Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Schilthorn and Murren Klettersteig

Eiger  - north face (in shade) and west flank. We descended the skyline, clear to the far right

Today we took the train over to Lauterbrunnen and hiked 7000+ feet up to the summit of the Schilthorn (2970 meters) - to the Piz Gloria, which is a rotating restaurant on the very summit and, in fact, sit above the summit. This is where they filmed a lot of the James Bond movie titled "In Her Majesty's Secret Service." This was the only movie starring George Lazenby, an Aussie, and he made a fatal career mistake in not signing a five-movie deal to stay the new James Bond (after Sean Connery). He didn't think the series had any legs... The Piz Gloria has a Bond museum/exhibit up there. The movie saved the cable car project being built to the summit, as funds had run out. The town of Murren (and maybe Lauterbrunnen) was building this to prevent the dying of their towns as everyone was moving to the cities. This was supposed to bring in skiing tourists and provide local jobs. It worked.

We hiked up the usual incredibly steep Swiss trails, first to Grutshalp, where there is a train that runs from there to Murren...and no where else. There is no rail line leading up here. How they got the train up there, I do not know. We continued above Murren, not going to the down on the way up, to the Schilthorn Hut and then on to the summit, where we spent nearly two hours being tourons. On the way up, we were following the markings for a half marathon that ran from Lauterbrunnen to the summit. Most of our route followed this race course, but we did the 7000 vertical feet in just 13 kilometers, which makes it much, much steeper than the Pikes Peak Ascent. Just before the summit we saw a couple of ibex, with huge horns.
Piz Gloria on the summit of the Schilthorn
We had a 40% discount card for the cable card and I was excited to save my knees getting a ride down, but the card was only good for the roundtrip! Dang... What was the price just to ride down to Murren (1635 meters), which is perched above a 2000-foot limestone wall high above Lauterbrunnen? 47 CHF! That's about $60 with the horrible exchange rate you get here. We couldn't stomach that and walked down. On the way down a couple of interesting things happened. First, at 2300 meters, I saw a black salamander. I've never seen a salamander that high on a mountain before.
The other thing? I slipped in a fresh cow pie and got cow shit all over my shoes and socks. I tried washing some of it off in a stream, but it was with me the rest of the day. I threw the socks away.

In Murren we were getting worried about missing the last train back to Grindelwald, but after confirming we had until at least 9 p.m. we decided to head down the Murren to Gimmelwald klettersteig. This via ferrata is 2.2 kilometers long and supposedly takes three hours, so we were going to have to hustle. Oh, and yes, that's right, down is the way this via ferrata goes. We found the start, just below the clay tennis court - a tunnel that leads to the edge of the cliff. The sign at the start said that is klettersteig was rated F3. We had no idea what that meant, but figured we could handle any via ferrata. We handled this one, but, as it turns out, there are ones we probably couldn't handle. On the other side of the tunnel starts the steel cable that will continue until the very end, even on easy, though exposed terrain.

We headed down mostly easy terrain and just before the most exposed part, there was a wooden platform and a guy standing there in a wingsuit with a parachute on this back and a Hero Cam on his helmet. Homie moved by, but I stepped up onto the platform, holding onto a tree for security. I asked the guy if it was okay if I stood there to watch him jump and he said I was fine. In a moment, he jumped. Now wingsuit or no wingsuit, the first 500 feet or more, you drop like a stone and he sure did, but then he started flying and fly clear to the other side of the valley before popping his chute. This proved how steep the terrain was below. Soon, we'd be hanging out over 2000 feet of overhanging air! That is some serious exposure, equivalent to a via ferrata along the Thank God Lege on Half Dome. Homie wasn't sure he wanted to continue, but he did. I thought the exposure was exhilarating. When one of the iron steps was a bit loose it did cause some sphincter tightening...

We later traversed more steep ground, descending overhanging ladders, did two Burma bridges, and finished with an 80-meter Nepal bridge across a 1500-foot drop! This last bridge was quite wobbly and took some time to traverse. This ended right at the cable car from Gimmelwald down to Stechelberg, down in the valley. We got to ride this for free and then paid 4 CHF to ride the bus back to the Lauterbrunnen train station. We didn't get back to our hostel until 9:30 p.m., having to walk down the hill from Grindelwald as the cog train had stopped running and so had the buses.
This bridge is 80 meters across and the drop to the valley is more than 1500 feet - dead vertical!
This got me interested in via ferrata ratings. I did a simple google search and found this video of an "extreme" via ferrata where it is recommended that you are a solid 10c climber or you better have a top rope.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Eiger Klettersteig

Today Homie and I took a "rest day", but hiking 16 miles and doing 6000 vertical feet. We left from the hostel and hiked all the way up to the Eiger Klettersteig, which goes up the north face of the Eiger! It does... just the far, far, far right side, where the face isn't very high, probably about 400-500 feet. This was another really easy klettersteig with ladders in place wherever the climbing was steep. To get there we had to hike up 5000 feet all along the breadth of the north face. Right where we cut off this trail to head to the klettersteig, there is this sign that shows you all the parts of the 1938 route up the face:

Once atop the klettersteig, we immediately intersected the trail descending the West Flank of the Eiger. Looking up the West Flank, I scanned for an easy route. At this point I was only 1300 meters from the summit...

We continued up to the summit of the Rotstock, which is just a bunch on ridge dividing the north face and the west flank.

We hiked down to Kleine Scheidigg and balked at the ridiculous price (28 SF) for the train down to Grindelwald, so we hiked down, stopping halfway down to balk at the ridiculous price for the cable car down from Holenstein (16 SF).

Watching the beautiful red trains going into and coming out of the Eiger, I was amazed at how they are so quiet and smooth. The trains are electric, of course, as it seems are all Swiss trains. That got me thinking about where the Swiss get their electricity. I wondered if they got a lot of it via hydro, given all the water we've seen stream down off these huge, high mountains, and it turns out they do. About 60% of their electric power is generated via hydro. Nearly all the rest, 37%, is generated via nuclear plants. Only 1.3% of their electric power is generated with fossil fuels. They are a very "green" country, yet with no wind or solar. They are also a small country, with less people (8 million) than are in New York City, and are very blessed with beneficial geography.

These same mountains have prompted them to become master tunnelers. You'd think they were an entire nation of dwarfs, digging under the mountains for gold, like Gimli. Apparently their prowess in stonework has not been extended to wood work:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Schreckhorn Southwest Ridge

Super fun glissade on the way down from the Schreckhorn

I had driven this trip to get the Eiger. Once satisfied, I offered Homie the choice of the next objective and he chose "Terror Mountain", aka the Schreckhorn, which is one of the 4000-meter peaks of the Alps. This list is similar to Colorado's 14ers and there seems to be similar debate about which summits should be include. This site shows the various lists and the peak difficulty. It seems that the most generous number is 84. As a general rule these peaks are much more difficult than Colorado 14ers. Most, if not every, peaks require a rope (by a typical climbing party) even by the easiest route and almost always require some sort of glacier travel with its corresponding crevasse danger. It is this crevasse danger that makes soloing such peaks a dangerous affair. Even during Kilian Jornet and Mathéo Jacquemond's recent speed record on Mt. Blanc (the Alps highest peak at 4810 meters or 15,781 feet) they used a rope to guard against a potentially fatal drop into a hidden crevasse. The Alps are dangerous mountains. The average number of climbers killed each year in the US is 15, but in 2008 58 climbers were killed on just one massif (Mont Blanc) in the Alps. That is certainly partially due to the greater number of climbers, but also to the much greater objective danger here.

