Big Wall – Why Bother?

IMG_20140526_073618460_HDRFor Josh’s birthday weekend (which conveniently falls over Memorial Day), he chose to spend two days climbing a 1000 foot sandstone wall known as Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Along the way we camped out on a portaledge.

Why did we do this? Well, the short answer is that it’s just a really cool thing to do. You may wonder if it took us two days to climb because it was extra tall? Well, no, we’ve climbed just as tall routes in one day. So, was the route just so hard that it took us a lot longer? Well, kind of.

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Josh on lead
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Ryan on lead

Normally, when Josh and I climb we stay on the rock by using only our own hands and feet (a rope and harness provide safety in the event our own strength doesn’t keep us on the rock). This type of climbing is called free climbing. But back in early days of the sport, climbers, without today’s modern gear, had to wear big clunky hiking boots, which limited their free climb ability. So they developed other techniques, which when utilized are called aid climbing. These techniques, while refined, continue to be used today to complete routes that are too difficult or too tall to ascend freely.

Now, there is a wide range of free climbing difficulty. You may have seen a video of a guy named Alex Honnold climbing Moonlight Buttress without even a rope. So why does it take us two days to get up a route that takes Alex two hours? Well, that’s because in all sports you have your professional sponsored climbers and then you have the rest of us. Josh and I are of pretty average ability free climbers.

The Moonlight Buttress route can be climbed without using aid. But aid lets average climbers like us ascend a route we wouldn’t normally be able to. That said, there are actually plenty of available routes that we can free climb that we would stay busy without aid climbing.IMG_20140526_073731567

So, another reason routes like Moonlight Buttress are aid climbed because they are good places for climbers to hone their aid climbing skills before attempting longer, more difficult routes. El Capitan, the prominent granite tower in Yosemite, is one of the best examples. At 3000 feet tall with some very difficult free climbing sections, only two people have ever ascended the entire formation without using some form of aid climbing. El Capitan is such a big undertaking that before attempting it, it’s important for aid climbers to practice their techniques on shorter routes, like Moonlight Buttress. This is why the term “big wall” is used to describe these types of routes.

To ascend a rock face without standing directly on the rock, climbers stand in nylon ladders. Nylon ladders limit one’s range of motion, significantly slowing the speed of ascent.IMG_20140526_073900012_HDR

When Josh and I complete a route in one day, we carry a small day pack with water, snacks and first aid items. Spending the night requires more food and gear than we can carry on our backs. So that requires the additional task of “hauling” gear up the wall, slowing the ascent further, requiring specialize technical skills creating more physical work.

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Ryan on the ledge

So… getting back to why we’re doing this. For one, the learning involved is kind of a natural progression for someone like Josh who climbs for fun but also has a job requiring extensive rope skills. However, a lot of what makes free climbing fun, the physical movement and technique, is lost in aid climbing. Aid climbing is also very physical, but it’s the more tedious and laborious type. Which is what Josh wants to get away from when he climbs for fun, and why he’s drawn to free climbing.

Our friend Ryan however, who we climbed Moonlight Buttress with, is a true wall climber. He gets super psyched about the whole process; including the added challenges of problem solving, organization and logistics that go into a multi-day ascent.

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Toasting the summit!

There are two things that motivate both of them to put in the extra work. One is the summit. The harder one works at anything in life, the more they enjoy the reward, and that’s definitely true in climbing. Josh has two previous unsuccessful attempts at summiting a wall climb and was ready to put those behind him.

Aminda can’t really answer this question very well. Yet. I was blessed that Josh and Ryan basically let me tag along on this trip. While I had done some basic aid skills practice in preparation to ascend as a second, my limited experience kept me from contributing much to the demanding work of leading and hauling that is required. I had more time during the day to chill out and mindlessly watch the constant circuit of Park shuttle busses below and the endless line of hikers on Angel’s Landing hikers, which we could see down canyon.

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Hiking down with some heavy packs. Bummer this came out blurry, you can’t really see Ryan’s haul bag, which towers above his head!

