmed my belief that it has no place in the Tour. There is so much lichen on this route and the rock quality is marginal. The spire itself is very impressive and some of the climbing is nice, but it isn’t a good solo. We simul-climbed it as one pitch, using the Micro at the top of the first pitch. Just as I was coming to grips with the crux overhang on the second pitch Derek called up to me, “Pops, I need to down climb. Can I have some slack.” Uh…no. The rope is through the Micro and I couldn’t give Derek slack without down climbing all the way back to the Micro. Thankfully, he figured out an alternate way, but it was even sketchier than the main route.

Derek’s Backporch Experience
I messed up Backporch pretty bad. It started with me sort of idly scrambling up a lichen-covered ramp, when my rope started to tighten to my left, over the step to the next higher ramp. I tried to flick it, to no effect. So then I stepped up and saw a red cam slotted nicely in a crack up there. Uh-oh. There wasn’t a good spot to get over where I was. The last good spot was a ways below me, and I figured I didn’t need to take that option since I was on a ramp. I should’ve been watching Pops climb it, but I was pretty far down, and probably too tired to keep my head up. I called up for slack and that I had messed up, but I didn’t even think about the Micro. Even if Pops could downclimb, no rope would come to me. So I began plotting my strategy. I couldn’t go down -- no slack. I couldn’t go up -- no slack, the cam preventing any progress. I had to go left. I grabbed a hold under the little overhang I was at and it immediately crumbled. I stepped over into the overhang to get a bit higher and I scraped off a bunch of that black lichen that is so prevalent on this climb. Hmm. I ended up crimping a solid-looking, thumb-and-index-finger-only crystal, slapping the higher ramp, and swinging the left foot over. It worked out well enough.

But my route-finding woes were not over. Higher up, there is a little chimney section before the pin and the final overhang. The easy solution here is to lieback the chimney’s edge, but I didn’t know that, so I cruxed it out under the chimney. I had just committed into it when my foot slipped and I was sure I was going to fall. But I had just enough balance to keep it together. I stepped over to under the pin and my foot slipped again! Anyways, the Back Porch was definitely my crux…

Rapping off the Back Porch
I was nervous about the descent off this spire. I knew the last rappel was the trickiest start of any rappel that I’ve probably ever done, as the anchor is below you. But my big worry was the first rappel. If we couldn’t get the rope down from the Escaper we might be trapped on the rock. So worried was I that I didn’t want to use the Escaper. Instead, Derek went down as usual, on the single line to see if half the rope would get us to a point where we could scramble to the second anchor. I remembered some low-angle terrain above the second anchor and this turned out to be the case. Derek went off rappel right at the halfway mark and clipped into the end. With his body as a counterweight, I rappelled the other strand with my Grigri. We then scrambled down to the second anchor. Since this start of this rappel is just such a pain, with the climber basically having to fall onto his belay device, I rigged an anchor above from a couple of cams. This way Derek could start the rappel easily with his anchor above him. I felt there was no need for both of us to do that start.

Once he was on the ground, I rigged the Escaper and then dropped it below me. With a Grigri, I could use both hands to climb down as far as possible before dropping on it. Freaky! But the gear worked as I knew it would (or I wouldn’t have tried it!). Soon I was on the ground. The Escaper came down easily and we stowed it away for good. We packed up the rest of our gear and descended back to our packs. Here we had to turn on our headlamps.

We followed the Minions-worn trail down into Skunk Canyon, putting on our Microspikes near the bottom, as there was snow and ice to negotiate. I was desperately thirsty and dehydration was definitely slowing me down. Down in the canyon, in the pitch dark, it was hard to tell what was what. When I started down canyon, Derek was confused. He thought we had to go up canyon, via the long approach in the Tour. Alas, he was thinking of Angel’s Way. We carefully picked our way to the east with me trying to determine where Stairway to Heaven was. I was so intent on finding the start of the route, navigating by a quickly dimming headlamp, that I didn’t think about getting water from the stream. Being so thirsty, this is hard to explain. Thankfully, Derek said, “Pops, there’s water.” Duh. We filled our bottles and I drank 10 ounces. Why not more? It was freezing cold and I got a brain freeze from just that amount. We filled our 20-ounce bottle and a liter bottle and moved on.
Getting badly needed water in Skunk Canyon
I found what I thought was the start and climbed upwards, slowly. It seemed right and I kept going. I told Derek, “I’m 75% sure. Maybe 85%.” Further up my headlamp illuminated the crux leftwards traverse under the overhang and I knew I had us on course. This is a long climb, made more so by my slow pace. I moved up continuously except for two pauses to drink more water. Derek followed behind me, since we decided it would be best to stay together. When we passed the Love pinnacle, I knew we were more than halfway. When we hit the final section, I knew we were close, but didn’t say anything in case I was wrong. This final section seemed very long. At the top we took a selfie. All you can see is a happy Derek, a tired Pops, and darkness.

