Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Patagonia Tune Up: A First Winter Ascent of Argonaut Peak's NW Buttress

In the eight years that I've lived in the Leavenworth area, the Stuart Range has been my training and molding ground. These jagged peaks picked up where the American West left off. After years of dirtbagging in places like Yosemite, J-Tree, and Indian Creek, I "settled down" in Leavenworth, Washington. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was about to become an alpine climber. 
Year after year I return to the Stuart Range, seeking new challenges that inspire me. These days, I am most interested in climbing these peaks in winter. A route that would take me half a day in summer all of the sudden becomes a much more complicated affair. The road to the trailhead is closed, adding an extra four miles of hiking on the front and back end of a winter mission. You feel a remoteness that just can't be had in summer and there are so many more variables to consider.
The last few years I have accomplished some of my winter goals. The strong partners I climbed with eased my burden and I enjoyed the camaraderie of our experiences. This winter, I desired something new. I wanted to complete a first winter ascent of an aesthetic route by myself.
My first view of Argonaut Peak on 12/29/2013
Knowing the conditions were fairly dry in the range, I thought a rock buttress would be a good choice. My first thought was Sherpa Peak's North Ridge (someone go get this thing!), an elegant and classic route on a seldom visited peak. Despite being included in Jim Nelson's Classic Climbs book, it had never seen a winter ascent. I considered this option, but also recognized that I would be in Argentina soon and needed to be ready and fresh for the big time. Sherpa was totally doable, but I only had one day to climb in the middle of a busy work week and decided the effort would tap me more than necessary. I finally settled on Argonaut Peak's NW Buttress. It was a shorter, easier route on a mountain I knew fairly well. Most importantly, I thought it was a nice looking line.
NOAA called for sunny skies...should I bail?!
I hiked in after work on Saturday and made camp at the junction where the Colchuck Lake trail branches off the Stuart Lake Trail. There wasn't much snow to that point, but the ice was insane. Every step was tedious and I fell many times. How I wished for more snow!!
After a good nights sleep I set off. The dawn brought a surprise for me. Instead of the sunny skies that were forecasted, the peaks were obscured in windy clouds and snow flurries. As I approached the mountain I could tell that despite dry conditions, the rock was covered in furry white stuff called rime. As wind and moisture raked the peaks, it become more prominent. On the pocket snow field below my route the wind actually pushed me around as I racked up. I wondered if I should bail as the weather was much worse than I imagined it would be. I finally decided I was ok for now and that I should keep going until I couldn't anymore. I climbed a 40 - 50 degree couloir for 400 feet to a notch at the base of the buttress. It was tiring work as the snow was not firm and was the culmination of a 13 mile approach with a heavy pack (you carry all the gear when you solo!).

It's hard to tell, but this step on the buttress involved face climbing verglased 5.6 for 80 meters. I choose to belay myself on this stretch due to the slippery rock. Higher, the rime became so prevalent that everything was covered in the furry white stuff.
It was a cloudy day, but the views from the buttress were still beautiful
Looking up at the route, it was clear I wouldn't be wearing the rock shoes I had brought. It was much to cold and the rime covering the rock would require crampons. I put one ice tool away and clipped the other to my side. I free soloed the first step, but when more difficult ground presented itself, I broke out my rope and belayed myself through the difficulties. The climbing was typical Stuart Range winter fare. Rime covered rock climbing with the occasional stretch of alpine ice and crucial moss sticks.
It was interesting to be in my own world up there. There were points where my eyes followed my rope down into the mist and I almost forgot that no one was down there. I was alone. The weather worsened as I got higher, but I barely noticed as I was so focused. My only hope was that the wind would not pick up more. I didn't have goggles and I knew how debilitating that could be in these conditions. How would I descend if I couldn't open my eyes to see! 
On top, hoping that I could see well enough to descend efficiently
After a nice mixed pitch with some actual sticks in ice, I finally hit the summit. I took a quick photo and started descending in high winds. Some down climbing and three rappels put me on the south side of the peak. With darkness only 20 minutes away, I chose not to return via the approach I had taken in the morning. While this approach (Mountaineer's Creek) is not too tricky, it does require off trail maneuvers and I knew in my tired state I would most likely get lost and walk in circles. Therefore, I began a soul sucking trek through shin deep snow around Colchuck Peak. Once I arrived at the col between Colchuck and Dragontail, all I needed to do was descend an easy glacier, after which I would pick up an actual trail that would lead me back to the junction where I had bivied the previous evening.
The rest of my descent was straight forward, but movement was constant. I finally returned to my car at 10:30 PM, seven hours after I left the summit.
Now, I'm drying my gear and packing my bags to head south. This was the last climb before my season in Patagonia begins. I'm ready and psyched.