We rode the bus to the Hotel Wetterhorn stop - the highest point we could go for free and the highest we wanted to go to get to the Schreckhorn hut anyway - and did the long, steep hike to the hut. The hut is located at 2529 meters and we'd hike gain over 5000 feet getting there. On the way we stopped at a picturesque restaurant called Baregg. They did have some sleeping spots here as well, but this was too low for us. We did stop for a break though and I enjoyed an ice cream while taking in the jaw-dropping mountain views.
The deck at Baregg
The next part of the approach dropped steeply and then climbed around a section where the entire mountainside fell away, before dropping again and going around a corner where we got a view of the chaotic ice fall coming down from the upper basin. I wonder how long it would take for me to get blase when looking upon this wonder...

Though the angle is steep the greatest impediment to a quick pace is the setting. Every second of this hike has spectacular views and often they are so overwhelming that I'd hear the twins sounds of Velcro ripping as both Homie and I simultaneously whip out our cameras. I've always thought that Angel's Landing in Zion is the greatest short hike I've ever done. That hasn't changed. The greatest long hike was Half Dome. Not any more. The hike into the Schreckhorn Hut is spectacular every step of the way. For the Half Dome hike there are miles of boring wooded terrain on dusty, unpleasant trails. This doesn't have a single step that isn't nice, not a moment when you aren't flabbergasted by the vistas. Alas, this hike is not for the faint of heart or anyone with a tendency towards acrophobia, for the final section to the hut is festooned with ladders and chains as the "trail" climbs a nearly vertical cliff.

Once again, despite not starting our approach until 11 a.m., we were the first to arrive at the hut, at least on this day. The hut guardian (who lives there during the season with his wife) showed us around. He didn't speak much English, but it was enough. We were shown to a room with "Schreckhorn" on the door. They organize people into rooms based on what mountain they are climbing because that determines when they wake you up and when they feed you. For the Schreckhorn you wake up at 1:15 a.m., eat at 1:30, and should be moving before 2 a.m. This is an interesting feature of climbing in the Alps - they determine when you start, regardless of how ast you think you might be. At least at this hut, we all got to eat breakfast at the same time, so maybe Homie and I wouldn't be the last to start this time. As it turned out, we were second to last. Yeah for us!

The weather continued to be perfect and we sat on the deck and enjoyed it. We watched a steady stream of climbers arrive, each one headed for the Schreckhorn. By the time all was said and done, we have 20+ climbers all going for the same route up the peak. This is another Euro-experience. Climbing is very popular here and hence all the trade routes are crowded. And most parties are guided. Guiding is a huge business and highly regulated. One of the guides on the mountain with us guides 150 days per year. He was climbing the Schreckhorn on successive days with different clients.

I watched as a fit couple approached the hut with smaller than usual packs. They guy looked very familiar. I whispered to Homie, "Psst. I think that's Ueli Steck." I urged Homie to get his gear off the seat next to him so that our table would appear to be the most empty. This worked perfectly and the couple sat down next to us. Sure enough, it was Ueli - the Swiss Machine. I seem to attract speed climbers. I co-authored a book with Hans; I've climbed a couple of times with alex and now I'm sharing a table, a hut, and a route with Ueli. Ueli is perhaps most famous for his amazing speed record on the North Face of the Eiger. The video here is enlightening and inspiring. This has since been surpassed (with a more generous use of fixed ropes and easier conditions) by Dani Arnold. Steck owns numerous speed records throughout the Alps and in the Himalayas, where he soloed the Shishapangma in 10.5 hours. A few years ago he teamed up with Alex Honnold for an attempt at the Nose speed record. A fall there halted progress on that goal and Alex eventually teamed with the Nose king Hans Florine to set the current record.

I knew from talking with Alex and Chris last week that Ueli was joining those two in the Bugaboos in early August, so I dropped those names and his upcoming plans as an ice breaker. It worked like a charm and we are now fast friends...not! I suspect Ueli viewed me much like a Hollywood celebrity looks at the paparazzi. Or maybe it is just the Swiss aloofness and Germanic demeanor. He reluctantly allowed Homie to take a photo of us together, but it was clear he didn't want to chat.

Two well-known alpine speed climbers...
Speaking of Alex and Ueli, it seems that solo climbers, at least really extreme ones, are like Sith Lords - there can only be two of them at any one time. For instance, do you ever hear about Dean Potter any more? Nope. It's because we have Alex and Ueli - there isn't any room for poor Dean. Even having two at a time is unusual. First, we had Bacher (now dead from soloing). Sure there were others before him but not world famous to non- climbers. Then it was Croft and Hersey (now dead from soloing). Then Dean Potter and Michael Reardon (now dead from soloing). There was also Alex Huber who soloed the Hasse Brandler Direttissima (5.12a) on the 1600-foot north face if the Cima Grande and a short 5.14a. With the exception of Steph Davis (Potter's ex-wife) all extreme soloist are male and almost are are American (yes, Croft is Canadian and hersey was a Brit but they lived for decades in the US).

Dinner was excellent. We had a very tasty steak and all-you-could-eat mashed potatoes. I laid down to sleep around 9 p.m. and got just four hours before being rousted. Breakfast was the usual bread, butter, jelly, some chunky fruit/yogurt concoction that seems to be a staple here, and some coffee. We were the second-to-last team out the door. In the distance we saw groups of lights moving up in the dark.

We descended steeply to the glacier and then up it for 500 meters before climbing steeply on path. One fixed line protected a steep slab and then more hiking. We caught a team of five and they let us by. We then hit a long snow slope and followed kicked steps relentlessly upwards. This dumped us onto another steep, rocky path and here we passed the guide climbing it for a second time. His client was a bigger guy and we quickly left them behind.

Just before stepping onto the glacier, parties stopped to put on crampons, pull their axes, and rope up. We did the same. We followed right behind a pair of climbers and when they pulled left and passed the group in front of them, we pulled further left and passed them both. We caught another team and followed them for a bit when I heard the front climber let out a yell and appear to drop into a crevasse.  I was glad he had found the hole, but when I got to that point I found a yawning gap. In the dark it was very intimidating. The distance to jump looked large and it was just blackness below and more than vertical walls. I feared I wouldn't get out at all if I fell in. I didn't have any prusiks on my rope or even on my harness. That just isn't smart. The only point of roping up for glacier travel is in case you fall into a crevasse and the only way out of a crevasse when you have one tool and no front-points is via ascending the rope. It seems to haste to keep moving continues to force mistakes on me.

