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Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Torlesse Range Traverse

A traverse of the Torlesse Range is a real Canterbury classic. Stretching north-eastwards from Porter's Pass, the rolling skyline is visible on every trip to and from Arthur's Pass. Mostly gentle undulating scree tops, but the jagged section between Castle Hill Peak and Red Peak holds a sting in the tail. The distinctive 'Gap' in the ridge, a sheer square notch, provides mystery and challenge for when energy reserves run low. 

Jono Dobbs and I set off from the Avoca Homestead on the morning following a storm. The campsite was recovering from the Canterbury University Tramping Club's annual 'Bush Ball'. Blue clouds pierced through gloom promising a fine day on the range. And the 25km traverse across to Porters Pass was an absolute classic. Enjoy these photos from the Torlesse Range Traverse, a highly recommended Canterbury outing.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Trailpinism - Running the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc

Mountaineers have long been approaching mountains dressed lightly. Shod in lightweight trail shoes, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, as if they were going for a casual rip on some local trails. But sadly, they cannot run, they must walk. Why? Because the pack they are carrying is far too heavy. They are weighed down by heavy boots, heavy steel crampons and a heavy ice axe they carry for the snowy mountain. As a result, the approach takes a full day, so they must carry a sleeping bag, maybe a tent & sleeping matt, gas, cooker, and an extra day's food. As a result, they also need a big heavy pack to fit it all in.
Welcome to the exponential spiral towards a slow and heavy ascent. What if it were possible to reverse this exponential spiral towards the light and the fast?
Imagine yourself jogging up the Matukituki Valley with a 3kg pack, cresting Bevan Col, donning light crampons on your running shoes across the Bonar Glacier, taking a late morning snack at Colin Todd, scrambling the Northwest ridge of Aspiring, and ripping it all the way back to the car in time for dinner in Wanaka.
Welcome to the exciting world of Trailpinism: combining trail running gear, tactics and efficiency with mountain craft for a new way of tackling higher peaks.
Firstly, this article is not intended to diminish or look down upon the classical, traditional approach to mountaineering, which has so many advantages - a higher safety margin, the ability to spend many days and nights out enjoying the hills, and the ability to tackle higher, longer, more technical peaks.
The aim is to explore this new way of climbing mountains, for those who wish to take their climbing & scrambling skills and fitness to new heights. But it requires a careful, measured approach in gear selection, timing and conditions for a safe trip.
In this article we will analyse each different component of the system, and it should become apparent that many of the gains come from careful gear selection which results in improved efficiency, rather than only a huge gain in fitness. That said, everyone should choose objectives relative to their own fitness level. 


Running towards the Barrhorn (3610m), Swiss Alps, on the Via Valais
Dan Patitucci
Starting with feet, the point here is to complete the entire trip in a single pair of shoes that you can both run in and climb in. The challenge is to find a shoe that is also rigid enough to work well with crampons, yet still be flexible enough for running in. Stiff approach shoes won't work if there's 20km of trail running involved, unless you want shin splints!
I recommend the La Sportiva Bushido 2, or the La Sportiva Urgano GTX which has an inbuilt gaitor for snow. Salomon also makes a good range of running shoe boots such as the Salomon S-Lab X-Alp.
It's a continuum: the better a shoe is at climbing, the worse it will be for running, so try and strike the best balance for your objectives in mind. Try fitting your crampons to the shoes before purchasing to ensure a good fit.
There are several tiers of shoe traction devices available which you can select depending on the steepness and snow conditions. For hard packed icy trails or low angle/soft snow, Kahtoola MicroSpikes are great. But for more serious snow terrain, the Kahtoola K10 or Kahtoola KTS steel crampons are better.
But for the maximum security a running shoe can afford, go for the Petzl Leopard aluminium crampons. With dyneema cord linking the front and back sections, there is little front pointing ability as the crampon offers no rigidity in itself, but the advantage is the crampons flexes with the shoe better, and it is also lighter and more packable, which is important with such a small running pack.
For slightly better front pointing, try the Grivel Air Tech Lite, an aluminium crampon with a traditional mid-bar.
Tip: with basket style crampons, thread the straps towards the front basket in both directions, rather than directly across the ankle as you would with a boot. Low profile running shoes have no padding in this area above the tongue, so the strap will dig into your ankle. Threading twice through the front basket eliminates this problem.


