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Sunday, 11 March 2018

Patagonia - Tierra del Viento

After our first exhausting failed effort on Punta Herron, our motivation for a second attempt was drained, none of us thought we would be returning anytime soon. This was our main objective, but the thought of repeating the twelve-pitch approach traverse beneath Standhardt only to find Punta Herron unclimbable again was a risk our sore bodies dreaded, now four weeks into the trip. But spotting the bone-dry north ridge of Punta Herron from Mermoz rejuvenated our psych, and after five days of Chalten extravagance we were rearing for a second attempt.

Caleb performing a lower out above Standhardt Col, the pristine Circque of the Altars beyond

This time we re-vamped our strategy, going as light as possible for a 3-day blast from town, stripping away every extraneous carabiner and spare sock or glove. After an early start from town, we pinched ourselves at Laguna Torre. Bluebird, zero wind, Cerro Torre pink in the sunrise. A full day of rime-melting was ahead, we felt giddy. Could Patagonia be so kind?

Every vibe on this trip felt better than our first try two weeks early. Midnight avalanches were replaced with sunny cramponing. Desperate slabby mixed climbing above Col Standhardt that took two hours was now a dry rock climb, a twenty-minute romp.  Alastair set up the tent on a pleasant flat spot a hundred metres past the Col, while Dan & Caleb fixed the ropes above camp for a speedy start the next morning.

Awake at 2AM, wind flapping the tent walls sharpened our nerves. But the wind would die off after dawn. Caleb led the simul climbing across Standhardt, where we abseiled into an ice gulley one pitch below the base of Punta Herron. It was now light enough to see the broad rock ridge, the "Arete of the Children" (as the Italian route name translates) almost bare of rime - yes.

Alastair took the rack and approached the V-notch of the Col de Suenos, the "Col of Dreams". Standing on the Col, suddenly exposed to the full force of wind ripping across the Patagonian ice-cap, this quickly became a Col of Nightmares. Fingers were numb in minutes, making it difficult to fiddle in micro-cams to protect cruxy moves off the ledge, crampons skating on blank granite, picks sunk in thin seams. Dry tooling was the only option in such cold conditions, rock shoes and crack-gloves became a dead-weight pipe dream in the bottom of our packs. That first pitch required so much of Alastair's mental stamina; the only thing he could hear above the incessant roar of the wind were a dozen internal voices screaming, "this is madness". This was the full-on Patagonian experience that we had craved. Could we stomach the reality?

Caleb and Alastair dry tooling on the North Ridge of Punta Herron

Dan was a pillar of positivity despite the dire conditions, and after three taxing pitches he took over the sharp end, gunning for the base of the ice mushroom. Caleb and Alastair huddled for hours at the belays, tense bodies groaning as the wind showed no sign of relenting, at the time it felt insane to continue... "Watch me!" yelled Dan as he was forced to crimp glove-less with injured wrists, fear of a ledge fall was all that stuck him to the thin face moves. "Only one pitch to the summit!" Our spirits lifted, perhaps the summit of Punta Herron was in reach after all?

Caleb took over the reigns for the ice-cap, charging towards the mushroom, the final question mark between us and the summit. Turning the corner he found plastic blue ice leading up a natural tunnel formation, and with only a handful of ice screws was forced to run-out the last thirty metres, sinking his tools deep while being showered with falling rime. Kneeling on the summit without being blown off our feet, we felt a sliver of the mountain's mercy. Mercy that was non-existent as we inched downwards on the windy abseil descent, only twenty metres at a time, grateful for every succesful rope pull, rope ends blown horizontal in the dark.

Relief welled up on re-reaching the sheltered Col de Suenos, and the following thousand metres of abseiling did pass almost as a dream. Alastair was guilty of nodding off several times at the anchors while Dan pounded pitons below, un-satisfied with anything but the perfect metallic crescendo. With only one stint of aid-climbing to retrieve a stuck knot, we reached the glacier soon after dawn, but with a storm brewing, sleep would have to wait. We walked through the streets of El Chalten late that afternoon, wet from rain, sunburnt from sun, eyes stinging and bloodshot from thirty-six hours on the go, too numb to feel any sense of achievement. But the first round of Quilmes Stout was all that was needed to change that.

Four weeks earlier...
After forty hours of transit, the Fitzroy skyline finally appeared in view through the minivan windscreen at the head of Lago Viedma. We felt strangely at home – in our minds we were cruising alongside Lake Pukaki en route to Mt Cook, the cloud piercer smouldering in another northwest storm. On closer inspection, we realised this massif was a Southern Alps on steroids, and even the approaches alone would be equivalent to an ascent of Aoraki.

But we had arrived at the end of a gorgeous multi-day clearance, the famous winds were picking up and we were condemned to several days of world-class bouldering and trail running to shake off the jet-lag while hearing of the town’s latest serving of splitter cracks.

Our team was made up of Daniel Joll, Patagonian veteran, this was his eight visit, Caleb Jennings, the packhorse from Darfield, and Alastair McDowell, one of the alpine team mentees.
Soon enough a high-pressure bubble appeared on the horizon, so in advance we swagged in a week’s supplies up the Torre Valley to our basecamp in Niponino. While others waited in town for the perfect weather, we proceeded to spend the next full day tent-bound, ready to pounce as soon as the barometer spiked. Kiwi mountaineering style.

