Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Poor Man's Speed



When I was climbing a lot in Yosemite back in the 80's and 90's only the super hardmen could link up Half Dome and El Cap in a single day. Heck, that's still the case today, only there are a few more super hardmen. And the only speed record that anyone, outside of a very select group, cared about was the Nose. So, what's an average climber to do? Just read about it in the magazines (back then) and the Internets (nowadays)?

Back then I devised a big link-up that would challenge me, but still be possible. I called it the Poor Man's Linkup and gave it the acronym PMLU, since the Nose-in-a-day (NIAD) had one. So, the Poor Man's version is just the more average climber's version of the elite speed games. When I first wrote Speed Climbing, it was because I wanted to read it. I wanted to know the secrets of how the best climbers went so fast. What surprised me was that those techniques could just as easily be applied to more average climbers and those climbers could play the game with a reasonable level of safety.

Around Boulder, besides the Flatiron scrambles, which are dominated by ultra-fit runner/scramblers, the only climbing speed record anyone knows or cares about is the Naked Edge. Being a tricky, pumpy, intimidating, scary 5.11, it is outside of the realm for most climbers who want to play the speed game. So, the Eldo Poor Man's version is the Yellow Spur. Why the Yellow Spur? Only because I like the route. So, more specifically, it's my Poor Man's version. It could be any route and that's up to the individual to pick something meaningful to themselves.

Now if the guys setting the mark on the Naked Edge went after the Yellow Spur record, they'd probably get that too, as they are super fit and great climbers, but really strong fingers isn't much of an advantage on the Yellow Spur. But it isn't so important to Poor Men to actually have the FKT (fastest known time), but to just play the game and keep track of their PRs. That's the case for me on the Yellow Spur.

I'd done some fast times on the Yellow Spur in the past, in particular with Hans Florine, just because I wanted to learn the speed game, but at my level. In the past couple of years my friend Danny Gilbert has become interested in it as well, so we've been working it -- just like the big boys do on the Naked Edge or the hardmen do on the Nose.

Now there isn't anyone who really cares about how fast we go on the Yellow Spur, besides ourselves. This isn't any fame, any money, or any adulation, so there are limits to the risks that we'll take. We do this for fun. Some would ask, "Why take the risk at all?" That's for each person to answer for themselves. Regular, pitched-out, belayed rock climbing has some risk to it as well. Why do that? Or, why not place more gear while regular rock climbing? Everyone does that risk assessment for themselves. There are lines we will not cross and that limits our speed, but that's fine too. We want to go as fast as we can while staying within the safety bounds we've set for ourselves.

So, what are those bounds? For us, it is a liberal use of Petzl Micro Traxions. These are progress capture devices (PCDs) and protect the leader from the second falling. If the leader falls, it should be very similar to a regular leader fall, provided the second is managing the slack in the rope. We could use these devices for the entire route, but we don't, mostly because we don't own enough, but also because we trust each other not to fall on 5.8 or easier climbing. There are only two 5.9 sections on the Yellow Spur, so why not just use two? We want the extra protection. As Hans Florine says, "I climb faster when I feel safe."

Still, to climb the entire route (6 or 7 pitches depending upon how you break it up) as a single pitch, you either need to carry a lot of gear or run things out quite a bit. We do a bit of both and the leader tries to stay ultra focused when runout a long way. A fall with a big runout would be very dangerous, but we only do this on easier terrain. And, lately, we've been using more gear. Mistakes can happen to anyone, so we're carrying a bigger rack and sacrificing a bit of speed for the extra safety. When Honnold and Caldwell smashed Gobright and Reynold's speed record on the Nose, they did it more safely, not less. Others may climb the Yellow Spur faster than us and if they do that by taking more risks, that's fine, but we won't respond with increasing our own risks.

We started doing this last year and, with me leading, our best was 1h15m. This year we did a number of laps with Danny in the lead, so that he could learn the route even better. On our first try, Danny linked the first five pitches and then the last two and we did 2h16m. Our next time up we explored the direct start. This start would take out two 90-degree turns on the route and make the first pitch shorter. Alas, the rated difficulty of 10b/c felt more like 5.11 to me and I didn't get solid on it during our working session. Alas, I'm an average climber and 5.11, or even apparently 10b/c, is very hard for me. We finished with Danny leading again to the bottom of the pin-ladder pitch and then one more pitch to get off.

Danny took a number of laps on the route with other partners, using our speed techniques. He did it with our friend Jon Oulton. They climbed it in 2h06m and then went back, climbed it as four pitches, working one section, and did it in 2h04m. Then Jon did it with another partner, Nodin, in 1h08m. We had some serious competition. Before that we were trying to break the FKTBM, which is the Fastest Known Time By Me, meaning that there could easily be a faster time on it, but I didn't know of it. The best time was found by Danny...in my speed climbing book! Hah. My memory gets worse every year. In that book, it listed a time of 0:58:10 for Josh Wharton and Kevin Cochran. The start/stop time for this route was just taken from the same location used for the Naked Edge course - the middle of the bridge over South Boulder Creek. So, this was our goal, only now we weren't sure it would still be the FKT if and when we ever broke it.


We decided that, as a team, we were faster with me leading, so we went back to that strategy. This was mainly because I was leading the route as a single pitch. Danny could have easily done this as well, with more practice. On our first try this year we did 1:08:21. Notice, we're tracking seconds now. Was it faster than Jon? We didn't know until later in the day, as we didn't know their seconds, but we were about 20 seconds faster they thought. Four days later, we tried again. We took five PCDs this time, though I screwed up and let one slide down the rope to go unused. We refined a couple of things on the climb, but the only real improvements we saw were on the approach, transition, and descent. We did 1h01m58s. "We're getting there," I thought.

On each of these attempts, as soon as Danny hit the summit of the route, he'd unrope and solo the scramble down to the saddle. I'd pull down the rope, coil it, change shoes and take off down the descent. This gave me a head start on Danny, as he had to finish the scramble into the notch and then change shoes. This allowed me to go a bit more carefully down the 4th class descent since the time doesn't stop until both parties are back at the middle of the bridge.

Doing a route a bunch of times is fun. It isn't adventure any more, true. It's more like performing a gymnastic routine. It's like redpointing a hard route, where you need to have it completely wired to avoid falling off. Here we needed it completely wired to climb it continuously with as little pausing as possible. In fact, that is really what most (not World Cup) speed climbing is about. It isn't that the climbers are moving that fast. They aren't. Even watching Honnold and Caldwell on the Nose, climbing it in less than two hours, they aren't moving that fast. With around 3000 of climbing, they are "only" moving at 25 feet per minute. World Cup climbing speed climbing goes at 540 feet per minute! Of course, they only climb for 5.5 seconds (world record for 15 meters). So, climbing a long trad route really isn't as much about climbing fast, as it is about climbing continuously. Strange, I know. When you really analyze it (and I have) most climbing is not moving at all. At all. You are stopped while racking up, flaking the rope, putting on your shoes, tying into the rope, chalking your hands, testing holds, placing protection, setting up a belay, pulling up the slack, belaying your partner, changing over the gear, sussing out the moves, backing down to rest, dealing with rope snags, relaxing on a ledge enjoying the view, etc. Turns out, that, if you cut out most of that stuff, you can do pretty fast.

One of the big time drains is looking for and placing protection, so we rehearse and memorize gear placements even more than climbing moves. We broke it down so that we could recite every single piece of protection placed and exactly where:

1st pitch: two long slings on fixed pins below roof, one long sling on the fixed piece above the roof.

2nd pitch: Micro on the fixed pin below the roof, 0.2 cam above the roof, draw on fixed pin.

3rd pitch: Micro 0.5 cam at the bottom of the pitch, draws on two fixed pins, #2 Camalot and Micro just below ledge.

