Category Archives: Climbing

Half-full Palisade Traverse

Palisade Crest silhouette


The term “Palisade Traverse” usually refers to a crossing of California’s most rugged fourteeners, between Thunderbolt Peak and Mount Sill; this is a fairly popular route, seeing dozens of parties every summer. However, this is just part of a much longer ridge. The longer section between Southfork and Bishop Passes has come to be called the “Full Palisade Traverse,” and has been completed by only a dozen or so parties ever. Even longer traverses, extending north through the Inconsolable Range, northwest across the Evolution Ridge, or south over Split Mountain (formerly “South Palisade”) to Taboose Pass, have been done once or twice, if at all.

I was leaving the Sierra when I received a last-minute invitation to join Vitality and Ryan, two erstwhile mountain partners, for some version of a longer Palisade traverse. Carrying food for four nights, a rope, and a small rack, this was not my style of climbing. However, I have long been interested in exploring the unfamiliar parts of this ridge, and it is good for me to occasionally venture beyond my familiar path. I broke up the drive back south by riding Ebetts, Monitor, and Sonora Passes, summiting some peaks near each, then met the others, threw together an overnight pack, and rode up to South Lake to begin the traverse.

Sill and Winchell from Agassiz

It began with the familiar slog up Bishop Pass, which fortunately passed largely by headlamp. Unused to the cold of a high trailhead, I had neglected to sleep with my water bladder and headlamp, so the water hose had frozen, and the lamp’s batteries were weak. We filled up at a stream below the final headwall, then left the trail just short of the pass to climb Agassiz’s standard route. This is normally a class 2 boulder-hop up a gully, but the rock-hard early-summer snow forced us onto the class 3 ribs instead. Finally reaching warmth and sun just below the summit, we dropped our packs to sign the register, then contemplated the start of the real traverse.

Agassiz from Winchell

Another climber had mentioned that many people skip a tower called the “Sharkfin,” and the ridge crest between Agassiz and Winchell looked jagged and time-consuming, so we descended a choss-gully to an azure snow-lake, then returned to join Winchell’s standard east ridge partway to the summit. We had fortunately decided to bring minimal snow gear — two pairs of crampons and an axe for the three of us — because although the snow had been baking in the sun for several hours, it was still hard enough for Vitality to take a stylish but unplanned glissade. I had climbed the east ridge for the Sierra Challenge many years ago, and the rest of the route was the fun third class I remembered.

Improbable ledge off Winchell

From the summit, we contemplated the jagged ridge behind to the north and ahead to the south. As I had noted from previous outings across the valley, Winchell stands alone, with wide and deep gaps separating it from Agassiz and Thunderbolt. Realizing that we might have “cheated” by skipping some of the best and/or hardest climbing, we decided to stay on the ridge for the next stretch, the long traverse to Thunderbolt. The descent from Winchell was wild and suspenseful; we often reached a point where it seemed we must cliff out, only to find an improbable downclimb. One of these was a bit desperate, and while I nervously followed Vitality’s lead (he is a much stronger climber than I), Ryan opted for a short rappel.

Reascent after Winchell

After traversing over a sharp intermediate tower (perhaps the “Sharksfin?”), we started up the long climb to Thunderbolt. This was time-consuming but substantially fun, with many sections of the good kind of Palisades rock. At their best, the Palisades consist of solid black rock flecked with white, which forms sharp edges and knobs. The climbing is steep and exposed, but secure, making one feel like a better climber. This alternated with the bad kind of Palisades rock — shifting choss on sloping ledges — but such is the nature of this traverse. We eventually reached Southwest Chute #1, and were back on the familiar Thunderbolt to Sill traverse. As expected, this seldom-climbed section had taken a long time, but we still had plenty of daylight left.

Vitaliy leading Thunderbolt

We scrambled up to Thunderbolt’s summit block, and rather than simply lasso it, Vitality decided to lead it with a pretend belay: he would hit the ground and probably break something if he fell, but at least he would be attached to a rope as he lay wedged between boulders. A few slow, cautious moves later, he reached the summit and was lowered, then Ryan and I both toproped it. I had soloed the block in running shoes in 2012, but lassoed it on both of my subsequent trips. As before, I found that while the free climb looked difficult, it was reasonably secure. While I was glad to have a rope, it is something I could now confidently do without one.

Ugh, that pack (V)

Having done it four times now, I expected the traverse to Sill to be straightforward, but the ridge is complicated and relentless, and I had never done it in early-season snow, nor carrying an overnight pack. I felt like my old self when I dropped my pack to scramble Starlight’s “milk bottle” (or more aptly “giraffe”) summit block, but was tentative and awkward otherwise, even rappeling once on a section I had easily downclimbed between Starlight and North Palisade. I scrambled through the sharp notch and down the Clyde Variation into the U-notch, but it all felt harder than it should have, eroding my normal confidence on moderate and familiar terrain.

First bivy before Sill (V)

It was late by the time we reached the talus beyond Polemonium, now covered in slush suncups. We could have continued, but there did not appear to be any flat, dry ground on the way to Sill, and we had to melt snow for three people’s water on two stoves. We eventually found a bivy spot large enough for three people to sleep uncomfortably, and spent the remaining daylight turning snow into dirty water for dinner and the next day’s consumption. It was the highest I had ever slept in the Sierra, and cold enough to make me unhappy, with my hands always on the verge of aching. I ate as quickly as possible, shoved my water bladder, headlamp, and gloves into my bivy, and put on a podcast while trying to sleep on my slowly leaking pad on the non-flat ground.

Our bivy spot fortunately received early morning sun, so we were able to get moving at a respectable hour. The snow was pleasantly solid, with a crunchy, grippy surface, making the traverse to Sill much easier than it would have been the previous evening. The final shady climb was frigid, but the summit plateau was fairly warm, promising a good day on the ridge. We scrambled over the two towers south of Sill, where I managed to tweak my ankle while playing around, then dropped down to avoid some annoying-looking terrain on the way to the saddle with Jepson. I briefly lost the other two on a detour for running water, finding them again as they pondered how to return to the ridge.

