Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Window on Longs Peak

Every climber probably has a favorite mountain. For Seven-Summitteer Gerry Roach it is, somewhat surprisingly, the tame Green Mountain above Boulder, Colorado. Green ranks very highly for me as well for the same reason: Flatirons litter its flanks. But my favorite mountain is Longs Peak. This is the northernmost 14er in Colorado and has an incredible variety of routes leading to its summit. Significantly, the trailhead is an hour from my house. I've been striving to learn this mountain since I moved back to Colorado in 1994 and my education continues.

I've now climbed the mountain 82 times via 29 different routes. The intimidating East Face is where the biggest adventure lies. Many of these routes are too hard for me to free climb and some are too scary to aid climb, but there are still a few within my abilities. One of the most spectacular features is a prominent V-shaped dihedral on the far left side of the Diamond. It's possible to tunnel through the notch of the V and this opening is called The Window. I'd long wanted to explore this wild location but it has a reputation for constantly being wet and I've heard it referenced, when at all, more often as a mixed climb. The thought of being up there in winter in crampons terrified me and knew that was beyond my skills. But if I could ever get up there when it was dry...

A recent post to about an old ascent of this route rekindled my desire to explore a new part of Longs Peak. I queried my friend Bill Briggs, the oracle of all things concerning Longs Peak, and he told me he'd climbed it before and highly recommended it. He told me about the competition to do the first ascent of this route back in 1951. Guidebook author Benard Gillet pointed us at the story:

Try pp. 61–63 of Godfrey and Chelton's CLIMB! for a brief description of the FA.  Dave Hornsby and Harold Walton went up to do it, but bumped into Brad Van Diver and Bill Eubanks in the Longs Peak Campground, where they learned Van Diver and Eubanks had just done it.  The story in CLIMB! refers to an account written by Walton in the February, 1951 issue of Trail and Timberline, and you may be able to find said issue at the CMC headquarters in Golden (the AAC library).

With my son back in Colorado, I first asked him if he was interested in joining me. Silly question. To add some interest, we elected to climb Kor's Door on the lower East Face, another route I had not done, as an approach to Broadway and the Window. We left the house at 3:50 a.m. in my new 150-mile range Nissan Leaf to make its inaugural trip Longs Peak. We were hiking a bit after 5 a.m. We carried my standard Eldo rack (doubles to #2 Camalot and one #3 Camalot) and a 60-meter rope. We also packed Microspikes and these proved useful in climbing Lambs Slide to the base of the rocks.
The new Longs Peak privy
We followed the familiar trails up to East Face Cirque. We passed three guys at Chasm Junction who were headed for Kiener's Route. We'd see them later having some trouble with Lambs Slide's rockfall. I stopped at the new privy at the junction where the Loft route breaks off from the Chasm Lake trail. This a very nice structure and the most pleasant backcountry toilet I've ever seen. You do your business on a conveyor belt and then roll it out of view. Very nice.

Lighter, I proceeded up to Chasm Lake where Derek was waiting for me. We caught and passed two guys headed for the Casual Route. I don't think they made it. It was forever before we saw them even at the base of North Chimney. We hiked up talus to the base of Lambs Slide, where we stopped to gear up. We put on our long pants, helmets and harnesses while grabbing a bite and drinking. We then hiked over to the hard snow, put on our Microspikes, and crunched up the steepening snow to the rock apron leading up to the Diagonal Wall. We continued for a bit in our spikes because taking them off on a flat ledge and continuing to a nice ledge at the base of Kor's Door.

Here we got out the the rope and gear. We'd read on that we could link the two 5.9 pitches with forty feet of simul-climbing, so I led off with that intention, after having already put a Micro Traxion onto my lead line. The first forty feet or so are 5.6 and went nicely. All along this pitch there are numerous fixed pins. I'd clip them all and supplement them with some cams and an occasional stopper. The 5.9 sections are the two mini-roofs that are passed, both by skirting them on the right side. The climbing was really solid and fun, but the rock is slick and rounded, making for some tricky, insecure footwork.

Things went smoothly for me and just when I thought Derek might be getting to more challenging climbing, I arrived a small (1-foot), but comfortable stance. I backed up a solid-looking pin with a couple of cams and put Derek on belay. Derek was a bit out of practice on tougher rock climbing and found the footwork challenging. He was solid, but certainly not racing up the pitch. When he arrived at my belay he said, "That was hard for me."

I continued in the lead, but a cool corner above that was 5.8 at its best. Then some easier climbing led straight upwards. I stopped after maybe 150 feet, on a good ledge, because I wasn't sure which way I wanted to go and figured I'd bring Derek up while I thought about it. Derek soon joined me, remarking how much fun that pitch had been.

I then climbed off to the right, up a chimney/corner and then back to the left, where I placed a #1 Camalot, apparently too tightly. Following Derek was unable to remove this. Bummer. I rambled up mostly easy rock climbing clear to Broadway and set up a belay. Derek took a long time following, because he was working on that cam, but it certainly had me wondering until he emerged and told me. He was clearly disappointed he couldn't get it out. It was over a hundred feet down and after contemplating it for a bit, I decided to continue on instead. We had already spent more time on this climb than I had hoped and the big unknown, The Window, still loomed above.