4th pitch: long sling on fixed pin at base of corner (this pitch is 5.4 and blocky)

5th pitch: long sling on pin at start of roof traverse, draw on pin above roof, 0.2 cam before funky section.

6th pitch: draw on first two pins, two draws on pin ladder section, Micro on first bolt, long sling on pin in 5.8 leftwards traverse.

7th pitch: sling on fixed pin, 0.4 cam above

One thing to note is that while putting in a Micro protects the leader against the second falling, it isn't really a piece of protection for the leader falling, as it isn't designed to take a leader fall. It's a good idea to place a piece directly after the Micro (directly before is next best) because of this. I generally do this.

Alas, before we could muster the speed to break the record, Jon and Nodin did it. Their time of 57:02 on July 11th sent a bolt of energy through our ambitions for the FKT. It was going to be tougher. I knew we could faster, probably at least five minutes faster, which would give us a time of 56:58. "That will close," I thought.

In our last go, when we did 1:01:58, Danny had made a wrong turn on the approach, heading up towards the Roof Routes. I was close enough behind him that time to re-route him. It didn't make any difference in our overall speed, as he still caught and passed me on the approach. On our next try, in responding to Jon and Nodin's 57:02, he didn't make that mistake, but he missed the turn up to the west side of the Redgarden Wall. He was going so fast that he was out of sight of me and I didn't see the mistake and I headed up. Pretty soon I heard someone below. I looked down and thought, "Dang, someone else is starting this early and catching me? And this guy has an orange shirt just like Danny...Hey, that is Danny!" :-)

Again, it didn't matter as he caught and passed me. The biggest screw-up, by far, was mine. I had the Micros on the rope before we left the bridge and the roped tied into my harness. But the rope was coiled for a backpack style and I couldn't uncoil it at the base without untying from the rope! Doh! What an idiot I am. We wasted at least a couple of minutes fixing that snafu. I got to the base of the route in 10:11, but didn't start up it until 14:00, or thereabouts. I was a bit disappointed that my hard effort on the approach was completely wasted, but Danny immediately encouraged me. I don't remember what he said, but it something like, "It isn't over yet. We haven't failed yet."

The rest went very smooth, though some of my usual fumbling with clips. I was traversing into the notch at the top of the route at 34 minutes, so about 20 minutes for us to climb all seven (I count seven from the earliest guidebooks) pitches. This was much faster than any of our previous attempts. Danny was super fast below me and I could pretty much climb without a pause. A couple of times I needed more rope and let him know it because my main goal wasn't to get the FKT (on this attempt anyway), but to get the rope tight on Danny! If I couldn't do that, then I would be the weakest (slowest) link for the entire roundtrip. I don't mind being slower than Danny. Someone has to be slower. I just didn't want to be slower even when I was on easy ground and he was in the midst of more difficult climbing.

When I hit the top of the climb, I start down-climbing the ridge immediately, keeping the rope tight on Danny, as that is his belay. I don't even carry a belay device, so I don't stop down-climbing until he calls for slack. By then I'm on hiking terrain. I know that call means he's untying. I change shoes until I hear him call out that he's untied and then I pull the rope down immediately, coil it, and put it on my back. Then I'm off on the descent. On this effort, I went down as fast as I could until I hit the trail below the East Slabs descent. At that point, still having a gap on Danny, I can ease up and be more careful that I don't trip and fall.

Once I got below the big boulder, I could hear Jon below cheering for me. Then cheering for Danny. What a great guy. What a great example of positive competitiveness, which I really learned from Hans Florine. He wanted everyone to do that their best, be their best, and gave all all his tricks to his fiercest competitors. Why? Because he only wanted to be the best against the best. Being the best against a smaller field didn't interest him. While I'm not as pure as Hans, Jon has set a great example. I'm happy to be the best in a reduced field.

I got to the middle of the bridge and cheered on Danny with Jon. Danny hit the middle at 47:47. We had absolutely crushed the previous FKT, going more 14 minutes faster than our last effort. Jon seemed be as psyched for us as we were. Danny collapsed on the bridge, having maxed out on the descent. He was gasping for air as I was patted him on the back. Our goal for the last couple of years was to get the FKT and we'd finally done it, going much faster than we had thought possible, mostly because of Jon and Nodin pushing us.

We all know this is only until Stefan, Anton, Kyle, etc. take an interest, but I really think they shouldn't. This is beneath those superstars...but then it isn't as much of an accomplishment. It's really because I know I don't have the ability for any highly-contested FKT. But that's okay, too. We held it at least for one bright, shining moment.

Postscript: It was a very brief moment, as it turned out. Jon and Nodin retook the FKT with a time of 46:55 just two days later. This effort even included a fall by Jon on the pin ladder. The Micro Nodin placed above was solid, worked perfectly, and Jon only fell 3 or 4 feet. He got back on and continued, setting the record.

Danny and I were keen to respond, knowing that we had wasted at least two minutes last time. We met in Eldo the Tuesday after Jon's Friday FKT. It was overcast and very humid. We did our best approach and transition and I was climbing before 12 minutes had passed. We were 2.5 minutes ahead of our last time. All we needed to do was to continue at that pace. Alas, we did not. I screwed up with the first Micro and it jammed on me. I had to descend and fix it. We had some additional issues at the top, trying some new things that didn't work out. We knew we couldn't break the FKT at the summit, but continued down at a pretty quick pace anyway because I thought we could still break 50 minutes. We did: 48:51. It was our second fastest time, yet we were obviously disappointed. It was our first time going slower than before. It was mostly due to my screw-ups on lead, as I just wasn't flowing. I was also dripping in sweat due to the humidity because it wasn't that hot. I clipped an extra pin on the crux pitch because I feared I might slip off. Jon was there again to watch us and encourage us, which was super cool, and he got to see his FKT live for another day.

So, we went again the next morning... The FKT was firm enough now where only a completely smooth effort would break it. We had to be fast, obviously, but mostly we could have no mistakes. We refined our strategy a bit more and threw out what didn't work from last time.

Once again, across the bridge, running along the base, power hiking up the steep trail. Climbing up the wood steps, then up the scramble section, then up the metal ladder. Finally to the base of the route. I sit down, soaked with sweat and quickly change shoes, clip into one end of the rope and clip on my four Micros. I start climbing at 10:53.

Things go smoother on the first pitch this time. I don't screw-up the first Micro this time and float through the second and third pitches. I get to the traverse ledge at 19:30. I can't pull the rope tight on Danny until near the roof on the fifth pitch. Three slings and a small cam and I'm starting up the pin ladder. I hit summit at 30:22 and know we have a shot at the FKT. Down into the notch I go. I change shoes and Danny hits the summit and unties. I pull down the rope and put it on my back and I'm off. "Come on, Danny!" I yell.

The slabs go smoothly for me, but they always do. Getting the rope to the top of the route was all about me, but now it is all on Danny. I hope he's careful on the upper slab and know he will be. Lower down I can hear him behind me, a good sign. I wait at the start of the bridge to run it in together and soon he joins me. We dashed to the middle and stop the watch: 42:48. That'll do, pig. That'll do.


Monday, July 09, 2018

Finally Never Summer Mountains



With my primary adventure partner (Derek) living in California this year as a rocket scientist (SpaceX), I decided it was a good time to branch out and do new things, things on my todo list. With Derek I was mostly trying to expose him to the classic routes and mountains. Since it was all new to him, why not do the most famous things? He’d have been fine doing about any adventure in the mountains, of course, but nevertheless it was the slight extra bit of motivation I needed to do new things.

On the 4th of July I did a cool traverse in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I’d actually been over all the terrain before, but never this exact link and it had been ten years since I’d done the Kasparov Traverse. I hiked up to Pawnee Pass and then traversed over Shoshoni, to the Kasparov Traverse to Apache and then up Navajo. I finished by going over the Niwot Ridge, which had some more 3rd and 4th class terrain.