El Mocho
Confused why our satellite phone could not send nor receive messages, Dan’s heart sunk when he realised it was still loaded with a Nepali sim-card. We lacked confidence to go big on our outdated forecast, but were also content with a less committing warmup – a rock climb on El Mocho at the base of Cerro Torre’s south-east ridge was the ticket.

Alastair on the crux pitch of Voie des Benetiers, El Mocho

‘Voie des Benetiers’ was a line of ten pitches of great crack climbing – the grade of 7b+ (27) didn’t put us off as this was only a short boulder problem that we aided through, the rest of the climb was the perfect level of moderate and fun, with immaculate granite.

Back at Niponino, the consensus on weather was windy, so the following morning we hiked up to Medialuna, the distinctive half-moon shaped rock feature opposite El Mocho.

Caleb finishing the grunty 5.9 offwidth start to Rubio y Azul, Medialuna

The first several pitches were protected from the wind, not only while wedged deep in off-width cracks. We knew that higher up, slabs on the ridge were completely exposed to wind, but the wind abated just enough to lure us onto them, before rudely slamming us with gusts stronger than any of has had experienced on rock. In hindsight, we should have continued onwards into the sheltered top section and wait for lighter wind, but we decided to abseil off.

Inevitably, the winds all but ripped the ropes from our hands, twisted them and our efforts to pull the ropes were futile. Cutting those the new rope drew a tear from my eye. A couple of other climbers had appeared and offered to share their ropes for the remaining descent. We walked out to El Chalten with light packs, but heavy hearts - a sad end for our two brand new half ropes.

Torre Egger
After a moderate binge session in El Chalten, a promising 4-day weather window appeared on Meteoblue… we started to get excited and dream big. This was our chance to attempt the main objective, Torre Egger via the north face of Punta Herron.

Another dash up the Torre glacial approach with light packs this time, thanks to all our heavy gear stashed at Niponino. We breathed relief upon reaching our stash, un-touched by the notorious fox, known to tear through even the thickest duffel bags in search of food.

At the end of a day stuck in the tent, we set out for Standhardt Col at 7pm loaded for the mission, but to our disappointment the snow did not cease to fall as forecast. Around midnight we found ourselves high on the glacier below Standhardt, postholing through deep snow, concerned about avalanche risk.

Under the incessant snowfall, there was no possibility of climbing Exocet that night as we had planned; instead we pitched camp, digging in on a relatively sheltered position. Still, avalanches shook past our tent during the night, fear coming in the way of any sleep that night. We were forced to wait an entire day before snow conditions consolidated allowing us to continue onwards early the following morning.

Magnificent weather prevailed, but poor conditions plagued us on the approach to Punta Herron, with thick rime covering tool placements on what is normally mellow rock slabs. Later, melting rime bombed us from the walls of Standhart, and forced us to aid our way up wet, low-angle slabs.

Alastair on one of the tedious traverses invovled in abseiling Toboggan on the east face of Torre Egger

On catching our first view of Punta Herron in the late afternoon, we realised the 300m rock ridge was virtually un-climbable, a veritable waterfall about to be set in a shield of verglas as the temps plummeted. Twenty abseils later, we stumbled onto the glacier for a pre-dawn snooze at Noruegos bivvy, glad to be on the horizontal again after a long night’s retreat.

One day of fine weather remained before the close-out, we recovered as much as possible before setting off for Rafael on the Fitz massif. Three hours of scrambling up the opposite side of the valley gave us a pristine view of the Torre Massif at dawn, before enjoying fifteen pitches of moderate mixed scratching, simul-climbing and some wide cracks to top out on a spiky summit pinnacle.

Caleb abseiling from Rafael with the top half of Saint Exupery behind

Despite our fatigue from the failed attempt on Egger, we were glad to have sucked the weather window dry, as well as ourselves. Back in town, after a nerve-wracking windy walk-out, we took our calorie replacement therapy seriously. But not for long, another weather window was only two days away…

Mission to Mermoz
With our stash retrieved from Niponino, we were psyched for a mission on the opposite side of the range, to a peak on the Fitz Massif. The winds would abate only for an afternoon, our solution was a lightweight, sleepless push on the 600m west face of Aguja Mermoz, Fitz Roy’s nextdoor neighbour.

The eight-hour approach passed beneath the stars and we were simul-climbing up the Argentina route before even dawn had caught us. The temperatures were arctic, the granite choss, pasted in streaks of ice. Climbing in boots and thick gloves was all but compulsory to ward off numb digits. More than once we questioned what we were doing, but somehow we clung onto enough resolve to continue upwards towards the sunny summit ridge…

Once there our hardships dissolved and eight pitches of cruisy granite cracks under a hot sun along the ridge crest was our reward. The final simul block to the summit revealed excellent views of the North Pillar of Fitzroy and dozens of other climbers swarming on the peak of Guillamet behind us.

A happy and warm team on the summit of Aguja Mermoz, North Pillar of Fitzroy towers in the background

Darkness caught us for the second time on the descent, as we raced across the icy slab traverse and down the glacier to the forest river trail. Our lack of sleepl made for a dizzying final few hours alongside the river, warding off strange dreams, slapping our faces to stick with reality. When returning to benign terrain, it can be hard to keep the brain alert after so many hours of focussed concentration.

