Loose jams: spring thoughts from the rocks

Two short years ago, I went into the summer with a rack consisting of sport draws, hexes, nuts, and two lonely cams. It was a good time—perhaps the first time I’d call myself a climber instead of just someone who climbed. I talked about climbing as a wonderful pursuit because I didn’t hold myself to big expectations. It was what it was, which felt refreshing in light of the bigger ski things I wanted to pull off. Even dreaming of something to do is an emotional investment in risking the thought of “could I do that, should we try.” Climbing didn’t feel that way for me; skiing did.

Passion has crept into my time on the rock—nobody is surprised by that. I’m now invested, the same way I was on my skis. Three summers ago, leading 5.10 trad seemed like the upper limit of what I could even conceive to accomplish. Credit a lot of help from mentors, plenty of time in the bouldering gym last winter, an SPI guide course and exam, great partners, and lots more mileage on the rock with getting strong enough to actually hit that level. I remember thinking about it as a major sort of milestone. As if it might have more fanfare accompanying each send. Yet here I type, having done some of the things I once only wondered about.

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Beta: use those ski legs and stem that thing. Topping out on George and Martha at Frenchman Coulee. Photo: Emily Smith

In the last five days, I’ve fallen off two of my projects, both 5.10b trad leads at our local pile of magical quartzite, Stonehill. It would be very nice to send these. I am genuinely bummed. I think things like, “I’m better than this. I can climb this grade. I’m strong as I’ve ever been, and know things that I never did. My mental game is way better. Why can’t I pull it together?

The answer, of course, offers a few different paths. Those of you who have read The Rock Warrior’s Way will recognize much of what follows. If you haven’t dove in, and you want to improve your experience of any activity were risk and growth go hand in hand, do yourself a huge favor and pick the book up right now.

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Excellent crack technique on the crux of Delirium Tremens at Smith Rock. Photo: Vinny Stowell

Now back to “why I can’t pull it together”:

#1. Climbing is not only about climbing hard; it’s about learning and exploration of both the physical world and personal abilities. It’s easy for me to focus on goals when I’m invested; it’s easy to get attached to the achievement reward of sending a climb. Diving into the redpoint mindset of trying to achieve a benchmark places that success as the highest goal, rather than learning or giving an honest effort.

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Stefan styles the ankle breaker section of Stonehill’s Supercrack shortly after I fell off of it. Photo: Jed Hohf

It’s important to zoom out, in the case of success or failure, and see what it means in the broader scope of what I want to do outside. And thus:

#2. Climbing should not always be hard; such an attitude ignores the fun that comes with enjoying all of the activity. Skiing, and all its wonderful facets, has taught me that it can be fun to play in the terrain park, or ski 20 degree trees, or ride lifts. Once in a while, it’s good to do the work to access big, steep faces deep in the middle of nowhere. But it’s the sum of those parts that matters—value in skiing doesn’t derive only from the hard, scary things that look impressive in photos. Whether I’m guiding, cruising 5.6, or chasing my strong friends up the hard stuff, my climbing needs to be informed by these lessons from the snow.

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#3. It’s easier for me to climb with good mindfulness when it’s well within my perceived “ability range”. But my old habits often take over when I’m climbing something that’s nearer my limit—I tense up, overgrip, don’t breathe as well as I should, and generally let the pressure get to me. So rebuilding my habits when I can dedicate more mental and physical energy to doing it right, ie on climbs where I’m less near my limit, will yield better practice that should translate to better climbing when it’s hard.

#4. Getting better at any mountain activity and participating in the community of that activity means spending time at every level: learning, hanging out with peers, being mentored. Coming into the spring, I felt like my fall had been spent doing things that rarely pushed me super hard. I was teaching. I was mentoring. I worked on being a supportive, helpful peer in the mountains. And I was doing important work, but it was time for me to chase some mentors up hard rocks.

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Harry heads up on his first trad lead of the season at Stonehill. 

That shift in mindset carried me away into focusing on achievement and comparisons, rather than honest effort and learning. Knowing this now gives me the mental weapons to shift the way I think about it next time I jump into the deep end.

#5. Trends of success are less important than trends of learning and giving a good effort. I find this particularly poignant now: my first climbing trip of the season to Frenchman Coulee saw me send a 10a lead that bucked me off last year. I managed to send 10b a few weeks later at Smith Rock, and felt pretty dang proud of that.

Some 10d bolts leads here at home and Smith had me thinking that 10b trad should be doable—when the send trend was broken, I got frustrated. It felt like I was slipping backwards, or somehow missing the boat. It felt like the effort I invested had been a sham. Instead:

#6. This is the biggest takeaway: in falling off, I didn’t fail. My success streak didn’t end; it just meant that learning shifted from “oh wow I can do this” to “it’s time to analyze and get better.” It’s good that I fell, because it emphasized the particular area I need to improve. See #3.

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Topping out on Zebra/Zion at Smith Rock. 

Addendum:

Grades. I obsess about sandbagged grades and benchmarks, as only a kid who had his apple juice measured to make sure I was getting as much as other kids can. But the bigger thing is that I’m sick of my ego getting involved in my athletic pursuits. I don’t want to compete with anybody but myself. Grades make such competition easy. But what kind of fulfilling joy comes from turning climbing into a constant opportunity to try really hard to keep up with other people? Or to get down on myself when I’m not constantly improving? Repeat answer #6.

Addendum #2:

My last post talked about how I need to blog as a method of thinking through emotions, thoughts, experiences outside of paid writing. This is an exercise in that kind of writing-as-thinking. It feels like navel-gazing, somewhat. However, my bet is that other people may see themselves in this kind of experience. I also want to showcase my own frustration and process; I don’t want to preach the value of struggle while somehow pretending that I’m above it.

Addendum #3: Dear partners, please take more pictures of me falling. They’re highly relevant to posts like this.

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On mental mass: Split Mountain

Some mountains manage to cast a mental shadow that dwarfs their physical bulk. Maybe they tap into some strange, specific foreboding that we harbor. Perhaps they tie into a wild story we heard told by someone we respect. Sometimes they live a legend all their own, and to climb them is to weave your own rope and route into all the chaotically braided others.

There are perhaps a dozen truly technical major summits here at home in Glacier National Park; mountains where you really do want a rope and protection and the knowledge of how to use them. But because the vast majority of the high points force climbers to focus more on route finding up ledges and chimneys of first-rate choss, the few where the rope makes it into my pack seem to stand out a bit more.

Split Mountain is one of those technical peaks. It cuts an imposing profile from any angle, especially its most commonly viewed direction from the St. Mary area. From Almost A Dog Pass, the view is triangularly similar: steep, layered cliff bands forming a pyramid that’s crowned with the titular, halved summit block. I’d heard reports from friends at the Park Cafe a few years ago about the upper section and more recently, Ben Darce has been up there more than any normal climber should be.

Any one of them would have been happy to give me their thoughts on the climb and what to bring. However, the aforementioned mental shadow it cast merited a bit of a more sporting sort of trip. I’ve been lucky to learn a lot more about placing trad gear and alpine route finding in the past couple of years—it was time to test it out. Time to see if what I’ve learned would hold up without the beta from others, even in the shadow of how I thought about Split. I did manage to track down the partially helpful info on Split in the Edwards guide, put together a light alpine rack, and Beth and I took off from the Cut Bank trailhead at 9am without much idea of what exactly we were getting ourselves into.


Split from Triple Divide Pass, spring 2014


Split from Triple Divide Pass, July 5th, 2016

It’s worth noting that this trip report will totally ruin some of the surprises we found and the same sort of exploratory spirit I wanted to have up there. If you want an interesting experience without the benefit of the photos/info to follow, here’s the bare basics:

-Approaching from Triple Divide Pass is closer, and probably easier.
-Bring a light alpine rack and longer draws
-Bring a skinny 70m rope.
-Bring 20-30ft of tat in case you find the anchors wreckaged or lacking.
-Have fun!

Ok. Spoilers ahead.