Petzl Leopard crampons fitted on La Sportiva Bushido II shoes on the Hornli Ridge, Matterhorn
A. McDowell
Running through snow can be cold! Depending on the snow quality, it may be dry or frozen snow and therefore very cold, or warm wet snow and therefore very wet. Neither are ideal without a strategy in place. One tactic is to wear a thin running sock for the lower elevation running, to avoid overheating and sweating, then once at the snowline, supplement with a thicker wool sock. I did this for a recent trip up Mont Blanc, and to save further weight I just took a thick ankle high Merino sock, rather than a normal calf/knee high mountaineering sock, because the legs don't usually need that extra insulation. Even at 4800m I was comfortable enough with this system, albeit with a bit of toe wriggling.
For wet snow, such as a typical summer-time glacier crossing, consider waterproof socks. Bridgedale Storm socks are excellent - waterproof, but also comfortable to run in and don't cause blisters - a far better solution than wearing plastic bread bags on each foot.
Legs need surprisingly little compared with the upper body to stay warm. On a recent run of the Matterhorn I was comfortable on the summit in just a pair of running shorts. But in cold, windy or wet conditions consider either full length tights or thermal leggings.
For variable conditions look at a light pair of over-trousers such as the Macpac Hightail pants, which are easy to put on and take off without removing shoes.
Shorts with high and tight pockets around the waist will allow you to redistribute some food weight from your pack onto your hips rather than it all being on your shoulders.

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Gear assortment for the Matterhorn, which was completed in a 9 hour round trip from Zermatt
A. McDowell
Starting in the valley you'll typically be in a t-shirt, sweating hard on the trail. A few hours later, a stiff chill whips into you from above the bush-line. You stop for a minute and quickly your sweaty shirt is frozen. You could throw on your thermal over the top, but you might also end up fighting a losing battle in heating up that cold sweat against your skin as you layer up. I prefer to take off the wet shirt and wear it over the top of your thermal base layer. You'll have a dry layer against the skin, and your body heat will dry the shirt on the outside. The shirt will still add some insulation, instead of being dead weight in your pack or chilling you from the core.
For many ascents you the only other layer you will need is a light waterproof shell such as the Macpac Hightail jacket. If it's colder, swap the rain shell out for a synthetic pullover jacket or light down jacket such as the Macpac Icefall jacket. The insulation jacket will be most necessary if you are with someone else and ever have to wait. If you are alone, you will never be stopped waiting for anyone and can dress slightly lighter. That said, an emergency warm layer may be prudent.


Wearing a t-shirt on the outside of a thermal to dry it out
A. McDowell
This is the essential piece that will make it or break it. The most important thing with the pack is that you can do almost everything without taking it off. Look no further than a robust trail running hydration vest/pack. With a trail running pack, you are able to access all your food, check your phone (use Gaia GPS or NZ Topo mapping apps), fill up your water bottles, deploy or stow poles, and put on/take off your jacket.
If you need to take off your pack to do any of these things, it's valuable time wasted - every second you're stopped, a more efficient version of yourself will be striding further towards the summit. The only time you should need to take it off is for major transitions i.e. donning crampons & ice axe.
On the back of the pack, stash the jacket such that you can pull it out while moving, and wear it over the top of the whole pack. When it heats up again, you can reverse the process, stash the jacket into the back. All without breaking stride. Tie your thermal layer tight around your waist to take some weight off your pack and onto your hips. This will make running easier. However, with some very thin running vest packs, you might want to use your thermal inside the pack to cushion your back against your sharp crampons.
Check out the running vests made by Patagonia. Other options are UltraSpireUltimate DirectionSalomon. Macpac is also coming out with a new running vest in early 2020.

