Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We went, we saw, we didn't climb

Ben and I decided we wanted to attempt Bear Creek Spire. We both have the High Sierra Climbing supertopo, and we both looked at it and decided that we liked the idea of a destination that had two alternatives from which to choose: the 5.8 North Arete, and the low 5th class Northeast Ridge.

We had been planning to go about a month ago, but ended up going to Courtright Reservoir instead, because we couldn't get permits for overnight stay at the Little Lakes trailhead. Last week looked like the last opportunity of unequivocally good weather in the Sierras (this week the storms begin), so we headed out there mid-week to attempt our objective.

For me this trip came a week after spending a week at Banff National Park, so I was still somewhat acclimated to higher elevations. Ben was coming straight from sea level. I was essentially taking a long weekend in the middle of the week, so we had to do the whole trip in three days, including the getting there and back.

We took off Tuesday morning and got to the Little Lakes trailhead, overnight permit in hand, around 4pm. Backpacking up to Gem Lakes took a couple hours, so when we got there we decided to stop, make dinner while we still had some daylight left, and overnight there. Gem Lakes Valley is possibly the most beautiful place I've ever been, and, on top of that, the trail to continue up to Dade Lake was not obvious, so I had no objections to staying, though my legs were definitely good to go for a while longer.

The next morning we got a leisurely start, based solely on the time it took for the sun to peek over Morgan Mt. to our east, and hit our campsite. We were off and searching for a trail to Dade Lake by 9am, loaded only with climbing gear, and planning to hit the easier Ridge, instead of the arete.

It turns out that there really is no "trail" as such. We learned from the book that we should look for a steep talus slope, of which there is exactly one, so there was little ambiguity there. But nothing we had read prepared us for 2.5 hours of steep, unmarked talus to Dade Lake. Having previously had near-injuries while slogging in talus, I consider it the worst possible terrain to be in during the last part of a tired descent. I was completely demoralized by how long and hard the upward talus slog had been, by the fact that we'd have to do it again, in reverse, and super tired, possibly in the dark, at the end of our day, and, finally, by the fact that there was no way we would ever have managed this talus ascent with full backpacks the night before. It felt like we had done something definitely wrong, but we were definitely following directions right.

By the time we got to Dade Lake I was pretty sure I wasn't up for the rest of the day as we had planned it. We would next have to traverse a snow field, then more talus for over another hour, before reaching the base of the climb. Then we'd climb for 5 or so hours, then we'd have to descend by glissading down a snow gully, and slog talus for 3 more hours to get back. Given our 11:30am arrival at Dade Lake, we were looking at finishing our glissade, with three more hours to go, around nightfall.

Throughout all our preparations it had not occurred to me that what we were planning was actually a mountaineering, and not a climbing trip. The guidebook and websites we'd consulted made it sound like on some trips, some times of year, some people chose to bring snow gear (ice axes and crampons). We were in what I would consider the absolute end of the local summer and, in my non-expert opinion, snow gear was necessary. I was completely uncomfortable with the idea of crossing that snow field without traction, and of glissading down the gully without an ice axe. Couple that with the late start and lack of relevant fitness (i.e. lack of ability to go on autopilot on talus at 11,500 ft for 6 hours, and have faith that I'm not going to miss a step and land on my face, or overturn a boulder and end up with a crushed ankle, both of which I've *almost* done in the past), there was no choice, for me, at least, but to bail on the plan.

I don't know what Ben's process was, but I was pretty annoyed that I had to deal with his long and silent inner struggle. It was completely clear to me -- and it did not diminish me or my self esteem at all! -- that we had bitten off more than we could chew, and had underestimated this project.