Things were smooth in the Cut Bank valley, and Beth and I kept the pace brisk up to Triple Divide Pass on a trail that wasn’t as massively muddy or filled with bear sign as the last time I went in.  I’ve never actually been to Red Eagle Lake, or approached the pass from that direction, but the long flats in the beginning turned me off from heading in that way. Triple Divide offered more up and down, which appeals, you know? Plus, as the name indicates, Triple Divide Mtn divides the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay watersheds from its summit. The whole Continental Divide thing is a bit less cool when you live and play on it constantly, but it’s neat to note.


Looking south from Triple Divide Pass.

We dropped down a few switchbacks on the north side of the pass, then glissaded the rest of the way until we were in the meadows near the moraines on the west side of the basin. It’s pretty easy to visualize the whole basin traverse from the pass—another reason to go that way.

From the slopes above Blueing Lake, talus and scree slopes plus some very minor vegetation offer access to the algal reef, a grayish band of rock that you can’t miss because you’ll need to find one the better spots to ascend/descend through it.


Beth looks down into the basin and back at Triple Divide Pass.


Walking up the summit ridge from the southwest.

Beth and I hit the top of the ridge and traversed towards the major castle of Split, climbing the loose ledge 3rd/4th class scrambling so classic to the upper sections of many of Glacier’s peaks.

Once we traversed around the south side of the upper castle and entered the big, eponymous slot, the climbing got real. Beth and I both soloed face/stem moves (5.8?) instead of removing packs to worm up the two sloping chimneys (probably 4th/5th), which proved attention getting with the way the slope drops away to the meadows below Red Eagle Pass. The “chockstone” mentioned in the Edwards description is above both of these.


Post-sloping-soloing face.

Quotation marks, in this case, indicate that the chockstone is more like a giant pile of debris wedged poorly into the split. Somebody slung the biggest chunk a while back, but it makes for a dodgy rap anchor and even more questionable as a belay point to bring somebody up from below. Some knifeblades and angles in the wall above could probably be donated to the cause, and if I head up there again, I’d improve it a bit.

I racked up on the “chockstone” while Beth did a bit of shivering—it’s a wind tunnel in there. For me, the expanded ability to protect 5th class climbing in the alpine comes from the cragging and trad climbing I’ve done over the past couple years. I’ve little doubt that a properly strong climber could free solo any of the technical routes in Glacier, but I want a bigger safety margin than that. Thus, it’s pretty amazing to take familiar climbing tools and apply them in our local alpine environment. The rock leaves a ton to be desired if you grew up on anything igneous—protection can be sparse and creative (or just plain bad), but I really do love the process of piecing it all together. It’s home. It’s funky. It’s ours.

It was also a good moment to take stock of how the climbing, in its physical actuality, stacked up against the mental thing I’d made of Split. Once there, in the moment, connected to rock and solving the problems of getting from A to B in little successions, the large problem of climbing a mountains becomes a series of small problems. Pulling out the microscope, I’ve heard it called. And in those moments, where the world is no bigger than the little bubble of what do I stand on now and what is next, focus blurs out the rest of the questions and its just one small solution stacked atop the next until a mountain mostly stands beneath my feet.

Edwards speaks of traversing out above 1900ft of exposure while climbing the upper section, which has to mean that he traversed out onto the NE face. Pretty bold. I skipped the exposure, and opted to climb up the right side though the slot, stemming and then pulling face moves up some broken silliness while placing a red c3 and #1 c4 (both solid) on long slings. There’s probably more options for protection there, but by then I was at the upper rap anchor. A pile of choss and a .5 c4 provided a top anchor, and I brought Beth up to the summit block.

The views are pretty dang neat, especially of the smaller lakes beneath the sheer drop off the NE face. Beth and I looked back at Almost A Dog pass, where we’d been a couple weeks previous. Perhaps the wildest thing about the summit are the numerous large cracks and slots in the major rock itself—the whole thing feels like a big house of cards, and just sitting around doesn’t inspire much confidence in that part of me that wonders about the whole dang thing falling apart.

As I’ve written before, it’s such an honor to get to climb with my sister. Some people do family dinners, or reunions, or get together for a weekend, but the best thing about these sorts of adventures is that they offer even more time to think, talk, and build incredible, shared experiences in life. Beth pushed through a bunch of fear to make it up there, pulled some hard moves, and given that it was her fourth summit in Glacier, she’s off to a killer start. It’s a wonderful thing to get to combine the outdoor things I want to do with the people in my family.

We rapped off the double anchor on the E side of the split, and then again off the “chockstone”, but kept our feet on the walls most of the way for the second one. Both rope pulls went smooth, and we saw success retracing our route through the upper cliffs and algal reef.

From there, the traverse back to the trail went smoothly. It’s not proper screeing, but the footing is generally fine and there’s probably water there year round so you can fill back up for the hike back out. Once back on the path, the late hour meant that we kicked into high gear, blasted over the pass, and then down the other side and out the flats with no bear sign and even more good conversation to pass the quick miles.


We’re-gonna-rocket-out-the-trail-post-summit face.

Beth tried to change one of my car headlights at the trailhead, we couldn’t get the old bulb out, but just jiggling the apparatus made it come back on. Then, we missed closing at the St. Mary grocery store and I cursed all available malevolent deities for the lack of the Park Cafe. Seriously, St. Mary is badly in need of a food renaissance.

All told, our day was just over 21 miles, and in the neighborhood of 6300ft of gain/loss. Thanks again to Beth for coming along and crushing it, and also to Ben Darce for making me want to make it up there.

http://www.movescount.com/moves/move114026737

To find a foothold: a noob’s primer to Idaho’s City of Rocks

“That’s not a foothold. No way. You can’t just smear on that and move up.”

It was a cycle: I’d be climbing, sort of cruising, then hit a hard spot in a grade I thought I knew I could climb. First, I’d look down quizzically at the strange granite under my feet, searching for the edges that typically signal a proper foot placement in the rocks I normally climb. Not finding them, I’d perform the second step by reviewing the state of protection somewhere below the questionable way my feet were plastered on the rock. Sometimes it was a bomber cam, sometimes a spinning bolt. Then, I’d finish the routine with a string of curses, place my feet in the not-holds, and push off towards what felt like a certain lead fall down the sharp, slabby crystals. To my surprise, the final fall never actually happened, despite eight days of climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks and nearby Castle Rocks State Park.


Leading Batwings, 5.8 Photo by Jed Hohf

The City, as it’s more locally known, looks like some massive dog did its granite business all over the 6000ft verdant hills in southern Idaho. Blobs of a granite pluton poke through the surface soil to make for an immense playground of sticky, patina’d, crack-infested climbing that still has an exceptionally frontier feel to it: entry was free, the well went rusty on day three, camping is primitive, and forget about cell reception. Oh, and the wind blew and everything was dusty, even when it rained. I half expected John Wayne to show up (not wearing lycra (John Wayne Never Wore Lycra is a route there)) and start sending next to us. No tumbleweeds heralded his coming though.

A long, long time ago, the California Trail passed through the area and left wagon wheel ruts still visible in the exposed rock along the route. It was a popular westward pioneer route similar to the Oregon Trail, so some enterprising folks also signed their names on the rocks in axle grease. Somewhere around the hundred year mark, graffiti gains historic significance or something.

I didn’t sign the rocks with anything but sweat and chalk, or whatever impression a hasty round of swearing leaves while on lead. But the pioneer theme continued: I arrived in the modern day equivalent of a covered wagon (John’s mid-conversion Sprinter Van), and left in a station wagon stuffed to the gills with people moving to Montana for the summer. We wore tights like the pioneers (of many the routes in the ‘80s and ‘90s) did. And for the first five days or so, I climbed like a man in a distant country, repeating my stange cycle as I lead haltingly upwards.


Following John up Morning Glory, 5.8  Photo by Jed Hohf

Twain famously commented that traveling is fatal to prejudice. He was correct: last spring, I finally had a showdown with the granite crack climbing I’d avoided at home. Leavenworth and the Idaho Selkirks left me walking away with bloody knuckles and a determination to get a trad rack and start stuffing my poor hands into the rock more better-er. Which shows that traveling is both fatal to my prejudices and also a bit like Stockholm syndrome: first I hated the “hard” footwork at the City and was scared, then I was less scared, and then I grew to love the way that I could throw a smear on nearly anything and just stand up. That just does not work on quartzite, as I found out while scrabbling around on some home turf routes last week.