I paused here and yelled back to Homie about the situation. I told him to give me enough slack to make the jump but not any more and to be ready to catch me. I didn't want to get too close to the edge for fear that it would give way, but doubted my ability to bridge the gap. I wondered how the smaller women in front of me had done it. Were these Swiss chicks all Olympic broad jumpers? I leapt, leaning forward with my axe outstretched, ready to swing it mightily and hang on for all I was worth. I made and the rush of adrenalin soon passed. I walked on until it was Homie's turn and gave him a boot-axe belay just in case, though the chance so of him not making the leap after I had done it were nearly zero.
The Southwest Ridge follows the ramp on the right side to the skyline and then up that to the summit.
We moved on to the bergschrund - the crevasse that forms where the glacier hits the steep rock wall of the mountain above. There wasn't a gap here at all, but the climbing was nearly vertical for ten feet or so. Plunging my axe to the hilt and pulling on it worked nicely and this section was easily passed. We traversed, still on steep snow, up and left to a rock ledge where the teams in front of us were pulling off crampons and stowing their axes. We did the same, right next to Ueli and his wife Nicole. Doing this quickly, we passed the party that was in front of us at the crevasse and moved quickly up the rocky ridge.

The climbing here and clear to the summit was 4th class to 5.3 or 5.4 and on gneiss which was extremely solid. Each time I reached up for a hold I seemed to be rewarded with a incut jug. We moved swiftly, simul-climbing, usually with a piece between us, but sometimes not. We each had 15 or so coils across our head and shoulders and had 70-80 feet of rope between us.

Homie high on the Southwest Ridge of the Schreckhorn
I think we passed another party on our way up to the final ridge. On the final ridge, still nearly 1000 vertical feet of rock climbing, we caught a pair of young Swiss climbers, Sebastian and Simon, and followed on their tails to the summit. We didn't recall seeing them in the hut the night before and, in fact, they weren't there. These two started from Grindelwald at 10 p.m. the previous night. We summitted with them at 6:30 a.m. They had covered 11,000 vertical feet in the past 8.5 hours. Impressive to say the least.

On top with us were the two teams that beat us: Ueli and Nicole and another male/female team. Ueli took the summit photo of Homie and I before both moving on to complete the traverse to the Lauteraahorn (another 4000-meter peak). Later we'd learn that this is one of the most classic traverses in the Alps and we had plenty of time to do it. We could have tried to followed Ueli and Nicole across, but it wasn't in our minds then and we descended.

On top of the Schreckhorn (photo by Ueli Steck)
The descent went smoothly. We rappelled whenever a bolt anchor was available, while the Swiss kids downclimbed. We passed them when they took a break at the top of the lower ridge. Further down I cut left to some dicey, wet slabs in an attempt to get to easier ground prematurely. Homie wisely eschewed my route and stuck to the ridge. Back at the gearing up spot I was pulling out my crampons when Homie spotted an anchor below and said he had read that you could rappel the bergschrund. As I previous stated the bergshrund wasn't really an issue, but I was game to rappel with Homie.

We thought there was a good chance that the rope wouldn't reach, so I went down first. Sure enough, it wasn't even close to reaching. I found a suspect anchor of slings around a small, somewhat wobbly block and stopped there. When Homie arrived he was less than pleased with our next anchor. He wisely insisted on backing it up and I dug a cam out of my pack and did so. He went first, with the back-up in place. Once down, I pulled the cam and followed him down to the glacier.

The rest of the trek back to the hut was easy, including the feared crevasse jump. It was easier in daylight and going the other direction. Glissading the long snow slope on the way down was definitely the highlight of the descent for me. Not only was it a blast, but saved my knees more than 1000 feet of descending, out of the 11,000 feet I'd be doing today. Homie declined the ride and walked down.

Back at the hut we relaxed, ate, drank, dried our gear and changed into shorts. Before lassitude took too tight of a hold on us, we packed up and started the trek out. It was hot now getting hotter the further we descended. We stopped at the awesome Baregg restaurant on the way out and both had a piece of chocolate-walnut cake with whipped cream. The rest of the hike was endless, but we eventually hit bottom and walked back to the hostel.

I've now climbed x 4000-meter peaks in the Alps:

  1. Mont Blanc
  2. Mont Maudit
  3. Mont Blanc du Tacul
  4. Matterhorn
  5. Jungfrau
  6. Monch
  7. Schreckhorn
Only 70+ go to!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Schwarzhorn Klettersteig

Today we had a great, lazy start to the day, eating breakfast at the restaurant at the train station. This was included in our hostel fee, but we couldn't eat at the hostel due to the huge cycling group and had rented the entire hostel (only luck allowed us to even stay there). In our 6-person dorm room we had Steve, an alpine guide from Austria. He was a really nice guy and we talked about climbing in the Dolomites, where he was born and grew up, at breakfast.

Then Homie and I took the bus to the east, high end of Grindelwald and rode the Gondola 3500 vertical feet to First (pronounced "Fierce-t"). We then hiked down (!) before we could head up towards the Schwarzhorn. The route was marked with painting on the rocks, like on the route to the Ostegg hut. They seem to use these paint markings instead of cairns.

We passed a family of four just as the via ferrata started and an older couple of two (everyone does this stuff here) at the top of the first ladders (!?). Yes, ladders. This via ferrata, or klettersteig, as they call it here, is super easy with these ladders on the steepest parts. But via ferratas are not about difficulty, in my mind anyway, that's what climbing is for. Via ferratas are about getting into wild positions and here this did not disappoint.

We met a guy from Boston on the summit while we took a break to eat something. On the way down we made a big loop by heading over to Grosse Scheidegg - the saddle that is east of Grindelwald (Kleine Scheidegg is west of Grindelwald and high on the lower slopes of the Eiger). The mountain that dominates Grosse Scheidegg is the Wetterhorn and the north wall of the sub-peak called Scheidegg Wetterhorn. This is a huge wall and the West Pillar is considered one of the greatest alpine rock routes in all of Switzerland. That route is probably within my abilities, but would be a two-day climb and not for this trip.
3000-foot north wall of Scheidegg Wetterhorn
We hiked down an additional 2000 feet, skipping the $20 bus ride down, and hopped on the town shuttle bus (we get to ride this for free by staying at the hostel) at the Hotel Wetterhorn. We did some grocery shopping in town and microwaved our dinner that night.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eiger Day 3: Mitteleggi Hut to Summit and down

Homie at the Mitteleggi Hut on the Mitteleggi Ridge, still 2000 feet from the summit.

The next morning we were the last group to get up, but weren't sleeping too heavily while the other groups got going. Eventually we took our turn at the breakfast table. Everyone was putting on crampons at the hut and we could clearly see that we'd be traversing a snow-covered knife-edge, so we did the same. This probably wasn't strictly necessary  but did give us a bit more security. We'd peel these off in about 15 minutes, though, when the climbing got very steep and purely on rock.

The first group we caught was Guillame and Rob. Guillame was a quick guide, but Rob was an older Aussie and they don't have many mountains down under. I gradually discovered that teams will let you pass, but do no offer to let you pass. We bumped up against this team for quite awhile. I was right on Rob and was sure they'd offer to let us by, but it was probably an hour before I asked to go by and Guillame said, "Of course."

