Category Archives: Alpine Climbing

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.


“…accepting what already is, what has always been, is to grasp happiness. With this in mind, we do not become happy, but rather realize the happiness that always is.

Examples of this just being are ever present in natural settings. An eagle perched in a tree keenly watches. It does not try to be an eagle, it is eagle-ness, and it does not try to watch, it just watches. The effort is not to have meaning in living, rather the effort is to be meaning. The mountains do not have meaning, their forms are the meaning of “mountain”.”

-Dave W. Wise

Montana Centennial Route

Josh- thanks for the adventure. Montana Centennial route follows the left skylight directly behind us. We’ll be back soon.


I woke up on June 29th knowing exactly where I needed to go for the 4th of July holidays.  A few phone calls and a few days later, I was headed into the Cowen Cirque south of Livingston, Montana.  In my last blog post I lamented not having the adventures I really want. Time to stop lamenting.  We left Bozeman at 530am on the fourth, carried our climbing gear up the 9 mile, 3,600′ vertical trail, and drank in views of an incredible climbing line. Knowing my foot, and afternoon thundershowers were still a huge liability, we took the rest of the day to rest and watch the weather. It rained at 430pm, blew over at 630pm, and our friend Marko showed up to boost the spirit at 7pm.

At the base of the very wet route.

At the base of the very wet route.

Josh and I woke up at 400am on the 5th, and moved quickly- breakfast, bathroom, gear, approach the route.  545am- rain. Shit. And it kept raining.  We found the base of the route, but it was pouring, so we bailed and hiked up into the Cirque.  While we were both sad not to climb the technical route, I think it’s impossible not to be stoked on simply being in the Cowen Cirque.

The Yellowstone Range, from the Cowen Cirque.

The Yellowstone Range, from the Cowen Cirque.

We had left a few creature comforts in hopes of “going light” and with more rain on the horizon, it seemed unlikely the route would be dry even by the 6th. So we hiked out and made promises of our return.

More hiking. Great company.

More hiking. Sad faces but great company.

This is for my mom- it's wildflower season...

This is for my mom- it’s wildflower season…

After the hike up to the Cirque, and 20 miles on the trail, my foot was cooked. Maybe the weather was a sign I wasn’t ready to be on big rock routes, but it doesn’t matter.  The focus of my weekend changed on the way down, perhaps towards something even more important.

So wet. Everywhere.

So wet. Everywhere.

Back in Bozeman Josh left for the Tetons, and I was still itching for a climbing fix.  Marko and I headed out to Gallatin Canyon for a few pitches, and a little more validation that my foot is indeed still recovering. The rain chased us back to Bozeman, and left me scratching my head for the “next thing”. Saturday dawned with splitter weather, but I could barely walk. I was searching, and wasn’t going to stop. “Get your bivy gear Marko, let’s go.” My original vision from the previous Saturday wouldn’t fade- we got in the car and let my lead foot take over. I wanted alpine, any way I could get it.

Traffic jam, Yellowstone style.

Traffic jam, Yellowstone style.

East then south, then east, then north. Paradise Valley, Yellowstone National Park, the Beartooth Highway, and East Rosebud came and left the windshield. Saturday night the road ended in Alpine, Montana, and we walked from there. 10 years ago I came to Alpine after my first ever alpine climb on Granite peak. This place is even more inspiring now. We walked up the trail until I couldn’t any more, and camped on a boulder, under a boulder, with the rain washing around us.

Marko.  Always game.

Marko. Always game.

The morning dawned clear and we woke early.  Marko had to work, and I was ready to let some domestic chores pull me away from the deep reflection and introspection the wilderness can bring. Thanks Josh for your indomitable stoke, and Marko for your willingness to simple be there with me.


So what was I chasing? Skander-ness. Like the eagles, and the mountains, I wanted to see what Skander would do, when he couldn’t be the running, climbing mountain athlete that he aspires to be. For a long time now, I’ve been living with the determination that who we are is determined by what we do- but really, this is backwards.  What we do is a reflection of who we are. In many ways, I am so focused and driven by what I “should” be doing, rather than simply doing what feels most authentic to me. The notion that I am like a mountain, defining “what is Skander” simply by being, rather than pushing myself to be any particularly thing has been comforting.  This post and my trip last weekend are fun reflections of that.