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A running vest rigged for Mont Blanc
A. McDowell

Many runners are familiar with the 1-2L water reservoir and hose system for hydration. This is the old school way. The new school way is to carry two 500ml soft plastic flask bottles on the front of the running pack in long tubular pockets. This also balances the weight on your back so you can run less hunched over. Lighter than a reservoir, infinitely quicker to fill up during stream crossings, and having two allows you to add electrolytes to one and keep pure water in the other.
For sections with frequent water refill opportunities, you can quickly dump most of your water and regularly top up. What's the point of counting grams on an ice axe if you carry 500-1000g in excess water for much of the day? Flasks allow you to easily optimise your water carrying capacity.
This does assume water access is fairly frequent, if you're in a desert or need larger capacity, a 2+ litre bladder can be a good idea.
Most mountain approaches involve steep trail hiking, so a pair of carbon hiking poles will improve efficiency incorporating your upper body. For two-hands scrambling, or downhill running, stash them on the front of your pack using elastic loops (check your pack for this feature, or add your own loops). Recommended models are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z or Leki Trailstick.


Leki Trailstick
Ice axe
Most peaks for which this technique is applicable will not involve any great technical difficulty on snow or ice, think MC grade 1/1+, so get the lightest aluminium ice axe possible. Recommended models are the Camp Corsa 50cm, which is the lightest on the market and weighs only 200g. For slightly higher performance and minimal extra weight, the Petzl Ride is excellent (240g), or for more security on the odd steep section, look at the Petzl Gully (280g) which includes a pinky trig rest for a better grip.
Beware of the limitations of an aluminium axe, it will not penetrate hard ice. Practice with your gear before taking it onto something gnarly.


Petzl Ride (240g), Petzl Gully (280g)
The first question you should ask is, do I need a helmet? Is there a chance of something combing down on me from above? If yes, then obviously get the lightest one available, such as the Petzl Sirocco. For the approach, you may be able to tie it onto the back of your pack without it banging around too much, but this may be difficult for the thrashing descent, so just wear your helmet all the way back to the car. With such light helmets you hardly realise you're wearing one!
Glacier travel
It's up to you how light you go for glacier travel. A minimalist setup could be 10 metres of 7-8mm cord or rope between you, with a harness made from a 120cm dyneema sling and a small locking carabiner to clip in with. Of course this would not allow a 3:1 style extraction, but it could prevent an unroped fall.


Crossing the Garden of Eden during a 25-hour traverse from Erewhon to Harihari
C. Jennings
Possible New Zealand "Trailpinism" Objectives
Here are a few ideas for possible objectives in NZ, to get you scheming and dreaming.
  • Tongariro 3 Peaks: a traverse of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Early winter or late spring.
  • Mt Murchison, Arthurs Pass. A long flat run up the Waimakariri with a scramble up to Barker Hut, and an easy glacial ascent.
  • Mt Somers in winter
  • Crossing of the Gardens of Allah and Eden, from Erewhon to Harihari.
  • Mt Annette, Aoraki/Mt Cook
  • Mt Aspiring Northwest Ridge. For less distance, consider walking into Aspiring hut and making this the start/end point.
  • Traverse of the Olivine Ice Plateau
... there are so many more possibilities. Just make sure to research recent conditions, the level of technicality.

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Enjoying the sunrise from Mont Blanc during a 9 hour round trip from Les Houches
A. McDowell
Final word
The process of honing your gear and strategy for each different trail running ascent, executing your plan, and then refining your system for the next trip is very satisfying. Take it easy at first while trialling new gear to learn its range of limitations, especially on snowy or icy terrain.
Don’t feel like these techniques are reserved for elite athletes. You will find the largest gains are reaped from simply replacing a pair of boots and steel crampons that weigh 3000g (Nepal Evo + BD Contact 10pt + gaiters) to a pair of running shoes and aluminium crampons that weigh only 900g.
That said, choose objective relative to your fitness, and you'll soon discover how much terrain you can cover in a day with your new systems. Gradually increase in distance, elevation gain and technicality.
By incorporating all of the efficiency strategies noted here, you will cut your times in half or thirds, enchain more peaks, reduce wear on your knees, fit more family time into your weekends, and have a whole lot of fun in the process. We can't all be like Kilian, but we can at least try. Just remember - safety first, safety second. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

