Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Worked in Indian Creek

As part of my training for alpine climbing and skiing I’ve delved deeper into rock climbing.  I’ve rock climbed on and off for years, mostly sport and only gone a few times a year.  I could comfortably lead 5.9 and usually fake it up a 5.10 sport route.  However, I’d never really climbed enough to make the leap into trad climbing.  That’s all changed given my aspirations to ski bigger mountains, the need to protect said climbs, and the amazing trad climbing we have in the Wasatch Mountains.  So, this past spring I bought my first trad rack and have been climbing one to two times per week.  I’ve been fortunate enough to hook up with a couple of well experienced and fearless trad climbers from the valley.  These two knuckle dragging chemistry phd students have been known to rock climb outside at night in February using headlamps and propane torches for light.  They know the Cottonwoods very well, are always down for adventure, and aren’t afraid at all to take a whipper on TCUs (small cams).  Most importantly, they are patient teachers who haven’t gotten me in over my head yet.  Keyword there I think is YET.  Anyway, after climbing with these guys for the past one and a half months or so I was finally able to make a trip down to Indian Creek for some serious crack climbing.  Indian Creek is a crack climbing mecca 55 miles south of Moab just outside of Canyonlands NP.  People travel from all over the world to climb the laser cut sandstone cracks and I am a measly 5 hours away from this place.  I’ve climbed now some of the classic routes in the Wasatch like Bong Eater, Goodroos, and Bushwhack crack and felt at least a bit prepared for what the boys were telling me where 100ft hand jam pumpers and the like.  Holy crap was I wrong.  I learned real quick why Travis’s rack has 7 each of number 1, 2, & 3 cams.  The plan was for Ali and I to head down there with Travis to climb on Saturday.  His girlfriend, also a very good climber, would drive down later that evening and then we would camp out and climb the next day before heading back home.  On account of me losing my wallet at a restaurant the night before – No, I was not drunk – we made the drive down later than expected Saturday afternoon and reached Indian Creek around 4:30.  The first thing I noticed was, “It’s hot.  It’s dry.” Go figure.  I mean, after all we are in the Southern Utah desert in mid June.  That’s why peak season for Indian Creek climbing is spring and fall.  But, like I said, these boys are always down for a bit of adventure and aren’t afraid of a little heat.  “Bring more water.”  I digress, the second thing I noticed was how absolutely gorgeous this place was. 
Scarface Buttress
We were in belly of a desert canyon surrounded by massive vertical red sandstone monoliths and buttresses on all sides.  “If there’s a crack it’s been climbed,” announced Travis.  You couldn’t climb all these cracks in a lifetime.  We pulled into the parking lot of Supercrack Buttress and made the short hike up to Incredible Hand Crack.  Incredible Hand Crack is a 5 star 100 ft 5.10c with perfect hands and a challenging roof that’s been climbed so many times the stone is permanently chalk stained.  The walls adjacent to the crack are glass smooth without so much as a finger pinch to use.  The cracks are “laser cut” 2-3 inches the entire length demanding hand jam after hand jam for 100 feet.  Places to rest are scant. 
Travis working Incredible Hand crack
At a glance, its a right facing corner 
vertical wall leading to a roof.  From there the corner crack continues slightly over hung up to the anchors.   Nice warm up I think sarcastically.  Travis leads and works the hell out of it finishing in under 5 minutes and placing only 5 pieces of protection.  Cleaning I make the first section clean until I reach the roof.  The roof is flaring and between hands and fists for me.  Trying to pull the roof I peeled out 3 or 4 times before getting a boost from Travis.  Once above the roof good hand jams abound and I was able to complete the route without any further belay assistance. 
Me Struggling on the roof.
After rapping down we packed up and contoured the buttress for 3 minutes to Super Crack; another 5 star 100ft 5.10 laser cut crack with glass walls.  Here, we run into the only other climbers we would see for the weekend.  It’s hooottt!  Fortunately they were just finishing and we didn’t have to wait in queue.  Travis again walked easily up the wall – hand jam, foot jam, hand jam, foot jam – placing minimal protection and finishing in a few minutes.  Have I mentioned yet that he and Mark have built a “crack machine,” at home to practice?  I again struggled up behind and after pulling a small roof, and peeling out half a dozen times, was to worked to finish.  And so set the tone for weekend; Travis making 5.10s and 5.11s cracks look easy while I struggled like a dog to clean.  Before heading down to make camp Travis did find a nice 40 ft 5.8+ called Twin Cracks for me to lead.  As the name implies it is a set of parallel cracks about 100 feet lookers left of Incredible Hand Crack.  It’s a vertical wall adjacent to a nice right facing corner to stem off.  No, it’s not a 5 star crack.  But, the protection was good and I felt much more within the realm of my current crack climbing ability on this pitch.  Travis and I took turns leading this before heading down for the evening. 
