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Category Archives: Spray

Swiss Sport Climbing Part 1: The Giants

By Mark Anderson

Switzerland isn’t particularly regarded as a sport climbing hotbed, but there are a few crags that are well-known on the world stage. We were able to visit two of the country’s premier sport crags, both located in the Berner Oberland region around the outdoor adventure mecca of Interlaken—Lehn and Gimmelwald.

Beautiful views and buttery limestone at Gimmelwald.  Photo Logan Anderson.

Although not much more than an hour’s commute apart, these two crags are completely different. Lehn is hidden in a pine forest right above Interlaken, with tall, white walls that don’t look particularly special from the ground. The sandstone has a very grippy texture, but generally forms slopey holds that require precise body positions. The best routes overhang up to ~20 degrees and feature long, sustained, and uber-pumpy sequences. The long cliffband offers over a hundred routes and a wide range of grades from 5.9-ish to mid 5.14.

Climbing Knallfrosch, 7b, at Lehn.  Photo Logan Anderson.

Gimmelwald is perhaps Switzerland’s most well-known crag, and certainly the most photogenic. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it. It’s nestled at the end of a remote alpine valley; accessed by cable car and a long walk. The main cliff overhangs in a steep swell that is streaked in beautiful blue and orange, with a backdrop of picturesque, snow-capped peaks. The routes overhang anywhere from ~30 to 120 degrees, and are known for bouldery-yet sustained climbing that produces major pumpfests. The climbing here pretty much starts at ~5.13-, and doesn’t really get good until the 5.13+ range. [Note, there is another crag at Gimmelwald, called “Sector B”, that offers routes in the 5.10-5.12 range. I did not climb at Sector B, but I inspected it closely, and based on that inspection, and visits to other Swiss crags, I would discourage anyone from climbing at Sector B—there are far better 5.10-5.12 sport crags in Switzerland!]

The view from Gimmelwald. Photo Kate Anderson.

Lehn was the first crag we visited on the trip, essentially straight from the airport with major jet lag. Based on a general lack of information and its unassuming look, I had pretty low expectations for the climbing. I jumped on a 6c (~5.11b) to warmup and quickly found myself using every trick in my bag to sketch my way up the thing. The slopey, insecure, oozing style of climbing was a major shock. Body English is paramount, as is trusting your feet on polished bumps.

Lower on Knallfrosch, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

Despite my struggles, I couldn’t deny the crag’s quality. The rock was impeccable, if hard to read. As I progressed to harder routes, I found the grades felt more reasonable and the climbing only got better (struggling on warmups was a theme throughout the trip—I don’t know if this is due to nonlinear sandbagging, jet lag, or a combination of the two!).

Schweizerhalle, 7b+, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

The best route I did was a tall, uber-classic 7b+ (5.12c) called Schweizerhalle. This is a world class route, not quite as good as, but reminiscent of, Orange Juice at the Red. The climbing started with big moves between slopey, pumping jugs, leading to a final battle up a long molasses streak. The holds slowly morphed into small, angled edges requiring sequential gastons and crosses weaving to the top of the wall.

Entering the high crux of Schweizerhalle, Lehn. Photo Logan Anderson.

I was pretty lukewarm on the crag until I did this route, which really convinced me of Lehn’s quality. European guidebooks rarely offer any sort of quality ratings, so sometimes we visitors need to bumble around in the wilderness until we stumble upon the goods!

The Eiger Nordwand from the approach to Lehn. The lower half of the wall is obscured.

My experience at Gimmelwald was pretty much the opposite. I had found a lot of info on the crag and a lot of hype. The crag looked phenomenal and my expectations were correspondingly high. Although the scenery and position were every bit as good as advertised, I was disappointed in my climbing.

Teufelskuche, 7c+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Roughly half the routes were dripping wet due to an early morning deluge, so I was pretty limited in my warm-up options, at a crag that is already known for its lack of “moderates.” The crag’s classic 7c+ (5.13a) Men at Work had fixed draws and was dry through the lower half, so I attempted to warmup on that. I really struggled to find a rhythm—it seemed like I was constantly off-balance and out of sequence.

Men at Work, 7c+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Next I tried Teufelskuche, the crag’s other dry 7c+. This time it went a little better, but not by much. I couldn’t deny the quality of the rock, but frankly I wasn’t enjoying the climbing.  When the climbing is awkward, its hard to know if that’s due to the rock or the climber. This section of the cliff generally consisted of stacked, sloping rails that all slanted down to the left, such that the climbing was generally slopey liebacking with all the footholds sloping away. I was constantly battling against a left-ward barn-door and I never felt relaxed or comfortable.