John works on his professor look.

Of course, the best case scenario for willies on the sharp end is to have been put there by a climbing buddy who knows your abilities better than you do. I had the good fortune to climb for the first five days with John G., a self-professed “old school trad climber” who works sorcery with small wires and leads well into the 5.11 range. 5.11 represents strong belaying for me. Yet me climbing mid-5.11 is board certified struggle-bussing. John is classic mentor material. He looks dashing in a sending sweater and Italian capris (of stretch fabric with reinforced knee patches). And better still, we laughed the whole time. I owe most of the progress I made down there to John and trying to keep up with him. Thanks John; I’ll get your pug “Top Dawg” mug back to the van sometime soon.


John leads Hairstyles and Attitudes, 5.11a at Castle Rocks. Photo by Devin Schmit


John does the pensive on Bath Rock.

John and I were hardly the only folks from the Flathead to make the trip to the City that week. Devin and Chris camped in the parking lot next to us. The Sherman and Cox clans put up their tenth straight year of climbing trips to the City, which represents the right way to raise your kids. Jed Hohf and his wife Carlie were there, Joe and his wife Kat (who need to go back to Smith), alongside a couple of gents I’ve met at the gym and since forgotten their names (sorry guys!).


Devin heads up on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b


Chris Russell on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b

Friendly faces continued at camp for the second half of the week. My sister Beth and her partner Matt rolled in from Seattle to meet my dad and stepmom, who came up from Logan. Then, in a seriously impressive display of intuitive thinking, my friend Akina made the drive up from SLC and instantly found us climbing with my dad at Practice Rock. All of the City to comb through, yet there she was.


Beth’s hammock at our second campsite. Photo by Akina Johnson

The arrival of family and Akina meant that I switched from chasing John into the role of showing folks around. We did some of the classics. Matt did his first proper multi pitch and first double rappel for his first route at the City on Raindance. The crew especially enjoyed Stripe Rock, climbing Cruel Shoes in two teams (5.7 bliss bolts the whole way).


Beth and I at the rap anchor for Cruel Shoes, 5.7 Photo by Akina Johnson

My favorite climb of the trip, though, was going up the spine of Stripe Rock (5.4?) with my dad. We did four pitches between super scant belay spots. I built a different kind of anchor every time. I forgot the camera, but not the look on my dad’s face when he topped out. Very lucky and gratifying to see him get back into climbing some thirty years after he last roped up.

Yet family and good travel partners don’t solve the bizarre and gap around 5.9 climbing at the City. Maybe it’s just the way the rock works, in that most of the granite flat enough to warrant a 5.9 slab has had much of the patina worn down, which seems to push it into harder or easier grades. Then, the steeper buckets that might be 5.9 often fall into the 5.8 realm, a catch-all for a frighteningly wide array of diverse and interesting climbing at the City. If nothing else, it stretched my mind out.


A nighttime climb of Private Idaho, 5.9 Photo by Devin Schmit

And similarly: all the stick clip toters at Smith Rock complaining about high first bolts should probably take a visit to the City, where my peasant notions about running it out right off the deck were quickly crushed and left to die. Take New York Is Not The City (5.10 or 5.9) as an example: a quick V2 move right off the deck leads to 40ft of unprotected, easy climbing. The first bolt is probably 50ft up there. If you need a place to challenge your gym climbing notions or refocus your understanding of the YDS, the City should be high on your list. Good skills with small TCUs and wires can cut down the runouts in many places, as John well proved.

The guidebook makes much mention of how the contentious practices and ideals of sport climbing were seen during the eighties and nineties at the City. However, with the advent of the area as a National Reserve (it’s still managed as a state park of Idaho), route development ran into a permitting process that seems to have slowed development to a glacial crawl. I’m keen to learn more about it, but it seems that most of the current work going into new routes and keeping up older ones is going on at Castle Rock State Park (which you should also visit) nearby. Expect some spinning bolts in various states of mank at the City. There’s a feeling of climbing inside of a time capsule, of visiting a different era of what rock climbing was.


Following John up some route in the Crackhouse area of Castle Rocks. He placed a hex in impeccable style, and then used a British accent for the rest of the climb. Photo by Devin Schmit

A note on cords: John and I wandered around the City for days with two 70m ropes in tow. Many of the climbs can’t even be toproped with a 70, so be prepared to tag line and double rope rap consistenly. Don’t bring a single 60m and be that climber.

Details I haven’t covered yet:

-Entry is free, yet camping overnight is part of an arcane and somewhat mystical process of reservations that you should take care of in advance. The park suggests that two cars, two tents, and eight people are somehow able to coexist in one camping spot—good luck making that happen.

-Pit toilets are near most the camping, but not all of it. A couple different water options meant it was fine when our well (at Bath Rock) went orange on day three.

-Showers, spotty cell reception, and a smattering of spendy groceries are available in Almo, as well as a hot spring that we didn’t visit. Definitely do your grocery shopping someplace much bigger before the trip.

-It’s high-ish desert: bring the salve/lotion, because you’re going to need it.

Recommended routes that we did (that I remember):

Five.fun

Bath Rock’s rebar route is the shortest via ferrata ever. Very worth it.

If you like long, flat, unprotectable runouts, the spine of Stripe rock can be done in 3-4 pitches between good gear anchor sections. My dad loved it. Bring a singles rack .3-4” and some big slings, plus two ropes to get down. 70m crosses the pitches well.

5.6-7

Raindance
Adolescent Homosapien
Intruding Dike
Wheat Thin
Cruel Shoes

5.8a-d

Rye Crisp
Carol’s Crack
Delay of Game
Batwings
Morning Glory
Fred Rasmussen
Too Much Fun

5.9

Private Idaho
Mystery Bolter
Scream Cheese

5.10

Bloody Fingers
Thin Slice
Lost Pioneers
Tribal Boundaries
Deez Guys
New York Is Not The City

5.11
Cairo

Huge thanks to all the partners, friends, and family for a killer trip. Also thanks to all the photographers who took photos when my single camera battery died.

Closing the gap: the community’s role in outdoor learning

Every activity, for every one of us, had a starting point: where we were wandering in, excited, and looking to make a good start at something new. And to make that start easier, many of the sports or activities out there have quite a bit in terms of structure. Coaches, leagues, a team or group of similarly minded people, referees to watch the rules—these are familiar things to our broader society.

Many outdoor pursuits have their similar share of organized entry points: scout troops, university clubs, climbing gyms, mountaineering groups. Maybe an uncle introduces you to rock climbing or a family fascination with the outdoors teaches you to backpack or ski while growing up. Parents impart their knowledge, and you learn from them what to pack and when to turn around because of weather.

But unlike soccer or speech and debate, most of what we do outside doesn’t require a membership or any kind of organization. There are some rules, but largely, it’s free form. Even with no prior experience, you could drop the coin for a trad rack or downhill bike right now and proceed to kill yourself with it this weekend. It’s a bit harder to pull that off with a soccer ball in a rec league.

Thus, the dark side of the freedom of the hills is that an uninformed beginner faces a vacuum of knowledge complimented by risk, without a mandatory community or the safety net such a community can help to provide. There’s a gap between experience and excitement.

It’s very possible to bumble and luck your way to some level of experience in nearly any activity outside; I’ve certainly done my share of it. However, I’ve had plenty of situations that I look back on as excessively risky. Margins of safety got too thin. I trusted things to work out, and they did. But the byproduct is that I want my risk-taking to be calculated, not just the product of chance and hoping. Decisions about risk, for me, should be the result of knowledgable processing that considers and knows the factors involved whether it’s travel in avalanche terrain or making decisions about what to pack for a backpacking trip.

