Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The South Face of Poincenot: A First Ascent Tale

On the approach to Niponino, basecamp for the route

“Dude, we shouldn’t brew coffee this morning. You know I hate to say it, but I think we should conserve the fuel we have.” I wince at my own words, but know the issues go beyond our ability to caffinate. Joel shakes our one fuel cannister next to his ear to gauge how much gas is left. We share a knowing look, start stuffing the packs, and prepare for a dry day on the desert of stone rearing above our heads. Mike scrambles over from a separate bivy and we share the news about the bunk cannister. A look of confusion blends into acceptance. I begin climbing the steepest part of the wall.

Two days ago, Joel Kauffman, Mike Schaefer, and I picked our way up the Torre Valley to a basecamp suitable for reaching our chosen line, a new set of cracks up the south face of Poincenot. Mike had been kind enough to share his first ascent idea with Joel and I only a few days after his arrival in Chalten. We traced our fingers over a high res photo of the mountain, wondering if we could climb what we thought we saw. Joel and I had camped near the route only the week before and could not stop staring at the wall, especially in the evening light. Mike’s specific details sealed the deal. We all felt inspired to have a look.

Day one finds us approaching the base and then climbing to a distinct ledge system a third of the way up the route. Joel races up the best climbing we could ever hope for. Mike and I hoop and hollar our way up splitter hand and finger cracks. We tackle overhangs on gritty jugs and dance across slabs on shiny ripples. So far, so good.

Joel an I at Bivy #1

Shock gives way to more shock. “Really, you dropped your boot?” My eyes follow the path of the flying footwear. Down the rock, the snowy approach coulior, and finally across a boulder strewn glacier. “We’ll find it on the way down,” Joel says. His calmness in the midst of a serious loss comforts me. Joel knows this game, so there is no reason to pester him with questions. Shit happens. No we have to decide our course of action. Once Mike arrives and we work though his own surprise, we decide that with the relatively warm weather, Joel can manage his toes. Luckily, he fits into my approach shoes. When I’m in rock shoes, he can wear the tennies. When I’m not, well, we’ll figure something out.

The classic nature of the lower pitches ends as abruptly as the headwall starts.My first lead on the wall proper is a flairing trench of kitty litter. Enough solid cam placements make it safe enough, but my heart skips beats on the way to the belay. I gingerly french free off a downward pointing, half driven angle after climbing an aider attached to an ice tool stuck in the trench. The artsy, but crappy stretch launches us into pitch after pitch of sustained, steep fissures. Unfortunately, the rock itself leaves something to be desired and both Mike and I constantly scrape at the cracks with an ice tool.

Myself leading on pitch three of the headwall

Damn, my waist hurts. My tongue stings with cracks of dryness. Mike is crushing through his block, managing complex situations with dialed ease. Now he has changed crack systems and the fate of Joel and I is simple. As we jumar past the first crack we block the thought of the coming swing. With a feature so splitter it won’t take nuts or pitons and a rack that must be preserved, there is no lower out option. If Mike says it’s safe I believe him without question. You don’t climb routes like this with people you don’t trust. Still, puffs of adrenaline accompany my being as it swings through space and then climbs the free hanging rope to the belay. Wildness surrounds me. A great void falls beneath my feet. Mike begins up his final, tired ropelength. “Doing great man,” I say.

Steep jugging!

I arrive at the top of the final pitch of Mike’s block. He is standing on the first ledge we’ve seen all day. Inspired by his awesome effort, I vow within myself to be strong into the darkness. The way shows itself easily, but not without some technical difficulty. 5.11 bulges challenge my wasting muscles. Still, I feel the passion within. This is what I came for.

Free climbing in my final block

At 1:00 AM I pull onto a ledge spacious enough to unrope. Easier terrain rambles into the darkness above. We coax water from the stove and I savor each chilly sip. There is not enough fuel to make our freeze dried meals, but water suffices. I fall deeply into sleep after the last grainy gulp.

The next morning Joel charges out of the bivy, inspired to finish our ascent. He climbs quickly and within one hour we are moving into the established terrain of the upper mountain. Joel fires to the summit as Mike and I try to keep our eyes open. I’m glad he’s feeling strong. The fatigue wants to overtake me, but I can’t let that happen. I squint at Chalten from the summit, so many thousands of feetbelow. There is still so far to go.

