Thursday, February 21, 2019

UP ice

Michigan: it’s always an adventure, even if not always of the kind you expect. Then again, if it weren’t unexpected, would it be adventure? I dozed as the plane taxied to the end of the runway and made ready to take off. It’d been a short night: the day before, we climbed pillar after pillar along Superior's shore until the sun set, skiing back on the frozen lake by the light of the full moon. Once we’d eaten and checked into a motel near the Marquette airport, it was nearly midnight. A few hours’ sleep before Mein Herz Brennt playing on the phone intruded on my dreams, telling me it was time to get up. 

An announcement caused me to snap my lolling head upright: “This is your captain speaking. Currently MSP isn’t accepting any flights. We’re going back to the gate.” I peered through the porthole at the monochrome scene outside: snowy ground, black evergreens, a few flakes drifting down from a grey sky. But apparently the weather was less benign in Minneapolis, which was being hammered by its biggest winter storm yet. In the end, it took more than an extra twenty-four hours and driving to another airport before I managed to escape the UP. 

Still, not all of my adventures at this year’s Michigan Ice Fest involved planes and automobiles. There was climbing, too. There was the pillar Jon and I chose to warm up on our first day after the fest. Like most of the climbs cascading from the soft, eroded sandstone cliffs of Grand Island, it stood free from the rock wall - but it was a fat, massive affair. Halfway up, Jon swung and the curtain groaned, cracked and settled. A car-sized dagger a few bodylengths to his left broke off and exploded on the snow-covered beach. A second’s silence; the curtain remained standing. “I’m downclimbing!” Jon shouted down. 

Later in the afternoon, we stood beneath a slender column of yellow ice. From a chair-sized base, it fanned out as it rose to connect with an ice roof fifteen metres up. It was my lead. I walked around it, examined it for fractures, gave it a tentative whack. “I dunno, Jon, the ice seems to be under a lot of tension today.” Swallowing my pride, I suggested we climb around and throw down a toprope.

Daylight was fading by the time we rounded the southwest corner of the island and the lights of Munising came into view. After twenty kilometres of skiing, a few more of stumbling on foot over jumbled pack ice and a few pitches of ice, it was beginning to feel like a proper day of climbing. I still had some food left but didn’t feel like stopping and digging it out of the pack. Better to put the head down and push on to dinner. Then to bed, so we could do it all over tomorrow.

"And then the whole damn thing settled with me on it!" Jon relives the excitement of five minutes earlier.

The UP's version of the Weeping Wall on Grand Island's west coast. Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.

Waves from a storm a few days earlier cracked and pushed the pack ice around, creating an awkward jumble.

I'm not sure which looked more ominous: the skinny pillar or the stormy sky.

As the sun dips toward the horizon, we head back to mainland.

Another day, another pillar. Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.

Softly, softly, catchee monkey! Photo: Jon Jugenheimer.

As the sun sets on a rare flawless day on the lake, we ski along the shore to tick off one last climb.

Dairyland, the ultimate UP classic.

From the base of the climb, Lake Superior stretches to the horizon.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Vive la différence!

In March 2017, Ales Cesen and Luka Strazar of Latok I fame were visiting the Rockies from Slovenia. They came intent on alpine climbing but the rotten late-winter weather had other ideas. On a day that was too warm for ice but too miserable for rock, Ales, Luka, Jon Walsh and I went drytooling at El Dorado – not exactly a place you cross an ocean and a continent for. Still, better than not climbing at all. Ales was nursing an injured shoulder but Luka was keen for a workout. 

He warmed up on an M6 and an M7, nothing especially hard but not that easy, either, if you don’t know where the next divot or edge is. Next he moved on to a long M8. The on-sight crux of the route comes near the top, where the pockets turn shallow and slippery. Luka fought a building pump as he repeatedly locked off and probed with a steel finger, searching for something positive enough to take a pick. I knew where the next hold was but kept my mouth shut. Not that he needed my help to clip the anchor. 

