Category Archives: Alpine Climbing

Short Season pt 2

(part 2 of 2)


This past weekend demanded no less commitment than the previous. Pat and I have enjoyed a lot of days outside over the years. Living in different cities has made that harder, but no less enjoyable when it happens. He introduced me to one of my first big alpine rock climbs, and we’ve cheered each other up more pitches at Smith than anyone else I’ve climbed with. IMG_3607

The North Ridge of Mt. Stuart is one of the most classic alpine rock routes in the range- and when Pat reached out to line up for a trip, we easily picked the objective. Neither of us had done it, so we (wisely) chose the more conservative “Standard” version from the notch above the Stuart Glacier. Perfect route, perfect weather, perfect partner. That didn’t stop us from suffering a bit as we began to understand just how big the effort would be.

We hiked in with bivy gear on Saturday, stopping for a dip in Ingalls Lake and scouting the landscape to get familiar. The route logistics are inconvenient- no matter how you approach it, getting to the base of the route requires +/-1500 vertical feet (or more) of scrambling, and (for us) a glacier crossing). Getting back to the car means retracing your steps and another 1500ft up and down of hiking, in addition to the +/-4000ft descent from the summit. Sunday was not a short day.

We left our bivy site just below Stuart Pass at 530am, and arrived on the Stuart Glacier around 730. Initial snow walking turned into uncomfortable step cutting across hard snow above non-trivial cravasses. Micro-spikes and Yaktrax, while being lightweight, were a pretty poor choice of footwear. Next time: aluminum crampons. After the step cutting and gulley shenanigans, we got on the actual rock climbing around 930, and proceeded to make decent time.

Pat and I have similar tolerances for risk and decision making, so we traded the lead simul-climbing almost all of the terrain up to the Gendarme, with a few belayed steps in between. Pat deployed his expert lie-backing skillz on the first pitch, and I made appropriate grunting noises on the off-width. More simul-climbing put us on top around 330pm, feeling good but hungry and low on water.

The Cascadian Couloir is the standard descent to the south side and back towards our packs. Standard does not mean enjoyable. It is safe, but long and hard on the knees. We noticed some dark clouds building as we hiked down, and by the time we landed on the Jack Creek trail at 730p, the temperature had dropped noticeably and winds were gusty. After 15 hours on the move, we found our bivy site in gale force winds just after dark. Originally we had hoped to head for the car, but the climb took the best out of us, and the weather wasn’t inspiring. We hunkered down for the night, our bivy sacks in fully wind tunnel mode until morning. Walking commenced again at 530am, with a glorious sunrise to greet us, but there was no avoiding that Skander would be a little late for work on Monday morning…



All content Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

Goode Glacier Gone Bad

8 years ago I read a trip report about Mt. Goode from my desk in Portland. It inspired me, and made me realize how much I had to learn about climbing. Other objectives lured me away over the years and the out of reach dream didn’t stick. I haven’t often really bit off more than I could chew in these climbing adventures, and there is only one way to fix that.

“Car to car” typically means that you don’t carry sleeping gear- you just expect to be on the move no matter how long it takes. The risk of spending a cold night out is off-set by packs made lighter without sleeping gear. It is also a good way to guarantee an adventure.

trail running, maps, brooks running shoes, stretching

Something Goode is happening.

Running has always come naturally to me, and given that I’m nursing a shoulder injury, it makes more sense to combine long days and more moderate climbing to get my adventure fix. Doing the standard route on Mt. Goode car to car seemed like a laughably audacious goal. A 30 mile round trip with 3,000ft of gain on the approach, a glacier crossing, and a 3,000ft rock buttress? If I wanted to fail, at least I picked something worthwhile to fail at. I wasn’t so sure myself, so I picked a partner that has always inspired the best in me. In both climbing and life, Ky has shown me how to be stronger than I think I am- and he was just as game to find his endurance limit as I was. The goal was just to keep moving.

PCT, pacific crest trail, north cascades national park, stehekin

This is a cool sign. But it was the wrong sign.