I was excited to experience the other perk of aid climbing — the vertical camping. A good comparison is backpacking. Sure, you may be physically capable of hiking 10 miles in a day, but it’s whole different experience to split that up and spend a night in solitude. (and like in backpacking, we follow basic Leave No Trace principles)

So, after a tiring first day, we arrive at our camp “site” (called a bivouac, or bivy for short) at about 8pm, as the sun was getting low. The last of the Angel’s Landing hikers, are heading off the summit. We spend about an hour setting up the ledges and organizing our gear. (What we don’t do at any point, day or night, is take off our harnesses. At all times we are safely connected to the wall.)

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Back on the ground…. Nobody wanted to sit by us on the shuttle bus back to our car. 😉
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Love that our weekend was, literally, straight out of an Eddie Bauer ad.

Finally, after a long day of standing in our nylon ladders, we collapse into the comfort of the ledge, eat some dinner and enjoy the experience. Zion Canyon, normally full of thousands of people, gets quiet and still. As the sun goes down the sharp edges of the surrounding towers fade into the graying sky, which fills with stars, the magnitude of which lull you to sleep. Waking up, the world is bright and you fully realize that you just spent the night suspended in space, hundreds of feet off the ground. That’s pretty surreal.

Road-side Attraction

With great sadness we departed the Rockies on a drizzly morning. While looking forward to new adventures in Squamish, BC, we knew we would miss the grand peaks of the mountains and we did as we kept driving down the temps kept going up and the scenery started to look more like, uh, Arizona. We’d soon learn that we were literally only about 20 miles north of the upper border of the Sonoran Desert. In Canada…who knew? Gotta say, we didn’t feel any burning desire to drive down and check it out.

Anyway, we’ve embraced the change of scenery and the local way by spending some relaxing rest time on the beach. Yep, the lakeside beaches that the Okanagan Valley is well known for. That and the wineries. And, the reason we’re here, for B.C.’s other climbing hot-spot, Skaha. Unfortunately we haven’t gotten in as much climbing here as we’d like as we were pretty worn out by time we’d arrived. First was a drive that took twice as long as it should have. We spent two hours sitting on the highway after an accident shut down traffic. That was followed by a time-consuming search for a campsite. The one we finally snagged—literally 20 feet from the highway—stole two nights of restful sleep from us. Our nickname for this campsite was BCE aka Best Campsite Ever!

Canadian’s must get pretty sun-starved during the winter because it seems like the whole country flocks here to soak up the sun. The reason behind our campsite challenge was our mistake of arriving during a holiday weekend. Alberta was gearing up for Heritage Days. Then we crossed the provincial line and all of a sudden they’re celebrating British Columbia Day. So which is it and what exactly is the holiday all about? Well, wanting to be culturally sensitive, we did a little research. While I’ll admit that Wikipedia is not exactly a bastion of facts, the explanation given for this holiday is pretty amusing.  Who can’t use another holiday?

Civic Holiday is the most widely used name for a public holiday celebrated in parts of Canada on the first Monday in August… Unlike most holidays, Civic Holiday does not commemorate a specific event, but was created for its timing. Between Canada Day and Labour Day there are no recognizable holidays, one of the longest stretches on the Canadian calendar without a holiday.

This week’s ticks

Cougar Canyon. (Canmore) Beautiful creek-side setting for long, single pitch cragging. Greasy limestone reminiscent of The Pit…we didn’t waste too much energy here.

Guides Rock, Sea of Dreams (5 pitches). We conserved our juice for another awesome bolted multi-pitch. Great limestone with lots of texture. Steep, calf-burning approach. Great views.

Mount Bourgeau, Walk of Ages (4 pitches). Short and sweet version of the last route.

SKAHA. Nice crag in lower BC that sports over 700 single- pitch routes on good rock. Definitely a worthy stop between Banff and Squamish. Long, varied routes on edgy gneiss. Friendly local crowd.  Hot and muggy but the rock is so edgy!

**we’ve also posted a couple new photos under last week’s post.

an aMAYzing month

After such a beautiful spring, the month of May is when temps finally hit 100 degrees, a day that Phoenix welcomed about as much as they did the Lakers last month.  Fortunately, Josh and I have been blessed with some great escapes.