I lead the upper rappels. They are short and easy. It’s the least I can do for the team. Before we drop back into the steep wall we had ascended, I hand the gear to Mike, master of big wall rappeling. Deciding to finish the cannister, Joel makes water and some food. My thoughts swim in my dry brain, sludgy and thick. The water again rejuvenates. Mike takes one last swig and drops in.


“Holy Shit!” Fear pushes at my soul. The biggest rockfall I’ve ever seen crushes terrain across the valley. Though it is far away, I taste the intensity on my cracked lips. Joel’s eyes scan the wall around us, a swath we did not ascend, but similar in it’s steepness. The rappel ropes stretch tight below to Mike. Working through a gigantic rock scar ourselves, we are all a bit unnerved. There is nothing to do but snuff the emotion and accept our position. This is no time to let the mind off it’s leash.

A look up the face during the rappels

By the time the sun is setting we are in the snow coulior beneath our route. Mike has done a brilliant job navigating down the wall. We plunge down isothermic snow, Mike and I in approach shoes, Joel with one boot and a rock shoe. We are zombies. It’s all starting to catch up with us now. We stop after leaving the snow to warm our feet. Our eyes are heavy and our steps unsure. Nevertheless, we keep sharp enough to pick our way back to basecamp through loose stone on black ice. The way is most painful for Joel, every step in his rock shoe a painful and touchy maneuver. Mike and I realize our hands are beaten and infected. The pain is zeroing in. Our moods are tense and dark like the windy night around us. We all recede into our own Hades, doing whatever it takes to stay upright in this evil land. Making our way down a moraine, Mike’s light catches an old plastic boot shell. It’s for the left foot and may provide relief for Joel. The absurdity of finding the boot digs out humor from the grave. We laugh deleriously as gusts of wind push us around. Unfortunately, the boot flops uselessly on Joel’s foot. Still, the way he throws it into the darkness and the jokes we make about the crazy find has us shaking with laughter. The healing power of a good laugh is just enough for us to sputter into basecamp. We lay in the sand. We eat a freeze dried meal. The journey is over.

FA of Rise of the Machines
South Face of Poincenot
VI 5.11 A2+
900 meters (750 new)

Big thanks to Mike Schaefer for the awesome photos. To see more of his great work check out:

Also, check Planet Kauffman in the coming days for more photos and more stories from Joel Kauffman

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Vision Restored

"Accept your situation in the mountains and in life," I think to myself. Waves of puffy clouds spin over Fitz Roy and tumble across the lakes and deserts far below. Calm, warm air embraces my tired body, but my mind twists and my heart wrenches. With so much beauty around me the tightness in my chest makes no sense. My inner self asks, "What is your problem?"

Joel Kauffman on his way to Pier Giorgio

Two days ago, Joel Kauffman and I high fived on the streets of El Chalten after separate escapes from the spreading winter in North America. Blue skies set a frantic pace of stuffing packs and hitting the trail towards our first objective, a new path up a broad fortress of granite and ice called Pier Giorgio.

Fresh quads and calves carried us to the start of the glacier, where a pasta dinner and excited conversation accompanied fading light. Only a few hours later our boots crunched up towards Paso Cuadrado, a rocky barrier that had to be crossed in order to reach our route. Although Joel had been over the pass many times, I had never witnessed the view. A bowl of cracked ice and snow was hemmed in by the western breaches of Guillomet, Mermoz, the mighty Fitz Roy, and numerous other spikes of granite, and aqua ice falls. Of course, I was blown away.

Moving over Pason Cuadrado...what a view!
Photo by Joel Kauffman

Within a few hours we had chosen the smoothest path through a chaotic scene of hanging ice cliffs. Joel kicked up to the intimidating bergshrund, twisted in a screw and begain looking for a place to pull through the bulging snow. One half hour later he was only eight feet higher, digging a trench over the lip, searching for something solid to grab the tip of his axe. Although his effort was futile, it was a proud. The climbing looked desperate. My heart, so wonderfully inspired only an hour before, began to sink into despair. "This isn't how it was supposed to be," I thought.

