Friday, October 10, 2014


photo: Erik Reiger
     What does it mean to be a Stalker?
     Obsession and purpose. Drawn by a calling, learning and relearning, one memorizes every rhythm and change, however small. It requires time and patience. At some point it becomes a compulsion and it is irrelevant to even ask why; one must return.
      In Andrei Tarkovski's 1979 film Stalker, a dark future has one last natural place, the Zone. No humans are here and supernatural laws rule. Those with the calling, Stalkers, have the ability to tap into it's subtle cues and signals, leading those who seek 'the room' at the heart of the zone.
     In the shots outside the Zone, decay and pollution occupy a grey on grey palate in the ultra-civilized world.  In contrast, the Zone is painted in vivid and surreal color. Nature rules and danger awaits those who stray from the Stalker's crooked path. The Zone is the only place where the Stalker's life has meaning.
     With many miles of hiking and reconnaissance over the months, Erik learned the rhythms of this mountain and knew it's potential. After several attempts this time would be the one. Conditions were perfect. He did the stalking and now he needed a partner.  In respect to the work he did, and to protect more lurking potential, I will simply say that this route is near (but not in) RMNP, and that it's on the west slope of the Front Range.

     I didn't have a lot of faith until he showed me this photo of rime coated rock.  This was taken the first week of October.  A storm brought moisture, and the route was in.  He made the 3.5 hour approach on Thursday with Phil Wortmann, one of Colorado's strongest winter climbers, who is fresh off a single push repeat of Deprivation on the North Buttress of Hunter.
    On Thursday they dealt with low visibility, cold, and high winds.  They decided not to start the route and post holed back the way they came only having laid eyes on the first pitch. 
    What did the route have to offer? Smears and streaks of ice appeared disconnected through the fog.  The crux looked steep, giving the imagination free reign.
    Given three more days, all that rime turned to ice.  On Sunday we made the approach, starting before dawn. Below treeline it was still fall with green grass and running streams.  Then we crossed a distinct boundary and entered a familiar place.

    Once again, he stood at the base of the route with visibility under a rope-length. Last time Erik and I started a rare and tenuous ice route, we skipped this step in haste, and I was injured (in a lucky outcome) as a result.  This was on the north face of the Grand Teton, in our attempt to repeat Shea's chute, a grade IV WI5 which was finally established solo in 1980 after three attempts. Anomalous storms this spring gave it some of the wildest ice I've seen, but conditions were unstable, and I could have paid dearly for my deafness to the obvious. I was struck with ice while leading and we began a slow and painful retreat.  My helmet was cracked completely through, and my knee swelled, making my kneecap invisible for a week.  
     A month later, we lost our friend Cole to an ice avalanche in the Cordillera Blanca.  The decisions I make seem to grow more complicated each year. There was a disturbing lack of discussion or affirmatives exchanged when we started the route in the Tetons that day.
  We paused and had a brief exchange on the apron of avalanche debris left from last winter. This time, our conversation was clear and to the point, thought for a moment we were both thinking back to that day on the grand. 

            "what do you think?"
            "not enough snow to avalanche, and there is definitely ice"
            "temps are good"
            "ice looks good"
            "fucking stoked"
            "pull the trigger."

the first pitch.

     With no hesitation, we rattled off pitch after pitch of perfect climbing, feeling good about every pitch, and every move.  This is the finest mixed climbing I've done in Colorado.  The line was direct and logical, and we could not have asked for better ice.  We had trust in each other and trust that the line would go. It unfolded seamlessly.

the first pitch, WI4 M4
 Erik led thin, vertical runnels on the first pitch.  The last of these gave a choice between two threads of ice, each only inches wide.  I led the pure-ice crux of our route on pitch 2, the smear of vertical ice in the first photo. It ended up being quite moderate which was in no way a letdown.  The climbing on soft, new ice was pure joy.
Sculpted by strong updrafts, ice roofs guarded passage on the third pitch.
on the other side of the cirque: lurking potential.

