Saturday, March 28, 2015


There are lots of different things that motivate me to get some exercise. One of them is streaks. I currently have a workout streak of 122 days in a row. What constitutes a workout for me is running at least four miles, climbing at the gym, or skiing or climbing or biking outside. Granted some of those days involved just doing six routes at the gym, which isn't much, but it was enough for me to keep the streak alive. My initial goal was to do 100 days in a row. My 100th day was climbing the Silk Road on the First Flatiron with Chris Weidner. After that I figured I'd take a day of rest and nearly did, but got out for flat 4-mile run in my neighborhood. Why? I don't know. Because it's fun to have a streak going. I know it isn't the best way to great athletic performance. I'm not concentrating on that now, though I'll start this coming week to train for the Bolder Boulder.

Streaks are just motivating for me and whatever helps me get exercise is a good thing. My buddy Mark then put the idea into my head of working out every day in 2015. I haven't made that a goal, though. I figure illness or injury will shut me down eventually. In fact, if it wasn't for one day of illness in November (where I still played flag football on the beach and played in the ocean), my streak would be twenty-five days longer - 147 days. When it ends, that will be fine and I'll just start another one.

I have another streak going of late. Starting with last Saturday when I climbed Longs Peak, I've done a summit every day for seven days in a row now. Some of these summits are questionable, to be sure. On Thursday I did Flagstaff, which isn't a ranked summit. Mt. Sanitas isn't a ranked summit either and I've been counting both as unique peaks for my goal of doing 52 unique summits this year (one per week). But I'm free to make my own rules.

Yesterday I climbed the First (twice) and Second Flatirons and I'm counting those as summits (notice that I don't use the word "peak" for this streak). Peter Bakwin caught me halfway up the First and we finished together and downclimbed off. Running down the trail, we first ran into Quinn Carrasco, the director of the LaSportiva Trail Running Team, of which I am a member.  We then found Adam Massey about to start up Atalanta, so I joined him for a lap. On the summit I met James Hinkley - a Superior resident like me. I didn't know him. He asked me, "Are you a Minion?" I said yes. He said, "Are you the head Minion?" I said yes. He said, "Are you Bill?" Yes, I am. Cool. I snapped a photo of him rappelling off the First and we hope to get out and scramble the Second Flatiron sometime soon.

Today, I'll have to get some summit. I can't break my streak!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Spring Break, Day 4: Window Blind Peak

This morning we had a frigid, strong wind blasting us and it wouldn’t abate for the entire day. I kept up my routine of getting up before the boys, which actually was impossible not to do, as the boys never got up without prompting. I wondered how long they’d linger in their tents if I didn’t prompt them to emerge. They enjoyed each climb but they were never chomping at the bit to get going. I’m still not sure how to interpret this. They were excited for the trip, it seemed, but they were never jumping up, eager to go climbing. 
Window Blind Peak from Assembly Hall. Our route goes up the center of that north face
We all wore our wind shells, all except Derek, who forgot his. Hats and gloves were the order of the day as well. After packing up camp, we moved a  mile back down the road to a wash and parked. We followed an old, abandoned, and barely-there mining road towards the peak and eventually into a bouldery wash leading directly for a our climb - a rib between the two “windows”.

The approach was much longer and more difficult than the day before, taking us nearly two hours to approach the climb. We had to pass through one tall, cliff band. I took a more direct approach, while Homie found the correct and easier way up, which we all took on the way down. We stopped on the east side of the rib to gear up as much as possible before going into the shade on the west side, where the route started. It was cold enough even in the sun to prompt us to climb quickly.
Homie leads the last, short pitch
We went around and up a few hundred more feet of steep, loose ground, weaving around some smaller cliffs to the base of the main wall. We saw a stuck rope here that we’d later find out was left by some friends of Homie’s. I zipped up the first 5.5 pitch, which was easy and secure climbing to a notch. Here we were all able to get out of the wind and into the sun. It was the first time I felt comfortable since getting out of my sleeping bag.
Derek scrambles the last bit to the summit
The next pitch was a rope-stretcher and rated 5.7. It was mostly really easy, but a couple of sections gave me a slight pause. The protection wasn’t great for most of the pitch, but the angle was low enough where I didn’t have any stress. I belayed on a broken ledge and brought up Arthur and Homie at the same time, having dragged two ropes behind me. Derek came up last and, after Homie led up the final 30-foot cliff/slab, we unroped and scrambled around to the west on a big ledge and then up a break to the summit. 
Arthur on the summit
We spent a long time here, soaking in the immensity of the Swell. There is so much space here and nothing in it, Just some faint roads are the only sign of any human passage. Besides Jeff and Sandy we didn’t see another person for two days. The boys and I threw rocks off the summit while Homie busied himself photographing every page in the summit log book.

We got down with one 200-foot, free-hanging rappel. On the way down I unstuck the rope and we pulled it down. Arthur packed it out, hoping to use it as a gym rope. After talking with Homie’s friends, Sarah and Dominic, we knew the rope was relatively new. The color wasn’t faded at all, but it was a bit stiff.
Homie at the notch belay, atop the first pitch

We reversed back to the vehicles and let Derek and Arthur do the route finding on the way back. They did a good job and we didn’t get lost. Derek did most of the trying on the way home, with Arthur, who only has a permit, taking an hour-long stretch to spell Derek. We arrived home at 11:30 p.m. It was only four days, but all were very successful and the boys are game for another trip, so at least I didn’t sour them on desert adventure climbing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spring Break, Day 3: Assembly Hall

We drove twenty miles off I-70 into the northern part of the San Rafael Swell, out to a small, primitive, 8-site campground in the middle of nowhere. The most striking climbing objective here is Bottleneck Peak, whose easiest route is a 5.11 fist crack through a roof. That wasn’t on our list for this trip. We were interested in Assembly Hall (5.10) and Window Blind Peak (5.7).
Our camp in the Swell

After selecting a campsite and throwing up our tents, we wandered over to chat up the only other people in the campground, an older couple. They noticed our plates and asked where in Colorado we were from. When I responded with “Boulder area”, they asked, “Do you know Max and Charlie Nuttelman?” I couldn’t believe it. “Yes,” I said, “Charlie happens to be my main climbing partner this year.” And then he said, “Are you Bill?” Crazy. In the middle of nowhere. This was Jeff and Sandy, good friends of the Nuttelmans and they related the news of Max’s son being born just the day before. Cool.