First was our rafting trip.  Josh had helped a friend organize this four-day trip and was invited along to be a boat captain, rowing and steering an oar boat down the 50 mile stretch of the Colorado we traveled.

The Colorado actually runs for about 275 river miles through the Grand Canyon.  Groups are able to do such a short trip by launching the boats from Diamond Creek. This is an intermittently running Colorado tributary that flows through a side canyon down which a road has been built allowing access to the river.  It provides the only vehicular access between Lee’s Ferry, to the east which is considered the start of the Canyon and Lake Mead, where the Canyon ends in the west.

We were both blessed to have a such an upbeat and fun-loving group to enjoy the time with.  Because of the personal connection, these groups are much less “random” then those in the Community College classes.

As many times as Josh has done this trip, he never gets tired of the night sky bursting with stars and falling asleep on the boat, rocked to sleep by the waves. (sleeping on the boat is reserved for the boat captains, the rest of the group camps on the beach in tents)

While Josh had some responsibility, I was able to just tag along and enjoy the ride.  This was my third Diamond Down trip which was made special by paddling an inflatable kayak through a couple of the rapids. This was a big deal for me as I actually have some pretty strong anxiety about getting tossed into that cold, churning water. While “going swimming” is a possibility when on a boat of any size, it feels much more real in a kayak, alone and only a few inches away from the water.  But as I expected – I had a blast.  It’s a little like a roller coaster ride…except you can’t just let loose and throw your arms in the air, you actually have to stay composed enough to keep paddling.

The week after we returned we left to celebrate Josh’s birthday in Zion National Park.  This was the first trip to Zion for both of us and we were definitely taken with the towering sandstone formations, like a hybrid of Yosemite and Sedona.  We spent our time exploring the park’s famous slot canyons or canyoneering, a sport that involves traveling through a slot canyon by a variety of means including hiking, downclimbing, swimming or rappelling.  In more remote areas it can be a pretty committing and adventurous activity, but we found these well-traveled canyons to be straightforward and fun, not to mention beautiful. For more detailed description of the sport, here are some trip reports others have written about the canyons we visited.

Birch Hollow

Keyhole

Pine Creek

Fat Man’s Misery

Since many of the classic canyons were closed due to high water, we’re definitely looking forward to a return.  We send a shout out to the Zion backcountry ranger team, a very pleasant and professional crew.  Not only were they full of wisdom, they were able to dispense it without sounding condescending or letting on that it was actually the 100th time that day they’d had answered that question.

New Year, old tradition

We hope the New Year is off to a happy start for all of our friends and family -we pray that each of you will have an amazingly blessed 2010.

Josh and I were happy to start the year off with one of our favorite traditions, a climbing trip to Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, near Las Vegas, NV. This is the 5th time we’ve started the year off in Red Rock, and the first year we’ve enjoyed the flexibility of being able to travel after the New Year’s weekend, avoiding the inevitable crowds.

For anyone vacationing in Vegas finding themselves in need of a break from the bright lights and noisy slots of the city, Red Rocks provides a welcome retreat. The landscape is dominated by sandstone formations, reminiscent of Sedona, but with a different feel. Where Sedona is puncturated by striking, fiery orange, angular towers, Red Rock’s brightly colored hills sits like short, squat bulges. But on the other side of the canyon stand Red Rock’s mountainous formations – more subtle and muted in color, but still imposing.

A loop road allows visitors to easily view the entire canyon, but it’s worth it to plan time to get out for a hike to stretch the legs and get some air. Through the shadow of the hills, the canyons are littered with colorful boulders in various shades and patterns: pink, mauve, burgundy – spotted, striped or striated.

Red Rocks ranks up near Yosemite as one of our favorite climbing destinations. In addition to the beautiful landscape, sandstone allows us to maximize our time spent climbing, being a rock that is less abrasive on the hands then those such as granite. This time of year can be a wonderful time but also a challenging season for desert climbing. It’s hard to get more perfect than a sunny winter wall – comfortably warm but not brutally hot. On the other hand, during the winter daylight is short and nights are cold.