The middle section 'the narrows'
     The middle of the route was defined by lower angle ice in a wide bowl with short steps of vertical flow.  After the third pitch we simuled for at least 600 feet. The first 900 feet of the route were connected by perfect ice. The conditions we had may be rare, but little information exists for this area.  We know for sure that this route is only a safe proposition in fall, since the basins in the middle section of the route would present a serious avalanche hazard once the snow pack builds.
     Ice gave way to a steep mixed head-wall.  This is where we found the crux of our route.  First, a thin runnel of ice in a corner presented moderate climbing with limited protection.  Following this pitch, two pitches of steep and interesting mixed climbing on solid but compact rock had us placing peckers and knife blades for protection (all of which were cleaned).
Erik stands below the crux corner system.

Exiting one of the crux pitches.
 We topped out the unnamed peak to a view of a jagged skyline.  As we coiled the ropes, we saw a dragonfly, still alive in the snow.  We were thankful for a simple descent.
    The Stalker can't enter the room, there is nothing there for him.  The promise of the room exists for others, and it is said to grant your innermost wish. In the end, if you dare to enter, it only brings misery and pain. For some, this is the courtship with mountains.
    Our story played out differently. On this climb, every moment was enjoyable as the route revealed a natural, simple line to us. This day just served to reinforce my love for this pointless game.

We found no fixed gear on the route, and we also left none. Within the knowledge of the AAJ and the words of the area's most active climbers, Erik found no information about any routes on this face, so we feel comfortable calling it a new route.
Our routeline,
photographed in September before the ice reached full tilt.
Peak 12878', North side,
Stalker, FA, IV WI4 M5, 1100 feet.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014


The North Chasm View Wall from Astrodog.
Told mostly in photos, here is the story of Astrodog, one of Colorado's sweetest long free routes.  Luke Rasmussen, Brett Baekey, and I went to the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for the first time, and before dawn we began our first rappel. 
The first of 11 double rope rappels.

The sun rose a couple of raps in.  Yes, those are down booties.

once it got warm, Luke revealed his Pizza Slut shirt.  Mid length sleeves provide adequate offwidth protection,
while an exposed midriff is both dashing and well ventilated.  We believe this is the future.

A perfect corner just above the 2-boulder bivy.

Pitch 8, Brett leading a 5.11 corner.

Pitch 10: Luke leads the thin corner just before the crux.

We were pretty worked.  The route took us about 11 hrs from bottom to top.  No-one ended up sending the crux, a blank stemming book where the 'good' piece is a 000 C3.  Later, we decided to get worked in a venue which, while still plenty difficult, is a polar opposite to the Black.