Near the roadend, we lay down for a comfortable bivvy on the plush forest floor, around 3AM. This was rudely interrupted an hour later when we awoke soaking wet, rain pouring down on our open bivvy. We threw together our wet packs and continued trudging along, into the dawn, dreaming about the prospect of El Chalten's warm comforts...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Beckey - Chouinard, South Howser Tower

Eyeing the next thin slot above, I jammed my fingers in deep and wedged them into the constriction. Far above my last piece of protection, I reached for the silver cam on my harness that would fit inside the crack, before suddenly noticing a rusted piton in the granite to my right. Hammered to the hilt and likely fifty years old. I tried to imagine myself in the footsteps of Fred Beckey, and Yvon Chouinard, questing up the 2000 foot west buttress of the South Howser tower, way back in 1961. No double rack of cams, no sticky rubber, following the endless splitter cracks and offwidth corners with just a simple rack of iron pitons and maybe a few hexes. These two pioneers were the most prolific first ascentionists in North America in their day, and here in the stunning alpine rock playground of the Bugaboos, we truly appreciated their masterpiece, forging one of the most sought after rock climbs in Canada.

West Buttress of South Howser Tower at dawn

To our fortune and surprise, we were enjoying a similar solitude to Beckey and Chouinard. Michael Johnston and I were two hundred metres up the 750m long route, there were finally no climbers in sight above or below. The previous day, we had made the strenuous four hour approach hike to Applebee Dome campsite, with the impressive late season glaciers spilling into the valleys from the sheer cracked faces of the Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires. Instead of setting up base there and settling for an easy warmup, we decided to plough straight on to our main objective, the BC.

Evening trek across to a bivouac spot at Pigeon-Howser Col

Dropping off our excess rope and wide cams (for the Sunshine Crack [5.10+, 500m]), we changed into mountain boots and began cramponing our way up the 45 degree snow slope to the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col. Without knowing whether this would be hard late summer ice or soft snow, we erred on the side of caution with crampons and an ice axe each, saving our more lightweight setup for the following morning. On the way up, we passed at least five other groups who said they would attempt to climb the BC the following day - no surprise since the forecast was perfect. This worried us, but with our headstart we hoped we would be able to stay ahead of the crowds.

Applebee Dome campsite

From the col that evening, the beauty of the granite spires rimming the glacier distracted us from the last painful slog up to our camping spot close to the Howser towers. The sense of isolation and wilderness was far stronger up here, this was the magic element missing from the otherwise exceptional climbing in Yosemite and Squamish. The scene was being set for a classic adventure.
A surge of spanish trumpets screaming '¡Andale!' riled us awake at three that morning. Each equipped with a combination of microspikes on one foot and aluminium strap-on crampons on the other, we set off for the Howsers, edging carefully down the frozen snow to sweeping glaciers lightly glowing before dawn.

Nearing the toe of the West Buttress, we thought the coast was clear... until two bright down jackets appeared, just packing up their bivouac, we didn't need to guess or ask of their intentions. We upped the pace. Racing to harness up at the base ahead of our friends was unnecessary - coffee had struck them and their foil bivvy bag would be paying the price for conserving these wild lands. Very honourable of them, albeit disgusting.

Cold hands squeezed into cold cracks, numb toes narrowed into tight Scarpas. We were on our way. Two simul climbing 5.5-5.7 pitches led to the first crux of the route, a small 5.10 roof. In reality, the thin flaring finger cracks leading up the roof proved more the challenge, requiring some delicate smearing on breakable crystals; the roof itself was pulled through on solid hand jams, and I relished running out the rest of the rope above.

Michael following the great white headwall

Michael said he had spotted yet another party above: where had they come from? Another long pitch and they were in sight, pitching up the Great Dihedrals, a superb stretch of plum hand and fist jamming. Their strategy was intriguing, having left Applebee at 830am the previous day, they had then bivvied on pitch 5, but were down to just a litre of water between them with more than 10 pitches remaining. Our minimal water rations were also leaking, we worried for them as we quickly passed them on our way to the Gravel Ledges and never saw them again.

Scrappy and awkward terrain above led to the Big Sandy bivouac ledge, even more comfortable looking than its name sake on pitch sixteen of Half Dome, but we were glad not to use it; the Great White Headwall above beckoned. Just simply endless crack climbing of all widths on pure white alpine granite. Delicious. I missed my blown out TC Pros at every step by this point, wearing my tighter backup pair of shoes, the miles of thin foot jamming was increasingly punishing on the toes. I could now fully sympathise with Momo who climbed the 13-pitch 'Angels Crest' in Squamish in her bouldering shoes. Maybe the "5.8 offwidth" would have been a better option after all than our chosen "5.10+ fingers", a regret driven home after I ran out of gear and gave in to a particularly uncomfortable hanging belay.