Getting better requires an open mindset—we have to admit that we make mistakes, that we can improve. That’s the first step. Any veteran will tell you that they are constantly learning and applying new things, as the risks dictate that those who don’t won’t last long in the mountains. An open and engaged mind is the most essential piece of gear you’ll need, even though it’s never listed in the buyers’ guides.

The second logical step is that, just like in soccer or any of the organized activities in this world, it falls to the skiing, climbing, or whatever outdoor community to close the gaps in people’s experience. Once you want to learn, you need people to teach you, challenge you, and push you to build your skills and enhance your decision making whatever your level of knowledge.

There are the schools, guides, or clubs that can get you going, and there’s much to be said for groups and professional instruction. I’ve spent two weeks this spring learning from professionals (a three day AMGA Single Pitch Instructor course with KAF Adventures and an eight day Wilderness First Responder course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine) and every single minute was very well worth the expense and time. I’d highly recommend both of those companies to anyone interested in what they offer.

However, you shouldn’t live your outdoor life paying to be constantly guided, or doing things only within the comfort of one organized group. It’s important to own the experience and make the decisions that determine success and failure, because without doing it yourself, those the trips, ideas, and successes aren’t truly yours.

The best way to own those experiences and learn outside, to my mind, is to participate in that outdoor community. I’ve made explicit the general, informal structure of how my outdoor world works in hopes of creating a loose model for understanding how we play different roles for different people. My theory is that when we identify these categories, we notice who we need to spend more time with, who might be missing from our experiences, or grow to understand our own place within the community of our less formal sports or activities. These roles break down into three broad categories that anyone can occupy, sometimes simultaneously—while you read, think of who fits these spots for you, or where you fit for other people.

Cohorts

These are your buddies, often about your age: the co-conspirators on speed dial. They’ve got a similar bent, similar amounts of experience, the same goals. These gals or guys send you pictures of ski lines or new singletrack that get you dropping house chores to get in the car. Maybe the ones you ditch your boy/girlfriend/spouse for, or if you’re lucky, they include your significant other.

Without them, you’ve got no belay, no shuttle driver, and nobody to share the experience when you puke and have to walk out in the rain. They want to learn, just like you. You watch their back: you ask to check their harness or you want to dig the pit they want to skip. They watch yours: took their Level II avie cert or swift water rescue in guide training, and since you’re definitely coming with, you’ll practice crevasse rescue at camp tonight. They push you to learn, call you on your faults, and genuinely care about you and what you’re doing together.

This group can never get big enough. You want cohorts with similar schedules. You want people who are your skill level in every activity you want to do. Easier done in SLC or Boulder then in Podunk-hasn’t-blown-up-yet-but-the-touring’s-sick (this is where I live). Introduce yourself, share your beer, be friendly/outgoing at the campground/trailhead, and don’t forget to grab numbers so you can follow through on that idea you realized you both had. I’ve met a ton of my cohorts while out in the middle of nowhere.

You can spend, as far as I can tell, as much time as you want with your cohorts outside without feeling the drain of teaching/being taught.

Skip the jerks, the batshit insane, and the ones you don’t trust. This goes for every group, but definitely don’t let them into this circle.

Mentors

These are the people you respect. Often, they’re older than you. They’ve been around. Been placing passive pro since long before you were born. Skied everything you’ve been drooling over in the Chuting Gallery. Since some of their Cohorts have probably died out there, they’re more careful than you, and manage to have just as much fun.  They don’t like to suffer like they used to, so they got efficient and went lightweight.

Most importantly, they have to want to pass their knowledge off to squids like you. Not all of them do, so when you find one, keep up, learn fast, offer to carry the heavy stuff, and curb your inner, puppy-like enthusiasm when it annoys them. Introduce your Cohorts to them, and add to the learning and fun.

If you’re a Mentor, the inexperienced are your opportunity to give back. You’ve made it this far, and you know the joys and sorrows of doing what it is you do at a high level. In my mind, getting to know such joys means I owe it to people looking to learn to help them raise their personal bar. You the don’t want the future to place cams wrong, ski without their avie gear, or—heaven forbid—take up soccer instead. So dive in and help them get there.

Find Mentors who understand and respect your limits, and will gently push you to better them occasionally. Believe in yourself when they do this.

You’ll learn more from these folks than you ever will in a book. Listen, watch, and ask intelligent questions. Pay for gas, coffee, whatever it takes, and for the love all the adventures you have under the wide sky, thank them.

You might be the best XC rider around, but if you’re headed out climbing for the first time, it’s good to listen to Mentors—who may be younger than you. This goes for any switch in activities: it’s a great opportunity to get humble and remember what it’s like to start out.

Mentors will probably teach you life lessons too. Things like how to check in with your wife. When the housing market is better. How to organize having kids and still crushing you on the skin track. Maybe they’ll even get you your next job.

Be wary and skeptical—mentors can and have made mistakes before. Do your best to understand what they’re thinking, and if it’s consistently outside your comfort zone or downright wrong, find somebody else. A good mentor welcomes questions and clues you in to their thinking.

Respect that Mentors are probably doing less difficult/rad/interesting activities so that they can bring you along, and that too much of this may drive them a little crazy. There’s an ease to playing with your cohorts and peers, to not explaining everything, that sometimes doesn’t happen in the Mentor/Up and Comer dynamic. Thank them, and don’t feel slighted when they want to go and do things that hit more on their level.

Anyone with experience can be a Mentor. Teaching what you do helps you learn it better. That said, be damn sure that what you are teaching is dialed, and that you know enough to teach it properly.

Up and Comers

These are the friends or acquaintances who haven’t been out the backcountry gate. Maybe younger than you. Only climbed indoors. Never backpacked, but done a couple day hikes. Maybe they’ve no experience at all, but are keen to try it out. They’re slow, they’re clumsy, and they don’t know this yet, so be patient. They stalk your Instagram or heard a story about you and wish they could do the same cool stuff.

So if you’re a Mentor, cool your jets for a day, help them sort the gear, and take them out. Pack the lunch. Carry the rack. And somewhere between the trailhead and top, you’ll realize that, as a Mentor, sharing what gets you so stoked is a thrill just as cool as doing it yourself. When they unlock the crux or safely make the summit, you got to contribute to that look in their eyes. You want to change someone’s life? Want to change the world for someone? Help an Up and Comer do the things they dream about.

Success builds on success. Good experiences keep Up and Comers coming back excited, while bad ones nip fun in the bud. If you’re a Mentor, keep this in mind during your trip planning. Don’t push them too hard, but don’t slight them either. Pick good weather. Ask dumb questions to make sure they brought the right stuff. Be extra dialed to allow for their junkshow.

Up and Comers need their Mentors to focus on their experience, so a Mentor can’t be too personally invested in making the top or sending five projects that day. Encourage communication, consistently check in, and if your bizarre idea is too scary or wild or too far outside their comfort zone, you need to be willing to turn around.

Up and Comers: too much time with Mentors will drain you, tire you out, or maybe even lessen your enjoyment. Maybe they simply go harder than you ever want to. Notice this, and be sure to form your own Cohorts that are on the same page.

To me, a healthy, multi-activity outdoor life includes active participation with Cohorts, Mentors, and Up and Comers. It’s the best way to receive and give back to the communities you play in. Anything else seems like poor stewardship of getting to go and do these kinds of things—it seems like hoarding the gift.

However, there are plenty of people who want to be in their little clique, don’t want to share what they do or where they go, and aren’t interested in the broader community of their sport. I disagree with this ethic, but I do respect people’s time and personal relationship with the things they do outside. So when you meet folks who don’t want to be part of the broader community or won’t let you in, just know they’re having less fun in their little corner and keep marching on.

This post is dedicated to all the Mentors who have spent their time and energy and money to teach me their cagey ways, the Cohorts who called my bluff or pushed me hard or believed in my crazy idea, and to all the Up and Comers for flashing those grins and sharing the stoke when they made that little breakthrough with big results. I would be dead or way less happy without all of you. Thanks to all of you for making this outdoor life so much sweeter, and here’s to the next time we get out.