We were on the fixed ropes now, but these aren't normal climbing ropes. These are giant, fat ropes that are two inches in diameter and provide very easy climbing. As an American free climber my natural tendency is to not use the ropes, if I can climb without them and this is the way I started. I also did this so that I wouldn't be pulling on the ropes at the same time as the climber above me. But I'm also an alpinist and I recognize the need for speed and using these ropes is way faster than not using them. Once we passed a team we felt an obligation, of course, not to then hold them up. Also, when the route moved onto the north side of the ride, the rock was ice covered in places and would have been quite difficult climbing without these ropes. So, I used the ropes and batmanned up them with ease, most of the time. On one particularly icy section, I was forced to work quite hard, as my feet were very insecure and not helping much. All the time, I'm simul-climbing with Homie below me and spacing out the protection (mainly clipping into the anchors securing the fat line) in order to avoid re-grouping too often.

We caught and were let by another team of two and then soon bumped into the two older German guys. These guys were slow, but they ran up against Reno's team and everything ground to a halt. Reno and his guides, as I said before, were doing a superhuman job, but these clients just needed so much attention. They needed to be belayed and hauled constantly. On a route where everyone is climbing the same fat rope, there is no way to pass once more than one team is clogged up. The first team to come across Reno's team should have passed. Phillip and Sami did just that and were the first team to top out. The only other team fast enough to efficiently pass Reno's team was Homie and I and we were stuck behind the Germans.

This was a bit frustrating to me, but there was no solution. Like I said, if you want move at your speed, either do another route, or harden up and do what the Rocking Girls did - blast it later in the day. What added a bit of stress was the weather. It rained a bit even before the sun came up, but then it turned to snow and graupel. We were engulfed in clouds with limited visibility and acutely aware that the only way off this mountain was up and over. But the weather wasn't deteriorating and we were climbing fine in the conditions.

As we neared the top, the angle eased a bit. We traversed some snow sections, but resisted crampons for a bit longer, since the teams in front were doing the same. All except the Germans, that is. They climbed the entire route in crampons and I could see first hand how this hampered their movement. One section they made it look desperate as the leader backed off a couple of times and then shakily made the move, clipped the bolt and immediately grabbed the quickdraw. In my crampon-less, sticky-rubber boots, this move felt like 5.2 at worst.

Finally the ridge really laid back and we strapped on the crampons for the final ridge run. We topped out on the Eiger 75 years to the day after the first ascent team up the North Face. Perhaps that is a sign that the North Face is still in my future...

We were on top with Reno's entire team and the two Germans. One of them took our summit photo. We'd have lingered longer, but it was cold, there was absolutely no view, and we had a long way to go down a complicated, unknown ridge that was equal in difficulty to what we had just come up. The Germans started down first and we were right behind them. They proved so frustratingly slow at the rappels that I asked to go by. I didn't want to be too pushy, so most of the time I just hoped teams offer to let us by. We were given passage and soon caught the German guide Thomas and his client Dominic. We stayed on their heels for awhile, helping them with their rappel ropes.
Nearing the Monchloch Hut and the end of the climb
The descent down the south ridge leads to a saddle on the ridge connecting the Eiger to the Monch, but this first saddle is the north saddle. Getting to the south saddle, which we had to do, involved traversing a steep, rocky ridge, interspersed with some snow slope traversing. The crampons we put on before topping out would stay on our feet until we did this entire traverse of the ridge and then down the glacier and up to the Monchloch Hut, where we'd finally be on non-technical ground. We'd pass the German when they took a break and then we caught and passed Evelyn and her client. We left everyone far behind and were alone for most of this traverse. There was one tricky rock section, where the passage wasn't clear, but we figured it out.

Once at Monchloch Hut, we had an easy twenty minutes down to the Jungfrauloch train station - the highest in Europe. We toured all the sites inside this crazy station completely inside the mountain and then rode the train back down to Grund. This cost 90 CHF, or more than $100, but it was the only way down at this point. I'd been on this train before, but Homie wanted to see it anyway, so it was worth it to come down this way.

So, that's one mountain checked off my bucket list... It was a grand adventure with a great friend and a super solid climbing partner. I am indebted to Homie for being there for me...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Eiger: Day 2: Ostegg Hut to the Mitteleggi Hut (the technical crux)

The Mitteleggi Ridge as seen from the summit of the Schreckhorn. We traversed this entire thing!

The next morning the rocking girls were already gone, having left at 4 a.m. They got to the summit of the Eiger before 11:30 a.m. They do, indeed, rock. One was training to be a mountain guide and they were fit and fast.

Phillip and Sami left just 5 or 10 minutes before Homie and I. We hiked up to my gear stash and I geared up while Homie continued. The climbing here was all unroped, mostly on loose slopes, but with short steep sections. Phillip and Sami roped up and led one pitch, while we found and easier way and passed them. When we took a wrong turn, they went in front.

We weren't racing each other in any way. Neither team was hurrying, just moving along at nearly the same speed. We passed them again at the saddle and then failed to stick strictly to the ridge beyond and they got in front again. The scrambling now became very steep and it was a bit loose, so we roped up and simu-climbed. There was the occasional bolt, mainly at the top of each steep section, generally, which would be every 25 meters on steep parts and none when the climbing was easier. I'm sure there are mainly there for the guides, but just as handy for other climbers. This is all the pro we used on this section. 
The ridge is complex, exposed, and loose. We had to downclimb a number of sections and eventually came to what looked like an impassable section. There was a small cave there and I remembered the guide in Grindelwald telling us about a tunnel through to the other side. Sure enough, this was it. The tunnel was tiny and required you to remove your pack and crawl through on your belly, but it solved an otherwise very difficult section. How fortunate! It was so cool.

On the other side we found our first fixed line. The climbing here wasn't that tough - probably only 5.6 or so, but a fixed line will speed up the guided groups quite a bit.

Just beyond this we rappelled 25 meters to base of the crux of the entire Mitteleggi Ridge - a VI- (5.8/9) section that was reportedly three 25-meter pitches. The first pitch was indeed quite difficult with very tiny footholds that amounted to just smearing. Homie and I both put on rock shoes for this. We were the only ones on the mountain carrying rock shoes. We could have done it in our boots, but we had the shoes in our pack and had to wait on Sami and Phillip anyway.
Leading the second of two crux pitches

The climbing was engaging from the start, with small holds and technical feet. I ascended up a thin, discontinuous crack in a tiny corner for a ways and then had to make a very technical traverse left across vertical rock. I grabbed a couple of pieces here, as I didn't want to fall. This was alpine climbing and I had a non-trivial load on my back. The rating here is VI- or 5.8/9. I felt more like 5.9 to me, hence the gear grabbing. I got to the belay and found both Phillip and Sami still there. Phillip was clearly the leader of this team. He had led the first pitch and would continue in the lead. I belayed a little lower down from a giant fixed corkscrew.

Homie followed nicely, moving efficiently up the pitch and over to the belay. Soon I was heading up the next pitch, which was a steep, obtuse corner. There were occasional bolts to protect the climbing, but I placed some gear as well. Frequently the bolts were too far off to the side and it was more convenient for me to place a cam. Phillip had stopped to belay just 20 meters above and I had no reason to move fast, as there wasn't room up there. Phillip then did another very short pitch to a belay just short of the top of the wall. He let Sami lead through to reach the very crest of the ridge again. I led up past Phillip and hit the belay at the top, doing in one 30-meter pitch what these two had done in three tiny pitches. This seems to be the general strategy for guides - to belay early and often on difficult sections so as to give you client as much help as possible with less stretch in the rope and more guidance. Then they short-rope all the easier sections, moving together, roped, only about twenty feet apart, and not putting in any gear. Homie didn't need my help, so I ran out all the rope (we were climbing on our doubled 7.8mm 60-meter line). On the easy sections, we simul-climbed with 80-100 feet of rope out, but placing gear.

