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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.

Three similar lists

By an interesting coincidence, there are almost the same numbers of Colorado 14ers (53), Canadian Rockies 11ers (50), and Alpine 13ers (58) — somewhere in the mid-50s, depending upon your definition. The Colorado 14ers are definitely the easiest list to complete, with very few requiring more than 4000 feet of elevation gain or any scrambling. Probably thousands of people have climbed them all. The other two lists are much more serious, with probably only a handful of people having completed either.

Having now climbed a good number of the other two lists, I have been debating with myself which would be harder for me to complete. The Canadian peaks are certainly wilder and harder to access; some like Clemenceau, I believe, cannot be done as dayhikes. On the other hand, access to the Alpine peaks is almost too easy, making all of them dayhikes from their huts. They are harder from the car, but probably still all doable in a day. None of them is very far from a road, though many rise 3000m or more above their trailheads, making for hard days. They are also more technical than the Canadian peaks, and while I think they are all within my ability by their easiest routes, I have not climbed enough of the hard ones to be sure. For example, I will probably not attempt the Aiguille Blanche near Chamonix, which sounds like it has a sketchy descent.

Some plots

I made a few plots comparing the lists. Apologies for the ugly format, but I don’t have my preferred plotting tools working on my computer right now. First up are some histograms of the prominence of all but the highest peak in each list. Prominence is the drop from a peak to the highest saddle connecting it to a higher peak, a measure of “independence.” Both the Alps and the Canadian Rockies’ most prominent peaks are significantly more independent than Colorado’s, because the Colorado peaks all lie on a high plateau. However, the Rockies 11ers are, on average, more independent than the Alps 13ers, reflecting the fact that many of the Alps’ high peaks are clustered in a few groups (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa).

Next are some altitude histograms. Colorado’s high peaks are all clustered within less than 500 feet of each other. This continues lower down, with over 600 peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Both the Alps’ and Canadian Rockies’ highest peaks, Mont Blanc and Mount Robson, are outliers. Both ranges also have much more variation among their highest peaks, with the Alps’ spread over 2700 feet, and the Rockies over 1900. I am not sure what this means.

Anyways, I had some time to kill today. Back to mountaineering-related programming activities tomorrow.

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.


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 Géant. 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.

Monte Cervino (Italian Ridge, AD+)

Italian Ridge at left

Better known as the Matterhorn, this famous peak has two close and near-equal-height summits, one each in Switzerland and Italy. Whymper’s famous and catastrophic ascent was made from the Swiss side, up the Hornli Ridge, and that remains the most popular route. The Italian route, up the Lion Ridge, is slightly harder and less crowded, though it still sees quite a bit of traffic. The route would actually be quite a bit harder, but as far as I can tell, the Italians saw the Swiss making money guiding tourists up their ridge (1200€ a head these days) and decided that they wanted a piece of the action. Thanks to dozens of fixed ropes and chains, and a super-sketchy rope ladder passing an overhang, the Italian Ridge is now suitable for clients.

Ibexes on approach

After getting a proper alpine start for the south-facing Jorasses route, I got a lazier start for the Matterhorn, leaving the large parking lot in Breuil-Cervino around 5:30. I did not expect it to be a long day, I was concerned about rime from the previous day’s high clouds, and the ridge is mostly west-facing, so it receives little morning sun. There is a dirt road all the way to the Aosta hut, but there are also more direct trails, including both social ones and the official trail number 13. I was not really going for speed, but put in a decent effort on the hike past the now-quiet hut.

Monsieur Carrel

Above, I followed a cairned trail for awhile, then wasted 20 minutes on a stupid detour across a snowfield, thanks to inattention and not remembering the guidebook description well enough. I realized my mistake, then returned to the leftward cleft through a cliff band, where I found the boot-pack again. Beyond that, I found bits of trail and crampon marks as I climbed a mix of slabs and talus, then regained the boot-pack on the snowfield below Lion Point. The helpful crowds had made nice stairs, and a perilously narrow walkway with a very bad runout, around the southern side, so I was fine continuing with an ice axe and no crampons on my nearly-dead trail runners.

Sketchy “chimney” below hut

Most hut approaches are nontechnical, even if it is necessary to add hand-lines or blast steps. The approach to the Carrel hut, at 3829 meters, is another story. After following fixed ropes up some slabs, I was confronted with a vertical face called the “Whymper Chimney.” There was nothing chimney-like about it; rather, it was a 30-foot face with a hand crack and some extremely polished feet. There was a fat rope anchored to the top and to a few bolts along the way, plus a couple of cord loops to pull on or use as stirrups. I prefer not to use fixed gear when I can avoid it, partly for style, and partly because it feels sketchy, but climbing the face was definitely beyond my abilities. I made it about half-way up the rope before chickening out, then carefully descended and rested my forearms.

