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Bike touring stats, part 1

For those who are curious, the approximate statistics for the first (red) leg of my tour, from Santiago to Copiapo, are 1350 miles and 80,000 feet of elevation gain/loss during 51 days. That is a pathetic-sounding average of only 26.5 miles and 1570 feet of gain per day, but I also did some peak-bagging on the side…

Along the way, I tagged 14 real summits plus Cerro de la Gloria in Mendoza. That’s a pathetic average of only one peak every 3.6 days, but I also did some bike riding…

Back from the Puna de Atacama

Summit view on Ojos del Salado

I had expected the two weeks spent crossing the Puna de Atacama from Fiambala to Copiapo, climbing as many 6000-meter peaks as possible along the way, to be my trip’s physical and psychological crux, and it absolutely delivered. In two weeks, I cycled over 300 miles, and climbed seven 6000-meter peaks: San Francisco, Incahuasi, El Fraile, El Muerto, Ojos del Salado, Tres Cruces Sur, and Tres Cruces Norte. I finally struggled into Copiapo just before dark, after a 120-mile 13-hour ride that would have been much easier without a near-constant headwind for the last 80 miles. While I had anticipated the difficulty, I was surprised by the afternoon snows, which improved the scenery, but made some of the climbing crushingly slow. I suppose I am glad I did it, but I am more glad that it is done. I will write more about the experience over the coming days, or possibly weeks.

2019 in review

This was a year of extremes, of highs and lows and novelties, in which I accomplished a fair amount, though not as much as I had hoped. In the winter and spring, I managed to do some quality backcountry skiing. In the summer, I had a mostly successful trip to the Peruvian Andes, though I was shut down by unseasonable weather toward the end. I summited Tocllaraju, Chopicalqui, and numerous lower peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, explored the seldom-visited Cordillera Raura, and gawked at the too-hard-for-me peaks of the Huayhuash. These were my first climbs above 6000 meters and 20,000 feet, and included both serious glacier travel and some moderate technical climbing. In the fall, I experimented with combining peak-bagging and bike-touring, finding that I enjoy the variety.

In the end, though, I was sharply reminded of two fundamental rules: “know your place” and “focus on your strengths.” My place is in the mountains, wandering alone through new lands while going up and down piles of rock and snow. As another winter arrives, I find myself more homeless and rootless than usual, so rather than doing who-knows-what who-cares-where in the western United States, I am headed to Chile and Argentina. There I will travel by foot and bike through the high Andes, climbing as many peaks as I have time and energy to reach. Hopefully that will include Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in South America climbable without an exorbitant permit fee.

As usual, I will be traveling with no corporate or institutional support, mostly making do with what I have. Thanks to Ted’s generous donation of frequent flier points, the trip itself should end up cheaper than spending the winter in the States. That does not include a handful of mandatory gear upgrades, such as a bike trailer, tent, and miscellaneous bike parts. After multiple rejections for American Alpine Club grants, it seemed pointless to continue applying; and while I at least heard back from them, Big Agnes, Hilleberg, and Nemo all declined to support my project with a free or discounted tent. If you have enjoyed following my travels over the past decade, please consider supporting them by telling your friends about my books: 40 Classic Scrambles and California’s Fourteeners.

Shepherd and Tioga Crests

Shepherd and Tioga Crests across Saddlebag Lake

I wanted to make the most of the long drive up to Yosemite by spending a few days tagging random peaks around Tioga Pass. My first targets were Shepherd Crest and Sheep Peak. I thought they fit well thematically, and could make a nice loop by starting at Saddlebag Lake, traversing Shepherd Crest, dropping south to climb Sheep and its unnamed sub-peak, then climbing over the saddle south of Conness to return. I had plans for a couple more days in the area afterwards as well. Unfortunately, a combination of cold and wind forced me to lower my ambitions on the first day, and then car trouble scuttled the rest of my plans. Such is life.

I had just as cold a night as expected up at the Saddlebag Lake trailhead, with only one other car-camper for company, and took my time over breakfast and coffee before stubbornly setting out wearing all of my summer mountain clothing. It was a cold, windy, shady hike/jog around the lake, though it was almost pleasant once I reached the sun near Greenstone Lake. I was both worn down and hungry from the previous day’s unusual amount of flat running “down” Lyell Canyon, so I walked where I would normally have jogged, and ate about half my food.

Shepherd Crest and Steelhead Lake

At the south end of Steelhead Lake, where I expected to start the cross-country, I instead found a fairly clear use trail heading northwest, almost directly toward Shepherd Crest. The trail disappeared in the final talus below the northern end of the ridge connecting it to North Peak, but the talus and sparse krummholtz did not offer much resistance. The wind, however, picked up unpleasantly, forcing me to side-hill left of the ridge for some shelter.