That adventure was solo and those can be fun, but great partners make for more fun adventures, so for this weekend I sent an email to Homie with four ideas for adventure on things I’d never done before. We settled on visiting the Never Summer Mountains in the western area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Climbing any peak there had been on my list for ten years. I kept not doing it because the drive required you to drive past the trailheads to so many other great mountains. Plus, anything there would be a pretty long outing. Perusing the guidebook I read about loose talus on every mountain. It was enough to keep putting it off. But the allure of something new is great. Real adventure has to have something uncertain about it. These mountains had been on Homie’s list as well, so there we went.
Hiking along the Grand Ditch
Homie picked me up at 3:30 a.m. and we drove Trail Ridge Road, past the Milner Pass, and down to the Colorado River Trailhead. The Colorado River at this point is a modest creek. It grows into one of the most important rivers in the western US. We were hiking at 5:40 a.m. up the Colorado River Trail for about half a mile before turning left onto the Red Mountain Trail. We hiked this another three miles to where we intersected the Grand Ditch. Isn’t this name used as a nickname for the Grand Canyon? What these two have in common is the name “Grand” and that water is involved, but it ends there. The Grand Ditch was built to direct run-off from the Never Summer Range to the eastern slope, primarily Fort Collins. It is an aqueduct of modest proportions with a flat dirt road running along it. On this day the water in the Ditch was about a foot deep, running north, and crystal clear.

We hiked north on the dirt road for 1.7 miles until we hit a bridge crossing the aqueduct. We crossed and headed up the ?? Gulch. We followed that until the trail ended in a valley below the peaks we wanted to climb. We were both carrying Katadyn soft water bottles with a built-in filter. Unfortunately, we both forgot to fill them when we were next to the creek. We were now away from a water source and we saw no chance for water en route to our first peak: Never Summer  Peak. Dang. We could hear water to our left, towards our planned last peak: Howard Peak. We made a command decision to do the traverse in the opposite direction.
Fun scrambling up the Lake of the Clouds
We headed across talus and up a steep slope. Our first destination was the waterfall we saw above us. Once we had our bottles filled, we continued up steep, solid scrambling to the Lake of the Clouds — the biggest lake in the Never Summer Mountains, and perched high in a bowl instead of down in the valley. It was a beautiful lake, with steep talus plunging straight into the lake from most of it shores. We navigated the steep, grassy slopes on the east side until we could start up the very steep slopes leading to the east ridge of Mt. Howard. Howard, 12,800 feet, was our highest summit on this day. It didn’t take us long to determine this range’s reputation for loose talus was well founded. Indeed, the rock hopping here is serious business, as so many boulders move, even ones that appear too big and too solid. We took great care working our way up it until we gained the ridge proper. We still had 600 or 700 hundred feet to climb along the loose, exposed (at times) ridge. We continued to exercise caution but, still, Homie dislodged a large rock and it went tumbling down the slope. What surprised us is that it didn’t go all the way down to the lake.
Homie at the Lake of the Clouds
We signed the summit register, installed by our friend Roger Linfield. Roger’s working on climbing all the 12ers in the state. I get tired just thinking about a project that big. After a quick bite and a drink, we traversed over the loose bump to our north and then down to the saddle between Howard and Cirrus. We climbed up alpine tundra and some minor talus to the summit of Cirrus. This was easy hiking and a nice break from the tedious climbing on the loose talus.

Next up was a craggy, exposed, loose-talus scramble across Hart Ridge. This had three or more “summits” on it and, of course, Homie had us tagging them all. This wasn’t a lot of extra work because the slope to our left was steep, loose talus and to our left was a vertical precipice. Staying on the ridge, though not to close to the edge, especially with all the loose rock, was the most efficient passage. Still, it was tiring.
The East Ridge of Howard Peak
We dropped down to 12,000 at the low point and started up our most technical mountain: Lead Mountain. All these peaks were between 12,400 and 12,800 feet. Lead was 12,500 feet, but it was guarded on the west side by steep scrambling and some loose blocks. The south ridge was much more exposed and was continuous third class with some fourth class. The south ridge, though, was by far the best rock we encountered and was actually great scrambling. It would have been even better if we were going up it. With dark clouds building, we didn’t stay long on the summit of Lead - just enough time to drink and eat, as I was fading a bit.
Steep scrambling on Howard Peak
Once down the beautiful ridge, we were at the saddle between Lead and Never Summer Peak. The dark clouds didn’t seem any closer and we felt there was time to climb the 500 vertical feet to bag our last summit. This went smoothly on the easiest terrain yet - mostly tundra. We paused even less on this summit. Homie signed the register, but I just rolled over the top and started down.

We descended talus to tundra and then steeply down through sparse trees to more talus and back to our trail.  Most rest of the hike out was uneventful and passed with great conversation. Then the hail started and we got a flash of lightning that we timed as just a mile away. But the hail stopped pretty quickly and we didn’t both to get out our rain shells. Then, just a quarter mile or so before we hit the Colorado River Trail, we passed a female ranger who was stopped, either to shed or don a layer of clothing. She was in great spirits and told us, “What a great day for a hike.” It wasn’t clear which direction she was headed. We moved on.
Loose talus on the traverse of Hart Ridge
Just before we got to the trail junction lightning struck so close to us that we estimated the distance to be a quarter mile away (less than a second between flash and thunder). The thunder was so loud that I practically jumped out of my shoes. I asked Homie, “Want to run the rest of the way?” He said, “It’s slightly uphill…” I said, “Well, we’ll do the best we can. I don’t want another strike like that near me.” We hit the Colorado River Trail less than a minute later and started trotting at the same time the rain came. The rain came harder and harder until it was absolutely pouring. If the trailhead wasn’t so close, we’d have obviously dug out our rain shells and maybe we should have. For in the five minutes it took to get to the trailhead, we were completely soaked. At the trailhead we found an official on a handheld radio. She told us that a ranger thinks she was hit by lightning. We knew who it was and related her location. Soon maybe rescuers filled the parking lot. We asked if they needed more manpower and they said they had it covered. The site of three rescuers hiking up the trail with full packs into that storm filled me with admiration for them and all rescue personnel.
Downpour at the parking lot.
We did four peaks, five named high points if you count Hart Ridge, in about 18 miles and 5000 vertical feet. It was great to finally experience this range.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mauna Kea: Sea to Summit



In the past few years I’ve developed an interest in the state highpoints. Yes, some of them are silly, at least as far as a climbing objective, but with state highpoints it is more about visiting new areas than difficult climbing objectives. It’s a different thing. But many lists, at least for me, are about visiting new areas. When I first starting doing the Colorado 14ers it was more about visiting different areas of the state and learning the ranges. The 14er list was just a manageable number to direct my wandering. Sure I could chosen different peaks in each range and sought more solitude, but lists save you that effort.

Jus like with the Colorado 14ers, I’m not in a great hurry to get all the state highpoints, but I do have a goal of getting at least one per year. Last year I failed and didn’t get any, so this year I was determined to make for that. Earlier this year, Mark, Derek and I linked up three highpoints that border Colorado. Two of these (Kansas and Nebraska) were drive-up highpoints. We didn’t hike at all. We could have started anywhere and made a hike of it, but didn’t. Mauna Kea is similar in that you can drive to the summit, but here I didn’t make that choice. The Nebraska and Kansas highpoints are not mountains, or even hills. Mauna Kea is a mountain.