Short days mean less opportunity to climb some of the longer, more interesting routes in the area. These can involve hikes of an hour or more each way just to get to the start of the climb, which really eats into the day. Occasionally we’re ambitious, setting the alarm to rouse us before dawn so we can hit the trail as early as possible, but this year we relaxed, enjoying some shorter but still fun routes closer to the parking lot. It just means we’ll have plenty to do when we return in the spring.

We entertain ourselves on these long hikes by reminiscing about our previous trips. There was the time we were surprised by a herd of mountain goats. The day we couldn’t find our route and ended up just hiking around with packs full of gear that we never got to use. The year that rain finally drove us to the strip for New Year’s night, where we could only handle the drunken crowds until about 10:30.

Normally on the cold nights we hit the tent early, bundling up in cozy down sleeping bags to talk about the day and plan for the next one before enjoying a full night’s sleep. We’ll remember this trip as the one of improvisation. We were less prepared & organized then usual, having forgotten to bring a few cooking and toiletry items And with our usual climbing shoes still being resoled we were both climbing in a back-up pair of shoes. We’ll also remember the impulse purchase of dozen day-old donuts which we unsuccessfully tried to savor beyond their shelf life. While we may not have enjoyed the donuts so much, we’ll enjoy a good laugh out of the experience for years to come – and that will be more than worth the $1.99.

Back from the backwoods

This week we finally got around to one activity which we’ve been putting off since Idaho.  Backcountry climbing.  One simple equation explains our procrastination:

Backpacking + rockclimbing = a really heavy pack

Josh with pack

But who can come to Colorado and resist the siren call of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Not us, though we did resist the urge to start our backcountry career by tackling the 2000 foot Diamond on Long’s Peak (the area classic).  Instead we kicked off the week with a five mile hike out to the standard RMNP introductory route, Petit Grepon.

Our first challenge was hiking upstream against the hordes of Sunday afternoon tourons. But we were certainly thankful for the well constructed trail that carried us away from the crowds and into the pristine high alpine forest.

Josh pumping water

We secured a perfect bivy site – a flat patch of dirt under a rock slab providing comfort and shelter.  After a tasty freeze dried dinner we hunkered down in preparation for our alarm to sound at dawn.  Our day didn’t start quite as early as planned given the chilly temps at 10,000 feet made it difficult to leave the sleeping bags.  But we still had enough time to enjoy the route and get down before some light showers.

Josh in Bivy site

Those showers are the reason so many climbers decide to spend the night in the park before their ascent.  It’s completely possible, with a normal size pack, to hike out early, complete a climb and return by dark.  But during the summer in the Rockies, afternoon  thunderstorms are a constant threat regardless of the weather forecast.  So smart climbers plan their day so that they are not at the top of a peak with metal equipment hanging from their harness at 2-3p.m. when the thunderstorms typically start rolling in.  To do that you have to get up really early and move really fast.  A plan which would allow us to savor our time in the backcountry. So we went with the obnoxiously heavy pack plan, which drew plenty of smug looks from the light-and-fast Boulderites we passed going in.  But it also made our sport-climbing packs feel feather-weight a couple days later.

Shelf Road, located west of Colorado Springs, is the winter destination for CS and Denver area climbers.  So on summer weekdays we enjoyed having the extensive limestone crag and adjacent campground which sit at 6500 feet, all but to ourselves.  While the scenery and rock are reminiscent of Jack’s Canyon (on steroids) the long, sustained routes climb more like Queen Creek and quickly got our forearms back in shape.  Just in time to move on to Crested Butte and get back on our bikes.  Why hang out in a place that looks so much like Arizona when we’re so close to the Rockies?

*********Josh’s not-so-close encounters with wildlife*******

Marmots are the biggest animal threat above treeline in RMNP and we’ve read countless stories about how they’ll chew up anything – ropes, shoes, packs, clothes – even when in close proximity to a person.  So even though we kept our packs literally under our heads in our bivy, we were still on full alert.  So a pre-dawn rustling sound caused Josh to jump up and reach for his trekking pole, ready to smack away the offending varmint, which turned out to be a very apologetic climber, searching for his partners.