Teufelskuche, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

I had been warned before I left that the climbing at Gimmelwald really doesn’t get good until the 5.14s. Once I had confirmed this to my satisfaction, I decided to jump on something a bit harder, and found what turned out to be an incredible 8a+ (5.13c) called Surfer’s Paradise—the sector’s namesake.

Surfer’s Paradise, 8a+, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

Surfer’s Paradise climbs a huge, 45-degree overhanging swell of blue limestone, characterized by big moves between water pockets. For the most part the pockets were big and incut (and mostly dry). The bottom section involved really cool footwork, with overhead heel hooking and toe-camming passing a big hueco. The route never really eased up and ended with some really big, burly throws between well-spaced 3 and 4-finger mini-buckets.

Surfer’s Paradise, Gimmelwald. Photo Logan Anderson.

By the time I lowered off, I could appreciate why this crag was so well-regarded. The setting is unmatched and when the climbing is good, its really good. Unfortunately the grades are pretty exclusive, which probably explains why the routes appeared relatively untraveled. I felt fortunate to get to experience a taste of what the area has to offer, but I was also content and excited to check out some more obscure Swiss crags…

…Coming soon: Swiss Sport Climbing Part 2: Off the Beaten Path

Paraglider over the Lauterbrunnen Valley, with the Eiger (L) and the Monch (R) behind.

Swiss Preview

By Mark Anderson

I just returned from an amazing and exhausting 2 weeks in Switzerland with my family. We experienced easily the most diverse set of adventures yet among our trips to Europe, which I will recount in detail over the coming months, but first, here is a quick, whirlwind photo preview of the highest of the highlights!

The Matterhorn

The trip revolved around three major activties:

  • Hiking & Sightseeing
  • Via Ferratas (called “Klettersteig” in German)
  • Sport climbing

We accomplished all three several times over.

On the way to sport climbing at Lehn, with the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau in the distance.

We hiked below the legendary Eiger Nordwand and around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn. We enjoyed incredible sunshine and torrential rain, rode more cable cars than I can count, and stumbled upon fields of wild strawberries.

Below the many summits of Monte Rosa. The three most obvious summits are (from L to R) Dufourspitze, Lyskamm and Breithorn.

Strawberry fields forever!

Goat

We completed three outstanding Via Ferratas, including one on the side of the Eiger and one that traversed the lip of a 2000-foot deep limestone gorge. We swam in alpine lakes and skipped stones across many more. We scoured the country for a palatable granola bar.

Logan braving the unparalled Murren VF.

Swimming in Grunsee.

Ama cruising the Brunnistockli VF.

We climbed at four incredible sport crags (and one passable slag heap in an incredible setting), thrashed through fields of stinging nettles in search of others, and picnicked at the world’s most iconic bouldering destination.

Gimmelwald sport climbing.

Off the beaten path in Elsigen.

Fontainebleau

We cruised alpine slides, toured a chocolate factory, played Big Chess in a car-free village, spent quality time with old friends, and traversed the digestive tract of a Trojan Cow.

This Rodelbahn is so good someone died on it.

Apparently this is the Willy Wonka-est of Switzerland’s many chocolate factories.

Big Chess in Murren

How would you describe this, other than a “Trojan Cow”? Kids climb up a ladder through the cow’s butt, and slide down its throat. That’s the north face of the Eiger in the background.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a technical descent of the whitewater “Nala Inferiore” canyon, including a 50-meter rappel down a raging watefall—a totally wild and surreal experience.

Rapping a 50-meter waterfall in Nala Inferiore.

It’s daunting just thinking back on all the ground we covered, but I guess that explains why I’m so tired!

Stay in Zermatt long enough and you get sick of looking at the Matterhorn. This is from Riffelsee.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Corner Pocket

By Mark Anderson

The small town of Ouray, in southwest Colorado, is one of my family’s favorite places to visit. The town has everything we look for in a vacation spot—good climbing, endless rest-day activities, and a place for the kids to swim. With extra sweeteners like a great bakery, plentiful ice cream, the best scenery in Colorado, and heated pools, it’s the perfect road-trip destination.

The 4th of July parade in downtown Ouray. If you stand on the sunny side of the street, expect to get soaked!

This year our climbing focused around the aptly-named Pool Wall, an angling cliffband that looms above Ouray’s legendary hot springs pools. The rock appears to be stuck somewhere in the geologic process between sandstone and full-on quartzite (which is metamorphosed sandstone). It looks like the former, but feels and climbs like the latter. The rock quality varies a fair bit depending on the sector, but where its good the rock is quite good.

The Pool Wall. The Bay of Pigs sector is the clean lower wall in the center.