Me leading Twin Cracks
At least I didn’t feel completely defeated on my first ever climbing experience using true hand jams.  The next day Travis’s girlfriend and badass climbing partner Ches had arrived and we headed to Scarface Buttress.  With already tired forearms and bruised hands and feet, I knew today was going to be a struggle.  Luckily Ches was there to buffer me with now two climbers to wear out Travis.  First on the list was Scarface.  Scarface is 5.11 110 ft aesthetically gorgeous crack with a view to boast.  It’s mostly hands but narrows to fingers and bad feet at the crux where it transitions to a right leaning crack.  Travis’s set off leading with the goal of redpointing it. 
Unfortunately, as in past attempts he took a small whip at the crux.  He then proceeded to repeatedly curse his mistake as he easily sent the rest of the route clean.  Following, I set off with a little bit of rage up Scarface.  The jams were tight and I could feel the bruises deepening on the back of my hands tops of my feet.  With exception of the crux the jams were pretty solid.  I struggled a bit as the crack leaned right and peeled out a few times.  With each peel I had less and less skin on the pads of my fingers and the burn in my forearms was building.  It was easy climbing above the flake and I managed to finish without any more takes. 
Me working Scarface
Ches followed and demonstrating mad skills was the only one of us to climb it without a single take.  Now she just has to lead it; I have no doubt she can.  My final climb of the trip was a 50 ft 5.10- called Unnamed.  I struggled on lead but did manage to take my first whip on a cam.  It was small but I’ll still take it.  Travis finished my lead while I cleaned.  After this climb I was done for the day.  I tried a 5.9 near Wavy Gravy but couldn’t even make the first move.  I belayed while Travis redpointed and Ches cleaned probably the coolest route of the trip, Wavy Gravy. 
Travis pulls the roof on Wavy Gravy
After this, we hike back to the car for a couple of cold beers.  Ali and I headed home while Travis and Ches hit up a few more routes before calling it quits.  What have I learned from my first experience with Indian Creek?  It’s absolutely gorgeous down there and I am stoked to go down there and climb some more.  However, I got worked pretty good.  I’m told it’s a pretty common occurrence for Indian Creek first timers but it's little solace.  Climbing down there is basically all jams, something I’d never really done before climbing there.  Clearly, before going down there again I need to get to the gym to specifically work on jams.  I would have liked to have gotten my wife Alison up on the wall too.  However, IC is not the place to teach someone to climb, not even on top rope.  Hopefully we can get Ali on some gym walls and easier stuff in the Cottonwoods as I would love to climb with her.  For now, I’ll lick my wounds as I ice the bruises on my hands and feet.  Thank you Ali for being our photographer.  Good times. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ski Descent Ford Stettner Couloir of The Grand Teton

Having just gotten into backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering this year, I was a bit hesitant to undertake such a challenging and exposed mountain. Honestly, I've only been on crampons a couple of times and have never used technical ice tools. However, I met a Jackson local back in March while skiing at JHMR who exuded a certain confident panache and patient restraint when recalling prior backcountry forays that I immediately felt we were on the same wavelength as far as risk and safety were concerned. Our initial plan was to head up in early May. However, the Tetons received a fair amount of snow in early May so we were pushed back several weeks from our initial aspirations. Finally, after getting shut down the prior weekend due to rain we settled on June 7th as our summit day. The weather looked to be perfect for late morning corn skiing. However, we knew we had to be off the mountain by early afternoon to avoid wet slides and falling loose rocks. With a goal of shouldering our packs at 1:30 AM Saturday morning, alarms would be set for a "so early it's late" wake-up of 12:00 AM. After organizing and splitting gear I laid down at 7:30 PM and tossed and turned for the next 4.5 hours with anticipation and apprehension at the coming day.

NE facing Ford Couloir funneling over a cliff with the Chevy and Stettner Couloirs entering from the bottom right.

With thousands of feet of exposure and 55 degree slopes leading up to cliffs, the mountain usually claims more than a couple lives per year; there is not much room for error up there. I wasn't so much worried about the skiing as I was transitioning from skiing to boot packing and back. Traditionally, this is when most people loose footing and start into uncontrolled slides. I went over all of the details in my head of how the day would unfold from the beta I'd gathered online. I rehearsed best and worst case transitions and planned possible anchors needed in my head. When the alarm went off at 12:00 AM I was awake and waiting for it. After downing a Cliff Bar and banana we threw our gear in the truck and headed out. Parking at the Lupine Meadows trail head there were a few cars in the parking lot filled with like minded individuals with similar plans.
