Category Archives: Rock Climbing

A Standard

For a small tribe of rock climbers in the Cascades, climbing the complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, in less than 24 hours, without sleeping (“car to car in a day”), represents something of “a standard”. Certainly not a noteworthy climbing achievement, but enough effort to warrant a little respect. 8 miles and 3,000ft of gain on the hike in, 3,000ft of rock climbing up to 5.9, some scrambling and route-finding down a steep snow couloir on the way out. For most recreational climbers, it’s a pretty full day.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just ride along for the photos.

I climbed Mt. Stuart via a different route in 2010. Our “car to car in a day” took 23hr30min, and was an eye opening experience in alpine snow and mixed climbing. I was grateful for strong partners, but was mostly just along for the ride with more experienced people.

Last year, Pat and I climbed the upper North Ridge, approaching via an overnight camp at Ingalls Lake, the Stuart glacier, and a snow gully that cut off a bunch of more technical rock climbing. We had a blast, and after a punishing descent, made it back to camp in 15hrs. The position of the route, the quality of the rock climbing, and the reputation amongst my friends made me think that doing the Complete North Ridge was fully warranted. Sometimes it’s fun to bite off a little more than you can chew.

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(First look at the whole shebang)

Between weather and other commitments, I usually only get to partner with Ky one weekend a summer – so when we lined up for the July 8th weekend, I wasn’t going to waste the chance. Reliable beta indicated that the descent was in good condition.

We left the car at 315am and somehow managed to nail the approach- I was leading in my rock shoes at 715am. We let another party (Nick and Austin) pass us at the crux 3rd pitch because I wanted to take my time on the lead. I don’t regret it, but did cost us 45min. After the crux we lost a little more time with some route-finding, reaching the “halfway” notch at 11am. We were already low on water and while we rested and nursed a snowfield, the hoards caught up to us from below. I think there were 6 or 7 parties on the route that day. There are fewer possible variations higher on the route- so traffic management slowed us further.

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(Ky follows the crux)

It gets real at the Great Gendarme, and suddenly folks were more orderly in letting faster parties go. I blitzed the layback pitch (which I had followed in 2016), and Ky made excellent grunting noises while sending the off-width pitch on-sight. Both pitches are amazing climbing, but we were tired and I was really glad I didn’t have to lead the off-width. We raced for the summit, topping out at 645pm. I wish I could have enjoyed it without dreading the time of day on our descent.

(The only non-blurry summit photo I got of Ky. Instagram PC – Ky)

We gratefully followed Nick and Austin (because they knew where they were going), and found a legit snowfield water source just before really getting onto the snow downclimbing. Conditions were good, but I was very grateful to have aluminum crampons and approach shoes- we had to front point all the way down. We approached the bergschrund (where the glacier pulls away from the mountain) around 915pm, just as daylight started to fade in earnest. Steep snow was hardening, and our brains were fried from effort and dehydration. A safe path was not obvious, and it was not the time to be bold. We opted to give up on completing the sub24 hr standard, sit out for the night (with no bivy gear), and make a better decision in the morning. Nick and Austin agreed and we collectively found a nice little rock ledge to hang out on.

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(Starting down the snow. PC Ky.)

After 5 hours of shivering, it was glorious to see the sun-rise. We warmed up for an hour, and left around 6am. Breakfast was a peanut butter packet and a fruit leather, the very last of our food. With daylight, the bergschrund crossing was more obvious and we were soon cruising towards the car.

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(Ky finds salvation below the bergschrund)

I love mountains, even when it doesn’t all go according to plan. Thanks for following.

 

 

Copyright Skander Spies, 2017

Flow

3 months of overtime leading up to last Friday had replaced most of my mental resiliency with a weary, pressurized tension. Thermodynamics gives us the solution- pressure and flow are two sides of the same coin. To reduce pressure, allow an outlet for flow.

 

The Southwest Rib of South Early Winter Spire is an easy climb with some of the best rock in the Cascades- a perfect outlet for tension. Devon has quickly become a trusted and sought after adventure partner- he is also knows how to have fun. Last Sunday we flowed up the route, laughing and being totally inspired by the North Cascades.

Sometimes the flow is a hard thing to feel.  I don’t get it every time, but it’s a part of every single adventure I chase. It’s usually easier to find with someone else. Thanks Devon.

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(photo by dP)

Punt

I was trying to write something worthwhile about my response to the election, and Thanksgiving. Maybe those should be exclusive posts anyway.

It’s important to me to maintain this blog- one post a month feels like the bare minimum of viability. The previously mentioned topic was too damn hard, so I’m punting.

Abigail had a work conference in Las Vegas, and to recover from forced time in Vegas, I flew down to go climbing in Red Rocks (right next to the city), and a convenient antidote to the affliction of being there. Bike commuting in November in Seattle looks like this:

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so the desert was very nice

This trip was more about hanging out in the desert rather than climbing hard. We climbed easy, beautiful, and classic lines, ate good food, and had fun. Sometimes, that is all it needs to be.

So I’ll close with this: I’m glad to have federally protected recreation areas at my disposal. Please consider the many groups that have worked together to make that recreation possible. Trump and the GOP have been explicit in their desire to repeal environmental protections on natural resources and federally protected lands. If that happens, things like this little adventure stop happening. Take sides and speak up.

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Short Season pt 2

(part 2 of 2)

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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…

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All content Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

Not So Red

“It’s totally beautiful, but they aren’t that red.” Abigail said to me.

Greg- crushing. It is kinda more brown than red...

