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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.

“Firsts”

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.

Notes on writing a guidebook

Although I have written the word-count of several books here online, my 14er guide is the first thing I have published, unless you count my PhD thesis, which probably exists in physical form somewhere in the bowels of the UCSD library. I learned a lot in the process, and thought I would share some of my experience for readers who might want to publish something of their own.

To self-publish or not

From what I could find online, I would receive at most 15% royalties going through a publisher. In exchange for their 85% cut, they would provide editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, and inventory management. They might (or might not) also distribute it to some stores, but as a new author, I would probably receive little to no marketing.

Going through a print-on-demand shop, I can make over 50% of a reasonable cover price after shipping, even when printing in small-ish batches. I already knew how to typeset and do a reasonable job self-editing. It was marketing and distribution where I was weakest, and a publisher seemed unlikely to help much in those areas, so I decided that a publisher was not worth it to me.

There is also an intermediate route: selling print-on-demand through Amazon, with the advantage that they handle shipping and inventory. However, my profit going this route would be at most 20-25%, and Amazon would probably use part of their 40% cut to underprice local stores and sales through my own site. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Electronic or not

Though people increasingly use their smartphones for navigation, I prefer physical maps and guides. (I don’t even own a smartphone.) If I preferred smartphone navigation, I would create a guide that takes advantage of the phone’s sensors (GPS, compass) and interactivity. This guide would, of course, be impossible to translate into print.

Similarly, a well-laid-out print guide is impossible to translate to a tiny phone screen. I have seen crude ePub conversions of some print guidebooks, and the position and quality of figures and photos are inevitably butchered. For a guide to be readable to many people on many devices, the text has to be resizable and reflowable, which destroys the careful layout and often breaks page references.

One legitimate use-case for an electronic version is to print out a handful of relevant pages to carry on an outing. They are both disposable and lighter than a book, and I could see myself using such a thing instead of photographing guidebook pages and trying to read them on my camera screen as I do now. I don’t think “piracy” would be nearly the issue it is with mass-interest content like TV shows — there aren’t enough 14er climbers to establish a reliable torrent, and the PDF is large enough to be hard to thoughtlessly put on the web. However, I still prefer physical things, so for now the book will remain print-only.

Creating a manuscript

First, always submit a PDF! Some places take word documents, but different versions of Word print the same document differently, ruining your careful layout.

I briefly considered using Apple’s Pages, which produces decent documents, but ultimately opted for LaTeX. While it is complex and sometimes maddening, it offers beautiful typesetting, and I had already learned it in school. It is not designed for fancy internal layouts with background photos and color swatches, and text in various colors flowed to match, but I am not artistic enough to create that kind of book. I did use Pages for the cover, though — its output was good enough, and I could match the font.

Maps

I spent countless hours creating and tweaking the maps before settling on their current form. My initial plan was to upload my GPX tracks to CalTopo, print out a 6×9 map at a scale to cover the area I wanted, and voila! This, of course, failed miserably. First, GPX tracks are noisy, so it was easier to draw the routes where I knew they should be. Second, map-making is an art, and automatically-created topos are terrible. Google’s “terrain” feature is the least-bad, but of course its license forbids my using it. Open Street Map topos are ugly, with overlapping labels, different features displayed at different scale, and too many other problems to mention. They’re “good enough” for tooling around on a computer, but not for print.

The only usable base map set I found was the USGS 7.5′ quads. They have some infelicities, like the contours in meters in parts of the Palisades, but they are designed by professionals. Unfortunately, to cover all routes at true 1:24,000 scale would require many pages of mostly uninteresting maps. I eventually settled on true-scale maps for the most interesting portions of routes, with a variable-scale “key map” showing the locations of the detailed ones. Like all labels, the route labels were best done by hand.

Distribution

With increasing use of print-on-demand, many smaller bookstores sell approved books on consignment with a split ranging from 70/30 to 50/50. A 50/50 consignment is an insult to the author, since after printing and shipping cost, he makes almost nothing, a fraction of the bookstore’s huge cut. Better stores will track your sales quarterly, while worse ones will make you drop by periodically to count the books on the shelf. Larger stores do not seem to offer consignment arrangements, instead working with a list of publishers; I have not yet figured out how best to deal with this.