North, Conness, and Sheep from Shepherd

I headed straight up where the rock turns darker gray near the summit, quickly grabbing the register before hiding below the ridge to read it. I saw a couple of familiar names, added my own, then quickly put it back in its place. The wind seemed to be getting worse, with knock-you-over gusts across the ridge; clearly traversing the Crest would be miserable. I instead miserably retraced my steps, hating the wind until I was finally sheltered below the Shepherd-North ridge.

Saddlebag Lake and Dana from Shepherd

With lots of day left, I decided to tag Tioga Crest, a 1000-foot prominence peak on the other side of Saddlebag that I had planned to save for the morrow. I followed various trails almost to the north end of the lake, then went cross-country up the peak’s southwest ridge, following various game trails up mostly easy terrain. The supposed highpoint is on the far end of the long east-west crest, which I again traversed well below before heading straight up to the summit.

Excelsior and Lundy Canyon

Oddly, though Tioga Crest is slightly higher than Shepherd Crest, the wind was slightly less bad. I admired the drop into deep Lundy Canyon to the north, which held a substantial amount of snow on its north-facing slopes, and chossy, colorful Excelsior Mountain on the other side. I was pleased to see that the previous visitor had been fellow New Mexican and wanderer Guy Dahms, who I almost feel I have met after seeing his name on so many summits. The descent to Dore Pass and Saddlebag Lake was all at a pleasant angle, but not conducive to scree-skiing, so it took longer than expected. I should have jogged the trail/road around the east side of the lake, but felt more like walking.

I ate a late lunch, then looked around for an easy afternoon peak, settling on Gaylor Peak, just outside the park entrance station. I turned the key to start my car, and… click. I waited a bit, then tried again with the same result. I pushed and rolled my car into the sun, gave the engine a chance to warm up, and tried once more, with the same result. Shit.

Since it was downhill from where I was to the Mobil station, I figured that if I could coast I could reduce the cost of the tow, and perhaps even push-start my car. The first obstacle was getting out of the parking lot, which had a slight flat/uphill section. After some experimentation, I found that if I chocked the wheels with wedge-shaped rocks, I could rock the car back and forth to gain ground, quickly kick the nearest wheel’s chock forward, then walk around the car to advance the others. Sometimes I would gain only an inch, sometimes six or eight. I had about twenty feet to go to reach the downhill, but I also had nothing else to do all afternoon, and could use the strength training.

I had been doing this for a bit over an hour, and wasn’t especially interested in help, but when one of the other hikers noticed what I was doing and offered, I did not refuse. With two of us pushing bobsled-style, we quickly got the car over the hump, and I jumped in to steer and brake. Driving was a bit more work without power steering or brakes, but perfectly safe at 20 MPH or less on the way down toward the Tioga Pass road. Unfortunately, there is one flat stretch about a half-mile before the intersection that was too long to coast. With my last momentum, I pulled to the side of the road, then prepared for another cold night, preparing myself to bleed money the next day. Cars suck sometimes.


Since it has been awhile since I have written anything, I figured I would just drop a quick note to let people know that I’m okay, and that while the blog is dormant, it is not dead. I should hopefully have something more interesting to say in about a week.

Update: For those of you waiting for books, I am very sorry for the delay. I will mail them out next Thursday.

Teton miscellany and summer plans

The Ranch welcomes guests

As I have every year since 2011, I have spent the first part of June at the American Alpine Club’s Grand Teton Climbers’ Ranch. After a week of staining cabins (and myself), fixing bikes, and other miscellaneous repair work, I normally stick around for a week or so to socialize and play in the mountains. I have done more of the former than the latter this year, partly due to inclement weather, and partly because of the rest of my summer schedule.

For the first time in nine years coming to the Ranch, I woke two days in a row to an inch or so of fresh snow in the valley. While it melted quickly below 9000 feet, the new snow stayed around awhile in the mountains. This has meant snowy rock routes, postholing in the high valleys, wet avalanches on south- and east-facing slopes, and powder on north-facing ones. Though this has not prevented me from regaining some of my winter-blighted fitness, it has thwarted some of the more ambitious goals I had for my brief Teton climbing season.

What about the rest of the summer? After a successful and rewarding summer in the Alps last year, I was looking to put together another extended dirtbag international trip. I am running out of new ranges to explore in car-accessible western North America, so I must travel farther afield to see completely new terrain. This summer, that terrain will be the Cordillera of Peru, where I will spend about 8 weeks climbing and trekking. The mountains are higher, wilder, and less suited to my abilities than the Alps, and the logistics will be more primitive and trying, but it should be an interesting experience nonetheless. Stay tuned — the adventure starts in about a week!

