Sunday, January 31, 2016

Road to Denali, part 4: Skiing

This weekend our plans were to try out our mountaineering boots on some skis. I had a couple of pairs of old alpine skis with some ancient Randonee bindings (Ramer and Fritschi). I hadn't used them in at least a decade. I'd dabbled a touch with alpine touring but the boots were a problem for me and I basically settled on backcountry NNN gear for skiing. While we aren't set on using skis on Denali, that is my hope. I've been skiing since I was nine years old and am very comfortable on them, but Derek is a relative newbie.

We headed up to Ski Road in Allen's Park, as my buddies Charlie and Tom use it to train for the Grand Traverse ski race. It's a single-lane road closed to traffic this time of year and provides a gentle climbing angle and shelter from the wind. I was hoping this would be a good place for Derek to hone his skills. Turns out it wasn't ideal.

The first thing I realized is that I'm going to need at least one more pair of skis. My alpine skins were so old and bone dry. I'll try re-gluing them, but getting a new pair is probably a good investment. Derek's skins fell off immediately and we had to go to my backup, plastic skins with straps that go around the skis. Except that the skis are too wide for the back strap and can't be buckled. They worked well enough though, being purely attached with tension. This means they don't stick to the bottom of the ski and this isn't ideal. In fact, the toughest part about this outing was copious amounts of snow sticking to the bottoms of our skis and my skins. I have some glide for this problem, but I didn't bring it today.

I also noticed a problem with my Ramer bindings when I turned to come down. The end piece of the platform was missing and therefore I couldn't lock down the heel. This wasn't a problem for me, as the angle is slight and easy enough for me to descend with a free heel. The only issue is that these bindings are not really designed to ski downhill like that and I took things as gentle as possible. I'll have to find those heels...

We skinned up 2.5 miles and Derek decided to turn around. I had it in my head to do three miles, so I dropped my pack and tried to go quickly up another half mile, which got to the end of the road exactly. I stripped off my skins and sped down, hoping to catch Derek. I needn't have worried, as he hadn't gotten very far. He was standing across the road, extremely discouraged with very cold hands. He had fallen a number of times and only had on a pair of liner gloves. I was the only one carrying a pack today and his down mitts were in the pack. I quickly got them out and onto his hands and in a few minutes his hands were toasty. It took a lot longer to get his confidence back.

He just felt so uncomfortable on these skis and especially trying to control them with his soft mountaineering boots. I tried to coach him on doing a snowplow, but just couldn't do it. He'd get mostly  in the position, but wasn't able to control his speed to his satisfaction. Not being able to control your speed is a very uncomfortable and dangerous situation and he didn't like it one bit. Extreme frustration set upon him and we had a few rough minutes. I went in front of him to show him the snowplow and told him to just plow into me if he couldn't stop. He did that once and hit me pretty hard, but was was braced in a snowplow and weathered it fine. I was worried a bit about him hitting my pack so hard, but the only thing in the pack was down - my giant jacket and, now, just my down mitts, so it was a soft impact.

I went a bit further down and then stopped and turned to coach him a bit and once again, he couldn't stop. This time when he plowed into me I was across the slope and we went down in a tangled heap. If anyone had happened across us at this point, seeing us all tangled up and neither one able to move, they would have worried for our lives on Denali. At least they would have thought that after they stopped laughing. Indeed it was comical. I was able to reach down and release one of Derek's bindings and we were able to get untangled with too much damage to my important parts.

Now Derek had reached the depths of despair. He shutdown communication with me for a bit, but I pressed him to work the problem with me. We had to keep communicating. We're liable to run into problems on Denali as well and we'll have to be able to communicate there too. I offered him a choice of trying some more, putting the skins back on to slow down his descent, or taking off the skis and walking down. He chose the skins and that made all the difference. He could now control his speed. Soon a smile emerged on his face.

Derek was just coming to grips with how difficult it is to ski in mountaineering boots. Downhill skiers who think they are hot stuff and quickly humbled when put in mountaineering boots with a heavy pack in breakable crust. Derek only had the boots to contend with here, but one thing at a time. It was my mistake to try and learn this on such a narrow road. We should have gone to a ski area and learned on a wide, open slope and that is our new plan.