We left Bellingham at 8pm, and got to sleep at 11pm. Up at 430a and jogging down the trail at 530a. There was already more than enough daylight. Confident, we raced the warming day until we reached the trail junction from the Pacific Crest down to Stehekin. We pounded a little food and I checked the map. Despite both reading the route description to each other while looking at the map, we had mistaken which trail led to the North Fork of Bridge Creek. Our elation from the fast travel faded into disdain for having added an extra 5.4 miles onto our already marathon day.

We kept moving.

Mt. Goode, North Cascades National Park, Storm King Peak

At first glance.

Back to the previous junction and up the correct drainage. We continued to put down miles and race the heat. Due to the location of the route on the massif, you cannot see any of the route or approach until you are standing directly below it. The guidebook says “cross the creek, ascend the talus slope, and gain the glacier to access the bottom of the rock buttress.” Somehow, I think we both figured the 21 miles of approaching was the hard part, and we were wrong. Even from the creekbed 2,000ft below, just getting to the base of the cracked up, barren glacier was going to be the real adventure.

We couldn’t bail without taking a look, so we slathered on some sunscreen and- kept moving. The east face baked as the clocked ticked past noon, then 1pm. Slick granite slabs gave way to vertical bushwhacking through head-high alder. It got hotter as we climbed. Despite plenty of daylight, mid-afternoon is a terrible time to cross a glacier, especial one with many cracks and not much real snow. We found a single unlikely lead up about a 1/2 mile east of the rock route we were hoping for. Any remaining hope of rock climbing was instantly swallowed in the enormous, complex bergschrund crossing that guards the entire face.

Welcome to the shutdown.

Welcome to the shutdown.

Worked and sunburned, downclimbing the approach was nothing to look forward to. Shaky legs make downclimbing even spicier, and we started setting rappels as soon as we hit the lower granite slabs. Thank you to the others that have obviously done the same and left some rappel tat for us.

Not the time nor place to rush.

Not the time nor place to rush.

Our tiny rope set up gave us just enough to work with. We kept moving.

River crossing, or foot icing?

River crossing, or foot icing?

We made it back to the creek at 545p. Once on the trail, it was just a mental game to keep turning the legs over. Blood sugar dropped, blisters rose, and nightfall set in. We kept moving.

It was a push to make the car, but that was the point. At 1045pm we tore into the maple bacon potato chips and sat heavily on the tailgate of Ky’s Subaru. Bailing didn’t honestly feel like much of a failure at all. We had covered 38 miles, used almost everything in our packs, and enjoyed an authentic Cascade experience. It was my longest day in the mountains to date, and I do think it’s possible to summit with a little better preparation and conditions. Many thanks to Ky for the amazing day out, and powering through the drive home so we could have cooked breakfast the next day- I couldn’t ask for a tougher, or better partner.


Suffice to say, the weather has been entirely unseasonable. While my wonderful parents face record cold temperatures in Chicago, I’ve been about as disappointed as I can possibly be with 3 weeks of sunny, 50F temperatures in February in Montana.

There is no decent snow for skiing. It is far too warm for ice climbing. My body is seriously confused about what it is supposed to be doing. To make the best of it (and the fact that our respective sweethearts were both out of town), I spent Valentine’s Day on a man-date with one of my favorite mentors and friends.

It's never bad to climb with Michael.

It’s never a bad day to climb with Michael.

While it felt out of season, Blodgett Canyon offers spectacular winter rock climbing when the weather is good. The Drip Buttress is an excellent and varied 5.9 that shoots 500′ straight up. We were just rusty enough that it felt more exciting than sport climbing, but relaxed enough to be a whole lot of fun.

New rope for new adventures.

New rope for new adventures.

Mr. Moore leads P.2

Mr. Moore leads p2

We did the climb as 4 pitches instead of 5. You can also do it in 3 long pitches, but the pitch 1.5 belay is not a great ledge, and it adds a lot of rope drag to the route when you want it least. Pitches 1 & 2 are very straightforwards. Pitch 3 wanders up a funky gully feature that was harder than I remembered. Pitch 4 takes large gear, or not much gear (Michael’s preference), leading to an excellent hand crack at the top of the feature. I had only done it once before, and we had a blast doing it again.

Pulling in to the top of Pitch 3. "It was interesting..."

Pulling in to the top of Pitch 3. “It was interesting…”

Glad to have this shot on the records.