PS — As usual, I am making this trip with no corporate or institutional sponsorship. What support I have comes from friends: Ted, who is the master of frequent flyer points (and owns a house near an airport where I can stash my car); and Scott, who wears roughly my size and has generously donated boots, skis, and other miscellaneous gear. I have not and will not run ads, post affiliate links, publish “sponsored content,” or ask for donations on this site. If you support what I do and enjoy reading about it, please consider buying my new book.

Introducing “40 Classic Scrambles of North America”

After a decade of scrambling, and several years kicking spreadsheets and drafts around my hard drive, I am pleased to announce the publication of Forty Classic Scrambles of North America. Inspired by Roper and Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs, but aimed at scramblers like myself, it presents forty excellent moderate routes from across western North America, from the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona to the northern Canadian Rockies. The guide is intended for people familiar with their “home” mountains who want to explore similar terrain farther afield. Routes range in difficult from class 3 to 5.7, and in length from half-day jaunts to fifty-mile epics.

Interested? Check out the sample chapter.

Like it? It should begin shipping in 1-2 weeks, and costs $35 + $5 shipping and handling.

(Don’t use PayPal? I also take personal checks. Email me for details.)

14er guide update

Palisades 5/19/19

Thanks in part to interest from a couple of Eastern Sierra bookstores, and to that expressed by some correspondents, I will be printing more copies of my California 14er guidebook. I will try to contact people who expressed interst in a print copy, but I will probably miss some; please email me. Anyone who wanted a print copy, but had to settle for the e-book instead, can contact me to get a print copy for the price difference, i.e. $12.95 including shipping. Books will begin shipping within two weeks, so they will arrive well before the best 14er season in a heavy snow year.

2018 in review

I came into 2018 adrift, with no grand goal to drive me and structure my season. I had finished my project to dayhike the lower 48, and while I have much more to explore in Canada, especially the Coast Range, the options were either inaccessible (Waddington) or unexciting (lots of driving and bushwhacking north of Whistler). Fortunately, the idea of traveling to Europe and the Alps presented itself, and while it was not cheap, it was not as expensive as I feared. This, along with some fitness tourism to Ecuador (thanks, Ted, for sharing the fruits of your mad frequent flier skills!) and ski trip to Canada in May (hi, Bob!), made the year a welcome departure from my usual routine. This novelty revived my love for the mountains, making this one of my best seasons in a long time, on par with 2012 and 2014.

It took some time to recover from the magnitude and intensity of my trip to the Alps, but I was surprised at the end of the season at how much I enjoyed some more mundane outings in the Eastern Sierra. To the extent that I have a home, it is northern New Mexico, but my mountaineering roots lie in the Sierra. Having drifted away from and lost interest in them over the past few years, I was surprised at how much I appreciated returning to a familiar, friendly range in an extended Fall season. As much as I enjoy exploring new terrain and pushing my limits, rambling through my sort-of backyard has its own charm.

If the season produced one major disappointment, it is that I have ended back where I started. Though I have different trails to run and peaks to look at this winter, my situation has changed little from a year ago. I have a few ideas for next summer, but no clear direction of progress or area of the map to fill in. I trust that I will be able to put something together by next Spring, as I did this year, but it will take more reflection and consideration than before, some of which I hope to write about in the future. I suppose that’s what the long winter nights are for…

Anyways, on to the summary.


When Ted offered to buy me a ticket to Ecuador with frequent-flier points, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a place I never expected to see. Though the trip involved some peak-bagging, it felt more like tourism much of the time. Despite not accomplishing all of my objectives, I left glad to have visited, and possibly a slightly broader-minded citizen of the world.

  • Cotopaxi: At 19,347′, Cotopaxi was a new altitude record for me. It almost didn’t happen, as the park officials seemed to make up arbitrary rules aimed at increasing the amount of money flowing from our pockets to theirs, but I managed to sneak through. The lack of a clear summit view was disappointing, but hardly surprising on a trip where it rained almost every day. We had also planned to climb 20,561′ Chimborazo, but our tight timeframe and some third world nonsense in the form of armed park guards and arbitrary closing times shut us down.
  • Galapagos: Though I preferred my time in the cheaper and less tourist-infested areas north of Quito, it was worth paying American prices and dealing with gueros to visit these unique islands. We passed through too quickly to see more than a fraction of their distinctive flora and fauna, but I was happy to swim with fearless iguanas and watch tortoise sex.

