Archive for September, 2008


I woke up to the chilly morning air at the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon, wondering what I was doing today. I was supposed to climb with a new partner today, but we hadn’t talked about it since Wednesday and I wondered if she was even up in the Meadows. I piled back into my car, shivering violently as I started the motor and cranked up the heater, even though the temperature gauge was sitting below C. Whatever.

A stop at the Mobil filled my coffee mug with wake-the-f-up juice, and I was on the road again to the Meadows. I pulled through the gate and fell in love with Toulumne Meadows all over again.

At the TM Store I bought another cup of coffee and left my maybe-climbing partner a voicemail, before pulling over to the visitor center and re-organizing the incredible pile of junk that was overflowing from the back of the Subaru. By the time I was done she had called and canceled – injuries to a ring-pulley and motivation-psyche to blame – so I got ready to commit to a solo climb I’ve thought about for a while.

I called PG from the carpark, who grilled me: where? what? Thankfully, she didn’t try to tell me that I shouldn’t go. I clipped a pair of shoes and chalk bag to my belt, put on a pair of headphones, intentionally left my watch in the car, and started hiking.

About 30 minutes later I was cursing as I realized that I missed the climbers’ trail and started running back down the trail, stopping and scanning carefully each time the faintest mouse track slipped away from the main trail. I ran into three guys, who suspiciously had that “look”, and opted to take the trail that they were debating about. Five minutes later they slipped in front of me from a second trail and I slowed down a bit to give myself some solitary and enjoyed the walk up gray slabs and through the dry woods. Climbing the slopes near the bottom of the tower, I passed one of them armed with a very threatening and professional-looking SLR camera. Hmmm.

At the bottom of the face I ran into the other two fellows – we said our greetings, made jokes about how all the cool kids were here, and then looked up at the audience. I counted at least three teams ahead of us, using traditional methods to protect their climbing. We quietly strapped on shoes, said our goodbyes, and one-by-one we started to solo up the cracks and overlaps. I caught up with the first team on pitch one, and then took a left-hand variation to avoid a second team on pitch two. I pulled through a flaring corner over a bulge while an older climber watched silently as he belayed his partner. On pitch three, the famous chimney, I climbed a thin crack and knobs to the left again to avoid getting entangled with the third team, who cheerfully let me pass on the fourth pitch. I had to really focus on the next five feet, committing to the knobs and edges and ignoring the feeling of 400 feet hanging under my heels. The fifth pitch featured an unprotectable knobby face finish and I was suddenly on the summit, still on the heals of the two soloists in front me.
When we descended, they broke right to join their photographer friend on the ridge while I 3rd-classed over to the smaller Eichorn Pinnacle, a 2-pitch 5.4 that featured 200+ feet of exposure. Fun moves past ancient pins lead to a pedestal finish, with the win whipping my shirt and hair. How cool. I looked over and saw the photographer pointing his camera my way, and waved.

Just as I finished down-climbing, I felt something slide down my shirt and watched in dismay as my prayer-bead bracelet – a gift from PG – slide down the sloping ledges. I watched intently until it stopped on a ledge about 75 feet below, retrieved my approach shoes, and headed down to get it. As I descended, I watched the two other soloists and the cameraman begin to step down the west slopes – a maneuver not mentioned in any guidebook.

I decided to follow their lead, suspecting that the descent would lead to a trail following the bottom of the valley below. Sure enough, cairns led to open forest and then the trail appeared unexpectedly. A fun run down the trail, around the north buttress wall, and soon I was back to my car.

Statistics: South East Face of Cathedral Peak and North Face of Eichorn Pinacle, 7 pitches up to 5.7 with variations. 5:10 hours car-to-car. Musical accompaniment by Built to Spill.


Single Shot: Announcing the 2008 Northwest Mountaineering Journal

The Northwest Mountaineering Journal is an annual regional online publication documenting the mountain exploits of an incredible community of climbers and skiers in the Cascades. I was lucky to be a member of the editorial team in 2006 and 2007, and I can’t wait to return. Check out the 2008 Northwest Mountaineering Journal at


Single Shot: Stories in a Crevasse

Lazlo asked, “I’ve read plenty about haul systems and anchor, etc. I’m stoked about glacial travel. But I’m curious to read other reports on crevasse falls and how the hauling and/or ascending went. Thanks!”

This reminded me of an experience I had in Alaska, so I thought I’d write him back.

“I have a story I don’t mind sharing because it proves a technique.