Given that the talus ascent had been so miserable, and that we thought we couldn't do it with full backpacks, if we ever chose to return, it was time to make lemonade, and try to find a better way down (or up, for the future). We descended into Treasure Lakes Valley, then down towards Long Lake following the fishermen's path. This trail is actually mentioned in the supertopo, but not recommended, because it is supposedly longer and has more talus (!!!). It took us the same amount of time, so if it's longer it's only marginally so, and I thought it was slightly more pleasant, as far as talus goes. We paid close attention to the maps and terrain, and we think that we've found a way to get from Gem Lakes to Dade Lake by traveling cross country, following the ridge immediately East of Treasure Lakes. Since, next time around, we will be seeking to minimize our distance from Bear Creek Spire, in order to shorten the climbing day and avoid talus travel at the end of it, it will be important to get all the way to Dade Lake. So this ridge is the only option we think we can handle, with full backpacks...


We spent the rest of our day lolling about Gem Lakes, took a quick swim, made movies of trout (I call it "fishing"), and acclimating (for no reason at all). It was a beautiful and restful day, and I was really glad to be there and not epic'ing up at Bear Creek Spire. The backpack down the next day was equally beautiful. A couple days later I read of a rescue in the Tetons (apparently the third this year) of a guy who glissaded without an ice axe and ended up with broken limbs when he lost control. That made me feel a lot better about my admittedly inexpert assessment. I climb for fun, so the idea is to do it only to the extent that I can live to continue doing it uninjured.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This year's Needles expedition -- day 2, attack of the carabiner

Saturday morning found us sleeping in, so we decided to forgo the hike in to the Needles and opt for the lower elevation and shorter approach of Dome Rock, on which we had an objective, the Anti-jello crack.

The carabiner made love to meAnti-jello crack starts with the easy first pitch of the Tree Route. The second pitch is a 5.9+ fingers-to-tips crack, which I suspect was tips-to-nothing for Dima. He led almost all the way up it, and when the feet ran out, the crack thinned to almost nothing, and the protection got really tricky he had to hang and aid through the last bit of it. It only takes a sentence to say and justify that, but the process of making the decision and carrying it out is actually quite emotionally wrenching and time-consuming. I tried to be a good partner and give him all the time and support I could, but I never quite know whether to speak up or shut up. In any case, I was in the shade of a tree and quite comfortable. Dima finished that pitch via a right-trending variation that took us back to the Tree Route.

As for me, I think that pitch was possibly one of the best pitches I've ever climbed. The size was very suited to me. I had to stop and hang twice while cleaning nuts that were really stuck, as well as liberating a booty nut that someone had clearly used to bail on the route. Another bailing nut was fused and stayed in. During the second "take" to clean a nut I had a little accident. The draw on the piece above the one I was cleaning got jerked violently in the take, the biner at the end whipping around and fluttering and eventually taking a nice big bite out of my left bicep. It took a good chunk of flesh out, and made a giant bruise around it. It hurt a lot, but I was in the moment and didn't pay much attention. Later, at the top of the route I stopped to disinfect and bandage it.

The mountain made love to himAt the top of the second pitch we switched to me leading up to the anchors of the last pitch of Tree Route, since I had the whole entire giant rack of tiny gear on me. It was fun to be, however briefly, on the sharp end. I think Dima either doesn't trust me, or is so concerned about me getting hurt and screwing up his climbing plans, that he almost never lets me lead. He certainly never asks if I want to. The silent arrangement suits me, however, as he is a lot more willing to get on harder things and flail than I am, as a leader.

The last pitch of Tree Route -- in fact the whole route -- is super fun. It's a lowish angle slab, with a single bolt in the middle, a bit like the last pitch of Angel's Fright/Fingertrip on Tahquitz, but easier. Above that are just slabs to the top. We hung out on the slabs, licking our wounded egos and arms and enjoying the incredible view. A lovely breeze had kicked up, really helping in the 80s temps and full-on sun. Eventually we walked off the rock, I took a nap, and Dima went back to the base to retrieve his gear. We finished our day with another visit to the Ponderosa, where the service sucked and the food made us both quite ill. But more about that on the next day's log...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This year's Needles expedition -- day 1

Reentry from this year's expedition to the Needles, with my friend Dima from Texas, has been the hardest yet!