The next night, back at camp, the ever protective Josh awoke to a metallic crashing sound followed by a growl.  He stayed on the alert, thinking that bears were messing with the nearby dumpster but when the next sound was whispers and giggles, he went back to sleep, assuming it was some drunken late-night practical joking taking place at the neighboring campsite.  The next morning one of those campers wandered over to ask us if we had seen the bears.  Turns out that he had also awoken to the crashing sound (having been sleeping under the stars), which he found to be a bear trying to get into his cooler.  Well, mama bear was at the cooler to his right, while baby bear was on his left.  So he took the first defensive measure that came to mind and let out a “growl” of his own.  That seemed to do the trick and the bears departed.  (the subsequent giggles came from his retelling of the story to his curious camp mate who had been in a tent and hadn’t seen the bear) I got a good laugh out of this story remembering a story from a old friend who had scared away a bear on the PCT with a loud fart. (just tuck these tips away for future reference, we look forward to hearing your own story some day)

Mellow Mountain Mood

It’s been a super mellow week in the front range of the Rockies. After departing Denver we set up base camp south of Estes Park, the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The focus has been on climbing a good selection of routes at one of Josh’s favorite areas, Lumpy Ridge in preparation for a longer endeavor.  The area has been crowded with families and college kids, squeezing in one last camping trip before school starts in a couple weeks.  We feel their pain as we too carefully plan our time to get the most out of our dwindling days.

We enjoyed a rest day with Aminda’s cousin and her cool family, celebrating her son’s fourth birthday and catching up over lunch. What a wonderful sugary binge we had at ColdStone Creamery – it’s hard not to catch the enthusiasm of a gaggle of giggly four year olds at a birthday party.

Now we’re rested, well fed and ready to head out for a back-country climbing attempt in RMP where we’ll try to start taking pictures again.Wish us good weather!

This week’s ticks

West Ridge left (5.8) Cob Rock in Boulder Canyon.

Backflip (5.9) on the Book Mark. First 40 feet are nice, then it just gets blocky & wandery. Long descent down steep gulley with two awkward raps.

Mainliner (5.9-). on Sundance. Superb route with pleasant, varied climbing but it’s a five mile round trip hike to enjoy those five pitches.

Sorcerer (5.8+). awkward and hard to protect – wouldn’t give it the 3 stars that the book did.

Climb of the Ancient Mariner (first pitch only, 10a) on the Book End. Fabulous with a great crack followed by a fun roof move leading to exposed slab.

Granite heaven (with a bonus top five list)

With a heightened sense of paranoia stemming from being caught twice in rain storms, we played it safe by cragging for a few days until the weather forecast looked to be in our favor. But finally our last day in the Valley arrived signaling our last opportunity for a “big” climb we had been anxious to do. Then three days later we were fortunate to do another mega-classic route in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park. So since week three was all about getting some real climbing done, I’d thought I’d provide a little insight into what it’s like to climb a long-ish wall which in our world is about 1000 feet. (As a reference, El Cap is 3000) Disclaimer: this experience may be different depending on a particular climber’s skill and experience. . .

The alarm goes off at 5:00a.m. We quickly change, eat and drive off. About an hour later we’re parked and hiking to the base of the route. There are a couple reasons for starting this early. First, it’s an attempt to get started on the route before other parties, particularly those that are larger and/or slower. Also, it ensures that we have plenty of extra time to deal with any unexpected delays and still get off the route before dark.

By about 6:30a.m. Josh heads up on lead carrying about 20+ pounds of the gear that he’ll use for protection on the climb. I follow, carrying a smaller load, a backpack filled with shoes, jackets, food, water and first aid stuff. On Wednesday we sent an old-school Harding route, with sustained 5.8 – 5.10 moves from the first pitch to the last. For the next 8-9 hours we alternate climbing and belaying. Through ant-infested trees and dirt-filled cracks, we reached the end; exhausted, sun-burnt, and out of water but rewarded with fantastic views of the El Cap and the Valley. We didn’t stick around to enjoy the view as dark clouds were on the horizon.