It took us as long to descend as it did to climb, but it was a good learning experience and one will build on. I have to get some new equipment and we need more practice, but we'll get it. Still, we got in 6 miles of travel and 1700 vertical feet or so. Next weekend we plan our first overnight and that will be another adventure entirely.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Road to Denali, part 3: Mount Lady Washington

On the summit of Mount Lady Washington with some obscure 14er in the background

After last weekend's epic drive, weather, and failure to summit, Derek and I opted for Mount Lady Washington today. This was supposed to be our second training climb anyway, but the Dark Lord (Homie) got his hooks in us. We're once again on the Good (Light? I can't remember. My midi-chlorians must be low today) Side of the Force.

We got a casual start, leaving the house at 6 a.m. I was quite surprised to see so many cars in the parking lot at the Longs Peak Trailhead. Granted it was a nice day, but this is January! I'd never seen it like that. Maybe, partially, because I'm usually hiking before 7:20 a.m. and I'm usually not down by 1:15 p.m. It was even more surprising then, when the parking lot appeared to be entirely full!

We talked with Steve...I can't remember this last name...who was parked next to us. Nice guy. He was heading up solo to do D7! Not in a day, obviously, with this late start. I think the Diamond has only been soloed once in a day in winter, but I'm not that plugged into the super hardman scene. Anyone even contemplating the Diamond in winter, no matter how you do it, is either pretty badass or completely delusional. I fall into that second category. Or at least, I did last year. I told him to look out for my buddies Wade and Jason, who were supposed to be up on the Diamond doing the same, either in a day or in two days - I didn't hear their final plan.

Derek and I started up the trail and took the first shortcut, as it was nicely packed out. Above there, we stuck to the trail, as the shortcuts are viciously steep, but we planned on taking them on the way down. We didn't see anyone on the way up, which was pretty surprisingly with the state of the parking lot. We noticed a number of teams taking off a bit before us. Maybe we got ahead of them with the shortcut or maybe they were headed to Estes Cone.

I wore my new expedition backpack and Derek wore my old backpack. We wanted to try them out before taking them on an overnight. They both worked well for us. We made treeline in an hour and Chasm Cutoff in 90 minutes. Here we saw one guy over by the junction, sort of wandering about. We took a break here to drink and eat, before heading directly up the ridge towards the summit of Mount Lady Washington. Soon we saw a guy descending. He was off to our side and we didn't talk to him, but I'm guessing he bagged the summit.

We didn't see anyone else on our way to the summit. I climbed most of this upper section in my new Sportiva down jacket. It wasn't super cold, but I'm super wimpy. Also, Derek is still getting used to winter climbing in big boots and was getting worked over a bit by the effort it takes to stay in balance on tricky terrain with significant wind. I don't think it will last, but right now I'm stronger than Derek on this terrain and even going easy, I'd get out in front of him pretty quickly. I settled into a routine of hiking for ten or fifteen minutes and then stopping to wait for Derek. With my down jacket on, I'd just sit down on a boulder and wouldn't get cold at all. Most of the time, in the winter, I need to keep moving in order to stay warm, but it turns out that wearing a down jacket keeps you really warm. Who knew? I now understand that merely carrying this jacket in your pack, which I've been doing for years, doesn't actually make you any warmer. Follow me here, but the key is actually putting it on. Works like a charm.

Derek, on the other hand, being a bit tougher when it comes to the cold, climbed the entire time in just a short sleeve, long sleeve, and a wind jacket that had a tiny amount of down just in the torso area. Like I said, it wasn't that cold, but it was pretty windy and when you stop moving it's easy to get cold without more layers.

We topped out after 3.5 hours and, despite having climbed this peak probably ten times, I thought that maybe the next bump over was the true summit. It's not. I went over there to make sure. We scanned the North Chimney, Broadway, and the Diamond and didn't see a single soul. I wonder what happened to Wade and Jason? Maybe the wind deterred them... Or they came down with an acute case of sanity. I also didn't see Steve even approaching the face on the snow below. He should have been there by now, as we were now a thousand feet above the base of the East Face.