At the campsite
We took off midday on Thursday, arriving at Kernville in time for some lunner and a beer at the Kern River Brewing Co, as is our custom. We made it to the Needles campsite before dark, which was just as well, since the dirt road had a couple major mudholes that we had to negotiate, so sunlight was definitely a plus. The campsite was quite full, and we snagged the last available official camping spot, as far away from the folks with the television in their Sportsmobile as possible. I slept in my car, as usual. Dima pitched his Nemo tent, which is extremely entertaining to watch. A single PhD does not qualify one to pitch a Nemo tent, no siree!

On Friday we racked up, and steeled ourselves for the long approach. We got to the notch by the Witch only to find several parties already there and racking up, and a party already on the route we wanted to do, Airy Interlude. A little taken aback, and psychologically unprepared to deal with people, we decided to head for another objective of ours, a route named Spooky on the Charlatan formation. Spooky can  be approached either from its base, by dropping down the notch between the Charlatan and the Djin, or by rapping the route from above. Initially we had a hard time locating the notch, and then we were put off by the allegedly 4th class chimney at the notch. Our beta said to expect rap slings at the top, but we found none, and we were not about to downclimb it, though we did see other parties who did later on in the day. (In the evening we spoke with Kris Solem, who is writing the new Needles guidebook, and he confirmed that indeed there are no rap slings, and that the chimney has gotten worse in the last couple of years since a flake broke off and a lot of soil eroded from the base making it deeper.) We set out to get to the top of the Charlatan to find the rap rings for Spooky, and finally succeeded after some time and a whole lot of scrambling. The top of that formation has to be one of the most spectacular spots on earth. There is a feeling of a whole lot of air around you that's absolutely breathtaking and incredibly intimidating at first. You do get used to it eventually, but initially it takes a real effort to walk around.

Me at the base of the second pitch of Spooky. Check out the crazy rock face!
The Charlatan is topped by a rock much like the headstone in J-Tree, but a little smaller, which has a crack on one side called the Lady of the Needles. This is rated 5.7, so we figured it would be a good warmup for the harder Spooky. It was indeed a very fun route, packing at least a couple interesting moves in no more than 40 feet of climbing. The top is very narrow, requiring the climber to either hang from the anchor or straddle it, which I thought was a hoot. The view is amazing!

The forecast had given us 15% chance of rain, and as we warmed up we watched the thunderheads slowly accumulate around us. None were too low or too close, though, so we decided to attempt Spooky. We were a little worried about the possibility of the weather getting worse in a rush, so we fixed our second line so we could bail very fast, if the need arose. We rapped the route, and started up. Dima led both pitches. The first, which goes at 5.8, was a solid hands crack for me, ending with a lieback section. It was a half a rope length long and I was loving every second of it! The second pitch, rated 5.9, starts with a 15 foot off-width, then continues up a sculpted face that looks probably like nothing you've ever climbed. Solidified waves is the closest description I can come up with. I could see that Dima was feeling rushed, and despite the fact that I had my eye on the weather and had persistently tried to take his mind off it, he wasn't paying attention to me. The off-width gave him trouble, and the demoralization from that made him uncertain in the face section of the climb. He finished the climb, but it was pretty clear that he hadn't especially enjoyed it. I couldn't figure out how to get into the off-width, so I started it as a lieback. That worked remarkably well until I got to the #4 camalot that Dima had walked up with him, about halfway up. I couldn't get that out while liebacking, so I tried to transition into the off-width, took a fall, and then thrutched around like a fish out of water for the rest of the off-width. At no point did I manage to regain any control or poise. Use it or lose it! I hadn't climbed an off-width in probably two years! After that I mostly enjoyed the face section, until I got to a spot where my way of doing it was very different from Dima's -- a common occurence -- but the way he had protected a traversing move made my way impossible to pull off. So I had to do it his way, which took a really long time to work out. No falls though! At least that was good.