The next morning it was chilly and our route lay in the shade, so Homie and I let the boys sleep a bit. They boys are prodigious sleepers. After we got home from this trip, Derek would sleep 13 hours one night! That’s amazing to me, but Arthur slept 16 hours! That’s nearly the equivalent of three nights’ sleep for me! I guess that’s when kids do the most growing. Apparently Arthur is going to be seven feet tall.
Scrambling up the bowl above the first 5.10 pitch, headed for the second one.
Locked and loaded, we hiked cross-country towards the main bowl on the north side of the peak. Scrambling up a wash and passing a short cliff band with the help of a fixed line, we arrived at the base of the route. A steep, short cliff barred access to the upper 2nd and 3rd class bowl. Two cracks on the right, rated at 5.10, allowed us to gain the upper bowl. The cracks protected well and were slightly less than vertical. I figured it would be cruiser climbing, but they were an awkward width and the rock was extremely sandy. I’m fine with a 5.10- rating here, but after Homie climbed it clean he said, “That can’t be 5.10. I can’t climb 5.10.” Arthur took a fall following it, but he’s very new to crack climbing. Still, it couldn’t have been that easy. Derek got this pitch clean as well.
Homie and Arthur on the main summit

We scrambled hundreds of feet up to the upper headwall, where a bolt-protected 5.10 pitch awaited. There were six bolts (the seventh is a belay bolt) on this 130-foot pitch, so it would be massively runout if that’s all the gear you used. I carried a substantial rack and was able to get in more gear, though lots of it in questionable rock. This is sandy, adventure climbing. 

I picked my way up the pitch carefully and found at these two sections pretty challenging. I set up a belay in broken, scrambling terrain above. Arthur  and then Homie came up next, both utilizing the gear as handholds. This is well within Arthur’s free climbing ability, but the climbing is strange and the rock quality so suspect that he didn’t want to risk a fall. Derek tried to free the pitch and nearly did. He took just one fall and didn’t pull on any gear.

We were able to scramble the remaining distance to the main summit, where we found a summit register. Much to Arthur’s dismay, though, this wasn’t the highest summit and with Homie the highest summit isn’t just a bonus, it’s a requirement. We traversed the plateau to the southern end and I fixed a rope so that we could rappel down into the notch. It wasn’t obvious how we were going to return, as the rappel was overhanging and the climbing looked difficult and dangerous. We had one ascender with us and could use a prussic knot if required.

Arthur rappelling into the notch between the summits
From the notch we climbed a short, very loose cliff and then found a secret passage up to the summit. We relaxed here, enjoying the view and snacking. We reversed back to the notch and I roped up to lead us out of there. My first thought proved too difficult and dangerous and I traversed right on easier and more solid rock. I gained a ledge and found a short squeeze chimney on the right that allowed secure, if physical, climbing back to the main summit. I was impressed how well the others did with their squeeze technique.

Derek on the highest summit with Window Blind Peak in the background
We scrambled back down to the top of the 5.10 headwall and found rappel anchors off toe west. A double rope rappel put us back at the base of the wall. We scrambled down to the two-bolt anchor atop the first wall and were soon back on the ground, eating again.
Belaying the others back to the main summit

Just before we arrived back at camp, we went by a sizable sandstone boulder. Arthur is on the climbing team at the Denver Movement gym and had been primarily bouldering for training, hence he couldn’t resist trying a few problems. The rock quality was suspect, but we found and did four unique problems to the summit, ranging from 5.2 to probably V2. It was a great way to end the day and there was lots of laughing going on as we all demonstrated our heels hooks and drop knees. Even Homie topped out the boulder. 

Homie squeezing back to the main summit

Derek doing the same

Bouldering fun

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring Break, Day 2: Ancient Art

No Strava - stupid Garmin software...

After pizza, we drove out to the Fisher Towers. There is a campground there, but it only has five sites and all were taken. Actually, one site didn’t have a car there, but it had a tag reserving the site. I pulled up to another site where a couple was sitting at the picnic table. They had an SUV that was pulling a tiny habitat and hence, had not tent up. I put down my window and started chatting them up. Their names were Mica and Michelle and they had a vizsla named Ruby, who was very affectionate. I asked if we could park by their site and throw up our tents. They looked inside the car and saw two clean-cut teenagers and nodded their assent. We immediately hit it off with all three of them and joined them around their campfire.

The next morning, after I got up, made coffee, ate breakfast,  packed my tent, I tried to roust the boys. This was less than successful. I was gentle with them. They are strong, young boys, but their psyche is in an especially delicate balance at this time of day. I mentioned that there was no great rush at this point, but a party had already left, presumably for the same route. Arthur responded with, “So, there’s no need to rush, but rush anyway.” I sometimes do rush to get onto a climb before the crowds, but not this morning. This was as un-rushed as I can be when it comes to climbing. This young padawan still had a lot to learn.

Packs loaded and attitudes adjusted, we marched along the trail toward Ancient Art. It is only a mile to the base of the route and we soon arrived to watch the team in front of us climbing the chimney pitch. They had a couple of friends watching them from the base and they were desperately trying to stay out of the gale-force winds. These winds were so strong that it prevented this first party from standing on the very top and we wondered if it would do the same to us.
I had to put some pressure on Derek to get him to change into long pants, but he relented and was very glad for this higher up. We all wore light jackets as well. 