Mt. Lady Washington is 13,281 feet tall (the 416th highest peak in the state) and therefore involved an elevation gain of four thousand feet. While it is really just a hike with some boulder scrambling, it's a decent training mountain in winter. We're planning to work our way up to bigger and tougher peaks. We spent about thirty minutes on top, eating, drinking, resting, and enjoying the spectacular view of Longs Peak.

We started down about four hours into our day and soon ran into a party of two ascending. A little further down, we found another party of two. Below them was a solo woman. Further down was a party of three. I'd never seen so many people trying to climb MLW at any time of year. Cool. It's a great summit to get some winter experience on. We descended quickly and smoothly, completing the roundtrip in 5h40m. A very successfully outing!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Road to Denali, part 2: La Plata Attempt

La Plata is out of sight, behind the wind and clouds and cold

Derek and I planned to try Mount Lady Washington as our second training climb. It would probably be just a couple miles longer than Estes Cone, but twice the vertical. It had the nice advantage of a short drive and would give us spectacular views of Longs Peak. Instead, Homie intervened. He knew we were training for Denali and figured we'd be ripe for coaxing into winter 14er attempts. He was right. Homie is working on "the grid" - a ridiculous endeavor that no one has yet to do. This is to climb each of Colorado's 14ers in every month of the year - a minimum of 696 ascents. He needed a January ascent of La Plata (fifth highest in Colorado) and knew there was a track on it. Having a pre-made track to follow in the snow is a huge advantage. The draw to go with such a winter expect (Homie has done 52 of the 58 Colorado 14ers in winter) was too much and we agreed to the much longer drive and the much longer climb.

Homie, wisely, didn't mention the weather report of -20 degrees windchill on the summit until we were an hour out of town. I'm not sure I'd have gone knowing that. You might think "but isn't that great Denali training?" Maybe. As it turned out, if Denali is this cold and windy on summit day, I'll be staying in the tent. I'm not going to get in trouble on that mountain. Or La Plata for that matter.

Due to the long drive, a somewhat lackadaisical 4:30 a.m. pickup time, and icy roads, we didn't start up the trail until 7:40 a.m. The track was good and Derek led the way up the steep trail in the woods. We all wore mittens to keep our hands warm. We stopped just before treeline to eat, drink, and pee and both Derek and I spent too much time with our mittens off. We got our hands in trouble. Starting back up and grabbing our poles only made things worse.

At treeline we caught a party of two and moved slowly by them as we ascended steep, loose rock, gravel and snow to the ridge. Derek's hands went numb here and at the ridge we contemplated turning back. The wind was very strong and conditions were miserable. We agreed to continue for five more minutes and see if things improved. After five minutes both Derek's and my hands were marginally better, but the wind was stronger if anything. We dropped the poles in order to continue with balled up hands and decided for another five minutes.

Descending from La Plata. The terrain behind Derek is what we climbed up/down.
Derek was getting worked over by the combination of wind, cold, and fatigue. This was going to be a huge challenge without the wind. Today, it was too much. I doubt I would have made it either. We were all wearing balaclavas to cover our entire faces and this was causing my googles to ice up. I could barely see where I was going. I could lift the googles, but that exposed more of my face to the brutal cold wind.

Derek and I turned around at 12,700 feet while Homie continued. Homie made the summit, but even he was extremely cold and worried about damage to his face. And he's part polar bear! Learning about the continued brutal conditions all the way to the summit and back down made Derek and I confident that we'd made the right choice. We're still building our fitness, our experience, and fine-tuning our gear. Homie, on the other hand, is fully tuned.

Derek and I hiked back to the car and hung out for a bit. Derek was a bit tired and decided to just hang at the car. I wanted to try and get in as many miles as Homie, albeit not nearly as tough as his, so I started back up the trail, hoping to maybe run into Homie on his descent. I hiked back up a mile and a half and turned around. A half mile before I got back to the car I heard someone yell out. I knew the start of this trail was on private property and I looked up the hill expecting to see a rancher with a rifle. Instead it was Homie, running up behind me. Running. He's a nut.