Lastly Luka hopped on an M9. The route starts up a blank vertical wall, before pulling through a body-length roof. With just a few usable edges hiding in a sea of crumbling stone, I doubted he would get up even the vertical section without falling. But slowly, patiently he sorted out the sequences. Still, it’s one thing to search around for holds on a vertical wall, where you can take your time to do so. It’s quite another in a roof, locking off while struggling to keep your crampons pasted to the overhanging rock. Power-screaming, Luka fought through the roof and onto the headwall above. A few minutes later he was lowering off, having on-sighted every route he’d tried. 

It was one of the most impressive displays of drytooling I’ve ever witnessed. The grades might’ve been lowly – no M-double-digit marathons of figure-fours and nines here – but the skill and tenacity required were arguably greater. Luka wanted no beta and I didn’t give him any. The routes themselves didn’t make things easy for him, with few scratches and certainly no tick marks to guide him. His sends were on-sights in the true sense of the word. 


Drytooling has a long and somewhat chequered history in the Rockies. It all started in the mid 1990s, with ten-metre routes in places like Grotto Canyon and Haffner Creek, and multi-pitch lines like the Real Big Drip and Stairway to Heaven. To begin with, the pioneers bolted rock that had enough holds to make it climbable. As drytooling gained in popularity, popular crags began to resemble practice targets, with bullet holes worn into soft limestone by steel picks. From there, it was a short step to using a power drill to fabricate holds. While drilled pockets for rock climbing have gone the way of eighties' lycra, they have become an accepted part of drytooling. Nowadays, blending practices from rock climbing's past and present, most top-end drytooling crags and routes in the Rockies are both heavily drilled and tick-marked with chalk.

Fast forward to the mid 2010s, when Juan Henriquez and I started developing El Dorado on Grotto Mountain. Tired of driving two hours to the Haffner cave or three to the Cineplex, I wanted a drytooling cliff closer to home. Having burned out on hard M-climbing after a few obsessive years, I didn’t especially care about extreme difficulty either. I just wanted a local crag where I could stay fit for adventuring on the Stanley Headwall and beyond. That meant preserving a certain alpine flavour. There’s an obvious irony in calling a sunny, bolted crag forty-five minutes from the car “alpine”. It’s just while while drilled, ticked routes might be a shortcut to high M-numbers, I find the skills developed on them don’t transfer readily to the “real” world of big mixed cliffs and mountain faces. 

And so, for what it’s worth, Juan and I resolved to develop El Dorado without drilling and tick-marking holds. But wait, you say. Isn’t slamming the pick of an ice tool into a seam also chipping? Yes, it is. Still, even if things aren’t quite black and white, there can be differences between shades of grey. The Playground and El Dorado might share the same parking lot but have quite different flavours. 

I’m not altogether against manufactured routes. In January 2016 I had a blast drytooling at the Newtyle Quarry in Scotland, where we managed to salvage a rainy day by clipping bolts and slotting picks into drilled pockets. Two days later I found myself scared, high on a rime-covered wall in the Cairngorms, without a bolt, drilled pocket or tick mark in sight. Somehow two drastically different styles manage to coexist in the same hills, with many climbers playing both games. Contrasts like these make life interesting. After all, you wouldn’t want every restaurant to be a McDonald’s, would you? 

A few years ago Greg Boswell, one of the best mixed climbers in the world, visited El Dorado. In true British style he tried to on-sight every route he got on. On one of the M-double-digit extensions he fell when a tool, hooked blindly over the lip of a roof, popped. Had the route been drilled and ticked, he would likely have flashed it – he's plenty strong enough. But just going tic-tac-toe from hold to obvious hold would've been beside the point. Greg liked the challenge of a less manicured crag, blown on-sight and all.

I hope you check out El Dorado sometime and enjoy scratching your way up the chossy rock. If I happen to be there too, I’ll be happy to share beta – or not, if you’d rather have a Greg and Luka-like experience. But as contrived as the El Dorado rules of no drilling and no tick-marking holds might seem, at least a few people think they make the climbing there more interesting. Let's try to keep it that way.