Arthur did all the belaying on this tower and followed last, reversing roles with Derek from the previous day. I elected to break up the first pitch into two very short ones, as the guidebook recommended this for free climbing and it makes sense to me since the crux climbing is on the second pitch and quite delicate.
I zipped up easy, 5.6 cracks to a spacious ledge and brought the boys up.

The next pitch is only about forty feet long, but has the toughest moves of the climb. You climb up a broad scoop where delicate and creative stemming are required since the handholds to surmount one budge are too small for me to use. Thankfully the climbing is closely bolted - it’s actually a bolt ladder - and many parties just pull through. You can climb this tower with just 5.8 free climbing and aid the rest. All free the tower goes at 5.10 and that’s the way we did it.

I worked out the feet and was quickly at the belay. Derek followed and experienced the same “there are no holds” consternation that I did. After he checked the slab above the bulge three or four times to make sure he wasn’t missing any holds, he worked out the very cool footwork and arrived at the belay. Arthur didn’t have the patience to figure out the footwork, but he did have 5.12+ crimping strength and just bore down on a microscopic crystal, one that I never even considered as a hold, and pulled up. It was impressive.

The next pitch is a really fun 100-foot chimney pitch that is climbed mostly via stemming on great holds. This pitch is just so fun and both the boys loved it. It ends on a huge ledge with three fat rappel/belay bolts and we hung out there, waiting for the party above to descend. You can’t really continue upwards from here until the rest of the route is cleared, as there isn’t any room for a second party.

The other party took awhile getting back down to us because they were worried about the wind blowing their rappel lines around the tower and getting stuck. So the leader slowly rapped down while carrying both ropes coiled on his harness. We’d do something much simpler and quicker - lower Arthur on one rope and feed him the other rope.

With the path to the summit cleared, I headed up the another short, well-protected 5.10 section to reach the plank - a find of rock that connects with the final tower. I thought this section was easier than the second pitch, but it did involve getting a hidden hold high on the left. Derek had some trouble finding and using this hold, but he didn’t come off. Nor did Arthur. Both boys onsighted the entire tower, which was cool. My first time climbing this tower I pulled on all these bolts.

Arthur had entertained thoughts of leading the last pitch but the wind was so ferocious that we agreed it wasn’t a good idea. I showed the boys my “cheat” to avoid the bellyflop move onto the diving board and climbed to the summit. The winds were still ripping, but I stood up quickly before I could have second thoughts. Derek snapped my photo and I reversed down to the rappel anchor, which is slings wrapped entirely around the tower and about eight feet down from the top. I clipped in and threaded my rope through the anchor. I didn’t want the boys to have to deal with this. Arthur then lowered me back down to the belay.

Derek went next and tried to walk the plank but the wind was still too great. We both squatted and reached across the dip in the plank. Derek and Arthur both had to flip their rope around the tower while climbing it, as it traverses around the backside. The crux move on this pitch is a very high step onto a pebble while turning an overhanging bulge. Derek and Arthur both made this step look a lot easier than I did.

The winds started to die a bit and Derek was comfortable standing on top. The four-hundred feet of exposure didn’t bother him in the slightest. The winds were even lighter for Arthur, but still there. Arthur walked the plank entirely. Clearly he wasn’t intimidated by the drop. He cruised up to the top for his photo and that was it. The descent went smoothly, despite having to rappel by a party of three and another party of two. At the base we found another party of three and another party of two queued up. No one was antsy, though, as the tower is short and the weather was good. So, fifteen people climbed Ancient Art that day and these were the only climbers we saw. This isn’t surprising as the rest of the Fisher Towers are hard, scary aid climbs or pretty extreme free climbs.

We hiked out and drove out to Green River. We were meeting Homie there to head into the Swell. Homie, obviously an avid peak bagger, declined to join us for Ancient Art. I think he thought the tower to be so improbable that it could fall over at any moment. Thankfully it didn’t while we were on it, but it won’t last forever.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring Break, Day 1: Independence Monument

After I got back from Longs Peak, I took just a couple of hours to pack for this trip. Whenever I pack fast, two things happen:

1. I take way too much stuff
2. I forget stuff

We were packed to the gills, but thankfully Arthur doesn’t take up much room and never complained though he was sandwiched in the back seat by a wall of gear that threatened to bury him in an avalanche if I took a turn too fast. Despite all this I forgot a cap, the charger for my laptop, a summit pack, and any water source that could be clipped to my harness.

I did all the driving on the way out and the boys handled it all on the way back. Since I had arisen at 3:45 a.m. that day, I was fading by the time we got to Rifle. I pulled off at a rest stop to see if it met our high standards for camping. It did and we bivied on flat grass, nestled in the shade of the visitor center/bathroom (from the light posts). Nevertheless, the camping proved difficult for my companions.

First, Arthur kept sliding off this pad. Later he would complain about the pronounced slope. Derek was in his 0.5-pound sleeping bag, good down to about 60 degrees if it isn’t windy and the temperature dropped into the 20’s. He had a rough night and didn’t sleep much. I found this out when we both got up to pee around 4 a.m. I felt only a little guilty in my -40-degree bag. This trip was about teaching the boys how to take care of themselves on long, multi-pitch trad climbs, but also on a climbing trip in general. I wanted them to pack for themselves, select the gear they needed, plan ahead, know what jobs needed to be done, etc. I gave them both a list of gear to bring and both of them pretty much ignored it. I discovered Arthur’s deficiencies before we left my house and gave him hat, gloves, headlamp, etc. But I didn’t know that Derek only packed the smallest bag and he didn’t even bring a shell. Both would be mistakes. Clearly, there were still some things for these boys to learn.