We descended the ridge to the tree and did one final, short, simul-rappel to the ground. It felt good pulling off the harnesses and packing them away for the final time. I had debated in my mind what was the best way down. We could do the bushwhack over to the Royal Arch Trail or descend the Stairway/Hill Billy Rock climbers’ “trail” back down into Skunk Canyon. We started with the former, but the deadfall was great and we couldn’t see very far, so we aborted and tried to get on the latter. But I was lazy and didn’t climb back up to orient myself against Stairway. Instead I just thought I knew where I was and headed down, hoping to intersect that climbers’ trail. But I couldn’t find it. I told Derek that I was lost. We decided to just continue downhill. We could see the lights of Boulder and knew we were going down and at least somewhat to the east. That was enough. Surprisingly, the going wasn’t that bad. It helped to be moving slowly and searching for the easiest way. After awhile I brought up Gaia (GPS mapping app) on my phone to confirm we were at least headed in the right general direction. It showed that a trail wasn’t too far away from us. A trail?! I knew of no trail in this area. At least not one that would be listed on a map. But we continued down and towards the trail and low and behold we found a faint trail. After following it for a bit, I said to Derek, “I think this might be the Regency Trail.” At first he was skeptical, but when we hit the “talus road” section, which lies just above the Mesa Trail, we knew we were on it. Instead of heading down the talus, per the usual Tour de Flatirons route, we stayed on the talus road, which turned back into a faint trail and went all the way to the Mesa Trail!

Once on the trail we exchanged final high fives and even a hug. We knew it was in the bag at that point. The hike back to the car was blissfully free of any drama and we arrived 13h37m after we started. My feet and my legs were beat. During that entire adventure we never just sat and took a break. During the brief times we were stopped, we were either belaying, putting on or taking off Microspikes or harnesses and coiling ropes. I don’t remember sitting down all day, save for putting on Microspikes. There is just no way to make this easy. Summer or winter. It's just so much work. So much climbing. So much off-trail travel. So many miles and so much vertical.

A year ago, when I did this with Danny, I wore my down jacket most of the time. On this adventure I didn’t even carry a down jacket. These were completely different adventures. That’s not to say that this outing was easy. It wasn’t and it will never be for me. Much like the Skyline, which I did 13 months in a row in an attempt to get used to the mileage and vertical gain, this outing just never seems reasonable. I’ve now done the Top Ten four times, 2.9 times in winter. 2.9?! Yes. About 15 years ago I tried to do the Top Ten in winter solo and stopped after doing the Maiden, with just the Matron to go. It wasn’t dark yet, but it would have been for the Matron and I’d never soloed the North Face before. I’d had some trouble with the Maiden and was mentally done, so I bailed.
On top of Stairway to Heaven -- our 10th and last climb of the day.
Some might wonder why I do this trip so many times, though I suspect no one reading this does. They understand the need to challenge yourself. And the key is “yourself.” This link-up is a huge challenge for me. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal for many of my friends and they might seek harder, longer challenges. But maybe I need a new Flatiron adventure. The Minions are discussing a new Spring Top Ten. Maybe that will be next, if we ever decide on the climbs to include…