On the trail.
We set off in approach shoes for the 4 mile hike to the mouth of Garnet Canyon. Making descent time given full packs and elevation gain we reached the mouth at 3:30 AM. We cached our shoes off trail and donned our ski boots; I welcomed getting that weight off my back. It was easy skinning on pretty bullet proof snow as we moved up Garnet Canyon toward the Tepee Pillar. The ramp leading up to Tepee Pillar was super runneled from freeze thaw cycles and we soon abandoned skinning in favor of boot packing. It was fairly easy going through early morning light as we continued toward the Tepee Pillar. We took a break just below Tepee Glacier and cached some more gear. Honestly, I feel like moving through Garnet Canyon to the top of the Tepee was the most arduous and time consuming section. It wasn't particularly hard, just endless rollovers and false flats. Reaching the Tepee Pillar at about 9:00 AM we went into full battle mode with axes and crampons as we crossed the Glencoe Col to the foot of Stettner Colouir.
Andrew crossing Glencoe Col above the Tepee.
At the base of the Stettner I looked up a super tight couloir with an ice filled base and steep, claustrophobic granite walls and realized it was here that I would enter a realm of climbing I'd never experienced before. The ice wasn't super technical, and I felt comfortable free climbing it. Still, an uncontrolled fall out the Stettner and you would launch out the mouth into the basin 1,500 feet below. It was a bit eerie moving over the ice and hearing runoff rushing just below the surface. Complicating things further, we began to catch the party of 3 ahead of us and had the added pleasure of dodging falling ice as we ascended the Stettner on our way to the Chevy Couloir which is an obvious branch point to climbers right.
Me free climbing up the Stettner.  I can hear the water rushing just below the ice.
We caught the climbers ahead at the base of the Chevy Couloir and had intentions of passing them but their lead had already set off up the couloir. Not wanting to sit in the cold and wait while the snowpack warmed, we contemplated the more challenging climb up the rest of the Stettner versus waiting to climb the Chevy. Deciding to avoid the rapidly warming East face and rock fall danger we decided to ascend the traditional Chevy couloir once the others cleared the lower belay anchor. Not entirely the best decision on our part, Andrew began lead just behind the climbers cleaning in the group ahead of us. Struggling for placements, about a third of the way up, and only 20 feet above Andrew, the climbers ahead kicked off a softball sized chunk of ice. Despite making himself small he took a direct hit to the right arm and curled into a ball as he shouted in pain. Worried he might be seriously hurt I kept him tight on belay and thought our climb might be over. After a few seconds and more than a couple expletives he continued up the climb to the belay station. Pretty damn cold from standing there so long, and with the feeling leaving my fingers, I unclipped from the lower belay station and set off up the Chevy. I tried to remember to always maintain 3 points of contact with ice and made sure my placement were bomber before moving forward. I was pretty happy to make climb without any takes or near falls and felt pretty comfortable with my gear and the terrain. At the belay station we made the decision to free climb the next pitch as there was only one major hump and we were running short on time.
Me heading over the hump in the Chevy.

Andrew free climbs the Chevy.
Topping out the Chevy Couloir we were now at the base of the Ford Couloir with only a bit more than 1,200 feet separating us from the summit.  We cached our rope at the top belay station and enjoyed the freedom of incredibly light packs as we set off on the final push.  
Moving up The Ford Couloir.
By now though, altitude and fatigue were beginning to take their toll and I was moving in about 25 to 35 step intervals before pausing to catch my breath.  It was mid morning and sweat was now dripping from my brow.  I paused and took my arms out of my jacket and continued climbing with only a T-shirt.    I was uneasy with the warmth and asked Andrew several times if he shared my concerns.  He reassured me and we continued up Ford Couloir toward the East shoulder.  A huge runnel cut down the center of the Ford and I made mental note of when to move to skiers right on the way down. I could tell Andrews shoulder was hurting with each plunge of the axe as he began to trail further behind.  Reaching the East shoulder I took in the view of the valley 7,000 feet below and realized we were only 200 feet below the summit.  Constantly assessing the safety of the snow pack, I again asked Andrew if he thought we had time to safely summit and ski in stable snow.  He again reassured me that there were no pinwheels or signs of creeping in the snow pack.  We pushed on up the East ridge for another 10 to 15 minutes.  Finally, 10 hours after shouldering our packs, we reached the summit at 11:30 AM.   