The rest of the the ridge to the hut was much easier, but it was still a very long way. Homie and I moved continuously, catching and passing the Swiss guys when they took a break. There was some snow in the ridge here, but it wasn't icy and not steep enough to require crampons, so we continued without them. Everyone we saw climbing anything in Switzerland was wearing heavy alpine/mountaineering boots. We were in high-top scrambling shoes - the La Sportiva Explorers. I put a pair of K10 Kahtoola crampons on these. These are super light steel crampons, weighing only 21 ounces. They have no frontpoints, but I hoped I wouldn't need to do any of that on this climb and that was the case. This setup turned out to be ideal for this route (and the later route we'd do on the Schreckhorn). This combination was so light and comfortable. It climbed rock better than the big, bulky, heavy boots worn by the Swiss and was sufficient on the snow sections. Homie wore the more serious Grivel G10 crampons (29 ounces) with frontpoints, but they also attached nicely to these boots.

We arrived at the hut at 11:30 a.m. and briefly thought about continuing to the summit. Once again, had we known the route up and down, we'd have probably done it. But the unknown  can be a bit daunting and we decided to stop. The hut guardian, Hansruedi, who only spoke German, but he was expecting us - each sleeping spot in the hut was already assigned. We were the first climbers to arrive for the night, as the Rocking Girls had continued on. Any thoughts of a uncrowded night were steadily erased as the climbers poured in.

Eventually, we'd have 22 people for the night, including the guardian. They were us, Phillip and Sami, Reno's group of seven, Evelyn (supposedly one of the top Swiss female alpinist and mountains) and her client - an older chap. Guillame (I always thought of guillain-barré syndrome every time I heard his name) and Rob (an Aussie), Javier and Bruno- two older German guys, Bruno we thought might be a guide, but a really slow guide. The German guide, Thomas, and his client, Dominic, and a pair of Swiss guys, a big guy and a smaller guy.

That night we had a great dinner of all you could eat spaghetti bolognese, bread, soup, and pineapple with whipped cream for dessert. You have to pay for water here, but you can fill up your bottles with tea in the morning for the day's climbing. This is the tradition at the huts, we'd learn - to climb with your bottles filled with tea. Homie didn't want the tea, but I found the hot tea in my pack's bladder to be quiet reviving.
 After dinner they post the breakfast schedule. While we all eat dinner together and could eat breakfast together, they stagger breakfast to spread out the teams on the knife-edge ridge climb. How this order is decided was beyond me and no one bothered to explain it, but I think they show a marked preference for the guides. Reno's team would go first, probably because they would need the most time to make the summit. Unfortunately, they'd also hold up most of the other teams on route. We were getting the full Euro-experience. But, like complaining about the crowds on the Third Flatiron, it is silly to do that. If you want an uncrowded route, go climb the North Face. There are plenty of uncrowded routes in the Alps, but they aren't the trade routes. The trade routes are packed.

Not all of Reno's team would be ascending. Stella just about had a coronary getting up to the hut. It is a testament to Reno and his two apprentice guides that they got this team up this route, for they would have no chance in hell by themselves. In my mind they had little business being there, but that is not the way in Europe. They thrive on guiding people like this up the classic routes. It cost $700-800/day for a guide here. To get guided up the route we did, including huts fees, cost $2400. So, they aren't likely to turn any prospective clients down if there is any chance of getting them up and down the route. And when trouble arises, they have such great helicopter rescue services in the Alps...

Stella was going to take a helicopter down the next morning. Everyone else was going up. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Eiger: Day 1: Grindelwald to the Ostegg Hut

The Mitteleggi Ridge follows the left skyline - 10,000+ vertical feet from Grindelwald Grund

Having just arrived, we decided  that going 8000 vertical feet of unknown ground clear to the Mitteleggi Hut in one day wasn't advisable. This turned out to be a good call. Now that I know all the terrain, I could do it, but I'd leave a lot earlier. Instead we got a casual start. Sleeping in until past 7 and then having a leisurely and filling breakfast at the hostel. We then packed out gear, shouldered our packs and starting walking, up along the route we had reconnoitered the day before. We started hiking from the hostel in Grund, at 943 meters, at 9 a.m. Our destination for the day was the Ostegg Hut at 2300 meters. Getting there is actual a via ferrata route that is quite enjoyable in its own right. We hiked up to Alpiglen at 1615 meters where most parties embark from the train. We then headed left on a good, steep trail until we found the turn-off for the Ostegg Hut.

The weather was ideal and the views had us with continuous ear-to-ear grins. The trail is crazy steep at times and is traversing an even steeper slope. You don't want to fall off this trail. We soon spotted the hut atop of seemingly very technical wall. I was excited to see the route that would get us there.

Soon we hit the foot of the cliff and the start of the cables. I've done a few via ferratas now and still find them very enjoyable. They get you to incredible places, like rock climbing, but without all the gear and skill required of the latter. One of the really nice advantages is that you get to remain next to your climbing partner the whole time, instead of at the end of a 200-foot rope.

When we got to the hut we were a bit surprised to find it locked. No one had mentioned this to us at Grindelwald Sports, where we had made reservations for the Mitteleggi Hut. This hut is unmanned and I had hoped that we could just stay there for free. How naive! This is Switzerland, thank you, that will be 25 SF. We found a phone number in the bathroom with instructions to call it to get the lockbox combination. Luckily and not surprisingly, I had cell service, since I was looking down directly on Grindelwald. I left a message on the answering machine and wondered if we'd be hiking back down later today. A little later a man called back, got our information, and gave us the combination. This hut is on the honor system and you pay into a box at the hut. We were the only ones there and no one else was around. I had visions of a lonely adventure. How naive!

A bit later a solo woman showed up, but she was just doing the via ferrata and heading back down. She was definitely plump but had already done the Eiger via ferrata that day. Impressive. Just as we headed up to scope the route for the next morning a team of two Swiss climbers, Phillip and Sami, showed up. We went up just 20 minutes or so, finding the route marked via some cairns across steep, loose slopes. We had watched a couple of large rockslides sweep one of the gullies we had cross before heading up, so we moved quickly across that one. Further up some stones came whizzing down and Homie decided that was enough for today. I went a bit further to be sure of the route and cached my harness, rack, crampons, and two liters of water so that I didn't have to carry it again the next morning.