“In the spring of 2003 I went to the Ruth Gorge with DPS, and while descending from the Mooses Tooth back to our camp, my partner and I simply followed our ski-tracks through the ice fall. DPS was in front, I was following. We had one last corner to negotiate at the bottom of the ice-fall before reaching the main glacier near the airstrip, and I pushed a little to make sure I passed the corner without pulling on DPS.

“Just as I kick-turned, the floor dropped out beneath me. I yelled/screamed ‘CREVASSE!!!‘ as I dropped.

“DPS says he heard, ‘something that made me turn around,’ saw our rope snaking into a hole, and took off running.

“When he reached the end of the slack, he was a bit surprised to find he wasn’t having to arrest anything. So he built an anchor, transferred the rope over, and self-belayed back to the hole to figure out what had happened. Maybe I had landed on a bridge?

“Not even. I was hanging about 20 feet in the hole, shaking from the adrenalin rush. Scarier still was the running water from a moulin tube 10 feet below me. So what happened? In 2002 I had learned about a technique to use stopper knots – butterflys were the general consensus – between two climbers on glacier travel. I insisted to a skeptical DPS that we use them. And one of these knots had jammed into the lip of the hole, holding all of my falling weight, saving DPS from having to arrest at all.

“Pretty cool.

“DPS lowered a rope to haul up my pack and skis, and I jugged out on my own with some assistance to get over the majorly overhung lip.

“Its likely if that knot hadn’t caught, I would have been dipped, and soaked, in the glacier stream below my feet. What was a simple exit from the crevasses would have been a serious environmental medical issue.

“This technique of using stopper knots is also common practice now amongst AMGA guides.”

TNB at Rockzilla, Napa, Ca.

The clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and the temperatures stayed low today. PG and I had planned a vague “outside climbing” trip to an undetermined location for today. Face with weather considered grim only by California standards we woke up to our alarm, looked out the window, and…
Burrowed down deeper into our warm down comforter and four down pillows to sleep in. How weak, eh?
Oh well. We did rally in the evening to take three of PG’s classmates – Anita, Jen, and Liz – to the nearest, and coolest, indoor gym: Rockzilla in Napa. PG swears that this place feels like Vertical World in Seattle before the move (from Fremont to the Locks). We haven’t been there more than once a quarter, but every time the owner Wayne greats us with a grin and a gruff, “Hey – where the hell have you been?!”
This was the first time PG’s friends have been climbing up anything, so we showed them a little about climbing, how to tie in, and belaying. They completely dug it. This semester their class has every other Tuesday off, so we nicked the Tuesday Night Bouldering title from Rock & Ice magazine.
In between keeping them from maiming themselves or others on the slabby beginner wall, I snuck in a few ascents on some V1 problems and 5.10b climbs. Felt pretty good about it too, until PG came by, waltzed up whatever it was that I had labored on, and called it, “5.9 for sure.”
After a fun three hours the girls were tired, so we zipped back to Vallejo for sodas and pizza at Napoli. Perhaps we didn’t wake up with the sun, but we didn’t completey give up the ghost, either.

Statistics: Rockzilla Gym, Napa, California. V0 x3, V1 x4, and 5.10b x3, with PG, Anita, Jen, and Liz.