The drive home was nasty. We decided to go the longer route via 285 to avoid the ski traffic. Just past Fairplay we found the highway closed due to high winds blowing so much snow across the road as to produce whiteout conditions - zero visibility. We had to turn around, go over Hoosier pass to Breckenridge, heading straight for the nightmare I-70 traffic. Ugh. We stopped in our condo in Breckenridge and watched football and ate for 90 minutes before continuing home, arriving there sixteen hours after we left. That's a long day for no summit...

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Road to Denali, part 1: Estes Cone

Derek in the parking lot with Estes Cone in the background

My youngest son Derek is graduating from High School this May. I offered him a climbing trip anywhere, hoping that he'd choose the sunny, warm Dolomites where we'd go rock climbing, eat pasta, and drink lattes. Instead, he chose Denali. Brrr...

Actually, I've had Denali on my to-do list for decades. I've always put it off because I feared being tent-bound for week. Instead of spending three weeks on one mountain, I'd go to Canada and climb two peaks each week. Also, despite numerous winter ascents of Longs Peak, extreme cold is not my forte. The circulation in my hands and feet isn't good and I need the warmest gear and chemical heaters to avoid freezing. But the appeal of a grand adventure with my son is great and we're fully committed.

I invited Derek along on my December ascent of the Longs Peak Project and it was a wake-up call for him. He was in my old boots and they gave him massive blisters. He hadn't done any exercise since his tennis season ended in October and he was overmatched. I should have realized this, but I was somewhat blinded by love and knowing what Derek's capable of when he's fit. He didn't make the summit, but it didn't discourage him in the slightest. It motivated him to get his own boots and start training.

Derek's Nana gave him a pair of mountaineering boots for Christmas and we decided to officially start our training and break in the new boots with a climb of Estes Cone, near Longs Peak. Estes Cone is really a hike, but heck, so is Denali to some extent. If we're going to the top of a peak, I'm going to call it a climb. Some climbs are just more technical than others and peaks are a lot more difficult in winter than in summer.

The night before our hike Derek was out with friends until past 1 a.m. I woke him at 6:30 a.m and he was ready to go by 7 a.m. We started hiking up the trail at 8:30 a.m. and found a well-packed trail. We both wore Kahtoola Microspikes on our stiff mountaineering boots because it prevents any slippage on hard snow. These can even serve, in some admittedly unique situations, as an ultralight crampon.

Everything went smoothly until about 500 feet below the summit when the terrain got very steep. Here Derek's boots started giving him blisters and he started to bonk because, guess what?, he hadn't eaten since the night before. He slowed to a crawl, stopping often to wince over the pain in his feet and to eat some chews. I asked if he wanted to turn around, so that he could do less damage to his feet. Our primary goal was to test to the boots and now we knew he'd need to go get them custom-fitted. He wasn't a happy guy at that point but he responded gruffly, "There's no way I'm not making the top." This was the same attitude I saw in him when he was six years old hiking his first fourteener: Huron. Also probably five hundred feet from the summit, but with dark skies and a storm imminent, when the idea of turning around was raised by his mom and I, he just said, "I'm making it!" and continued up the trail. I guess he was destined to be a climber, though I would have to train him up about the dangers of lightning.

Here it wasn't so dramatic, but the idea of turning around when he was that close just to avoid some painful blisters never entered his mind. We soon made the top, took some photos, and his feet felt a lot better descending, where his heel wasn't lifting and rubbing. Derek led most of the way out and was motoring along so fast, that I was getting gapped.
On the summit of Estes Cone with Longs Peak in the background
When we hit the junction with the Longs Peak trail and I knew we had just six tenths of a mile to go, I noticed we might be able to break three hours for the roundtrip. I wasn't going to mention it because it would involve running in our big mountain boots and that was just silly...right? But I couldn't help myself. I said, "We have eight minutes to break three hours. Interested?" His immediate reply, despite his blisters: "Definitely." Whether is nature or nurture, this kid is definitely mine. We trotted the rest of the way to car, running by people in our mountaineering boots, with our packs bouncing on our backs. We made it.

