Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Colchuck F#&% Up

On Thursday night I got a last minute invitation to try climb Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak that weekend. I really wanted to do this route and check out the Enchantment/Mt. Stuart region, having never been there before. I packed my stuff up that night, got up early and drove to Leavenworth the next morning. My partner arrived shortly after I did from Seattle. He had been up until 4am the night before at a concert and wasn't packed yet. Several hours later he was ready and we left the trailhead at 5:15pm. Our plan was to ski the 8.5 mile approach in and camp at Colchuck Lake. The terrain was rough and my partner, due to lack of sleep, lack of experience with his skis, and presence of a very unwieldy pack on his back, made slow progress. Seven hours later we were still not at the lake and stopped to set up camp. It was after midnight.
Looking up Mountaineer Creek from our campsite beneath Colchuck Lake.
 Needless to say, we did not get the alpine start that would have been necessary for climbing such a long alpine north face route on a sunny March day. We slept in to 11am. I was determined to go up and do something, anything, to salvage some of the time and gas money I had spent to get out there. My partner said he still needed to adjust his crampons for his boots so I went up to Colchuck Lake to wait for him.
Dragontail on the left and Colchuck on the right from Colchuck Lake.
Colchuck Lake is right beneath the north faces of Dragontail Peak and Colchuck Peak. These mountains rise more than 3,000ft above the lake in steep granite buttresses and spires. It is spectacular.
Closeup of the north face of Dragontail with the Triple Couloirs route marked.
Once the misbegotten partner showed up we crossed the frozen lake and began skiing up the slopes under the granite faces in time to see a party of four descending from the Triple Couloirs route. They said the route was not in shape, merely sugar snow on bare rock, making it impossible to climb. This made us feel somewhat better about fact that we had completely blown any chance we had at attempting it.
Under the north face of Dragontail, watching climbers retreat from the first couloir of the route (in the oval).

Close up of the four climbers down-climbing from the first couloir.
From the base of Dragontail we skinned up the Colchuck Glacier. My partner, tired and hungry, opted to stop halfway up. I continued to the col between Colchuck and Dragontail where I was greeted with an amazing view of Rainier to the south. I stashed my skis at the col and ran up to the summit of Colchuck Peak where I had an awesome view of Adams, Rainier, Stuart, and Glacier Peak, as well as almost every other craggy and glaciated summit in the Washington Cascades.
Looking south at Rainier from the Colchuck-Dragontail col.
Dragontail from the summit of Colchuck Peak.

The big north face of Mt. Stuart from Colchuck.

Glacier Peak from Colchuck.
I descended back to my skis and then skied the 2,500 vertical feet of sustained steep slopes back down the glacier to Colchuck Lake. Almost all of this run had 4-6 inches of dry powder on it. It was by far the best back country ski run I've ever had and almost made up for the past 24 hours.
Looking down the Colchuck Glacier to Colchuck Lake... getting ready to shred some gnars!

Looking back up at the col and the awesome ski descent I just had.

Once back at camp we settled in for an early night. I had not anticipated staying two nights but the ski out was not something we wished to repeat in the dark. I had little food but my partner offered to share his. We got up early the next morning. The 7.5-8 mile ski out to the car took a little less time on the way down, only six hours.
Skiing over bridges when the snow is higher than the hand railings is scary... this totally counts as 4th class right?

The partner crosses bridge #2... slowly.
Waiting is not my strong point. I'm a skinny guy and if I can't avoid a heavy pack altogether I like to go fast so I can get it off before it permanently alters my puny skeletal structure. I took off once we reached the last downhill section of road to the car. Here I unpacked, stretched and re-hydrated for half an hour before my partner arrived. I'm not sure what the trouble was on that last section but having watched him struggle for the past 3 days, I'd wager he fell over at least five times in that half hour.

The mountains from the Bavarian wonderland that is Leavenworth, WA.
We drove out to Leavenworth. From there I drove home to Bend, stopping in Yakima to pig out on tacos and ungodly amounts of pastry from a Mexican bakery. In the future I will be asking a lot more questions and spend more time on minor objectives before committing to a long alpine route with someone.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Solo Linkup: Smith Rock/The Marsupials

Wednesday I checked the forecast for Bachelor and Smith. I had planned to go skiing but conditions obviously favored rock climbing. With no partner I decided to drive out to Smith and solo some routes.