O-Town on Simply Read in Rifle.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Mount Waddington, with the summit at left
    It was easy to agree on a trip to the Waddington range.
Zach Keskinen, Brett Baekey, Hanson Smith, and I recieved a Ritt Kellog Memorial grant to make our trip possible.  We hoped more than anything for good weather and conditions that would allow us to climb some of the wildest mountains on the coast range.  Just before we were due to leave, we were struck by some news that shifted our focus.
    On July 14th our friend Cole Kennedy was hit by icefall and killed in the Cordillera Blanca, on the SW face of Piramide de Garcilaso.  He was an inspiring climber. Everyone in the CC community looked up to him.  He and I shared the same advisor and major until he graduated last year. We didn't discuss physics very often: it was evidently easy for him, but his interest lay elsewhere. He was dedicating his time wholeheartedly to climbing and becoming a mountain guide.  He was getting after it all the time, and he showed serious promise as an alpinist. Cole had a unique attitude about climbing, and his focus was set on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Rarely was he seen sport climbing.  Instead he focused a part of his time on bouldering, and was one of the strongest and most technically talented climbers at CC.  At the other end of the spectrum, he climbed just as well on traditional rock and winter routes.  Maybe he cared about purity, or maybe he just did what he liked.  In any case, he got really good.  Cole and I had plans to climb together, but we never shared a rope in the mountains.  This is something I regret.
    Our thoughts are with his climbing partner John, who returned home to the states, and with all his friends and family. The circumstances of the accident, like many in the mountains, were out of their control.  Despite this, we still had to ask ourselves questions about risk. These are questions we've heard a million times, but it brings them to the surface in a new light. It was clear to us that we could have only one goal that really mattered: to bring everyone home safe.  Routes and summits seemed like a vain and insignificant afterthought.
The Combatant-Tiedemann-Asperity massif.  Its south faces fall around 1600m and are mostly solid granite.
   For Hanson and I, the trip began in Wyoming.  We needed to get on our feet and do something. We climbed the Grand Teton via the direct-Petzholt ridge.  We then soloed the entirety of the upper exum ridge together, summitting in good time and good weather.  I hadn't climbed with him in a while, and it was a good oppurtunity to build confidence and solidarity, and work out technical kinks in our systems.  It also felt good to be in the mountains again.  We were both off-balance emotionally and our assessments of risk were constantly changing.  I was still shaken from a close call with icefall on the north face of the Grand in June.  Our day on the Petzholt was a reminder that good days in the mountains really are good. It's hard to beat sunny rock climbing in high places. It restored our motivation after some trying days.
    Straight away we made the marathon drive up to Squamish, boxed in by wildfire smoke much of the way.  17 hours of metal and Moby-Dick on tape later we were in the Northwest. In Seattle we spent some time connecting with friends and sharing memories of Cole.  The next day we met up with Zach, and the next day with Brett. 
     We had a rainy day of cragging and bouldering in Squamish.  We quickly realized that the weather was improving and we needed to jump on our first oppurtunity to fly.  Hanson and I were both suffering from injuries that limited our abilities on pure rock.  For us this was an easy decision to leave Squamish, and Brett and Zach would get the oppurtunity to climb the Chief on the tail end of our trip.
      We drove 10 hours through that night, and arrived at Tatla Lake ready to fly the next morning, having slept for zero hours.  Flying in on a helicopter was an amazing experience, but with a low cloud ceiling and bad weather we were forced to land near the Scimitar glacier.  Following our landing at a dissapointing location we had 3 days of hauling heavy loads through bad weather and difficult and dangerous terrain.  We eventually found ourselves on Combatant col at 9800 feet and took some time to rest and watch the rime shed.

We skiied with sleds, for 3-4 laps each, to haul our gear up this 300m ramp.  Only a narrow path was safe, and this was arguably the crux of our 'approach' to the col.

Mount Waddington- 13,186' 
-Kiwi Route - Notch Chimney - 1000m, 60 degrees, 5.7, M-harder-than-expected, TD.
           We began the romp across the flat col with very cold conditions at around 2am.  The route breaks down into three sections.  After crossing a (very active) serac zone, you hop onto a 300m face of blue and smooth ice.  We climbed this in the dark, with Zach and Brett soloing and Hanson and I simuling below.
     After the face, you find yourself on a series of nice, steep snow aretes with quite a bit of exposure down to the Tiedemann glacier.  Most of the climbing here, though steep, was on firm neve with only short sections of ice. We were soloing through the alpenglow, and the sun rose on us.  The next section leads through a short, jumbled icefall, and onto the Stroll, a low-angle, hanging snowfield below the violently serrated, black teeth of Mount Waddington.
     From there we joined the standard route, climbing through steep, loose mixed terrain.  The chimneys proved more difficult than anyone had imagined, and we slowed down--too much. We found vertical sections of the chimney choked with good ice.
Temps got closer to freezing, and rime was constantly cutting loose.  Only the occasional big chunk would pose any threat, but it was serious motivation for us to move faster.

At 3:30am, safely through the serac zone and above the 'schrund, Zach and Brett solo together onto the calf-busting ice face of the Kiwi Route.

First light, well clear of the seracs.  Main summit at left, NW summit at right. 
The Tiedemann glacier.

Brett soloing in a sea of loose metamorphic rock

Hanson leads up to the notch.
Zach and Brett regroup at a belay as I lead behind them.  4 slow, rimed pitches to go. Solid rock was not a common theme.

The Tooth
Looking down at the final crux steps of the notch chimney.

Hanson stands on the summit- a pillar of rime big enough for only one at a time.

around 4pm, Brett and Zach rig the first of many rappels after a short downclimb from the summit of Waddington.