We primarily spent our time at the killer Bay of Pigs sector, which features a number of super-high quality face climbs. The Ouray community seems to have a proclivity towards stiff grades, and this was certainly on display. Some of my favorites were Empire of Dirt (5.10d), which culminates in a classic but no-joke slab crux right below the anchors, and the namesake Bay of Pigs (5.12b) which has excellent rock and weaves up the center of the sector on generally crisp edges (and a few committing slaps).

High on Bay of Pigs.

The highlight of my first day was scraping my way up Matt Samet’s standout route Breaking the Waves (5.13a) on my first try. The crux climbs over a Rifle-esque blocky bulge with powerful underclings that lead to a committing dyno, but the upper headwall is stacked with desperate stabs to thin edges. It’s easily one of the best sport climbs in the Ouray area, and perhaps the best of the grade.

For my next climbing day, I set my sights on an open project on the far left end of the Bay of Pigs sector. According to Jason Nelson’s fantastic book “Climbs of the Million Dollar Highway,” the route was bolted by my friend Luke Childers but never sent, and features a “small, sharp pocket” at the crux. When I stumble on opportunities like this, I’m both intrigued and apprehensive—I would love to contribute a first ascent to an area I enjoy so much, but I also don’t want to “waste” a few precious vacation burns on a route I may not be able to finish.

Pulling onto the headwall on the “open project.”

With a few good sends in the bag I figured it was worth the risk, especially considering how good the route looked from below. After an easy approach, the route climbs a slightly overhanging arête with well-spaced, rounded edges. The rock was a bit “muddy” from neglect, but with a light brushing, it cleaned up really well.

The business is a 12-foot bouldery stretch along the prow. In the middle of this section is a slightly incut mono pocket that angles to the left, creating essentially a PIP-joint-deep sinker sidepull for the right hand. This pocket was actually pretty easy to pull on, but it was also a “Keeper.” Meaning, if you fall with your finger in that pocket, you better yank it free before your weight comes onto it or else that pocket is going to “keep” your finger!

Yarding off the keeper mono.

The opening boulder begins with a big incut edge, but then nothing for the next 4 feet except an out-of-view, sloping 2-finger dish. Right off the bat I struggled to get off the ledge and established onto the prow. It’s really important to be patient in situations like this. When you know a route has been climbed, and you know the approximate grade, even if you can’t figure out how to do a move, at least you know the move goes (and should be within a certain range of difficulty, or else you’re “doing it wrong”). With a first ascent, you really have no idea. Maybe it’s been left undone because the move is V14?

Pulling past the sloping dish on the lower arête.

Fortunately having gone through this countless times gave me just enough confidence to keep at it until I figured out the right footwork to snag the dish. The upper boulder, yarding off the mono thread, is probably a bit more physical (certainly more finger-strength intensive), but much more straightforward to figure out. After sussing the final panel I gave the route a final brushing and rested for a redpoint attempt.

I climbed quickly to the ledge below the prow, bouldered up a couple moves to clip, and down-climbed to rest and chalk one last time. I powered easily up to the big edge, moved my feet onto the prow, and slapped for the 2-finger dish. I came up empty-handed, but got enough friction from my grating right hand to stop my descent before I sagged onto the rope. Try again: same result, still managing to arrest my fall with a hard left arm lock-off. I took a deep breath, leaned back to get a better view of the target, and tried one last time. This time I got just enough of the dish and bounced my fingers in. I made a quick slap to a rounded edge, snagged the mono thread and gingerly clipped.

The next crux is moving off the clipping stance with a huuuge reach off the mono. Fortunately due to its orientation I could lock it off below hip-level. My Mundakas did their job and I snagged the distant edge with minimal drama and all fingers intact. After a brief shake I snaked up the brilliant 5.11 headwall (well, 5.10 by Ouray standards, haha) and clipped the chains.

Unwinding from the big mono reach.

People often ask something to the effect of “The places I climb don’t have pockets, do I still have to train pockets?” Obviously, we don’t have to do anything in the context of training, but I try to encourage people to train a wide variety of grips and this route is a perfect example of the reason. If you aren’t training comprehensively then you are training weaknesses into your climbing. I haven’t had a goal-specific reason to train pockets for at least 5 years. Had I decided not to train pockets over that time I seriously doubt I would have been able to do that route, and certainly not 2nd go.

Logan enjoying another of Luke’s routes, California Stars (5.10a) at The Alcove sector of the Pool Wall.

Grade-wise, I always struggle to grade tweaky routes, but comparing it only to the mono-intensive routes I’ve done, I’d say its much harder than Manly Bulges at Shelf or One Love at Sinks, about the same as Todd Skinner’s Smoke Shapes (13d), and maybe a bit easier than Ghettoblaster (13d/14a) in the Frankenjura.