Me about to fail (R)

Jepson is a surprisingly difficult obstacle: while it is a simple talus-hop from Scimitar Pass to the south, the connecting ridge to Sill is sharp on both sides, with steep steps along the crest, and a long south ridge with a sheer west side extending some 1000 feet down toward Glacier Creek. After crossing a bit more snow, we connected ledges and broken terrain back to the ridge. I vaguely remembered descending this ridge unroped on a scouting mission, but that was with a daypack and later in the season. I had probably followed a line generally west of the ridge, but that was now shady and held a fair amount of snow. This time we stayed closer to the crest, roping up for one pitch for psychological reasons, and another for legitimate reasons just below the summit. Vitality nervously led up a pair of cracks below a roof. I followed and almost made the necessary moves, but failed at the top, partly because of my pack, but also because I am a mediocre climber. I fell once, then gave up and pulled on a cam to put this embarrassment behind me. While I have my pride in some things, climbing is not one of them.

Palisade Crest slab

The long boulder-hop from Jepson to the start of Palisade Crest was a welcome respite. We glanced at snowy Scimitar Pass, surprisingly high on the south side of the Jepson-Palisade Crest col, then soon found ourselves back in serious terrain. The “crux” of the first Palisade Crest summit, a.k.a. “Gandalf,” is a striking, exposed slab to its left. However, as I wrote in the register after my first climb many years ago, the ridge leading up to it is far more tricky and thought-provoking. After a wrong turn where we nearly resorted to a rappel, I found a line of cairns bypassing the final bump along the left side. It was standard fare — chossy and exposed fourth class — about which the others did not seem enthusiastic. I was not overjoyed, but at least I was back in my element, traversing to the slab, then cruising up the well-featured face to the summit pinnacle. A short, steep, but positive scramble led from there to the small summit.

Along Palisade Crest

Now it was time for more unfamiliar, and very intimidating-looking, terrain. In my past experience, Sierra ridges are usually easier than their official ratings if you take the time for some careful route-finding. Both the Kaweah and Evolution traverses are rated 5.9, but I found them no harder than 5.5 and 5.7, respectively. Since Palisade Crest is offically 5.5, I did not think it would cause much trouble. Boy was I wrong: while there may be a 5.5 path with perfect route-finding, the climbing is relentless, and the ridge allows few options. The west side is often near-vertical and smooth, while the east is steep and frequently loose. The north sides of the twelve towers are also steeper than the south, making it particularly intimidating in our direction. This would normally have been my type of terrain, but mental exhaustion and a heavy pack with an ice axe and two sets of crampons to catch on things spoiled the fun. Climbing some loose exposed rock to rejoin the others, with the rope coiled around my neck, I lost it for a bit, screaming “why am I doing this?!” before putting my head back on straight. This had stopped being fun for me.

Ultimate bivy (V)

We had hoped to get at least as far as the notch beyond the Crest, but by 6:00 we had only climbed a bit over half of the towers, reaching the first flat spot that we had seen in awhile large enough to sleep three people. The others were reluctant to waste daylight, but I thought it unlikely we would find another good bivy by dark. I think everyone was a bit mentally fried at this point, because it did not take much to convince them to stay here for the night. While Ryan and I cleared off rocks on the platform, Vitaliy rappeled down the east face to gather snow for water. Afterward, we went through the usual time-consuming process of melting snow and cooking dinner, then watched the light fade from one of the most amazing bivy spots imaginable. The narrow and serrated Palisades ridge extended north and south of our platform, while the sun set on Palisade Basin, the Devil’s Crags, and countless other Sierra peaks to the west. Sleeping right on the Sierra Crest, we received both last and first light, and the weather was pleasant and almost windless, even above 13,000 feet.

Me on the Crest (V)

With only a few towers to go, we were hoping for faster going the next day. After a rappel east with a scary (to me) overhanging start, we traversed around a headwall, then scaled some fun fourth class back to the ridge beyond a small, vertical tower. Vitaliy then led an intimidating but positive pitch along the crest to the next tower. Things were going better, staying generally on or east of the crest and finding fun, positive rock, but it was still slow and exposed through the final towers. A good night’s sleep had restored my mental energy and head for scrambling, but Ryan still seemed to be suffering.

We eventually reached the end of the Crest, and were dismayed to find hundreds of feet of sheer-looking rock dropping to the south saddle. I thought I saw a feasible line of 2-3 rappels down chossy terrain to the notch, but Vitality wanted to find something shorter and/or cleaner, and traversed east along a ledge. While we had seen sporadic webbing anchors all along the traverse, we found none here, suggesting we may have been off-route. Vitality eventually found a clean line down from a large horn somewhat east of the spine, and Ryan rappeled into the void, eventually finding a platform near the end of the rope.

Vitaliy led the next rappel, trying desperately to angle back toward the notch before giving up on the sheer wall of the couloir to its east. We discussed our options a bit, but I was privately done with the whole business, and had no enthusiasm left to bring to the group. I could not think of a good way to get across the gap short of going down to the snow and around, my ankle was bothering me a bit, and I lacked the energy to regain 1000 or more feet on chossy fourth class rock. We downclimbed east, then made a rappel to the snow, which sucked until it became lower-angle.

There was some fun boot-skiing getting to the lake northeast of Norman Clyde, then an endless hike through mosquito-infested woods to the South Fork trail, where I put in my headphones for the slog of shame. I bashed my ankle again for good measure, limped to the parking lot, and threw my pack down at the gate. Fishing for my keys, I found that my olive oil had leaked all over my sleeping gear. Joy. I needed some time alone, so I did not mind walking the mile down the road to the overnight lot to fetch my car. It was a bit awkward cramming two people into my filthy and disorganized “home,” but they did not complain on the drive around to South Lake. Ryan kindly volunteered to fetch the other car, and I pulled into one of the flatter spots in the overnight lot to sleep in the high, cool air. I had seen most of the unfamiliar terrain about which I was curious, but it still felt like failure.