*An account of the first winter ascent of the NW Buttress of Argonaut Peak
*Summit was gained on December 29, 2013
*Ascent was made by Jens Holsten

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. A Week of Washington Ice

I love climbing ice in Washington. When temperatures plummet, my mind relentlessly computes aspect, temperature, elevation, and snowpack into a vision of what might be in. Each day I drive the canyons of Leavenworth and watch the routes I'm interested in. They start as a sliver of ice amidst a crashing water fall or a veneer of snow stuck to a rock wall. Days later, with the right conditions, these routes develop into something climbable. It happens fast and you have to be ready when it all lines up.

This December's cold snap produced some great ice around the Northwest. More snow would have created the perfect scenario, but I wasn't complaining. With a bone dry fall behind us and very little snow on the ground, I shelved some mixed projects and focused on pure water ice climbs instead. Drury Falls, a beautiful formation just a few minutes away from my house started to come together. Each day I would stand on the highway and check it's progress. Soon the blotches of ice became more cohesive. It started to look climbable. Then, the temps fell another ten degrees and dense clouds obscured the sun for three straight days. It was go time.

I called Craig Pope and Vern Nelson Jr. These guys are my ice partners in crime. Long before others  have even began thinking about ice, these guys are prowling the state, envisioning the future and dreaming of the day it all comes together.

The crux of climbing Drury Falls comes before the first pitch. One needs to cross the Tumwater River, a rumbling, powerful stretch of water, just to reach the climb. We found our place amongst those who have struggled with this crossing, nearly losing control of our boat on attempt number one. We rethought our strategy, headed down the road to a safer crossing, and finally made it across. After that it was all gravy.
Crossing the Tumwater in the right spot...this kind of boating I can handle!
photo by Craig Pope
The approach to Drury is a terrain trap if I've ever seen one, but the low snowpack made it as safe as it could ever be. I relished being in such an awesome place at the right time. It's neat to find yourself in places that are usually off limits. After some precarious boulder hopping rambling ice forced us into our crampons and we hooped and hollered our way upwards. 
Craig and I rambling
Photo by Vern Nelson Jr.
The ice got a bit steeper, but was still dead easy and we continued the super fun group solo.
Craig and I climbing
Photo by VNJ
We came to the steepest portion of the climb and decided to rope up. Three fun pitches of featured ice brought us to the top of the falls, an amazing place that offered a perspective I had never had before. Thousands of feet below headlights snaked along the highway. I felt close to home, but far away at the same time.
Myself leading our first pitch of roped climbing
Photo by VNJ
Vern leading our pitch two
Photo by Craig Pope
After Drury, I took a few days to work, but couldn't help but ramble around the Icicle each afternoon. Leavenworth ice is a lot like its rock. It's usually low angle and the lines, while in a beautiful setting, aren't necessarily mind blowing (there are exceptions). Still, they are fun and I look at it like going for a run. It's just nice to get out.
Out for an afternoon ramble in the Sword Gully. This gully is super fun with about 600 feet of stepped ice to WI3
Photo by Max Hasson
An afternoon or two later, Max Hasson and Jon Pobst joined me for a route that I had eyed for many years. Just right of the Warrior Wall, we connected often thin, but sometimes thick ice runnels for three 80 meter pitches of spicy fun. Our first mixed pitch was especially thin and bordered on the limit of what I was willing to risk on a Monday afternoon after work. When I drove by the next afternoon, our climb was nothing more than a wet slab. The definition of "here today, gone tomorrow".
Climbing in the Warrior Wall zone
Photo by Max Hasson
A few more days of work and rambling had me itching to get on something steeper. Last season, Kurt Hicks and I had visited the Entiat, a quiet canyon outside of Wenatchee that offers aesthetic climbs in a peaceful setting. We didn't climb as warm temperatures and unstable ice conditions signaled the end of our season. Despite not swinging the tools that day, my eye spotted the "fang like" pillar of What Do Ardenvars Eat?  It was a line that inspired me with all the right ingredients: A beautiful position, an elegant form, and engaging climbing. Last weekend, Blake Herrington, Chad Kellogg, and I headed back to see if WDAE was hanging in there. It was (I think it's gone now...), and we had a great time climbing the steep, shimmering tube of ice. We soloed up a beautiful second pitch too. What a route!
Myself leading What Do Ardenvars Eat?
Photo by Blake Herrington
Another perspective of What Do Ardenvars Eat?
Photo by Blake Herrington
After rapping off of WDAE, we hopped over to Tyee Falls. It was the wettest ice climb any of us had ever done. For once, I was able to see through my blinders, telling Blake that "I guess I understood why some people don't like ice climbing." Soaking wet and shivering we rapped off and ran for the car. Temps were rising, the season was slipping...time to go to Patagonia!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mainsail: A New Route in the Icicle