The Great White Headwall. Photo: Michael Johnston

By the time we reached the final crux "5.10+ face traverse", my energy levels were waning, I'd led every pitch so far and Michael wasn't in a position to take over here. Sometimes when theres an easier option you simply take it, this was alpine climbing after all. I gave Michael a lesson on how to belay a tension traverse, and he slowly lowered me out across the face from two pitons, until I could wrap around the corner into the gulley - a sinch at 5.9 A0. All that was left was several hundred metres of low 5th class climbing to the top, with a bonus rap, and just enough of a "false summit" feeling to give the true summit its deserved satisfaction.

Sweet summit!

It had been Michael's dream to climb the Beckey-Chouinard for over a year, and mine for over a week, and I couldn't have been more happy for him to finally achieve this climb. Since his epic misadventure on the North Buttress of Sabre in Fiordland the previous summer, he was yearning to do it right this time: no more being lost on approach, no climbing off-route and no unplanned bivvies was his goal. It was fulfilling to share some of my experience with Michael who was so keen to soak it all up, and now determined to train up to be able to lead the route next time. No doubt a season in Squamish will serve him well. We abseiled off the eastern rib and reached our tent by dusk. Ramen rarely tasted so good.

Camp on dusk, a long satisfying day

Single set nuts
Single set cams 0.3 - 4, doubles 0.5-3
15 alpine draws, 2 cordalettes
Crampons and 1 axe recommended for the ascent to Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col and descent from Pigeon Howser Col.
Approach shoes + lightweight strap-on crampons are ideal, or microspikes if very confident.
Check with ranger at Applebee if it is allowed to camp at Pigeon Howser Col as this adds to the alpine experience and shortens the summit day by 3-4 hours.

Water melt was found just below the col in late July. Other water melt was found on the approach to the route on the glacier.

Topo by S. Abegg, M. Thomas

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Nose of El Capitan

My legs hung over the edge. Daisy chains reined me in taught to the wall. I reeled myself back onto the ledge, shortening the tethers with my fifi hook. A bout of cramp surged through my dehydrated legs. I jerked stiff and straight, hamstrings tingling where the harness dug in, then slumped back over the edge and waited for dawn to arrive over Camp V. Only seven pitches remained between us and the summit plateau of El Capitan.

Despite our fears, neither bears nor rangers disturbed our stealth bivouac at the toe of the Nose. We positioned ourselves to pounce on our three fixed lines up the blank east face to Sickle Ledge, established the day before, to keep ahead of our friendly rivals. This time we had a team of four Brits to pace with, who had also stashed their mountain of gear and twenty gallons of water on the ledge above the first four tricky pitches. These blokes, tree surgeons applying their trade to big-wall climbing, were gracious in the extreme and let us crack ahead of them into the entrance to Stove Legs Cracks. This time, we had the entire route ahead of us to ourselves.

Gemma quested out on some wild free climbing and tricky pendulums across the face into the base of that famed four-pitch splitter. The traverses extended our lower-out line to its full length, sending our haul bag for a quick jog before Gemma began the laborious task of ‘hauling the pig’. Thankfully our pig was slim and waist-hauling did the job from day one; meanwhile our British companions below seemed to have plushed out and were paying the price, spending hours dragging up their endless supplies, each pitch requiring an expedition effort itself. They were content to “take it gently” with extra safety margin on water and food for five days, but we were convinced that light and fast was the best strategy for a long route like the Nose, every amount of effort multiplied over those 31 pitches. Over the past five decades, The Nose has been the proving ground of advances in climbing efficiency, the route involving so many complicated manoeuvres to test climbing skill and strategy, with the speed record starting at a generous 18 months and eventually falling to today’s absurd time of 2 hours 23 minutes.

Gemma generously handed over the rack to me for the first Stove Legs pitch, something I had long frothed over, the ‘5.8 glory hands’ pitch. Named after the first ascensionist Warren Harding’s use of iron stove legs from the junkyard to protect the long flaring crack, I plugged in today’s number two camalots, tasted the sweat, smelled the reeking piss of thousands before, and jammed deeper. Free climbing sweet hand cracks on El Capitan, it felt good.

Apart from Gemma getting her foot very stuck in pitch 8, and donating a purple cam to the long line of fixed gear decorating the route, everything went smoothly to the comfy perch of Dolt Tower. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the first half of the route was going free or French-free at modest grades, as we continued cruising up more 5.9 fist cracks to the sensational El Cap Tower bivouac ledge, fifteen metres long, it could host a party but we had it to ourselves. I continued up into the Texas Flake as Gemma began dinner, he belaying services largely unnecessary for the twenty metre high chimney, an intimidating prospect at the end of the first day. I opted for easy chimneying with no pro, versus the alternative of harder chimneying with one bolt, and leavittated my way up the gaping void. Rope fixed, and rappelled back to join Gemma on the ledge for dinner.

“Wooo hoooo!”

We woke to the bizarre sight of silhouettes flying across the sky, somewhere at the top of the Dawn Wall. What first appeared as a high-liner accelerating at an alarming rate, was soon realised to be a dare-devil performing a giant king-swing, arcing a 50-metre radius across the sky, the sight startling us awake and into action. Above our fixed line we had our own King Swing to get involved with, one of the most difficult moves on The Nose.