By the time I descending, the hut was bustling. Reno (pronounced Ray-no), his two "apprentice guides", Robert (a Swede who has lived the last three years in Switzerland) and Thome (very Aryan, never spoke to me, gave me dirty looks, Sheri would think he was an assassin or something), and their four British clients had arrived. It was Dave's birthday and he, Richard, a bald guy (never got his name), and Stella, a portly woman who had "done a lot of climbing in Wales". Soon a family of six - four boys arrived. They planned to spend the night, but would be heading down the via ferrata in the morning. Everyone else was going up the Eiger. In a country with a birthrate of about 1.5 kids per couple, this family was a huge anomaly, probably equivalent to a six-kid family in the US. Finally, the "rocking girls", Denise and Sigi, showed up. Reno knew them and looked with some disdain on us, or so I felt. I would come to find this attitude to be very common among the Swiss climbers, but I can't generalize to all Swiss, since the two girls that worked the desk at the hostel, Nicole and Claudia, were incredibly helpful, friendly, and talkative.
Earlier we had heard voices from above, but never picked out the climbers. Then, in the late afternoon, we heard them again and picked out the climbers at the top of the skyline, at the saddle we'd head for tomorrow. From reading the hut register, we figured it was the three Polish climbers aborting. The Rocking Girls went out scouting the route as well and they quickly climbed up to and past these descending climbers. The girls went clear to the saddle, solo, unroped, and then descended, passing the Poles once again. These chicks were fit and fast and the next day they'd go clear to the summit of the Eiger and off. The Poles took a very long time to get down to the hut and when they got there, they found the hut already over capacity. They had been descending in the rain and they continued down in it. The rest of us huddled inside the nice, but now cramped hut.

Reno, Homie, and the Ostegg Hut
Our dinner of Ramen noodles and mashed potatoes paled compared to the succulent meals prepared by our hut mates. The conversation flowed amongst them, all in German. They'd laugh at something funny and Homie and I would look at each other and shrug our shoulders. Reno was friendly and spoke English well, but the friendliest one by far was Robert, the ex-pat Swede, who spoke English like an American. We'd see a lot of these people over the next few days.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Europe Trip: Day 2

Checking out the lower slopes of the Eiger - via a road and a very steep, but paved trail

The flight to Newark was unremarkable except that it left nearly an hour late. Our connection was tight and I was worried we might not make it, but they made up most of the time enroute. When we landed they were already boarding the plane to Zurich, but we still had time to get some food. Our plane was a Boeing 767 in a 2-3-2 arrangement. Homie and I had our seats together on the right side of the plane. Built into the headrest in front of us was a video system that had 200 movies, music, games, educational programs, etc. It was quite nice. I watched Zero Dark Thirty and about half of the Hobbit. Homie watched a program on Marion Jones, learned some German (he's now our translator), played trivia, and hangman. We both did our best to sleep and put a solid four-hour effort, netting us about 20 minutes of sleep. At least that's what it seemed. I felt like I changed position every 1-2 minutes. 

After some effort, we bought train tickets to Grindelwald out of an automated machine. It was confusing which train to get on, but after finding an office with an agent, they printed out a schedule for us. It would have been helpful if that was printed out with the ticket. The trains in Switzerland are all electric and they are quiet and smooth as silk. You can hardly tell when they start moving, as they accelerate so gradually. We changed trains in Bern and again in Interlaken Ost. We arrived in Grindelwald just before 2 p.m. This is 6 a.m. Colorado time, as we are now 8 hours ahead. 

Before the trip I got a pair of LaSportiva Explorer high tops. These are a soft boot with sticky rubber on the bottom. I scrambled Seal Rock in them and then did the Taylor/Andrews glacier loop to try them out on steep snow with the super light Kahtoola K-10 crampons. They worked well and this was our boot of choice for the Eiger. Homie couldn't find these boots locally, so the day before we left we went over to the LaSportiva office/warehouse and they set him up with a pair of boots, gratis. That's great service. Kahtoola shipped me an updated, more secure pair of crampons that arrived the day before we left as well. Unfortunately, I thought they were prizes for the race and left them behind. The ones I used on Taylor should work well for me. I also talked to my contact at Deuter and got an Alpine Guide Lite 32+ pack for the trip. This pack seemed to have the best mix of lightness, capacity and utility for alpine climbing. I'll be testing it out on the Eiger in a few days. All of these sponsors also donate generously to the Rattlesnake Ramble. If you haven't signed up yet, do so!

Before leaving the airport, I had to sample the Swiss culture via a coffee at a local cafe. I believe the name of the place was Starbucks. Actually, I only went there before I had brought my Starbuck gift cards. Alas, US cards don't work in Switzerland and I had already ordered the coffee, so I did something I said I'd never do: pay for a Starbucks with my own money. And it was 8SF (more than $8!). Oh well, it helped keep me alert in getting to Grindelwald. It takes two calendar days to get to Grindelwald and about 24 hours of continuous travel via bus, plane, and train.

I booked us into the Grindelwald Mountain Hostel for Sunday night, just so we'd know exactly where we were going on our first day here. They have a free shuttle service from the train station to the hostel where we had a private room with a sink in the room. It's rare in Europe to get a bathroom in your room. We were paying $125/night ($62/each) for a tiny room with a sink. Switzerland is not a cheap place to travel, but it is the only country with the Eiger…

When we got here we hiked up to Brandegg, which is just a train station and a restaurant for all I could tell. You can bike here and we hiked on entirely on a very steep (too steep to ride) paved trail. It was about 1600 feet above Grindelwald Grund, where we are staying. Grund is at the very food of the Eiger. Grindelwald is actually a few hundred feet up the other side of the Valley.

After checking into the Grindelwald Mountain Hostel we hiked up to Grindelwald to Grindelwald Sports (three uses of Grindelwald (now four!) in the same sentence!). Here we talked to Johann who gave us all the beta on the Eiger. Conditions were great for the Mitteleggi Ridge and the weather report was promising. There was afternoons storms forecasted, but hoped to be in the huts by then. He talked us out of our plan to descend the West Flank as "too dangerous. No one does that." and into descending the South Ridge - what the guides use. This goes by the Monchloch Hut and requires you to take the train down from the Jungfrauloch station, which is the highest train station in Europe and a very cool location, complete with a carved ice cave. He also said that it takes him 12 hours to go from Grindelwald to the Mitteleggi Hut and he knows the way. The crux of the entire climb is between the Ostegg hut and the Mitteleggi Hut, where the climbing is 5.8. He said that section takes 7-8 hours alone. So, we've decided to do the climb over three days, staying one night at each hut. This is probably wise since we are still going on just two hours of sleep from the plane trip over. We'll see hard tonight, but we are still alert here at nearly 11 p.m. 

Later that night, while I was in the gear room I ran into a thin guy. He looked at my shoes and says, "How do you like the Helios?" "I love 'em," I say and ask him, "Have you run in La Sportiva before?" "Run in them? I run for them!" I told him that I ran for Sportiva as well and he asked if I did the Eiger Ultra Marathon race the day before. He did and finished in about 16.5 hours for the 100 km course with 6700 meters of climbing (22,000 feet!). His first name is Sean but everyone calls him "Run Bum." He knew Ian Achey and Everett, my contacts in Boulder at La Sportiva.