If my writing seems like a bunch of senseless dribble, scroll down for a video link of Mainsail!!

Fall in Leavenworth is a busy time of year. In my line of work, it's one long day after the next as we process tens of thousands of pounds of grapes each week and then nurture the young wines as they begin their life journey. Precious time not spent in the cellar ticks by in a frantic rush to get the ski kit together, plan the next winter in Chalten, and climb in the beautiful crisp weather that makes fall in central Washington so pleasant.

The past few years I have been struggling with my rock game. A weird mass of scar tissue in my right hand causes tightness and as a result, reoccurring finger injuries. Finally healthy enough to start progressing towards harder routes, I joined Blake Herrington at Trout Creek in late September. Blake is an absolute animal and I can barely keep up with him at the crag. He ran my out of shape ass ragged on that first weekend and with each pumping pitch and torqueing finger lock that we did, I felt the weakness leaving my body. At that point, inspired to the max, I chose to do whatever it took to regain some of my fitness and confidence on the stone.

Filling my free time with trips to Trout Creek, Smith Rocks, and Index instead of only mountain climbs (there were some of those too!), I felt some of my strength return. In the back of my mind, I decided to continue building my fitness with the goal of finishing an old project I had bolted down the Icicle. It was a beautiful arĂȘte with an amazing position, a cool series of movements, and an inspiring backdrop. I spent the month of October getting on the rock as much as possible knowing I would need the pre-winter conditions of November to tick the proj.

When the good conditions rolled around, Jessica Campbell gave me a top rope catch on the arĂȘte. I hadn't been on it for two years, but was quickly able to remember the movements, although I wasn't able to link many of the moves. A few more bouldering sessions and I returned. Temps were 10 degrees colder and I made my first lead attempt of the route, falling once and linking moves I hadn't been able to before.

At this point I stopped buying beer (well, as much beer), did a few more sit ups each night, climbed on some plastic for raw power, and returned with my longtime friend, Max Hasson, to try and capture the ascent on film. I was not at all nervous about climbing in front of the camera. What I was nervous about was the fact that soon deep snows would overtake the route and my life. At this point in the season it was hard not to only think about skiing!!