McDonald Peak: Extra dimensions in the shrubberies

There’s a basic truth to nearly every blog: they’re all in need of an update. I’ve not posted anything adventure-based since Jack’s fall, but that’s mostly because I’ve been busy collecting adventures to write about. No other excuses there.

My gamble continues to be that people want to read in-depth, long-form content about the things that I do outside. There’s a necessary contrast to the soundbite mentality that inflects too much of the media I regularly consume. Maybe Skinning with bear spray is too long for some people. Maybe I ramble too much. But if I’m to be mediated here–packaged as who I deliver myself to be to those who only know me through what they read on the internet–then I’m going to try to show that honestly, completely. Not always a simple endeavor, or easy. I’m going to take my time to do it, and I’m going to own that need to take time.

So that said, let’s crank this thing back up, and bounce back to three days after I came out of the Belly River post-accident. While down at RMO, Matt Brake asked about going up McDonald Peak in the Missions. We’d be considering a later date, but suddenly Wednesday was open. I was headed down the Swan Valley anyway to spend Fourth of July with family, so a day trip from that side worked into our plan. I woke up too late, arrived at our meet spot late, and we left the trailhead at least an hour after we’d targeted. Matt was very gracious about all this, which is appreciated.

The window to climb McDonald is a little narrower than other local options. Because it rests on tribal land, we both got permits from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (available anywhere you can get a fishing or hunting license) to be able to legally climb. Beyond that, the alpine closes on July 15th to keep the bears undisturbed as they climb up and gorge themselves on the insects that go up high to mate and reproduce. Imagine grizzly bears with paws covered in ladybugs. Big bear tongues licking bugs off the talus. I’m not even making this up.

Neither of us had much sleep the night before: he’d been helping a friend move. I’d been up late packing, or something. We were both pretty dang chipper as we set off from the Kraft Creek trailhead. It’s a few switchbacky miles from there up to Heart Lakes, the place were we’d set off on the cross country trek.


Looking across lower Heart Lake.

McDonald is the highest peak in the range, and boasts a seriously long ski descent off the NW side of the summit. I figured that’d be the way that I first came up, but the other side sounded interesting too. Plus, it had been years since I’d been up high in the Missions. The trail quickly gave way to some schwacking over rock slabs on the NW side of upper Heart Lake. It wasn’t bad going. In hindsight, we should have gone back this way.

There’s a pass you angle towards. We ended up sidehilling much of the last half mile, but I’m not convinced there’s a way better route. Unless there’s a major game trail that we missed from the lakes below. Maybe it was just easy going because of the conversation: Matt and I have known each other for a while. He once orchestrated an operation that let me try on three different pairs of hiking boots while I was posted up for eleven weeks at a backcountry chalet. My mom hiked them in, I picked the ones that fit the best, and then had boots for the summer. But we’d never adventured together. He’s an introspective, deep-thinking dude–just the kind of guy that makes trail disappear underfoot as the talk distracts from the repetition of step after step.

They’re serious about the signage: this big thing is all the way up at the pass, way off any developed trail. A higher vantage seemed helpful in scouting our route down, so we leveled up to see this:

From the pass, we’d be working our way around Cliff Lake in the foreground, then ascending the left ridge. On the way back down to the pass, I found a little ski line:

A nice game trail drops right out of the saddle and steeply descends to the lake. You could probably fall over and roll right down the thing. We then detoured left around the south end, going up and over a cliff band to avoid a bit of deep water soloing. Maybe you’re noticing a trend: this was the right way to go. I’d recommend going back this way too. It was so good I even drew in a little red line.

Things get a little strange in the bottom, but eventually we popped out and had to cross a creek. I watched Matt move a decent sized tree that had been ripped out by avalanche to make a bridge–the stream washed it away as we looked on. We hopped across with an athletic jump and trekking poles.

It’s immense country up there, and pretty dang remote. No official trails reach into the basin. The base of the mountain is perhaps eight miles from the trailhead. So there aren’t many people to appreciate the splendor of waterfalls like this one:

Recommendations suggested following the rock rib up the SE side of the mountain, but as we got up there, both Matt and I noted the lovely ramp of snow that lead right up to the top. No scrambling or fussing needed. Might as well use the spikes we’d hauled in, right?

Given the slide that Jack had taken, perhaps steep snow travel should have bothered me more. I remember thinking a bit about it, but not worrying. Route finding was easy. The going was simple and we made great time up the switchbacks I kicked in. Looking up the face:

Matt higher up.

Nothing steeper than forty degrees had us cresting the top pretty quickly. The summit plateaus on the SE side, and with a bit of ridgewalking, we were up top.

Glacier summits have a lot of familiarity for me–each top has its place within its fellows. I recognize other spots, and connect dots. McDonald was very different. Dropping off the west, the valley floor nearly six thousand feet below feels a bit removed due to the lateral distance. None of the surrounding peaks are imbued with the memories of climbing up them; it’s a little exciting and context-less at the same time.

Skiing down in this direction would be so fun–hopefully that’s the mode of transit next time I’m up here.

We’d hit the top in the full of the afternoon, and a nap felt warranted. But the long walk out beckoned. Bailing off the top was plenty fun though: nice glissading lead into putting our spikes back on for the steeper pitch, only to pull them off and slide our way down the less wild lower portion.

For anyone following along, this is where we should have followed our tracks in. Instead, we thought that the ridge on the NW side of Cliff Lake somehow looked connected–nevermind that our idea didn’t square with the map, or how water flows downhill. Maybe we were tired from less sleep. Traversing climber’s right, we got way over there and committed before realizing how wrong we were. Going all the way around the north side the lake was our option. The true adventure of the day was just starting.

At least that waterfall was still gorgeous.

Crossing the foot of the lake saw us walking on the raft of somewhat floating logs. A bit nerve wracking.

From there, we had a steep gain to what looked like a connected ridge. Instead, a series of three or four up and downs tested our patience. The bugs were out, the sun shown down, and it just plain sucked that we’d made our job of getting out that much harder. I forgot to take any more photos, concentrating on boring straight into the middle of the suffering and just getting out.

The saddle was really nice. We followed a well worn trail we’d missed on the way up, which quickly ran out and left us schwacking through creeks on the south side of the basin. Again, following our route up would be been way better. Clomping down the slippery rocks took on that air of the doom-schwack–surge forward, grab whatever, just keep moving. Mosquitos started to get thick. The terrain kept us from moving fast enough to lose them. Eventually, a good trail by a small lake to the southwest of Heart Lake gave us hope that there’d be a better option.

Nope. Crashing down the steep hillside above the lake, the shrubberies were fully overhead. I’d step down small creek beds, a veggie belay in each hand. The bugs got so bad I put on my shell. Matt continued on, and I’d hear him crashing around ahead of me. Most of my caution was completely gone–it was a pell-mell insane no-holds-barred assault on everything separating me from the trail. Type three fun, for that thirty minutes. Rolling downhill might have honestly been an option–maybe someone will come up with a way to surf across thick vegetation. I’d invest in that.

Finally, I reached the lake. Only to realize that I’d have to go back up and over a cliff that came straight out of the water. Bear trails have a telltale, high-waist sort of height to them, where the brush smacks your face and upper body but nothing touches your legs: I followed one of these around, eventually finding Matt in full rain gear at the foot of the lake, surrounded by every mosquito that has ever existed. This is not hyperbole (ok, it is, but it didn’t feel like it then). The bugs were insane. Twenty of the little bloodsuckers hovered around my face, while  hundreds more crawled on my soft shells, trying to find an opening. It was absurd. We just packed up and got out of there.

Maybe it’s people I climb with, or maybe it’s something I bring to the trips, but most walks out are quiet. Tiredness or eagerness to get done pushed our legs along. We moved fast, eventually lost the bugs, and pulled into the trailhead as things were starting to get darker. I dropped Matt off at his car (he later told me that he had to sleep for a few hours on the side of Swan Lake en route back to Kalispell), while I headed south to our family cabin.

I don’t have exact figures. My guess is that the day is twenty miles, 6000ft ish of gain from the side we went. And for the love of all the mountain sense, follow the easy route back out.