Measured from its base, deep in the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth, rising over 33,000 vertical feet from its volcanic vent in the frigid, dark depths. If you dropped Denali in the ocean next to Mauna Kea, it would barely break the surface. Mount Everest would be 4000 feet short of Mauna Kea’s summit. For most mountains on earth, certainly all the 14ers, it is impractical to start a summit attempt at sea level. Despite the difficulty, Tim McCartney-Snape did Everest from the sea. That’s amazing. And it inspired me to do my “Poor Man’s®” version of it on Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level at 13,802 feet. As already stated, a road goes clear to the summit. This is the longest, hardest cycling climb on earth. The total gain is the greatest and the altitude and the grade make it absolutely brutal. It is more vertical gain than two Mt. Evans from Idaho Springs, with much steeper grades. It makes Alpe d’Huez (most famous climb in the Tour de France) look like a grocery run. The grades are so ridiculous that the shop were I rented my bike stated flat out: “You can’t ride to the summit on a road bike.” Which isn’t really true, as this account proves. This rider did on the same gearing that I was riding: 34-32. Originally, I was thinking of riding the whole thing, but this was my 25th anniversary trip and I decided to hike the 13-mile roundtrip Humuula (check this) trail to the summit with Sheri. This meant I’d get off the bike at 9200 feet.

I rented a BMC RoadMachine from Mountain Road Cycles in Waimea and picked it up the day before the big ride. The bikes 28cc ties made me think I was riding a mountain bike, but that appears to be the trend nowadays. To ride the gravel sections above the visitor center, you’d want even wider tires, and realistically you’d want a full-on mountain bike. My carbon bike was also outfitted with Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting and this was the primary reason that I rented this bike. I wanted to try this relatively new technology out. Conclusion: I want it. Yes, it is at least a $500 upgrade to my existing bike (provided I don’t have to replace my chain ring or rear cassette) and probably more like $1000, but it is sweet. Lately, I’ve been dropping my chain when I put considerable torque on my pedals while cross chained. Yes, better shifting and cable adjustments should eliminate this problem, but with electronic shifting it really can’t happen. The electronic shifting does the micro adjustment of the front derailleur depending upon which gear selected in the rear cassette. That’s so cool. The shifting is quick and precise at the very light touch of a button. No pulls of any cables required.

I did a shake-out ride of 30 miles, mostly downhill back to the hotel. The next morning I was up at 5 a.m. to dress and eat. My bike was waiting on our balcony, prepared with a couple of water bottles. I took it and my shoes down to the lobby via the elevator and then I walked, barefoot, to the Pacific Ocean. Standing ankle deep in the tiny surf at 5:32 a.m., I started my wrist unit. I walked back to the lobby, stopping to wash the sand off my feet, put on my shoes and socks, and hopped on the bike.

Sheri waited 90 minutes before following me in the car. Frankly, this ride would have been nearly impossible for me without her support. The only available water is in Waikoloa Village, less than an hour into the ride, and at the Visitor Center, which was about seven hours into the ride. Having Sheri to constantly supply me with food and water was a huge advantage and quite a psychological boost as well. It broke the climb up into small sections and even though I never stopped for long, just the two or three minutes at the car with Sheri was a nice little rest. I only needed to carry one bottle once Sheri caught up to me. I downed a tremendous amount of liquid and ate regularly, trying to avoid any bonking.

After riding south on Queen Kaahumanu Highway (highway 19) for six miles, I turned east and up on the Waikoloa Road. I rode this until I hit the Mamalahoa Highway (highway 190), where I turned south again and even went downhill. In fact, by the time I hit the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, I’d done any extra thousand feet of climbing. I soon turned left onto the Saddle Road (highway 280) and here the climbing became relentless and occasional quite steep.

It was 46 total miles for me to get from my hotel to the saddle. It took me six hours and I’d gained nearly 8000 vertical feet already. What did I have left? For Boulder readers, I now had to climb the equivalent of a steeper and longer Magnolia Road and then climb two Green Mountains on top of each other. And now I was entering a list mist with increasing winds. I grabbed my jacket for the next section, up the Mauna Kea Access Road, expecting to be cold and to suffer. Suffer I did, but the weather cleared and I have nearly perfect conditions the entire day, save for the ever present wind, which I think is impossible to avoid.

“Just six miles to go!” Sheri encouraged me. The first mile was pretty easy and I thought maybe this won’t be too bad. Wrong. It got so ridiculous that the only way I could keep moving upwards was by switchbacking across the full width of the road. This worked well, though, and, I was able to creep upwards. At the top of one particularly nasty section, where Sheri had parked, I sprawled on the hood of the car, hyperventilating.

I could not have rode this section continuously and I’ve never seen a road hill that has done that to me. I’ve ridden Haleakala four or five times, usually in around five hours (35 miles, 10,000 vertical feet), but I’ve done it in four hours. This took me seven hours. Mauna Kea is a much more difficult climb. And it isn’t nearly as pleasant. Frankly, there isn’t much to recommend on this ride, besides the difficulty. The road riding up to the saddle is quite busy, though there is a very wide shoulder and is very safe. The access road is much nicer and we encountered hardly any cars while on it. The lack of cars was essential for me to weave back and forth to lessen the angle. The road doesn’t switchback much so that the acuteness of the grade is difficult to perceive with your eyes, but painfully obvious to your legs and lungs.

The actual hardest climb in the world is apparently Mauna Kea from Hilo, on the east side of the island. I didn’t ride it from there for one reason: We were staying on the west side. I didn’t want to drive to the other side of the island and then bike back towards the middle. It might be something I’d consider if there ever is a next time. The Hilo side is shorter (just under 30 miles versus the 46 miles I rode) and therefore a bit steeper, but it doesn’t have the descents that the west side has, so it has less total climbing. The real drawback, though, seems to be that the east side seems to be shrouded in a nearly perpetual cloud. Riding up in that mist and the wind could be chilly.

Speaking of temperature, it wasn’t really an issue on this climb. Hawaii is tropical, of course, but it is paradise because it isn’t that hot nor that humid. At the coast the temperature in Hawaii seems to be nearly a constant 80 degrees - every day of the year. The temperature goes down as you climb and there is always the wind to cool you (and to fight against). If the weather is good, you can do the entire 14,000-foot climb in the same set of clothes, though I was prepared with warmer gloves, a hat, leggings, and a shell.

While Hawaii has a great variety of flora, depending up on the microclimate, this ride didn’t showcase much of it. The west side of the islands are the dry side and hence most of the tourist locations are there - to ensure perfect sunshine every day, all day. This lack of water meant that I climbed up through mostly grassland and short shrubs with hardly any trees encountered on the entire ride. Further up, on the hike, life gets harder to find. The top two thousand feet of Mauna Kea has no visible life. Nothing. No moss, no lichen, no grass, no insects, no birds. I assume this is because of the lack of water or the lack of moisture retention. This is in great contrast to every other non-ice-encrusted peak I’ve climbed. Volcanic rock breaks down into very fertile soil but apparently is takes thousands of years.

At the Visitor Center, I got off the bike and after some gyrations, we got the bike stuffed into the back seat of the rental car. I switched to trail running shoes and Sheri and I both carried small packs with forty ounces of Gatorade each, some food, hat, gloves, and our shells. A couple hundred meters up the road, we turned off onto the trail and it immediately became very steep and very loose. The first hour or so of this hike is quite challenging. This loose terrain would make for nice descending, but it was quite a chore to ascend.

I had hoped to knock out this 13-mile, 4600-foot hike in three hours up, two hours down. Early on I could see that wasn’t going to happen. We were on a four-hour ascent pace and would stick to it. It was all I could do to hike 1150 vertical feet (one quarter of the ascent) before taking a sit-down break. Sheri’s Achilles problem had her limping pretty severely and I worried that she was doing additional damage, but she soldiered on. My fatigue matched her injury and we moved at the same pace.

We saw a few people descending, but the trail was pretty deserted. We took another break at the halfway point and then again when the trail joins the paved road for the final mile to the summit. The road up from the Visitor Center has an extensive, loose, gravel section, but we only saw it from afar. The top part of the road returns to very nice pavement and this is what we walked up. The road leads directly to a domed observatory (there are many up there) on the very top of one of Mauna Kea’s summit peaklets. The true summit was maybe 100 meters away and probably less than ten meters higher, but a sign asked that hikers not go any further because of cultural significance to the native Hawaiians. I question how many of the natives really feel this way (like the Navahos with Ship Rock), but we respected the wishes of the sign and took our summit photos at the top of the road.