But bookstore placement is as much about marketing as sales. By far the best distribution mechanism for me is through my website, since I don’t have to give anyone else a cut (the $5 S&H covers PayPal, padded envelope, and USPS media mail). I am still deciding how to handle this while on the road this summer.

Marketing

Though I have some “social media” presence, I am clearly not very good at the game, as evidenced by the fact that, other than a shoe-testing gig, I have never been sponsored, despite approaching a few companies. Maybe I should use more hashtags. I know and/or am known by enough fellow climbers to sell a moderate number of books, but reaching beyond that sphere is an ongoing challenge. I hope to give some presentations to clubs and at outdoor stores, both this winter and while traveling this summer. We’ll see how well that works.

Books have arrived


FedEx delivered the “first edition” to me today. Those of you who have paid already should receive your books in about two weeks (that should have been one, but… reasons). Please let me know if you don’t. Those who have expressed interest but not paid should do so by the end of the month to guarantee that you will receive a copy. After that, the remaining books will be sold first-come, first-served, and I will begin charging for shipping and handling. Once this batch is gone, you will have to wait for another printing.

Update January 26, 2017: As of this afternoon, books have been shipped to everyone who had sent me money and an address by yesterday. According to the USPS website, they should arrive in 2-8 days. Thanks again for being a part of this experiment!

The book is happening!

Cover (front and back)


To my surprise, the book has already received enough interest for me to print and mail a batch. By now, those who have expressed interest either in comments or by email should have received instructions for what to do next. For anyone else who wants to buy a copy (check out the sample chapter (PDF)!), there are two ways:

  1. Via PayPal. Please remember to include a mailing address.
  2. Via email. I’ll give you an address where you can send a personal check.

In either case, let me know if you want me to write anything in the book.

Either way, you should probably order soon. I need to print copies in decent-sized batches, and don’t want to have boxes of unsold books lying about my abode (or in my car — I still live there quite a bit). I will print some extras, but once those are gone, you will have to wait until enough people have signed up for another batch.

Also, some people have expressed interest in an electronic version alongside or instead of the printed one. The book is not designed to work well on a phone, and Kindle guidebooks suck in my experience. However, it is the right size to be printed 2-up on standard 8.5×11″ paper, and I can see the advantage of carrying a printout instead of a book. Please comment or email if you would buy such a PDF; I’m still weighing the pros and cons of offering one.

California 14er guidebook

Cover (front and back)

Please see the book page for ordering information.

[This project has been kicking around my hard drive for long enough; it’s time to do something with it. — ed.]

A couple of years ago, I began thinking about writing a guidebook to California’s 14ers in the spirit of Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners. Rather than covering a comprehensive list of routes with cursory detail, my book would cover a few popular routes on each peak more thoroughly, with color topos and labeled photos of crux sections. With only 15 peaks and a handful of routes on each, I could climb them all myself and gather consistent measures of difficulty and time required.

So here it is. With some proof-reading help (thanks Ted, Mike, and mom and dad!), I have finished the photography, writing, map-drawing (thanks, Matt and CalTopo!), and typesetting, and figured out the mechanics and cost to get it printed. The final step, by far the hardest for me, is marketing. To make money, I need to print books at least 100 at a time (1000 would be better), and that’s where you, dear reader, come in. Take a look at the sample chapters (PDF), and let me know in the comments or by email if the book is worth $19.95 to you. If at least 100 people get back to me, I’ll ask for the actual money (cash, check, or PayPal), then print and ship the books (6″x9″, 93 pages).

2016 in review

As usual at this time of year, my activities are winding down. While I still have a few things planned between now and the end of the year, the main ambitious part of my season is over. It has been a good year, on par with 2012 and 2014; read on for some of the highlights.

Fastest Known Times (FKTs)

A day well spent

A day well spent


Since I rarely race, FKTs are a good way to keep myself honest. I am already well past my peak potential, and with advancing age, I have very little time to make a contribution or have an impact in terms of pure speed. So this year, I decided to focus on developing some speed, and on deliberately applying it on a few significant outings. This does not include most hard days, on which I do not try for maximum speed, nor does it include various Strava things, which are not interesting to many people. It includes only broadly interesting objectives for which I focused on speed.