Bailing always hurts, but the pain is sharper in Patagonia. Good weather can be rare and taking advantage of each clear moment is a must. After deciding to remove ourselves from under the warming, drooping bergshrund we sat on a patch of granite under Fitz Roy, roasting in boiling sunshine. All of the sudden our ice addled minds realized the weather window was actually one for dry rock climbing. Unfortunetely, we had only brought one pair of rock shoes into the range. Our heavy boots and serious crampons did not lend themselves to a light sprint up a rock ridge. Knowing we had played our cards wrong hurt even more. Unhappiness and negativity swirled in by brain. "This might be the only window I get and I blew it" or "Everyone else is sending" are examples of my unruly thoughts. Even the beauty around me felt like a terrible nightmare. It really seemed a taunting titty-twister of a situation.

That evening I lay in my sleeping bag questioning my unhappiness. Why couldn't I be thankful just to be here? Why did my ego demand I climb the right routes? Could I only love myself if I accomplished my goals? Why did I care so much? Over the course of the starry night I tried to find peace. I began to realize that perhaps my vision was out of balance. Was it not enough to have the good health to be here? Was it not enough to witness the setting sun meld into a jagged skyline of rock and ice? Didn't I already know the mountains always win? That when we do stand atop a summit, that it is not a conquering feat, but rather a gift from the mountain itself?

Both photos by Joel Kauffman

"Look at this man!", I yelled down to Joel. He smiles knowingly. Two days after our discouraging failure, we've pooled our meager resources and chosen to climb an easy, but classy rock ridge up Aguja Guillomet. Although no where near the challenge we had originally sought, the route still brings me the head space I always strive to be in. Golden plates of tilted granite are broken by perfect fissures. The cracks take my hands like an old friend and lead me over pillows of rock, through breezy cols, and up laser incisions. The tightness in my chest is long gone, replaced by the feeling of freedom I always seek in the hills. Even though the route is not one I've dreamed of, I accept the gift of a summit and feel peace in my heart. My vision is restored. I can see again.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Life in the Vertical World

As climbers and humans, we never know when our journey will end. Of course, it is impossible to see the future with all it's unimaginable twists and turns. We wake up each day and take the next step.

Although times to come are hard to predict, the roots of personal evolution can be looked back upon and added up to reach a sum of who we are today. Fifteen years agon I stepped into the Redmond Vertical World for my first time. That junior high after school activity sparked a passion that still drives my life to this day. Since that time I have worked extensively with The Vertical World as an instructor and route setter. Although the last six years have seen me squishing grapes for money, I am excited to head back to the Redmond VW for a slideshow presentation on November 12th. All the adventures I've had so far in this life blossomed from the skills, friendship, and work ethic instilled in me during those dusty days slapping plastic. I am excited to share photos and stories from my journey as a climber that continues on and on, and on...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Suprise, Suprise

"No fruit tomorrow?" Harvest is a busy time at work, but the rare break between pressing grapes to make wine has me scheming other plans to fill the coming day. By 5:00 AM the next black morning my foot steps mark the muddy, then frosty approach to Sherpa Peak.

Sherpa Peak's NE Coulior

My friend Patrick and I squint at Sherpa's North Ridge, a cool looking feature on a mountain I have only summited once. This is the line we've come to do. Snow decorates the upper reaches of the route and though I have added extra cams and an aider to prepare for a snowy battle on rock, I realize our one day time limit (work!) will not allow us to get the route done. I toss my pack in the talus and search for other options. A coulior rises up the NE face, but I wonder if we can safely manage it with only one axe each, rock gear, and strap on crampons. We came prepared for a wintery ridge climb, but I see ice in the coulior. I really want to climb it. At least we have boots.

Patrick climbing out of the first schrund

I lead off, getting good sticks, well, good stick I guess you would say. Even though the coulior is moderate, late season schrunds break the shoot into short ice and mixed steps. One tool barley gets me through. Ice and snow of all sorts take us to a notch on the east ridge. A wind swept sunshine warms our bodies. I fire up the stove. The coffee tastes so good.

