Cima di Piazzi

North glacier and NW ridge

Cima di Piazzi is a stylish-looking peak rising 2100m above the town of Isolaccia in the Valdidentro, its north face covered in glaciers. There are routes from all directions, with the easy standard route coming from the south. With limited information, I chose to approach the northeast ridge from the gondola parking lot in Isolaccia. This turned out be a pretty bad plan, since you can drive higher on a road out of Isolaccia, and the ridge is a long hike followed by some obnoxious choss. I found a shorter way down, though it was just as chossy, so I recommend using another route to the summit.

Long ridge…
I was woken by rain during the night, so I was in no rush to get started, getting a semi-alpine start with only a few minutes’ headlamp time. I located a likely trail using my Peakbagger map, and started up a steep dirt road past some houses, then up some ski slopes, passing under a gondola, then around some poma lifts higher up. This was not the most inspiring “climb,” but I hoped things would improve once I reached the ridge.

Old shrine
The peak finally came back into view at a shrine built in the 1600s, dedicated to a random Irish saint who supposedly granted women fertility, a belief apparently local to the Valdidentro. From there, I left the official trails to follow what I thought might be a goat or chamois trail along the gentle ridge. The trail saw a bit of human traffic, as evidenced by occasional cairns, but much more animal, with enough dung in some parts for it to smell like a barn. There was a bit of scrambling, but it was mostly an easy walk to the Corno de Colombano.

Frickin’ sheep, man
Descending to the the col on the other side, I finally saw what had made the trail: a herd of domestic sheep. They were lazing around the saddle until I passed by, then started to follow me a bit before giving up interest. This is where things got annoying. The rock is mostly garbage, either unstable talus, outward-sloping stuff with gravel on it, or rotten. The ridge also has a number of ups and downs, each different as to whether one should go around or over. The one highlight of this section was seeing a lone ibex, who watched me from a safe distance. I had seen them before below the Matterhorn, but those had remained silent. This majestic creature was more vocal, and it turns out that ibexes squeak like marmots. I never would have guessed.

Squeak!
The rest of the climb was fourth class in a few places, but mostly just annoying. However, it was uncrowded and nearly unmarked for a change: I saw no people or boot-prints, and only a single old sling. The summit had the standard cross, with a well-protected register attached, which I dutifully signed. The north glacier was too steep to descend with running shoe crampons, so my only option was to return down the ridge. I tried to cut off some distance by dropping north down a subsidiary ridge. It was more uber-choss, but at least it was short, and relatively easy going in the valley back to another road. From there, it was just a road-walk back to town.

Global warming strikes again

Europe is experiencing an historic heat wave, of which I was well aware while sitting comfortably on a 3400m summit in a t-shirt. This can be dismissed as just weather, not climate, but global warming is ever-present in the Alps, where you are constantly surrounded by rapidly-retreating and long-studied glaciers. Just today, Olivier Bonnet died when a rock broke under him on the Dent du GĂ©ant. As the article concludes, “because of global warming and the high temperatures of recent years, the mountain is drying up and is weakening.”

If you have some time, you should read this recent Times review of our sorry history of climate policy. I knew about some of the players, but did not realize how close we came to doing the right thing, or how richly John Sununu deserves a special place in hell. The takeaway is that we humans have known about the greenhouse effect since the 1950s, but have demonstrated fairly conclusively that we just don’t care enough about the future. Neither our political institutions nor, perhaps, our evolved psychology, is capable of addressing a long-term problem like climate change. I don’t think we will go extinct, as much as we may deserve it, but I’m sure glad I won’t be alive in another 100 years.

Climbing and Climate

... while any is left.
Athabasca Glacier

As politicians get together to yet again talk about maybe agreeing to do something to start addressing global warming, it’s worth remembering that we’re in for a world of hurt no matter what we do now. It’s also worth reflecting on how we mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts are already intimately familiar with its effects.

U-notch and Palisade Glacier
U-notch and Palisade Glacier

Spending more time around glaciers these past two summers has given me a front-row seat from which to observe climate change in the form of glacial retreat. Sometimes the effects are obvious, like in the picture above of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Sometimes historical photos allow dramatic comparisons. Even when there are no photos or signposts, bare slabs and stranded moraines show where ice used to be.

Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier
Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier
Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range
Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range
Routes described in 20- and 30-year-old guidebooks have changed dramatically, with many becoming more difficult or dangerous. For example, the U-notch in the Sierra Nevada, once a popular fall ice climb, now ends in bare, dangerous dirt where a tongue of ice once extended from the Palisade Glacier to the saddle east of North Palisade. Third-class routes on Ritter and Middle Palisade have become more difficult to start as the glaciers at their bases have retreated to expose bare, gritty rock. Many classic routes on the eastern side of Washington’s North Pickets are either dramatically changed or unclimbable due to the breakup of the cirque’s hanging glaciers. Routes in the Canadian Rockies, first climbed a century ago, are completely unrecognizable today.

Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier
Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier
These are “first-world problems,” I know: I don’t live on a low-lying island, in a coastal city, or in parts of the Persian Gulf that may soon be literally uninhabitable, and I am not a subsistence farmer in equatorial Africa. Anyways, I will be dead before things become truly grim. Good luck to your kids.

Climate vs. weather

Good morning!
Good morning!

My plan for this season was driven by (changing) climate, with the increasingly-normal dry California winter convincing me to start in the Sierra. Unfortunately climate is not weather, as this past week has proved, and I must adapt.

North Schell from trailhead
North Schell from trailhead
After filling up in Ely, I drove up to Timber Creek Campground, where a dusting of snow from the previous day’s storm was taking its time melting. My goal up here was North Schell Peak, one of two ultra-prominence peaks in the area I had yet to tag. (The other, Ibapah, is something like 100 miles of dirt from the nearest pavement, making it unappealing.) The forecast for the next day called for cold and wind, but relatively little precipitation, so this was the best chance I would have.

schell-currant-2Thanks to the time change, I was on the trail at 6:10 without an alarm, easily following the faint climbers’ path under the dusting of snow. I had downloaded the route description the previous day, but mostly ignored it, as I could see the peak from the car. Despite North Schell having 5,400 feet of prominence, the climb is only 2,500 feet and a bit over two miles.

The trail follows the north branch of a stream, circling around the west side of the peak as it climbs. Where it finally disappeared under an old snowbank, I continued along the stream, then followed game trails north to gain the ridge, where I had my first taste of the eyeball-freezing wind. As I gradually realized, I had emerged well northwest of the summit, and so had a long, cold traverse back to reach it. I meandered back and forth, trying to optimize my route over loose scree, grass, and drifted snow while occasionally turning to warm my right eyeball.

Cold ridge to the summit
Cold ridge to the summit
Finally reaching what I thought was the summit, I saw the actual summit another quarter-mile to the south. By this time my feet were getting cold, but it was too cold to stop and put on plastic bags; I just had to get it over with. I slogged on to the summit, where I savored the experience for all of five seconds before retreating along a more direct route to the stream and trail. The whole experience had taken a mere two and a half hours, leaving me plenty of day to do something else.

Currant from parking spot
Currant from parking spot
I was headed along highway 6 to Bishop, which passes right through the White Pine Range, one of the better of Nevada’s many small mountain ranges. Stopping in the Ely McDonald’s for breakfast and internet, I determined that the loop over Currant and Duckwater Peaks would be right along my way, and should be feasible in the long afternoon if the weather held. Leaving the highway toward the White River campground, I followed the good dirt road for 10 miles, then turned left on the slightly less-good FR-407, and right on a much worse spur road. Parking near a rock dike protruding into the ravine, I watched some graupel pass, then put some more warm clothes in my pack before starting up the deteriorating road toward Currant’s impressive summit crags.

Looking down NE ridge
Looking down NE ridge
The route description mentioned following an old logging road to enter a ravine, but the main road and adjacent fields seemed much easier, so I just did that, leaving the road to follow deer- and cow-paths straight up open terrain. As the path of least resistance headed too far north, I left it to follow a ridge heading southwest toward what appeared to be Currant’s summit. The ridge was a mixture of manageable pine forest and rock outcrops; the rock, reminiscent of Eagle Peak near Death Valley, was incredibly sticky when dry or wet, though much less certain when covered with fresh wet snow.

Currant from ridge
Currant from ridge
I stayed on the ridge crest to avoid side-hilling where possible, though a couple of narrow sections and serrations forced me into the ankle-deep snow on the southeast side. Showers constantly threatened to the south and east, but for some reason stayed where they were. One final, larger serration near the top forced me to detour 100 feet down the south side, until I could scramble and slide into a gully returning me to the base of the summit slabs.

Ascent ridge from descent
Ascent ridge from descent
Being super-sticky rock, this class 3-4 slab would have been a quick romp when dry, but was somewhat more complicated when covered with patchy ice and snow. It was still fun and non-threatening, but kicking steps, sweeping off foot-holds, and routing around difficulties took time. After a few final, somewhat more tenuous moves, I reached the summit ridge, to find I was well north of the summit, and in for some Serious Business.

Final knife-edge to summit
Final knife-edge to summit
Currant’s north ridge extends in a long, jagged knife-edge well north of the highpoint. Most of the climbing is only class 3-4, but with the snow obscuring the angle of the top of the ridge, it was slow and sometimes nervous going. On a couple of the steeper narrow sections, I was forced to go a cheval, an uncomfortable maneuver on sharply-textured rock. The crux was a rotten drop just after a cairned sub-summit. Kicking off as much of the snow and loose rock as I could, I downclimbed about 6 feet to a gently outward-sloping ledge, psyched myself up, then jumped the remaining 6 feet to a dirt flat on the next part of the ridge. Desert peaks aren’t supposed to be that hard!