When I realized that Derek was hurting in the cold, I set an early wake-up time: 5:45 a.m. Homie had joined us a couple of hours after we threw down the bags, but we were asleep. He thought about inviting us into his van to sleep and Derek would have appreciated that, but decided against waking us. I went over and tapped on his van door, telling him the plan, which was to drive to the McDonald’s in Fruita for breakfast. Upon arrival there, Derek was still semi-comatose from lack of sleep and overall misery. Arthur and I went inside and got ourselves a coffee and I got a sandwich. Homie joined us and, eventually, Derek, too. After eating, we packed up for the climb. Five minutes down the road, we pulled into the parking lot, just in time to see a party of three heading out with climbing packs. We weren’t concerned and I quelled my desire to blast past this team. We were a team of four with only one leader and these three could be bad-asses for all I knew. In Boulder I’d just assume that, but, as we’d find out, Grand Junction is not Boulder.

We hiked the beautiful trail into Monument Canyon. When the massive Independence Monument appeared over the horizon I couldn’t help, once again, envisioning it as a giant, rock beast, kept captive in this canyon. We’d only be successful on our climb if we tread lightly and crept up on it. Then, like mites on humans, we’d tiptoe up the skin of the great beast and it would be none the wiser. 

At the base of Otto’s Route we found quite the traffic jam. Already at the top of pitch one were two people with their third still on the ground. Queued up behind them was a party of two and behind them the party of three that hiked in just ahead of us. I’m not well-suited to wait for so many parties, so I marched the group around to the sunny south side and over to the base of the Scorpion Crack route. I’d done this route once before with the Loobster. The first pitch has some aid climbing on it, but I remembered it as a pretty short section and, from the base, it appeared that way. 

We dropped the packs and geared up. I didn’t have any specific aid gear, but felt I could manage well enough by just stepping in some slings. Derek gave me an expert belay and between the two of us, we got the rope up to the top of the first pitch. Only the first half of the short pitch was aid climbing and it seems well within reach of today’s top climbers to free it. But it was well out of my reach. The upper section was probably 5.8 climbing, but pretty sandy and it definitely had my attention.

I had left a lot of gear and slings behind for the other three to use, since we didn’t have any ascenders either. Everyone would have to repeat the aid moves that I did. Arthur climbed second and did an excellent job, using his gym power to make good progress yanking on gear, though he seemed to spend half his time chalking up. 

Homie came up next and had a bit more trouble. He was the only one in the group that hadn’t been climbing regularly in the gym. Hiking up a 14er, he could have carried us all, but climbing up an overhanging rock wall, he had some trouble hoisting just himself. He knew how to conserve his energy, though, and didn’t flail and didn’t get frustrated. He slapped a prussic on the other rope, the one, heading down to Derek, still on the ground, and methodically made his way up the pitch.

Derek was batting clean-up and would for the entire climb. It was his job to pull out all the gear that everyone else has pulled on and stood on. Of course, by removing this gear, he could no longer pull on it. He had to do a bit more real rock climbing, but he managed. A couple of stoppers were wedged very tight and Derek got to learn the technique of using a cam as a hammer on the nut tool. He did a great job removing all the gear on the entire climb.

The next pitch was very easy, up a ramp to a stance with two bolts. The chimney above looked very long, so I opted to belay here, probably only seventy feet higher. Everyone scrambled up this pitch in one time and I set to work on the meat of the route. The chimney pitch started with a vertical offwidth section and it stymied me for a bit. I tried a couple of things and retreated back down to the belay. Then, with a #3.5 Camalot placed high and deep in the crack, I grunted out the offwidth moves, just barely. This felt more like 5.9 to me.

Above this ten-foot crux section the climbing continued up a wide crack, but the angle laid back and it was relatively easy for the next fifty feet, where I found another ledge and two more bolts. The chimney still looked long and I set up another belay. This, as it turns out, was a very good decision. I could have easily combined the ramp pitch with the offwidth pitch, but this belay is mandatory.

All three of my companions pulled on gear for the offwidth section. This is completely understandable. You can’t train for that in the gym and there were no face holds on which to cheat. Derek tried to stem a bit of the upper section and a hold broke on him and he fell onto the rope. I kept a tight rope on everyone and they made the belay with a minimum of fuss. 

This climb was proving to be much harder than what we had planned, yet everyone was taking it in stride and not getting frustrated. The boys didn’t seem to mind in the least that they weren’t able to free all the pitches. They knew this trip was about learning some new techniques. 

The climbing had been slanting up and right across the south face, but now the chimney was straight above us. As I started this pitch, Homie instructed me to “make this one look easy, would you?” The pitch started with another nasty offwidth on the right, but I could just barely stem to a small corner on the left and was able to grunt my way upwards. The climbing was challenging, though and just a few moves off the belay Homie notified me that I had failed.

This pitch was long, steep, and continuous. One memorable section climbed a 0.75-Camalot crack with the help of a squeeze chimney. Both the crack and the chimney were very difficult widths, but together they seemed like 5.9 climbing. Tough, burly, strange 5.9 climbing. Meaning, there was liberal gear tugging by my companions once again.

I also screwed up badly when leading this pitch. I was dragging two ropes so that I could belay two climbers at once and keep the team moving, but I treated Homie’s line like a haul line and failed to clip it into any gear. This would have been fine if the chimney stayed vertical the entire way, but at the top I had to enter deep into the chimney that now slanted hard to the right again. This had the effect of putting Homie in some danger, for if he fell he’d swing into the deep chimney and probably become permanently wedged in there, like a stuck hex. He toughed it out and walked up some of my gear to protect himself. I was thankful he didn’t chew me out when he got to the belay ledge and made sure to start apologizing before he got within swinging distance of me.

We had now joined Otto’s Route and met up with the party of three that we’d have been behind if we’d waited on them. So, we didn’t gain any ground on the other climbers, but we were at least busy climbing instead of just waiting around to climb. Everyone cruised the short 5.8 face pitch up to the last gigantic ledge. The only thing left was the airy summit pitch.

