Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Highlights from RockTober

In the many moons that have passed since climbing Arrow Peak, the adventures have not stopped; in fact, they have multiplied, and so despite neglecting to update this blog I can assure you that there has been hardly a wasted moment in these past few months.

September was another big work month, but I managed to get out with Jen and attempt a kind of mountain ramble that looks good on paper but once you are in the middle of executing it, feels a little bit less like such a great idea.  We sought to traverse the northern section of the Sierra's Great Western Divide, from Midway to North Guard, over 7 days, through miles of complicated alpine rock terrain and over the many summits which comprise this distinct landmark.  We did not realize how time consuming and complicated this travel would actually be, over seemingly infinite fields of loose and unstable talus.  We did not succeed in the mission, but had an amazing time to ourselves in the remote mountains, and that is what we will remember.

As September turned into October, our thoughts drifted away from the summer season in the alpine to the red rock of the Desert Southwest.  With the Four Wheel Camper installed and packed with all sorts of gear, we drove off into the desert.  Our first port of call was Zion NP, where we climbed a bit, but put most of our energy towards the canyoneering adventures which Zion is famous for.  Birch Hollow into Orderville Canyon is a classic moderate technical canyon, and it did not disappoint.  

From the wet and wild canyons, we drove desolate stretches of highway, passing through Capitol Reef NP and the Colorado River on our way to the crack climber's Mecca known as Indian Creek.  Spending a week in the Creek is not enough, but it was fun to camp and climb with a group of friends both old and new.

The road called us back though, and so we heeded its call, traveling on to visit some of the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings at Mesa Verde NP, a long and strange drive through the Navajo Nation, and then back to Zion for one more canyon.

Descending Middle Echo Canyon was a great short day of rappels into deep pools, swimming in cold water and generally feeling like little kids at a water park.  Did I mention the cold water?!

And just like that, our desert vacation had to come to an end- as I flew down to Patagonia for a month of work just a few days later.  Now that I am back from a successful trip down south, the snow is falling here in Mammoth and the winter looks promising, though I am already looking forward to the spring trip back out to the Southwest!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Arrow Peak: Worth the price of admission.

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” 
-Rene Daumal

I will freely admit that when I am not working, I take a much more relaxed approach to route planning. Pack, drive to trailhead, start hiking- how bad could it be?  Well, it seems like my steady diet of high elevation trailheads and "casual" 3-4,000 ft. approaches has made me soft.

Enter Taboose Pass.  After leaving Mammoth at around 6:30 (too late), it was already 90 degrees at the trailhead!  What?!  Beginning almost at the floor of the Owens Valley, Taboose will get you sweating right out of the gate, and spinning your wheels at the same time thanks to steep switchbacks of deep sand.  Thank God for the guy who dreamt up sun-umbrellas.

After some hours of grinding our gears up the 6,200ft of elevation which separated us from the Pass, we crested over into the Sierra High Country and immediately forgot the past difficulties.  Feasting our eyes on such a massive view was humbling, and inspiring.  We could see our intended camp along Bench Lake and high above the Muro Blanco and so after a short lunch we hoofed it down the last 4 and a half miles to camp.  Arrow Peak dominates the view from Taboose, as it towers over Bench Lake and sits in between some of the highest concentration of high peaks in the range.

After 13 miles and quite a bit of elevation change, we enjoyed a well deserved break, fishing the lake and sipping on small batch bourbon.  Our route up Arrow would wait for us.

In the morning we awoke and while the NE Spur of the peak, first ascended by Walter Starr Jr. had been my first choice, it looked a bit too intimidating for Jen to get excited about, especially as we had forgone the rope or even helmets.  So the South Face route would be our path, and we wended through forests, marshy lakes and up through the benches of Arrow Pass to reach the route.
The route consisted of some 1,000ft of loose sand and rock; not the highest quality ascent but a means to an end for sure.

Then as soon as the summit of Arrow is reached, along a slender ridge of granite fins, the views become overwhelming.  All you can see are high mountains, from Mount Goddard to Whitney; the Palisades, Lakes Basin, Clarence King and Gardiner as well as the Western Peaks in the far corners of Sequoia and Kings Parks.  I was impressed to the point of being over saturated by such an immense sight.  But as Daumal says, we can't stay on top forever, and the allure of swimming in the deep blue waters below was too appealing.