We stayed roped for the traverse of Broadway even though it is trivial. It was easier than coiling the rope and the consequences of a mistake here are massive. We traversed for about 300 feet before regrouping. We had traversed past the Notch Couloir and Kiener's Route. We had to go further left (north) to access The Window dihedral. I spied a series of ledges, ramps, corners that led up and right and hoped I could start climbing up versus continuing the traverse on Broadway.

I pieced things together and completed a rising, low-5th-class traverse to another good ledge, where I belayed. Indecision reigned once again with a corner on the left and a funky traverse to the right. First I had to surmount a tricky headwall via a couple of moves that might have been 5.8/9. Once above that I chose to hand traverse right, across a feature-less wall protected by a knifeblade piton that was only halfway in and bent.
The piton protecting the hand traverse to the right
This traverse was intimidating to start because the only good handholds were so far over that your whole body was at an awkward angle. Once committed it was only one semi-hard move before I could swing my feet right onto good holds. I climbed up on the right, but was concerned about protecting Derek on that move, since he'd have to clean the sling on the pin before doing the move. I climbed up and back to the left and got in a small cam to protect Derek. I belayed just a bit further left on another good ledge. Derek balked at the traverse move a couple of times. I could commiserate. Once he committed, he moved quickly up to me. On the next pitch I figured I'd finally get into The Window dihedral. I was anxious to see what the dihedral looked like. How steep it was. How solid the rock was. How wet it was. How protectable it was.

I eased out to the right, up easy rounded rock around one last corner and finally into the dihedral. I was pleasantly surprised at the gentle nature of the angle. At the plentiful handholds and cracks. It looked to be cruiser and I called out as much to Derek, saying the way up was clear and easy. At the top of the dihedral was the famed Window, which we'd have to go through and where Bill Briggs said I must belay.
Looking up at the Window from the start of the dihedral. The Window is about 150 feet above me at this point.
I started to climb up the dihedral and immediately found loose rock. Everywhere. It wasn't lying in rubble, as the angle, gentle that it may be, wasn't gentle enough to hold scree. It was the holds and the cracks, each of which seem to wiggle. Still, the climbing wasn't too hard and there was enough solid rock for the occasional piece of protection. The higher I got the worse the rock. Not only was it looser, but it was incredibly slick. At the top of the dihedral I was able to get in a solid piece and then had to make a ten-foot traverse to get into the Window. Here I couldn't get my feet to stick on the glassy surface. Nearly every hold on the traverse was loose and complete crap, including one prominent horn that was a foot tall and barely attached. I felt a strong breeze could send it tumbling down the dihedral, knocking down a flotilla of partners.

The Window itself was also a complete disappointment. I had envisioned a nice ledge to sit upon, with bomber anchors. I'd relax and watch Derek climb up to me. The Window turned out to be a fin of rock 8 inches wide at best. Through it the wall plunged straight down for twenty feet to a sloping ledge. There was no way I could climb down there and belay. The rope drag wouldn't have allowed any movement of the rope at all. I had to straddle the Window, rather uncomfortably, perched on tiny footholds that taxed my legs. What's more, the belay anchors were nearly non-existent. I clipped into a sling on the dihedral side that was below my feet and wrapped around a flake that looked like it would tear off the wall. Through the Window, at shoulder height, was a fixed stopper with a carabiner on it. It was clear to me that this was used to lower down to the ledge below, as climbing down to it looked quite challenging. And by "fixed", I mean it was left there. "In situ" would be a more appropriate description because the stopper only loosely fit the crack and I could easily lift it out, though it appeared solid from a downward pull. With these two things as belay anchors, I relied mostly on my position in the Window as my only real anchor. Just then the skies opened up.

It started as graupel quickly turned to hail, then snow, then back to graupel. Everyone on the Diamond, save for our friend Max Manson, was bailing. Max had topped out on the Diamond before the weather hit. We had really no option to bail. Off what? I'd risk lightning before trying to rappel this route from this point. I did risk it, as next we heard the terrifying sounds of thunder. I put Derek on belay. He put on his shell (mine was already on) and started to climb. I watched the snow/hail slowly start covering the holds in the dihedral below me.

Conditions had drastically changed in the fifteen minutes between my climbing of this dihedral and Derek entering it. Derek calls "Up rope!" at the very end, signaling my video time is up.

Things were going to shit fast. We were in a very bad position, getting soaked, and very exposed. I knew if lightning struck our rope, it would travel through it and hit both of us, likely killing us. But there was nothing to do besides keep climbing. Derek knew this and he battled upwards in very difficult, very scary conditions. I paused for a second to shoot the video above because I never have documentation for when things go bad. I'm too busy trying to get out of the situation. I paused too long, though, and caused a loop of rope to develop below Derek. I righted the situation, but later, when I was trying to pull in rope on one side and feed it down through the Window on the other side, I got behind again. Derek barked up at me, harshly. I knew he was gripped. I was too. I struggled to maintain my position on my tiny footholds and to pull in the rope and drop it down the other side. At least he was moving quickly. At the traverse, I feared he'd fall off, as I nearly did. I braced to take his weight, but he executed the traverse much better than I did, finding a tiny edge for this left foot. I directed him straight through the Window and clipped his rope into the in-situ stopper's biner and I lowered him to the ledge below. 