Defeated before even reaching the hut?! Not if I can help it! The left side was hopeless, but it looked like there might be easier ground around to the right, which consists of various slabs and talus slopes of different steepnesses. I retreated down one of the ropes, then made my way to the most promising of these, which was topped by a chimney and chockstone that looked possible, or at least secure. My persistence paid off, and after some stemming, chimneying, and groveling, I topped out over the chockstone onto another talus ramp. This ramp led under the south side of the hut and up to the deck; unfortunately people often pee of this deck, and while I did not suffer a direct hit, I had a strong desire to wash my hands.

More fixed ropes

Back on-route, the fixed gear went next-level, with probably a couple dozen fixed ropes between hut and summit, along with other random bits of aid. I had gotten into the European mood by now, happily standing or pulling on whatever sketchy horrors had been installed. On the one hand, they made the climbing easier; on the other, they concentrated the climbers on one path, and the nearby rock was incredibly polished by crampons and boots, making all the holds less secure. I am not sure whether or not I could have climbed the route in its original condition.

Flat step along ridge

I passed a couple guided groups on the south side of the ridge, getting a surprisingly late start, then returned to the ridge via a steep pitch to climb on or left of the crest, eventually moving to consistent snow. I somewhat sketchily avoided crampons for awhile, but after getting a good look at the route ahead, I saw that it was mostly snow, and stopped at a flat section of ridge to put on the spikes.

Sketchy self-releasing rap device

The crowds began to become a problem here, as I had to climb through rope teams both ascending and descending (I was apparently the only solo climber). The flat stretch of ridge ended with a downclimb to a notch containing a twisted little gendarme. It looked fragile, but other people had clearly used it, so I stemmed off it to get into the gap, then continued up snow and ice on the other side. Above, I passed a pair of Frenchman rappeling using a crazy-looking device from Beal to do full-length rappels on a single strand. It looked like a short piece of rope with two pieces of flat webbing braided around it, tied to the anchor on one end and the rope on the other. After rapping on the single strand, the climbers released this device by yanking their rope a dozen times, slowly unraveling the braid. This seems like a terrible idea, but… I guess it works?

Totally bomber…

The ridge turns to rock and steepens to a final headwall below the summit. I took off my crampons, then fought my way through more parties toward the crux, working around ice and snow where possible, and cautiously sketching my way across a few patches. The crux Jordan Ladder, installed to overcome a slightly overhanging step, is the absolute pinnacle of Euro-sketch: a 20-foot rope ladder with 1×1-inch wooden rungs. The ropes are partly iced over, and almost everyone climbs the wooden rungs in crampons. Some of the upper rungs had metal shields duct-taped to them to lengthen their lives. I cautiously and unhappily made my way up this horror-show, moving both feet up a rung, then wrapping an elbow around one rope to spare my grip.

Swiss summit from Italian

Above, it was mostly easy rock and a boot-pack to the Italian summit, where I found two groups of two hanging around the cross. It had taken me about 5.5 hours from car to summit, which I thought was a good time given my detour lower down and unfamiliarity with the route. However, I was nowhere near Killian Jornet, who climbed it town-to-town in about three hours. Just like on Mont Blanc, I can understand his rate of ascent, but it is absolutely incomprehensible how he manages it over complicated technical terrain. At my best a few years ago, I was maybe 20% slower than Killian on the Grand Teton. However, on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, I could probably do no better than twice his time.

Climbers traversing toward Swiss summit

One of the pairs at the summit left soon after I arrived, but I spent a good 10-20 minutes talking to a young Austrian couple, who were friendly and spoke excellent English. An annoying tourist helicopter kept buzzing the summit, so after jokingly suggesting we moon it, I was egged on to actually do so on one of its closer passes. I hope the tourists enjoyed the view of my pasty buttocks. It was warm and almost wind-free, and tempting to hang around longer, but I still had the descent to deal with, and hoped to get in another peak in the next day’s good weather. I said goodbye, then crossed the perfect snow arete to the Swiss summit on an excellent boot-pack. The Italian summit at least had a few rocks on which to stand or sit, but the Swiss one was just snow, so after taking pictures of Zermatt, Monte Rosa, and (maybe) the Grosser Aletschgletcher far to the north, I crossed back over the Italian summit and headed down.