My adventure mobile, bar and library in one
We finished the climb feeling a bit humbled and a little overwhelmed by the location, climbing and weather. On the hike out we stopped at the fire lookout tower and met the famous keeper, Margee, and Kris, chatted for a while, then hiked out with Kris. We had a beer and a burger at the Ponderosa Inn, not feeling quite up to cooking for ourselves, then read Ed Abbey and drank wine until we crashed.

(Pictures by Dima.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

playing in the Southern and Eastern Sierra

I'd rather be there by slampoud
I'd rather be there, a photo by slampoud on Flickr.
I've taken a couple cool trips recently where the highlight was Huckleberry, my 10 month old lab-boxer pup.

Huckle and I did a backpacking trip in the Southern Sierra, in which we went from the Jerkey Meadow trailhead to the bridge over the little Kern, then backed up a little and camped overnight in the woods, and back the way we came on the next day. It was a painful trip, since my knee wasn't doing well, but it also gave me a taste of how awesome backpacking with a dog is.

On the next weekend I headed up to Rock Creek with Dima. We camped at French Flat, then climbed Iris Slab on Saturday, struck camp on Sunday and headed to Pine Creek, where we climbed this new area of development called the PSOM slab. We did the first pitch of a route called Racing Lizards, but via the direct slab variation, which was stellar. Huckle was also along for this trip and provided mayhem galore: on Saturday he found a putrifying fish and brought it to me. When he threw it at me it burst against my leg, covering my pants in gore and maggots. The rest of the day was fishy. On Sunday he tried to climb 5.7 slab. Yep. Got a few feet off the ground, too, which was extremely scary to watch.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My climbing library

My climbing library has grown to the point where it's almost the size of my computer science library, which I've had five times as long to accumulate. I'm a compulsive organizer, and I'll take any excuse to fondle my books, so here's a list. Let me know if you need to borrow something. Particularly the starred books are out of print or hard to find.

Guide Books:
The High Sierra: peaks, passes, trails -- R. J. Secor
Indian Creek, a climbing guide -- Bloom
Rock climbing Santa Barbara and Ventura
Rock climbing Tahquitz & Suicide Rocks
Southern California Sport Climbing
Owen's River Gorge Climbs
Bishop Area Rock Climbs
High Sierra Climbing
The trad guide to Joshua Tree
Rock climbing Joshua Tree West
Red Rocks, a climber's guide
San Diego County climbing guide
* Climbing! Santa Barbara, Ventura, SLO
Tuolumne Free climbs
Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side

Not guide books:
High Infatuation -- Steph Davis
Flakes, Jugs & Splitters
Climbing Free -- Lynn Hill
Beyond the Mountain -- Steve House
Climbing Self Rescue
Mountaineering: the freedom of the hills
One move too many...
The self-coached climber

A friend on twitter also brought to my attention that there is a great resource out there for climbing books and guide books: Chessler Books.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Corpse Wall

So named after someone who had jumped to their death from the top was found at the base by climbers. We started on the left side, first toproping the 10a, then leading the 5 on the arete and finally toproping the 7 (?) to the right of the gash. It was OK. Lots of lichen!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

reflections on a failed personal project

Avid readers of this blog (both of you) might be wondering why I haven't written anything in the last couple of months, save for quickly jotting down my tick-lists for the last couple of trips I've taken. The truth is, I've been busy with things a little more exciting and engaging than the recording of adventures already complete.

I like to do some kind of big, "personal development" type project every year. Since I got out of college I've been escalating the magnitude of things I undertake in my personal life. First it was learn to sail from scratch, then buy a boat, then sail from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, then do my first race internationally etc etc. Last year the opportunity presented itself to be involved with TEDxSB, and I loved how that particular project gave back to a real audience, while at the same time allowing for personal development. So this year I've been working on two personal projects (see what I mean about escalation?), one related to sailing and one to climbing. I know this is the climbing blog, but bear with me while I tell you how my sailing project turned out. (By the way, suffice it to say that the climbing project is another one with a low probability of success, again because it's tricky to fund. But it would be awesome, and so I don't give up!).