We were getting soaked now, despite our shells. I was getting a constant stream of water directed onto me from the top of the Window and Derek was in the corner where all the water ended up. He had to set up a gear belay down there and did so quickly, setting up a solid belay from two cams. He pulled the rope down, I clipped my end into the biner and he lowered me down to him. We were through the Window, but far from safety. Our hands were already wooden with the cold and getting pruned from the moisture. We continued to get hammered from above. Derek's gloves were soaked completely through and his shoes would be soon. 

I knew the next pitch was the crux, as Bill Briggs had warned me about it, saying that it would be wet, loose, a bit runout and "Longs Peak 5.8." Well, I guess Bill knows things about Longs Peak because the pitch was most definitely wet. It was obviously soaked and anything horizontal had snow/hail covering it. I didn't know if the pitch would be climbable in these conditions, but we had to try to move on. Derek put me on belay and I inched across a slick slab to a fixed sling at the edge of our wall. Around the corner was a fixed pin and I clipped that as well. I dropped into the next inset and moved left to the obvious chimney I had to ascend. I prayed to find lots of protection possibilities because I couldn't be running things out in these conditions, as a fall was more likely than not. 

Getting into the chimney was awkward and intimidating, as it had no bottom to it and I had to do a semi-dynamic stem across it to get into it. If the conditions were better, I would have paused and worked that move out a bit more. In these conditions I felt I had to will myself to keep moving because contemplating the climbing in such conditions might cause me to stall. I had to get the rope up this pitch. Once in the chimney I had to immediately surmount a big chockstone. Handholds were scant and too slick. I clipped a pin on the left wall with a long sling and put one foot into it. It was too far to the left to make things easy, but pushing on it, I was able to drag my torso onto the chockstone. I couldn't retrieve the sling and wondered how Derek would. I put in a piece and clipped two long slings to it for Derek to use as a handhold so that he could hopefully get the foot-sling back. We were way beyond any thoughts of free climbing. This was a no-holds-barred, alpine brawl now. It was bare-knuckle, no rules climbing and my hands were steadily going numb.

Above, the climbing looked protectable: even though the rock was rotten in places, enough of it was solid. I moved steadily upwards, feeling the pressure to finish this pitch before things got out of hand. As I neared the top of the chimney the precipitation stopped. While I was still in the cold, wet chimney, I could finally see sunny rocks above me. I called down to Derek that I thought I could be belaying in the sun. He wasn't moving at all, belaying, and getting colder and wetter with every minute I labored on the pitch. Hence, he was as excited about the prospects of a warm belay as I was.

Blocking our path to salvation was a nasty roof capping the chimney. I was able to place a bomber #2 Camalot before probing the right side without success. I backed down and tried the left side. I could get a jam with my right hand but I couldn't feel how secure it was since my hand had almost no feeling in it. I didn't want to trust it. I searched in vain for an edge for my left hand. Finally, I decided to kick my left leg way high. I used it to push myself back to the right, making my jam more secure. I rolled into a mantle and pressed out into the "broad, sunlit uplands" of Kiener's route. We could unrope from here. The path to the summit was clear.

Of course, Derek still had to join me and he started off as a frozen popsicle. Yet, during all this stress, he never said a single word about the conditions. He knew the situation and what had to be done and went about the business of climbing safely out of a dangerous situation. But he still had to suffer up this pitch. He stepped in the same sling that I did and retrieved it. He moved up to the overhang and, with no feeling in his hands, he took some tension to revive them, slightly, before turning the lip and joining me in the sun.

Derek rejoicing in the sun, having survived The Window
We packed up most of our gear, leaving our harnesses on for the rappels down the North Face. We still had more than 500 vertical feet to gain the summit of Longs Peak and this was incredibly, surprisingly grueling. Maybe it was the extended time above 13,000 feet or the stress or something else, but both of us could barely keep moving. We were deeply satisfied. So glad to have escaped the trap. So glad to have achieved our goal. So glad to be on stress-free terrain.

At the summit we stopped to eat, drink, and rest. It felt so great to sit down. I'd have lingered longer, but the weather was threatening again and after our last experience, we didn't want to deal with any more precip while playing with our ropes. We carefully descended the North Face, mainly because I was so tired that I couldn't move at a pace that wasn't careful. The rappels went smoothly and I loaded a heavy, soaked rope into my pack for the long hike back to the car. For the first time in at least a decade, maybe two, I didn't cut across the slopes of Mount Lady Washington. We stuck to the trail for ease of walking. We did take Jim's Grove trail and all the usual shortcuts. We got back to the car after nearly 14 hours on the move. 

Longs Peak never disappoints.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Return to Sender

Derek has been working as an intern at SpaceX out in California, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, for the entire summer. He’s training to be one of the first astronauts that will be sent to Mars. They wanted fit, young, engineers to survive the rigors of the journey, have no wife or kids to leave behind, and possess the skills to fix things during the mission. So, that’s cool and all, but, dang, I’ve missed him. He’s my main climbing partner. I had to slum it with Homie and Danny. It was rough, but it’s finally over Derek is mission-ready now and can return to Colorado for his junior year at CU. I flew out to Santa Barbara to drive back with him. But I wasn’t going to go so far and drive so much without doing a peak… This meshed nicely with Derek’s desires because, despite loving his time at SpaceX, he is not a fan of flat, costal, boring Lompoc. He was itching to get back to the mountains. Badly.

