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10 Alpine Climbing Tips

Are you dreaming of high alpine peaks? Beautiful sublime faces of rock and ice? Surreal corniced ridges and crimson sunsets? Alpine climbing is one of the most committing and unforgiving forms of climbing, but with a little practice and solid game plan it can be safe and extremely rewarding!

Here are a few tips that will help make your next alpine adventure enjoyable and fun!

1. Pick your partner wisely.

It’s one thing to go cragging for the day with someone. But going to Alaska for 21 days to attempt a nail-biting alpine climb is another story. The last thing you want is to argue and bicker like an old married couple. You might be the best of friends at sea level, but after a few days shivering on icy ledges, tensions can spin out of control quickly! I like to do some warm up climbs with potential partners–see how our personalities mesh, and how the vibe goes. I seek partners that are solid as a rock, cool under pressure, and can find comedy even in the most rugged and challenging of situations.

2. Leave your comfy lightweight inflatable mattress at home.

As tempting as it is to splurge on the expensive blow up mattress with a high R-value, you’ll be left trying to care for it like a fine piece of china. It will more than likely pop when you need it most, and leave you shivering and sleepless all night. Take a closed cell foam pad cut down to just provide coverage for your body.

3. Take extra gloves

Your glove quiver is the single most critical item on the mountain. By day’s end, after brushing off snow and belaying wet ropes, your gloves will be wet and soggy. And if your hands get cold, frostbite can set in quickly, rendering you almost useless, a very dangerous place to be. Gloves never dry out, not even in your sleeping bag, and will freeze over night. It seems ludicrous to bring 5-8 pairs of gloves for a 5 day alpine mission, but I do!
4. Drink your water cold to save critical fuel

Water is very important when you’re working 12-16 hours a day. It will help prevent cold injury and ensure maximum athletic performance. As delicious and soul-warming as it is to sip hot tea at every stop, save your hot beverage for the bivy. Remember fuel is heavy! I ration one medium 250 gram can of gas per day for two.

5. Mitigate objective hazard

I scrutinize a route for hours, days, even months! I am careful to note potential terrain traps and loose rock, keeping in mind prevailing winds and snow pack. I do my best to avoid climbing under seracs and am always considering my retreat options.

6. Bring at least one adze for the team

After climbing all day, the thought of spending two hours chopping a bivy platform is agonizing. But comfortable sleep won’t come until you do. Having an adze will streamline your efficiency and get you off to dreamland sooner so you can be fresh for your next day of adventure.

7. An iPod Nano or Shuffle can boost moral like no other!

I usually download half hip-hop and metal to get me fired up, and than some mellow reggae to cool me down. Additionally, my small point and shoot camera goes on a tether off my micro zipper and lives in my left chest pocket near my skin in a base layer. This ensures the battery stays warm and functional.

8. Take a lightweight sleeping bag and wear all your layers to bed

Sure, I strip off wet Gore-Tex if need be, but often I just crawl right into my bag with my whole kit on excluding my boots. This provides an extra layer of warmth and saves precious time. Often I want to stay tied in, so I sleep in my harness or use a sling around my waist. I sleep with my boot liners in my bag to keep them from freezing.

9. Master the art of the descent

Rappelling a 5000-foot face can seem daunting and downright terrifying. But with creativity and ingenuity, descending can be fun and rewarding. Often it’s safer then slogging down avalanche prone slopes. Slings and cordelettes can be cut up and equalized. Nuts, if placed correctly, can be bombproof and much cheaper than leaving a cam. V threads in the ice are the most efficient and low impact. I simply tie a loop knot in what ever I’m rapping off to avoid leaving costly carabiners. And remember, the Prusik back-up is paramount in the event you’re hit by falling stones or must fidget with your next bombproof anchor.

10. Most importantly, bring your positive attitude and be ready to adapt and overcome to what ever is thrown at you

The mental challenge is what I like most about alpine climbing. Like in life, things do not always go as planned. Successful people are good at improvising and can stay motivated even in uncomfortable and difficult situations. Stack the odds in your favor before going, and practice pertinent skills – ice and snow climbing, dry tooling, aid climbing, rope ascension, self-rescue, and first aid. And remember, if things start to go wrong, and you feel like you’ve gotten yourself in over your head, retreat and come back to fight another day!