Thanks to Matt for his wonderful company and suggesting the climb–it was an honor to eat summit snacks and suffer alongside him.

His Holy Chossness, Mt. Saint Nicholas

Note: I’ve since returned to St. Nick, and the better climbing beta is available on Mtn Project:

https://www.mountainproject.com/v/ne-ridge-mt-st-nicholas/112077164

Just as they stick up into the sky, certain peaks stick in the imagination. Perhaps they’re aesthetic, or rigorous, or feature in an epic tale told around the dinner table. Rearing heavenwards in the southeast corner of Glacier, Mt. Saint Nicholas certainly fits the bill on all three. Not only is the thumb distinguishable from everything nearby, it’s sort of a family tradition: my grandfather and several uncles have been to the summit. I’ve heard the story of how the first move requires the leader to stand on someone’s shoulders to start the moves at the family dinner table several times, and with such a legacy to follow, it had to happen sometime.

https://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/01/03/the-ghost-of-roommates-past/


https://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/06/03/sloshing-up-mt-stimson/

Most mountaineers that play in Glacier have either climbed St. Nick or say they want to. Earlier this summer, some friends had suggested we make it happen over Labor Day weekend. Having not heard much from them in the week leading up, I got a phone call from Greg Fortin while painting a picket fence for Dave Boye. The weather looked good. We’d have our window. Did I want to go? I’d counted on the week to take care of some projects, including finishing the fence. Thankfully (for my predicament), Dave was turned around by poor timing on St. Nick earlier this year. So if it didn’t happen on time because of a climb, I figured he’d understand.

And at six the next morning, it was on. St. Nick is on the right.

Much like our soggy trip into Stimson this spring, St. Nick would require crossing both the Middle Fork and Coal Creek (twice) on the approach. Instead of the fiasco of wandering through the woods with a pack raft in tow, we were lucky to be able to ford. Greg takes to the chilly morning waters.

Amazing what a few months of melting and drainage can do. The place were Greg is standing was under ten feet of spring runoff when I last skinned by it. The trail disappeared into the chilly pond, only to remerge on the other side. Funny that it leaves a grassy meadow for later in the year.



Undesignated permit in hand (or, more accurately, in pack), we planned to camp in the saddle north of the peak that first night. After an early start the next day, we’d climb, summit, and head back out. At least that was the plan. Before we could even start the technical climbing that gives St. Nick the mystique to back up its grandeur, an 11 mile, 5000ft approach was on the menu.

As we walked in, I pondered the newness of the situation. Though I’ve been doing plenty of climbing this season, “climbing” in Glacier usually means a decent approach, 3K-6K feet of scree, bushwhacking, and a bit of scrambling to keep the “climber” honest. I’d guess that there’s ten named peaks in Glacier that actually require technical rock work or glacier travel to reach. St. Nick is one of the few where the standard route involves multipitch alpine trad climbing. My cragging seldom wanders into the multi pitch realm, and my trad leading experience was precisely zilch. Offering to carry half of the rack alongside one of the ropes was a partial token of thanks to all the leading that Greg would be doing. However, after looking at Mt. Sir Donald on Rogers Pass the previous weekend, I needed to see if alpine rock was really something I could do. And as we wandered down the valley through the wet morning grass, I knew that if it proved too much, we’d bail and come back when I was ready.

Our approach took us about three miles past the Coal Creek backcountry campground. From there, we dropped off the trail, and went straight into the Fire Swamp. Though the fire didn’t seem particularly active, I kept a watchful eye out for R.O.U.Ses and barely pulled Greg from some Lightning Sand.

Finally pushing up the other bank and out of the devil’s club was a joy. It turns out that we were off route–a better plan is to follow the ridge top just to the west of the main stream draining the NW bowl of St. Nick. Most of the game go there. Since it’s a ridge, the deadfall are stacked right on the ground instead of being lifted in the air–thanks to Greg for finding it on our way out. Instead, we forged ahead. And were well rewarded for our efforts.

Not R.O.U.Ses, but H.O.U.Ses–Huckleberries Of Unusual Size. Some friends have been calling the bushes “hucklecherries” this season, and it fits. Most of the ones we found were of the gargantuan variety–which slowed our progress, but not in a frustrating way.

Fire whipped through this area some years ago. Many of the trees in the bowl we ascended were completely torched, which changed the avalanche dynamics of those forested slopes. Slides had come through, leveling whole swaths of trees in the exact same direction, cutting right through groves that probably hadn’t seen such activity for quite a while.

Then the forest ended, and we were into a large rock field decidedly lacking in delicious fruit bushes. Near the top, I filtered four liters and stuffed them into my much heavier pack–we guessed that the saddle campsite wouldn’t have water, and were kind of right.

Impressively, the last thousand feet were a frustrating bit of scree work, alternated with slippery rocks and route finding up the chutes. I would have been lost on the way down had Greg not known the way, so I’d mark it well on the way up. I was expecting to be way high on a ridge with an epic view down into a valley–the lake and plateau that instead showed up were even more interesting.

Looking south. Central high point is an unnamed peak north of Church Butte, and the craggy ridge is Salvage Mountain.

Once we’d ate dinner, Greg went off to the snowfields below the pass to get some more water. He took a wander on this way back up to see the plateau behind the ridge in the above photo, and came back quite excited about some grassy patches of flat turf that seemed much more protected than the windy, rocky options in the saddle.

Greg headed out to the better spot.

Of course, it was a pretty rough spot, with the blasé views you generally get around here.

A quick trip up to the ridge for sunset left us contemplating the last thousand feet or so–it certainly looked impressive.

I totally relish sleeping outside, but some places carry the beary bogeyman with them. Brilliant stars shown down. The Milky Way splashed across the sky, changing positions every time I woke up. An unusual amount of shooting stars skittered their way through the atmosphere. Right around three AM, I looked over to see greenish Northern Lights decorating the north horizon. And through it all, I remained subtly convinced that the rustling of my sleeping bag in the breeze was the sound of a bear crunching through scree. Sort of a ridiculous thing to worry about, because even if it was, what was there to do? Nevertheless, it was there. And I totally slept through most of Greg yelling at me to get up for the sunrise.

But not all of it. And Greg caught me looking really spiffy.

The snow Greg put in our water bottles the night before had melted some. After a hurried breakfast and repack, we were off to the races. There’s quite a bit of gain from the saddle to the Great Notch, where the rope work starts, and we definitely had our share of route finding difficulties. Last time Greg was here, eight inches of snow fell while he was trying to get to the mountain, and he had to fix extensive portions of line to get his team out safely on the slippery rock. As we climbed up, he recognized a few pieces of sling and cordelette that he’d left in those heinous conditions.

There’s a bit of info available on the Summitpost page for different routes, but not much in the way of actual explanation for the Northeast Ridge. Anytime an obstacle is reached on the ridge approaching the Notch, we detoured to the south side, staying pretty high on each detour. There’s a couple bits of stiff class 3 en route. But pretty soon, you pop out on the little summit to the north of the Great Notch, and it’s party time. Just before, take a look up the cliffs, and if the slings are still there, it’s easy to spot the first two belay stations–boulders with nice ledges and good spacing. The vaunted first move is, at worst, a 5.8 overhang with poor feet. A small stack of rocks helped us, but once you slug through a couple hard moves on big handholds, it’s way easier.

I circled the belay stations in the composite photo below, and what I think is the third belay ledge. It’s probably not as far as it looks, but that third pitch was pretty long for us, and used most of a 70m rope. Anchor is another large boulder with slings.
All of this climbing is directly on the spine of the ridge–no need to wander onto the faces. There’s a bit of curve to the thing, and even when it’s starting to level out more, there’s a bit of work left to do.

To start the fourth pitch, detour not too far off onto  the NW side of the ridge spine (several piton belays stations over here). We made the mistake of going towards the SE side, and that lead to thin, nasty 5.9 with rope drag and very few places to put in pro. This pitch was perhaps the steepest, most exposed climbing, hitting somewhere around 5.8 for most of where we were. I’d wager we took a harder line than necessary, and again, it was a boulder for an anchor. Fifth pitch was pretty quick, and we scrambled the last one to the summit (but did a single rappel back down it).