LocationPredicted Time of DayPredicted SplitActual Time of DayActual SplitsNotes
Chatauqua Park6:00:00 AM6:00:00 AMStarted right on time
Base of First Flatiron (1)6:25:00 AM0:256:23:00 AM0:23Efficient approach
Top of First Flatiron6:55:00 AM0:306:55:00 AM0:32Downclimbed and was a few minutes ahead of schedule
Base of Third Flatiron (2)7:25:00 AM0:307:12:00 AM0:17Very efficient link
Top of Third Flatiron7:55:00 AM0:307:30:00 AM0:18Estimate of time but has to be very close
Base of Friday's Folly (3)8:10:00 AM0:158:00:00 AM0:30Descending took longer due to Escaper issues
Top of Friday's Folly8:30:00 AM0:208:30:00 AM0:30This is the time we started the bushwhack to GMP
Base of West Chimney (4)9:15:00 AM0:459:01:00 AM0:31Pretty efficient bushwhack, moved continuously with no route finding issues
Top of West Chimney9:45:00 AM0:309:15:00 AM0:14Estimate, but close. Maybe topped out even earlier
Base of Fatiron (5)11:30:00 AM1:4510:41:00 AM1:26Long hike. At the time I measured this as 1:31, I t hink, so these are rough estimates from eyeballing the track
Top of Fatiron12:15:00 PM0:4511:20:00 AM0:39Rappel from top of lower section and at the top
Base of Maiden (6)12:30:00 PM0:1511:32:00 AM0:12Easy link
Top of Maiden1:10:00 PM0:4012:00:00 PM0:28Climb went smooth, as one pitch
Base of Matron (7)2:10:00 PM1:001:20:00 PM1:20Lots of trouble pulling the first rope down. Lost 15 minutes and almost abandoned the adventure
Top of Matron2:50:00 PM0:401:58:00 PM0:38Climb went smooth, as one pitch
Base of Pellaea (8)4:05:00 PM1:153:17:00 PM1:19Rappels went smooth
Top of Pellaea4:35:00 PM0:303:34:00 PM0:17
Base of Backporch (9)5:20:00 PM0:454:34:00 PM1:00Long, tiring link. Some time stashing packs and pulling out gear included here
Top of Backporch5:50:00 PM0:304:54:00 PM0:20
Base of Stairway to Heaven (10)6:25:00 PM0:355:59:00 PM1:05Rappel shenanigans to get down, back to cache, down into Skunk, getting water, finding the route, all in the dark
Top of Stairway to Heaven7:10:00 PM0:456:36:00 PM0:37Tiring climb. Fading
Chatauqua Park8:10:00 PM1:007:37:00 PM1:01Got lost on the way out
Total time:14:1013:37

Postscript:

Was using the Escaper the right choice?  It definitely isn't faster when rappelling versus using two ropes. With our troubles, I think carrying the extra line probably would have been faster overall. A thin 30-meter isn't enough weight to justify the use the Escaper this many times. I think it is really useful as an emergency back-up and when you are carrying a full 60-meter rope, as the extra rope in this case would be heavier. Or when you know you are only making 1 or 2 rappels.


Saturday, January 11, 2020

Patagonia: Trip Summary



Saturday:

It was time to head home. Our shuttle to the airport in El Calafate was due to arrive at 7:30 a.m. I wanted a last view of Fitz Roy and a final hike, so I got up before 5 a.m. and was out the door at 5:15 a.m. It was warm and there was no wind. So different from the day before. I dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved T-shirt, jogging through town to the start of the Sendero al Fitz Roy. I hiked up the by now very familiar trail, past the 1-kilometer sign, up to where I break cross-country up the very steep slopes of Cerro Rosado. I didn’t pause on the ascent and made the top in 45 minutes from my apartment door. That’s cool. Fitz Roy was shyly cloaked in its customary clouds, but the early morning light still lit up the massif. I couldn’t linger, only taking a couple of photos and gazing one last time at the most amazing mountain I’ve ever been on.

I trotted back to town and our apartment. After a quick shower, some last minute packing, and a quick trip to Que Rika for some travel jamon y queso croissants, we were in the van and starting our 30-hour trip back home. Good-bye Fitz Roy. Good-bye Patagonia. I hope to return someday…


Summary thoughts on trip:

Climbing is possible for us here. Even Fitz Roy is within reach, though we’d need good conditions and weather. I’d like to return for another shot at Fitz Roy. When that will be depends on what Derek does in the next year. He’s applied to grad schools and might be continuing his schooling. Work is obviously the other option and he’s looked at companies all over the nation. So, necessarily, plans won’t be made just yet.
Jimena and I at Que Rika
Poincenot is a spectacular mountain and is now on my list as well. I need to improve a bit as an ice climber and get solid on M4 climbing, so that’s something to work on this winter and next fall.