From the top of the seemingly detached “Boot Flake”, I fixed the line and lowered down thirty metres to the lowest tan dyke. I eyed up the arĂȘte way across to my left and started to build up some swinging momentum. My first flailing efforts left me well short of the edge. Each failed attempt was exhausting and frustrating, leaving me hanging on the rope gasping for air with a mouth tasting of dirt. I adjusted my strategy, fine-tuned the rope length even further out, twisted fully side-ways in my harness, and threw myself running sideways along the arc. I finally latched the edge. I then realised I was still five metres short of Eagle Ledge. Still tied off to the top of Boot Flake, I carefully leap-frogged two #4 cams up the off-width crack to the belay stance. In my mind, this was the crux of the route, but without doubt better strategies and techniques exist.

Gemma took over the lead for some tricky corners, and suddenly the Great Roof appeared close above. Guided by the SuperTopo, we docked the bag for two arcing pitches to below the roof, abseiled 70m down, and hauled directly upwards to pitch eighteen. Extra work, but the only real solution to the wandering route. I set to work on the long thin corner up to the Great Roof: offset cams, small nuts, fixed gear; the main challenge being to stretch the rack out and hope to conserve the crucial pieces for the famous under-cling underneath that shadowed cap. Back-cleaning left me exposed to a long but clean fall as I swung from piece to piece, necessary to make Gemma’s life easy as she followed the traverse on jumars. Two long lower-outs placed her below my exciting belay position, and the steep headwall opened up above late in the day.

Pushing hard to Camp V, I stowed the etriers and free-climbed the Pancake Flake, resting several times as the accumulation of physical labour left us sapped and dry. Awkward aiding by headlamp up a tight corner reeking from urine finally released us and Camp V was reached late on the second evening. Dehydrated and exhausted, we slowly unpacked the haul-bag desperate for water and food. Spicy tea and more canned stew slowly revived us. Lights in the valley far below lined the roads and glowed in the villages, we marvelled at our position high up on the wall.

We could smell the summit early the next day, but still knew it would take a full day. Gemma raced up her block to Camp VI in a flurry of etriers and fiddly small gear choking the seams, finding a rhythm.

I took over the lead up the easy terrain up to the overall free-crux of the route: the Changing Corners, rated 5.14a. By aid, the moves around the protruding arĂȘte and into the next corner system are as simple as clipping a bolt, but to make those moves free requires a complex sequence or body contortions, palming and smearing that Lynn Hill famously was the first to solve. Still, the thin seam required careful selection of micro-offset nuts, and only the perfect shaped piece would fit in the piton scars. I continued upwards on 5.10+ arching splitter cracks, trying to perfect the techniques of cam-jumaring to save time and gear, jamming in smaller gear along the way to ease the run-outs.

Just below the top-out, the belay stance was truly wild, with the entire spine of the Nose sweeping out below us. Almost a thousand metres of exposure, a dropped carabiner would have landed at the base.

Gemma linked the last two pitches, summit fever rampant, ignoring the hideous rope drag and slabby free moves in approach shoes, she could smell the summit and didn’t stop. I soon joined Gemma at the famous tree that marks the end of the route. We collapsed in the tree’s shade with our gear exploding around us, and downed our last tin of canned fruit. The tippy, tippy top of El Capitan. It tasted sweet indeed.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Half Dome Regular NW Face

"Alastair! Come help me!"

I spun around and sprinted down a slope of broken granite, when a whiff of something toxic temporarily blinded me. Confused, rushing, I tripped down the scree to find Gemma doubled over, screaming, a quivering hand held up covered in orange oil. "What's happened to you!" Strolling down from the summit of Half Dome an hour earlier, our tallest big wall climb to date, we thought all the difficulties were over. Who would have known the last two hours to the valley floor would prove to be the crux.

Two days earlier, those same "two hours" also sent us near boiling point. Four hours into the slabs approach up to the base of Half Dome's Northwest face, we found ourselves stuck over our heads in dense thicket under a scorching summer sun, throats dry and coarse with dirt. It wasn't the first time we'd lost the "trail" that afternoon, hauling ourselves up several fixed ropes and up slick slabs. It was hard to appreciate the immense 600-metre wall above as we desperately tried to find a water source, our bottles empty. We knew there was a spring near the base, but all we had found so far were measly dribbles. I finally heard a scream of joy as Gemma found Yosemite's finest gushing out from the base of the first pitch. Hallelujah.

 Simultaneously our hopes of an un-crowded route were dashed, an American couple had comfortably established camp there; I envied how casual and rested they seemed. I skulled litres from the spring, recovering, while Gemma climbed and fixed the first pitch. Somehow, we were still on schedule, clinging to our Half Dome dream. Mosquitoes gnawed at us that night as we lay beneath a sky full of stars and granite, the prospect of sixteen pitches between us and the next bivouac ledge was daunting but was also the unknown and adventure that we craved.

We geared up by headlight in the predawn; while Sam & Steph climbed ahead, we prepared to jumar our fixed line, when a southern drawl erupted, "Yeah, rock-climbers!" And on seeing both our parties lining up, "Allright! Here's to a day of six people climbin' all over each other!" Alex and his partner Keith had left the car at 3 that morning and planned to summit that night, but weren't willing to let our two parties ahead of them dampen their spirits. "Team work makes the dream work!" Alex reminded us all.