It was cold and windy up there and we didn’t linger that long, preferring to descend a bit before taking a break to eat and drink a bit more. The way down was long, but it was so much nicer to be working with gravity than against it. The hike took us seven hours for the roundtrip and biking back to the hotel was out of the question at this point. It was going to get dark and I had no lights for my bike. With the climbing on the way down, I figured it would take another 2.5 to 3 hours to reverse the 52 miles back to the hotel. I was a bit disappointed in not being able to finish back at the hotel, but I was pretty wasted as well. I’d been going for 13 hours and 20 minutes. Still, I had completed my main goal of going from the ocean to the summit of Mauna Loa - the second most prominent peak in the United States, after Denali.

Mauna Loa Photos
Mauna Loa Relive

Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa
Hawaii has some other cool challenges. There is a 50-mile trail that goes up Mauna Loa, the sister peak to Mauna Kea and only a tiny bit lower. Mauna Loa is an absolutely humungous mountain. I read once that the total volume of this peak, if taken from the base in the ocean, is greater than the entire Sierra Nevada range! There is a road that heads up Mauna Loa from the saddle. This road is incredible. It’s a one-lane road with perfect tarmac winding its way through black, fantastical lava rock. The surrounding terrain varies from such rough, sharp lava as to look nearly impassable on foot, to smooth, hard flows up higher. The elevation is printed on the road every 500 vertical feet. This road continues to over 11,000 feet, climbing 4000 feet above the saddle in 18 miles.

From the end of the road it is a 6.8-mile (not the posted six miles) hike to the summit. Some of this is over such smooth lava rock that is seems like you should step right through it, like it was still molten. At 3000 degrees, it’s nice that the rock is not molten… This mountain must have hundreds of square miles of pure lava rock, with, again, almost nothing growing in most of it. The top 5000 vertical feet of Mauna Loa has no visible life. This is the most unique geography I’ve ever seen. Is there another place on earth like this? Four billion years ago the entire surface of the earth was like this.

Mauna Loa is pretty young for such a huge mountain. It began erupting 700,000 years ago and got above sea level just 400,000 years ago. As previously mentioned, these peaks Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are about 33,000 feet tall from their base in the ocean. But the sign at the trailhead for Mauna Loa talks about how the crust has been crushed by the weight of the mountain and hence the real base of the mountain, as far as the lava produced from the vent, is 56,000 feet below the summit. Suffice to say this mountain is huge. It used to be considered the biggest volcano on earth, but now there is thought that the Tamu Massif might be a single volcano covers 100,000 square miles (Mauna Loa is 2000 square miles) - nearly the size of Olympus Mons on Mars - but it doesn't break the surface of the ocean.

Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 (as far back as eruptions are accurately dated) and the flows from these cover over 800 square kilometers. The most recent was in 1984 and covered 220 square kilometers. These flows are what you hike up. Some of these flows look like slick rock, though the friction is great for hiking. This must be the lava that cooled while slowly flowing down the slopes and is known as the “pahoehoe” lava. There are plenty of lava tubes that you hike over and around as well. None are huge, but some are many feet in diameter. The toughest lava to hike over is the extremely rough and sharp talus that appears to the lava that cooled while flying through the air. This is known as the “aa” lava. These formations are so twisted and identifying cairns is tougher since so much of the rock looks like cairns.

Sheri and I hiked Mauna Loa three days after doing Mauna Kea. Once we left the saddle, we didn’t see a single person until we got back to our car and there we just saw two other people who had just driven the road up and weren’t hiking. I’m confident we were the only two on this hiking trail all day. This hiked proved longer and more tiring than expected. Perhaps were were losing our acclimatization or maybe it is extended time above 13,000 feet.

We hiked pretty easily to 13,000 feet and then had 2.75 more miles of tedious lava talus to hike through to gain the very summit. We’d had enough by then. Curiously, the only life we saw on the mountain was only at the very summit. Here I saw a ladybug and many flies. Sheri’s yellow pack in particular was covered in about twenty of them. There was a summit register here and the last recorded ascent was five days earlier.

Another great challenge for ultra-runners would be the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which goes for 175 miles along the western coast of the Big Island. Of course there are countless resorts along this coast, but the entire coastline in Hawaii is public land so access is never barred to anyone hiking this trail. At our resort, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, part of this trail is on the golf course cart path and therefore must be open to the public.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Mt. Watkins: Summit and Approach Recon



The “Big Three” in Yosemite are El Capitan, Half Dome, and Watkins. One of the New Yorkers sharing Greg’s campsites with us asked me why Watkins is one of the “Big Three.” That’s a good question. I first answer that it was because it was a Grade VI climb — the longest grade in Yosemite. But then I glanced at a guidebook and found other routes that were Grade VI on other structures, even Higher Cathedral Rock. So, maybe it is the Big Three just because Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill linked all three in one day. They definitely are the biggest, cleanest faces in Yosemite.

I’d done El Capitan many times and Half Dome’s Northwest Face twice (and now Snake Dike five times), but I’d never done Mt. Watkins. The South Face Route (13a free climb, 5.9 C2+ F as an aid climb) was the main objective for this trip, but we decided we weren’t ready for it this year. We’d train more and come back next year for the South Face. But we still wanted Watkins and could learn the descent route. And if we hiked up the descent route, that would give us the Big Three on three consecutive days: El Cap, Half Dome and then Mt. Watkins. We decided that was just too neat to pass up.
The relentlessly steep Snow Creek Trail.
We followed our usual routine and were hiking at 7 a.m., first up the road to Mirror Lake and then on the Snow Creek Trail. This Trail climbs from the Valley, clear up to Tenaya Lake in Tuolumne Meadows, more than 5000 feet higher. It also is the way to hike clear to the summit of North Dome. We followed it for more than 3000 feet before breaking off of it and going cross-country, using dead-reckoning as our guide, directly to the summit of Mt. Watkins. This was trickier than you might think since we didn’t have a map, a GPS, and were in a deep forest. But we nailed it.

Fifteen or twenty minutes from where we left the trail we came across the Snow Creek Cabin. This was a shock as there are no trails that lead to this rather substantial structure that was even restored in 2006. We rested briefly just to look it over before continuing up steeper and steeper terrain over slippery and loose ground.
Snow Creek Cabin