Looking down from upper headwall

Above the ladder, I passed a young guide and client, who noted my footwear and helpfully warned me to be careful of the wet rock on the descent. I thanked him, then made my careful, crampon-less way down past the evil Jordan Ladder. On the steep section below, there was a bit of a shit-show, with two teams sharing their ropes to rappel, another team of three, and a party of two climbing up. I waited, climbed through when I could, and eventually extracted myself from the tangle. As usual, I used my crampons more going down than up, keeping them on from below the ladder to where the route drops off the south side of the ridge above the hut. Though I do not enjoy it, I am getting better at using them on rock.

Monte Rosa

After some minor route-finding trouble, I reached the hut again, and was about to pass by silently when a young woman sitting on the deck greeted me in what sounded like American English. She and her boyfriend turned out to be from Slovakia, but she had clearly had an American teacher, and spoke excellent and only slightly accented English. Since the weather was perfect and it was only early afternoon, I hung out for the better part of an hour talking to the couple. Though they had done a lot of hiking in the Tatras, and trad climbing near Bratislava, they had done relatively little mountaineering in the Alps. They had previously done the Breithorn from Breuil-Cervino (using a tram), and were spending the day acclimatizing at the hut before hopefully climbing the next day. (As it turned out, it snowed that night, ruining their summit bid.)

I was reluctant to leave, partly because it would be hot down in the valley, and partly because I did not want to climb down the rope or the pee-slope. I finally left, descending some semi-sketchy slabs to the top of the rope and, after psyching myself up for a bit, committing to the thing. I used one foot-loop at the top, then descended it like I was rappeling, leaning back on the rope to keep my feet stuck to the rock rather than using the meager footholds. Down was definitely easier than up, and I made it to the bottom with forearms only slightly tired.

I passed more climbers above and below the narrow snow traverse, then boot-skied a bit and jog-walked the trail back to town in no particular hurry, reaching the car a bit less than 12 hours after starting. I took off my soaked shoes, had a snack, then drove down the Cervino valley, back through Aosta, and up the Bionaz valley to sleep at my next trailhead.

Death in the Afternoon

Rest in peace

Ernest Hemingway said that “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Presumably, what elevates them from games to sports is the possibility of death. Though I do not plan to do any motor racing or bullfighting on this trip, I will be doing much more mountaineering, often with many others doing the same nearby. I suppose it is inevitable that I will witness the ugly consequences.

Hanging out at a stance below the Jordan Ladder while waiting for some people to finish rappeling, I heard a loud sound on the south face. Another climber nearby shouted something, and I leaned out a bit to look. Maybe a thousand feet below, I saw two climbers, roped together and bouncing out of control down a snowfield, having already fallen probably 1000 feet from the ridge above me. The sound was surprisingly loud for only 300-400 pounds of matter; it seemed much louder than a similar amount of rockfall. As in the past, I was verbally reduced to irrelevant cursing, but utterly attuned to the details of events that took place over a couple of seconds. Before the climbers disappeared off the snowfield into the void below, I noted the color of their packs and clothes, and tried to see the color of their rope, to tell whether it was the couple I had just met on the summit. Later I found out that it was, two twenty-somethings from Austria.

The other climbers around suggested calling 911 (112 in Europe), but apparently none spoke Italian, so I pulled out my phone and, with a crappy signal, made the call. The operator spoke some English, and apparently transferred me to mountain rescue, but they couldn’t understand me with the weak signal, and hung up. More dazed than scared, I made my way carefully down the rock to a low-angle section where I tried calling again 10-15 minutes later with a better signal. Apparently someone else had already called by then, and the mountain rescue person told me that they were sending a helicopter. “They usually end up at the bottom,” he chillingly remarked before encouraging me to be careful on the way down. So I did, moving slowly down the ridge as the helicopter came and went to the snowfield at the base of the south face, eventually finding the bodies and departing for good.

I lived to climb another day, while they did not, and there is no lesson to be learned beyond the obvious one that death is real and close in the mountains. They had experience and all the proper gear, and were moving roped as one is supposed to. I was in worn-out trail runners, downclimbing unroped. So it goes.