This pitch is supposedly 5.9 and maybe it is, but it’s 5.9++. The crux is short, but overhanging. You climb up the footholds and handholds carved in the rock by Otto, but the footholds are now just sloper scoops. The handholds are solid 3-finger pockets that are very positive, but with little help from your feet the climbing is still burly. I moved quickly and made it over the lip before my arms gave out. Arthur could have hung on down there for an hour, I’m sure, and easily sent the pitch. Homie did some expedient pulling on the draws and was up in no time. Derek cruised as well. He’d done this pitch once before when he was about ten years old. He dangled quite a bit then, but now it was so easy for him.

There actually is seven more feet of climbing above the anchors for this pitch to reach the actual summit and Arthur, Homie, and Derek all topped out ahead of me. We signed the register and ate the only food anyone thought to bring: Homie’s sunflower seeds.

The descent went smoothly. A double-rope rappel to a single-rope rappel to another double-rope rappel. I sent the boys down on their Gri-Gri’s on this tower, since I forgot to bring in regular belay/rappel devices for them. I just fixed one of the lines before then went down.

We traversed back around to the south side of the tower to pick up the gear we left at the base. After a quick snack, we packed up and hiked out. We ate at Dominos Pizza that night and then headed out to the Fisher Towers for the night. For a guy who, granted, is getting quite tall, Arthur is still rail-thin. Yet, he can pack away the pizza. He devoured more than half a large pizza after the climb.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

LPP: March Success on North Face

Charlie and Homie at the base of the North Face's crux pitch

After getting our butts thoroughly kicked on the Diamond six days ago, Charlie and I needed an easy win to keep the Longs Peak Project going. The first time I did the LPP I also failed on the Diamond in March. I then had to recruit Homie to team up with me on the Northwest Couloir route to save March. I once tried to link up climbing Longs Peak with biking up Mt. Evans in the same day. After I failed at this solo, I recruited Homie to team up with me for the Longs ascent. Each time, Homie was the key to success. So, what do you think I did? Yup. Recruited Homie to join us.
Charlie contemplating the North Face

Homie's a Colorado 14er legend. He's climbed the 14ers three times over, I think, and done over 300 peak-months of the 14er grid. He tried for the 14er speed record once and stopped due to injury, but not before climbing 41 14ers in just seven days! He's also done 53 14ers in winter. Alas, this ascent would not qualify as a winter ascent, since winter officially ended the day before.

We chose the North Face, as it is the shortest route. We were burning a match that we'd hoped to save for December, but we'll deal with that. Maybe we'll save the Keyhole or Keplinger's Couloir for December. Neither one a gimme at that time of year, but technically pretty easy.

Since I was leaving for Grand Junction the same day, to start Spring Break with my son and nephew, we met early. Homie picked me up at 4:10 a.m. and we met Charlie in north Boulder at 4:30. We were hiking at 5:39 a.m. Snow conditions were good and the weather was nice. I led up through the trees and turned over the leading to Charlie once the postholing began. It wasn't bad, though, says the guy in back. Homie didn't want to taint our ascent, so he said, and therefore didn't break any trail or carry any gear. Hey, you don't get up so many peaks in winter without being wily.
Traversing above the technical pitch
We found an old track leading up to the North Face and I took over the postholing duties. I figured I'd lead the technical pitch since Charlie had done most of the leading last week. I think I've always led this pitch whenever I've climbed it. Strange that it has always worked out that way, as I don't need to lead it.

Homie trying to warm his feet on the summit
Today it was covered mostly in snow. There was some cause for concern, though, as the snow wasn't very thick and my crampons would frequently go down to the rock slab below. I place the three cams and two slings that I brought with me, so I carried the perfect rack, so to speak. I was wearing my LaSportiva Crossover trail running shoes again, but with a new pair of Kahtoola Flight Boots over them. My buddy Danny at Kahtoola had a leftover pair of these discontinued products and graciously offered them to me. I had him cut off the built-in snowshoe cleats so that I could better fit the Kathoola crampons on them. This is the setup that I used trailhead-to-trailhead. Charlie used a brand new pair of Trango Cubes and Homie used the very light Explorer Mids. The latter here are really just a high-top, sticky rubber hiking shoe and are not intended for lengthy stretches buried in snow at 14,000 feet with temperatures below 20 degrees. While we had sun and no wind, there was a quite cold stretch on the North Face and Homie's feet froze. And he isn't prone to getting cold at all. He just went too light on the footwear.

Above the technical pitch, I continued leading, breaking trail. There was no sign of climbers on the technical pitch or above it. We learned from another party that despite the great weather last Sunday no one made it up the North Face with at least one party turning around due to fear of avalanche. We felt conditions were safe enough, but continued roped clear to the summit and back. Charlie took over the trail breaking for the last three hundred vertical feet.

We spent a good thirty minutes on the summit so that Homie could re-warm his frozen feet. He went through the very painful process of defrosting while Charlie and I enjoyed perfectly still conditions. Only seven people had made the summit since our February ascent. No one had climbed Longs between our January and February ascents. I know that number will increase each month until probably peaking in August.

Descending to the rappel anchors
The descent went smoothly and we were back at the car a little after 1 p.m., doing the roundtrip under eight hours. Homie was my lucky charm once again. Charlie and I have now done three months, a quarter of the way there and done with some of the toughest months. We'll go again in mid-April, possibly up the Trough and see if we can ski some of the approach. If we do that, I'll go in my NNN ski boots and it will make for my sixth different boots in six attempts.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Failure on the Diamond in Winter

"If you don't know what this is, go back to reading Outside Magazine"

Sunday had one of the best weather forecasts for any day this entire winter. So good that it attracted three separate teams to attempt a one-day winter ascent of the Diamond on Longs Peak - a feat not often done. All three teams failed, though, but not because the forecast was wrong - the weather was splitter all day long. No, it was because all three teams made mistakes.

The first team on the wall and the ones putting in the first tracks through knee-deep postholing nearly from Chasm Cut-off onward, was a pair of Poles. Their mistake: they got on the wrong route.