Skiing in Canada

Columbia from the Icefield

With lift tickets far out of my price range these days, I had forgotten how much I loved to ski growing up. I finally acquired a pair of AT skis last year (thanks, Scott! (the man, not the brand)), so this spring I headed up to the Canadian Rockies to put them to use. I ended being a week or two late for the best skiing, but it was still great by my south-of-the-border standards.

  • Columbia: The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice cube south of Alaska, and I was fortunate to make two trips to it in just a few days. The first, a trip to Snow Dome with Bob and his friend Matt, gave me the confidence to return for a solo mission to Mount Columbia, on the northern end of the icefield. While I was pleased with my time, I was far off the FKT set by some members of the Canadian national randonée ski team.
  • Hector: Had I visited just a bit earlier, I could have skied 5000′ from summit to car. However, I still got in 3000′ of vertical, flying down a wide-open glacier at ludicrous speeds.

The Alps

Finsteraarhorn from Lauteraarhorn

There is a reason that mountaineering was born in the Alps, and is often called “alpinism”: I cannot think of another range that combines more dramatic terrain with easier access. First, there is the incredible relief. From valleys lying between 1500′ and 5000′, the highest peaks rise above 13,000′; Mont Blanc rises 12,300′ from Chamonix in just 6.5 miles. Second, the Alps hold glaciers larger than any in North America outside of Alaska or far northern Canada. The largest, the Grosser Aletsch Glacier, is still 2500′ deep at its thickest point; the highest, the Bossons Glacier on Mont Blanc, descends from near the peak’s 15,781′ summit to just 4500′. Sadly, these glaciers are rapidly disappearing, having lost 1/40 of their mass this year alone. Visit while you can.

  • Mont Blanc: While most people start their Mont Blanc climb with a cograil or tram ride, I eschewed such costly things and walked from my car in Chamonix. I followed the Grand Mulets route, which ascends the Bossons Glacier to join the standard Gouter Ridge route just before the summit. This choice offered solitude for much of the climb, at the cost of manageable but non-trivial crevasse risk. Rather than descending through decaying snow, I traversed several sub-peaks over to the Aiguille du Midi, where I took the tram down, getting off at the midway station to avoid paying the exorbitant fee. (The woman at the upper station looked a bit confused when I said I had hiked up…)
  • Matterhorn: As part of my effort to minimize time spent in costly Zermatt, I chose to climb the Matterhorn from the town of Cervino on the Italian side. This meant ascending the somewhat more challenging Lion Ridge rather than the standard Hornli, and scaling all manner of sketchy ropes and ladders. Between those and the crowds of other climbers, this felt like my craziest climb in the Alps. It also would likely have been my favorite, had I not witnessed my first, and hopefully last, fatal climbing fall.
  • Dolomites: I almost skipped the Dolomites, since they are lower and less glaciated than the western Alps, and more suited to rock climbers. I am glad I made the drive, though, at least as much for the history as for the climbing. Growing up in the States, my education about World War I focused mostly on the northern war between France and Germany. I was completely unaware of the White War, a brutal, heroic, and pointless conflict in which the Austrians and Italians waged trench warfare year-round in the high Alps of Sudtirol (South Tyrol).
  • Bernese Alps: While it does not contain the Alps’ highest peaks, the Bernese Oberland holds their largest glaciers, and therefore most fully expresses the Alps’ character. Unlike elsewhere in the range, there are few lifts, making the approaches to most high peaks long and arduous. Of the 14 and 1/2 hours I spent climbing the Finsteraarhorn, about nine were on glaciers.

Late-season Sierra

Picket Guard (r) from Wallace Creek

With the High Sierra remaining snow-free through late November, I had more time than expected to run around the range. While the nights were too long and cold for my normal late-season backpacking, conditions were perfect for some long runs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite spending most of the summer doing few long days and almost no running, I was able to adapt to doing 30-40-miles quickly and without injury.

  • Picket Guard: I had sworn not to do this remote peak, hidden between the rugged Kaweahs and the deep Kern Valley, but curiosity got the better of me. Unlike others who have day-hiked it from Shepherd Pass or Mineral King, I chose a shorter, pleasant, and familiar cross-country route from Whitney Portal via Wallace Creek. Thanks to the shorter route and my unusually high energy, it took only 13h20, a long but reasonable day.
  • Badwater to Whitney: The 135-mile Badwater Marathon, following the road from the lowest point in the United States to the trailhead for the highest, holds little interest for me. However, when I heard of this similar-length route avoiding most paved roads, it took only a week for me to somehow convince myself to fast-pack it. While I am not sure I would repeat the experience, it did have some transcendent moments, like walking across the smooth Panamint salt flat in the moonlight.
  • Miscellaneous speed: As usual when I find myself with good fitness and near hills, I end up trying to establish some Fastest Known Times (FKTs). While I am far from the fastest guy out there, I do enjoy putting up times on interesting routes to encourage others to come along and beat them. Two fun routes I did this fall are Laurel’s northeast gully, an incredibly fun low-fifth-class scramble, and White Mountain’s west ridge, a 9000-foot cross-country grunt from the valley floor to the highest peak on the east side of the Owens Valley. Hopefully neither of my times will remain the fastest known for more than a year.