The apartment (La Avenida) that Rolo recommended for us was functional and very conveniently located above a cafe and a bakery and right across the street from the supermarket. But the walls seem to amplify sound instead of muffle it and the people who stayed in the adjacent apartment stayed up super late here, even the kids, and they were super loud. The last tenants made a tremendous racket until 1 a.m. each night and then their child would not only start crying at 3 a.m. but would throw a complete, extended tantrum. Unlocking and opening the door made more noise than breaking it down with an axe. This was consistent with each group that stayed there. Twice people just walked into our apartment, the last time when we were already in bed. A man burst in with a stream of Spanish. “A donde va. Come se llama? Andela! Cuanta questa? Hola. Gracious. Adios. De nada. Cuestala por favor. Vamos aqui. Como? Que? Cuando? Ole! Ole!” I leapt from the bed, pulled out an ice axe (always “at the ready”) and battled him back out the door, thinking “Why is my Samurai asleep when I need him most?” No matter: faced with overwhelming force, el muchacho retreated and I closed and locked the door, safe at last in our casita. Muy bien. Buenas nochas otra vez.

Inventory at the supermercado is hit and miss. We learned to rush over when a big truck arrived with a delivery. Dolce de leche is the national flavor and they sell it in bulk tubs like the Swiss do with Nutella. I embraced this flavor fully, having it in my coffee and on my waffles. Dolce de leche pudding was addictive and I’ve smuggled a six-month supply back into the US where I intend to start a black market trade. Hence, I’m now in the market for “protection”. Thank goodness for the Second Amendment! Butter is nearly unheard of here, at restaurants and grocery stores.  Though we finally found it in the fourth supermercado we tried, it was never served at any restaurant. Also, it’s not called mantequilla, like in Mexico, but manteca. As Sheri would say, “They cray.”

Another prevalent food item here is olives. They come on everything, even on pizzas when you order “no olives.” They figure you don’t mean the required olive staked to each slice with a toothpick.

Dylan and Adrian called out two food items in particular: ice cream and empanadas. Good call, guys. Both are ridiculously good. The ice cream might be the best I’ve ever had. It’s super creamy, almost like gelato. My favorite flavor was Crema Moka (coffee ice cream), but Super Dolce de Leche, duh, was also quite good. Empanadas are in every bakery and we bought and ate the “jamon y queso” in great quantities, taking them frequently on our forays into the mountains, as they travel well. Toward the end of the trip I embraced the jamon y queso croissants for their buttery (they must have butter hidden away in the back of these bakeries!) flakey goodness.

What isn’t found in every bakery is donuts. Apparently El Chaltén hasn’t realized how essential they are to hard climbing in harsh environments. I only found one bakery that made donuts and they didn’t do it every day. I visited this bakery, Que Rika, each morning that I was in town and became friends with Jimena. It got to the point where I’d just walk in the door and she say “no donuts today” or “come back a las diez”. I tell her “guardalos cinco para mi, por favor.” I’m nearly fluent when it comes to ordering donuts. Priorities, you know.

Speaking of speaking…Spanish. I was a regular chatterbox on the trail, though my vocabulary was limited. I used a one-two punch of “Hola” and “Gracias”. My Holas became so authenticate and so authoritative that not only would the Red Sea of hikers part before me, but they frequently returned a complicated response that I couldn’t understand. I’d reply, “Ah, sí.”
Chango -- defender of the realm
I made friends in all the places I frequented. Rodrigo ran Cafe Nieve, which was right underneath our apartment and offered up the best pizza in town (not high praise), good omelettes, and great Argentinos (coffee with dulce de leche), along with a tremendous racket that starts early and goes until past midnight. Camilla was the checkout girl at the Supermercado. Federico and Fermin ran the Waflería.

There are a lot of dogs in town, but they don’t bother people, seem to be somewhat aware of cars, and don’t fight amongst themselves. Most don’t seem very interested in people, but none was more aloof than Chango — the house dog at Avenida. He was a good looking, small dog which appeared to be the offspring of a Chihuahua and an Akita. We love dogs. Dogs usually love us. Chango wouldn’t come near us for our entire stay. He didn’t bark at us after a day or two, but he patrolled his tiny fiefdom with a detached seriousness, not fraternizing with the temporary tenants.