Dirtbagging, Deserts, and Disaster: The Perfect Climbing Road Trip

I stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

From there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country  road trip

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country road trip

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

That’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

A Weekend of Waterfalls (and Climbing) in the High Country

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We may have had a cool and pleasant spring this year, but summer in the Southeast is shaping up to be H-O-T!  Here lately the thermometer has hit 90 before lunchtime and the humidity has felt downright smothering.  That meant that the only logical place for weekend adventures was the higher elevation areas in the western part of the state, where daytime highs were literally 20 degrees cooler than back home.

Our agenda was pretty open-ended.  We really just wanted to escape the heat and get some good family time together.  The past few weeks have been very hectic, and a camping trip in the mountains seemed like just the ticket for unplugging from society and plugging in to each other.

We arrived at the Grandfather Campground with enough time to relax a little at our campsite before bedtime.  The kiddos got to try out their new adventure jammies from Wee Woollies (review coming soon!), and we were delighted to still need long sleeves for most of the morning at camp.

Stream stomping in Little Wilson Creek

Stream stomping in Little Wilson Creek

Saturday was spent climbing at Little Wilson, a small short crag below Highway 221.  And I use the term “climbing” rather loosely, because we spent just as much time chasing happy kiddos through the stream as we did on the rock!  I did get 3 and a half pitches in on the day though – Climb With a View (5.10b), Code 3 (5.11a), Duty, Honor, Country (5.11a/b), and 2 moves farther on Aqualung (5.12b) than I got a couple of years ago.

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The next day dawned just as gorgeous, and we set off to cross of one of Big C’s bucket list items for this summer – seeing a waterfall. We opted for one of the more off the beaten path options – Elk River Falls.  None of us had ever been there, but we’d heard rumors that it was a great swimming hole for both kiddos and grown-ups alike.  This hidden gem ended up being outrageously cool – well worth a visit if you are in the area.  The 50 foot drop into a calm, giant pool was spectacular!

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Apparently the pool is deep enough to jump from the falls…but we didn’t do it, that’s only hearsay, so don’t blame me if you shatter your ankles trying it!  The big pool cascaded into several smaller areas that were great for both kiddos to play in, along with small boulders strewn about for Big C to scramble and hop around on.  The water was breathtakingly cold, but that didn’t slow the kids down one bit!

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Happy kiddos at the base of Elk Falls

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By this point Baby Zu was in need of some shut-eye, so we let her doze while we made our way back towards Boone to meet up with some friends at Sunken Treasure, another little mini-crag off Highway 221.  Our tick list was short, but quality.  Skin it Back (5.10a), a burly little number that felt kinda pumpy for the grade and Swashbuckler (5.12a), which in my opinion is one of the best routes along 221.

Proof that we actually did climb on this trip! Swashbuckler (5.12a)

Proof that we actually did climb on this trip! Swashbuckler (5.12a)

Crag Daddy on Swashbuckler

Crag Daddy on Swashbuckler

All that cool, crisp air (and frigid water!) was both physically as well as mentally refreshing.  The mountains are good for the soul!  We made an early-ish exit around 4:00, which put us home in time to not only get groceries but even make an appearance at a neighborhood block party…where it was still 85 degrees at 8 pm.  Ugh.  It’s less than a month before we embark on a family climbing trip to greener pastures (well, cooler, anyway) in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, and we are counting down the days!

What’s the weather like in your neck of the woods?  (And if the answer is “60’s and sunny”, don’t rub it in…) ;)

 

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A Family Sunday “SEND-day” at Kaymoor

Happy child in the dirt.

Happy child in the dirt.

Our good luck with good climbing conditions has fortunately continued into late spring (which probably means we’ll be smothered by a hot blanket of humidity any day now.)  And while 80’s may not be ideal sending temps, the weather felt darn near perfect for June in the Southeast…so off to the New we went!

We decided to climb in the shade at Kaymoor on Day 1.  Steve was psyched to work Lost Souls (5.12a), and I figured it was probably about time for me to give that one another try.  I’d been on it several times before Baby Zu (most notably of which was during the NRG Craggin’ Classic back in 2012 for some Trango photos), and it never went particularly well.

For those not familiar with this classic, it’s one of those that gets the grade based on linking the sum of its parts rather than individual moves.  There are 3 cruxes, all of which are giant jug to jug tosses.  Very straightforward, and the very definition of power endurance.  It’s a very common “first 5.12″ since none of the individual moves are that “hard” compared to other similarly graded routes in the area (ie, anything Endless Wall.)  So if you are a tall climber that loves gymnastic movement, get out there ASAP for an easy send!  If you are vertically-challenged and/or lean towards more technical climbs…you should still get on it because it’s awesome!  (But bring your “try hard” pants and be ready to launch!)