Yours truly pulling on drilled pockets on Too Fast Too Furious in Newtyle Quarry... Photo: Ian Parnell.

... and playing a very different game on The Vicar in Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms. Photo: Dave Garry.

El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. Park as for the Playground but continue straight up on a decent trail. After 40 minutes or so, contour down into the canyon on your right, with bits and pieces of fixed rope on a few exposed sections. Photo: Gery Unterasinger, topo: Raphael Slawinski.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Nutcracker

The Bozeman ice fest in early December has become a bit of a tradition for me. Drive down, see some old friends, teach a couple of clinics ("Kick like you poo, swing like you screw."), and get in a day or two of climbing in Hyalite Canyon. This valley just south of Bozeman holds an outsized place in the history of North American ice and mixed climbing. Pat Callis, Jack Tackle, Alex Lowe and many others have set new standards of skill and boldness on its icy - and notoriously loose - walls.

Last year I was joined by Juan Henriquez and we had an excellent day on the Big Sleep, a classic Doug Chabot-Alex Lowe route. With Juan away in South America, I messaged Jess Roskelley to see if he wanted to get out after the fest. He was keen. We'd met before and hung out in locales ranging from Chamonix to Islamabad, but we'd never climbed together. I'd first heard of Jess in connection with a bold first ascent in Washington, a mess of chandeliers badly adhered to the rock.  I though it was a futuristic ascent, with the future not an altogether nice place. I hoped we'd do something more mellow in Hyalite.

And we did have a mellow first day on a fat Matriarch and 21 Stitches: a casual start from town, a donkey trail to the base, sunshine and mild temps that had us climbing in base layers... Ice climbing can be comfortable - sometimes. However, the route I really wanted to check out was the Nutcracker.

When you drive up Hyalite Canyon, your eyes are drawn to a giant dagger high above the valley floor. It's the famous Winter Dance, a typically visionary and bold Alex Lowe creation. Unfortunately this year the ice didn't reach as low as it does in better seasons, and would have required even more boldness. Fortunately a few years ago Conrad Anker and Kris Erickson added a bolted line up to the hanging ice that is climbable most seasons: the Nutcracker.

The alarm went off earlier than it had for the past few days. We threw our packs in the back of the truck, grabbed espressos and greasy muffins at a coffee shop strangely full of insomniacs with their laptops, and headed up the canyon. It had snowed overnight and as we plowed up the untracked road, I was glad we were in Jess' truck instead of my ersatz sports car. The fresh snow also made it difficult to locate the spot where the team that had attempted the route a few days earlier had struck off uphill, but after a bit of back and forth we managed to locate their tracks. Up we trudged through steep pines, hoods up against the snow showering us from laden branches.

Standing on a rocky rib, squinting into the wind, we looked across at the route and at the exposed, snow-covered ledges leading to it. With crampons on and a tool in hand, we carefully scrambled across. At the base, as gusts of wind blew fresh snow into every gap in our clothes, we pulled on insulated pants. No climbing in base layers today.

Jess' hands froze repeatedly as he led the first pitch, a moderate but disconcertingly loose bit of climbing. At least the choss was bolted. I joined him at his windy stance and and looked up at the overhanging second pitch. The miserable weather made the prospect of drytooling gymnastics less than appealing but complaining wouldn't make it better. I pulled on thin gloves and started up. After a few moves of feeling stiff and awkward, I warmed up and started having fun. The holds were big and positive, and picks bit reassuringly into soft volcanic rock. Soon we were craning our necks at the roofs on the third pitch.

"Do you mind if I take this one too?", I asked Jess. He hesitated but a recent shoulder injury worked in my favour. "Sure, go ahead", he graciously acquiesced. With the onsight butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I stepped off the belay ledge. The rock on the third pitch was more solid, but that also made it harder to read. Halfway up the pitch I found myself scratching around, unable to find the next hold. Finally committing to a small edge, I moved up. The edge snapped and I slammed onto the lower tool. Oof, that was close! After that lesson I didn't use any hold that didn't take at least several teeth, and finished the pitch without further incident.