We soon realised that courtesy has its place, but speed was paramount: "OK, we're passing about right now." And Keith was off ahead of us, just as I was about to start the second pitch. These two were using short-fixing speed-climbing tactics, the second jumaring on the fixed line while the leader continued climbing with a loop of slack. Determined to keep pace, I broke a thick sweat, french-freeing the bulges, and linking two pitches to overtake our friendly rivals. We also had a schedule to keep - Big Sandy would be ours by sunset.

Gemma brought up the rear with puff and vigour, getting her fair share of cardio, she jumared her heart out and carrying all the supplies including 7 litres of water as well as the heavy rack I had deposited into the long pitches. After ten rope lengths of moderate alpine terrain, we moved onto the main sheer face of Half Dome. Our diagonal trajectory aimed at a long chimney system required several traversing bolt ladders across the blank face, made even blanker by the significant rockfall event of 2015 where a huge flake exfoliated from the wall.

The new twelfth pitch now brings a unique challenge to the game of aid-climbing, they call it the "rope toss". From the top of an arching crack, a 4m wide blank wall bars access to the base of the chimney. Armed with YouTube beta, I retied the lead rope, and tied a chunky knot at the new sharp end. After several failed attempts, I managed to wedge the knot into the perfectly sized crack, called to Gemma to lower me to below the knot, and jumared up to the belay, C1+.

Up into the chimneys, the Yosemite locals finally shot ahead, while we, offwidth amateurs, found ourselves struggling to choose between a barely protected 5.9 squeeze and unprotected 5.7 stem, both seeming equally desperate. At last we emerged into the sun and enjoyed stellar splitter cracks to Big Sandy, our comfortable accommodation for the night.

A long section of body-width plus ledge welcomed our weary bodies, satisfied by cold dehy, cushioned by Macpac pack foam inserts, and insulated by a new type of stretchy emergency foil blanket by SOL that doesn't rip. All in the name of avoiding Half Dome's hideous hauling and preserving the spine of the second.

I shouldered the pack early the next morning following Gemma's lead of the Zig-Zag cracks, one of the crux free pitches, we were now forced to aid climb our way up the final pitches, with "The Visor" always overhanging above.

We can only imagine Royal Robbins relief to find the Thank God Ledge skirting hard under the summmit overhang, a narrow catwalk with a handy 2" crack for protection. Gemma took a deep breath and managed to tip-toe her way across without resorting to the ugly manoeuvres required of me to follow with the pack pulling me off the wall. The runout 5.8 chimney off the ledge stymied us at first, trip reports quoting a "squeeze that no man or woman should need to endure", and even the scene of an Alex Honnold freak out, but was eventually overcome with much grunting.

Gemma dug deep on the pitch 22 aid crux after ripping a 0.1 cam and caught by a talon hook, she perservered to find a devious skyhook placement, top stepping to the next bolt and a gripping tension traverse on tenuous smears. Tourists and cameras reared their heads from the summit as we finished the last pitch, joyous mantles and an explosion of gear, questions and congratulations from the dozens of hikers poured out. Spare food and water was tossed our way, it was just like we imagined and more, a bizarre summit experience that is usually the domain of a depleted climber's wildest fantasies.

We skidded down the polished tourist cables and skirted the base to our packs, stoked on the climb, already dreaming of pizza on the valley floor. I walked up to the spring to refill our bottles, when Gemma's scream sent shockwaves: reaching into her pack, she had somehow triggered the bear spray cannister, covering her face and hands with potent pepper spray. Visibly shaking, face clenched, I poured our last litres into her stinging eyes, trying to reassure her she would not go blind. I slowly guided her, blind, directing her steps up to the spring - without which would have made a seriously dire situation. Guidebook author Roger Putnam was doing geology work nearby and came to our aid, helping us down the slabs approach, both of our faces and bodies still blazing from the oily spray. An unexpectedly epic ending to what was otherwise a stellar climb of one of America's all-time classic rock routes.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Climbing Moab's Classic Desert Towers

After two months of fantastic ice & mixed climbing in the Canadian Rockies, finally the seasons were beginning to signal a change, with warm temperatures melting off ice pillars and sending avalanche ratings up to extreme. Colours of Instagram were also transforming, from the white, blue and grey of the alpine to the rich orange and red of the desert. Canadians were flocking southwards to the sandstone splitters of Moab, and I felt compelled to join them.

Over the course of two days driving through several degrees of latitude, the snow-caked plains of Canada finally morphed into the desert landscapes Utah is famous for. Living the dirt-bag life near the banks of the Colorado River, we warmed back into rock-climbing with the ridiculously convenient Wall Street crag on Potash Road.

Five minutes from Williams Bottom campground, Wall Street is home to hundreds of crack climbs and face routes all literally right next to the road. Belaying from a lawn-chair next to the car is common place. After a few days perfecting our finger-locks and toe-jams, Tim Banfield and I teamed up to climb our first desert tower, Sister Superior.

Our early start was sabotaged by a tyre puncture on the off-road approach drive, allowing another party to scoop us to the route “Jah Man”, a four-pitch 5.10+ on the south-west face of the tower. Sister Superior is just one of several classic spires in the canyon-riddled area, with the famous Castleton Tower dominant on the horizon.