There are two ways to get down from a route; rappel, or hike down the other side of the formation. On this route we did both; hiking down a steep, rocky, mosquito-filled (our sunblock and bug repellant were left in the bear box) gulley that required two rappels to get through un-hikeable sections. About two and half hours later we finally got back to the truck, about 12 hours after we left. Dinner tasted great that night!

Josh on Middle Cathedral

After a couple days R&R we headed up to a different area of the park, called Tuolumne Meadows. Where the formations in the Valley command attention, the gently sloping granite domes of the Meadows are more subdued and refined. Our day started about that same, though at 9000 feet elevation (compared to 3000 down in the Valley) we were already breathing hard after the short approach hike in the chilly morning air. (The base of the route is still covered in snow) Our goal was slightly shorter and of an easier grade. Well, it was supposed to be until Josh found the first-pitch crux still wet with snow run-off. He finessed his way through this slippery section and several other balancy sections quite well only to be rewarded with fierce, biting winds the rest of the way up. This time we were able to reach the summit of the dome and 360 degree views of snow-capped peaks. Thanks, Dana for recommending this fantastic route!

Aminda on Fairview Dome

This Weeks top five…

Lots of rain-induced down time in the Valley gave us plenty of opportunity to hang out and people watch. These are a few of our favorite Yosemite characters. It’s hard to really do some of them justice in writing, so the next time your sitting around a campfire with us, remind us to tell you the full story.

The cyclist. This poor man hitched a ride into our campsite so bonked from riding his bike 130 miles in two days from Reno that he sat down to put up his tent. Since then he’s barely moved from his picnic table, just sitting there all day for three days just watching the cars drive by and campers come and go from the pit toilet. As Josh can attest from doing his own 3- month bike tour…bring a book, dude.

The guy who shouldn’t have skipped his morning coffee. As we were packing for a climb one morning we noticed a climber wandering around Camp 4 wearing his harness, gear and carrying a rope. Fifteen minutes later, hiking towards our route, we ran into the same guy looking rather dazed and confused. Apparently upon topping out on the route, he had hiked down, not back to the base of the route where his three friends were waiting, but all the way back to camp.

Bi-polar Mike. We briefly shared a campsite with Mike, a pleasant outgoing 20-something guy. At least that’s what we thought until a little smoke from his camp fire unleashed a tyrade of agonizingly painful wails (MY EYEEEEES!!!!) that would have prompted us to call 911 had we not been there to see that he was quite alright.

The “PB’s” (park bums). While the Valley has a long, proud tradition of amazing rock climbing feats, the dark side is a long and not so proud tradition of homeless, jobless youth hanging out for long periods of time trying to become amazing climbers. Modern PB’s go through some pretty creative antics to skirt the Park’s current 7-day camping limit and also, apparently challenge each other to get the most “freebies”, allowing themselves to save their own money for their Macbooks & iPhones.  They will bum hot water from other campers for their morning coffee, rides to the crag after breakfast and then for lunch will go to the cafeteria and collect un-eaten food leftover from the tourists.

Daniel and Obi. We encountered these guys on short route, The Grack, where they seemed to be smart and solid climbers despite inexperience given away by an entire ensemble of shining new gear (everything, really. From neon ropes to unscratched cams & helmets to their rainjackets and clip on walkie-talkies). That was the last of our interaction with them (well, except when saw them wearing the helmets and rack around the visitors center) but we thoroughly enjoyed the tale from a climber who followed them up a route shortly thereafter.

This climber had gotten behind them on the long but relatively easy out on the Royal Arches formation. Catching up to D & O pretty early on the route, the asked diplomatically if they could pass the slower party (perfectly common to do). D & O weren’t comfortable with that but did graciously offer the other climbers some coffee (with cream and sugar), which they dug out of the oversized pack they were carrying with them. A few hours later the faster party tried again to get by. They were denied again but this time offered a lunch spread of assorted cheeses & sausage from the seemingly bottomless pack.