Looking down, high in the chute

The east ridge flows along an orange granite spine. Consolidated snow fills grooves, but leaves the cracks alone. The pro is good and the climbing magnificent. I turn over to the north side and the exposure rips down the face all the way to the basin below. Impressed with the drop I weave towards the summit and then find my path halted by a square block of stone. I stare at the flawless rock. "I don't think I can climb this in boots," I think. Smiling, I make a belay and bring Patrick across the ridge. I dig for my rock shoes and hang my boots and crampons on the belay. This is so cool.

Brilliant mixed climbing on perfect snow and rock defined the east ridge

After summiting, we rappel down to the notch at the top of the coulior. A south side sand slide drops us below the snow line. The crappy traverse over to Sherpa Pass seems to take forever. The slog back over to the north side of the range burns my legs. When we reach familiar ground I lose the trail. I know I am a tired idiot right now. The cairn that I keep circling back to affirms this. Finally Patrick steps on the trail. The tension fades into the crystal clear night. The forest silently takes us home.

Incredible climbing on the east ridge

Friday, October 21, 2011

How Does He Do It?


"How do you travel the world? I wish I could do that."
"Do it while you can. Life takes over sooner than you think."
"You must be made of money."

As a dedicated climber I hear the above comments so very often. What a lot of folks don't understand is that I am not made of money. In fact, I am the definition of a "dirt bag". I live in a one room shack full of climbing gear. I eat cheaply and work long hours to make my expeditions a reality. Many trips find me with only hundreds of dollars in my bank account, a tight figure when you're on the other end of the earth.

Most importantly, I don't let anything, money included, stand in the way of a dream. Yet I also balance that commitment with the terms of an idea presented to me in Morroco a few years ago: Inshallah. Inshallah means "If God wills" or "If God wishes". I scheme for the mountains of my inspiration, but also humbly know it is silly to force a plan. If it is meant to be, it will happen.

You can't walk through life alone and even though I fund most of my adventures, the support I recieve from my sponsors tips the scale in my favor. Without their help my life would be much different.

Pressing fruit with my friends Scott and Ashton during the 2010 harvest

In the past few weeks I have highlighted Mountain Equipment and Tendon as great proponents of my lifestyle. This time, I wanted to shed light on my biggest supporter and employer, Icicle Ridge Winery. I count the folks at IRW as some of my best friends. Their freindship and support of my dreams provides a solid foundation for my life. They encourage my climbing above all else and respect my passion. In turn, I work as hard for them as I can when I am at home. I can't imagine life without IRW. Thanks guys!

Hanging out with friends during the 2011 Blending Party

All photos by Lisa Adams

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Over the years I have struggled to keep sturdy ropes in my arsenal. Thinking back to some of the cordes I've climbed on makes me shudder. Hand me down ropes with unknown histories found their place on the mountains and climbs of my inspiration.

The Tendon 9.2 Master on Inspiration Peak in the Southern Pickets

Now days, I have a wonderful rope sponsor, Tendon. If you haven't heard of Tendon you soon will, as the product is starting to hang on the racks of America's climbing shops. I have gone through 7 Tendon ropes in the past year, but that is NOT due to low quality. Expeditions and life as a serious climber tackling different projects in different disciplines demands a lot of cordes. Even just one huge route can cook a brand new rope, unless, it's a...

Tendon 9.2 Master!!

I wanted to specifically out line the 9.2 Master as its durability and performance have rewired my thoughts about what a good rope is. My 9.2 Master has climbed almost 20 mountains in the two months I have been using it. Most of those peaks were climbed while attempting a full enchainment of the Southern and Northern Pickets in Washington's North Cascades. For 6 days we drug The Master over some of the sharpest ridge line I've ever seen. We pulled it across icy glaciers and retrieved its ends from dark moats. We stepped on it with crampons and pulled it down from stubborn rappel stations. Still, it hangs on my wall, in nearly perfect shape, ready for the next route.

As far as performance goes, the 9.2 Master is skinny and light. I barely notice it when it's on my waist or in my back pack. It stays untangled even when tossing it down a low angle rappel and has never once gotten stuck on me.