Snow walls kept the daily wind gusts from shredding our tents at the col.
Back on the stroll, we climbed up a short couloir to the slopes of the northwest summit, and then descended the Angel Glacier and the Firey route with pleasant postholing and short glissades in the reddening night.  We had to take some time in a maze-like icefall, and after a while we were 'jogging' through some more serac zones in pitch dark, and sat down in camp a bit later.  The next day Mike King of Whitesaddle air informed us that we were likely the first party in 2 years to make the main summit.

camp is visible as a small speck near the center of Combatant Col.

Zach and Brett investigate the Bergschrund below Combatant.
Combatant - Skywalk Buttress, 700m, 50 degrees, 5.9, ED1.
      I opted to leave my 2lb camera in camp, so photos from the Skywalk are mostly Zach's. I slept the entire day previously with a stiff neck and a sore throat.  Everyone else was racked up and prepared.  That night I packed my stuff-just in case- I was fully prepared to spend another day in camp while they climbed without me. I would leave the decision for the morning.
     The route had loomed over camp and presented a soaring, obvious line.  It was hard to say no in the morning, even when I woke up feeling as sick as ever.  I decided to climb anyway, confident that I would be able to hold my own, which I sort-of did.  I roped up with Zach and left camp a little after 7. We managed to simul much of the lower buttress.  After the Croft-Anker variation and the crux pitches, we had a routefinding snafu that led us to rappel about 25m.  We traversed right of the crest, and Zach led an exciting and runout traverse on edges. This took us to a steep corner and chimmney system.  For such a prime-line, routefinding proved to be tough and unintuitive for much of the day. 
   After some serious difficulties with rockfall, we found ourselves on the summit of the first tower well after dark. 10 full 70m rappels, in a group of 4, took us the rest of the night, and after a mentally trying descent we found ourselves rappelling over the bergschrund in morning light- at the same hour we left camp the day previously.  Were we forced to make single 60m raps, it would have been at least 23.  We found a minimum of anchors from previous descents, so this would have consumed most of our racks.
    The climb was worth it for me, despite a bit of a personal health struggle that led to some suffering in the long hours of the night(and in the weeks afterward).  The commitment grade is perhaps a bit exaggerated for the modern rock climber.  Many climbers might compare its length  to the Painted wall in the Black Canyon or the Regular NW face of half dome.
    The new day's light has us felling refreshed, so instead of going to sleep we just piled into the cook tent and lit up a pan of bacon for breakfast and held a surprisingly lively conversation.  We were a bit drained, and our weather window was quickly coming to an end, so the only thing on our minds eventually became flying out and resting in the lowlands.
Combatant, with Skywalk following the righthand ridge on the first buttress.  Kshatrya at far right skyline.

     A big thanks to the Ritt Kellog Memorial Fund for making this trip possible.

We would like to dedicate both of our climbs to Cole. He will inspire us for years to come.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shoulder Stand: a Clean Aid Revolution.
at right: climbers attempting an H3 move. (photo credit: supertopo user Clint Cummins, )

    Gaston R├ębuffat said “If you use your head , your physical qualities will help you to acquire technique. Technique governs security, whether you are alone or in a party on a rope.”  This is probably not what he meant.
    Once forgotten, the historic ‘shoulder-stand’ move is seeing a new renaissance.  The rationale behind the not-so-new technique is that, one, two, or six people can cover the same ground that has traditionally been aid terrain or even completely blank ground. It’s proponents describe it as ‘the new clean aid’.  It's critics regard it as dangerous, unnatural, or even 'downright wrong'. No bolts, rivets, drilled beak-holes, or pins are placed.  In fact no protection is required at all.
    In exchange for it’s purity, there is a greater level of danger.  It is up to you to decide if it is really ‘free climbing’ or not. As every forum poster ever said: “It just depends on your definition of climbing.” The new grade system outlines the risks at each level of the Human aid technique.  Perhaps we are stronger together, but we are, without a doubt, measurably taller when stacked on top of one another.

Human Aid climbing: The grades of difficulty correspond to the numbers of body placements on a pitch.  Due to the number of climbers required and the inherent danger, most climbs established as human aid climbs see very few repeats.

H1: Requires only the height of one average sized climber, plus a short hop to reach features.

H2: The classic ‘shoulder-stand’.  Using the partner’s upper body as foothold, one can ascend.

H3: Demands a stack of three climbers with honed balance.