So, why not start with the tallest mountain in California for his first peak back? I mean he was already the only member of the family who hadn’t climbed Mt. Whitney. I’d done the 50CC East Face Route thirty years ago, so we decided on the equally classic East Buttress. We drove the four hours to Lone Pine, picked up our permits (thanks, Sheri!) and checked into a motel to shield ourselves from the 100 degree temperatures. I’d gotten a bad cold five days ago and it had me a bit weak and very congested. I needed a good night’s sleep. We watched TV and ate pizza for dinner.

The next morning we were up at 4 a.m. and out the door by 4:15. We ate breakfast on the drive up the 5000-foot climb to Whitney Portal at 8500 feet. We were hiking by 4:50. I carried our 7.8mm 60-meter rope and Derek carried our climbing rack. We had super light harnesses, climbing shoes, belay devices, and one helmet. Why one? Because we believe in going ultra light and you only need to be wearing the helmet when rocks are going to hit your head, so we switched off accordingly. Either that or Derek forgot his. The forecast was for a 40% chance of rain after 11 a.m. and we both decided to ditch our shells and just take ultra-light wind shells. We both went in shorts, with no long pants packed. We did take a hat and gloves, though.

Just after we pulled into the parking lot we met four hikers heading out to do the Mountaineer’s Route — our descent route. They knew they were in for a long day, saying, “We’re going to be Zombies when we get back down.” Their roundtrip was the same as ours, minus the 11 pitches of rock climbing we’d do: 12.5 miles and 6000 vertical feet. We had our last drinks, locked up, pulled on our packs, and headed up the trail behind them. Less than a mile up the trail, the climber’s trail, into the cirque below the east escarpment of the Mt. Whitney massif, peels off and heads steeply up the drainage, directly at the peak. If you stuck to the Mt. Whitney Trail, you’d cover 12 miles before arriving at the summit - almost exactly our roundtrip distance! When we turned off the trail, we noticed the four mountaineers’ headlamps were still on the main trail. I shined my light towards them to show them the way, but it appeared they figured it out and reversed back to follow us. Initially, they were closing on us, but then, maybe realizing they were going too fast, they fell behind and out of sight. They never made it up to the base of Whitney and I don’t know what happened to them.

The hike into the base of Mt. Whitney is just incredible. The trail is really good and very interesting. It starts with the 0.8 miles of the regular trail and then steeply switchbacks up into the gully in the woods. A couple of challenging and fun stream crossings and more steep ground lead to the Ebersbacher Ledges, which are the key to getting up this drainage as the granite walls pinch so tight that the stream and super dense foliage block passage directly up it. These third class ledges are so perfect that you’d think God designed them as the approach trail. Above this, we entered the last of the woods around Lower Boy Scout Lake. There are many great camping sites and we passed one tent. We traversed some talus and climbed a couple hundred feet to a huge boulder before traversing with dense brush on a tight path to beautiful slick rock slabs, which we followed upwards for hundreds of feet. More bivy spots were located up here as we crossed to the south a bit to head for Whitney while another trail stays north to head for Mt. Russell. Steep climbing, mostly on a decent dirt (really crushed rock) trail ensued. The final barrier to Iceberg Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney was a small cliff band. We headed directly at a waterfall and just before hitting it we turned to our left and scrambled up ledges and one crux section that was six feet tall.

At Iceberg Lake we drank and ate and filled our water bottles for the climb. We met Joe from SLO who had been in there for three nights. They’d climbed Fishhook Arete on Mt. Russell and climbed the East Face and East Buttress of Whitney in the same day. Impressive. He was really nice. We met another couple that was heading for the Mountaineer’s Route and they told us the couple above was heading for our route, the East Buttress. They had a twenty minute lead on us by the time we started up, but we caught them at the start of the route. They were Marion (another woman of Indian descent who was living in Yosemite Valley, though not right now due to the fires) and Eddie (who worked for Petzl in Salt Lake City). They were cool and we geared up and ate and drank some more while waiting for Eddie to lead the first pitch. I led up behind Marion, at a respectful distance, and set up a belay 15 feet below them. This first pitch was outstanding, as was most of the route. Very solid, featured rock with great protection. What more can you ask for? Derek followed and took the lead and ran out 250 feet of rope, with me simul-climbing until he set up a belay.

When I joined Derek at the belay, we noticed and Eddie and Marion were off route to the right. At that point we were just north of the East Buttress and the next pitch should have put them directly on the arete/buttress. That’s the way I went and set up a belay on tiny flat ledge directly on the arete. It was so nice. Derek followed and led the fourth pitch which was equally as good as the first pitch: steep climbing with fun moves and positive holds. I followed and led a long, easy pitch up to the base of the PeeWee - a hanging pillar with a prominent roof that we’d avoid by climbing up on the right side. Shortly after I set up my belay Eddie set up his belay below me — they were back on route.