The third team on the wall was a pair of pros going for the winter speed record: Scott "Naked Edge Speed Record Holder" Bennet and Joe "Freed 5.14 on the Diamond" Badass (I think that was his last name, but it might have been Mills). Being pros just one mistake wasn't going to shut them down. So they made a series of mistakes: forgot an ice axe, dropped an ascender, forgot gear on Broadway, and, finally, with an assist from another party, a mountain boot was dropped off Broadway and fell one thousand feet to the snowfields below the Diagonal wall.

Charlie and I were the third team. Our mistake? Charlie chose the wrong partner.

An incredible sunrise as we started up the North Chimney

Basically, I'm not good enough to get that done in winter. But, as the ever-optimistic Charlie pointed out, if you don't ever fail, then you haven't found your limits. Unfortunately, my limits are pretty easy to find. Nearly everywhere I look these days. I'm not just fast enough on steep aid, in mountain boots and with gloves on. At 13,000 feet and with a pack on my back. It was difficult to get high in my aiders or even step out of them, though I forced myself to do that a few times. 

We didn't go in completely cold. We practiced by climbing up Country Club Crack. Even in our mountain boots. Charlie wore a heavy pack even. I didn't. I did buy a new set of aiders so that I'd be able to get my boots into the steps easier.
The gear I carried

We went on Sunday, not only because the weather report was great, but because it gave us all day to pack and get everything ready and still try to get some sleep. Sleep was tough to come by, though, as we were meeting in Boulder at 2 a.m. so I had my alarm set for 1:25 a.m. I got about three hours of sleep. Charlie got less. But we made up for that by having him carry more weight. My pack weighed forty pounds and Charlie had forty-five.

You might already be thinking: "Well, that was your first mistake - carrying so much weight." I don't think so, but it is certainly debatable. We carried two lead ropes so that we could use the Yo-Go method of simul-climbing. I carried a big rack because I wasn't going to free anything and didn't want to back-clean too excessively. If anything, the mistake was thinking that we'd make it with so much weight. But without that gear, we definitely wouldn't have made it. 
At the base of the North Chimney

We were hiking in warm, but breezy conditions, by 3:02 a.m. I led the way initially and set a pace that didn't drain me. Charlie patiently followed my slow plod. We made treeline in 1h15m or so and then couldn't find the normal trail. It didn't matter very much, but I was surprised how hard it was to find in the dark. Charlie took over the lead and we did some postholing through soft snow before we even got to Chasm Cut-off.

From the Cut-off, there was just one pair of tracks heading towards the East Face. I studied them in dim light of my headlamp, wondering if they were fresh from even earlier this morning. The tracks didn't take the usual, low traverse over to the meadow where the privy and ranger cabin are located, but stayed very high on the slopes of Mt. Lady Washington and lead directly to Chasm Lake. We continued across the frozen lake, postholing up to our knees most of the time. Even following the track, it was hard work and got a lot harder on the far side when the angle increased dramatically.

Ahead we could see the lights of two climbers. I was amazed that another party was going for the Diamond. I didn't think the face was climbed much at all in the winter and now two parties on the same day. Of course, it was the weather report. When Mark and I climbed the Diamond this past summer, on a Tuesday, there were at least ten parties going for the Diamond. It makes sense. For most people, me very much included, getting up the Diamond at all is a huge feat and generally requires the best weather to be successful.

Following the last pitch to Broadway
We finally caught the climbers at the base of the North Chimney. Charlie was already yelling up thanks for the track. We didn't want that to go unacknowledged for even a moment. Without that track, we'd have been much slower. They were two Poles. Kasper was on vacation from Poland, visiting his ex-pat friend, Yuri, who had been living in Chicago for twenty years. They'd never climbed the Diamond before. Right. The term bad-assery comes to mind. I imagined these are the type of guys that climb 8000-meter peaks in winter. At night. Naked. 

While they roped up, we did the same. I showed off my prowess and competence, by dropping down mitten 200 feet down the snowslope. While I climbed down to retrieve it, Charlie flaked the rope and started climbing up the North Chimney's snow couloir. I got back in time to tie into the end and follow him. Our plan was for Charlie to lead us up to Broadway, he being the better ice/mixed climber of the team. He's really the "better everything" of the team, but it sounds better to call him our mixed master. And, yes, that is self-deprecating and not entirely true. I am much better at dropping gloves.

We climbed the North Chimney as two pitches, both led by Charlie. This in itself, at least for Charlie and I, was a substantial climb. It's an entirely different experience to climb the North Chimney in winter with forty pounds on your back and wearing crampons and using ice tools than to scramble up it in summer. Charlie led with is two carbon-fiber axes and I followed with my stone axe. I have just enough experience to know which end to hold.

As the couloir pinched down and we were forced to climb rock, the angle increased, as did the difficulty. I would definitely benefit from more experience hooking rounded granite and climbing rock in crampons. Charlie led up the steep part nicely and it exiting onto a rock slab covered in just enough snow. I'd been on that slab before and knew how tenuous the snow cover can be. Conditions were good though. Fifty feet higher, Charlie set up a belay. 

The second pitch doesn't follow the normal summer route out the steep right side and onto the slabs above. Instead it heads up a steep broken corner on the left. In the summer this is perpetually wet and occasionally covered in verglas, but in the winter it is a mixture of snow-covered rock and ice. This is steep, committing climbing. Charlie was solid, placing good protection when it was available and running it out when it wasn't. I struggled mightily to follow. It was physical and tiring. One particularly unnerving section was a nearly vertical snow section. Doing this with one axe was challenging. I'd have been terrified if it wasn't for the tight toprope belay.

