Saturday, September 29, 2012

Vanishing Point: Reflections on an Onsight Effort

The mighty north face of Mt. Baring, home of Vanishing Point (VI 5.12b)

I still remember reading the Hot Flash. It was a small blurb in the lower left hand corner of the magazine. Bryan Burdo had completed his mega project on Mt. Baring. Vanishing Point (VI 5.12b) was a jutting prow loaded with 18 sustained pitches of wild face climbing. That same summer I had been putting all of my 16 year old energy into another of his routes, a one pitch line called Rainy Day Woman at Little Si, a steep crag an hour east of Seattle. I could barely comprehend Bryan's accomplishment as I screamed my way to the anchors of Rainy Day with my dad nervously belaying. It was my first 5.12 and another phase in the journey that eventually led to my own effort on Vanishing Point only days ago.

Last week Ben Gilkison and Blake Herrington climbed Vanishing Point in great style, lifting a curious veil of obscurity that has clouded the route for many years. Everyone I know in the Washington climbing community has talked about Vanishing Point, but so few have been on the face or even seen it. Hell, when I stepped out of the car at the Barcley Lake trailhead a few days ago, I had never laid eyes on the wall!

Not only had Ben and Blake inspired me to check out Vanishing Point, they had given me a road map of beta through photos and advice. I hoped their chalk would still dot the wall, increasing my chances at a flash of this challenging route. I was fortunate to have a great friend, Shaun Johnson, who was willing to let me lead every pitch and jumar/follow with the pack. All week I looked foward to giving my best effort on such a magnificant wall.

Our ascent began in the first light of a hazy morning. We cruised the complex approach using good beta and Shaun's knowledge from a scoping mission the previous day. Scampering up gullies, yarding up fixed lines through 70 degree timber slopes, and smearing up 5.8 slabs brought us to the "true" base of Vanishing Point. We snacked for fifteen minutes and then I began climbing.

I knew the day was going to be hard for me. The past few years have seen me focusing on alpine climbing and it has been quite some time since I have tried a long, difficult (for me!)  free route, on sight, and leading every pitch. I tried to make my grip light and to swallow my initimidation as I linked the first two 5.10 pitches. Truth be told, I found the nature of the rock and wall to be pretty scary! Shaun may not have been able to tell, but I was nervous all day. Thankfully, I live for facing my fears and overcoming their limiting grip!

After a few more pitches I arrived at the base of an arete that had been the crux for Ben and Blake. I groped my way up 25 feet of odd angled holds before entering the difficult crux. I stood there for what seemed like forever trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, I started moving my aching feet, highstepping a ripple while pulling on a two finger crimp. I eeked towards the jug I saw completed the sequence. I felt my shoe rolling on the foothold. My core sagged. I fell onto the rope.

"Damn it!". Dissapointment flooded in, but only for a second. This was hard and I was trying my best! What more could I do? I climbed through the sequence to the anchor and brought Shaun up. I thought about trying again, but kept leading ahead. Many difficult pitches remained and I realized my new goal was to suss the climb so I could soon return to try again. Pulling the rope might work in July, but I had to get us off this monstrosity before the short, September day ended.

The rest of the route was so, so, so very exposed and suprisingly difficult. I pulled over the top of Dolomite Tower as the sun sunk low in the west. I relflected on the day. Despite not freeing the route I felt good about my effort, but also recognized my mistakes. I hadn't eaten enough, hadn't changed into my tight shoes (out of laziness) when I should have, and hadn't been able to relax my mind enough to avoid overgripping on nearly every pitch.

A few days later I find myself yearing to return and if the fall weather cooperates it might be possible. Most importantly, I aspire to be the be able to walk up to walls of this magnitude and on sight free climb the most awesome features. I'm a long way off that level, but am inspired to work hard and grow as a climber so that I can have that freedom.

A big thanks goes out to Bryan Burdo, an early hero of mine, and Blake and Ben. You guys lit the fire!

I highly recommend Vanishing Point. I believe it to be one of the top free climbs in the state. Get some!!

