Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Poor Man's Speed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 09, 2018

Finally Never Summer Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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