  • Evolution Traverse (Sierra): This was probably the effort that got the most attention, since the Evolution Traverse is a popular objective among California climbers, and has attracted the attention of some well-known athletes. My time could be significantly improved by better route-finding and more daylight (circumstances forced me to do it late in the year).
  • East Fury (North Cascades): This trip to one of the lower 48’s most remote peaks is close to the limit of what I can do in a day (i.e. under 24 hours). Once again, there is room for at least an hour’s improvement with better route-finding.
  • Adams (Cascades): At somewhere over 3000 ft/hr on a suboptimal mix of flattish trail, talus, and snow, this is close to my best effort. A world-class mountain runner could probably come closer to 4000 ft/hr, but doing this route with the light equipment I used — running shoes, no crampons or axe — requires both snow travel skill and intelligent risk management.

Other type II fun

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


The speed and endurance I developed for FKTs were useful on a number of longer outings. While these efforts often involved headlamp time and trail running, I was focused less on speed than on enjoying wild and remote places without a miserably heavy overnight pack. The best days were probably those in Colorado’s Weminuche wilderness, east of the Animas River between Durango and Silverton, home to some of the state’s least accessible and most interesting peaks.

  • Eastern Grenadiers (Colorado): The Grenadiers, a line of peaks southeast of Silverton, have better rock than the nearby Needles, and include the iconic Arrow and Vestal, two of the best peaks in the state. Having done the subrange’s main peaks (Arrow through Trinity) in 2012, I returned this year for the more remote eastern peaks. While none of the climbing compared to Vestal’s classic Wham Ridge, the scenery around Silex Lake is spectacular, and the peaks feel especially remote and untrodden.
  • Ruby Basin peaks (Colorado): I had hoped to traverse the peaks surrounding the Ruby Creek Basin, from Pigeon east to North Eolus, then back around west to either Animas or Fourteen. However, the rock proved unexpectedly bad, especially on the east- and southeast-facing descents from Pigeon east, so I shortcut across the basin to Monitor. The traverse would be more manageable in the other direction, going up rather than down the worst rock.
  • NE Ridge of Mt. Williamson (Sierra): I had been eyeing this Sierra semi-classic for several years, and finally got around to doing it this year. Much of the climbing is unpleasant, and there is only a bit of 5th class near the top, but I am glad to have done this landmark ridge.

Type I fun

A rare moment of balance

A rare moment of balance


More than in previous years, I deliberately spent some time this year focused on “type I fun.” This included wandering around the southern Utah desert, flailing on a rope in Squamish and Utah, some casual peak-bagging in the Cascades, and even atypical water-related activities. These breaks allowed me to maintain fitness and avoid burnout for more of the season.

Also along these lines, I would like to thank the friends and chance-met outdoor people with whom I have spent time this year, who broke up the long solitary hours and lifted my eyes from the trail. Mike introduced me to his network of friends over the winter, and kept me honest about my performance limits. Renée introduced me to new places and things I would not have otherwise done, and motivated me with her infectious enthusiasm. The Climbers’ Ranch regulars, too many to name without leaving someone out by mistake, once again made Work Week a social oasis in my summer travels, worth the drive even though I am running out of things to climb in the Tetons. Kate allowed me onto her island for a brief and welcome respite between breaking my hand and finding a suitable brace.

Finally, I would like to thank the readers who have followed along on this summer’s adventure. I will probably have little to say over the winter, but hope to see you again in the spring.

Know your place

When it comes to athletic performance, I am a firm believer in knowing one’s place. The most obvious way to do this is racing, a head-to-head comparison on the same course in the same conditions. The main reason I rarely race ultras is that I find running 50 kilometers, 50 miles, or more on a trail to be simultaneously painful, physically damaging, and deadly dull. But another reason I don’t race is that I know I can’t win in today’s professionalized trail-running field. Though I try to ignore time and pace on most of my mountain excursions, I do sometimes go out with speed in mind. I have done so more this year than before, putting up a few “fastest known times” (FKTs) on more or less obscure peaks, an activity similar to racing.

While this can give me a pleasant feeling of being “king of the hill,” sometimes it is healthy to remind myself of my place. With this in mind, I headed down to Mount Whitney for a legitimate test. Until recently, the Whitney record was held by Grand Teton and Longs Peak record-holder Andy Anderson. In addition to having a “real job” as the Longs Peak climbing ranger, Anderson is one of the world’s best uphill runners, having beaten the famous and richly-sponsored Kilian Jornet on the Grand. Therefore the current Whitney ascent record of 1:47:20, while only 3500 ft/hr, represents what the best runners can do, and running Whitney would be good for my humility.