Doing the Alps the Dr. Dirtbag way

Just a homeless guy with an axe…

By the numbers, my two months in Europe and seven weeks in the Alps were more successful than I expected: 52 summits, 43 of those in the Alps, including 26 of the 49 4000-meter peaks. This was in no small part thanks to the abnormally hot and dry weather which, while terrible for the glaciers, allowed me to only fight the weather or take a forced break on a few days. But I can also credit some of the choices I made in my approach.

The most important choice by far was to rent a car. As good as public transit may be, it would be next to impossible to do back-to-back peaks from different trailheads while riding trains and buses between them. This was painfully expensive — a bit over $1300 for the rental, plus gas that ranged from 1.20€/l in Spain to 1.60€/l in France. These two things together probably cost more than the whole rest of the trip, including food, airfare, tolls, and Zermatt-area parking. However, this big chunk of cash did a lot of things. First, while public transit may be great in Europe, it is not cheap: a Eurail pass alone would have cost me around $800, and then there are buses. Second, the car was a free place to store gear I was not using, such as town clothes, laundry, and heavy/light mountain gear. Most importantly, the car was also my lodging: it turns out that a Citroën C3 is almost one Dirtbag long diagonally if you slide the driver’s seat forward, and with a fat air mattress, was both comfortable and discreet. Staying in huts or hostels would have cost at least as much as the rental, and camping seems frowned upon, though often tolerated.

Second, I did all but two outings (the Grandes Jorasses and Tasch-Dom traverse) with my Alpine fast-and-light setup: trail runners, wool socks, hiking pants, t-shirt, hoodie, shell, poncho, ice axe, and running-shoe crampons. Wearing trail runners made it possible to do summits requiring 2000 to 3000+ meters of gain in a day without destroying my knees and feet in boots. I jogged some descents, but mostly just walked quickly, since I was not trying to set any speed records. Expecting the Alps to be cold, I brought most of my winter gear, including mountain boots, softshell pants, down parka, goggles, and long underwear. I brought the parka for the Tasch-Dom, where I expected bad weather, but did not end up needing it. The only reason I used mountain boots on two occasions was for short sections of steep glacier travel for which I needed to front-point. In the future, I may be able to upgrade my fast-and-light setup to cover this sort of terrain.

Third, I did absolutely no roped glacier travel, which requires gear and partners, and dooms most Alpine climbers to heavy packs and a plodding pace. I did this with a mixture of conservative route choice and a small amount of calculated risk. Many of the large stretches of glacier travel, particularly in the late summer in the Bernese Alps, are mostly dry. A dry glacier is just about the opposite of threatening, since you can see all the holes. A mostly-dry glacier is similar, since you can just stick to the bare parts. Slightly riskier are snow-covered glaciers on popular routes. Starting from the trailhead, I was always behind the hordes starting from the hut, who put in a clear boot-pack while carrying more gear. An established boot-pack is not as safe as bare ice, but still quite low-risk if you are paying attention. Finally, on Mont Blanc, somewhat on the Finsteraarhorn, and weirdly on Monte Cevedale, I cautiously made my own way. I generally tried to do the route-finding early in the day, before snow bridges deteriorated too much, and took a cautious line at the expense of some wandering. Other than putting a leg into a small crack on a side-trip to see the artillery near Monte Cevedale, I had no glacial mishaps.

As expected, this trip was expensive, though nowhere near the insane costs of the seemingly-common guided ascents. A two-day guided climb of the Matterhorn alone costs at least 1200€; add in transportation, lodging, and a couple of restaurant meals, and such a climb could end up costing half the price of my whole trip. Food-wise, my usual trail staple of PB&H sandwiches does not work in Europe, where large jars of peanut butter are impossible to find. The best substitute I found was store-brand Nutella on wheat sandwich bread, all of which is available for around 1000 cal/$ everywhere. I supplemented this with baguette and cheese sandwiches, which are also fairly cheap, and better than anything you can buy in most of the United States. I almost entirely avoided eating in restaurants, since while groceries cost around American prices (less in Spain and Italy), restaurants are generally more, especially in Switzerland.