My last few posts have been an accurate reflection of the sadness in my heart. Compassion, breath, and gentleness have been on my mind. These are the things I need most, and are the things that I am the least good at. For a long time I’ve held to the notion that “we can be whoever we dream we are.” I’m realizing that some of the best support I’ve gotten recently has been from friends who share that vision of who I can be, even when it includes the things that I am not so good at. I’ve written a lot about my core values, but sometimes they can feel like a burden I have to uphold rather than an affirmation of who I simply truly am.

This weeks realization: “support” is more than encouraging words or physical acts- it is the belief that someone can accomplish their dreams, even if they are very difficult or don’t come naturally. My friends know my ability for compassion, joy, and gentleness- they are holding that in trust for me. I’m grateful to tap into it.


You’ve been warned, this could probably be several posts- the lack of power for my computer, internet connectivity while traveling, and free time upon my return has left me behind on writing.  The last 10 days have inspired a lot of writing.  Hopefully I’ll get to all of it in the coming weeks.  The short summary is interspersed with the photos.

First off- I really like driving.  940 miles from Missoula to Lee Vining was no problem.  840 miles back (on a different route) was harder, but not because of the driving.

How many of my best days start.

Engine limit?

In addition to enjoying the Jarbidge, I also enjoyed a night in the desert overlooking Mono Lake, sunrise over the eastern Sierra, and beautiful (but hard to photograph) vistas across Nevada.

First light on the mountains, September 6, 2012.

I pulled into Tuolomne Meadows around 11am last Monday- John was still making his way up from SF, so I headed out for a perfect trail run/hike up to Cathedral Lake.  I haven’t been running at all this summer, but it felt good to move fast again, and I’m excited to think I’ll be running again this fall (fingers crossed).  Tuolomne is one of the most perfect places I have ever been, and the only other time I was there was on my solo ski tour last spring.  The summer tourists certainly have their impact, but nothing really breaks the serenity of the place.

Tuesday John and I got lost and didn’t find the route we were looking for.  Certainly a downer to start the trip, but it was still a beautiful day, and served us a good slice of humble pie.  Weather on Wednesday looked uncertain, so we elected to fire two short routes, South Crack on Stately Pleasure Dome and West Crack on Daff Dome.  The climbing here can be confusing and scary, but awesome at the same time.

Climbers are the main wildlife attraction for tourists at the base of Stately Pleasure Dome.

John charging the 2nd pitch.

100ft runout. Routine for Tuolomne climbing.

The climbing was easy and the setting was perfect.  I wasn’t complaining.

New friends on the route next to us.

Tuolomne as a reputation for bad afternoon thunderstorms, and rain makes the granite slick as snot.  By the time we got to West Crack, things weren’t looking so hot.

Up to be down, I hated calling the weather after a superb first pitch.

Thursday was more of the same, so we headed for some single pitch climbing at Olmstead Point.  Frustrating to not tick any long routes, but the skies weren’t inspiring.  We top roped, we fell off a lot, and got worked early- there are really no bad days of climbing in Yosemite.


Even without long routes, my hands were showing signs of Yosemite by Thursday sunset.

Friday dawned perfectly.  I got up early to check the weather, and we made the most of the day.  It may only be 5.7, but I’ve never climbed anything quite like the complete traverse of Mathes Crest.  It’s about a mile long, and much of the route can be simulclimbed, but with just enough exposure to make you think about it.

High Sierra.

This was only the beginning.

Better and better.

The views backwards were the best.  Note the other parties standing where we had just been.

Everyone gets this photo, and I don’t care.

It was a sweet day out.  Everything just fired like it was supposed to- we didn’t get too lost on the approach, John and I simuled the first half of the route in 2.5 hours, and despite some questionable route finding and exciting downleading, we had a hoot on the second half as well.

John’s last belay ledge. Perfect.

The route traverse the entire visible ridge, starting from the notch at the far right, and ending at the notch on the far left. You know it’s good when it barely fits in the camera lens.

Views on our walk back to the car were similarly perfect.  We picked up the pace to race the sun down, and finished the route car to car in 12 hours.

Cathedral Peak on the way home.

Mt. Conness and the Sierra Crest. Perfect.