Tendon ropes, including the 9.2 Master, at a Stuart Range belay just days ago. This was the Master's 17th peak in the last two months. Its still got plenty of life.

So keep your eyes out for Tendon in the USA. Their ropes will follow wherever your adventures take you, time and time again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

They Said

The three silly amigos, ready for some storm

They said the storm would soak us to the bone. And it did.
They claimed the closing season was overtaking the cracks with ice and snow. And it was.
They said we would stumble home tired from the tempest. And we did.

They said whipping snow flakes would flog the fun out the day. They were wrong.
They yelled at us on the wall as clouds enveloped our bodies and tried to bring us down. But they couldn't.
They told us the view would be obscured in angry clouds. And it was, but then again, we glimpsed so much.

The approach was dry!

We told ourselves we didn't care what anyone thought, we just wanted to be in the mountains, to linger in the moments, and to accept the terms of nature.

The route was....stormy!

These thoughts sprung from a recent training day in the Stuart Range. Even though weather lashed at Jessica Campbell, Max Hasson, and I, we enjoyed ourselves immensley. Some folks along the way tried to discourage our climb, but we knew what we wanted...and we got it!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


One of the most exciting aspects of the last year has been growing a relationship with Mountain Equipment, a core mountaineering brand out of the UK. ME has been making incredible gear for over 50 years. Some of the best alpinists of all time have worn ME to the world's highest and most difficult summits.

Already, a passion has grown for the brand. The quality of the line defies expectation and the functionality of the clothing shines in the alpine realm. Although I just started wearing ME this past spring, I have already sumitted more than 25 peaks in the pieces reviewed below. Not one of the items is showing the slightest bit of wear. For those who know me this must be really, really hard to believe. I assure you, it's true!

LS Crux Crew

The Crux Crew is my first layer on any summer alpine trip. It's wicking ability is incredible and even on a hot day I stay cool in this long sleeve get up. This piece is made from a fabric that uses recycled coconut shells. That's pretty cool!

Astron Hooded Jacket

In my world, the Astron is known as "The Piece". This highly usable softshell NEVER leaves the car without me. It cuts wind, keeps out rain, and still breathes well. I wear this piece more than any other and it still shows no wear.

Out for a training day in Liskamm Pant

The Liskamm Pant is very durable, providing reinforced knees. I really like this when I am kneeling on an ice field taking a break, or shoving my knee in a grainy off width crack. The Liskamm Pant also allows maximum flexibilty for hard mixed and rock climbing.

The pieces I have shown above are only a few of my summer season favorites. I am more than impressed at their performance and also that they will join me for another season in the moutains. Quality stuff!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Although fall reigns as THE primo season to crush projects on crisp granite awash in blustery sunshine, my "rocktober" is defined by liquid, not stone. As "cellar master" (that really is my official job title...can you believe it!) at Icicle Ridge Winery my next month will overflow with ten hour days and thousands of gallons of sticky grape juice slowly becoming wine.

My climb time may suffer during this period, but my focus does not. Long work days are sandwiched between rainy runs and bouldering sessions. Once a week I get out and beat myself up in the mountains. We all have to make a living and I am grateful for my job and the ability it gives me to follow my passions.

Out for a training day in the Stuart Range

The fall is also a time when I hone in on the year's upcoming trips. The money I make now fuels my adventures later. I am excited to say that a few awesome trips are lining up for the future year, the most iminent a journey to Argentine Patagonia, near the end of November, to search for ice runnels shining their way up towers of granite. I am estatic to be climbing with Joel Kauffman, a great friend and passionate mountain companion. Psyche is building and every step I make in my daily life points directly towards our goals down south.