Glad to have this shot on the records.

"So where does the gear go?" ... "It's 5.8, there isn't any."

“So where does the gear go?” … “It’s 5.8, there isn’t any.”

I highly recommend the Drip Buttress as a regular climb for anyone- and it’s particularly good training for more serious alpine climbing objectives. It has fun climbing that demands some thought for protection, rope drag, and moving efficiently. Just another Bitterroot gem that probably doesn’t get as much traffic as it deserves.

Plus- how many other routes feature a 100' free hanging rappel?

Plus- how many other routes feature a 100′ free hanging rappel?

Gear: single master cams 0-3, doubles #0.4-#2, (1) 3, (1) 4. We took a set of nuts, but the only one I placed fell out (dang… rusty). 6 slings, 6 draws, cordalette. You might want an extra #3 for p.4. Most of the climbing is legit 5.9.

Descent: from the top of the climb, look downslope and left to a large evergreen just before the exposed granite slabs (lots of old tat). (1) double rope rappel (~140′ ish) to find a tiny ledge with good quality red tat, (1) 105′ rappel (a single 70m is perfect) to the ground.

Pro Tip: check for ticks. No really, check again.

Canyon Peak, Bitterroot, USA

This isn’t a post about philosophy, politics, or even really pushing the limit of anything. It’s about climbing and autumn. No question about it- fall is my favorite season. A few months ago I went on a lovely walk with some technical gear and got surprised by how far back our goal was. While we didn’t summit, we had a beautiful day out, and I got fully hooked for the objective.

The obvious right skyline beckons us. For another time.

The obvious right skyline beckons us. For another time.

I knew this would be one of the last weekends to tick Canyon Peak, and suspected the colors would be pretty spectacular too. Based on what we found, I was right on both counts.

Mr. Smithicus charging off the start.

Mr. Smithicus charging off the start.

The approach is long, and somewhat steep for a single day adventure. Evan and I left the car in trail runners and jogged to the base of the steep hiking. We each carried layers, food, and a climbing harness. We took (7) nuts, (1) hex, (5) runners, (1) 30m dynamic rope, (1) 25m static line, and bail tat. Evan had approach shoes and tights, I chose proper rock shoes and no pants. Evan is a wiser man than me.

Canyon Peak basin in fall. Worth the hike.

Canyon Peak basin in fall. Worth the hike.

A leisurely start meant leaving the car at 11:15am- we made the lakes in 2 hours, refilled water, and made the col at 2:30p. The north ridge is obvious, but there isn’t really a clear line- I stayed back from the edge to mitigate issues with loose blocks. We stuck to the ridge and kept eyes out for rappel slings- the summitpost description is about as good as it gets. Class 4 might be fitting, but there are many variations – e.g. ways to make it harder on yourself.

On belay.

On belay.

Livin' the dream.

Livin’ the dream.

The rock had started its winter transition- frozen lichen, thin ice in cracks, and snow on most of the ledges made all of the climbing pretty “heads up.” If you caught this on a hot day in mid-summer, the climbing would be substantially easier. We found moves up to 5.7 on solid but dirty rock. We mostly simul-climbed, with a few belayed bits around hard moves for the leader. Wind, ice/snow, and my choice of running shorts as my only leg-wear made for cold climbing, but I couldn’t have been more stoked to be on the sharp end pulling the ridge. We made it to a small ledge just below the true summit plateau at 4:45pm and realized we had both gotten what we came for- it was time to head home without the true summit.

Calling it here. The wind was howling.

Calling it here. The wind was howling.

The rappels are perfectly set for a 60m rope, but we made due being 5m short. We were walking again at 5:45pm after 4 rappels and some downclimbing. We refilled water again at the lake, and dropped most of our elevation before dark. I was embarrassed to not find a headlamp in my bag, but I kept on Evan’s heels and we made the car just before 9pm. A full day out, with a perfect partner and weather. This is what fall is about.

Pink shoes, shorts, and 3 layers on top. Makin' a statement.

Pink shoes, Patagonia “technical softshell” shorts, and 3 layers on top. Makin’ a statement.