We dug the screws out of the pack for the fourth pitch. Jess made short work of the awkward mantle onto an ice umbrella, and swung his way up to a comfortable cave belay. A few days earlier a younger but perhaps wiser friend had declined the small freestanding pillar at the start of the last pitch. To convince myself it was reasonable, I gave it a couple of hard whacks. Jess winced. But, for what it was worth, the pillar remained standing. Still, I barely swung and didn't place any screws in it until I was safely above the fracture line. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean a pillar can't collapse on you.

At the top, I basked in that feeling you have when you might've gotten away with something. Once Jess joined me, we snapped a couple of summit selfies, coiled the ropes, and traversed toward the walkoff. It'd been a good day.

The Winter Dance area. The eponymous route climbs ice and choss directly to the final icicle, while the Nutcracker drytools choss further right. Vitaliy M. took this photo from the Unnamed Wall across the valley. Can you spot Jess (in red) and me (in red) on the third pitch?

Jess slogs up to the Nutcracker through forest and depth hoar. Just like hiking up to the Trophy Wall...

The Winter Dance icicle from the approach.

The final bit of the approach requires some exposed scrambling. The position high above the valley floor makes it feel very alpine, but can it be alpine if it's still below treeline?

Jess starts up the first pitch, a good warmup to all the choss wrangling required to get up to the ice looming overhead.

Jess comes up the second pitch, a fun overhanging jug haul.

The rock improves somewhat on the third pitch, making for more solid holds but also more cryptic sequences. Photo: Jess Roskelley.

Almost there! Jess nears the belay on the third pitch.

Jess leads up the last bit of choss before snagging the ice on the fourth pitch.

As it starts snowing again, I begin the fifth and last pitch. Photo: Jess Roskelley.

A couple of screws in some ice off to the side offer some protection for getting on the brittle freestanding pillar. Photo: Jess Roskelley.

Jess (in yellow) and me (in red) on the final pitch. Photo: Vitaliy M.

The obligatory goofy selfie on top: Jess (young) and me (not so young).

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Wilson Adventures III: The Bride of Frankenstein

Winter seemed to come early to the Rockies this year. Late September and early October, instead of yellow aspen leaves and flawless blue skies, brought deep snow all the way down to the valley bottoms and the plains further east. After some grumbling over the premature ends of both the rock and alpine-climbing seasons, I reluctantly embraced the wet cold. I went drytooling long before I would normally consider it socially acceptable; I ventured up the guts of a chimney I wouldn't have given a second thought to in better weather; I even swung tools into freshly formed ice, the earliest I'd done so in a quarter century of climbing ice in the Rockies.

I felt almost disappointed when warm sunshine returned, melting the snow and ice and drying the rock. While in cold, shady corners choss remained solidly frozen, it seemed perverse to make winter longer than it is already. Hanging up freshly sharpened and already dulled ice tools for at least another week or two, I hiked up to Bellavista to touch rock with bare hands again. But I expect it won't be long before winter comes back to the Rockies. While waiting for it to arrive here for good, here's the story of another Mt. Wilson adventure from last winter.


January 2017. I knew it was a bad sign when, stopping to pee along the side of the Icefields Parkway, I couldn't wait to get back inside the warm car. But after getting up at four and driving for three hours, not going climbing wasn't an option. Wearing nearly every layer we had, Juan and I started crunching up Lady Wilson's Cleavage.

Less than two hours later, we rounded the corner into the amphitheatre that held the line of our desire. An ancient fixed rope swung forlornly from below the broken dagger at the top of the cliff - likely a relic from Kefira Allen and Dave Thompson, early M-climbing pioneers. A more immediate concern, however, was the frigid blue shade that still pervaded the amphitheatre. Unable to wrap our minds around climbing overhanging rock and ice in arctic temperatures, we walked a hundred metres down the hill to sit in the sun and drink hot tea. Finally, sometime around noon, the sun swung around and lit up the base of the cliff, and we started climbing.