Summit 13,775 ft above sea level.
I've stared at that mountain with aspirations of climbing it since I first saw it 15 years ago.  Now, with the help of my friend and guide I finally got the summit seal.  
After taking a few pictures and downing the last of my calories and water until our cache at the bottom of Garnet Canyon, we both felt a since of urgency to get off the mountain before the afternoon heat really started to make things dangerous. Dropping in off the summit there were a lot of exposed rocks with all of the melt off and it was mostly jump turns and slide slipping for the first 50 feet or so.  On the East shoulder and into the Ford Couloir we had fantastic turns through pretty nice corn snow.  
Andrew on the East Ridge.
It was a bit steep but not uncomfortably so.  Still, there was no ripping down the couloir, my legs were tired and an uncontrolled fall would end poorly as you catapulted out the bottom of the couloir into the basin below.  Making sure to stay skiers right of the large runnel we continued down the Ford to the first rappel station were we had cached our rope on the way up.  Andrew's arm was pretty sore so I set up the ropes on some pretty solid tat from prior parties.  Rappelling in three 70 meter pitches we were pretty efficient moving down the Chevy.  
Unclipping from the rap station. 
Unfortunately the team ahead of us was painfully slow with rope management and there was nothing we could do but wait. 
As I rapped into the Stettner couloir at 1:30 pm I was pretty reassured that we had made it mostly out of the danger area.  Too soon for these thoughts I would soon learn.  Pulling our rope through at the bottom of the Chevy we T'd into the middle of the narrow Stettner couloir with its towering steep side walls on a 50 degree ice pitch.  What should have been
Rappeling down the Chevy.
a routine pull got pretty serious when our rope snagged up above.  Working both ends of the rope with our body weight neither of us were able to free the snag and neither Andrew, with his sore arm, nor me with my novice ice skills were too keen on free climbing up to free the snag.  In a final effort to free our rope we tied into opposite tails and tried to use our full body as counter weights to free the rope. Andrews tail came free and he was able to make it to a protected rappel station in the Stettner.
 Unfortunately, there was not enough rope for me to likewise down climb to him.  Using cordelletes tied together I was able to make an extended sling which I threw to Andrew who then clipped me into that anchor.  At that moment we heard the distinct clap of rocks breaking off up above.  Stranded, unprotected in the middle of the couloir there was no where for me to go.  Deciding to look and dodge I watched as a pumpkin sized rocked bounced off the walls of the couloir toward me.  I squared up and crouched like a soccer goalie and moved right as the rock crashed just to my left.  I dodged four smaller but still experience altering rocks as they passed precariously close.  Rope be damned, as soon as the rocks passed I untied myself from the rope and down climbed to Andrew at the protected rappel anchor below.  Our rope now free, there was huge urgency to get the hell down the Stettner couloir before more rocks crashed from above in the rapidly warming snow pack.  Working together we bombed down the next three rappels to the mouth of the Stettner and out of harms way without further incident.  Reaching the Tepee pillar I felt this was the last area where we were really at any risk.  The snow was past it's prime and super heavy.  It fell apart with each turn as wet sluff showered below my skis.  Exiting Tepee glacier and heading into Garnet Canyon we briefly stopped at our cache were I filled up on water from a stream on skiers left and downed my final GU.

Me at the base of Tepee Pillar.
Letting down my guard it was here that I  began to feel how completely wasted I was and how maybe I should have brought more than 900 calories for the trip.  Thankfully, the ski out of Garnet Canyon and out from slide paths was super mellow.  I suffered a bunch on the 4 mile hike out as I began to bonk from lack of calories.  The sun beating down didn't help either and I had to stop a couple of times to rest.  I wasn't yet thinking about the accomplishment of skiing the mountain.   More so, I just wanted to get the hell out of there and into the AC.  Finally, 15 hours after we started, we reached the truck.  Exhausted, I threw my gear into the truck bed fell into the passenger seat.  I think that's enough fun for the day.  Now that I'm over my fatigue and soreness I'm super stoked on the whole experience.  Climbing The Grand there is never really a super technical crux.  Rather, the challenge lies in the sum of the individual parts.  As we experienced, anything can go wrong up there and you have to stay constantly on your game.  We did it and I can't wait to not only go up it again, but to explore new challenges in ski mountaineering.  Thanks to Andrew Reynolds for being my guide and partner for the climb.  Couldn't have done it without him.  6/7/2014.