As soon as we made Broadway we were met by intense sunlight. The entire ledge is buried in snow so that everything is at a very steep angle. Against the wall, the snow was melting in the suffocating heat. We stripped down. I was very winded and continued to breathe as if I was in the midst of a 5K run, while just standing there. We watched Kasper lead up the Diamond very slowly. Charlie started to wonder if they would let us pass. I remained mute to that suggestion, inwardly fearful that I'd be even slower. Kasper had at least one axe a the ready and used it to hook in the vertical crack above. I'd be trying no such shenanigans.
The Poles starting up Yellow Wall

After eating and drinking and gearing up, I started the laborious traverse in the deep snow. When I got near enough to the Poles I asked them if they were on D7. I was pretty sure it was further left. They just responded, "We hope so!" I traversed low, well below where they had set a belay, and further left. I pulled out my topo and confirmed my suspicions. They were on the Yellow Wall and I was now below the snow-covered 4th slabby/broken section leading up to the base of the first pitch of D7. Getting to that belay proved disappointingly difficult for me. When I finally got to the Diamond proper, I had to aid a couple of moves just to get to the first belay. Clearly that wasn't a good sign.

I clipped into a fixed pin and threw in another cam. I pulled up a bit of rope (note: not all the rope) on the red rope and fixed it. Charlie was belaying me on the yellow rope, so I could just continue leading up the first pitch, but before I did, I pulled off my crampons and just clipped them to the belay. I did the same with my axe. This would add even more weight to Charlie, but he yelled over to do that, I suspect because it had already taken me so long just to get to here that he wanted to keep me moving.

A slowly worked my way higher. Though this first pitch is only rated 5.9, when you are aid climbing, the free-climbing rating is irrelevant. In fact, it can be harder to aid 5.9, then 5.11. The best climbers, the speed climbers, don't really view it as "aid climbing". They view it as "free climbing with aid", meaning that they are always looking to gain altitude in the easiest fastest way. I, on the other hand, was mired in my aiders. With my big boots, my gloved hands, my pack, I was just too clumsy to free climb. But mostly I didn't have the confidence to free climb. I was afraid to get too far out of my aiders for fear that I wouldn't be able to place gear before I fell or that I'd waste tremendous amounts of energy hanging on and desperately fighting to place gear, trying not to panic, knowing that a fall, any fall really, would likely crush what little psych I still had to continue upwards.

After just twenty feet the rope came tight on me and I couldn't move. I yelled down for Charlie to give me slack, but he was giving me slack. I was stuck by the short-fix on the red rope. What a dope I was. Whenever you fix, you pull up all the slack and then fix. Just amazing... I hung there in my aiders while Charlie jugged the red line to the belay at the base, clipped in, and unfixed the red line.

Just about then a climber appeared onto Broadway from the North Chimney. He yelled over, "Is that you, Ben?" I said, "Nope." He said, "Really?" I said, "Yup. Who's that?" He said, "Scott Bennett." I knew Scott from the Naked Edge speed wars. He and Brad Gobright currently had the record at sub-29-minutes, bridge-to-bridge. I yelled back, "Hi Scott. It's Bill Wright." He responded, "Cool! Good to see you up here, Bill, giving the Diamond some winter love." We're trying for the speed record and it's only been three hours so far." Three hours??!! Damn! Even with the track put in by the four of us, that was mind-boggling. We'd taken about 6.5 hours to cover the same terrain.

Scott was climbing with Joe Mills, who had freed the hardest route on the Diamond (5.14) last year. Scott thought they were on about a 10-hour, roundtrip, pace. It seemed like Scott was doing all the leading, being more the alpinist than Joe. When Joe arrived on Broadway, though, he took over the lead for the traverse of Broadway to D7. While Joe did this, Scott was yelling up advice to the Poles to switch over to D7 at the Crossover Ledge. Joe was going to traverse low, like I did, but Scott directed him to climb higher, along the minuscule "ledge" that cuts directly along the base of the Diamond. This break is less than a foot wide and the wall bulges out above it. When Joe got just a little ways past the Poles, he didn't like the conditions. He said, "This is jingus. It's not safe. He retreated to the Poles and anchored there. Scott came across and then easily led the remaining way over to Charlie at the base of D7.

Scott asked if they could climb through and, never one to hold up a faster team, I responded, "Come on up." Scott brought Joe over and they transitioned from mixed climbing to rock climbing. This didn't mean any changes for Joe, but Scott took off his mountain boots and heavy socks, just placing them on the tiny shelf at the belay, untethered. He pulled on a pair of approach shoes and swarmed upwards, using a mix of free climbing and aid climbing. Scott wore gloves as well and although he was climbing much faster than I was, he was still making liberal use of his aiders, just way more efficiently than I was and sprinkling in judicious free climbing.

I was about thirty feet below the first pitch anchor when Scott overtook me, about 130 feet up the wall. I just moved to the side and he aided on through. Scott had already short-fixed once, I think just from a single piton, but maybe he backed it up with a stopper. That was our plan as well, but I didn’t think the anchor was good enough to fix. 

With Scott about ten feet above me, a curious sequence of events led to all three parties bailing within the time span of just a few minutes. First, the Poles called over that they were heading down. They didn’t think they could be successful getting behind two parties on D7. Scott encouraged them to continue, but they were fine with going down. “It was our own fault for heading up the wrong route. We’ll be back.” At that point, I decided to bail. I didn’t want to be the reason the Poles bailed, because I didn’t think I was moving fast enough to get up the wall in the daylight. I told as much to the Poles, telling them that they’d only be behind a very fast party and they wouldn’t get held up. They were determined to rap off, though. I suspect they might have had the same feelings that I was having. They were even slower than I was, but I assumed they were tougher too, and could just climb through the night. I wouldn’t do that, at least not by choice.

Scott then called down for Joe to send up the Gri-Gri, as he’d need it self-belay. Scott had been climbing with just the rope tied off, the “Death Loop” method of fixing and I guess wanted to start using a method without “Death” in the name. 

Joe responded, “No can do. I need it to jug.” 
Scott asked, “What about the ascenders?” 
“I dropped one in the North Chimney.”