Derek followed and then led up the PeeWee via a super fun, albeit too short, jam crack. He then rambled up easier terrain to a big ledge. I followed and shortly into my next lead Marion set up a belay just below Derek. They were moving fast, but we were just a bit faster. The weather was coming in. It wasn’t very dark, but it was gray and some precipitation seemed imminent. I strung two pitches together into a 230-foot pitch and Derek simul-climbed below me. I placed a MicroTraxion for additional safety. This was a bit of a weird pitch because the top fifty feet was a chimney and with our packs I knew that would be a slow struggle. I found a traverse to the right that led to some easier ground and went up that for forty feet before traversing back into the chimney to finish it up. Derek mimicked my strategy and Eddie wasn’t far behind him.

We seemed to be into scrambling territory, but we weren’t sure, so Derek led off just in case. I coiled a hundred feet of rope, put it over my head and we simul-climbed three or four hundred feet directly up the prow. One final steep section had me put Derek on a proper belay and he was soon at the summit. We unroped about fifty feet from the summit marker and ten feet below it. What an aesthetic finish! The sky was spitting on us at this point, so we quickly coiled the rope, stripped off our harnesses and packed up. After some photos and a quick call to the Momster, we headed off to try and find the Mountaineer’s Route, which I’d never been down or up.

We found the start of the descent quickly and carefully made our way down slick third and fourth class terrain to a notch, where we entered the gully proper. This is a really loose, nasty gully. We were able to stick to the left side and do more scrambling than dirt surfing. We descended carefully and efficiently without incident back to Iceberg Lake. We hiked over to a campsite of four new arrivals to chat them up. They were four climbers from the Czech Republic, over in the US for two weeks of climbing. We dumped the rocks out of our shoes, ate and drank. We hadn’t seen Marion and Eddie since we started the scrambling near the summit. Just before we started our hike out we saw both of them near the top of the gully. They could have been down within the hour, but they weren’t moving. Maybe they were taking a break.

The hike out went very smoothly. This is a pretty comfortable way to get in 6000 vertical feet of mountain adventure. We both had a great time and everything went super smooth. It never rained, just a bit of spitting. We were always pretty comfortable temperature-wise. We ate and drank well and felt strong the entire way. It took us about four hours from the trailhead to start the roped climbing. Then four hours for the route to the summit and we descended back to the car in around 3.5 hours for a total roundtrip time of 11h43m.

After a quick bite and some gas in Lone Pine, we headed for home. We stopped in Death Valley just to get a Strava track and tried to spell out “Death” (for Derek) and “Valley” (for me). We didn’t do that great of a job based on the track showing in Strava, but it was a nice break. Driving west to east across Death Valley is something. From 3500 feet on highway 395, you climb to 5000 feet and then descend to 1500 feet before climbing again to 5000 feet and then descending to -200 feet. Crazy stuff. That would be one tough bike ride to go from Death Valley to Whitney Portal. We had a rough night from there on. After driving until 11:30 p.m. we found the rest stop closed and, too tired to continue, slept in the car, in stifling heat. After two fitful hours, I couldn’t stand it any longer and drove another 90 minutes to the next rest stop where we slept for 3.5 hours before finishing the drive home.

Derek is back in the house!

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Sir Donald with the Loobster

Northwest Ridge of Mt. Sir Donald

Why fly to Seattle to climb in Glacier National Park, Canada? I mean, Calgary is the place to fly, right? Except the Loobster lives in Portland and he wanted to drive. And didn’t want to drive for 3 hours past the climb, after driving 11 hours to get there, only to pick me up and turn around and drive back 3 hours. And then repeat it after the climb. It didn’t make any sense. With the new plan we originally hoped to check out Slesse as well, but the weather report had us abandoning that and concentrating on the main goal.

Ah Seattle…what a traffic nightmare this place is. Every time I visit, it’s horrible. In the middle of the day on a Saturday. I’m spoiled in Colorado. At least once I stopped skiing on the weekends (I-70 on a Sunday evening is traffic of mythic proportions). We were in stop-go traffic for 90 minutes when things started to open up. The Loobster pointed at his map display, “Lookie there. No red in sight. Smooth sailing now.” “Don’t get your hopes up, Loobster. Stay pessimistic.” I mean, why not always be that way?

I started climbing in the fall of 1980 when I matriculated to the University of Colorado in Boulder. A couple of years later I discovered the book “50 Classic Climbs of North America” and for the next decade and a half it was the primary force directing my climbing. Why? Because I like lists and here was an excuse to travel around and face a great variety of challenges. But perhaps most motivating was a line in the introduction that said, “Up to now, no single person has even climbed half of these routes.” Or something to that effect. Some of the routes were incredibly difficult and dangerous (Hummingbird Ridge) so I had no aspiration of doing them all, but I immediately set my goal to climb at least half of them.