The summit isn’t impressive, though it is only 500 feet lower than Half Dome. The sheer South Face ends 500 feet down steep terrain from the summit and the other three sides are more gentle, with the north side, our route of ascent, completely forested nearly to the summit. The trees stop just at the edge of the summit and and whole summit area is nearly devoid of any trees. It’s most granite slabs and decomposing granite slabs. The views are incredible, though, especially of Half Dome.
Great view of Half Dome from the Snow Creek Trail.
We rested, ate, had a long phone conversation with my Mom (It’s traditional for our family to call Nana from the summit), and explored. Just as I was about to expound to Derek about how completely alone we were on Watkins and what a contrast it was to Half Dome, we see an older couple (even older than me!) walking toward us from the ridge leading out to the South Face. I don’t think you’d normal see another soul out here on Watkins. It just isn’t that popular, especially when compared to the other two of the Big Three.
Exploring the summit of Watkins above the South Face.
The next day we set off to reconnoiter the approach to the South Face. We’d only gone as far as the log crossing on our first day here and decided it would help with a later attempt on the South Face, hopefully next year. We traced the familiar route to the log crossing of Snow Creek and then proceeded to screw up the approach in a major fashion. We followed faint sections of trodden ground and one-stone cairns until we were high on the slopes of whatever is the blob west of Watkins. Tired, hot, and a bit dejected, we sat down and took a break. A good cell connection led to a longer break and then some water, some listening to our Audible books, and a touch of napping prolonged things so much that I thought it was highly likely that we’d turn around.
That's an accurate GPS watch -- just 17 feet off. The software is the worst on the planet, but the hardware is nice.
But we were still game and after some additional procrastination, we got up. Our Internet searching revealed that we should have stayed closer to Tenaya Creak and so we reversed our path, somewhat, and then headed down to be alongside the creek. You’d think we would have had the information before starting in towards the climb. Hubris again. Twenty-five years ago, or so, I hiked in to nearly the same spot when I climbed the North Face of Quarter Dome, just across the Valley. Alas, experience didn’t pay off here.
Crossing Snow Creek once again.
We gained the creek and thrashed upwards and eastwards. It was a bit easier going, but it certainly wasn’t easy going. I tried too hard to stay on the banks of the creek and when I over did it, Derek went higher and found the “trail.” We followed this for a long ways, but it took constant vigilance to stay on it and frequently we’d explore different paths until evidence was found that we were on the trail. At one point, after I passed a rock, Derek noticed something small moving on that rock. Closer inspection revealed a small scorpion! I didn’t know Yosemite had any scorpions. Cool.
Scorpion in Yosemite!
Our description said to start fifth class climbing when the trail comes very close to Tenaya Creek, but that isn’t exactly right. First, the main wall is well north of the creek. It looks at least a quarter mile away and even the lower “approach” wall is a hundred yards north. The trees are so tall and so dense here that, while we could see the upper wall through tops of the trees, the approach wall was completely obscured. We didn’t find any cairns or path leading up to the wall, so we just chose the least dense foliage and bushwhacked north.
Trying to figure out where the route is, while taking an extended break/nap.
We couldn’t get right up against the wall due to manzanita guarding the base. Derek suggested moving to the right and we retreated a bit south and then east before coming back north and finding a discarded bivy bag or old sleeping bag, a few cairns, and then a pair of fixed lines hanging from the top of the first approach pitch.
This is what the typical cairn looks like on this faint approach.
On my back I carried our mini-haulbag stuffed with a 70-meter lead line, our 8mm 60-meter half rope, a full rack, both our harness and belay devices and GriGri’s and gloves and shoes and helmets. It was a rather heavy load. Derek carried all our food and water in our small Camelback pack. It was with great relief that I shucked off this weight at the base of the fixed lines. We sat down to eat something. We’d been going for six hours. Well, two hours were spent doing nothing, but still, it was time to eat.
This is NOT Mt. Watkins.
Despite carrying all this gear, we decided to just recon the lines as far as we could without harnesses or ropes or gear. It had taken us too long to get in here and we figured it was three hours to get out and our plan was to drive to Fresno that night. The guidebook says it is 1-3 more hours to ascend to the “start” of the route, though it sure felt like it started here. The range in time is due, presumably, to how much of that ground one is roped up and how much weight you’re carrying and if you are hauling or not.
This is Mt. Watkins!
Derek scampered a hundred feet up the 5.4 face using the fixed line for the top section before I called it off. It was too risky to be hand-over-hand climbing up these thin climbing ropes with no protection in case of a fall. And falling from here was likely fatal. It wasn’t worth the risk and we turned around. Back at the base, we shouldered our loads and started out.
Gigantic pine cones! The US Army probably did some nuclear testing back here in the 50's...
Surprisingly, it took only 70 minutes to get back to the log crossing. We were both shocked, expecting at least two hours for that section. And Derek built numerous cairns on the way back. It graphically showed us the advantage of finding and staying on the right path. Granted we were going downhill here, but this was greatly encouraging for when we return.
I hope this isn't poison ivy...I'll know in a day or two.
The rest of the hike went easily, as we were soon on an established trails and then paved roads. Bumper-to-bumper, weekend, Valley traffic greeted us and it took us an hour to get out of the Valley, though that included a short stop at the store for ice cream.

It had been a great trip. Not as productive as I had hoped, but that isn’t uncommon for me. It’s easy to be ambitious when sitting at home and looking at guidebooks. The giant walls of Yosemite look a lot different when you are standing at the base of them… But we’ll be back.

Derek descending the first set of fixed lines.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Snake Dike on Half Dome

Taking some liberties with the camera angle on Snake Dike.

While we didn’t complete the link-up of El Cap to Half Dome yesterday, we decided to finish it off today, with a lap on the ultra-classic Snake Dike. Our routine each morning is the one we’ve adopted ever since we started adventuring together. I get up at least thirty minutes before Derek and handle getting everything ready. Then I tell Derek to get up. Derek does the bulk of the work the night before. He fills all the water bottles, stows all the food, etc. So, it’s a nice division of labor and works to our strengths: I’m better in the morning and he’s better at night.

The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I snoozed it once before getting up. We had to pack up the site, as we were moving camping sites again. We were hiking at 6 a.m. Derek carried the pack with our light harnesses, four cams, seven slings, food, and four 20-ounce bottles of water. I carried our 60-meter 7.8mm rope. Our other small pack’s zipper failed completely on our El Cap descent, so we only had the one light pack.
The impressive Nevada Falls
We hiked at a steady pace and passed by many hikers headed for Half Dome. Fifteen minutes below Nevada Falls, we caught and passed four guys, all about my age, and moving along pretty well, especially their leader. They were headed for Half Dome, of course, and we’d pass them again, on our way down in Little Yosemite Valley. When we pulled up next to them, I asked them if they were the same guys we’d passed earlier. One guy looked us over for a bit and then said, “Yup. I remember telling my buddies, ‘I bet they are from Colorado.’” I just looked at him for a beat, thinking if we had even talked to these guys, when he asked, “Where are you from?” Cool. Colorado has a rep because of people like Jason Wells and Stefan Griebel and Layton Kor, who come out to the Valley and crush things. But these guys didn’t know climbing at all. When we told them we did a rock climb on the opposite side as Half Dome, one guy asked, “So, do you rappel up it?” I wish. He pegged us as Coloradans only because we seemed to be handling the 6000-foot altitude well. 6000 feet! It’s true that people from Colorado don’t even consider that an altitude. There isn’t a lot of Colorado below 6000 feet.

Derek ascending the first pitch, above the roof.
Fours years ago, when Derek was 16, we did the Dean Potter approach to Snake Dike and it was so horrible and so stressful for Derek that he didn’t even want to do the climb. I insisted, we did it, and he had a great time on the climb. This time we didn’t take that approach, but the standard one that branches off the Half Dome Trail in Little Yosemite Valley, above Nevada Falls. I’d done it a couple of times but not for at least 25 years. I was just about to double back, when we spotted a climber’s trail branching off and some cairns.
Derek arriving at the second belay.
We followed the climbing trail clear to the base of the route. Before the ledge traverse to the left, just below the South Face of Half Dome, we encountered massive, fresh rockfall. Manzanita branches were cleaved off cleanly and anyone that has dealt with that plant knows this takes the equivalent force of ten-kiloton nuclear device. Derek had been pounding out the trail to that point, but he didn’t like that terrain and slowed, picking his way carefully over the unstable terrain.

Once we got on the climber’s trail we saw only two people — a couple with overnight gear coming out. The next two people we saw were when I was, literally, thirty seconds from the base of the route. They were coming in from the north, having probably hiked by the start of the route, which is apparently common. If it wasn’t for that mistake, we’d have been second in line. I’m sure they would have let us pass, though. They were a nice couple. The guy was from the Bay Area and the woman was from New York. He told her, “I guess we have a little time to hang out.” I assured them that we’d be fast.
Traversing to the correct dike on our variation fourth pitch.
The approach had taken us 2h45m and we geared in less than two minutes. We were doing the entire day in our approach shoes, we just needed to pull on our harness and flake the rope. I led up to the roof, put in a piece, downclimbed twenty-five feet to easier ground and then friction-climbed across the face to the left side of the roof and then ran up the easy crack/ramp thing to the first belay. I did the pitch in just a few minutes and we were out of their way before they had shoes or a harness on. We were on the fourth pitch by the time they had both left the ground.