King Cobra - Alaskan Big Wall Free Climbing

Another serac rips from the summit ice cliffs of neighbouring Mount Dickey, and the familiar roar of avalanche thunders through the valley. My calves shake on crumbling footholds, the infamous “Cracker Jack Gravel” of the Ruth Gorge.
I’m balanced on an arete well above my last piece. I reach for a pecker piton and weld it into a thin crack with my free hand, tightening my crimp on the other. I launch into the corner above, loaded with tottering loose flakes.
The world disintegrates below as I fire in two hand jams, choss exploding hundreds of metres down the sheer East Face of Mount Barrill, swallowed up by the glacier below. Chemicals flood my brain: relief. Another piece of the puzzle unlocked.
We came to Alaska for the Kichatna Spires, lured by a dream of El Capitan sized walls set on remote glaciers. Living on the wall with a week of supplies, onsighting finger cracks on a steep headwall under a midnight sun.
But the Kichatna’s reputation for abysmal weather held true. After four days sifting in Talkeetna waiting for the elusive flying window our patience ran dry. Time running out, we hatched a new plan.


Flying into the range with Talkeetna Air Taxi
John Price
An hour later Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi was flying us into the Ruth Gorge. Our eyes lit up as the huge granite faces filled the windows of our small Otter ski plane. Mount Barrill, and the famed Cobra Pillar appeared. Almost 1000 metres of steep, featured granite, capped with snow, and plenty of potential for a new line.


Mount Barrill from the sky
John Price
We arrived midday and the weather was perfect, so we went straight to work. As two teams of two we would alternate twelve hour shifts to continuously push our ropes up the wall, capitalising on the eternal daylight of a high Alaskan summer.
Dan Joll and Kim Ladiges packed sleds for every eventuality and set off to quest up a new line on the face right of Cobra Pillar. Meanwhile, John Price and I established our glacier basecamp.


Dan & Kim approach the face of Mt Barrill for their first foray up the wall
John Price
With John’s telephoto lense we watched our friends inch up the first pitches. By the time our paths crossed on the glacier around 3AM, the haul bag of supplies was already hanging a respectable 120m up the wall.
John & I jumared the fixed rope and racked up for an intimidating warm up: a wet, arching off width crack.


Managing the huge amount of rope & equipment on the wall is half of the challenge
Dan Joll
Above, heinous crozzly rock kept us on edge. After dawn, the heat of the sun warmed snow patches on the summit sending slough avalanches cascading down the face unnervingly close to our side. We continued with trepidation, but I was eventually shut down by a disgusting corner, fused with a miserable excuse for granite.
On the next shift, Kim managed to pass this crux with an M7 lock-off, utilizing the rear hook of our piton hammer. But the atrocious rock tired him also, so by the mantra of his mentor Twid Turner, only one word echoed through Kim’s head: “Penji, penji, penji!” (*Translation: pendulum.)


Kim heading back up the fixed ropes to regain the high point of the new route
John Price
So Kim aborted ship and swung off into a new crack system far to the left. Twelve hours, two pitches. This was proving hard work.
But we had now fixed into a potential nook to set up our first portaledge camp, so the following day John & I laboriously hauled up 7 days of supplies into the alcove.


Alastair jumaring a wild series of fixed ropes to the high point
John Price
Meanwhile back in basecamp, Dan & Kim watched in horror as a rare slough ripped from the top of the mountain, plunging directly towards John & I at the belay.
I looked up to see a river of wet snow crashing through the rock arch we hoped would protect us. I pressed my body close to the rock. Snow slush poured over us, soaking us to the bone. With relief the torrent subsided, fortunately without any chunks of rock or ice. A close call.
The radio crackled in my chest pocket; it was Dan.
“Guys, do you copy?”
"Yes... We're both ok."
“Good… I think we can tolerate the bad rock. But now that our line seems to still be in the firing line, we’re not keen on the overhead hazard.”
I scooped more snow out of my jacket hood.
"You're telling me... Let’s get out of here.”