My first 50CC was Stettner’s Ledges on Crestone Needle, a 5.7 alpine route on a Colorado 14er. Back then I topped out at 5.9, but this route was mostly easier than 5.7. I did it with two friends, both weaker climbers, and while we didn’t epic on it, we were close. Since that one I’ve now done more than thirty of them. While the goal has been achieved, I’m still interested in getting a few more. I make a list of goals each year and getting a 50CC is one this year. Tops of my list of 50CC’s to get are:

  • Northwest Ridge of Mt. Sir Donald 
  • Northwest Buttress of Mt. Slesse
  • Price Glacier on Shuksan
  • Lotus Flower Tower

I figure I can safely get to forty of the 50CCs and will probably keep climbing one as an annual goal.

Passing into Canada was easy. There were three lanes open and we had to wait maybe ten minutes. The border guard was all business though. He glared at us like we were part of Trump’s trade negotiating team. Per Loobster’s custom, he got rattled under the intense interrogation and when asked what we planned to do in Canada, responded, “We’re here to climb Sir Daniel.” No, it’s Sir Donald. The Loobster has a long history of telling mistruths to the Canadian border guards. He’s been at the wheel on a few border crossing with me and has lied about carrying alcohol, fruit, gifts, etc. He immediately feels guilty and corrects himself, which makes it all the more hilarious and makes the guard suspicious. Good times, good times…

On the other side of the border, though, we passed a single lane of cars, all stopped, more than a mile long. Apparently Canada has become so socialist that it is now like Cuba where they’ll let anyone in, but getting out is tricky. We wondered if, on our return trip, we’d have to abandon Loobster’s prized Subaru WRX, and make our way over the mountains to cross back into the land of the free and the home of the deeply divided.

Canada is awesome. Such great mountains and hardly any people, of which almost all of them live within a hundred miles of the US border. I’ve been to Canada to climb four times previously and I’ve yet to share a route with another party. That alone is a huge draw. Colorado has ten times the climbers and Europe has 100 times the climbers. I’d twice been to Glacier National  Park (in Alberta) to climb Sir Donald and sat in the rain for a day or two before abandoning it for other, drier peaks. But, the rule of the mountains is that “Third Time’s the Charm,” so I was guaranteed good weather right? I mean, these friendly Canadians aren’t about to go breaking the rules, right?

We hit highway 1 and turned east. Soon we could see two amazing peaks to our east. It wasn’t long before Loobster recognized one as Shuksan and that prompted me to identify the other as Slesse. Both are extraordinary peaks and look to have fiercely guarded summits. Slesse looks like the Ogre along the Baltoro Glacier. They cry out to all below, “I challenge you to stand atop me.” Challenged accepted. I’ll be back.

We found a campground in Sicamous with a pizza place nearby. After checking in we found out they only had RV spots and the drive-through road at our site was the only flat spot around, so we threw up our tents on the road. The next morning, after a stop at McDonald’s (this trip was all about Donalds), we arrived at the Illecillewaet Campground and trailhead. The campground was full and the road was lined with cars. We’d found out a couple of days ago that Monday was a national holiday and hence this was a 3-day weekend

Canadians are very nice and very polite, but the Canadian Parks people are not the most efficient people you’ll meet. Nor do they have the most knowledge about the parks they work at. We’d learn later from the guides that they consider the Parks employees to be completely clueless. After a 30-minute wait with ONE person in front of us, we got an overnight permit for the “Lower Bivy”. We got the last permit for the day and said we’d be taking two one-man tents. The ranger said, “That won’t fit. This is a ‘bivy’.” He seemed to think that the world “bivy” indicated the dimensions of the camping site. I was confused but he just kept saying, “It’s a bivy. There is no room.” So, we just brought my tent, a Big Agnes 2UL that is technically a two-man tent.

We hiked the 3.7 miles and 3500 vertical feet into the bivy. The trail was generally quite good, though impressively steep for the last two thousand vertical feet. We saw just one woman coming down and nearly caught a pair of hikers before they turned off for the glacier trail. Ah, Canada. Even this “50 Crowded Climb” had almost no one on the trail.

We caught a pair of climbers, one as old as Loobster, about 30 minutes before the bivy. I was keen to get by them so that we’d have two choices for a bivy, but I needn’t have worried. This was a guide and Arthur, his client. Arthur looked and moved like you’d expect a 75-year-old to move. Loobster moves like a fit 50-year-old, an average 35-year-old. He’s an outlier. Arthur was not.

The bivy site was a sizable green area surrounded by a sea of rock and talus. A couple more sites existed just above as well. You could have erected some of those giant Everest basecamp cook tents up there. My visions of shoehorning our tiny tent between sharp boulders were completing dissipated. The camping in the green circle was Euro-style, with no set sites. When we arrived there were maybe six tents set up and we added our tent about ten feet away from an existing one.

Loobster knew that I wanted to go up and bag the Southwest Ridge on Mount Uto. This route was supposedly the younger brother to the northwest ridge on Sir Donald, being easier at 5.1 and half the length, but offering similar climbing. I wanted to bag a peak, of course, but also to sample the type of climbing we’d be doing. Ever gracious, the Loobster offered to set up camp so I could dash up for a quick scramble.

Within thirty minutes I was heading up talus toward the Uto-Sir Donald saddle, a thousand feet above. I climbed up blocky talus to a low-angle snowfield that was soft enough to cross in my scramblers before heading up a very loose talus/dirt slope where I had move very carefully and even use my hands in a couple places. A cool traverse led me directly to the col, where I found a duker with an incredible view of the glacier below to the east. Lightened, I moved up the well-featured ridge, closing on a team of three above.