Greg- crushing. It is kinda more brown than red…

I had no retort. We were hiking back to Brownstone Wall, deep in the Red Rocks National Conservation area. You can see the massive, completely brown wall, almost as soon as you leave the car. Given the name, I could understand her surprise, especially after the Wingate sandstone I had just been climbing in Utah.

Tess, crushing. It gets more red in the evening light.

Tess, crushing. It gets more red in the evening light.

I left Indian Creek on a Wednesday morning and took slow roads down to Flagstaff, AZ to spend the night with Jody, Deb, and their amazing baby Elston. It had been a few years since I had seen them, and I was glad to catch up. They are full on masters of balance careers, parenting, and adventures. Hopefully I can tempt them north.

Me.  I don't know... I think it's pretty red.

Me. I don’t know… I think it’s pretty red.

Thursday I poked around Flag, then boogied to Vegas to meet Tess and Greg. After the severity of the Creek, I was excited to enjoy the relatively mellow climbing in Red Rocks and enjoy the company of close friends. That said the sport climbing flexed an entirely different set of muscles. We got after it pretty well.

Lovely lady in the desert!

Lovely lady in the desert!

I had invited Abigail to join us as soon as the dates were solid, and she flew in Friday night. I couldn’t have been more excited to see her, and share climbing in such a fantastic place. We got after some sport climbing on Saturday (many crowds), and hiked back to “Armitron” (III, 5.9 5p) on the Brownstone on Sunday.

Abigail, not looking down like a pro.

Abigail, not looking down like a pro.

Getting a good moderate route to yourself on a weekend day in Red Rocks is no small feat, and I was relieved to find the wall empty after the 90 minute walk. The climbing was excellent, but I did a poor job of managing exposure while leading a beginner. Abigail did a wonderful job of facing her fears and trusting my leads while we dispatched the 500′ face. Once we were on the walk-off though, her running legs kicked in, and she led all of us back to the car.

Psyched to know these two.

Psyched to know these two.

Tower top out. Worth the hike.

Tower top out. Worth the hike.

I’ve done bigger, longer climbs, but after climbing 11 out of 14 days, I work up on Monday completely worked. We shared a leisurely breakfast and a quick tour of the absurdities of the Vegas strip before we said goodbye to Tess and Greg, and I dropped Abigail at the airport. She had work on Tuesday, and I was suddenly thrown into the mission of moving to Seattle.  After the trip last year, and this short stay, I’m really starting to like Red Rocks, red enough or not.

Amazing walk off.

Amazing walk off.

Hiko, NV. Worth taking the backroads home.

Hiko, NV. Worth taking the backroads home.

Indian Creek – The Breath

Creek Life is the best life.

Creek Life is the best life.

"Green Eggs and Ham" (5.10) at Second Meat Wall. A nice wide workout.

“Green Eggs and Ham” (5.10)

“Breathe Skander, breathe. Then fight.” Damian called up to me for seemingly the fifteenth time. His words had inspired me up the route, so I didn’t mind the repeated commands. Earlier on the climb I was sitting on a #5 Camelot fighting to catch my breath, having just violated the first rule of offwidth climbing: it’s an endurance game of endless small movements that each add up to something beautiful.

Offwidths have long been strangely attractive to me, and despite being tired late on my sixth day of climbing in the Creek, “Green Eggs and Ham” is a beautiful, short 5.10 off-width crack that inspired me for the lead.

Rest day art shot.

Rest day art shot.

My rest day and the arrival of Damian and Darcy on Saturday, March 14 bolstered my confidence to get back into the teeth of Indian Creek climbing. More on the two of them later, but they know me from climbing and working in Montana, and were not going to let me get away with anything less than giving my best to this incredible place. We went back tot he cliffs, and I got on the lead end of the rope. I got scared, I fell on my gear, and I bled. It was awesome, and it changed my entire experience of the place. My technique improved, I started having more fun, and suddenly being in the place just clicked. It is some of the most spectacular climbing I have ever done.

Dave and I, cracking the whip at Pistol Whipped wall.

Dave and I, cracking the whip at Pistol Whipped wall.

The evening lights were spectacular.

The evening lights were spectacular.

Vicki, another Missoula friend and newbie to Indian Creek also showed up on Sunday, and with Dave, Damian, and Darcy, we continued to sample a variety of spectacular cliffs. After a few more days, I could tell my body was spent. I had just a little bit more, and I had always wanted to do the Easter Island tower in the Bridger Jack formation- it is short, classic, and fun.  The spine of towers boasts a huge variety of routes, and Easter Island is the easiest of them all.

It's up there!

It’s up there!

We met Ben and Mark from Grand Junction at the bottom, and they followed us up to make the rappel easier. I led both pitches and despite some very sporty climbing on the second pitch, we all had a pile of fun. It was Vicki’s first tower, and fun to have another party on top with us.

Strangely, the crux is on face holds with bolts...

Strangely, the crux is on face holds with bolts…

Easter Island summit party.

Easter Island summit party.

So much fun in fact, that Mark and Ben trailed a rope up Sparkling Touch Tower to let us draft off their lead. I didn’t have the lead in me, but was happy to follow and look forward to repeating the route- it’s burly.

Sparkling Touch summit party.

Sparkling Touch summit party.

Sitting in Seattle the desert feels far away but the lessons are close at hand. Grab the things that scare you and hang on for the ride. Many thanks to Dave, Damian, Darcy, Vicki, Mark, and Ben for being exceptional and inspiring partners.

Goodnight Indian Creek. See you again soon.

Goodnight Indian Creek. See you again soon.

Unseasonable

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.