Thursday, November 23, 2017

Falling into Winter

Elbows resting on the car roof, I eyed the distant smear through binoculars. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think it’s worth the hike,” I sighed, passing them to Steven. After glassing the melting ice, he wasn’t chomping at the bit either. We drove down the gravelly road for another twenty minutes, looking for a consolation prize, but nothing really caught our eye. It's also possible that after a couple of hours of driving and the disappointment of finding Plan A out of condition, car lassitude had set it, keeping our asses firmly rooted to the seats. Pulling a U-turn, we headed back to town for espressos. Once re-caffeinated, we briefly considered going rock climbing - it was certainly warm enough - but with the cold season approaching, decided on drytooling instead.

Yet it was only two days earlier that a friend had emailed me: “I took a photo this morning that you may be interested in. Is there an established ice/mixed route on [Peak X]? Scott”. In the attached photo, a line of ice dripped tantalizingly down a steep rock wall and petered out over a roof. But that was on Friday. On Saturday, a chinook howled over the mountains, while in the city people walked around in t-shirts. As Choc says, climbing’s all about timing and hormones. And on this particular Sunday morning, our timing sucked.

A distant smear, melting away in the November heat.


A week later, five of us stood beneath a black-and-gold, ice-streaked cliff. We’d left the road before dawn, trudging uphill through trackless forest, trying to glimpse the bulk of Castle Mountain between the trees to make sure we weren’t hiking in circles. We weren’t, and three hours later we were kicking steps up frozen dirt and snow-covered scree to the base of the wall. But now that we were here, no one seemed in a hurry to climb. To our bodies still more used to summer, the first touch of winter cold felt arctic. Instead, we retreated inside belay parkas, trying to wrap our minds around the idea of climbing in below –20 C temperatures in what was, after all, only early November.

Eventually Dave stirred from our collective lethargy. “The sun’s coming round”, he piped up optimistically. As a matter of fact, the distant sun-shadow line wouldn’t reach us for at least another hour, but it was all the encouragement we needed. Putting on harnesses and snapping on crampons, slowly we made ready to climb.

The right fork of the hanging valley between Protection and Castle Mtns. From left to right, the formed routes on the south face of Stuart Knob are Mon Ami, Arian P'tit Grimlin and Dirtbag Dreams.

Dave and Steven went for the Dirtbag Dreams on the right, while Maia, Landon and I set our sights on Arian P'tit Grimlin on the left, a twenty-year-old Guy Lacelle and Godefroy Perroux route. Tragically, both Guy and Godefroy have since died while ice climbing.

A rock roof topped with dagger gave direct access to the route, which was originally climbed by traversing in from Mon Ami. However, overhanging gymnastics on a –20 C morning didn't hold great appeal. Instead, we chose a more reasonable dangler further right. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Movement kept us warm... 

... though belays could get a bit chilly. Photo: Landon Thompson.

Occasional flashes of sunshine helped too. Unfortunately, by the time we started up the final pillar, the sun had dipped below Castle Mountain across the valley. Suddenly the air had a renewed bite to it. It was time to climb and then get the hell down! Photo: Landon Thompson.

By the time we'd rappelled off and packed up, daylight had all but faded away. Chilled, wearing all our layers, we started down, the beams of our headlamps picking out the house-sized boulders littering the floor of the hanging valley. After all the standing around at belay and rappel stances, it felt good to move. We'd warm up soon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Extreme Camping

This past spring Rob Smith and I spent five weeks in the Alaska Range. We arrived in Talkeetna with ambitious plans: in a perfect world, we'd warm up on the French Route on the north buttress of Mt. Hunter before moving on to the Slovak Route on the south face of Denali. I knew the world isn't perfect though, and would have been ecstatic had we gotten up just one of these. In retrospect, even that seemingly realistic outlook now appears wildly optimistic, as we didn't manage so much as to stand at the base of either wall.

Still, it'd be wrong to say that the trip had been a waste of time. At the risk of rationalizing failure, it'd be sad if my sole measure of success in climbing was whether I'd sent this or that "hard" route. During the five weeks I spent in the land of eternal daylight (as is Alaska in late May and June), I had some fantastic experiences. I got to know Rob, with whom I'd only spent a few days ice climbing before. We lived through some of the worst weather I'd ever experienced at the 14k camp on Denali. We shared that camp with Tom and Uisdean, two irreverent Brits. When the storm cleared, Tom and I did yoga in the middle of camp. On a sunny day, all four of us hiked up the West Buttress to Denali's summit. We had fun, we came back safe, we came back better friends. What's so bad about that?

A few weeks ago I made a rough video of my Alaskan experience for the annual Cognac and Cheese party that some friends have put on for well over a decade now to celebrate the end of the long days of summer. If you want to see what a camping trip to Denali's like, click on.