This climb was just 6.4 miles and 2000 vertical feet, but journey to Denali is a long one and it starts with the first step. We've taken that first step.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Post Mortem on 2015 Goals

Each January I make up a giant list of goals for the coming year and generally do a mediocre job on getting them done. I'm okay at the physical/outside goals, but when it comes to producing creative work, I suck. I have some ideas on how to help myself be better in 2016 and we'll see. At least I'm striving for improvement...

Here are some of my goals from 2015 and how I did against them:

Climb 52 different peaks:
     Success. I did 63 unique mountains and a total of 162 ascents. Here they are:

DatePeakNotesNumber of Ascents
1/1/2015FlagstaffFirst person to top out Flagstaff in 2015. Nicely packed trail until I went off-trail for the summit. Then snow nearly up to my knees. Also climbed with Mark and Sheri24
1/2/2015Mount Lady WashingtonCold, but no wind. With Mark Oveson. 5h20m for the roundtrip. Also climbed this with Charlie and Jason on the triple couloir linkup.2
1/3/2015South Boulder PeakCombined with Bear Peak. Packed snow all the way. Went easy the entire time. Also climbed with Mark16
1/3/2015Bear PeakSee above. Also climbed with Mark adn Will and Marcus13
1/4/2015SanitasDid a cool loop to the west. Cold: 12 degrees. Also climbed with Sheri13
1/6/2015Green MountainWith Homie. Up normal route and down via First Flatiron route. Microspikes the whole way up and down. Also climbed with Mark and Sheri and Corey24
1/10/2015Estes ConeWith Mark and Octavian1
1/29/2015Longs PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman. Also climbed this with Charlie and Jason on the triple couloir linkup. And with Homie in March13
1/29/2015Mt. MeekerWith Charlie Nuttelman. Also climbed this with Charlie and Jason on the triple couloir linkup.2
2/15/2015Coal Creek PeakSolo, all off-trail. Avoided snow mostly1
2/15/2015Crescent MountainSolo, all off-trail. Avoided snow mostly, except near the very summit where I did a bit of postholing. Took it slow1
3/22/2015Independence MonumentWith Derek, Arthur, and Homie1
3/23/2015Ancient ArtWith Derek, Arthur1
3/24/2015Assembly HallWith Derek, Arthur, and Homie1
3/25/2015Window Blind PeakWith Derek, Arthur, and Homie1
3/29/2015Twin Sisterssolo1
4/19/2015Rainbow Mountainvia Rainbow Wall w/Chris Weidner.1
4/20/2015Juniper PeakLinked two rock climbs to the summit with Chris Weidner.1
5/2/2015Wigwam PeakIn the Lost Creek Wilderness with Homie, Mark, and Charlie1
5/2/2015Buffalo PeakIn the Lost Creek Wilderness with Homie, Mark, and Charlie1
5/2/2015The CastleIn the Lost Creek Wilderness with Homie and Charlie. A dicey 5.6, bouldery scramble in my hobnail shoes1
6/7/2015Wheeler Peak, NevadaIn Great Basin National Park with Derek. Cold, windy, and no visibility on the summit.1
6/9/2015Half DomeSnake Dike with Derek1
6/10/2015Lembert DomeHiking and scrambling with Derek1
6/12/2015Cloud's RestMy Favorite Things with Derek1
6/13/2015Boundary PeakHighest peak in Nevada - with Derek1
6/25/2015James PeakEarly morning ascent with Mark1
6/29/2015Eldorado MountainSolo. Found a good trail up the lower part and then a decent route at the very top. The steep section in between is difficult and tedious1
7/3/2015West Spanish PeakWith Sheri and Derek. Fun, casual hike. Top part is steep and loose, but not too bad.1
7/4/2015Wheeler Peak, New MexicoWith Sheri and Derek. Super fun, beautiful hike.1
7/4/2015East Spanish PeakWith Sheri and Derek, after Wheeler Peak - huge day. Raced the darkness on this one, not starting up until 2:40 p.m.1
7/10/2015Handies PeakWith Sheri and Derek1
7/12/2015Sneffels PeakWith Derek1
7/15/2015St. Vrain MountainWith Corey, Jon Ortega1
7/15/2015Meadow MountainWith Corey, Jon Ortega1
7/22/2015Mt. AudubonWith Corey and Mark1
7/29/2015Gannett PeakWith Derek - awesome!1
7/29/2015Miriam PeakWith Derek1
7/29/2015Dinwoody PeakWith Derek1
8/1/2015Grand TetonWith Derek - Major crowds, a couple doofuses1
8/3/2015Granite PeakWith Derek1
8/3/2015TempestWith Derek1
8/5/2015Pawnee PeakWith Mark1
8/8/2015ApacheWith Mark, Derek, and Mallory1
8/8/2015Dicker's PeckWith Mark, Derek, and Mallory1
8/8/2015NavajoWith Mark, Derek, and Mallory1
8/22/2015Green Mountain (RMNP)With Sheri1
8/22/2015Nisa MountainWith Sheri1
8/22/2015Mount PattersonWith Sheri1
8/23/2015Mount IdaWith Sheri1
9/6/2015Mount AnteroWith Sheri, Derek, and Danny1
9/20/2015Half MountainWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Storm PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Pagoda PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Chiefs HeadWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015McHenry's PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Powell PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Taylor PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Otis PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Hallet PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/20/2015Flat Top PeakWith Charlie Nuttelman1
9/26/2015Mt. SpauldingWith Kraig, Brook, Gabi1
9/26/2015Mt. EvansWith Kraig, Brook, Gabi1