By late afternoon we managed to frig our way up two and a half pitches, where we connected with a line of bolts with that old fixed rope clove-hitched into. Cutting off the bleached cord, we headed down satisfied with with a good day's work.


December 2017. With the dots connected, we figured that all that was left was sending the route. And rather than hiking around the bottom cliff band as we'd done the first time, we thought we might as well add more climbing to the day and start up the the rarely-formed pillar of Skinny Puppy.

The pillar went well enough, even if it left Juan soaked to the skin as he hung on to place screws in the midst of a lively shower. At least the day was pleasantly mild. It was as we walked up the snow gully to the base of our project that I grew worried. Where before we skirted the hanging ice on the short first pitch via its right margin, now unsupported daggers and umbrellas overhung the climbing line. The few bolts on the pitch wouldn't do much good if the ice collapsed with the rope running under its lip. But the alternative was not climbing, and we'd gotten up so early and driven so far...

In the end we got up the hanging ice on the first pitch and the overhanging choss on the second, but the stacked roofs on the third spelt an end to the redpoint attempt. We'd have to return for a third visit to the still unnamed project.

The Bride of Frankenstein from the Icefields Parkway. The route starts up an out-of sight smear left of the obvious flow and climbs overhanging rock to the broken dagger.

Juan climbs a very wet Skinny Puppy. When formed, this short pillar makes for a direct start to the route.

A frontal view of the Bride of Frankenstein from the gully below.

Yours truly starts up the second pitch, a chossy but fun piece of drytooling. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Juan mixes it up near the top of the second pitch.


February 2018. Juan had already made other plans, so I convinced Landon it'd be fun to wake up early and drive for hours to spend a day scratching up a few scruffy pitches. What I didn't count on was how much it had snowed since December. Halfway across the traverse from Lady Wilson's Cleavage, we found ourselves wading waist and sometimes chest-deep through unconsolidated facets. Wet, frustrated, pulling ourselves up by pine branches, more than once we nearly aborted what seemed increasingly like an exercise in futility. But eventually we managed to plough our way to the base of the rock band, where the snow didn't lie as deep.

On the plus side, the hanging ice on the first pitch that had so concerned me in December had collapsed, and no longer threatened to pull the unlucky climber off before crushing him. I did have to hangdog my way up the crux third pitch to remember the sequences, but after that it went down, helped by a power scream or two.

With the approach having taken longer than expected, by the time we both stood atop the third pitch the sun was getting low over the Divide peaks across the Icefields Parkway. Not wanting to selfishly force Landon to rappel in the dark, I suggested we head down. But he wouldn't have any of it: "You don't want to have to come back another time, do you?" And so I set off on the last pitch, clipping a couple of Dave's old bolts, twisting an upside-down screw into the underside of the broken dagger, and then running it out on smooth ice above.

As we walked down through a starlit winter's night, we tried to think of a good name for the route. In the end, with it being a mirror image of Mixed Monster across the Cleavage, The Bride of Frankenstein seemed appropriate.

Sporting my trademark alligator suit (at least a trademark for last winter), I enjoy some three-dimensional climbing on the first pitch...

... and try not to break any edges on the second. Photos: Landon Thompson.

Landon Thompson in full sun on the second pitch...

... and yours truly on the crux third one. Photo: Landon Thompson.

As daylight fades, I snag the ice on the fourth and final pitch. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Back on the Icefields Parkway, as we pack up the car, a curious fox checks us out. Photo: Landon Thompson.


The Bride of Frankenstein, 100 m, M8+
FA: Juan Henriquez, Raphael Slawinski and Landon Thompson, winter 2018.

The route is found on Mt. Wilson on the same cliff band as Mixed Monster. Look right of Lady Wilson's Cleavage: The Bride of Frankenstein is the first obvious icicle (Stairway to Heaven being the next one). Approach up the Cleavage, then up a narrow avalanche chute to the base of the rock, which is contoured to the route. The approach takes around 2 hours, more or less depending on snow conditions.