We had a pizza for dinner, and packed for the next day. The gear barely fits in our small alpine packs, but it will be enough to sustain us over three days, thanks to the huts. We'll get one breakfast and one dinner at the Mitteleggi Hut, but nothing at the Ostegg Hut, where we'll likely be alone. We need to carry food for the rest of the three days and are cutting that pretty short. I can't believe I'm headed up the Eiger already, but the weather and conditions are a go and we have to jump on this chance. So, no more updates until at least Wednesday. Cross your fingers for us. Game on!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Europe Trip: Day 1

The Eiger from the train on the way into Grindelwald

Sheri dropped us at the bus stop literally a minute before the bus arrived. I hope our timing stays that good for the entire trip…

This trip is about checking things off the bucket list. Like so many other people I've uttered the phrase "I'd really like to do that sometime…" many times. Now, at 50, I'm holding myself to that. Do I really want to do that? Or would I just like to say I'd done it? Or maybe I don't really want to do it at all. Now I'm making plans and executing them. I've got a long bucket list and it's time to get going on it. I'm still fit and climbing nearly as good as ever, but that won't last forever. I figure I've got a decade left to get my mountain dreams done.

When I first started climbing, I was initially drawn to the outrageous walls of Yosemite, having been inspired by the images in National Geographic. Back then I was a voracious reader of climbing literature. The most storied mountain was the Eiger. Books like the White Spider, Wall of Death, Eiger Dreams horrified and fascinated me. Drawn to lists, like the Fifty Classic Climbs and Colorado 14ers, I found that there were six classic north faces in the Alps: Eiger, Matterhorn, Grand Jorasses, Petit Dru, Piz Badile, and the Cima Grande di Laverado. On a previous trip to Europe to climb I climbed the Matterhorn, though by the easiest route - the Hornli Ridge, and Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps. The Grande Jorasses and the Petit Dru are both part of the Mont. Blanc massif. On that trip I also visited the Tre Cima di Laverado, where the Cima Grande is the center peak of three giant stone spires. Intimidated by the 1500-foot north face and lacking a strong partner, I fell back to the Cima Piccolissima via the Preuss Crack. On a separate trip, in early July, I went to the Eiger. It was too early to climb it and it wasn't "in condition", all covered in snow. The Eiger is primarily a rock mountain and snow on it makes it tougher. Instead I climbed the Eiger's higher, easier neighbors: the Monch and the Jungfrau. 

So now I'm headed back. This time more determined and more focused. More experienced and while I will be safe, more aware of my limited time  to get things done. The north face of the Eiger might not be out of reach for me, but it is more than I can wrap my head around right now. I need to learn the mountain first. I set my sights slightly lower for now, and maybe forever. My plan is to climb the Mitteleggi Ridge. This is the northeast ridge of the Eiger and it is possible to climb 10,000 vertical feet from the town of Grindelwald clear to the summit via this route. Along the way are two huts - climbing in Europe is so civilized. Weather, conditions, and other climbers will determine our exact plan, but we plan to at least stay in the Mitteleggi Hut, which is situated on the ridge at the start of the main difficulties 2000 feet below the summit.

On this two week trip I have only two goals: summit of the Eiger and the north face of the Cima Grande. We'll spend a week at each mountain, waiting for weather if necessary. Hopefully that will be enough time. I'm not going to Europe to do some random climbing. I'm not there to move around, find the best weather, and climb there. I'm there for these two mountains. If they go smooth, we might have time for some other things. We? Of course I have a partner. Most of my climbing partners were surprisingly uninterested in this adventure. I guess it is more of a personal quest but the objectives seem so universally appealing that I figured my problem was going to be limiting the size of the party. Alas, that wasn't the case, but my partner for this trip is a good one: Homie. 

Homie is a mountain guy, through and through. He's tough, he's nearly impervious to weather, and he never gets tired. He hasn't done much technical climbing in the last few years, but we did some training climbs and he'll be fine. He's seen photos of these mountains. For a climber, that's enough. The desire to climb them is innate for people like us. One look at them and you find yourself searching for the line of ascent, wondering if blank sections will be climbable. He's on board with the plan for now. I worry if the weather doesn't cooperate, though. It's his vacation as well and he doesn't want to spend it sitting in a cafe sipping lattes while watching the rain obscure his beloved mountains.

We're heading to the Eiger first, though it might still be a bit early. The hut has only recently opened and we're not even sure the ridge has been climbed yet this season. But the travel to Grindelwald is straightforward train rides directly from the Zurich airport, while travel to the Tre Cime is annoyingly complex via public transportation. Shelter is easier there, though, as there is really but one place to stay: the Auronzo hut, which is more like a spartan hotel. I'm at DIA now and in an hour I'll be in the air. Tomorrow morning I'll be in Switzerland…

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Diving Board w/Chris and Alex

Pop quiz: How many 5.14 climbers does it take to get an old, out-of-shape, 5.11a-at-his-best climber to the top of an overhanging 5.11 offwidth?

Answer: Two appears to be sufficient. With the proper 6:1 hauling system it might be possible with one 5.14 climber. I know it has been done before with just one 5.13 climber, but the climber involved was in better shape then.

On a completely unrelated note, I climbed the Diving Board this morning with Chris Weidner and Alex Honnold. Chris is well known in the Boulder area, not only for his cutting edge climbing (he just freed an old aid route called Centaur, which is just right of the Diving Board, at 5.13c), but also for his great writing, which often appears in the Boulder Camera. It turns out that this Alex guy is also some sort of famous climber, though from the way he was chatting on about biking and hiking the CA 14ers, I thought he might have been an ultra-runner. But when Alex mentioned that he might give the Longs Peak Triathlon a try, sans cord, and I said he should go for the speed record he asked, "Does that involve running? Because I won't do that. I mean, I'll do anything for speed, but I Won't Do That!"

Alex would hate the reference to Meatloaf. He's a huge Taylor Swift fan. He showed us the tattoo he got of her on his lower back - chick style. Speaking of showing his body, at one point Alex pulled up his sleeve, flexes his bicep, and says, "Check out my biker tan!" Uh, Alex, that's not a biker's tan. That's a normal tan. A biker tan is on your legs. But this is a guy who normally wears a shirt about as often as Matthew McConaughey, so any lack of tan on his upper body constituted a "biker's tan."

Speaking of biking, Alex and Cedar Wright (no relation obviously or I'd be a better climber) recently linked up all 15 California 14ers via human power (biking, hiking, and climbing) in just three weeks. It might be the first time it's been done. Andrew Hamilton did the 58 Colorado 14ers under human power in 19 days, but Cedar and Alex gave their linkup a twist that isn't likely to be repeated soon. They tried to climb the hardest route to each summit. For instance, Alex onsight soloed the 15-pitch, 10c Keeler's Needle to get to the summit of Whitney. They pair soloed the Mithril Dihedral (10a) on Russell. For the Palisades they started with a solo up Temple Crag. Dark Star (20 pitches, 10c) for Alex and Sun Ribbon Arete (17 pitches, 5.9) for Cedar. They then linked up Sill, Polemonium, North Palisade, Starlight, and Thunderbolt. The entire link-up, bike-to-bike, in 17 hours! For Langley, they onsighted a 10a route on the North Face. Like a couple of bats out of hell, they raged across the Sierra.

Alex Honnold
Okay, that was a stretch...

Oh, yeah, biking. Alex just recently rode the Death Ride. This is 125 miles of road biking and over 15,000 feet of climbing. Hans just did this also. Alex rode with his sister and he told me with some satisfaction, "And we were faster than Hans." Yeah, but Hans is more of a rock climber, Alex. Aren't you more of a cyclist?