Getting into the groove came easily. Greg was doing great lead work, and it was a pleasure to see the rope snaking out through my belay. I wore my Mountain Equipment Eclipse hoodie all day as a thicker side of base layer, and it was perfect–warm enough for the windy belay, but great when the sun was shining down too. Especially using the hood as a sun shade.

Greg on pitch two:

It wasn’t until the third pitch before I really realized how high up we were–as the photos show, it’s blocky and not totally vertical. Contrary to what I’d expected, the exposure was there, but not incapacitating. I had a solid belay in Greg, and though I didn’t weight the rope once, I think that confidence allowed me to pull out the microscope. Focus on the moves. Be right there, right now. One hand and foot at a time, moving steadily upward. And that’s the beauty of something so mentally involving as climbing up rocks–I totally forgot about bank accounts, frustrations, and even my own name. It’s the sort of trance that I get while skiing down something, but on the uphill.

Greg at the top of the third pitch.

As I mentioned, we got off route to start the fourth pitch. Greg started up a small dihedral on the south side, got a ways above a hex, and then spent a bit trying to find a way to protect himself. Finding nothing, he decided to “retreat upward.” His voice floated down from around the corner: “If I fall here, I’ll definitely deck out.”

Twenty seconds later, I heard a snap, and Greg flew down into view, landing ninja-like in the rocks of a small outcropping. My catch had done nothing because of the low hex, and seeing the loose rope across my lap, my right hand abandoned the useless device, shot out, and pulled the rope taught. Fixing the belay with my left hand, Greg stood.

“My ankles might be broken.” He shuffled towards me as he said this, and I wondered how one would walk in that sort of condition. Or how we’d rappel. Or all that approach, with the fire swamp and creek crossings to manage. How could we get out? It’s one thing to be committed to the rock, but another altogether to be so deep and so deeply screwed. But he stood there, checking his ankles.

“I landed in a bush. Some moss or something. I think it saved my legs.”

“You ok?”

“Yeah. I can’t believe it. I had a whole handhold just snap clean off. It didn’t hit me. And right after I mentioned hitting the deck.”

And aside from one sore ankle, he was fine. To boot, he took thirty seconds, then climbed right back up the thing that had just bucked him off. Run out, over a big, exposed face, he shut down his fear and channeled the adrenaline of the moment into a lead that I nearly fell on while following. Super impressive work, when only a minute prior I’d been wondering about cell service and rescue plans. And such are the moments upon which difficult mountain endeavors hinge–if Greg had wanted to bail, I’d have been with him. Bummed, but understanding the reasons. It takes so very little for things to go so very wrong in the remote places we frequent–so my conclusion is that Greg has massive, brass balls to deck on a lead fall from the mountain falling apart and keep pushing up. Not only do I owe all the leads to him, and the fact that we made it, but that courage to push through when shook. Truly an honor to climb with such a strong man of the hills.

The next two pitches breezed by. I knew I was a ways up, but it didn’t matter–right there, right then. Nothing else. So far out of what I’d say is my element, but so at home in the familiar bubble of concentration that comes from ignoring the jeer squad of detracting worries.

Stacking ropes atop our fifth pitch.

Greg, on the last pitch (which we scrambled, then single rapped for the descent).

With some last scrambling, we were on the summit.


Looking north: Doody and the Cloudcroft, Eaglehead and Pinchot, Stimson, and Jackson in the back left.

Looking east: Flinsch, Red, Rising Wolf, Rockwell, Appistoki, Henry, Ellsworth in back. Lone Walker, Caper, Battlement, Vigil in front. Our campsite was left of the large patch of snow in the foreground.

Typically, the summit is a place of rest, and somewhat ease–the route is known, and unless a different route is to be descended, the obstacles that are really going to be issues are already there. However, as Greg’s drop had proved, it only takes a ledge with no moss on it to turn things on their head. I felt exposed, raw, way far gone from the comforts and capabilities of the world. It was exhilarating to know that I could climb up such stuff, following Greg’s lead. Freedom, for me, comes with the swelling sense of possibility when my boundaries are successfully pushed. What a way to get into multi pitch trad–and if I could make this follow, what of the future? What else could I do? How many other great climbs had just been opened, the possibility now a crack in what had been a blank wall of no? That excitement whirred alongside the fear of where we were, and as we started down, I thought that the rappels might be simple. 

Of course, they weren’t. All the blocks and lack of verticality that kept me happy on the climb made for really sketchy raps. Not only was it hard to find some of the rap stations, but the blocks meant that the rope threaded over multiple edges, see sawing back and forth with every weight and unweight as I moved over further edges. Greg would throw the rope down, get set, and head off to untangle the ends from the rocks. I’d be there, waiting. Nobody to talk to, nothing to do but swallow the fear and head down. I actually took ten deep breaths above the third pitch–but it didn’t do much to cut the most constant wave of fear I’ve felt in the mountains in quite a while.

On skis, you can block out the terror by falling into the trance of downward movement. Climbing up, the rope is a precaution, not a taughtly stretched single thing holding you to the world by the weight of a boulder. Pulling the rope wracked the nerves–every little hitch or tug seemed to suggest that we’d be stuck. The knot tying the ropes together seemed to grow in size, always threatening to lock up on something and send us into solution mode.The down was scary, and towards the bottom, I just started going faster to get out of there. It seems dramatic given that people do much more difficult stuff in way more harrowing conditions, but was I headed down, thinking of the thin ropes over all the rock edges above me, I actually thought, “Man, this would be a really lame way to go out.”

Greg looks up from the Great Notch as I prepare for the last double rappel.

It’s been a while since I’ve been that excited to be back on chossy, steep scrambling. The rappels were exciting, terrifying, and over. Grabbing our stuff, we started the race against the darkness to descend the 5000ft from the Notch to Coal Creek.


I don’t think it right to call a mountain a canvas, because the marks we make on them aren’t important to see in the big picture. Arena seems better, because when we go to these places, it is the climber that comes home so changed–the possibility that I keep coming back to, the ability to fire ourselves in their crucible and come away that much more clean, simple, pure.


Of course, we lost the race. Darkness crept over us as were nearing the creek. Stumbling through headlamp lit marsh grass, I watched Greg fall into a grassy hole between two logs. He then fell in again, and his headlamp beam completely disappeared. Once at the creek, we used map and GPS to arrive at the not-so-significant conclusion that we were perhaps a mile upstream of where we’d crossed before. Any excitement I had evaporated.

Greg, however, was totally into it. Twisted ankle and all, he waded in.

And quickly, everything changed. As the current pulled into an pool much deeper than our hip belts, we got on a log.

“No way. I know this place. This is where we came across three years ago!”

In the dark, with nothing to guide us, we’d found the route that had eluded us in broad daylight before. No fire swamp. No doom by devil’s club. Just a gentle flow, to a log over the deep part, and we were on the hillside. It was another stroke of brilliant luck when we needed it most. An hour or so later, it was near 11:30pm. We were almost to the Coal Creek campground, and with another major river crossing and six miles, sleeping was the better part of valor. We grabbed a spot in the name of tiredness, and conked right out.

Rope makes for a stiff pillow.

The morning dawned overcast and dewy. My bag had water droplets all over it, and the biggest saving grace was the mix of cheese, powdered milk, and instant potatoes at the bottom of my food bag. Breakfast turned my morning around. It was time to head out.

Greg crosses the Middle Fork.

Huge thanks to Greg for inviting, leading, and doing it all with panache. And thanks to Dave for letting me skip out on the fence–I went back and finished it later in the week.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

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The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Learning times on Rainier

Looking out the upper floors of the Tingelstad dorm at Pacific Lutheran University, my alma mater, Mount Rainier fills the eastern horizon. The first time I went to visit a friend who lived there, it majestically posed through the windows of an end lounge. Nowhere else on campus does the picture appear so completely; the image of its conical mass through the haze of Tacoma was my first of a truly massive mountain in close proximity to where I lived. Like anyone with any sort of upward ambition, the desire to play on and climb up it was kindled with that first chance encounter.