The rock on these mountains is quartzite. It’s hard, mostly solid, and has numerous cracks for protection. I was soloing, so the protection possibilities weren’t relevant on this climb, but would come in handy the next day. The rock is notoriously slippery when wet, though, and it gets wet here. But the weather was holding and we had high hopes for the next day.

I caught and passed the three climbers above. They were soloing also, but had harnesses on and were prepared to rope up when necessary. They also planned to reverse the ridge and would probably rappel a couple of times. I was hoping to do a traverse and come down the northwest ridge, which was easier. They were friendly and I recognized them from the trailhead. They had walked by us that morning when the Loobster and I were packing up. It’s a pretty big day to get that baby from the trailhead, especially when starting at 10 a.m.

The scrambling here was excellent. I found a couple of places where the climbing seemed to be harder than 5.1, but never uncomfortable to solo. The exposure was large, but the atmosphere was completely overwhelmed by the huge, dark ridge behind me. Sir Donald’s Northwest Ridge, from this aspect, looks very intimidating. It was hard to imagine the ridge went at 5.4. I was excited to see that up close the next day.

I topped out and had great cell service so sent a photo to some friends and family and I tried to call my wife and my mom, as is my tradition. Neither were home — out doing their own adventures. I drank most of my water (just a liter) on the summit and had something to eat, but soon headed down the northwest ridge.

The going was generally easy and really fun scrambling in an incredible position. A couple of very steep steps with rappel anchors were bypassed to the west and I made my way down to the first col. I knew this wasn’t the gully I wanted to descend, but I couldn’t climb the vertical wall on the ridge. I reluctantly started down. A hundred feet below the col I spotted a cairn leading up a steep ramp back to the ridge and followed it. I got to the second col, the one between Uto and Eagle Peak and descended that. From camp this looked very steep and loose, and, while it was loose, wasn’t dangerously steep and the descent went smoothly. I was back in camp about three hours after leaving it, getting down around 6 p.m.

Loobster, being the basecamp manager, had the tent professionally erected. Shortly after I got down he inquired, “When will you be wanting dinner?” He then proceeded to make me a gourmet meal of Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese, served al fresco in a shiny aluminum pouch with a titanium spork. The only thing missing was a tablecloth. And the table.

Arthur and his guide were headed for Uto the next morning, as were a French-Canadian couple that arrived later that day (they had a permit for the upper bivy, but stopped here, as there was plenty of room). A few of the tents were leaving, carried out by the climbers done with their adventures, some successful, some not. One guy stormed into camp, way out in front of his three partners, and I asked how the climb went. “Not good. We didn’t make it. Just didn’t move fast enough.” They had done less than half the ridge before rappelling down the west-side, fixed-anchor slabs. When I said we were going for it the next day, he asked, “Are you going to solo it or simul-climb it?” I said probably some of both. He then said, “Well, you have to move fast and just go, go, go, if you want to make it.” Two other parties came down later, having succeeded. One person said they had  covered just 4 kilometers in 15 hours. Distance on terrain like that isn’t a meaningful metric.

The only other climbers going for Sir Donald the next day was a group of four guys. I saw them descending Uto’s ridge, as I was going up. They had brought gear halfway up the route before leaving it behind to solo up and down the top part. We went to sleep that night with high hopes for success.

We were up the next morning at five. After the obligatory cup of coffee, some food, and a bathroom trip, we were moving up the now-familiar route to the saddle. It took us about an hour to get up there and we were closely followed by the group of four guys. We geared and moved up unroped for the time being. Once it got steep, I asked Loobster if he wanted to rope and he said, “I’m fine.” I tend to be protective of the Loobster because he can sometimes make me nervous and a mistake when unroped is your last mistake. When I saw the group climbing behind us, closing fast, climbing roped, I insisted we rope up as well.

We moved up a couple hundred feet or more before the first of the guys caught and passed me. We all continued simul-climbing, all six of us, with our ropes overlapping. I was using a couple of MicroTraxions to make our climbing safer. Though we had a 200-foot rope, half of it was still inside my pack. I’d brought five cams and six slings for protection and stopped after maybe three hundred feet to re-gear and to get us completely separated from the other four. As one passed by I noticed “Cascade Alpine Guide” stitched onto his pants and I asked his trailing partner if his leader was a guide. He told me all four were guides. No wonder these guys moved so fast. Faster even than the Loobster!

We’d picked Monday for our climb since the weather report was the best. We weren’t supposed to have any precipitation. Just clear, warm weather. While it didn’t rain on us, we had almost zero sun the entire day and strong, biting wind chilled us all day long. On the right side of the ridge it was quite cold and we climbed in our pile and our shells. Whenever I’d stop to re-group it would always be on the left, east side, as that was out of the wind and quite comfortable.

This is a remarkable climb. Two and half thousand feet of consistently steep, interesting climbing/scrambling, with massive exposure on both sides. I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s so consistent, so solid, so clean, and in such perfect position. All at a somewhat reasonable level to solo. Not surprisingly there are some incredibly fast times on this route. The roundtrip record from the road, is around 4.5 hours. That’s pretty mind boggling for 7000 feet of climbing, 2500 of it being no-fall, technical ground.