The first pitch came at the standard sand-bag grade of “5.8+”, which often means unusual climbing in the form of a wide crack or chimney, poorly protected or just plain weird – not something pulling plastic can ever prepare you for. Coined the “Sister Squeeze”, this had us wedged up a body squeeze chimney for a full pitch, Tim seconding with his camera gear hanging off a sling on his harness. From the top of this detached pedestal, thin hand jams lead the route crux, which had thrown off the previous party several times as we waited at the base. A few tricky moves past a flake required alternating heel hooks to reach a “thank-god” hand jam.

After some more cragging at Wall Street, we soon felt the desert call again. This time to the famous Castleton Tower, and a spectacular looking route on the North Face. Along with Jon Bouchard, we ascended a stellar pitch of wide hands, leapfrogging our three #3 cams, to the route’s 5.11a flake lay-back crux, an exciting sequence with feet smeared onto slippery calcite face holds. Tricky finger cracks lead to a bulging hand-crack, and an off-width followed by a jagged fist crack lead to easy but run-out chimneys to the summit. It really was the full gamut of crack climbing all in just three quality pitches! What a route. Belaying up Jon to the summit, I was hit by a hail-storm, and shivered at the exposed belay in meagre base-layers until Jon arrived and we hurried down the rap line, running down to the highway.

An afternoon of bouldering in hot sun at Big Bend by the Colorado River made for a totally different style of climbing, but as the day cooled off we were psyched to make a quick ascent of the Lighthouse Towers. Namely the route adorning the guide-book cover, Lonely Vigil, a four-pitch 5.10 route that climbs up a unique stem-box chimney system. As you approach this intimidating blank looking section, it takes a few moments to realise that the fused overhanging seams can be avoided by simply stemming wide up the chimney, until you slap the glory jug. Standing on the very summit is the most exciting of all, gaining the detached block requires a bouldery mantle with average gear at your feet. With no anchors on top, the moves simply need to be reversed to descend.

Fine Jade was our final tower route, and was one of the best. The classic line fires up continuous splitters for three pitches on the south prow of the Rectory, opposite Castleton. The hardest climbing was off the deck, via steep flared hand-cracks, but the technical 5.11a crux was a finger crack through a bulge half way up the gorgeous face.

The desert sandstone was pristine, especially on these most popular routes, and the quality of the crack climbing was superb. If only these routes were longer! But perhaps that is asking a bit much of these slender stacks of red rock. Moab’s tower routes are perhaps lesser known than the amazing crack climbing at nearby Indian Creek, but offer more adventure into the amazing desert landscapes of Utah. Definitely worth checking out on your next road-trip through the States.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Three Peaks - A Blue Mountains Challenge

I pedaled frantically through the streets of Sydney with no regard to the precious glycogen stores I was burning through. I had stayed at the party for too long, and now had only fifteen minutes to reach the train station six kilometers away. I dashed onto the 10pm train with minutes to spare, regretting the adrenaline overload that would prevent me from getting any valuable sleep before I was to embark on this epic journey. At over 90 kilometres and 5000 vertical metres of climbing, The Three Peaks challenge is a true test of physical and mental stamina, involving a committing element of remoteness and off-track navigation in the mix. Since the 1960s, the challenge has forged legends and broken souls and remained a classic in Blue Mountains lore ever since.

At a stroke past midnight I rode through the flickering lights of Katoomba’s nightlife, ditched my bike at the official start on the Narrowneck Plateau, and set off into the darkness. Solo, onsight.

Heading out from Katoomba at midnight, excited about what is to come...
Jogging along the mind-numbing 10km stretch of gravel road along the Neck, it wasn’t long until the natural urge to sleep began to gnaw away at me. Even the prickly road side seemed a tempting place to lie down. Soon after 2AM, a toilet block at the end of the road came into my headlamp beam. Out of the cold wind, I curled up on the concrete for ten minutes to recharge, before topping up my electrolyte supply with potent energy drink and popped a 100mg caffeine pill, resolving to push on through the night.

I would need to be alert as a dropped off the Narrowneck buttress, descending steep rocky trails, and down-climbing a vertical cliff thanks to the ancient Tarros Ladders – iron rungs and spikes cast into the sandstone. After that brief excitement I was well and truly awake for the long undulating trail traversing the Wild Dog Mountains. Running alone through the bush at night can become lonely, so I cranked up the music to keep my spirits high. But every so often, a loud rustling from within the bush would break through the head-phones and startle me. Kangaroo, wombat, wild dog? In my caffeine-induced sleep-deprived trance, my mind was taking me for a wild ride.

Mt Yellow Dog, nearing the end of a long caffeine-induced night
I checked my watch on Mt Yellow Dog, 5AM. Dead of the night. But the exhilaration of the Yellow Pup Ridge descent to the Cox’s River pumped much needed adrenaline through my veins, and as the river came into view so too did the first glimmering of dawn. Here many choose to rest as their first stop, but I decided instead to down a bag of muesli and start up the long Strongleg Ridge to Cloudmaker, and crash when the time came. Sure enough, as the sun rose on me atop Mt Strongleg, I fried instantly, and collapsed on the trail, sprawled out flat on the bush floor.