It was a little hard to rally for another climb on Saturday morning, but I knew I was sitting in a car for two days and wanted one more shot at the route we failed to find on Tuesday.  We found it in short order, but also found another party on it that was in over their heads.  After 1.5 hours of waiting at the pitch 2 belay, John and I were cold and frustrated.

Gangstas, who weren’t rolling anywhere behind another party.

We down-climbed the two pitches and headed our respective ways.  Despite the disappointment of not finishing the route, watching another team disintegrate made me even more grateful to have had a competent and fun partner for the week.  Many thanks to John for the sweet camping, willing attitude, and wise counsel.

The trip home was more of a challenge than the way out, but I did get one lucky photo in northern Nevada:

Train + Rainstorm + Sunset + Lightening.

More insight to follow, but the most important outcome from the vacation was that it felt like vacation- I didn’t really think or do anything in particular, and enjoyed being more away from everything familiar than I have been in quite some time.

Eat Our Words 2012: Inspiration

Saturday night I had the privilege of giving a story-telling performance at the PEAS farm in the Rattlesnake neighborhood north of Missoula.  About 60 people sat on strawbales underneath a perfect orange sunset and golden hills to hear 6 people tell true personal stories in 7 minutes or less on the theme of inspiration.  I had helped organize the event, and amongst everything else I had going on in my life, the event had started to feel like a burden.  I didn’t really have a story to tell until mid-Saturday afternoon, but things came together, and when I arrived at the farm, I knew it was exactly the sort of event that I want to support- I can’t wait for 2013.  The text of my story is below (as I envisioned telling it, not exactly how it came tumbling out of my mouth…)- when it is available, I’ll include a link to the audio recording:

“I looked up to say hello to the stranger skiing towards me, but just as I lifted my head, I felt the sensation of falling, and saw nothing but white.  It took me a minute to realize what was going on- I was working as a volunteer climbing ranger with the Denali National Park staff, and we were ski touring up the Kahiltna Glacier to check on conditions.  Glaciers are large block of ice that slowly slide down mountain valleys, and as they slide over obstacles and changes in terrain, the ice breaks and forms channels that can be hundreds of feet deep called cravasses.  My Park Service team and I had been practicing rescuing people out of these sorts of situations and the first thought through my head was- ‘this is perfect, I’m falling into a cravasse and I’m roped up to the best team of people in the world, this is just great!’  That lasted about 1/10th of a second until I hit the water.  Most cravasses aren’t full of water, but this one was, and I was in up to my neck, with my skis, backpack, and iPod still beating.  The next thought through my head was ‘oh shit, I’m probably going to die right here- this is really what it looks like.’

I couldn’t help but think about how a nerdy kid from the Chicago suburbs ended up swimming in the bottom of a cravasse in the middle of the Alaska range.  When I was 17, I grabbed two high school friends and stole my mom’s minivan.  I don’t really remember what inspired us then, but we drove west in search of adventure.  We ended up spending two weeks exploring the Wind River mountains in Wyoming, and when I drove back to Chicago my heart was ready to burst out of my chest- all I wanted to do was learn how to be in the mountains.  In thinking about telling this story tonight, I looked up the definition of inspiration- it is ‘that which compels us to take action.’  I was inspired, that is to say compelled, to be in the mountains.

So I went home to Chicago, and every chance I got, I traveled west to be in the mountains. Eventually, I had the chance to move to Oregon, and I explored the mountains there.  A few years later, I left my salaried job with benefits and moved into the back of my car so I could be in the mountains.  From Scotland to Alaska to Ecuador, and all over the American west, I made friends and mentors and learned how to push my body in all kinds of mountain adventures.  I gained skills and experience, and eventually, I was invited to work as a volunteer ranger in Alaska.

I didn’t really know until a few years ago exactly why I loved being in the mountains so much, why I enjoy challenging myself, scaring myself, pushing myself to the very limit.  I’ve been so fortunate to share my mountain adventures with a wide range of incredible adventure partners.  Usually in climbing, and in the adventures I like to pursue, you need a partner.  The mountain environments demand our complete attention- they make us face our securities, and then strip away the opportunity to entertain them any further.  And I’ve noticed, when my partners and I stop entertaining our insecurities, it makes room for us to do incredible things.  To transcend the limits that we’ve placed on ourselves.  Getting to be a part of a partnership dedicated to transcending our limits- watching and supporting one of my partners stare up at something that they think they cannot do, but that they try anyway, and then succeed at- is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever been fortunate to witness.