Thanks to Dylan Cousins, Adrian Weaver, and Sonia Buckley for all the information they gave me before and during this trip. They were invaluable not only for beta, but for psych! Thanks to Chris Weidner for making me decide to take a climbing trip here. I posted to the group if it was reasonable for a guy like me to take a fairly short (3-weeks is short here) trip to climb in the Fitz Roy massif. My buddy Buzz told me not to go there to climb, as it was only for professionals with months to spend waiting for the weather. While he wasn’t wrong, Chris urged me to go and thought there was a reasonable chance that we’d climb something. He was right too and I’m so glad we went.

Special thanks to Rolando Garibotti for his website, his guidebook (I have both editions), and especially his advice and encouragement. He checked the weather for us constantly and told when to head into the mountains. He gave us beta on the lines to climb and the gear to take. He translated for me at the hospital. For the indisputable world’s expert on climbing here to spend so much time advising us was astounding. If everyone pestered him as much as I did, he wouldn’t have time to do anything but consult with climbers.


PeakAscents
Cerro Rosado3
Condores Cliff5
Park HQ Peaks3
Loma del Pliegue Tumbado1
Aguja Guillaumet1
Mojón Rojo1
Cerro Solo1
Loma de las Pizarras0.9
Fitz Roy0.2
Total16.1


DayActivityMileageVertical feetPitches
Thursday, Dec 19Leave home on 11 a.m. bus. Fly out of Denver at 1:35 p.m. Land in Atlanta at 6:15 p.m. EST (2h45m flight). Leave Atlanta at 9:05 p.m. (2h45m layover). Flagstaff before leaving town.3.611181
Friday, Dec 20Go to hospital00
Saturday, Dec 21Land in Buenos Aires 9:20 AM (10h15m flight). Leave Buenos Aires at 3:10 p.m. (6-hour layover) Arrive in Calafate 6:25 p.m. Get Bus at 8:15 p.m. arriving in El Chalten at 11:30 p.m.00
Sunday, Dec 22Rest and recovery from travel, buy fuel for stove, figure out internet, find trailheads, find sport climbing area, learn about town, register with the park6.441079
Monday, Dec 23Cerro Rosado and Climbed Slab route on Condores with Derek7.782903
Tuesday, Dec 24Lakes/Recon Loop with Derek18.132874
Wednesday, Dec 25Condores Loop, Park HQ Loop, and climbing at Condores with Adrian2.9811913
Thursday, Dec 26Climbed the Karston Route with Derek at Condores2.618305
Friday, Dec 27Park HQ Loop with Sheri and Derek4.571093
Saturday, Dec 28Loma del Pliegue Tumbado with Sheri13.353848
Sunday, Dec 29Condores Cliff Loop with Sheri, Hiking around town with Sheri and La Botella Route with Derek7.6118355
Monday, Dec 30Hike to Piedra Negra with Derek6.273865
Tuesday, Dec 31Abort off Brenner Route4.5832252
Wednesday, Jan 1Guillaumet via Amy Route and hike out with Derek10.340619
Thursday, Jan 2Sport climbing with Adrian and Sonia2.642333
Friday, Jan 3Cerro Rosado with Derek and Sheri4.211509
Saturday, Jan 4Mojón Rojo with Derek22.68629
Sunday, Jan 5Park HQ Loop with Sheri4.7902
Monday, Jan 6Cerro Solo with Derek18.647913
Tuesday, Jan 7El Chorrillo del Salto with Sheri5.79643
Wednesday, Jan 8Capri Lake with Sheri6.791509
Thursday, Jan 9Hiking/climbing to Paso Superior with Derek19.376446
Friday, Jan 10Hiking to Loma de las Pizarras 15.646316
Saturday, Jan 11Hiked up Cerro Rosado. Fly out of Calafate at 1:50 PM and arrive in Buenos Aires at 4:45 PM. Leave Buenos Aires at 9:15 PM (4.5-hour layover)4.251522
Sunday, Jan 12Arrive in Atlanta at 5:40 AM (10.5-hour flight) Leave Atlanta at 8:12 AM (2.5-hour layover) and arrive in Denver at 9:40 AM (3.5-hour flight). Jogged/walked home to get car.1.98135
Totals194.8463742