Having scouted the course a week before, acclimated on a backpack, and taken a couple days’ rest, I came prepared to make something like my best effort. Based on some ascents earlier this summer, I knew I had been performing 10-20% slower than top athletes. I hoped that between the altitude, a bit of scrambling, and my acclimation, I might manage a performance at the low end of this range. But, to paraphrase Victor Chernomyrdin, “I was hoping for the best, but it turned out the way it always does.”

Starting out, I felt neither unusually sluggish nor fast. By the time I finished the old Whitney trail and zig-zagged into the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, I saw that my pace was about 3300 ft/hr, and knew that I would be well off the record. Despite taking full advantage of my knowledge of the route, I continued to lose ground, and my pace deteriorated considerably above 13,000 feet. I might have gone under 2 hours on a good day, but would never come close to the record; I tagged the top in 2:02:55, almost exactly 15% off. That’s my place; that’s what I have to work with.

After that healthy reminder, I headed on up to Taboose Pass to pick some low-hanging fruit. The course record of 2h23 on Strava was clearly soft, and I had one more SPS peak to do via the hateful approach, Cardinal. I waited until a bit after the smoky sunrise, then took off up the sandy lower trail with a water bottle, a few energy bars, and a windbreaker. I was feeling the previous day’s Whitney climb a bit, but such short efforts don’t destroy my performance the way longer outings do, so I was not performing too much below my potential. In any case, I had enough speed to reach the pass in 2:03:30.

After resting at the pass, I refilled my bottle at a tarn, then took a leisurely stroll up Cardinal, a 2000-foot choss-pile to the north. The climb wasn’t great, but the view of Split to the north was impressive, and the morning’s smoke from the Cedar Fire to the south seemed to be clearing out. I lounged around the summit for awhile, then took the scree-chute back to just below the pass. I took my time going down the trail, as trying to go fast down Taboose leads only to frustration and stubbed toes. I returned to the trailhead in time for a late lunch, happy that I have no reason to ever return to Taboose Pass, and pleased with myself for being “king” of another meaningless hill.

Non-peak-bagging activities

Since this site is about peak-bagging, and I spent some time mostly not doing that recently, I haven’t had much to write. This was due to a mixture of bad weather and time spent on “self-improvement” in one sense or another; the line from Fight Club comes to mind, though I think I have been making at least slightly better use of my time.

*So* not worth it.

*So* not worth it.

Better use of a gray day.

Better use of a gray day.

There has been sport climbing, most of it wet, some also featuring slug hazards. There has been fire lookout tourism, a fine thing to do when brush and rocks are too wet to deal with. There has been (mis)use of beater bikes, always a favorite past-time. There has even been some “social” hiking and climbing, which is probably a good psychological counterweight for the solo majority of my summer.

About the only peak-bagging-related thing from the period was a successful early-season speed-run of the Grand. I was nowhere near Andy Anderson’s FKT, of course: he is one of the best mountain runners in the world, and I am not. However, I was pleased with my time, which was very close to my estimate: 4h02 Ranch-to-Ranch, and 2h36 Ranch-to-summit. That puts me about 25% off the record both up and down, which is about what I should expect.

I had hypothesized that the glissades on an early-season attempt might make the descent relatively faster, but this seems not to be the case: though I took only about 11 minutes from the Lower Saddle to the Meadows, I lost time picking my way down the partly-iced-over summit knob and down the awkward snow between upper and lower saddles. Conditions were about as good as I could expect for this time of year, with an Exum-installed bootpack between Lower and Upper Saddles making crampons unnecessary. I spent about 6 minutes total on crampon transitions and 3 minutes enjoying the summit on a perfect day, and probably lost a few minutes in either direction coming from the Ranch instead of Lupine Meadows. Altogether, in dry conditions I could probably shave 10 minutes or a bit more off the ascent: 6 minutes of transitions, faster scrambling from the Lower Saddle up, and a light waist pack instead of a ~5-lb pack. I might not go too much slower on the way down, but even the thought of doing that to my knees makes me cringe.

So anyways, back to more familiar programming.