“This feels good man, just real good.” I bounced past a mountain biker, and a few minutes later, past the spot where I had bonked on the trail last September. Nick and I were out for a run and the stoke was high. That morning he had suggested “let’s just get out and turn over the legs for 3 hours,” but earlier in our planning Nick had mentioned my favorite words – “I want to get out and suffer.”

Making good time.

Martin- making good time.

I was in 7th grade when I discovered I loved endurance sports. I ran every single day that year. I ran in hiking boots in the Chicago winter, and lived for summer runs along Lake Michigan. I loved that it made me lean and quick. Even then I knew, I wanted to move fast and light in the mountains.

Early morning light, starts all good adventures.

Early morning light, starts all good adventures.

After last weekend, I’m just not worried about my foot holding me back much any more. I started my 4th of July at 430am, rolling out of bed, throwing a carefully packed bag in the car, and meeting Martin by 5. I’ve wanted to get high in the Missions since I first saw them, and Martin had been itching to get on top of McDonald Peak. I left the car in running shoes with simple bivy gear, boots, and ice axe on my back.

Fast and light.

Fast and light.

First sight of the objective.

First sight of the objective.

We made good time on trail, and kept moving across excellent snow conditions- supportable, but not icy. The last few slopes were a slog but the final summit ridge took a little rock climbing savvy to tick the peak in 7hrs 20 from the car. We had dropped the bivy gear at the last basin, descended back to it and looked forward to a comfortable night in the range.

Mission vista.

Mission vista.

Summit. Windy.

Summit. Windy.

While stoked on the event, the summit, and the experience, I got back to Missoula knowing I had a little more in me. Nick texted, and Sunday morning we headed up to the Rattlesnake to try beating the heat that was sinking into the valley.

Descending into heat.

Descending into heat.

We didn’t really intend to summit Sheep Mountain, it just kinda happened, and it only took 2 hours of running. The only problem was I really wasn’t prepared for the return. A 4 hour run requires some planning, particularly around hydration and nutrition. I had packed 260 calories, and one hand bottle of water- barely enough for the 3 hour run Nick and I had originally planned, but not nearly enough for the 4 hour endeavor it became. I bonked the first time at 2hr 30, but was able to get up, get moving, and fire off quite a few more miles.

About 1 1/2 miles from the trailhead the bonk hit hard. The heat takes it out of you. Nick put my arm over his shoulder and we walked together, one step at a time towards the water in the car. We crested the last hill and I let go, coasting down to the car under my own power, but humbled by the harshness of finding my endurance limit. Nick, of course, was still going strong. Together we covered 22 miles and 3,500 feet of vertical gain (and 3,500ft of loss). It was the longest duration I’ve ever run (Chicago Marathon only took 3hrs 13min, but it was flat). I laughed at myself after a soak in the creek and a burrito.

After the hardest bonk ever, in any sport.

After the hardest bonk ever, in any sport.

Its been a long time since I tried something hard and really failed, but I think in finding a limit, there was a certain success. Nick is an ultra-marathoner that I deeply respect. Sharing my limit with him was a privilege, and I hope to return the favor some day. “Ultra” is a state of mind, and I think I’m just starting to understand what that looks like. To both Martin and Nick (and Madison, the dog) thanks for reminding me of some of the things I loved the longest. Life is a long game, it’s fun to practice playing.

Long effort requires long rest.

Long effort requires long rest.

The Cirque

Part II of III

I didn’t make it into the Cirque of the Towers on my 2002 Wind River trip.  There was a forest fire in the southern range and most of our route headed north. I’m glad I didn’t see it then, because I would not have recognized it for the amazing alpine rock playground that it is.

Cirque of the Towers, WY

Rock candy. Warbonnet (l) and Warrior 2 (r)

Short approaches, classic routes, and fun friends, all set in spectacular deep wilderness scenery. It doesn’t get better than this. Bryan was supposed to meet me in the Cirque on Tuesday night, so I found a great spot right under the pass and tried to get his attention.

rope note

How did this not work?