The next day, hiking out without the wind blasting us in the face as it had when we ascended, we said farewell to the majesty of the high peaks and open country, and then reacquainted ourselves with our old friend, Taboose.  Climbing the 6,200 ft suddenly felt a whole lot more fun, as the ankles and knees started to get angry.  But after reaching the sandy flats which took us back to the car, and eventually to ice cream and beer, it started to feel worth it.  Worth it because of knowing now how much more there is out there in this range to see and experience.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Rocking out in the High Sierra

 It is now the middle of July, and the summer guiding season is in full swing.  Really, it has felt pretty full on since May, and doesn't seem like there will be any let up until October.  But I'm not complaining- not when work gets to take me to such rare and interesting places, with new friends and old.
After the last post covering the week spent up in the Palisades things have been hectic- a short trip up to Washington, an AMGA Alpine Course in the Tetons, and then right back to the Sierra.
The trips have been a lot of fun so far though- lots of rock guiding work and alpine rock, allowing me to use and figure out how to best integrate the new information gained through the alpine course into my own guiding.

Here are a couple of the trips as seen through the lens during the past month:

The Tetons, from my camp at Shadow Mt.  The weather was not super cooperative while the course was being held...

But we still managed to get some objectives done.  Josh Jackson short ropes Ron Paproski on Disappointment Pk.

Now back to the Sierra, Alex and Sarah came up for an advanced rock and mountain skills camp.

Here Alex takes the sharp end on Crystal Crag's North Arete

After Alex and Sarah took off it was time to shift gears to begin a 5 day Lead Climber program for the Navy SEALS, and by the last day they were swapping leads up some of the classic climbs in the area looking like they had been doing it for years!
Neil takes the lead up Crystal Crag 

Rappelling off of alpine terrain as the thunder started booming!
Neil the SEAL puts on his game face when learning terrain belays!

The day the SEAL program ended I had to get down to Big Pine to meet up with Matt and Marty, who had big designs on some higher level alpine rock climbing up on Temple Crag.  We hiked in in the early evening shade and set up a camp next to the aqua blue Second Lake.  The next morning we were up early and climbed the ultra-classic Venusian Blind Arete (5.7 1,500ft).

Matt and Marty, looking stoked, somewhere mid route

Finally on top of the route, but still a ways to go to the summit!
Now with a couple days off to relax and recalibrate, I get to look forward with more of the same!  Whitney's East Butress, the Fishhook Arete on Russell, and local rock climbing are what I get to look forward over the next couple weeks.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Friendship and Fornication in the Palisades

Wait, that doesn't sound right.  No, definitely not.  Just read on and maybe it'll make sense.  Or not.  

Just yesterday I hiked out of the storied Palisades where I spent a week guiding a young man named Jackson who had such a tremendous amount of stoke and energy it felt like a personal pleasure trip most of the time!  

Jackson signed up for one of our Palisades Extended Mountain Camps, in which we cover rock skills, anchor building, ascend a rock route and then head up to the glacier to do snow skills and climb a mountain route such as Mount Sill.  He showed up wanting to soak up as much information as possible, climb as much as he could, and begin his summer of hiking and climbing with a big bang. 

Based for the first few days out of the amazing PSOM camp perched high above Third Lake, we went over many facets of rock climb skills at the nearby crag and then took those skills to Mount Robinson where we chose to climb one of the Palisade School of Mountaineering-named routes the Friendship and the Fornication Aretes.  Having already guided the Friendship a couple years ago, I thought it would be cool to climb the Fornication Arete and use it as a learning experience for Jackson as I would be onsight climbing it and relaying him all of my thought processes as to how read the route finding, etc.

After a successful summit of the East Summit of Robinson, we moved our camp up high to the edge of the Palisade Glacier and spent the rest of the day self arresting, learning advanced rope skills and snow anchors.  The next morning began with high winds; despite the protected tent ledge we were worried the lightweight Firstlight tent might be torn to shreds!  
Sleeping in another hour saw the winds die down a bit, enough to fire up a quick coffee and move out for our objective, the North Face of Mount Sill.  

Snow conditions were fantastic, as we were able to wear crampons from camp all the way to the summit ridge.  The traverse behind Apex Peak involved some pitched climbing through the mixed snow and rock, giving Jackson a bit of challenge.  

A couple hundred more feet of fun scrambling got us to the summit, which is called the best view in the Sierra.  I would be hard pressed to disagree!  
A couple of rappels and belayed down climbs later we were plunge stepping our way all the way back to Gayley Camp where we lounged like lizards in the afternoon warmth, as it was in the 70s up at 12,000 ft!  