Oops. They had already forgot to bring a second axe, so Joe had to follow the North Chimney without a tool. Now the dropped ascender threatened their ascent and their record attempt. I had already told Charlie of my decision to bail and he readily agreed and didn’t try to pressure me to continue. I appreciated that. I told him I’d just continue to the anchor and he could jug up and clean the pitch, just to experience the Diamond in winter and use his new skills. Little did I know at the time, but Charlie had no interest in that. Just jugging the bottom thirty feet had proved incredibly strenuous for him and he saw no need to do that work. So, when I offered up one of our ascenders to Joe, so that they could continue their ascent, Charlie jumped at it. If he had to give up his ascender that meant he had another reason not to jug up the wall. Scott was very thankful and relayed the information to Joe. 

As we were working out the details for them to haul up the ascender, Joe and Scott realized that  in their haste, they had left Scott’s boots perched on the shelf below! They asked Charlie to clip them in with the ascender so that they could haul them up. In the process of belaying me, trying to manage three ropes, get the ascender off the rope, getting the boots clipped in, Charlie mishandled a boot. It dropped to Broadway and bounced down the hard snow and over the 1000-foot Diagonal Wall, careening far out into space. Charlie’s exclamation of “Shit!” alerted us all and we watched the boot drop out of sight.

“That’s it, we’re bailing!” said Scott seemingly before we even lost sight of the boot. I was impressed how he had done all the calculations for continuing and knew it wasn’t prudent. Joe pressed him, though, “Can’t you just continue without it?” Joe said, “Nope. Going up and over and down the North Face without a boot, without crampons, with one axe, and just in my Five Tennies? No.”

With that he started dealing with the new situation. He’d continue up twenty feet to the first belay anchor and rap off. They only had one rope, so they hauled up my red rope to set up the belay. Once that was done, I got onto the rappel lines and descended, cleaning the pitch of my gear. I descended past Joe and then, hanging ten feet out from the base of the wall, continued on past Charlie down to where the ropes intersected Broadway. I threw in an anchor here and waited while, first Joe, and then Scott joined me. We had to swing the ropes into Charlie so that he could grasp them and rappel down to us. While Charlie was doing this, Scott led back across Broadway, belayed by me. En route he climbed up and unstuck the rappel rope of the Poles, who he had been trying to direct to the Crack of Delight rappel anchors. If Charlie and I were alone on face, I’d have rappelled the North Chimney because I knew exactly where the anchors were, since we had used them on the ascent. We’d have had to down climb the lower couloir, but that wouldn’t have been a problem, as the snow conditions were good. But Scott knew the Crack of Delight rappels well and led all of us that way. 

It was time consuming to get everyone over to the first rappel anchor. Everyone down climbed to those with a belay, save for Scott, who unroped and soloed down to them. Kasper was the first to rappel, but he missed the next anchors and went by them, stranding himself near the ends of the rope. Scott had to wait for additional ropes to set up another rappel, rap down to the next anchors and fix another rappel line to rescue Kasper. All this took time and Yuri, Charlie and I waited above. 

Eventually it all got worked out and we all got down to the snowfield below. Scott and Joe waited for everyone to get down to them before taking off, running down the slopes with their light packs. They had recovered the boot and seemed in great spirits. They had rescued a fellow climber and dealt with their adversity and mistakes with grace and aplomb.  Both of these guys are incredible ambassadors for the sport of climbing. 

We coiled ropes, packed our gear, and ate and drank. There was no great hurry, as we had plenty of light to get back to the parking lot. I was tired and needed more fuel. The Poles took off a few minutes before we did, but we passed them just past Chasm Lake, as they stopped to shed. The going back across Chasm Lake was more laborious than I had hoped, given how many people we had seen up in the cirque that day. It turns out that Austin Porzak, the guy that skied the First Flatiron, was there that day. We saw a pair with skis. They ended up climbing up Lambs Slide and after getting lost or something, summitting Longs at 5 a.m. the next morning. Wow. They went entirely through the night. That’s seriously tough, but I’m not sure what was going on.

We plodded back to the car and my pack seemed to get heavier with each step, as the burden of failure weighed me down. We were way too heavy to succeed, but not good enough to go lighter. It's a vicious circle and one that pretty much rules out the Diamond in winter for all but the very best. Or if not the very best, the much-better-than-me. 

Charlie was super cool about it. He's a great guy and would never blame me for this failure, but he did his part masterfully, leading us up to Broadway. I didn't come through. I thought I was better than that, but I'm not. 

Fourteen hours to fail. Fourteen hours with 40+ pounds on my back. I was completely wasted when I got back to the car. I sprawled onto a dry patch of the pavement and then cramped up, massively, removing my boots. Despite drinking almost 80 ounces of liquid, I'd still be 3 or 4 pounds light the next day. Charlie looked and acted fresh. He had seriously considered going up the Notch Couloir after we got off the face, after Scott had jokingly asked if anyone was up for it. I'm sure he can be tired, but I'm also pretty sure he can't get tired while adventuring with me.

Afterwards I beat myself up a bit. I felt that I had let down Charlie, though he denied that and refused to let me believe it. I felt I had wasted his chance on the best weather day of the season. Two days later, while hiking/running Bear Peak with my buddy Mark, I told him all about it. I concluded the obvious. The minimum skill level to climb the Diamond in a winter day is fairly high. I learned that it was considerably above my skills. It was embarrassing to think I was good enough and then to find out how wrong I was, how far short I was. Mark chose to see it as just a step along the way to gaining the required skills, a step on the path to success instead of a dead-end at failure. 

By far the impression that will stay with me the longest from this day is not the climbing or the mountain or the weather, but the people. Everyone displayed such optimism, such kindness, such patience, such personal responsibility, and such carrying. It made me feel extremely lucky to be a part of this community and to call some of them my friends. Friends that see only the best in you and are forever lifting you up, even when you're determined to sink. 

Heading home across Chasm Lake