Squamish-y things

Good scenery and bad posture

Good scenery and bad posture


[All photos by Renée.]

With the snowpack and my own motivation not quite in condition for Serious Business in the Cascades, I took advantage of an opportunity to both climb and interact with civilization up in Squamish, where Renée and a couple of her friends were doing things with ropes and gear. In addition to getting in some roped climbing practice, I hoped to tag a couple of local peaks. After another typically unpleasant encounter with a Canadian border guard, I pulled into the Stawamus Chief parking lot early enough to chat with Renée and MJ before it got dark, and easily found parking in the “day use” lot on a weekday. I had been worried about being deported or sent to the Snow Mexican juzgado for sleeping there, but plenty of other climbers were already blatantly camped, so I figured I would have time to make a getaway if things turned bad.

Forced smile after P1 of Calculus Direct

Forced smile after P1 of Calculus Direct

First up was Calculus Crack (direct 5.9 start), a 5-ish pitch route on the Apron. After waiting for a couple of groups ahead of us, MJ led the first pitch, up a corner and out above the forest canopy. While it did not look too steep, the rock was much slicker than at Index, and I embarassingly could hardly follow the pitch. I was almost discouraged enough to be lowered off and walk home, but the rest was only 5.8, and was supposedly more sticky where the rock received more sun.

Calculus Crack P3

Calculus Crack P3

Climbing as a team of three on two ropes was a bit of a nuisance, but we were fast enough to have to wait again at the top of the second pitch. The rest of the climb was less slick and easy enough for me to actually enjoy it. The “top” was actually an exit ledge partway up the huge face, and walls beckoned above and to either side. I am not a climber, but I understood why people spend weeks camped at the base, following different paths up this maze of routes.

With the two waits, we did not have enough time to do another long route, so we instead headed over to Smoke Bluffs, a forest maze surrounding single-pitch crags facing different directions and with different levels of tree-cover. With this variety, it would be possible to find comfortable temperatures at most times during the climbing season, and the approach trails were well-maintained and -signed enough not to confuse a newcomer. I followed a fun and sometimes painful 5.9 hand-crack, then we all retreated to the friends’ house for fancy dinner. This mode of existence was neither temperamentally nor financially sustainable for me, but I could put up with it for a couple of days.

Flailing at Cheakamus

Flailing at Cheakamus

The next day we headed up to Cheakamus Canyon for some bolted face climbs with great views of the Tantalus range. I much preferred this area, with face climbing on predictably sticky rock on which routes I could actually climb were steep enough for falling not to hurt. I managed to lead a few things, and toproped some 5.10s less embarrassingly than I had feared. Still, by the end of the day a mixture of failure and lack of sleep had reduced my desire to crag; it was time for more typical activities.

After another late night, it was off to do some hill-running. Renée and I started with a sort-of loop over the Chief’s three summits, leading through hordes of tourists on some familiar and more unfamiliar trail. The “climber’s route” off the back of the first summit, with its hand-chain and rebar ladders, is easy to miss from the top, but well worth finding. The route is too steep to involve much running, but I didn’t mind saving my knees.

I had lunch in the climbers’ lot, then caught up on sleep for a couple of hours in the back of my car before heading over to the tram to run the Sea to Sky trail. There had been a race the previous weekend, and I wanted to see how close I could come to the winning time. At about 3600 ft/hr, it looked approachable on paper: I had managed similar speeds around Jackson, even when not fully rested. However, the actual trail had numerous flat sections and downhills, several of which were rooty and technical. The course record was actually set by someone capable of near-world-class ascent rates, and I did about how I should have expected: 25% off the CR at 57 minutes bottom-to-top. Hills don’t lie.

Lots of Teewinots

2016 version

2016 version

2010 version

2010 version

Teewinot gets a bad rap because its standard route is a good place to get avalanched or fail to self-arrest in the early season, and becomes a crowded scree-chute later on. However, it has the advantages of avoiding Garnet Canyon, allowing a quick bail-out if conditions go bad, and offering 5500′ of vertical with a minimal approach even by Teton standards. As the years go by and I have fewer Teton objectives, I find myself using Teewinot more, both as a climb and as a work-out peak.

My first Teewinot of this year was a quick run up to the Apex, about 2700′ of gain on a steep trail to treeline. I did this to gauge both my fitness and snow conditions in the range. My fitness seemed okay: the climb took about 45 minutes. As I had experienced in the Gros Ventres the day before, the snow line is abnormally high this year: I only hit consistent snow in the last 100′ vertical or so, and the face above seemed to have consolidated.

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

Approaching past Worshipper and Idol

My second was a bit of exploration and two tick-marks. The Idol and Worshipper are two prominent pillars just south of the standard route. I had passed them too many times to count, but never taken the time to climb them, despite their being only low 5th by various routes. With an easy day planned and a mediocre weather forecast, I decided it was time to check them out.

I made my way to the Apex, much slower now with a pack, then kicked and postholed up through the krummholtz toward the Worshipper. I watched three skiers make perhaps a dozen turns each, then pick their way back through the brush and rocks to their shoes for the long hike back down. It didn’t seem worth the hike to me, but then again, I had just done the same for two pitches of scrambling…

Worshipper from near Idol

Worshipper from near Idol

I started out by trying the Worshipper’s long, east, downhill face, supposedly the easiest route to the summit. While the climbing was not especially hard, the variable-quality rock and outward-sloping ledges were not fun, so I traversed around left into the notch between it and the Idol. This side is shorter, steeper, and harder — 5.4, according to the Ortenburger guide — but also more secure and fun, climbing a near-vertical crack/chimney with a bulge partway and positive holds to be found throughout.