That day I was able to complete Mainsail, my given name to the route. As often occurs on a line you've put a lot of effort into, it suddenly felt quite easy, and I wondered why it took so much time and effort to get it done. All these years I thought it was 5.13 for sure, but I couldn't help but peg it at 5.12d that day. Big numbers are hard to come by on the cliffs of the Icicle. The routes are just too slabby and even insanely hard routes have sandbagged ratings(Never Never Crack, Gutbuster, Rainshadow, etc...). So to be safe, 5.12d it is. I would love to see some of the local folks give it a go and to give me an idea of it's difficulty. The resulting film shows every move of the sequence, so watch it twice and flash the hell out of it!

Check it:  http://vimeo.com/79911055

I want to thank Max Hasson for capturing the moment. Not only is a Max an incredible climber (5.12+ flashes, 5.13 redpoints, new routes from Alaska to Patagonia), he is an artist with a unique eye on the world of climbing. Check out maxhasson.com for more inspiring trip reports, videos, and photography.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Bugs!

The Bugs!!!!

When Sol Wertkin suggested we fit a quick trip to the Bugaboos into our busy summer schedules, a full force "Yes!" was my answer. The Bugs are an incredible venue. Easily accessed by a few miles of steep trail (and mellow glacier travel if climbing on the Howser Towers), these iconic formations rocket into the British Columbian sky with steep and unrelenting force. For the alpine rock jock, they present a dream canvas of never ending splitters and laser cut corners.

Sol and I left Leavenworth around dinner time and drove a few hours to Metaline Falls, a relic of a mining town tucked up in Washington's quiet northeast corner. We awoke with the sun, eager to arrive at the trailhead as soon as we could. As we pulled up to the border, a sign came into view. They were closed until 8 AM! Figuring we should do something productive with our time, we began packing our bags in front of the gate. The puzzled look as the border guards arrived for their shift was priceless.
Sol putting kit together at the border crossing
By mid afternoon we were humping our load towards Applebee, the main camping zone in the Bugaboos. After ten minutes of hiking, the dark clouds above unleashed their fury. We pushed on, through the stream that used to be the trail. Waterfalls appeared out of nowhere and the spires above lost themselves in a dense mist.
The next morning, we used a bit of sun to dry out our gear on the rock slabs around Applebee before heading for a route on Bugaboo Spire's east face called Divine Intervention. We climbed four pitches of incredible corners before rain sent us rapping. 
Approaching Bugaboo Spire
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol follows pitch one
Following pitch four with a touch of sun before the rain
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Our second day also featured shifty weather, so we choose another moderate adventure close to camp. We settled on the Edwards-Nuefeld, a semi-obscure line of cracks up The Donkey Ears. The climbing, although not as high quality as other objectives in the area, was still wild enough to keep us excited. We hit the cumbre and scrambled back down to camp, where the newly posted weather forecast called for a few sunny days. It was time to get serious.
 Sol cranks a nice 5.10 splitter on the Edwards-Nuefeld
 Sol follows more good 5.10 on the Edwards-Nuefeld
Following high on the Ewards-Nuefeld in worsening weather
Photo by Sol Wertkin
The next morning we packed our kit and booted over the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col. Before long we were dropping into East Creek Basin, the jumping off point for routes on the west side of the Howser Towers. Tents dotted the camping area. My previous two trips to the basin felt remote and lonely. This time the place was packed with people. Fortunately, almost everyone there was a friend of ours!
Lots of tents in East Creek Basin = Lots of friends! Super fun times!
Sol and I had thrown around a variety of main objectives for our short stint in the Bugs. We knew we wanted to climb the North Howser Tower's west face, but there were many great routes to choose from. I had climbed the most popular route on the face, All Along the Watchtower, with Max Hasson years ago, so I was keen for something new. The locals suggested that Spicy Red Beans and Rice was the line to do, but the absence of a mid-face snowpatch denied the possibility for water (unless we carried it, which sucks) on a route that would surely take us two days without jumars. By the end of the evening we had decided to tackle a link-up dubbed Under Fire. Under Fire journey's across and through several routes and goes free at mid-5.11. It sounded like a good objective for going light and getting to the summit in a reasonable day. I hadn't been doing much rock climbing either, so the moderate grade was appealing.
Scoping out the upper part of Under Fire (upper pitches seen on the far left)
Sol Wertkin photo
We left camp around 4 am and made the approach with some friends who were on they way to crush The Watchtower. Once at the base of the west face, we parted ways and got down to it.
Alpine start!
Sol took the first block, climbing the giant corner system of the Shooting Gallery route. It was an incredible place to be, although it's named the Shooting Gallery for a reason. I tried to enjoy the views, but spent most of the time with my head down, tucked under whatever protection existed around the belays. Although fairly loose, the climbing in this section was spectacular, especially considering the setting.
 Following cold granite low on Under Fire
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol crushing away
Good climbing, but a bit loose
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol cranks into the sun
Soon, we were out of the Shooting Gallery and climbing a wild (and scary!!) flake system to join The Seventh Rifle for a few pitches.
 A pitch of wild flakes leads into The Seventh Rifle
Photo by Sol Wertkin
More action on the wild flakes
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Sol continued to crank away, finishing his long lead block around 2:00 PM. We had each planned to lead half the route. Now it was my turn to get the rope up.
 Sol transitioning out of The Seventh Rifle
Sol on a low-angle, but fun wide crack about midway up Under Fire
I took the rack and gave Sol the pack. All of the sudden, our description of the route seemed difficult to follow. Giant gendarmes and gullies created complex terrain. I tried to follow the suggested path, but after a while just started climbing to the top via any way that looked doable. I lead a few nice pitches, the best one a nice crack in a corner ending with an exciting traverse to a belay in the Southwest Face gully.
 Getting started on my lead block
Photo by Sol Wertkin