It didn’t work because Bryan took “the climbers trail” directly into the best part of the Cirque, rather than the hiking trail to the Lake. We didn’t line up Tuesday, and I figured I would go on a scrambling mission Wednesday morning. I ended up meeting Dallon and Rich from SLC on the hike to the base of the classic route on Wolf’s Head, and they offered me a spot on their rope.  I led out simul-climbing on the sidewalk pitch and about 80m later I heard them talking to someone.  A soloist was climbing fast behind us, and talking about a partner that didn’t arrive the previous night. It took about 3 seconds to realize I had just found my intended partner.

wolf's head sidewalk pitch

Straight in hands on the ridge. (Photo: Bryan Feinstein)

Splitter rails, and splitter exposure.

Bryan, ridin’ the rails.

Wolf's head 3rd tower

Splitter exposure. (Photo: BF)

The four of us found a good ledge, Bryan tied into my extra rope, and he and I simulclimbed the rest of the route. Per it’s inclusion in “50 Classic Climbs of North America” it is hilariously fun climbing. Route description is “climb the crest of the ridge, weaving between towers.”  You might add- “follow sinker hand cracks and large chimneys, along with everyone else in the Cirque.” The route wasn’t crowded per se, but there were two parties that finished before us, and at least two more that finished after us. I was glad to move fast with Bryan. Not exactly solitude for a Wednesday afternoon. We met Liz and Ryan rapping off, and enjoyed a dip in the lake on the way down.

Summit #1 for Bryan+Skander

Summit #1 for Bryan+Skander

Cirque Lake, Cirque of the Towers, WY

Bryan in wonderland on the walk down.

Bryan and I met on my first Denali trip in 2009, and he’s always been a lot stronger and more experienced than me.  I knew climbing with him would bring up my game, and his preference for routes didn’t disappoint. We were both drawn to the natural line on the northwest face of Warbonnet.  My thought was “damn, I wish I could climb that.” Bryan’s thought was “damn, we should go climb that!” The Feather Buttress is advertised as a grade IV 6-8 pitch 1,000′ 5.10c. We fired the route on Thursday. Goerge Lowe & co. were strong kids- we felt our version was a grade IV 10 pitch 1,300′ 5.11a. I later learned that the guidebook description had been submitted by email, from memory, 30 years after the first ascent. Props to Bryan for powering through the crux lead, as well as the super burly squeeze chimney.

Ready to fire.

Ready to fire. (Photo: BF)

Bryan, about to fire the crux.

Bryan, about to fire the crux. (Photo: BF)

The route is named for “the feather,” a 1′ wide sliver of rock at the very top of the route with zero protection and maximum exposure. We were more impressed at the route as a whole rather than this single feature, and it might be the hardest thing I’ve ever climbed. The quality of rock, position, and commitment factors all combine into a superb route that for some reason seems rarely done. There wasn’t a pitch by pitch description in the guidebook and I’m happy to leave it that way. Suffice to say there were a few pitches of 5.8-5.9, and the rest was solid 5.10 or better. I lost my lead head after the 4th pitch, and was grateful for Bryan’s clear vision and steady nerves to punch the crux and routefinding. If Wednesday was spectacular, Thursday was perfect.

approach to the feather buttress.

Yours truly on the last 5.10 roof. (Photo: BF)

Floating on top of the feather, high above the range.

Floating on top of the feather, high above the range. (Photo: BF)

Summit #2.

Summit #2. (Photo: BF)

Friday dawned a little rainy, and we were still plenty tired from our adventure on the Feather. We had met Bryans friends Jon, Andy, and Briton on the trail the night before while coming off Warbonnet, and it was fun to share coffee over a slow morning and watch the weather. Around noon we all got the itch, and headed towards the base of the NE Buttress on Pingora, the other “50 Classic” in the area. I wasn’t feeling super energetic, and had substantial doubts about the weather, but the NE Buttress was a route I had thought about since early in my climbing career. We finished the slab traversing by 2pm and Bryan shot up the first real pitch.

We swung leads through the afternoon and stretched the full 60m on almost every pitch. The climbing was perfect, sustained, and secure. Being on the third big route in three days, but left foot was ready for rest, but good weather and a great partner kept my stoke high enough to push through the pain. Andy and Jon followed closely. I popped out the last chimney pitch just as the evening colors were getting good. Bryan and I scouted the raps while waiting for Jon and Andy to finish up and shared the summit with our new friends just before sundown.