I awoke to the sound of Coldplay, and hoped I hadn’t missed too many tracks as I staggered back to my feet, dazed. Fortunately, since this was also the route for the popular Katoomba to Kanagra (K2K) crossing, there was a vague trail along most of the undulating bush ridge towards Cloudmaker, the first of the three peaks. The final stretch of navigation to the summit was testing, and doubts crept into my mind that I had gone too far, there was no clear peak amongst the flatness… when the rocky cairn and its metal log-book holder appeared through the trees I clenched my fists in jubilation. Having travelled through the night to arrive at the first checkpoint in good time felt sweet indeed. 

Cloudmaker, peak number one

Reading through the Cloudmaker log-book there was an entry from another hiker made on today’s date… Was someone else also on the Three Peaks quest? This riled me from my rest, and I quickly set off again in search of the second peak – Paralyser. I followed the compass to end of a long spur which abruptly dropped off in steep cliffs, forcing me to backtrack to find an easier descent. All the while, my jaded mind was constantly scanning the bush ahead for any sign of the mystery person from the log book - surely he couldn’t be far ahead? Eight hundred metres down into Kanangra Creek saw me shoe ski scree slopes, plough through scrub and dodge stinging nettles to reach the tropical creek floor of the valley. Still no sign of the man, but it had provided incentive to push the pace. The sun was now scorching, so I doused my cap in the cool river water and filled up another two litres for the next slog, a nine-hundred metre ridge climb to the top of Paralyser.

Paralyser, the second summit

I tapped into new energy on the ridge, swallowing up the vertical as the valley floor fell from my feet. Ninety minutes later I was on Paralyser, starting to feel the burn of the ascent, but keeping well hydrated despite the heat. Now 12 hours in, I reminded myself that this was only halfway. And the crux was just ahead - the final 1000-metre un-tracked ascent of Guogang.

Guougang appears through the bush

I raced off the flat summit of Paralyser to the north-east, keeping an eye out for a ridge to begin forming that would lead out to the Whalania valley. Once out on the narrow ridge, I scanned the opposite side of the valley to pick out Nooroo Buttress, the acclaimed ridge towards Guougang. A quick scan of the map to match up my view to the map, and I was flying down into the Whalania, and then up towards the third and final peak.

Exhaustion setting in on the third ascent of Guougang

The day grew late as I approached the, again, rounded summit of Guougang. But something didn’t line up. An un-mapped fire-trail appeared, heading west. The summit was to the north, but in that direction the terrain dropped away. Had the magnetics in my phone distorted the compass? What was going on? After a night without sleep and 16 hours on the go, my shattered brain couldn’t handle this. I checked the GPS for the first time, and my blunder was revealed. I had climbed the wrong mountain. I had climbed a spur one parallel to the Nooroo buttress, which had later veered away towards Mount Krungle Bungle. With the compass stowed on the ascent, I hadn’t noticed my bearing change.

It was 4:45pm, I was now racing time to reach Guougang by dark. The situation was recoverable, but I was faced with an extra four-kilometre ridge traverse through complex and unknown terrain, using up precious day light. Cursing my careless error, I gulped down a gel, desperate for an extra surge of energy. Once I had accepted the situation, I plotted out the new route and set off along the vague and undefined ridgetop. The gel was metabolized like fire and I blazed like a mad-man through horrendously thick scrub, I could no longer feel my shins, all that mattered was finding the third cairn of Guougang before night-fall.

The best moment of the journey, emerging through the dense bush to the hard-earned summit pyramid of Mt Guougang
It was just after 6pm when the glorious summit cairn appeared. I was so relieved. But my problems weren’t yet over, unfolding the map revealed a long and complicated 6-km ridge-line descent to the Cox’s. My heart sunk. Almost immediately the navigation proved difficult and the scrub dense. And as darkness descended on me, so did the rain.

In the twilight, my headlamp almost made it more difficult to see, droplets of rain and fog reflecting the beam of light and soggying my map. After several hours of thrashing around in tree fall, bluff zones, slimy creek waterfalls and fields of stinging nettle, becoming totally drenched and exhausted while making little progress, I finally decided to call it a night and find somewhere to bivvy until dawn. Thankfully I stumbled upon a fallen tree whose dry straw-like leaves formed a dry base and a meagre shelter from the elements. My foil space blanket ripped instantly as I curled into an awkward cramped position in my suffer-bivouac, my warmth slowly draining away.

When dawn eventually rolled around, I couldn’t find my compass. I clawed through the straw in vain for my most important tool. But as the light began to reveal the shape of the land, a route through to the Cox’s revealed itself. I knew I only needed to navigate to the river before I was back on the safe return trail to Narrowneck. I set off anxiously without my compass, and thankfully, a couple of hours later emerged at the banks of the flooded Cox’s river. Upstream I found a safe crossing and clambered up to the Yellow Pup ridgeline for the long grind home to Katoomba.

In the day, the Wild Dog mountains passed at a swift jog, the Tarros Ladders were a mere scramble but the long gravel road of the Neck was a mind numbing final hurdle. Back on the bike, I slowly peddled my way back up the hill into Katoomba, for a round trip time of 38 hours. Wow. What a wild ride it was. But even before I’d arrived home on the Blue Mountains train, I couldn’t help myself from plotting out the next attempt. Lighter, faster, less-sleep, and less-lost. A sub-24 hour Three Peaks. It had to be done.

Three Peaks - 90km distance, 5000m vertical