So when my sister asked to climb Rainier as her graduation present, it made sense. She spent a year longer at PLU than I did, and thus had that much more time to stare at the giant looming out of sight behind shade trees and brick buildings. Starting with a group of some six people, only four of us eventually committed and arrived in a hurricane of gear and excitement at the end of May: my sister Beth, our mutual friend Laurel, my girlfriend Rose, and me.

As I spend a fair bit of time in the hills, and was the only one with expedition mountaineering experience, it fell to me to organize and pilot the planning of our trip. Everyone else would be renting things like crampons or cold weather sleeping bags, we’d need to eat things, what about permitting, and on and on. I made a gear list (notably lacking water bottles). A big thanks to Woody for helping out with my gear and some stuff for Rose.

But none of this seemed particularly daunting to me. I didn’t need to buy any gear. We didn’t have to ski anything, though I’d be taking my skis as far as Camp Muir because I refused to walk down that snowfield. Grant and I did way more work on our trip for Denali last year. I’m not sure why the particulars of this trip didn’t feel strange at the time, but I figured that with good weather and a simple route choice on the Disappointment Cleaver, we could make a solid shot at getting to the top.

The week before our Friday departure, I helped Beth to move into a new house in Seattle, then attended the Mountain Equipment Spring ’15 launch at their US headquarters in Peshastin. After a kind ride from Sam to and from, I was itchy to get going, but lacking on prep work and organizing gear. After a bunch of last minute stuff that took hours, Laurel and I arrived in Parkland. Everything somehow fit into Beth’s car–we even managed to get all four of us in there.

Rainier can present a serious altitude challenge for climbers who live nearby. Puget Sound seems to be within spitting distance of most houses, making the summit a gain of 14,000 ft from usual sleeping elevation. Making such a leap in a few days doesn’t work for everyone, so to help the crew acclimate, we spent the first night at Paradise. I figured we’d roll in, work on crevasse rescue and roped travel, and with another practice session the next day at camp, everyone would be up to speed for our time on the glaciers.

Leading the crew through the snowy woods by Paradise, the experience gap started to become obvious to me–if even by accident, I’d been skiing and climbing with a number of friends whose experience and abilities were better or comparable with my own. They’d self arrested falls, melted snow for all their water, and suffered under big packs. We’d trade ideas, talk about things, and know about trip planning from having been here. But the people I cared about on the rope behind me relied on my estimations of their skills, readiness, and ability to think they could make the climb. They had to. And while I know well the seriousness of being in the mountains, the transition from partner to leader or teacher was one that I hadn’t fully realized.

Morning came with a nearly full repack, and I headed out to get in line at the permitting office. The Rainier trips I did with Grant last spring were before the May 15th winter camping period ended, so I didn’t realize that permits were required after that date. Montana has very little permitting on climbing, so it wasn’t strange to think that we didn’t need one.  30% of permits are held for walk ups, and with all the reserved permits full we were hoping to snag one the afternoon before, but couldn’t get to the office before it closed. So I stood in line, only to get to the front and realize that three available “spots” referred to numbers of people instead of tent sites–we couldn’t camp at Muir. And I didn’t have all the contact info for our group, or a license plate number, or the rest of my group with me. It was a junk show, and it was my fault; I should have done more research. As the others shouldered their packs to learn about grinding uphill, I was learning more about what a leader for this kind of thing should have done.

We set off, moving at a steady pace. The headwall at Panorama Point proved our first test of climbing with full bags–we stopped shortly after to take a break. In the planning process, I had been worried that we’d get hit by a nice spring snow squall on the hill. That meant that we’d take heavier gear for worse cold, just in case. Such conservative thinking put an additional ten to fifteen pounds into everyones’ packs, and the strain was slowing us  quite a bit. Being used to big bags, it didn’t occur to me how much they might factor in. I’d failed to mention carrying weight when Laurel asked how to train for our climb. It proved a heavy thing to forget.

As it was Saturday, the crowds streamed by us. Later, I overheard a ranger mention that there were 300 people at Camp Muir during the day.

Since Camp Muir was a zoo, our permit was for the Muir snowfield. Anywhere we wanted to be between 7600 and 9600 was fair game. By the time we hit Moon Rocks, just above 9000ft, it was pretty clear that the packs, the altitude, and lack of water had throttled our summit bid. Worried that wind would kick up in the evening and level the horribly substandard REI “four season” tent we’d rented for Beth and Laurel, we dug in camp behind the rocks.

As I cut blocks for the tent walls, I thought more about our trip plan. Of the group, only Laurel and I had snow camped. I was the only one with extensive crevasse rescue practice, and my demonstration was so rusty that I found myself thinking it dangerous to try and teach it again without doing some research. It’s fine to rely on a leader to select a route, but if they take the crevasse rescue knowledge with them into a crack, that leaves the others stranded and panicked. As I later learned, people usually take multiple trips on Rainier before they attempt a summit, which should have made sense–I spent two weekends on Baker before a third weekend saw us on the summit.

Unwittingly, I was asking and supposing too much. There’s a lot to learn about just camping in the snow. About good rope work. About functioning well at altitude. I assumed that the rest of the group was where I was, because that’s usually the case. In stepping back, I realized that what we ended up doing was exactly what we should have planned–a practice trip. A taste of what it’s like to camp in the snow and haul big bags. A chance to enjoy the view from the pee rock and appreciate the alpine.

As the crew started to go to bed, I saw a pair of blue pants that I thought I  recognized. A buddy had mentioned that they might be on the mountain the same weekend, so I shouted, and it was confirmed. Jonas, Connor, and Xanti all pulled into camp and dug themselves a platform just below our tents.

They were headed to the summit the next day, while we planned to head the rest of the way to Camp Muir.

Morning came. The scones I packed for breakfast were delicious. Once we all realized that our backpack lids worked as fanny packs, we headed for Muir.

Once there, I climbed up onto the Cowlitz Cleaver to ski a bit. A view into the Nisqually Cirque.

At home, things have been various shades of unconsolidated all spring, leaving us with a weird mix of mush, pow, and isothermal soup. That made the corn cycle on Rainier an absolute blast, and I tore down the chute below (the guide building at Camp Muir is visible in the lower left), hooting and hollering all the way to 8000ft. A quick skin back to camp, and after a brew session to rehydrate, Beth and I went up to Muir for more.

Later in the evening, Beth and I took some time to work on snow climbing. She led a steep but inconsequential pitch of snow, putting in pickets and then top belaying me up. I then dug the first snow bollard I’ve ever made, and we rappelled inconsequently back to camp. There’s not much explanation for why I was so excited about a simple trench in the snow–it’s just cool to rap on nothing but snowpack, to have learned it from some simple research in Freedom of the Hills, and to have it work perfectly the first time.

Beth and I are lucky–between my dad’s exploits in the fourteeners in Colorado and the Canadian Rockies and my mom’s exploration in Glacier and Wyoming, we come by the mountains naturally. We had parents to teach us to layer, bring water, and set turn around times. To keep us motivated. To show us the power of the freedom in the mountains while balancing that with safety.

Many people don’t have such luck. They wander into mountaineering with less appreciation for the danger, lack of skills, or no group to teach and encourage them. For me, it’s an honor to take friends out and show them the aspects of the mountains that have given me so much. I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who feels comfortable in the mountains to help others get to where they’re at. By the standards of my peers, this would have been a dull trip. But for me, it shifted from a summit bid to showing a few people the things I really love about playing on big mountains in the snow. Which, ultimately, is more satisfying.

In the morning, we packed up and headed down. Plastic was in fashion for everyone, with the ladies sporting bag-skirts and me on my ski bases.

The chute at Pan Point proved interesting, with one wall as ice and other other as slush. Laurel popping out with a grin.

We piled everything back into the car, and headed for Parkland and some well deserved fast food. Thanks to all the ladies for a wonderful trip, and teaching me so much about how to organize these sorts of things.

My thoughts and best wishes are with survivors of those who died on Liberty Ridge the same week.