When Derek arrived at the belay I assured him that we had no need to rush and I did that pitch fast just to clear the route for them. Derek agreed that there wasn’t a reason to go fast, except that it was fun to climb fast and efficiently. Where do kids get ideas like that…?
Incredibly fun climbing on the Snake Dike
I zipped up the second pitch but on the third pitch I followed a bolt up and slightly right before finding another one back left and high up there. I think I normally do this traverse to the dike on the left lower. Anyway, I traverse over to the dike on exciting friction, then easily up the dike for a bit and then back right to the two-bolt anchor at the base of the dike on the right. This is a strange place for the belay, since the proper dike to climb is the one on the left. But that’s so unintuitive, despite thinking that was the right dike, that I headed up the dike directly above the belay. I got up about eighty feet and put in a very marginal .75 Camalot. I then did spot a bolt, way below me on the other dike. Not wanting to reverse the eighty feet, I climbed twenty feet higher to where the dikes were closer together, hoping to make the traverse there, but I found the extra slick golden granite there and couldn’t get in any protection in the seam above my last placement. So, I climbed back down to my 0.75 and then another fifteen feet lower and made a delicate traverse over to the other flake and the 2-bolt anchor. When Derek cleaned my only piece, he did not approve, thinking it wouldn’t have held body weight, let alone a fall. When he arrived at the belay he asked me, “Now, what have we learned?” Hey, who’s the father here? I answered, “Go with your gut instinct?” He said, “No! Down climb!” I can’t be retreating at the first sign of adversity. Plus, that would admit that I had made a wrong route-finding decision. Isn’t it better to risk a 150-foot skin-grating slide?
What a gorgeous place to climb.
On the fifth pitch I headed up the dike for one hundred feet, finding no bolts enroute to the two-bolt anchor, and stopped to belay. On the sixth pitch I led out 250+ feet on our 200-foot lead line (you do the math) and belayed. We did one more long, easy pitch to make sure it was safe to unrope. Then we did the long, calf-burning slab walk to the summit, arriving there at 11:30 a.m.
Calf-burning slab walking to the summit.
We hung out on the summit for forty minutes, eating all the food we brought, which is rare for us. We downed two of our four bottles, too. We still had an 8-mile, 5000-foot, knee-jarring descent, but it went smoothly and we arrived back at the car in just under nine hours.

On the summit.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

East Buttress of El Cap



Many years ago, apparently back when I was fitter and a better climber, with my buddy John Black, we climbed the East Buttress of El Capitan (13 pitches, 10b) and then went and climbed Snake Dike (7 pitches, 5.7) on Half Dome. When I told my friend Hans about this, he said it was the first time both El Cap and Half Dome had been freed in a day. At least to his knowledge. So, it might have been done countless times. It certainly could have been done by countless climbers. When people say someone “free climbed El Cap and Half Dome in a day”, what they really mean is someone “free climbed Free Rider (30+ pitches, 12d) and the Regular Northwest Face (24 pitches, 12c). So, John and I dubbed our outing the Poor-Man’s Link-up (PMLU).

It used to be that Nose-in-a-Day (NIAD) was the absolute mark of a hardman climber. At least until I did it and then the Climbing Council got together and decreed that to be a real hardman you have to link El Cap to Half Dome in a day, though not free mind you. We’ll get back to free in a second. The first people to do this link-up were Valley legends John Bachar and Peter Croft, and they set speed records on both routes, not surprisingly. It’s now been done many times. Though it has retained its status, the ultimate link-up in the Valley is the Triple of Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Cap. This has only been done three times. First by Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill. Then the ante was raised monstrously when Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell free climbed all three, climbing Free Rider instead of the Nose (14a). Then then it was raised yet again when Alex Honnold soloed all three, via the Nose, since he didn’t climb them entirely free.

So, back to Half Dome and El Cap all free. Obviously Honnold and Caldwell did it. Dean Potter was first to do it. And I think that’s it. Except, of course, for me. So, to sum up: Potter, Caldwell, Honnold, Wright. That’s a nice grouping. Known to many climbers throughout my entire household.

So, back to me. And Derek. We were thinking of repeating the PMLU. Turns out, and I should have realized this, but just thinking about it isn’t enough. We set the alarm for 5, but then snoozed it a couple of times. We weren’t packed and ready and did that at El Cap Meadow. We saw Caldwell’s van there. I walked back to it to see if they were still there (they weren’t) and just caught a base jumper going off El Cap. Actually, I didn’t see him until the chute opened. His friends were cheering and then jumped in a car to go pick him up. He did not land in El Cap Meadow, but further east, on a beach alongside the Merced River.

We hiked into El Cap and paused to watch Caldwell and Honnold, who were moving up the Stovelegs, having already passed two parties. Just two days ago they climbed the Nose in 2:01:50. Today? 1:58:07. That’ll do.I predict it will stand for ten years. Unless they break it themselves. It’s so significant that I think it will discourage others. This is probably a good thing, since it is significantly dangerous.
Approaching the East Buttress along the base of El Capitan
 It was a lonely walk up along the base of El Cap. We saw a party of three still waking up at the base of the New Dawn and that was it. Until we got to the base of our route and met Nathaniel (Ph.d candidate in BioEngineering at MIT) and Kyle (also MIT grad, I think, now assistant professor at some small college near Boston…Harvard? Just kidding). Before we left the ground another twosome showed up — two people of Indian descent I think (rare in the climbing world, at least in my limited experience). The woman, Neha, seemed to be the leader. Go Girl Power! Oops, that’s not PC. Go Woman Warrior! It was her first time climbing in Yosemite, but she’s probably an international crusher. Speaking of ethnicity, and it probably comes as no shock given they are from MIT, but Nathanial and Kyle were both Asian. I don’t think whites are allowed in any more. My son Danny didn’t get in and he’s probably smarter than half the faculty. Definitely smarter than anyone working in admissions at MIT. My brother, an MIT grad, pointed out that it’s highly unlikely that anyone in admissions actually went to MIT themselves.

Well, that intro probably cut down significantly on my readership… Where was I? Oh yes, waiting in line. Nathaniel led the first pitch and that team would swing leads the entire way. I gave Kyle some space before starting up the first pitch after him. This pitch is just classic Yosemite climbing. It starts with a 5.6 tight chimney section and then some easy climbing leads into the crux chimney. This is pretty neat climbing. It looks intimidating as the chimney is pretty tight, but holds appear just as you need them. Further up it gets wider and some stemming helps matters, but you’re deep in this maw for about a hundred feet. The crux is at the very top and is awkward hand jamming that gets tighter and tighter and it’s over a bulge, so very difficult to use your feet. I did this section with both Nathanial and Kyle giving me encouragement and pointing out the finishing jug at the back of the pizza-pan-sized ledge.
Derek nearing the top of the first pitch
It was crowded on the ledge, but these guys were cool about it. I tried to plan my arrival after Kyle had left on the next pitch, but I was close below him and he was afraid he’d fall on me, so he waited for me to get on the ledge. Kyle then led off and I put Derek on belay. Derek did great on this pitch, at least until he got to the crux. While Kyle and Nathanial were both wearing packs, only Derek carried a pack for us. They were carrying a second rope for the rappels. Derek was carrying the Escaper and some food and 60 ounces of water. The pack wasn’t that heavy, but it was too bulky for the chimney and Derek clipped it into his harness on such a short sling that it interfered with his lower legs, making the climbing doubly awkward. I offered to take him on the rope and haul up the pack, but he wouldn’t have it. He struggled for quite awhile. I was impressed with this preservation, but was a bit concerned he wasn’t have any fun.