Happy, dirty, child #2

Happy child in the hammock.

The Crag-Daddy (Steve) went up first and managed a one-hang even while hanging draws, so things were looking pretty good for him.  My first run, however, was dismal.  I started hanging before the 1st bolt, and struggled on just about every move.  My performance was so ridiculously bad that I almost didn’t get on it again.  However, of late I’ve been surprising myself on the 2nd go, so I thought I’d give it at least one more burn.

Steve made it through all 3 cruxes on his second go!  And also his 3rd and 4th go…unfortunately the pump factor kept spitting him off literally one move away from the no hands rest at the end of the traverse!  My 2nd go was decidedly better than the 1st – I did the 1st crux clean, and the 2nd and 3rd cruxes only took a couple of tries.  My 3rd go was even more progress – just one fall each at the 2nd and 3rd cruxes.

I was definitely in better spirits by that point, but still unsure whether I had a send in me or not.  I had crazy shortie beta for the 2nd crux, and I had never been able to link it with ANY of the previous moves, let alone coming in hot on a redpoint run.  Steve convinced me to give it one more try,, and I shocked myself with an almost send!  I made it clean all the way through to the last toss.  I had the distance…but my arms were so pumped that I couldn’t open my hand in time to latch the jug, and I ended up bashing my knuckles into the wall (FYI we refer to that phenomenon as “T-Rexing…”).

Flying feet on big move #1

Flying feet on big move #1

I was disappointed I didn’t send, but thrilled to know that my beta was solid.  It was the first time I actually believed that the route could go at the current fitness level I was at, rather than always thinking “Come back when you’re stronger.”  But lucky for us the whole crew had unfinished business at Kaymoor, so it was a no-brainer to come back the next day.

I did everything I could think of that night to maximize recovery – good food, lots of water, Arm-aid, finger acupressure, yoga, and as much sleep as I could muster in a tent with a 15 month old that hates sleeping.

Shortie undercling beta for Big Move #2

Shortie undercling beta for Big Move #2

Sunday dawned a little bit warmer, but the rock still felt surprisingly crisp.  Steve was up first and sailed through the first three cruxes yet again…but YET AGAIN fell inches before the rest!  I was feeling good, but not at all like a send was a sure thing, as any of the cruxes could easily spit me off if I didn’t execute them perfectly. But thankfully my first go of the day was my last – my beta worked, and the send was mine!  (And Steve sent next go as well, which made for a happy ride home for the whole family.)

One big, happy family!

One big, happy family!

After Lost Souls, there was still plenty of time left to climb, so I rounded out my day with Hardcore Female Thrash (5.11c) and Boing (5.10d).  Hardcore Female Thrash is a one move wonder that moves up a very cool dihedral feature (took 2 tries for the send), and Boing is a high-steppin’ slab climb.  Both are fantastic lines that are definitely worth hopping on if you find yourself in the area.

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Ups and Downs Climbing at the OBED

Last weekend was Memorial Day Weekend, which meant it was time for our 5th annual climbing trip to the Obed Wild and Scenic River.  Usually this trip marks the start of the humid sweatfest that is otherwise known as summer  climbing in the Southeast…but we actually lucked out with a spring-ish weekend.  Nights were cool, and midday highs were in the low 80’s with very little humidity.  Definitely the best Memorial Day conditions we’ve ever had! But when the whole family is involved in the climbing experience, there’s a lot more to great “sending conditions” than just weather.  Without wasting too…Read the rest of this entry →

A Wild and Scenic Weekend at Obed River, Tennessee

Family tradition mandates that we spend Memorial Day weekend climbing and camping at the Obed Wild and Scenic River, an area just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and this year was no exception.  Despite my excitement to get on a rope again, I was a bit apprehensive about the logistics.  It was only our 2nd time roping up with Baby Z, and roped climbing can be a lot harder to manage than bouldering at this age since I can’t always just hop right down to get to her (although if I’m not there someone else always is.)  Additionally it would be Baby Z’s…Read the rest of this entry →

Tips for Camping with Toddlers

A couple of summers ago I wrote a post about camping with infants.  But now that I’m the proud mama to a stubborn passionate 3 year old, that old archived camping post is way outdated for our family.  Nowadays, nights in a tent look far different than they did back then!  In some ways, this makes things MUCH easier (ie, we all get more sleep!).  In other ways, some camping activities are a lot more stressful (ie campfires).  If your kiddo is one of the lucky ones that got exposed to camping early and often, transitioning to toddler camping is…Read the rest of this entry →

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