We continued up the gully on nice rock with good 5.9 climbing, but before long it fizzled into chossville. I cursed myself as we climbed the rubbly slot. Sol was a new dad and this was no terrain for a man in his shoes. Despite the ugly nature of this section, it deposited us right on the summit.

Good climbing in The Southwest Face gully
Photo by Sol Wertkin
Shitty climbing in The Southwest Face gully
Photo by Sol Wertkin
The top of the North Howser Tower is an incredible spot. The highpoint of the Bugaboo Spires, the 360 degree view cannot be beat. Mountains, almost all unknown to me, stretched into blue skies and the sun felt soft and warm.
Sol feeling the stoke after a one day free ascent of the West Face of the North Howser Tower
We enjoyed the cumbre for a few minutes and then funked around trying to find the raps down the northeast side. I really need to start writing these details down as I had no clue where to go despite having done the descent before!

Photo by Sol Wertkin
We were back in camp around 10:30 PM, making for a civilized day on a big face. The following morning we hit the trail back to our car and then made the long drive home. Our 4.5 days in the Bugs had been productive and fun. Furthermore, it was the first time Sol and I had climbed outside of the Cascades together. To stand on such an awesome summit with a such a great friend was the best part of the whole trip for me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pickets Slideshow

Hope to see you there!!

Reality Face Video!

Yo guys and gals!

Just wanted to share a link to a video that my good friend Max Hasson put together about the new route that Jared Vilhauer, Seth Timpano, and I established in Alaska this past May. Max took my shaky footage and created an inspiring little flick that really captures the feel of the climb. The artwork featured in the film was done by Jessica Campbell. Thanks so much Max and Jess for being great friends over the years and being passionate about climbing and sharing adventure with others!!

Check it: http://vimeo.com/74319724

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Torment-Forbidden Traverse: A Photo Essay

A few weeks ago, Jessica Campbell, Max Hasson, and I rambled over the Torment-Forbidden Traverse. We had an absolute blast, enjoying good friendship and climbing partnership forged over 10 years of living the climbing life together. This was a family outing.  We found the traverse deserted as a stormy forecast kept the masses away. Luckily, the weather held, and created a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beauty of the North Cascades. Most of the pictures below are Max Hasson's and Jessica Campbell's, but a couple are mine too. Enjoy!