Alastair starting the abseil descent after being avalanched on the face
John Price
That day it took ten hours to haul, and five hours to descend, as we navigated a maze of steep and traversing abseils with 80kg haul bags dangling from our harnesses.
After four day of effort it was back to the drawing board, plus, we needed a rest. The everlasting daylight was playing havoc on our body clocks.


Rest day feasting in basecamp
John Price
Between servings of bacon grease and whipped cream coffee, it became apparent the only sliver of The Mountain relatively safe from avalanche was the central prow, which we believed to host the classic Cobra Pillar route.
In our haste leaving Talkeetna, we had only one vague photo of the face showing lines, no names, no topo, leaving the rest to speculation…
Determined to climb quality virgin terrain rather than crawling up an existing route in a slow big wall style, we restarted questing up corners hoping to link into mega cracks firing up the buttress. John started leading up our proposed line and discovered a multitude of fixed gear low on the route with fun 5.10 climbing, confirming that we must have started up the Cobra.


John Price, stoked as ever
Dan Joll
So from a major cave low down, we branched out to the right: Kim spied a thin face climbing traverse to access a new crack system. From a strenuous knee-bar, he laboriously hand drilled a bolt and was able to crimp his way across the steep wall.
Upon reaching into a wide crack and looking upwards, he could not believe what he had discovered. Pitch after pitch of continuous splitter, offwidth.


Kim questing up endless offwidth cracks
Dan Joll
Five and six inch wide crack rocketed straight up the proudest part of the prow. Kim was in heaven. He led out mega pitches of glorious heel-toes and butterfly jams, as good as anything in Tasmania. It was some of the highest quality climbing any of us had ever encountered in the mountains.


Kim enjoying a beautiful fist crack
Dan Joll
Adding to the delight they discovered a set of ledges to set up camp. The following day we worked together as four to haul up heavy loads and establish our main portaledge camp 350m up the wall. We were now poised for the upper pillar.


Dan Joll relaxing into another night on the portaledge
Kim Ladiges
But that evening, a sickness that had been nagging John suddenly exacerbated, requiring a late night evacuation mission. Fortunately our five ropes strung together just reached the glacier, and John was able to fly back to town the following day.


Life on the wall
John Price
With Kim & Dan exhausted from their all-nighter saving John, I took over the lead for the day. And so followed the ‘pecker piton pitch’ described above, which proved to be one of the most intense memories engraved in my mind from the wall.


Kim following finger cracks above the roof of the stem-box pitch
Dan Joll
I gained new appreciation of how it feels to discover brilliant climbing in its raw, natural state.
With the help of my friends’ wisdom, I was able to unearth incredible hand cracks, finger cracks, stemming corners and roofs, ridding them of their dangerous blocks and loose gravel, hammer and wire brush on hand.
The thought that this might become a real classic spurred us on in our mission. Having climbed in many of the popular granite climbing zones, we genuinely thought this route contained some of the best alpine rock climbing in the world. Where else do you find 15 sustained pitches of 5.10-5.11 crack climbing stacked on top of each other, in the mountains, where each one in its own right would be a crag classic?


Yet another sensational splitter crack up on the wall
John Price
Ropes fixed high, it was finally time for a push to the summit. Above, we rejoined the Cobra Pillar route with its sensational arching splitter to crest the pillar. We stripped down into alpine mode and began simul climbing more moderate ground.


On the top of the Cobra Pillar, searching for the intricate route towards the summit, apprehensive about the quantity of unstable snow lying above
Alastair McDowell
Or so we thought. Kim lead through increasingly wet cracks, drenched by melt from the summit’s still heavy and unstable snowpack. Our worst fears were confirmed: we were too early in the season to safely reach the summit.
Nearing the final technical pitch, the quantity of snow lying above become painfully apparent. It threatened to release at any moment.
The decision to descend was sore but simple; there was just two hundred metres of moderate, yet dangerous, terrain between us and the summit. As mountaineers we all heartily crave to stand on top, but will also quickly turn back when the conditions dictate otherwise.