Pulling over the bulge, I was surprised and pleased to see a natural arch directly in front of me, with a small tree in its center. From the top of the chimney, the route goes through the window, then around to the right and back over it to reach the highpoint. Cool! I even found a summit register, a rarity in the Tetons. It only went back a few years, but suggested that perhaps 1-2 parties a year make the climb.

I retraced my steps, passing an old piton-based rap anchor, then traversed and climbed around the north side of the Idol. I made this harder than necessary, crossing some wet, slimy slabs and grinding my way up a chimney rather than going the long way around and traversing in from the northwest. Still, the climbing was still all easier than the Worshipper, with a couple low 5th class moves and some scrambling on the southwest side quickly leading to the top. I appreciated the view quickly, as the weather was getting colder and possibly wetter, then returned to the Ranch to waste the rest of the day.

Moran, etc. from north ridge

Moran, etc. from north ridge

My final Teewinot turned out to be an excellent use of a half-day, timed nearly perfectly to avoid the atypical early-season afternoon thunderstorms. Eric, a squad leader in the 10th Mountain Division, had a couple free days before starting a course, and was itching to climb. After considering more ambitious options on Owen, we gave in to the realities of the forecast and settled on a shorter route on the north side, starting from the col with Crooked Thumb.

With a 4 AM start from the Ranch, we actually had a bit of headlamp time passing through the aspens at Teewinot’s base. Stripping to t-shirts, we made the climb to the Apex in between 1h20 and 1h30, good time with trad gear. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Eric was fast: he does this for a living, usually with a much bigger pack.

The snow in the krummholtz was slushy, but above it was firm enough to boot past the Worshipper and Idol without postholing. Above, we traversed around the right-hand shoulder, suffered across some snow already softened by the northeast-rising sun, then followed a grassy, partly snow-covered ledge on around to the couloir leading to the Crooked Thumb Col. This perch has excellent views of Owen’s northeast face, Cascade Canyon, and the seldom-climbed peaks north of Mount Moran. Unfortunately, it is too close to offer a good overview of Teewinot’s north side.

A few pitches of actual climbing

A few pitches of actual climbing

We puzzled over route descriptions and photos for awhile, then descended back east, roped up, and started simul-ing some random terrain left of the north ridge. When we got tired of this, we headed back right, where Eric built and anchor and started leading up the left side of the ridge. Since he passed a couple of old pitons, we figured we were “on route” for some version of “route.” The climbing was varied, fun, and mostly moderate, with the exception of a wide stem followed by some thin face climbing. I haven’t climbed in boots for awhile, but it felt like 5.8 or hard 5.7.

I led the second pitch, whose crux was an undercling/traverse left around an overhang then easier climbing to a broad ledge. One could probably exit left from here, but I thought it would be fun to continue straight up a chimney/crack. This turned out to be incorrect. After thrashing and scrabbling up some sort of off-width, I was forced by my own rope drag to build a semi-hanging belay out of a #2 cam and two tiny nuts. After an awkward sit-on-my-face gear exchange at the belay, Eric led 20 feet more tricky climbing up out of the chimney, then continued across easier ground to just below the summit.

Other than 20 seconds of graupel, we had enjoyed calm, clear weather for most of the climb, and had talked about traversing on to Mount Owen. However, as often happens on a northeast-facing Tetons route, we topped out to find that the weather situation was not as we hoped. With inclement weather coming from the south and west, we quickly packed up and headed for the summit, where I reenacted the photo I took on my first Teewinot climb in 2010. Descending the east face took longer than anticipated. The snow was thin slush over a harder base layer, soft for kicking steps but hard for boot-skiing, so we stuck to the rock for much of the upper face. Back at the apex, I resigned myself to an hour or so of clomping misery descending the dry trail in full-shank boots. The rain and lightning started maybe a half-hour after we reached the Ranch, and continued for much of the afternoon, but our well-chosen mission was complete.

Maple Canyon

Maple Canyon from above

Maple Canyon from above


Maple Canyon is a climbing area in central Utah featuring mostly single-pitch sport climbs on solid conglomerate rock. This means that routes are steep for their grade: 5.9-10a is near-vertical, while 5.12 is massively overhung. Maple also has good cheap camping, is high enough to be cooler than the surrounding desert, and is much less dirtbag-hostile than the hellish sprawl of greater Salt Lake City. We were both pretty worn down, so we ended up spending an afternoon and the better part of the next day hauling jugs and clipping bolts.

Rapping off Haji Tower

Rapping off Haji Tower

After some extracurricular four-wheeling, we returned to the main climbing area to climb Haji Rock, one of the few multi-pitch routes in the area. Renée got most of the real climbing on the first and third pitches, while I “led” the lame but necessary second pitch, which consisted of a step-across, a few easy moves, a search for the bolts, and much time pulling up the remainder of the 70m rope. I was happy to follow the third pitch, a short, overhanging 5.9 to the top of the Haji’s head. After signing the register, one free-hanging and one bouncing rap took us back to our packs.

We finished off the evening in the Zen Garden area, trying out a 5.9 and some 5.10s, and I confirmed that I am basically a 5.9 climber these days. That’s better than I have any right to expect given how little I climb, but kind of pathetic for the amount of time I spend in the mountains. So it goes.

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Having sampled the right fork our first day, we moved over to the left for the second. Though there had been sounds of manly exertion echoing in the canyon the previous day, the area had not been at all crowded, and the pleasant lack of waiting continued. We found a next of 8s, 9s, and 10s on Orangutan Wall, and worked them from easiest to hardest, alternately belaying from the Maples’ shade and roasting on the sunny wall. My forearms were failing by early afternoon, but I felt I had done enough steep, crimpy climbing to improve at least a little.