North along knife-edge toward Duckwater
North along knife-edge toward Duckwater
Currant had taken more time and mental effort than I had expected, so after glancing at Duckwater, I headed down Currant’s standard route without hesitation. Unfortunately, the top of the chute one is supposed to follow is not obvious from above, so I got to spend some quality time cliffing out in other, lesser chutes filled with thigh-deep slush. I eventually found my way to the bottom of the correct chute, then postholed my way down a ravine to the bottom of the snow. Other than some dry-falls that required a little scrambling to bypass, the rest of the hike to the car was straightforward. I found the “old logging road,” but it was almost invisibly faint, and near-invisible where it joins the main ATV track.

Southern White Pine range
Southern White Pine range
I returned to highway 6 by following FR 407 south, which was rougher but more direct than retracing my route. After filling up at the secret ghetto station in Tonopah — one of the most depressing towns in America — I drove on into the night, crossing Montgomery Pass into California before pulling off on a well-graded dirt road to sleep. Though it was bare dirt when I nodded off, I woke to find a half-foot of snow outside. Fortunately I had four-wheel drive, because otherwise I would have been stuck until someone decided to wander down this random road to nowhere. With 6″ of snow at 7,000′ in the Whites, there has to be well over a foot in the Sierra. In the short term, weather trumps climate.

Pigeon Spire (W Ridge)

Pigeon Spire from SE
Pigeon Spire from SE
The Bugaboos being mostly a place for Real Climbers, I had planned to skip them entirely. However, feeling a passing lack of ambition, and having been encouraged to visit them by Canadians met on the trail, I decided to play tourist there for a bit. They are a bit like the Cirque of the Towers — huge granite walls an hour down a dirt road from a podunk gas station — but with the glaciers that carved those walls still in place. I drove the road, chicken-wired my car with one of the hundred rolls left in a corral, and hid from the mosquitoes in back of my car.

Approach trail
Approach trail
The west ridge of Pigeon Spire is the easiest thing in the central Bugaboos, so I decided to do that. Getting a late start, I sweated my way up the trail to the Kain hut, admiring the lower section of the huge Bugaboo Glacier. I had read on SummitPost that the most common approach route through Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col was ugly thanks to an open bergschrund and lots of rockfall — thanks, global warming! — so I approached up the Bugaboo Glacier, on the other side of Snowpatch Spire. After skirting most of the lower glacier, I followed an old boot-pack up the last part to the ice plain below the Snowpatch-Pigeon icefall, then up the somewhat more crevassed upper glacier and around Pigeon’s west side.

Howser Towers
Howser Towers
At the col, I found a sign pointing to a pit toilet, and a couple of roped teams descending. After admiring the Howser Towers and their fearsome glacier/bergschrund approach, I started up the supposedly 5.4 west ridge. Partway up, I met a fellow soloist, fishing for his smartphone in a crack. I tried to put my scrawniness to use and retrieve it, but came up a foot short. As he returned to the col to retrieve an ice tool to help with the recovery, I continued up the ridge.

Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spires from Pigeon
Bugaboo and Snowpatch Spires from Pigeon
I found one exposed hand traverse, and a few similarly-exposed balance-beam sections, but nothing that felt 5.4 on the initial climb. The route levels out and crosses a few false summits before climbing the left-hand side of the true summit. I finally found a few possibly-5.4, non-exposed moves downclimbing one of the false summits, and some low 5th class slab leading up the true summit. Descending from summit, I went farther east before cutting back, and found an easier way to avoid the slab. On my return, I noticed the phone had been recovered, but my compatriot had already started on the descent. Since he had a rope, he chose to rappel next to the Snowpatch-Pigeon icefall; ropeless, I just retraced my steps.

Kain hut and Eastpost Spire
Kain hut and Eastpost Spire
Since the day was still young, I stopped in to check out the hut, and found it even more luxurious than the one near Assiniboine, with a large kitchen area, a dining room, and bunks with padded mattresses. The friendly Scottish-Canadian caretaker offered me tea with milk and fig bars, so we sat and talked for awhile. He confirmed that the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col was ugly and dicey, squashing my vague ambition to do the Kain route on Bugaboo Spire. Later, an American couple on an epic climbing road-trip came in with vast quantities of gear, and I talked with them over yet more tea. After waiting out the afternoon rains in the hut, I made the short hike back down to the parking lot, thinking about how my no-partner, not-staying-in-the-hut approach was probably the Wrong Way.