Alastair on the descent
Dan Joll
We arrived back at portaledge camp around 5AM to find our precious Radix meals ravaged by ravens, powdered spinach and berries strewn across the rocks. The carnage back down at glacier camp was equally atrocious.
Fortunately, our own Raven of Denali was already in full flight, ready to pluck us from our glacial squalor, and back to the living world.


Ruth Gorge reflections
John Price


Team shot back in Talkeetna
John Price
Route beta
Pitch 1) Depending on schrund height, 20-40m straight up shallow corner cracks to a small stance with three fixed wires. 5.8.
Pitch 2) Up and Around a small roof to the left, then nice corners and face climbing to a stance. 5.10, 40m.
Pitch 3) Stem box, pull around roof to left, then up a nice finger crack corner. Below a large block, move out left to the newly cleaned hand and finger crack to finish underneath the massive roof. 5.10+, 40m,
Pitch 4) From here Cobra Pillar goes left and King Cobra goes right. Step across the gulley, and climb overhanging hands into an offwidth. 5.10+, 20m.
Pitch 5) 5.9 chimney past old rivet at roof. Place gear and down climb two meters step right on good holds around arĂȘte to no hands stance and bolt. Climb up two moves then down climb right to a side pull and reach into finger crack 5.11, 35m.
Pitch 6) 5.10 offwidth for 50m. Starts as fists and moves to offwidth. As it turns to chimney pass a bolt and move right to an excellent hand / fist / and offwidth with bolt belay.
Pitch 7) The “Monster Offwidth”, with a roof then belay at a small stance near the mid point of the pillar. Right hand version is the best and is 5.10 offwidth, but you can also go left at mid height and do the pikers variant, an easier 5.9 offwidth. There is a single bolt belay at the base of the 5.8 version.
Pitch 8) Climb a finger crack on the right hand side of the pillar to where it fuses. Then traverse right around arĂȘte and quest up past two fixed peckers. This turns to a hand crack through roof (right side out of the roof is better) and single bolt belay on a small ledge. 5.10 R, 35m.
Pitch 9) Move up cracks and eventually left onto the middle of the pillar. Belay at a fixed pin (supplement with nuts / small cams) for a semi hanging stance. 5.10, 35m.
Pitch 10) Follow two finger cracks eventually moving to the right most crack. This pitch is where you join the cobra pillar route. 35m belay just right of the fixed rap anchor at the base of yet another offwidth. 5.11, 35m. The route now rejoins the Cobra Pillar route.
Pitch 11) 5.9 offwidth, 35m to chossy ledge. (5.11a in Cobra Pillar topo.)
Pitch 12) Amazing hands/fingers splitter right on the head wall fixed belay as part of the cobra pillar rap line. 5.10, 50m.
Pitch 13) 40-50m to the end of the arching finger/layback crack then loose face climbing and a bit of choss too, to reach top of Cobra Pillar. 5.10+, 50m.
Pitch 14 - Summit) 250m of climbing up to 5.11 followed by 200m of moderate terrain to the summit depending on snow conditions. We did not climb this final 200m due to dangerous snow conditions above.
Descent) All belays have been re-equipped with fresh cord/bolts as of June 2019. The descent rap line is clean and direct.


John Price
Double set of cams from 0.1-6, triples of 0.4-0.75.
Micro nuts, regular nuts.
Two 60m ropes to descend.
For a detailed topo click the link above.  The below shows the King Cobra line and some other lines we explored on the mountain.  Descent Topo Below. 

King Cobra Line Topo .jpg

Line drawing of the King Cobra Line. This also shows two other routes we explored on the mountain. The right hand route will go to the summit or to the top of the pillar but the rock is average higher up. It is also right in the bombing line if there is snow on the upper mountain.
Daniel Joll
Descent Topo

Descent Topo.jpg

Descent Topo. Note, if you don't havev 70m ropes there is one rap that you will need to build yourself at a fixed pin. The pin just needs a nut to back it up. Rapping King Cobra is a much cleaner and faster rap than going down the Cobra Pillar route.
Daniel Joll


Dan Joll