Pitch 1 (20 m, M5). Clip a few bolts on the right side of the hanging ice. A 2-bolt belay is on the left side of the ice ledge above. Beware of collapsing daggers.
Pitch 2 (30 m, M7). Step right and up from the belay into a short left-facing corner. Above, trend up and right to a final hard pull getting onto a good ledge with a 2-bolt belay. A small rack of C4s from 0.3 to 2 is needed to supplement the bolts on this pitch.
Pitch 3 (20 m, M8+). Increasingly powerful pulls past a bunch of bolts lead to a 3-bolt belay below the final dagger.
Pitch 4 (30 m, M6+). Some drytooling past a couple of bolts (a 0.75 C4 might be useful at the start) gains the snapped-off dagger. Turn the ice roof on the left and climb it to the top. If the dagger hasn't broken yet, it might be possible to step onto ice straight from the belay.

To descend, rappel the fourth pitch back to the station below it. From this station (i.e. the station atop the third pitch) a double 70-m rappel (and maybe even a 60-m one) reaches the ground.

Happy Day of the Dead!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Adventures of the 2018 Canadian Pumari Chhish East Expedition

This past summer, Alik Berg and I went to Pakistan to have a mountain adventure. Below is a brief report from our expedition. For a more impressionistic account, check out this Bird Blog. For a photo essay, check out this Flickr album.


In the summer of 2018 Alik Berg and I traveled to Pakistan to climb in the Karakoram. As often happens, neither the final team nor the final objective ended up being what they had been originally. To begin with, there were four of us intent on exploring the largely untouched peaks of the Kondus valley. Over the winter, however, Chris Brazeau and Ian Welsted pulled out. Then, just a couple of months before our departure, military authorities refused the permit application for our primary objective, the unclimbed K13 (6666 m). We scrambled to find another goal, and settled on the unclimbed Pumari Chhish East (ca. 6900 m). I was familiar with the peak, having attempted it unsuccessfully in 2009, and knew to be a difficult and inspiring mountain. 

We left Calgary on June 30 and, after many flights, jeep drives and three days of trekking with porters, arrived in the 4500-metre basecamp on July 14. We spent the ensuing three weeks systematically acclimatizing: starting with day trips and culminating with two nights spent on the summit of the 5980-metre Rasool Sar. We had hoped to complete our acclimatization in only two weeks, but a week-long spell of bad weather at the end of July kept us confined to basecamp. 

With acclimatization out of the way, we turned our attention to the south wall of Pumari Chhish East. The shattered glacier below the face looked impassable, but we were able to find an alternate approach by climbing over a rock spur. From the crest of the spur we got our first close look at the face. The upper half still looked in good mixed-climbing shape; however, by what was now late summer, the snow and ice fields on the lower half had degenerated into wet rock slabs strafed by rockfall. It was difficult to let go of our ambitions, but in the end, we discounted the south face as too dangerous in current conditions. 

Next, we examined the east aspect of Pumari Chhish East for an alternate route possibility, but found it guarded by batteries of seracs. With just over a week remaining in basecamp, we cast about for other options, and settled on an unclimbed peak across the glacier from basecamp. The first day we scrambled to a bivouac at 5700 metres on the south ridge of our objective. The next day we spent sixteen hours negotiating the complex ridge to and from the 5980-metre summit, arriving back at our bivouac well after midnight. We slept in the following morning, before descending into another valley and hiking around the mountain back to basecamp. 

Two days later, in a cold rain, we left the meadow where we had spent half the summer. Pumari Chhish East remained unclimbed, but we still had a great adventure among great mountains and great people. 

Last but not least, Alik and I would like to thank the John Lauchlan Memorial Award and the MEC Expedition Support Grant for backing our expedition. And personally, I would like to thank my sponsors: Arc'teryx, Black Diamond, Bolder and Scarpa North America for their support. An expedition to the Karakoram is a major undertaking, and the trip would not have happened without their help. We did not come back successful, but we came back safe and we came back friends.

A storm clears from the south faces of Pumari Chhish South (7350 m) and East (6900 m).