Tetons and such

Ranch life

Though I haven’t written in awhile, I have not been idle. As usual, I spent the first part of June in the Tetons, painting cabins for a week (brown this year) and improving my fitness while living at the base of the mountains. After so many visits, I do not have many objectives left in the range, but I did finally tag Prospectors Mountain via an interesting traverse from Open Canyon (class 2-3) to Rimrock Lake above Death Canyon (tricky, vegetated class 3-4). I also made a failed attempt to reach the Zebra, an obscure and remote peak northwest of Mount Moran (go get it, Peggy!). Since then, I have managed a few moderate outings in the eastern Cascades, accumulating Bulger Points. My season will begin in earnest in a couple of weeks — stay tuned! In the mean time, here are a few photos.

More Canadian contrasts

I have recently had the good fortune to be entrusted with some old climbing photos from Canada, specifically of the Bugaboos and Mount Robson. The Bugaboo photos were taken in July 1973 by Charles Calef. The Robson photos were taken in 1968 by either Dave Brown or George Bell. The modern photos are mine. The pairs aren’t perfectly matched, but they’re close enough for comparisons.


The modern photos are from early August, 2014.

Bugaboo-Snowpatch col

Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, 1973

Snowpatch and Bugaboo from Eastpost

Howser Towers

Howser Towers, 1973

Howser Towers


The modern photos are from mid-July, 2017. There’s no way I could have day-hiked the Kain Face in 1968, even if the Thoni Trail had existed.

Kain face

Kain Face, 1968

Robson from near col

Summit pyramid

Robson summit, 1968

Summit climb

South face

Robson south face, 1968

Robson south face

Glacial contrasts

Athabasca Glacier

I recently tracked down these historical photos for a presentation. The pairs aren’t perfect, because I took my photos before I saw the old ones. Still, the comparisons are revealing.

Mount Robson, Kain Face



Illecillewaet Névé



Illecillewaet Glacier



2017 in review

It was a good year, despite a slow start and a general failure at the end. Though I climbed fewer peaks than in 2016, I had plenty of quality climbs, including some wild outings in Canada, a few FKTs, and two daytrips that used my full range of skills, and of which I am particularly proud. With some caveats, I finished my project to dayhike the lower 48. I even saw a total eclipse from the top of a mountain.

Though I should be writing more this winter than in previous ones, blogging will be sporadic, hopefully picking up again next April or May. I hope you had as much fun reading as I had scrambling; I won’t ask whether that fun was type I or type II.


Northern Pickets pano

While they are perhaps less interesting than first ascents of peaks or routes, I managed a couple of “first dayhikes” this summer that I believe are genuine contributions to North American mountaineering.

  • Northern Pickets traverse: This traverse involves around 60 miles and over 15k feet of gain over varied terrain, and includes West Fury, Phantom, and Crooked Thumb, arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48. According to Wayne Wallace, mine may be only the third traverse of this ridge; it is almost certainly the first solo traverse, and the first car-to-car in a single push. It tested my limits in terms of route-finding, technical rock, navigation, planning, and endurance. With opportunities for escape ranging from difficult to nonexistent, this is a serious and extremely committing outing. The timing is also extraordinarily tight: even with an easier exit to Hannegan Pass, I would have had to do all of the trail miles and some cross-country travel at night.
  • Mount Robson (Kain face): This classic is the first ascent route on the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. While it is possible that someone has done it car-to-car in a single push, it is unlikely for several reasons: the Patterson Spur climbers’ trail, which is much shorter and less hazardous than the standard route via Berg Lake, was created within the last decade; the mountain sees relatively few successful ascents; the climb requires both a wide variety of skills and some tolerance of risk; and while the route is not easy, it is not technical enough to attract world-class mountaineers.

Fastest Known Times (FKTs)

Sir Donald from near Abbott Hut

Due to a different focus and advancing age, I have slightly less speed and power than last year. Given this constraint, I still managed to establish a few respectable Fastest Known Times (FKTs). The first two even make Roper and Steck’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America.

  • Mount Temple (East ridge): This climb has exceptionally good rock for the Canadian Rockies, and ascends an aesthetic line on an iconic peak. I was intimidated by the rating, but the holds were positive and solid enough for me to feel comfortable in trail runners.
  • Mount Sir Donald (NW ridge): This classic line remains one of my favorite climbs anywhere, and may be one of the best climbs of its grade in the world. Someone may have climbed it faster, but locals I spoke to did not know of a time under 5 hours.
  • Glacier Peak: Belying its name, Glacier is a runner’s peak, with only a bit of fairly tame glacier travel near the end. Several local runners could no doubt improve this time, but to my knowledge none of them has. Doug McKeever’s FKT of 7h58, set back in 1998 via the abandoned White Chuck route, is probably beatable by a better trail runner than myself.