And so me and all my “skills” and “experience” were swimming in the bottom of this cravasse.  I knew I had to step up to do what I could to help the situation, and I knew my partners above were doing their very best- one guy was making sure no one else fell in, one guy was getting warm clothes ready for me, and another guy was getting another rope to me.  Eventually- humble, sopping wet, cold, and scared, I belly flopped back onto the surface of the glacier.  I was not dead.  My partners were so warm, so supportive, so caring- so ready to do whatever it was that needed doing to take care of me.  I got back to camp quickly, got warm, and took stock of the lessons learned.

So I keep going out, breaking my body, failing at all kinds of things, getting scared- because it strips away the insecurities, the baggage.  That’s what I’m looking for, something to strip it all away, and I kinda hope that I never find it- that last thing to really take it all away, because the search is what keeps me inspired.

Thank you.

Mt Brooks and the Pyramid Peaks from 12,500′ on Karsten’s Ridge, Denali.


One of my favorite NOLS instructors left our course with a short piece of wisdom- “Climb things that inspire you.”

This past weekend was dominated by a commitment to shuttle some friends to their put-in for a rafting trip on the Salmon River, and while I wasn’t able to convert the trip to Idaho into climbing anything big, I was able to exploit the opportunity for a little spontaneous adventure.  My weekends this summer are filling fast, and none of my Missoula friends were free to get dragged into a 200 mile shuttle mission, so I found myself outside North Fork, Idaho yesterday morning with no plans, no partners, and staring at the continental divide.

Mission Accomplished. Safe travels to Crow and Kelly!

I realized these were the Idaho side of some of the mountains that had caught my eye when I drove the Big Hole valley in June.  Rarely do I find myself without a plan, but it felt fun to let the mountains inspire me, and the plans to follow.  I didn’t have a map of the region, and hadn’t done any research, but honestly it didn’t matter.  GoogleMaps on my phone got me to the base of an old jeep trail, and my feet took care of the rest.  Sometimes  not knowing where you are going takes you to places even better than what you might have planned for.

Inspiration abounds.

I left the car at 5,400′ with a light pack of bivy gear and and angst to get out.  4.5 hours later I had ticked two summits over 10,000′ and found the perfect bivy spot.  Before I left, my loose plan was to tick as many summits as possible in 24 hours, but my fractured foot wasn’t up to it, and frankly I’m a little out of shape for all day scrambling.  My goals shifted to simply play in the mountains until my body said stop.

Random jeep roads to… nowhere?

I had a lot on my mind.  My friend Andy left Missoula on Friday afternoon- the depth and strength of our friendship is unquestionable, but his departure left me with some loneliness in my heart.

Looking back at the first summit of the day.

From the first summit- my next objective.

Work has been racing lately, and while the big picture remains fulfilling, the day to day responsibilities aren’t always pretty.  I’m really not looking forward to this week at work, and making peace with how I’ve chosen to spend my time in Missoula requires regular maintenance.

Moving fast and high in the mountains is what it’s all about.

Without a partner, I limited myself to easy scrambling and fast hiking- but the solitude also left me open to explore the loneliness and doubt.  Strangely the peace I’ve normally found by pushing hard through beautiful wilderness remained illusive.

Tired legs. Looking at the Big Hole valley from Monument Peak, 10, 320′.

After summit number 2, I dug out my bivy gear high on the ridgeline, in prime position for an epic sunrise, and hopefully (unsuccessfully) away from the bugs .  There, high on the ridgeline, I remembered how I felt traveling last year- the freedom, the solitude, the joy.  I listened to one of my favorite pieces of music, “Entity” by Tim Reynolds, and the vision I have for my life snapped back into focus.  Sleep came quickly, and sunrise was as perfect as expected.

First light, July 22, 2012.

Morning glow.


Sleeping at altitude left me with a headache in the morning, and with my foot aching, I knew it was time to head for home.  For whatever reason, the peace of the previous evening didn’t hold, but the vision I have for my life remained vivid.  I enjoyed the hike down, and pushed out the drive home in time for a productive Sunday afternoon.