Make sure to check out Blake and Ben's reports!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Summer Becomes Fall: Transformation on the West Face Wall of Mt. Stuart

 Approaching Mt. Stuart's incredible West Face Wall
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Last week Sol Wertkin, Blake Herrington, and I had planned on attacking a project on Mt. Stuart's West Face Wall. Even with our storied history on this wave of stone, the ultimate line, glimpsed from previous missions, awaited our eager hands and fingers. Even though I had just been there a week before, I was excited to go back as the WFW is one of my favorite features in the Stuart Range.
Unfortunetaly, the weather for that day was predicted to be, well, total shit. Blake bowed out and I was on the verge. I was busy with work and almost pulled the plug. Then I talked with Sol. He was stoked to spend his 34th birthday experiancing whatever nature might throw our way. Repsyched by Sol's pure desire to get high, I too, felt excitement growing in my gut. Mountains are awesome. Mountains in storm are even more so!
We hopped in the car as rain danced on the streets of Leavenworth and headed for the trailhead. In short, we had a wild day just topping out the wall's easiest line in very Patagonian weather with windgusts to 50 mph and swirling snow. Although we didn't snag the proj, we did enjoy the mountains on their terms, fighting with all our might just to slither out of the wall's powerful grip.
Check out the full story and some really nice pictures of our day on Sol's blog:
Fighting the rime on the last pitch
Photo by Sol Wertkin

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Week On The Big Guy: Three Amazing Routes On Mt. Stuart

Hanging out under Mt. Stuart's incredible north side

Last week, Shaun Johnson and I had plans for an alpine extravaganza on Mt. Shuksan. Our plan was to race around the mountain and complete several classic routes over the course of two days. Packing my kit for the mission, I checked the weather for the Stuart Range on my I-phone. I wanted to make sure I wasn't about to leave the area if the right weather arrived to make a solo attempt on Mt. Stuart's Girth Pillar. This was a goal I had been thinking about for months. I needed to prioritze it. Sure enough, cold night time temps throughout the week had me cancelling plans to leave Leavenworth. I asked Shaun if he would like to take a run up Stuart's Upper North Ridge to check conditions on the Ice Cliff Glacier, the tongue of broken snow and ice that leads to the rock portion of TGP.
Scoping the upper Ice Cliff in preparation for a solo attempt on Mt. Stuart's Girth Pillar

Two weeks ago I made a solo ascent of Dragons of Eden on Dragontail Peak, a more difficult and sustained line than the Girth Pillar, but also devoid of the glacier travel and the objective hazards that make the Girth a much more ballsy outing. As Shaun and I cruised the North Ridge I took photos of the glacier and the ice cliff that gaurds it. I could see that the route went, but not as easily or safely as it would have a month or two earlier. I was sure I could race up the ice cliff, but would be doing so on rotten, boulder studded ice. Having climbed the ice cliff more than once over the years, I knew it could be in much better condition. When I set out on a hard solo, I want everything to be perfect and in line. Conditions, weather, psyche, and fitness need to work harmoniously to produce a satisfying and safe experiance. I felt everything was in place besides the conditions. If I had not been in the Alaska Range or working so much early in the summer I would have tried it then, when the ice cliff was an easy romp up a low angled groove. Now, in late August, it seemed my best chance at a safe solo would be to access the climb via the rock pitches of the lower North Ridge. This start is much more difficult, especially to solo. Many people think the ice cliff approach makes the route harder. Not the case. When in condition I would be able to solo the ice cliff and make it to the base of the pillar in 45 minutes. It would take me several hours to get myself to the same spot via the lower North Ridge.

Shaun and I topped out the North Ridge and descended the Sherpa Glacier Coulior. I went home to Leavenworth and meditated on what I should do. After careful consideration, I pulled the plug on this year's attempt. I want to solo the route via the ice cliff and I want it to be as safe as possible. I decided I would wait to tackle this goal until next year in the early season.

Feeling a bit bad about jerking Shaun around and not engaging our awesome objectives on Shuksan, I figured we should go back and get some serious adventure out of Mt. Stuart. I had a bit of gear below the mountain for my solo that I needed to retrieve anyway.

Only days after our Upper North Ridge climb, we were back under the The Big Guy (Stuart!!). Over the next two days we went on to climb the Girth Pillar via the lower North Ridge, descend the Sherpa Glacier Coulior, make the first one day ascent of Gorrilas in the Mist to the summit, and descend the entire West Ridge. It was quite a tour for Shaun who prior to our week's adventures had not even been to Stuart's north side. Nice work Shaun!!

Even though I had to let the solo mission go, I had an awesome time on a great mountain with an amped partner. Shaun reminds me of myself in that he wants to be in the mountains constantly. It just feels so wonderful up high!

Shaun posted a great trip report here:

Back at camp after climbing The Girth Pillar...psyched and ready for more!!