AMGA Alpine Conditional Exam

On Memorial Day I sat back in my first class seat (paid for in mileage points), sipped my glass of cabernet and considered what has taken two years to complete.
In September 2006 I took my Alpine Guide Certification Examination from the American Mountain Guide Association, in Washington’s Cascades. I spent 10 days guiding another candidate and examiner, with mixed results. One examiner raised my stress and nervousness with his constant chatter and helpful advice, the other examiner calmed my nerves by saying very little. In the end, they decided that I should be examined for another two days to determine if I met the examination requirements.
Last September I returned to the Cascades with that first examiner and another Conditional candidate, only to be rained off of Shark Fin Col. With no extra time scheduled for a weather delay, we had to go home and wait another year.
So this year the AMGA and I wised up and planned for weather, scheduling three days to conduct a two day exam. I decided to make this go as mentally easy as I could. I arranged for places to stay all over Washington, from Bellingham, Mazama, Leavenworth and Seattle. My old house-mate Amanda loaned me her car, saving me from hiring a rental. I used my earned mileage on Alaska Airlines to purchase a first-class seat. Finally, my partner in this exam, Angela, offered to bring all the hardware we would need in her car, since she was driving from Wyoming.
Angela and I met at Sea-Tac on Wednesday afternoon to drive to my old house, and we made plans to meet for breakfast. I spent the evening relaxing with old friends, watching them play a muddy soccer game (mud in Seattle – get out!) in the city league before going out for beers and burgers at the Blue Star. We talked about upcoming weddings (Eddie and Annie’s), kids (Greg and Brenda’s), and of course climbing and skiing.
In the morning Angela and I met for breakfast to figure each other out. I hope I didn’t disappoint her too much. I’ve been working so much that I’ve only had three days in the past three months to climb for fun. I have had to rely on my work to provide any training opportunities, and I felt as ready as I could be. After breakfast we split up to buy supplies and made plans to meet later in the afternoon to write up a common route plan.
That evening I stayed with old friends out in Snohomish, playing with the kids and feeling more at home than I have in a long time. But the weather was constantly threatening, and our examiner used our weather day to delay the exam to Saturday.
On Friday I drove up to Bellingham to pick up John, an AMGA examiner for the Alpine and Rock Guide Certifications. We hadn’t met before and used the hour and a half-drive to Marblemount to get to know each other. He put me at ease with his openness and honest talking about guide politics and opinion about other guides we both knew. We met Angela at the Totem Trail motel, and made plans for getting up in the morning for our first objective, Black Peak.
The weather forecast for the weekend was un-promising, calling for heavy clouds, cold temps and a 40% chance of snow/rain in the North Cascades. John decided to have us climb two one-day climbs to allow us some flexibilty, and chose routes that we could guide even in poor weather. None of us – especially me – wanted a repeat of last fall’s canceled Conditional Exam.
We woke up early and drove up to Rainy Pass. In my excitement I picked the wrong trail, leading us on a 40 minute “warm-up” as we walked to Lake Mary, dead-ended, and turned back to the trail head. Ooops. Note to self: read all the signage at trail heads! We had an uneventful approach up the trail and across Heather Pass, talus hoping, past Lewis and Wing Lakes, and onto the snowfield below Black Peak. I short-roped us up to the North Ridge and started climbing, trying to protect the loose rock. On Wednesday night at the Blue Star my friend Greg had described this route as a climb that “if you like the handhold, you can pull it off and hand it down to your partner to use.” Nice. He was right, too. Just when the rock improved it was time to switch roles with Angela and become a client. Angela got to lead us up some good climbing to the summit, down the South West Chutes and back to the car.
That night we stayed at the Unibomber Shack, Mark A.’s one-room cabin in Mazama. It allowed us to get a later start in the morning to climb the South Buttress of Cutthroat Peak. Angela did a fantastic job leading us up the approach and lower 2/3rds of the buttress, before switching roles with me. I got to climb the tricky chimney pitch in wet conditions in my approach shoes, and continued on to the summit.
Here I really bobbled. John wanted to make sure that we reached the West Ridge for the descent, and gave me partial beta for a descent route that I wasn’t sure of on the North West Face. So I followed the descent I was familiar with, requiring me to rebuild several rappel anchors. Time seemed to suck away from my route plan, and my rope management started to tangle. John – I think intentionally – created a light-hearted moment with some good jokes and a teachable moment that re-booted my mind, and I found my groove again on two more rappels and short-roping down the ridge. We finally gained the ground and continued down to the snow-field in the basin, where Angela demonstrated a crevasse rescue for her Conditional Exam requirements and we finished the day.
That evening we had dinner in Concrete at Annie’s Pizza, were John told us the good news: we were AMGA Certified Alpine Guides. My first AMGA course was the Alpine Guide Course in 2001. It had taken two years to complete my Alpine Exam. On the way I decided to become an IFMGA Guide, and this exam is my first step towards that goal. The Alpine Exam is the longest of the three tests, and by reputation the most difficult – it requires the longest approaches, the heaviest packs, and the biggest days. For me, the most difficult element was the nervous anticipation in not knowing what was coming next. I think the Rock and Ski Exams will be easier – in my mind – simply because they won’t be the first.
I shook John’s hand and gave Angela a hug before driving to Seattle to return Amanda’s car, Angela and I had breakfast with Mark R. at the Salmon Bay Cafe before Mark drove me to the airport. First class seats meant I got to use the lounge, drink endless coffee, and call PG and my mom with the news – I was Certified.

Special thanks, in sort-of-order of appearance, to everyone who made this possible. My Mom and Dad, PG, Montana, SP, Eric, Neil, Art, Seth, Angela, Amanda, Eddie, Annie, Greg, Brenda, Meredith, Mark H., Ben, Avery, John, Jen, Dave, Mark A., Josh, and Mark R. And thanks to my clients, especially those this summer, who unknowingly were part of my training program in the Palisades, on Whitney, and Bear Creek Spire. And thanks to the businesses who have helped me too. Sierra Mountain Center, Feathered Friends, and the AMGA.

banner photo: antarctica / mark allen

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