So, what was I talking about again? Climbing, that's right. We climbed the Diving Board. Chris had never done it before, but since he'd been working the much harder Centaur right next to it, he wanted to tick it. So, why not just go climb it with Alex, right? Turns out Chris and I made plans to go climb it before Alex came along. Alex, knowing that the crux was offwidth, was hoping to grab a toprope on it, as he's been known to fall out of offwidths. Chris, an acclaimed wide master, agreed to be his guide and we were a threesome.

We met at 5 a.m. I got out of the car in my fancy new REI climbing pants and bright green tech shirt to say good morning to the lads and before I can open my mouth Alex says, "What the heck are you wearing? Waders?" Hmmm... Maybe my stretchy new pants aren't as cool as I thought they were. Later he'd say to me, "You look all ready for Europe with your fluorescent shirt and two-tone pants." I don't think that was positive comment on my fashion sense.

Chris put together the rack with my input: "I'd take doubles of everything" and Alex's: "If you take any #2's I'll be embarrassed to be roped to you." We did the short approach to the base of the Redgarden Wall. It was decided that I'd do the least damage leading and I took off up the Ramp Route. I ran out the entire rope to a ledge part-ways up the third pitch of the Redguard Route. Chris and Alex followed about ten feet apart on the end of the rope. I offered to keep leading and they quickly agreed, as they were having a very social morning, climbing along together. For a guy who is supposed to be shy, Alex is very rarely not talking. He has a lot to say and, with his lifestyle, most of it is very interesting.

For instance, the Naked Edge came up and I asked if he had climbed it. He had. In fact, he had soloed it. I wonder how many people have soloed the Edge. I can think of Jim Collins, Derek Hersey, Rolando Garibotti, and now Alex Honnold.

I led up the next 300 feet or so to start of the Diving Board. I went up to the right of the Dead Bird Flake, the way I always go, but Chris pointed out that the other side is strictly the correct way. I still haven't done that. Now that we had arrived at the hard climbing, I turned over the sharp end to Chris.
Alex belayed while I shot some photos.

When Alex arrived at my belay, he thought I had only one piece as an anchor. I moved my body to show him the other piece (which actually wasn't that good, but he didn't need to know that) and he seemed pretty happy about that. This is funny, since I had to talk Alex into even clipping into the belay. Since he was belaying Chris with the Gri-Gri and would in fact, just climb the route that way (without ever being tied directly to the rope), he figured he was secure enough.

As Chris labored above, on the dicey traverse and pumpy, overhanging crack, I quizzed Alex on his triple solo link-up in Zion. During this link-up he soloed Moonlight Buttress (11 pitches, 5.12d), Monkeyfinger (9 pitches, 12b), and Shune's Buttress (7 pitches, 11c). I'd done all three routes, albeit in slightly different style, so I was keen to hear more about it. When Alex soloed Moonlight Buttress in 2008, he blew every climber's mind. Now he solos it again, at the start of a three-wall day. He made is sound casual and said, "It's not that hard. I think it is 12b/c." He got to climb past a porta-ledge during this ascent. He got to their bivy spot, that they took at least a day of climbing to get to, in 45 minutes.

Starting the crux pitch
I tell others that Alex has the most dangerous job in the world. I'm absolutely serious about that. He is a professional climber because of his outrageous solos. He'd be the first one to tell you that many others can climb harder than he can. Alex tops out at a relatively lowly 5.14c. Okay, that isn't lowly by any standards, but, hey, chicks climb harder. Alex's livelihood is based upon solo climbs that are certain death for every other human on earth. So, what job do you think is more dangerous than that?

Chris, on the other hand, is more like me: we prefer a rope. I guess that is about where our similarities end when it comes to climbing. He works 5.14 routes. I work 5.10. On a good day, maybe I work a 5.11. But he's a super nice guy and is incredibly humble. He shows tremendous respect to all the funky Eldo classics and claims that 5.11 in Eldo always feels hard for him. I hope we get a chance to do more climbing together.

Chris set up a belay in the alcove at the top of the first pitch and Alex followed quickly and easily. Who'd have thunk it? I followed in my practiced style of bumbling feet, uncoordinated deadpoints and whimpering. I was nervous before starting up. Not only because the climbing is hard, steep, and very exposed, but because I didn't want to appear like too much of a Gumby. If you agree to climb the Diving Board, you should at least be able to come close to climbing it. I was worried I'd have to aid it.

The prospect of aiding the pitch was removed by Alex's generous cleaning of gear. He did this to make things easier on me. Little did he know that he was making it harder. All those pieces he pulled were potential handholds! With Chris giving me a nice tight belay (I'd like to think he wasn't pulling me up it, but I'm not sure about that), I was able to claw my way to the belay.

Once again I chatted with Alex while Chris did the dirty work above. Chris pointed out to me that he is no speed climber. I'd have to concur here, at least compared to Alex. Compared to me, on 5.11, he's greased lightning! Nevertheless, Chris has power to burn and he carefully worked out the deceptive and burly crux for the onsight. With the security of the toprope, Alex did well also. Now it was my turn. What's the opposite of "well"? That's what I did.

I got up to the crux, though even getting there was tiring and difficult. If you are really strong, I think you can do the Diving Board without an offwidth move, but to do that, you have to lock-off some bad holds very low. I was forced to do an offwidth move and I fell off five or six times before I got through it. Initially I'd drop five or six feet down, due to rope stretch. At one point, I climbed up and got stuck. I had a bit of slack in the rope and yelled up, "Take!" And then "Up rope!" But the rope didn't move and I fell off. To be fair, the time between me calling for tension and falling off was just a few seconds. Also, I didn't want to be yelling too hysterically for fear that Alex and Chris would think that I'd been turned into a little girl, and not the kind of little girl that sends V10, either.

By the third time I fell off, I think Chris was getting a bit annoyed or bored, as he took to taking in the rope with a bit more rigor. Each time I hung from the rope I had to weigh taking the time I need to recover some strength with the fear that my partners might think I'm unconscious. If I rested too little, I'd eventually not be able to move at all. I finally worked out a sequence of a huge reach between hand jams, some dicey foot smears, a slap to a Gaston, a pinch of the chockstone, a desperate armbar, and a hidden side-pull to finally get above that section. Thankfully my belayer hadn't nodded off and the rope kept coming tight with each incremental movement.

There is another semi-hard section above the crux, but it probably only felt hard because of the toll the crux took on my arms. I inched up to the belay to find Alex and Chris in good spirits, despite Alex's hunger. We scrambled down the slabs to the trail and hiked back to the car. Alex wanted me to go pair solo the Bastille Crack with him, but I demurred, saying I had to go to work, but the truth is that I  don't want to solo that route. I think I could do it, mentally, but the risk-reward ratio isn't there for me. And it would be too stressful to be fun, I think. If I climbed it every day for a month, then it could be fun, but not now and probably not ever.

Heading down the East Slab descent
I wonder how many 5.14 climbers it would take to get me up the North Face of the Eiger. Or Cerro Torre. I think a baker's dozen should do it. I only need to meet eleven more rock jocks, coordinate their schedules, and pretty soon you'll be reading about me on the Internets. Oh snap! Wait... I guess you are already reading this on the Internet... Well, you know what I mean, like here.