The difficulty of the climbing was no problem for the Loobster, but its continuous nature was taxing him a bit. Still, he knew we had to keep moving. The cold weather also urged us on and certainly detracted from the overall enjoyment. The sky above was gray and not a great cause of concern, but it was another reason to keep moving. There weren’t extended breaks. The only time we weren’t moving was when we re-grouped for a quick gear hand-off, but we did take time at one of them to eat something. The guides were long out of sight above us.

I found and clipped three of the 2-bolt rappel anchors we’d use on the way down, but there was supposed to be six of them. There were a number of other rappel anchors along the ridge, all slings wrapped around blocks, some with a rappel ring, some without. High on the ridge the angle eases to 3rd class. We stayed roped, though, as it didn’t last all that long and wasn’t a problem. This section was where the West Face Bypass descent would intersect the ascent route.

We still had the final steep section to go and I stopped to regroup a few times here, as I sensed that the Loobster could use a few rests while I ran out a hundred feet of rope. We made the summit 5h40m after leaving the bivy. The clouds really moved in at this time, making our summit photos pretty disappointing. We signed the register and I got out a bit more food, but the Loobster was ready to descend immediately after the photos. It was cold, windy, and we had a long, stressful descent to go.

We’d seen the guides taking the West Face Bypass far below us, when we were finishing up the last steep section, so we opted for that descent as well. We started off roped together, as it was quite steep starting down the South Ridge, but we soon coiled the rope and put it away. The descending wasn’t too difficult, but it was loose and over big air below and the route finding wasn’t obvious. Further down we picked up some cairns and then could follow a clear trail. One section was the site of some rockfall and I knew about this ahead of time. It wasn’t too significant, though and we passed it in less than a minute.

It took us an hour of careful moving to regain the Northwest Ridge at the bottom of the low-angle section. We then downclimbed until one of the steep sections that I thought was 5.6 on the way up and used a rappel anchor to descend. We did lots more climbing, moving unroped down the terrain we had earlier climbed up roped together. It was a bit stressful but the Loobster was solid. We eventually got to the first of the two-bolt rappel anchors. We rapped and then had to downclimb quite a bit more to find the next anchor. Each rappel required me to wrestle with my 7.8mm rope, which even in calm weather has a tendency to snarl, but in whipping wind it had a serious case of tangle-philia.

On the last rappel on the ridge, I went too far to the west and was caught dangling in space. Loobster would point out later that the guidebook warned against this situation and later still we’d find out a woman died here when she rappelled off the end of her rope. I hadn’t been knotting the ends of my rope since it was already so difficult to get the ropes to go where I wanted them to go. Dangling over 1500 feet of mountain focused my mind immediately. My grip on the thin cord clenched markedly. I saw the anchors off to my left (climber’s left) but dangling in space, I couldn’t do anything but go down. Thankfully my rope reached the rock slab below. I had to rappel to within ten feet of the end of my rope before I hit the rock. Then, grabbing the rope tightly in one hand, I climbed up and left to the anchors and clipped in, lowering my heart rate considerably.

The rappels down to the west went smoothly. We did some more hiking down loose slopes before doing two optional rappels, more walking and then two final rappels before we could finally put away the ropes for good and strip off the harness. The talus slope back down to the bivy is amongst the nastiest I’ve descended. It consisted of a thin layer of talus over a rock hard dirt slope. I was able to do a bit of scree surfing in spots but most of it was just miserably loose and tedious. The Loobster fell numerous times and though they were simple falls onto his backside, this is a guy without a lot of padding there and I wondered how old you have to be before bones don’t like falling onto rocks.

We got back to camp around 6 p.m. and immediately started breaking it down. We ate and drank some while we packed and were hiking out by 6:30 p.m. Coming down an additional 3500 feet on top of the 3500 feet we’d already done was tough on our knees and toes, but we persevered. We made it back to the trailhead at 9 p.m., just barely avoiding the use of our headlamps. How hard can a climb be if you don’t even use your headlamp? Still, it was 16 hours from when we woke up and we were beat. Satisfied, but beat.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and I’ll keep on saying it: the Loobster is amazing. Rarely do I even notice that I’m not climbing with one of my other partners, half Loobster’s age. When I do detect this, I don’t get frustrated, for it only takes a moment to remind myself that I’m climbing with one of the fittest, most capable 75-year-olds in the entire country. Who am I, an exceedingly average middle-aged climber, to be fretting about an exceptional 75-year-old. The Loobster is slower than any of my other climbing partners, but I’m slower than any of my other climbing partners. One of Loobster’s maxims is “I don’t need to be the fastest in the group, but I don’t want to be the slowest.” He climbs with people half his age and he’s still one of the faster ones. When he mentioned this on the approach, I thought, hmmm…I’m frequently the slowest when I go out on adventures these days. It is tough to be the slowest, but that just means I have fit friends who are nice enough to take me along. At this point in my life I’m much prouder about the quality of my friends and partners than the speed at which I travel. And I always should have been.