Derek had to wait down in the chimney for Kyle to finish leading the next pitch. This team had already held us up over an hour and I was concerned about our link-up chances if this continued. Talking with Nathanial, I mentioned that we were hoping to link Snake Dike to this climb. He said he knew there were some variation above and we could take one of those and pass them if we wanted. He then asked, “Are you guys local?” I responded that we were from Colorado and he said, “That was my second guess.” We’d share belays with these guys on the way up, but they didn’t slow us down any further. They were quite good climbers; at least my equal.

Derek got on the ledge and we re-racked. Having watched both Kyle and Nathanial style the crux moves at the start of the second pitch, I was hoping to follow suit. I stepped out onto tiny edges on the the small, slick face. I reached right and got my fingers in a pin scar. I grabbed the left edge of the face, an arete with my left hand and stepped up higher to an even more precarious edge. I was stuck, though. I couldn’t let go with either hand. I retreated back to the ledge. I tried once again without success before I changed tactics. I put both hands on the right, into different pin scars and backstepped by left foot. I could then reach up with my left hand and grasped the rounded top of the face. I matched and stood up on tiny edges. I reached my left hand up into a pin scar in a higher crack on the left. It was a bad hold though and I started cruxing a bit. I tried to step high onto the rounded hold my right hand was still on, but feared I’d fall off. I put my foot back down and reconsidered. I was getting pumped and needed to do something. I matched hands again on the rounded hold and reached to my right, around a blind corner. I found a good hold there and was able to step up and place some bomber gear. I had Derek a bit concerned here. Me too. The rest of the pitch is rated 5.9 and is quite awkward. A flaring, pin-scarred crack lies in the back of a slot that is about a foot wide. The saving grace is that the angle is more gentle here and I could smear my feet and barely get marginal jams and fingers in the pin scars.
Climbing the airy and runout third pitch
I bypassed the infamous “ant tree”, which was once again (perpetually?) crawling with ants. It made me question the longevity of an ant colony. I first climbed this route more than 25 years ago and it hasn’t changed. Do the ants just eat the leaves of this one tree? I wonder why they haven’t branched out and colonized some of the trees on the ledge thirty feet higher, where I ended up belaying Derek.

Derek rushed the opening moves, thinking that the rounded hold that I had used for so long was a good hold. It’s not. He dyno-ed for it and found out, taking a fall back down level to the ledge. He got the moves on his second try, but hated the upper 5.9 section, finding it frustratingly awkward. I was disappointed that Derek wasn’t enjoying the climbing, but confident that it would get better, as the climbing above was less awkward and had much better position with huge exposure.

I led up the photogenic 5.6 face pitch, finding it more runout than I remembered, but the climbing is solid and wasn’t stressful. I then did a long 5.7 pitch up to a couple of bolts, linking a low-angle 4th-class pitch into the start of the two-pitch buttress. The fifth pitch is 5.8 and is mostly easier but has a neat roof/bulge at the top that had my attention. Derek followed all of these easily and quickly and we caught Kyle and Nathanial again. We took a break on the small ledge there to eat, drink, and watch Kyle follow the crux of the upper half of the route.
Heading up the fifth pitch
The East Buttress breaks down into two halves at this ledge. The two hard pitches in the first half are the first two pitches. The same is true of the second half. There are two 5.9 pitches here. One is a burly 5.9 crack pitch that traverse nearly as much as it goes up. The jams vary from solid hands to off-fingers with some flares as well. It’s tricky, but pretty short at 65 feet. Nathanial had linked this pitch with the next one, also 5.9. The second 5.9 pitch has two options: offwidth straight up or tricky face climbing out to the left and then back to the right. With nothing bigger than a #3 Camalot, I opted for the face climbing out to the left.

Where exactly to traverse to the left is not obvious. I found some tiny crimps and some smeary footholds, placed a #3 Camelot in the crack and committed to the moves out left. I moved around a tiny corner and blindly felt around for good holds. Finding them, I stepped up and, with delicate balance, was just able to reach all the way back to the right and place my second #3 Camalot. I then continued upwards to two fixed pins and above that, back into the crack above the offwidth section. The offwidth section looks burly, awkward (because it leans left a bit) and slick. I’ve never climbed it despite four trips up this route. I probably need to return with a couple of bigger cams and give it a try. Derek loved this pitch and styled it. He climbed directly to my second #3 Camelot, jamming the wider crack, until a face hold allowed him to move left.
The traversing, pumpy sixth pitch
Kyle had gotten off route above us, so we didn’t share any more belays. He missed the traverse to the classic white pillar where Timmy O’Neill is climbing on the cover of the Yosemite Free Climbs guidebook. I messed up a bit with my belay here, and climbed a bit too far towards the pillar. The topo had shown an alternate belay along this route, but, if so, it is a build-your-own belay, without a ledge and massive exposure. I built my own belay a bit early at a terrible stance, enough for only one person. I put in four cams to secure the belay. They were solid, but it was an exposed, scary belay. Or at least I thought until Derek got there. He wasn’t stressed at all. He inspected the anchor, thought all pieces were bomber and put it out of his mind.

The next pitch is considered the psychological crux of the route, as the route finding is a bit difficult and the climbing is very runout, 5.8 climbing, albeit not very sustained. Every ten or twenty feet I’d find very good footholds so that I could stand there indefinitely. I needed the mental rest and to plot my route up the wall, which isn’t obvious and probably has many viable options. But it might have had dead ends as well. And I did not want to get into a situation where I was down climbing tricky 5.8 thirty or more feet out from gear with Derek out of sight at a hanging, gear belay.
Leading up the eighth pitch
The pitched started by climbing the left side of this white pillar and then I had to down climb the other side in order to make a traverse across a feature-less section of the wall. I was very attentive to the rope when Derek followed this pitch, waiting for the rope to come tight while he downclimbed this section and checking every couple of seconds whether I needed to let out more rope or start pulling it in again.

I found my way up to a huge ledge after 150 feet. There was supposed to be two pins here, but extensive search didn’t reveal them. The only piece I had was a fixed #4 cam in a wide crack fifteen feet above my ledge, but I wasn’t worried. My feet started to hurt me at the last belay and I immediately took off my climbing shoes before putting Derek on belay. He did the same when he arrived. Derek followed fine, but remarked it was “thoughtful” climbing.
Looking down from the belay at the top of the eight pitch.
I ran the next two pitches (5.7 and 5.6) together and stretched out all 70 meters of our rope before belaying on the low-angled slab at the top of the route. Kyle and Nathaniel were up there coiling ropes and snacking. Derek soon joined us and we packed up quickly. Nathaniel took a photo of us and we led them down the familiar East Ledges descent to the top of the fixed lines.

I tried to rappel on the first fixed line, but it was so fat I couldn’t get it into my Petzl Reverso. We didn’t bring our GriGri’s on this route to save weight, so we used our rope on this first rappel, which was less than 35 meters (the furtherest we could go and retrieve our rope without using the Escaper). The next rappel looked really long so Derek went down on a single line. He ended up stopping at a hidden (from above) anchor. With the guys above us, at Derek’s suggestion to avoid the use of the Escaper, I asked them to drop our rope for us. So, I went down the full length bypassing Derek’s station. From Derek’s station was another fixed rope and I confirmed there were no knots in it, so Derek rappelled down that fixed line and joined me. Derek did another 70-meter rappel on our rope and confirmed one of the fixed lines was free of knots, so I could rappel down that line and bring down our rope again. We did one more rappel on a fat fixed line where I got to show Derek how to rappel with biners, since our devices didn’t work on the rope.
Heading up the runout, ninth pitch.
We then hiked out on the trail, past the Manure Pile Buttress, and down to the parking lot. We just missed the shuttle, so walked the mile back to El Cap Meadows. Derek had now climbed El Cap twice. Once on the far west side and now on the far east side. I know he wants to go up that middle route… It’s probably in our near future.

At the top of the East Buttress with Half Dome in the background.