In very early spring I learned through twitter about vacancies in a maritime research expedition on board the S/V Sea Dragon over the summer. It is being run by the same folks who are responsible for the 5Gyres project, in which the Sea Dragon trawls the oceans collecting samples of plastic pollution. In this summer project they'll be collecting various forms of data in the South Pacific, and producing all kinds of multimedia to be shared with conservation organizations (more about the expedition here). I thought that sounded incredibly cool. My pipe dream is to be the captain of a research boat, so what better way to get a millimeter closer to that dream than join these folks on the 4th leg of their expedition. I could blog about everything leading up to the expedition, blog from the boat and give presentations when I can back to Santa Barbara. I could turn this into a grand learning experiment for myself and my audience.

These expeditions are funded partly through grants and partly through crew contributions, so the next trick was going to be to raise the funds necessary to participate. Over three months I contacted outdoor apparel companies (4 in total), some tech companies (3), a sustainable cosmetics company and two educational/conservation organizations, hoping to discuss the possibility of them helping in some way with my small budget. I heard back from exactly ONE of these potential sponsors, and that was because the person I contacted was a brilliant friend who has done projects like these herself, and who had a very cogent answer about the company's giving strategy and what may or may not work. Over these three months I went through periods of pumping disappointment, exuberant determination, plodding resolve and everything in-between. I searched email and phone directories, emailed these folks, even visited the ones with brick-and-mortar stores to talk to the managers. In the face-to-face situations, I was met with enthusiasm, but never by the decision-makers themselves. The follow-through was nil. I am not naive regarding corporate giving policies, nor am I indifferent to the plight of business in a down economy. I do, however, expect an answer when I pose a question. I expect some proportion of those answers to be NO, maybe even all of them, and I harbor no hard feelings over the nos, but I EXPECT an answer. It is the bare minimum of P.R. professionalism to respond to legitimate email and in-person inquiries.

So it seemed that corporate sponsorship was not going to work out. The next option seemed to be a kickstarter campaign, but kickstarter has recently made the decision to restrict use of their platform to creative projects only. (I happen to think that's a good idea, by the way, as they can focus their platform and tailor it to that community). What I was proposing to do was really a research-adventure project, and, while I could have tried to shoe-horn it into an art project of some kind, I thought the idea had merit in and of itself.

Finally, again through twitter, I became aware of the fact that Nick Jaffe, who I know from his Atlantic crossing and other adventures in a quasi-sistership of mine, was building an adventure funding platform called Nomaddica. He was lauching a pre-pre-alpha version to help Roz Savage, who is rowing across the Indian Ocean, with fundraising. I emailed Nick and he quickly agreed to help with my project, despite the fact that his code wasn't ready and that this was likely to be a huge headache for him. I was overjoyed.

Throughout this entire fundraising process, the expedition manager, Emily, had been a tremendous help, giving me ideas about companies to contact, how to possibly structure the fundraising, and chatting with me about the logistics of getting to the start of the trip, immunizations and the like.

In the end, logistics and burn out killed this project. There appears to be a weekly flight to the Kiritimati (Christmas Island) atoll from which leg 4 of the trip begins, and because of its timing it would require me to take fully 3 weeks off from work. Nomaddica can help with the fundraising, but there is no guarantee that we can cover my expenses and I am loathe to burden my social network with the responsibility for funding a trip that no corporate sponsor saw fit to be associated with. But is the inability to find a sponsor for this project a damning judgment or simply a reflection of the fact that people do not bother to send emails of rejection, preferring instead for them to be implied?