Other Canadian highlights

Crux move on knife-edge

  • Asulkan Ridge: While both Sir Donald’s northwest ridge and Asulkan Ridge are rated 5.4, this is much easier, with most of the traverse being easy “exposed sidewalk.” The surrounding spectacular scenery — Sir Donald, the Illecillewaet Névé, Bonney — makes this a wonderful ridge walk, and a good easier alternative to Sir Donald.
  • Smuts: With fairly solid rock, a moderate approach, and spectacular scenery in Kananaskis Country, Smuts is good old-fashioned type I fun.

Is everything a dayhike?

End of project

For the past few years, I have been seeking to demonstrate that every peak (for some version of “every” and “peak”) in the lower 48 is a dayhike. From Gannett in the Winds, to Oso and the Guardian in the San Juans, to Whaleback in the Sierra, I have put in countless hours of morning (and sometimes evening) headlamp time in the pursuit of type II fun. The Northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so my recent traverse can be seen as a fitting end to this project.

Along the way, I have learned what is necessary to accomplish this goal, developed the necessary physical and mental skills, and also learned my limits. I am a decent distance runner, but nowhere near fast enough to compete with modern ultra runners. I am a decent scrambler, but any semi-serious climber can get up things far harder than I can. Yet I see few people doing the kind of fast and light peak-bagging I enjoy, leading me to believe that, with a bit of patience and determination, most people can accomplish far more in the mountains than they realize.

So, is everything in the lower 48 a dayhike? I smile at having left the question somewhat unanswered by taking more than 24 hours for the Northern Pickets. I believe that I could pick them off one-by-one in less than 24 hours apiece, and it seems possible that I could do the traverse in under 24 hours by exiting via Hannegan Pass, but I will not try to demonstrate these things. Someone else is welcome to do the math, then make it happen.

Why I am a summer “mountaineer”

Ain’t nobody got time for that

After a resupply and some maintenance, including an oil change by a possible neo-Nazi, I looked around and realized I was relatively close to Mount Bancroft. I had put its east ridge, a class 4-5 affair supposedly best with some snow, but it seemed like a perfect objective for a day forecast to be “mostly sunny with a 20% chance of snow.” So I drove up to the first of two locked gates and watched some saved up TV as it started snowing. There was an inch or so on the ground by the time I went to sleep, and about 2 when I woke up: not great, but still manageable.

I clomped up the road with boots, snowshoes, crampons, and axe, eyeing the partly-cloudy skies. Below Loch Lomond (a man-made reservoir, not a lake), the snow got punchy enough for snowshoes, and the wind picked up enough for goggles. The wind picked up as I continued past the dam and up the slope to the west, adding spindrift to complement the persistent clouds. It wasn’t particularly cold, and I could see the headwall at the base at the ridge, so I knew where to start. But my chances of success seemed low given the fresh snow and lack of visibility. Screw that.

I had plenty of day left after getting back to the car, so I headed up to Boulder to do some laps in the Flatirons. Boulder is even more obnoxious than I remember, and I had to park well down the street from Chautauqua Park, but carrying only rock shoes, water, and snacks, I didn’t mind the extra walk. Boulder is also home to a university, so I got to inhale the pheromones of beautiful people half my age as I hiked and jogged around.

Flatirons climbing is unlike anything I have done recently: the rock is very sticky with few cracks, so climbing it relies on dishes, crystals, and thin edges. This sort of slabby climbing is unnerving until you get your mind in the right place, since no single appendage will hold you if something goes wrong. I hadn’t done this style of climbing in awhile, so I warmed up on the easy 2nd Flatiron. I tried to do Dodge Block, but couldn’t find the upper part of the route, so I finished on something else to the right. Next, I headed over to the significantly harder 1st. Starting up was a bit scary, especially since the hardest part is near the start. I had the hang of it by the time I got to the top, and knew I had to return for another lap.

To break up the repetition, I headed out to Royal Arch. I hadn’t climbed on top of that, so I did it from the downhill side, which I found pretty easy. Then it was back to the 1st for another go. This time went much smoother, though I took a slightly different line. I passed a party I had seen on my first lap near the top, then repeated the awkward downclimb off the back. This is completely different than the face, following several downward-sloping ledges covered with jugs on a near-vertical face. It feels secure if you take your time, but I’m still slow at it.

Sometimes I wonder why I subject myself to winter.