We decided to have dinner in Salt Lake before parting ways, and after a startling reminder that speed limits go to 80 in Utah (i.e. everyone drives at least 85), cheap Mexican food was procured. I headed northeast to the forests of western Wyoming, while Renée hoped to run errands and crash in town. With the help of my usual drive-time mix of vile energy drinks and beef jerky, I made it to a nice dirt road off a pass a couple hours south of Jackson. Renée was less fortunate, learning to her dismay that the normally camping-friendly Walmart does not allow overnight parking in metro SLC. I swear that place gets worse every time I visit…

Mount Hayden

Hayden from the rim

Hayden from the rim


To recover from the Nankoweap death march, we spent an easy recovery day on Mount Hayden, a white butte close to Point Imperial. Rising late, we drove out to the overlook, spent awhile sorting gear, looked at the butte just 2/3 of a mile away, then hiked 100 yards of pavement, jumped the fence, and dove into the brush. Before the fire, the Hayden approach was supposedly fairly friendly. However, the usual post-fire scrub has taken over this part of the rim, including the dread New Mexico locust.

Fixed rope in Coconino

Fixed rope in Coconino

The approach descends terribly loose dirt, then follows the ridge right of a bowl before diving into the brush to a break in the Coconino. Here the thrashing began: Renée opted for leather gloves and brute force, while I chose finesse, careful writhing, and a certain amount of bleeding. This part was not bad, as the watercourse was mostly scoured free of soil and plants. We followed a seemingly useless fixed line for awhile, then actually used it to descend a low 5th class step, where it was vaguely helpful.

Enter the suck

Enter the suck

Then we entered the suck. The traverse back south to the Hayden-rim saddle had also burned, and is now home to a thriving locust population, occasionally interrupted by oak-brush. There is a network of faint use/animal trails, with one near the base of the cliff being the best, but finding this one, especially on the way in, is next to impossible. Instead we picked our way through lower down, linking logs, surviving trees, boulders, and even the blessedly spine-free oak-brush to minimize time spent in the spiny horror show.

Hayden from past the bushwhack

Hayden from past the bushwhack

We finally found relief at the red dirt ridge leading southeast to Hayden, where we took a break to sweat and admire our goal. From here it was a fairly painless hike along the ridge and around the butte’s north side to the base of the climb. I took the first pitch, which started with a tricky move from a red ledge to the more solid white sandstone above. After that, it was mostly a low 5th class bushwhack to a sort-of belay ledge full of cactus, dirt, and loose rubble. Though I had climbed sandstone before, I was not used to this gritty variety, which I was slow to trust. I was slowed further by the use of half-ropes, which allow longer rappels and supposedly reduce rope drag on wandering pitches, but mostly just complicate belaying and rope management.

Cruxing toward the brush

Cruxing toward the brush

I belayed Renée up while she freed one rope or the other from plants, then she led up more similar terrain to a bulge with a fist/knee crack, the route’s second harder move. After trying a couple options, she decided she did not want to lead it with so much rope out (i.e. a long, bouncy fall while it stretched), so she belayed me up to an awkward stance, where I thrashed around and acted tentative for awhile before jamming fist, foot, and knee in the crack to reach flatter ground, finding a two-bolt anchor perhaps 20 feet on.

Topping out

Topping out

It looked like scrambling to the summit from there, so I flaked 100 meters of rope, brought Renée up, and we both unroped for the sometimes-exposed scramble. The final 20 feet on the left-hand side of the butte were a bit tricky, but all the holds were there, and we soon emerged on a large, perfectly flat white table. From this perch we could see the Nankoweap route to the north, and the Palisades and start of the main canyon to the south. We could see people at the Point Imperial overlook, but could not tell if they waved.

hayden-6Photos taken, it was time to get off this thing. After scrambling back to the anchor, I threw the ropes and slowly rapped, disentangling the ropes from themselves and the brush as I went. The descent requires two double-rope rappels, so I looked for bolts and slings as I went, but found none as I neared the end of the ropes, so I put in at a comfortable ledge, then shouted for Renée to try her hand at finding them. With some searching, she found a slung block, a decent bolt, and a lousy one, on a pedestal 30 feet up to my left. While she pulled the ropes, I soloed up to the pedestal, then clipped in for an amazingly bush-free rappel onto either (1) our packs, or (2) a yucca patch; I chose the former.

The return went much better than the approach. From the ridge connecting Hayden to Imperial, the route stays near the cliffs and is relatively easy to follow. It descends from the cliff near the Coconino break, where it joins a more prominent but ultimately worse route at an obscured junction. I found this use trail pleasant, but only compared to the morning’s spiny hell. After nearly missing the turn up to the fixed rope, we scrambled the gully, bushwhacked back to the ridge, and struggled up the loose dirt to the paved path. We chatted with some friendly Coloradoans who knew a bit about climbing, then headed south to the campground for showers, water, and a rim-side dinner.

Either the north rim has a population of several million deer, or all 500 of them spend their nights right next to the road. I was happy to follow Renée at safe braking distance as she shooed them out of the way on the drive back to Jacob Lake. She apparently found the experience somewhat stressful. We were both tired, so we pulled off on an abandoned forest road a short ways south, found a mostly level place, and promptly passed out.

Northern NM climbing (and failures thereat)

Look at us all trad'ed out

Look at us all trad’ed out


[Lately I have been too busy doing things to write about them. Let’s see if I can catch up.]

Though I have spent more time in northern New Mexico more than anywhere else, it has usually been during non-climbing periods, so I know little about the local crags. It took a visit from an eager out-of-towner to make me acquaint myself with the area. I met Renée as a friend-of-a-friend while ice climbing in Ouray this winter, and she somewhat misguidedly looked me up as a partner and source of information on the southwest part of a whirlwind dirtbag tour of the west. Fortunately she had done her research, so after dinner in Santa Fe, we drove up through the little town of El Rito, and camped a short way off the dirt road to a nearby trad cliff.