I, of course, am not globally giving up! I am merely throwing in the towel (and deleting the twitter account and blog) for this particular imagined research-education project. It was an enlightening, months-long exercise in fundraising, social media and concept development, and it separated the many mice I contacted from the few humans who chose to respond (whether to the affirmative or negative). Instead I choose to lend my support, and I urge you to, as well, to Roz's campaign. I look forward to the completion of Nick's fundraising platform. And I wish the S/V Sea Dragon all the best in this and future expeditions. As long as beaches are covered in plastic bottles, there is work to be done.

Of course, I will make it to the South Pacific some other time ;-)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wheeler Gorge

Tick list:
Cobble Climb
South of the trout farm
Stu Boy

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Indian Creek

"Tick" list
* The incredible hand crack
* Supercrack
* Coyne crack
* Kitten kicker (Unnamed 19)
* Deseret moon

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Fortress

The Fortress is a fabulous area of new climbing development just past the Sespe Gorge on Hwy 33. Most of the routes were set by Matt Fienup, and they're closely bolted and very cool. My friend J and I hit it on Saturday of last weekend. We started up on the left, went up 5.4, 5.9, 5.7 and 5.10a pitches, dropped down the other side and toproped 10a, then went up Permanent Income Hypothesis at 5.9. The conditions were damn near perfect, temperatures were mild in the sun and shade, nice gentle breeze and we had the place to ourselves. What a day!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Return to Echo Cliffs

This past Saturday I hit Echo Cliffs with two friends, one of whom has done very little climbing outside and one of whom had never led outside. I had my reservations about climbing with non-leaders from the start because, even though I've managed to follow reasonably challenging climbs over the last six months, I hadn't led since Angel's Fright in early summer. I was also expecting, correctly, as it turned out, that the routes would be mobbed. In general I was having trouble explaining to people just how low their expectations of climbing that day should be...

In any case, we had a really fun day! The temperature was perfect and we enjoyed the hike in and out, my knees holding up just fine. We started at the Grotto, with the two 5.8/5.9s on the left of the stream. I led the face climb first, and I could tell I was still in granite mode and not loving the tuff. A gentleman who was climbing nearby was kind enough to make the first clip on the arete route to its right next, and I started up that. I remember having led it a couple years ago, and feeling fine and proud, despite the menacing drop. The kind gentleman had gone, in my opinion, off-route when leading it himself, and, all of a sudden, in the middle of my lead he and a random lady off to the side started talking to me, presumably trying to give me beta. I hate beta. And more than that, I hate being talked to in the middle of a challenging lead. The only bad lead fall I've taken was when my mentor, Francis, tried to talk me through a section between the 1st and 2nd bolt on a climb at New Jack City. So here I was, between the 1st and 2nd bolt on this climb, with a potentially much worse fall and a new belayer and TWO random people were talking to me. I gave it a game try and backed off. I took 5 minutes to compose myself and de-pump, got back on, and the same thing happened. Gabber gabber gabber. Wtf?! I backed off again. I was pissed off enough that I knew I couldn't ask them politely to shut up, so I didn't say anything. My belayer had shown exceptional control following, then leading the previous route, so I asked him if he wanted to try to onsight this one, and he took the opportunity. The remaining two of us followed, and then we went to have lunch, while I talked myself out of chewing out those helpful people. I guess it's a public place and they can talk as loudly as they wish to. After lunch we hit the Left Flank, and I led a long, super fun 5.8+ thingy. That put me back in a happy mood, and rounded off our day.

I actually had no idea that someone talking to me between the 1st and 2nd bolt of a challenging climb would shut me down. I don't recall my previous leader fall as an especially traumatic experience. I did fall on top of my belayer then, and I was lucky that she was so good at her job. But I took some time, dusted myself off and sent that climb! So I wasn't expecting this. I think time away from leading combined with the similar setting and serious consequences of a fall there made me back off. I think it was the right decision, too, since I don't like to force it. I didn't like that I couldn't muster a polite way to shut those people up, but I am proud for not ruining everyone's day...