Besides working a new and difficult rock project over the past week, I also enjoyed a training day in the Stuart Range. I left my car in misty darkness and followed my feet through a new basin and up a fresh route, the West Ridge of Argonaut Peak. After summiting, I traversed over Colchuck col and down to the base of the Serpentine Arete on Dragontail. Hard rain pelted away my desire for a solo lap up the Serpentine and instead I slipped down the moraine, splashed through the muddy woods, and rallied back to town in time for a gathering of friends.
It's a rocky road...On my way to Argonaut via Sherpa Pass

Can't solo rock in the rain...About to bail from under the Serpentine Arete

Life in Leavenworth, even during the heavy work season, is heaven on earth.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dreams of Cashmere

Another day emerges from the darkness

Yesterday, Cole Allen and I ran up into an area of the Stuart Range that was fresh and new for the both of us. We set out from the Eight Mile Lake Trailhead in the pre-dawn blackness aiming to find a hidden wall of local lore.

A beautiful perspective on my home range

The approach was incredible and kept Cole and I in constant awe. The same old peaks dominated our view, but their appearance from a new angle ingnited our delight.

The road to Cashmere

After a detour to Windy Pass and an incredible ridge run while looking for the hidden wall, we found ourselves in a moonscape of boulders right below Cashmere Mountain's West Ridge. I noticed that all of the stone around us was of the highest quality.

Cole between Windy Pass and Cashmere Mountain

On our approach we had noticed that Cashmere's south face was defined by three prominent ridges that divided the rambling swath of granite. The central line, which flowed right to the summit was suprisingly inspiring and was of greater length than the other two options.

Giving up on finding the hidden wall, we dropped under the south face, picked a crack on the central buttress and climbed for over 1,000 feet to Cashmere's boulder stacked summit. The climbing blew me away. Perfect protection, the soundest of rock, and a pure line had me writhing in alpine bliss.

Cole midway up the buttress

A view ahead mid-ridge promised perfect rock and perfect climbing

Mr. Allen at a belay mid-ridge

Although the "South Central Buttress" of Cashmere is not documented in any books, I feel it has most likely been completed before, although I am not sure. What I do know is that this should be an objective for Stuart Range climbers looking for the perfect precurser to the Serpentine Arete, Backbone Ridge (both on Dragontail), or the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart. Besides the 5.8 start, the route never exceeds 5.7, but never drops below 5.5. For the more advanced climber it might offer an incredible solo objective.

Two perspectives on the "South-Central Buttress" of Cashmere. In the top picture, it is the ridge falling to the lowest point. In the bottom shot, the route can be seen directly in the center of the shot.

Fall is the perfect time for this route. The south side of any Stuart Range peak bakes in the summer, but offers perfect crisp sunshine in September and October. If you are looking for a different experiance in the Stuart Range check this route out. Pure joy I say!!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Adventure Journal: Pickets Day 7

Soft pink light washes through the McMillan Cirque thousands of feet below our high camp under Luna Peak. My hands hurt more than ever today. I exercise each digit until the pain fades into background noise. We stuff sleeping bags, gag on a bar, and start moving. A rolling ridge deposits us at a flat bench below Luna. Above rises our last summit. Below lies our escape path out to the Big Beaver Valley.

Luna Peak

"Let's do it boys," Sol says. He readjusts his glasses, clicks on a helmet and takes off. Dan and I quickly follow him up the talus laden slope and soon we are all at the summit scramble. The top of Luna is a wild perch reached via an easy, but neat set of edges. We spend extra time on top savoring our high mountain lifestyle. We know that within hours our alpine heaven will fade into the darkness of Access Creek. It's hard to imagine life without the glory of the high country. We've left a bit of ourselves up here. Coming down won't be easy.

Dan on Luna

Back at our packs we squeeze out a gu into empty stomachs. Boulder filled basins and steep heather slopes eventually end in the woods. Bushwhacking down is always easier than the opposite so we make good time. Sol leads the way, bashing through anything that stands in his path.

My foot falls onto soft, almost manicured ground. The trail! I feel the intensity of the last few days relax. From here, one foot in front of the other will take us to friends and food. Slogging on the flat trail gives us plenty of time to reflect, but my mind stays blank. I stay in the moment, watching the forest around me, appreciating it's dark beauty.

Dan emerges from Access Creek

We spend the next half day tighting our belts and finishing the trail to the car. By the time we get there the hunger is at a pinnicle of intensity. A bag of chips dies in seconds and soon we are racing for gigantic burgers in Marblemount. All that matters is food. And then beer. And then sleep. The adventure is over.

Lost a few pounds out there!