Meadows and El Rito Rock

Meadows and El Rito Rock

This being truck-accessible public scrub-land near a town, we woke to the usual collection of junk — old carpet, CRT monitor, toilet seat — as well as an unusual pair of sheep carcasses. We ignored the detritus while eating and sorting gear, waved to some locals, then drove the rest of the way to the crag. Though the road supposedly required a high-clearance 4WD, my Element had no trouble with a bit of careful driving. After a 5-10-minute walk through open woods, we were at the base of the crag. The El Rito crag consists of mostly solid, generously-featured conglomerate rock, with enough cracks and bushes to allow trad protection.

Crux roof

Crux roof

As this was my first trad climbing in almost two years, I happily started off on a mellow 5.7 and gave Renée the first lead. After failing to do anything terminally stupid while belaying and following, I led the easy second pitch to the top. After enjoying the view of fields and cows to the northwest, we jogged around the walk-off to try the next route. I led the first 5.7 pitch, with protection consisting almost entirely of slung shrubbery. The second pitch was a bit more interesting, as the face steepens below a roof, thoughtfully protected by a bolt that can be clipped from below.

After walking around again, we scrambled a 5.3 on the right-hand side, curious why it had three stars in the guide (PDF). Though I would not give it maximum stars, it was fun enough, as was another small tower above it, and the right-side walk-off was not nearly as bad as the guide suggested. Overall, El Rito is fun climbing with easy access and camping, well worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

With daylight to spare, we decided to tag Coyote Butte, a.k.a. Cerro Pedernal, a small but notable peak between the Jemez and Abiquiu Lake. We stopped by the surprisingly nice El Rito library (a converted WPA-built school) to look up the route, then drove toward the town of Coyote, and followed a good forest road to a bad one leading toward the peak’s south side. Here I felt my new car’s inferiority, and was forced to park partway up before suffering an unplanned oil change. Renée’s truck got us a short distance farther, where the road seems to turn into a rutted ATV track.

Pedernal panorama

Pedernal panorama

From here we bush-whacked straight toward the center of the butte’s broad south face, finding an occasional cairn. As we approached the face, we easily spotted a cave mentioned in the route description, and found a well-worn and -cairned trail leading up the brief third class scramble to the top. Coyote Butte is a long, narrow mesa tilting slightly up to an open summit on its western end. There we found a summit register and excellent evening views of the Abiquiu area and southern Sangres beyond. We chilled and got chilled a bit, then returned to a convenient campsite along the road.

Start of attempted Brazos route

Start of attempted Brazos route

Despite a less-than-perfect forecast, we headed slightly north to climb a long, moderate route on the Brazos Cliffs, one of the largest face in New Mexico. We discovered along the way that, contrary to what multiple maps say, NM 573/162 does not connect US 84/64 to the Brazos Road. Instead, it dead-ends at a river crossing — and more dead sheep.

After fixing that mistake, we found the parking and approach without much further trouble. The approach starts off through summer cottages, then follows an old forest road before climbing and traversing through the woods to the base of the cliffs. It is easy to follow on the way out — just go to the end of the road, then head toward the huge crag — but somewhat trickier on the return, as the route is sparsely cairned and apparently seldom traveled.

First two pitches of Cat Burglar

First two pitches of Cat Burglar


We reached the base of the cliffs a bit late in the morning, then spent far too much time finding the base of the route. After exploring too far, we returned to a water-scoured gully at the base of the “Great Couloir,” looked at it, then scrambled up some awful brushy class 4-5 stuff to its left to reach the base of the route. In retrospect, it would probably have been easier and faster to scramble or climb from the couloir to the base of the first pitch.

And then it sucked

And then it sucked

There were some clouds to the south and west, but nothing directly overhead, so we roped up to simul the first two easy pitches. Though the climbing was not too hard, there was not much obvious protection: Renée placed something like two pieces in the first 50 meters. When we eventually regrouped at the top of P2, a ledge with a large tree and a slung log, the weather seemed to be deteriorating. We dithered for a few minutes, reluctant to abandon the climb, before a flurry of graupel and snow made up our minds. As mentioned in the route description, Brazos rock becomes extremely slick when wet. Had we started later, we likely would have had to either wait out the weather or donate more gear to the crag; as it was, we lost only a sling, a cordelette, and two carabiners on the retreat.

With unsettled weather all around, the rest of the day was best used driving on to the next thing. So much for the New Mexico part of my season.

Dragontail (Serpentine Ridge, IV 5.8)

Sunset on Dragontail on the way out

Sunset on Dragontail on the way out


[Playing a bit of catch-up here. -ed]

Dragontail is an impressively serrated granite peak in the popular, relatively dry Enchantment Range near Leavenworth. A walk-up from the southeast, it has a number of technical climbs on its north face. In one of my final outings with humans this summer, I teamed up with Dafna, a Washington local I last met a decade ago, to do the Serpentine Ridge. Though not especially sustained, it is a long route with an excellent, hard-for-me crack crux. We did it as a long day, leaving the parking lot around 6:30 and returning between 10:00 PM and 12:45 AM. Soloing everything above the crux, socializing less with other climbers, and descending faster would have saved some time.

While the Alpine Lakes wilderness would be teeming with techies over from Seattle for the Fourth of July weekend, it was no more than normally crowded when Dafna startled me in my car, and we had the trail to ourselves at 6:30.

Dragontail across Colchuck Lake

Dragontail across Colchuck Lake

The mosquitoes made it unpleasant to stop, so we made good time to Colchuck Lake, where we met two tourists at the mouth, and passed a single tent at the base of the Colchuck Glacier moraine.
Booting up below Colchuck Glacier

Booting up below Colchuck Glacier

After following bits of trail up the scree, I kicked steps up the snow to the base of the route, while Dafna fought to keep her crampons attached to her running shoes (I think my way was easier).