H3+: Either three tall climbers or three climbers and a hop, much more dangerous than the mere         plus would suggest.

H4: With only body-placements for up to 24 feet, falling becomes very serious.

H5: many climbs originally established as H5 are now much tamer thanks to the widespread use of blowup dolls, lassos, and stick clips. 

H6: With six people stacked and tied in at intervals, a ‘whip’ is out of the question and would carry serious consequence for all involved. Even guessing the fall factor is difficult. These spectacular but rarely attempted sequences could have you clipping the anchors on many sport routes without ever touching rock. 

H>6: With the outcome almost certainly catastrophic dog-pile, climbs of this difficulty have not yet seen attempts.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Elk Mountains, Castle Peak, East Face.

Dropping into the East face, Castle Peak (14,265'). Photo: Niels Davis
     On our last break of the year, I decided to ski instead of going climbing.  This choice has become less rare, especially as we learn some of the better spots.  This is the first time all year that the steeps have given us full-on green-light conditions. Mike, Andrew, Niels and I went to the Elk Mountains and straight away decided to skin 6 or 7 miles up to Castle Peak.   We made good time getting to the face, and snapped some beta photos.  The upper section of the face features some very steep, blind rollovers, and to pick a safe line you need to extrapolate your position from above.
Andrew, Niels, and I climbed a couloir to the looker's right of our descent line, and then scrambled the north ridge with skis on our backs.  By 12:30 we were on the summit.

On the Summit, with the Bells to the west.
 We zoned out on the summit for a while, stared at the maroons, and grabbed a bite.  The feathery mare's tails of icy cloud signaled coming weather, and indeed, it would storm on us for the next couple days.
     We locked our boots in and began a steep descent on soft but variable snow.  Most of the face was fun, dense, responsive wind-powder.  Lower down we found soft snow in the middle of spring transformaiton, aka. mashed potatoes. Here it took some real effort to stay on-top.  Every rollover brought a bit of mystery, but we knew where to go.  Since I had the camera, I picked my way through the cliff-band first and found a safezone on a snowy rib.  I shot Niels and Andrew as they took more aggressive lines.  This was one of the best days any of us have had on skis, and the East face of Castle is truly dream terrain for mountain skiing.
Andrew drops in.


       Edward met up with us, and in a merry group of 5 we did another day trip near marble.  This time we did a couple of laps on the north face of Justice peak.  The sun eventually turned crisp powder into soup with a tendency to move.  By about 2pm, the face was coming loose.  Point sluffs were turning into moving slush trains, gaining alot of mass but never alot of speed.  I'm not sure if I would call this activity avalanche, since outrunning and even skiing through it was easy.  The efforts of these little slides to swallow our skis were hilarious. It was a strange and surreal experience, like petting a bear cub.  It was hard to remember that the real, grown up thing is powerful beyond reason.  Once the sun sluffs had stripped the powder, we took another lap on a peak to the northwest, skiing a leg-pumping shot of corn straight back to the road. 

Andrew givin 'er on the north side of Justice Peak. 4 turns in 600 ft.

The same face after some sun action.

The good weather started to go, and we called it off and went back partway to the springs.  On saturday, in a storm of sorts, we skiied the silver couloir on Buffalo Mountain.  It hadn't seen much sun so most of it was steep and chattery hardpack.  Not the best day, but still a chance to get out and do a continuous ~2600ft descent.  
   In the afternoon my friends regrettably found out about a free concert and spend the afternoon reveling in some sort of played-out 90s blues-jam scene at Breckenridge.  We should have just taken another lap on Buffalo instead, but alas, now I have Blues Traveler lyrics and harmonica solos drilled into my head.  The only cure I know is more vert and lots of dry electronic music.  I vow never to return to 'breck' for any reason.  And for that matter, summit county.  Although the Silver Couloir was a fun ski, it was a bad weather day and everyone(and their dog, and their mother's dog) was still stacked nose-to-ass on the skin track.  So crowded.
   We will have to make it back to the Elks though.  The approaches are prohibitively long for most, and the terrain is perfect for the kind of skiing we do.  This combination makes for big solitary days in the high mountains, and it might be as good as it gets here in Colorado.