“Refuse to allow anything to impact the vision you hold for yourself, and the person you seek to become.  Whether or not you feel that you are that person in this moment, your vision for who that is, is a real possession that you can find satisfaction in.  If you don’t feel like you have a vision for yourself right now, try to create one- chances are it doesn’t include whatever it is that is bothering you.  With that vision comes a plan for your life, and inner joy that is rooted in substance.”

A Picture of My Life- 4.22.08

The Winds

10 years ago I went to the Wind River range with two high school friends in search of “adventure”- suffice to say we found it.  We spent 12 days on our own in the range, and walked over 85 miles.  I drove back to Chicago in love with mountains, and determined to learn how to climb them.

A few days ago I made a new friend at the climbing gym, and we realized that we shared common dreams of that place in Wyoming.  I haven’t been back since that first trip, but the Winds have been in the back of my head for every climb and every trip since.  If you had told me then of all the places I would climb in the following 10 years, and how those early determinations would shape my life, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.

One of my early trad leads in a quarry outside of Stirling, Scotland. 2005

I’m missing a few photos in digital format from some other early experiences (Granite Peak, Montana and the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado), but it was fun to dig up more of the early inspiration.

Few places inspire like the desert- Canyonlands National Park, Utah. 2005.

Loving the granite bouldering at Groom Creek, Arizona. 2007.

One of my first Cascade summits, Mt. Colchuck via the North Buttress Couloir. Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington. 2008

Sometimes I wonder why burn all the gas, why suffer all the training, but when I think of the friendships built, the photos taken, and the experience shared, there’s no doubt it’s worth it.

Flying prayer flags for a friend on the summit of Denali. Denali National Park, Alaska. 2009.

Eyes wide open on my first mixed climb. Hyalite Canyon, Montana. 2009.

Learning open-hand strength in Squamish, British Columbia. 2010.

The weather looks rough again this weekend and I’m fighting to keep my stoke up.  Tonight I got looking through a bunch of old photos- it’s fun to see where this journey has taken me, so I thought I’d share a quick history.

Stoked to ride an elephant, on Elephants Perch- Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho. 2010.

Sometimes this feels a little lunatic- leading Lunatic Fringe, Yosemite National Park, California. 2011.

Finding far flung goods in Seusca, Colombia. 2011.

Taking it to the next level on Cleopatra’s Needle, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. 2012.

I think I’m finally ready to say it- I’m ready to go back to the Winds.  Hopefully my new friend can join me, but if nothing else, I can thank her for pushing the idea back to the front of my mind.

Stay Inspired

I came home tonight hoping to write something and failed.  My heart has had a lot of emotion lately, but somehow the words aren’t happening.  I ended up staring blankly at my computer for the better part of two hours, until I finally saw something that really snapped my attention back to the present.  Thanks John, for all the lessons, the trips, the inspiration, the knowledge, and making a really cool video about some of your experience.  It helps me stay inspired:

Smash and Grab Ascent on Burkett Needle.

The Beehive

Almost unknowingly, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem stole a spot in my heart early in my experience with mountains.  I spent 8 days in the Absoarka Mountains in 2003 and found my first alpine experience climbing Granite Peak (12,799′, tallest mountain in Montana).  I’ve been back to the greater Yellowstone area at least a dozen times since, and it never ceases to amaze me.

We’re headed towards the obvious face at the head of the basin.

When I started ice climbing, I bought a copy of Winter Dance- one photo stood out to me immediately.  The view off the summit of a mountain I had never heard of called “The Beehive”.  It didn’t seem like a realistic objective then.  This year, with mileage, time, and the right partners, I knew I was ready to go when Drew mentioned it a few weeks ago.

Like many other Beehives, this one was full of honey.

I drove over to Bozeman on Friday afternoon with my favorite feeling: certain, inevitable awesome.  A perfect forecast, stellar partners, and a long sought after objective lined up for some of the most fun I’ve had on rock in a long time.  Enough talking, more photos…

I’ve never had to switch directly from ski boots to rock shoes before. Go figure…

Views from the center of the face were spectacular.

Drew leading up pitch 4.