Detail of route (black, left-trending ridge near center)

Detail of route (black, left-trending ridge near center)

The so-called “Serpentine Ridge” is not especially obvious from the lake, but thanks to a good diagram on SummitPost, we had no problem finding the base of the route.
Base of P1

Base of P1

After gearing up on a chilly, awkwardly sloping ledge, I flailed around next to the ground for awhile until I figured out the rock and the first couple of moves. The distressingly tricky-seeming start soon eased off, and I slogged up a loose gully until I was almost out of rope next to a tree, trying not to bomb my belayer.

Base of P2

Base of P2

Dafna led P2, which started with a short chimney/dihedral, then eased off to more scrambling. We ended up simul-climbing a bit to stretch this pitch, though it might have been better to end it short, put away the rope, and scramble the next section.
Wandering on "P4"

Wandering on “P4”

After I “led” some miscellaneous scrambling left of a black tower, Dafna led a harder pitch continuing up a variety of cracks and slabs, with several options and non-obvious route-finding. I next led up some parallel fins and cracks, through one steep section, then along a ledge around to the right side of the black tower to a perfect belay ledge at the base of the money crack.

Picture of picture of crux crack

Picture of picture of crux crack

After collecting gear, I led this excellent pitch through three distinctive cracks and a full 50 meters. The first crack, perfect hands and feet up a relatively blank face, is the kind of all-appendages-in deal that tests one’s crack technique. Since mine is bad, I hesitated, thrashed, and bled some to get it done. Following a stance, the second crack is mercifully contained in a right-facing dihedral, so I was able to stem and enjoy it. The final crack is at the base of a v-shaped dihedral suitable for foot-wedging.
View from belay on crux pitch

View from belay on crux pitch

Pitch above crux (P7?)

Pitch above crux (P7?)


Dafna led the first part of the next pitch, which continues up a right-facing dihedral until it heads up an off-width slot into a small field of giant boulders. Following, I helped un-wedge her pack where she had tried to haul it through the off-width, then strung the rope through the boulder-field and onto easier ground and the end of belayed climbing.

Summit from end of climbing

Summit from end of climbing

The summit is far from this point, up an indistinct ridge with mostly scrambling and an occasional 5th-class move. We opted to start out simul-climbing for that extra bit of psychological protection, though the rope drag sucked. We eventually gave that up and put away the rope for the rest of the summit scramble. While the rock on the ridge itself is mostly good, we eventually wandered into the white gully to the right, which consists of debris covering rotten rock.

Upper, loose scrambling

Upper, loose scrambling

While extricating ourselves from the chute, we noticed some climbers above, who had done a good job not raining rocky death upon us. Reaching the summit, we met the party of three, who had camped at the lake and somehow climbed ahead of us without being noticed. They were on vacation from back east, and seem to have packs full of nothing but wine and fine cheese. Having eaten nothing but pop-tarts and cookies all day, I gladly accepted their proffered hunks of cheese.

Some summit show-off

Some summit show-off

After hanging out on the summit too long and too close to sunset, we started down the walk-up route to Asgard Pass. I cruised the descent, thoroughly enjoying the boot-ski down to the pass. Dafna, more cautious and less practiced, started falling behind and foolishly suggested that I go ahead. Selfish and impatient person that I am, I accepted her suggestion, sliding and jogging down the hideous Asgard Pass, then motoring the trail, almost making it back to the car headlamp-free around 10:00 PM. I was relieved to see her car gone in the morning, though somewhat embarrassed to learn that she had returned at 12:45 AM, then driven home for a nearly 24-hour house-to-house day.

Cloudveil Dome (Armed Robbery, 5.8)

The banditos

The banditos


Having learned that neither of my regular climbing partners would be in the Tetons while I was there, I figured I would not rope up at all this season, or indeed in the foreseeable future. However, it turns out that there are several climbers around, including a couple I know from previous years, so I may actually do a few roped outings this month. While I do not see roped climbing becoming a significant part of my life, it is good practice, and therefore worth maintaining the necessary skills.

Sitting around the kitchen near the end of Work Week, I was surprised to meet both Andy and Jamie, an intern and cabin-mate from last season, both of whom climb and are living in the area this summer. Jamie had Saturday off, and I had no plans, so we eventually settled on Armed Robbery, a “grade IV” 5.8 on the south face of Cloudveil Dome. Reluctant to wear rock shoes in the cold, we set off at a leisurely 5:00 AM, when there is no need for headlamps. We passed a pair of skiers on the way to the meadows, where we saw another climber heading toward the Lower Saddle. It was a surprisingly busy day for so early in the season.

The approach climbs to the col between Cloudveil and Nez Perce, then descends a few hundred feet before dropping west into a loose red gully to reach the broad, sloping plateau at the base of the route. After roping up at what we thought was the correct start, I led as we simul-climbed to nearly the base of the crux pitches, where I ran out of gear and got tired of fighting rope drag. After moving the belay to below the obvious overhanging pillar, Jamie led the first pitch of the crux, a hand crack leading to a steep face protected by a crack in a dihedral to its right. Having created some bad rope drag, he belayed me up to an uncomfortable, shady anchor.

I led the second part, up a short, broken face to a much better belay spot, then up an excellent almost-fist crack (perfect for a #3 cam), then right via a couple of thin moves to some stemming in a steep dihedral. All of this climbing was excellent, on solid golden granite. Seeing a perfect boulder to sling, and chossy wandering ahead, I belayed from here, then coiled the rope for an apparent scramble to the summit. While belaying Jamie, I noticed a large rockslide into Taminah Lake which may be new this year.