We made short work of the 10 mile hike out the following day and said our goodbyes, and I drove home back to Mammoth feeling great about introducing another inspired young mountain enthusiast to our Sierra Nevada.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mount Mills, and a reflection on the Guiding Life

Victoria's eyes were as big as dinner plates as I belayed her in.  We had just transitioned from short roping to pitching out the steepening terrain as the couloir we were ascending narrowed, and to more securely pass the exposed band of rock bisecting the route which a recent heat wave in the alpine country had melted out.  Al, her partner, followed a few meters behind. When they both arrived at the belay, we all three looked up towards the forking junctions of the many gullies splitting the East Face of Mount Mills (13,468 ft), eyeing our route that would take us towards the summit plateau. 

"Welcome to Mountaineering!"  

Victoria and Al signed up for a 4 day trip that would encompass snow and rock skills, and an overnight, culminating climb in the high mountains.  Both experienced hikers, they sought to increase their comfort on steep snow.  With Rock Creek plowed high, we were able to ascend all the way to a bench above Mills Lake at 12,000 ft, snowshoeing in over the still frozen lakes before digging in and setting up our lightweight shelters below the Blood Moon.

These types of trips (introductory mountaineering) are often the most difficult to guide.  Not for the terrain difficulty, but due to the fine line you must walk when delivering the curriculum.  Some come on trips just for a guided experience, with an assumption that they will never do it again, other come to build a skill set for themselves which they can take and build on later.  Keeping everybody engaged and rewarded can be a challenge, especially on higher ratio trips.  That both Vick and Al came eager to learn and ready to ask questions helped to facilitate a more productive learning (and teaching) environment for the group.  When this uniform level of engagement doesn't exist, then it is important to have the tools to get everyone involved, and especially to not place more importance on the needs of the strongest individuals.  

As we climbed past the rock bands, and began moving together again through the steep snow weaving through the final gully towards the ridge, the snow pack became thinner and the rock walls offered less opportunity for protection.  We continued our ascent, but slower and with more DT (discreet tension).  Movement coaching and speed can be excellent substitutes for solid protection in certain terrain, and can imply the need for caution without saying outright, "This is pretty hairy, don't blow it here!"  
Upon reaching the wind-lipped ridge, I anchored myself on the other side and belayed Victoria and Al  in.  

Especially on introductory mountaineering or climbing courses, it is usual to choose climbing objectives which allow the participants to use the skills they have just learned, and to challenge them a bit.  So the necessity of being transparent and openly talking through your decision making process and how and why you are making your risk management plan is great.  Operating too mechanically, without giving rationale behind your actions, you risk giving your participants a skewed view of your thought process.  With mountain climbing, and rock climbing too, application (using the right tool at the appropriate time), has a direct effect on safety and efficiency.

At the top of the ridge, below the last rock step, we stopped and talked through the decisions which had gotten us to this point.  Explaining the difference between how I had managed the last few hundred feet  as a guide versus how I would have climbed it with a friend was an important conversation to have, and answered some of the questions which arose on the ascent.  We made our way over to the slender summit ridge and sat for a bit enjoying our moment in the sun before returning our attention to the down climb.

I lowered Vick and Al down the rock steps, down climbing after them, and with the sun softened snow we were able to descend much more securely and quickly than on the way up.  Snow has a way of making itself feel very steep on the way up, as when you lean into the snow to lessen your exposure it gives you the feeling of a higher angle, but on the way down it loses some of its bite.

A well deserved cup of afternoon coffee was enjoyed back in camp, as we packed up our belongings and began the long walk back to the road.  The high springtime sun was wreaking havoc on the snow pack, and postholing with snowshoes became an all too common theme.  

Vick and Al headed north to another wilderness adventure, while I returned to Mammoth to put some ice on my knees!

With each trip completed, it is quite easy to become complacent and to treat each trip format the same.  During the height of the summer guiding season the emphasis is too easily shifted towards what high gravity IPA I'll reward myself with before the next day brings new guests and a new objective.    

So after every trip, I am trying to put more emphasis on reflecting on the job that I did, how it could be improved upon in the future, where the biggest potential for risk occurred, and with the benefit of hindsight, how I might have managed things differently, but more importantly, looking at the before and during instead of just the past.
By taking the time to reach out to guests before the trip starts to answer questions and get a sense of their aspirations can help make it their ideal trip instead of mine, and by taking a few minutes each night while logging the day's events in my notebook to evaluate the trip, the guests, and myself, I still have time with which to improve the outcome of the trip.  

While these learnings have been sometimes hard won, and have been a culmination of lots of good, some great, and a few downright horrible trips and adventures in the mountains, I feel they are worth sharing, whether you are a friend, a client or a fellow guide.  And knowing that you are doing your best to provide the safest and most rewarding experience makes that double hopped elixir that I just picked up at the Manor Market that much tastier!