I'm not going to try to justify soloing or explain my motivation to do it. There is a huge body of literature on it. You can read about the out-of-body experience, the focus, the flow, the sense of freedom that people gain from it. People who don't climb a lot will never really understand. They either call you crazy, or stupid, or blabber about how amazing it is.

For the uninitiated I will offer some information for perspective: All climbs are rated. Some of those ratings (i.e. 3rd and 4th class) are defined as climbs where a rope is not necessary, or even appropriate. Fifth class climbs imply the use of a rope. Since ratings are a matter of opinion some 4th class climbs are harder/more dangerous than low 5th class climbs. Many alpine climbing guide books will explicitly tell you to solo some sections of 5th class climbing to save time and minimize other hazards such as changing weather. I don't mean to make a slippery slope argument. I'm merely pointing out that nothing is black and white. Using a rope has never been a given in climbing. How someone climbs a route is personal decision that is based on many factors. Obviously there is a big difference between Peter Croft free soloing Astroman in Yosemite and me soloing moderate routes at Smith. The line between safety and insanity is different for everyone.

When it comes to soloing I have a personal set of guidelines to follow. The route I climb must have solid rock (nothing too chossy), I must be familiar with the terrain (ideally I've climbed it before), and it must be rated much lower than the hardest grade I can currently on-sight. I also make sure I have certain items accessible. Besides wearing rock shoes and a helmet, I wear my harness and rack some gear on it. This always includes a set of stoppers, a couple quick draws and a couple alpine draws, an ATC, prusik slings, and a locking 'biner with a long sling. I also have my rope coiled in my pack, which I wear while climbing. With this kit I can secure myself to the rock in a range of situations, establish a self-belay, or rappel back down if necessary.
Racking up beneath Mini Half Dome.
The Koala is the yellow rock in the middle and the Wombat is the green spire behind it.
So, back to Wednesday afternoon. I left my car a little after 1pm and hiked out to the Marsupials (~2 miles). I got on the Marsupial ridge just above Mini Half Dome and climbed the West Face of Brogan Spire (5.5X, 3 pitches). I then down climbed the top two pitches of the South Buttress (5.5X) and rapped off to the base of Living Blindly. I then climbed living Blindly to the top of the Opossum (5.7, 3 pitches) and rapped off the anchors past the summit on the knife edge ridge. These rap anchors aren't really functional. Placed back from the edge of the wall, they force the rope to wrap over several sharp edges which makes it impossible to pull from below. After yanking on it for several minutes I soloed back up a ramp system (5.5ish). Tossed my rope off and down climbed.
Brogan Spire summit pic. Wombat is on the left.

On the Opossum. Looking down on Brogan Spire on the right.

Opossum madness!
I then walked across to the Koala and climbed Round River Direct (5.8, 3 pitches). This is an awesome climb and I was very happy to solo it. It was my first multi-pitch and my first Smith climb. At the time it felt hard and leading it sounded scary. To come back less than a year later and solo it felt like a huge accomplishment for me. I was super stoked.
Sitting on the top of the Koala, looking back down Round River Direct.
Koala top-out stoke!
 I climbed down the back of the Koala and started up Birds in a Rut (5.7, 5 pitches), which takes you to the top of the Wombat (the highest pinnacle in the Marsupials). After climbing off the back of the Wombat I scree surfed down to the Burma Road and started the hike back. I boulder hopped across the river to cut the corner and ended up climbing an unknown pitch of basalt cracks to get out of the gorge. A short walk down the road got me to my car.

The Sisters emerge from the clouds. Smith Rock Group in the foreground.
Smith Rock State Park from the top of the Wombat.
The Monument area from the top of the Wombat.

Wombat Cumbre!
Someone replaced the old rap sling on the Wombat. It didn't feel like much of a community service since they left the old sling and didn't replace it with a very long-term solution. Simple solution: don't rap, the down climb is short and easy.
Overall, in sub 5 hours: 4 summits tagged, 16 pitches climbed, 3 other pitches down climbed, 3 rappels, 4 miles of hiking, some other scrambly bits, 51 photos taken and some bathroom breaks due to enthusiastic hydration. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon.

Bonus: Check out this video of famous American alpinist Steve House soloing hard ice climbs in New England. The precision and deliberateness that he demonstrates while climbing, and the personal approach to climbing and soloing that he espouses in the interview, changed how I approach climbing. http://vimeo.com/22993356