TEAM. (Photo: BF)

Pingora summit, NE Buttress

This place is so rad. Summit #3, on top of Pingora (Photo: BF)

We got into camp just after dark, immediately destroyed several thousand calories and slept hard. Bryan and I looked at each other on Saturday morning and quickly agreed that neither of us were doing anything other than sitting on our butts and celebrating the previous three days of climbing. The weather was increasingly sketchy, and a major storm system rolled in around 4pm. Our crew piled under a sweet boulder cave and hunkered down for the night. Sunday morning was still dodgy, and I was still plenty sore. Bryan agreed, so we said goodbye and headed for the cars at Big Sandy. Low clouds and raindrops made for a comfortable walk out, and settled any doubts we had about climbing- plus I think we both felt plenty “done” for this trip.

Rest day tai chi. Open the hips gentlemen.

Andy and Jon model the rest day tai chi. Open the hips gentlemen.

Perfect is a strong word, but I couldn’t have asked for better partners, a better place, or a better experience. I got what I was looking for, and a whole lot more. This one is going to stand out for a while.

Until we do it again soon.

Until we do it again soon.

Plasir Means Fun

Part I of III

I’ve written about the Wind River mountains a few times, but despite their significance for me they’ve been a difficult place to get to in my adventures. 9 days ago I got off work late and pointed the car south with a loose plan and a lot of determination. Putting together partners for the whole 9 days wasn’t going to work, so I mixed and matched to make the most of my time.  Sylvia would join me from Lander for the first 2 days, I’d have 2 days solo, and Bryan from Jackson would join me for the last 5 days. Sylvia met me in Pinedale and we made quick work of repacking and getting on the trail.

I didn't exactly pack before leaving Missoula.

I didn’t exactly pack before leaving Missoula.

The heaviest pack I've carried since Denali.

The heaviest pack I’ve carried since Denali.

I got to know Sylvia while I was living in Portland. She moved to Lander in 2009 and though we haven’t linked up often, our time together has always been beautiful and significant. Her climbing focus lies in the foothills of the Winds at Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris, but she was eager to join me for an alpine excursion in the first part of my trip. Labor day weekend normally boasts great weather, no bugs, and good temps for climbing, and consequently the range is packed. We stayed away from the epically popular Cirque of the Towers, and found a great alpine introduction in the East Fork Valley.

"Take the direct line straight up the center of the face for 2/3rds the height of the mountain..." Booyah.

“Take the direct line straight up the center of the face for 2/3rds the height of the mountain…” Booyah.

Ambush Peak is huge and hosts a variety of amazing climbing lines. Sylvia always helps me remember to have more fun so when we saw the description for the Ambush Plasir route, we knew where we were headed. We hiked in on Saturday afternoon with huge packs, and I was grateful for the help schlepping two ropes, a double rack and 9 days of food in the range. We made fast work of 12 miles on trail and enjoyed amazing light on the walk in.

We left our camp at Skull Lake around 7am and hiked to the base of our route, dreading the sight of another party already on it. Instead we had our route (and the rest of the East Fork) to ourselves. The route is 10 pitches, with bolted belays but all traditional protection- making it a great introductory alpine route and an easy descent. I lead most of the pitches and got a good reminder that 5.9 slab climbing can still pucker your sphincter while you are having fun. The climbing, weather, and solitude were perfect, but the best part by far was the partnership. It was the longest climb Sylvia’s ever done, but that mostly just meant we had enough time to share the richness of the past few years that we’ve missed each other.

Fun is in fact being had.

Fun is in fact being had.

Since she left Portland, Sylvia has started a business and made a lovely life in a small place with big beauty. She’s grown in strength of spirit and courage of heart, and am grateful for her friendship. As they are with many friends I don’t see often enough, our conversations were both deep yet warm and fun in a way that only my mountain partnerships seem to inspire.

This is what it's all about.

This is what it’s all about.

We got back to camp after dark on Sunday, shared coffee and breakfast the next morning, and parted ways at the Shadow Lake junction. Sylvia had to make the most of just a few days away from home and I took all the gear and headed towards the Cirque for the next part of my trip. The resonance of the universe is strong with me when I’m in the Winds and despite the weight in my pack I covered miles quickly. It is a special place indeed.

Damn special.

Damn special.