Climb the five local peaks (SBP, Bear, Green, Flag, Sanitas) in every month of the year:
     I succeeded here. My final totals for the local peaks were:
South Boulder Peak16
Bear Peak13
Green Mountain24
My biggest month was December where I did 14 ascents. January (12) was the only other month with double-digit ascents

Longs Peak Project:
     Check. This was a late addition to the list, not officially getting on there until February. The final tally there was:

January18thLoft/Clark's ArrowCharlie/JonFAILED! - 4h18m
29thLoft/Clark's ArrowCharlie 8h20m
February13thNorthwest CouloirCharlie 8h13m
March15thD7CharlieFAILED! - 14h04m
21stNorth Face / Cables RoutesCharlie and Homie7h35m
April11thThe TroughCharlie 7h20m Skied into base of Trough
May31stFlying Beaver TraverseCharlie 10h10m
June21stMartha's Notch WeaverCharlie and Jason Antin13h55m. Huge day! Finally cleaned up the triple couloir linkup. 
July8thFailed nighttime Keyhole attempt with AndrewCharlie, Stefan, Andrew, etc.5h12m
24thTriathlon via KienersCharlie11h06m (10h40m or so from/to Broadway and 28th)
August21stCasual RouteAnton11h25m
29thMary's LedgesCharlie8h17m
September20thGlacier Gorge Traverse via Keyhole RidgeCharlie12h55m
October 3rdSouthwest RidgeCharlie8h21m
November7thRight DovetailCharlie10h18m
December6thKeplinger's CouloirCharlie12h50m
Two state high points:
     Success - I did four state highpoints: Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana

Other various climbing goals:
     Redpoint 53 5.11's in the gym: I did 62
     Redpoint 5 5.12's in the gym: I did 10
     Climb two 50CC routes: I did zero
     Climb a peak in the Never Summer Range: did not even try
     Traverse from Navajo to South Arapahoe: did not even try
     Redpoint first pitch of Genesis: succeeded
     Redpoint first pitch of X-M: Got it clean on my second TR try, never tried to lead it
    Redpoint Vertigo and Psycho's first pitch: Did not even try
     Climb Cloud's Rest: success
     Climb Mt. Watkins: once again, failed to attempt it. This is the face that has been on my list the longest.