We also thoroughly enjoyed the company of our friends Pete and Marco.  They climbed a mixed ice/rock line just next to ours, and friendly banter continued throughout the afternoon.  It’s rare to have another party in close proximity, and especially one with Pete Tapley.  Pete has put up most of the first ascents on The Beehive, and also happens to be one of the chillest, most fun climbers I have ever met.  I sincerely wish him well on his upcoming trip to the Alaska range.

The one and only Pete Tapley, ragin’.

Marco- enjoying a little exposure just before the summit ridge.

Drew and summited about 15 minutes after Pete and Marco, and we took extra time to enjoy the late afternoon sun and dead silence.  It was every bit as good as I had hoped- perfect partner, perfect weather, perfect route.  No, it’s not the hardest thing I’ve climbed, but we had a hoot, and I got to tick one off the list that’s been well overdue.  Booyah.

Feeling high on life on the summit.

Great views of The Sphinx and Lone Peak on the way home.

Technical details: The New World Route- 5.8, III, 500′.  Gear: singles #0-#2 C3, #0.3-#3 Camelots, 1 set offset nuts, 1 set BD Stoppers, 12 alpine draws.  Rock shoes don’t climb snow very well…

In The Arena

I was about 15 miles west of Bozeman and on the phone with my brother Friday afternoon when I noticed the road was solid ice.  I ended the call just in time to see a 3-ton flatbed truck complete a 360 across two lanes of traffic about four cars ahead of me.  I had been driving for 3 hours on my way to Bozeman to pick up Drew- we were supposed to head another 3 hours southeast for a big ice line in the Beartooth range, but somehow I was starting to have an icky feeling about the whole plan.

I picked up Drew, gear, and gas in Bozeman, and headed east into an increasing snowstorm.  We had decided to drive to the highway cutoff, and make the call over dinner.   Although both of us were stoked for the route we had picked, the thought of climbing a 3,500′ avalanche chute with a foot of fresh snow on it seemed plain stupid.  We ate dinner, got back in the car, and drove back to Bozeman in the dark.  While the turnaround was unsatisfying, we knew we had made the right call, and enjoyed a great conversation despite the hairy driving.  Which left the question, what else were we going to do?

When Drew asked me what else I might want to climb, the first line that jumped to mind was Cleopatra’s Needle.

The mega classic in mega good shape.

The line is usually done in 2 or 3 pitches, can vary in difficulty from WI4-WI5+, and is a Hyalite mega classic.  It was also the first “harder” ice line that really inspired me to learn the craft.  Drew said it was in WI4 shape, and in lieu of getting our big line in the Beartooths, it seemed like just the thing to test us on Saturday.

It’s a long hike to the base of the route, and we felt committed to the challenge by the time we got there.  That said, the crux pillar (which Drew encouraged me to lead) was obviously steeper and harder than anything I’ve climbed to date. The thing about pushing yourself is, you never know what you’ll accomplish until you put yourself in the arena and make a go of it.  In ice climbing, that has some real consequences, but I knew that I could make good decisions, and back off if I had to.  It was time to step in the arena of leading steep ice.

Fun in the sun with Drew leading pitch 1.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Teddy Roosevelts “Man in the Arena” speech lately.  Often with my climbing, I’ve backed off under the auspicies of good decision making, and experience, but I’ve been frustrated not to push myself.

Entering the arena.

Playing for keeps.

Towards the top of the pitch, I ran out of gas.  Just below easier terrain my hands started to cramp and fail, so I fired in a screw and sat on the rope.  Certainly not my preferred style, but in the moment necessary.  I’ve only sat on a screw on lead once before, and if I’m going to learn and progress, I need to fail more often, and that means pushing to the limit.  After a long rest I topped out the column and built an anchor.  Rather than climb easier terrain to the top, we decided to top rope the pillar, and spend more time on the steeps.  It was a great day out, and strangely, there was almost more success in not climbing the pillar clean, the success was just in getting on something I knew would be really hard for me.

Sunday, still a bit sore, we went back to Genesis I, a wall of ice close to the car that offers a variety of terrain- low angle to super steep, and burned 3 top rope laps each on the steepest section we could find.  It felt good to practice the craft.

On route looking down G1.

The drive home was uneventful, except for an unbelievable sunset.  I love this state.