After much walking, the summit actually required one more pitch of roped climbing. We decided to start up a ramp near the left edge of the face, which proved to be less than ideal. The short pitch looked easy from below, but actually involved a couple of exposed moves on unpleasantly loose rock. From there, it was a simple walk to the summit. In retrospect, we could have found more challenging climbing by starting farther west, and more solid rock by staying farther right to the summit. No matter what the route, however, this is not a grade IV climb. As it was, the small amount of real climbing was hardly worth lugging the gear up 5,000 vertical feet. Oh, well.

The snow was too soft to boot-ski on the way down, but not the bottomless slurpee I had feared. Burnt Wagon Gulch, however, was even more endlessly loathsome than I had remembered. Only three more times this season, I hope…

Christmas part 4: More Stronghold West

Muttonhead (Mystery of the Desert, 5.9), Sheepshead (Ewephoria, 5.7)

Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach

Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach


Muttonhead and Sheepshead are two large, adjacent formations west of the main part of the Stronghold. Neither looks even vaguely like an Ovine head. On the advice of some friendly locals, we started off climbing Mystery of the Desert on Muttonhead, then finished with Ewephoria on Sheepshead. Both were fun climbs, with Ewephoria standing out as a fun, well-bolted romp with fun face climbing and an exciting, exposed finish.

Mystery’s first pitch follows a left-facing dihedral between two of the many bolted lines on the left-hand side of Muttonhead. I clipped the first bolt to the right, and was glad that I did so when I slipped on the next move. Trying again, I made a few more tricky moves in the dihedral, then found easier and better-protected climbing up to a bolted anchor.

The next pitch featured some delicate climbing up to an easier-than-it-looks roof, then various options to go over, around, or through the “wedge”. Jen thankfully chose “over”, sparing me a narrow grovel. Easy bolted slab climbing around a nasty bushwhack led to a sunny belay below the crux lieback, which started easy but became steeper and more off-balance toward the end. After an easier face traverse to the next anchor, the final pitch followed bolts up a steeper face to a tree-filled grotto below the summit.

From the top, we spied another party partway up Ewephoria, a mostly-bolted line on the neighboring Sheepshead. Descending around the back and down the gully between the two formations, we chose to quickly run up Ewephoria in the afternoon.

The first pitch, up a crack/dihedral, was okay climbing all on gear; after that, the route was sport-bolted as if someone had just found a bolt kit in his Christmas stocking. Someone had even helpfully attached a stuffed sheep to the anchor at the top of P3, which would otherwise be hidden behind a huge rock plate. As is common, we opted for the harder finish straight up the arete. This requires a delicate mantle onto an outward-sloping ledge, followed by another mantle onto the arete itself, but both moves are well-protected.

We topped out at sunset, racing darkness back down the descent gully. After briefly losing the trail in the brush below, we found it again and made it to the car headlamp-free.

Cochise Dome (What’s my line, 5.6 A0)

Cochise Dome from approach

Cochise Dome from approach


On our final day in the west Stronghold, we climbed the classic “What’s my line,” an easy route up an amazing chickenhead highway on Cochise Dome. The dome can evidently be approached from the east side, but the western approach seems easier. The tricky part is reaching the chickenheads, which don’t quite reach the ground. The standard approach takes a tricky slot up to a ledge left of the route, from which one pendulums across the nearly-blank face to reach the easier climbing. Both the route and its approach a must-do if you visit Cochise.

After much wandering, we finally found the slot, making our way to the ledge with the bolted anchor for the pendulum. I led this move, trying several running pendulums as Jen gradually paid out more rope until, with maybe 20-25 feet out, I managed to grab a big chickenhead and haul myself onto the highway. Climbing in an arc at this radius, I found a large, secure plate about even with the anchor and ledge, and carefully slung it to serve as a pivot for Jen to follow the pendulum. The climbing above this took some getting used to: there were many possible moderate lines, so my choice was determined by which features looked most sling-able.

Reaching the bolted anchor near the end of our rope, I clipped in, then took in as much slack as I could before Jen launched herself off the ledge with a barbaric yawp. The big slung plate held fine, but she got a bit more of a swing than anticipated when one of the higher-up chickenheads became un-slung when pulled sideways by the straightening rope. Another pitch of the same type of climbing led to an awesome triple-sling anchor, from which easier, traversing climbing led to the top. Two raps off the back and a short scramble got us to the base of the dome for the hike out and the dirt road drive around to the other side of the Stronghold.

Christmas part 3: Cochise Stronghold, Whale Dome (Moby Dick, II 5.8)

Cochise panorama

Cochise panorama


Cochise Stronghold is a large area of National Forest land southeast of Tucson. It features mild temperatures, ample free camping, good granite, moderate approaches, and a large number of established (and, probably, unclimbed) multi-pitch trad lines. Though it is in the middle of nowhere, it should be far more popular than it is. Climbers driving or flying long distances for winter climbing in Joshua Tree, for example, might have a better time flying into Tucson to spend a week at Cochise.
Whale Dome

Whale Dome


After miles of driving on mostly-good dirt roads, we pulled in late to what was hopefully the end of the correct road in Cochise Stronghold. After breakfast the next morning, some locals helpfully pointed out Whale Dome and the classic line “Moby Dick,” our first objective. The approach was straightforward, mostly following a rocky wash and avoiding unpleasant desert flora. The climb was fun, but not exceptional.

The first two pitches both ended in run-out, moderate face climbing, which somewhat intimidating, and not entirely to Jen’s liking. The third pitch featured easier climbing and more opportunities for protection, including the first of the slung-chickenhead belays common in Cochise. The fourth pitch continued over easier terrain past several bolts to a comfortable “stegosaurus” ledge. Another pitch of steeper climbing on “alligator skin” led to the summit.

Having lugged a second rope all the way up the climb, we finally put it to use for the free-hanging 40m (35m with a bit of scrambling) rappel off the back. After an easy scramble and hike back to the car — headlamp-free, for a change! — we found a pleasant campsite and amused ourselves lighting things on fire.