Many thanks to Luke for putting the route in. Luke’s done a tremendous amount of development all around Colorado, including at the Pool Wall, and we enjoyed a number of his routes during our trip. We always have a blast in Ouray and this trip was no exception. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to visit.

The northern San Juan mountains from the summit of Wetterhorn Peak.

Maui Mixed Plate—Part II: Pacific Heat

By Mark Anderson

When we planned the Maui trip, I assumed it would be my climbing off-season, and I would be content to spend a week laying around in the sand and sipping mai tais. Silly me. Various factors contributed to me being smack in the middle of a particularly productive hangboard phase when we departed Denver, so I was desperate to get some type of climbing in during the vacation.

If anything, the Hawaiian Islands are known for their lack of climbing. However, Maui has, by far, the best climbing opportunities, thanks to prolific author and former Rock & Ice editor (and current Editor-at-Large) Jeff Jackson. Jeff moved to Maui a few years ago and has been scouring the island for climbing potential ever since. You will rarely encounter a more dedicated lifer than Jeff. He eats, sleeps and breathes climbing. His positivity and drive fuels the stoked and resilient Maui climbing community and I felt incredibly fortunate to climb with him.

Climbing in Hawai’i? It’s even better than it looks! Photo Jeff Jackson.

After a morning of snorkeling that included close-up encounters with a reef shark and several sea turtles, I joined Jeff and his buddy “Coco” Dave for an afternoon of climbing. We hopped in Dave’s pickup for a bouncy, twisting, white-knuckle drive on one of Maui’s many under-developed highways. I was never quite able to extract the latch for my seatbelt, and spent most of the drive wondering if the next corner was the one that would send me through the windshield. The scenery was gob smacking as usual, and before I knew it we were on the trail.

The hike flew by as Jeff excitedly pointed out various boulder problems and aped crux sequences. The narrow canyon was lined with bullet basalt and stacked with Jeff’s inventive problems, from obvious classics on free-standing blocks, to hundred-foot traverses and even a 30-foot roof crack. A raucous heard of feral mountain goats observed our march from above, and provided questionable entertainment throughout the evening, complete with loud farting noises and a high-speed demonstration of their procreation methods.

Raucous goat party.

The cave itself is a basalt/lava rock* version of the Arsenal at Rifle, with big tiered, stair-stepped roofs and corners (*Wikipedia tells me that 90% of the Earth’s “volcanic rock” is technically basalt, so I’m assuming all the black rock you see on Maui is basalt. That said, calling it “basalt” is a bit misleading since it feels and climb so much different from most mainland US basalt). The climbing is quite steep, physical, long and pumpy, with many burly undercling moves and long reaches or throws to generally big holds, often split with strenuous rests. The rock was incredibly solid and formed a wide array of novel shapes. Typically lava rock comes in two flavors: Razor Sharp and Just-Go-Ahead-and-Order-the-Blood-Transfusion-Now. For whatever reason, the rock here was far more—well, I’m not gonna say “skin-friendly,” so let’s just go with “climbable”—than typical lava. There was the odd spiky hold, but for the most part the rock was smooth-but-featured, and I didn’t get any flappers or cuts the entire trip.

Climbing a stellar 13b in the big cave. Photo Jeff Jackson

Then there was the heat (which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans). It was just damn hot, apparently unusually hot, even for Maui. And surely humid too. I would guess it was well into the 90s, but with the humidity it seemed by far the hottest conditions I’d ever climbed in. I like to think I’m training myself to be resilient so I can climb through Colorado winters, but really I think I’m just adapting increasingly towards colder temps. Jeff, Dave and Justin (who joined us at the crag) showed me what it’s like to really be tough. I took the initiative and led off the complaints, but the local hard men did their best to coddle my ego by joining in periodically (thanks guys!). If you consider the wind chill on Grand Sentinel, and compare it to the Heat Index in Maui, I suspect I’ve climbed in conditions spanning more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the past year!

Dave cruising the 12b, just about to enter the unusual crux.

Once the approach sweat evaporated it was time to climb. I started up an excellent 5.12b, the crag warmup, whose name had something to do with goats. A boulder start led to an easy middle section and a no hands stance below what appeared to be an easy exit pulling around a short roof. Not wanting to appear soft, I pretty much skipped the big rest and charged into the devious finish. I dug deep into my bag of tricks, including clipping mid-crux for extra credit, ultimately resorting to a head jam behind a protruding flake. Higher I chimneyed into the same feature and my back was so thoroughly drenched in sweat that I thought I might Slip-and-Slide right out of it. I appreciated the guys’ letting me climb first, since I’m sure my sweat upped the grade to at least 12c for the followers.

Approaching Crux #1 on the 13b. Photo Jeff Jackson.

After a nice long break to cool down, I jumped on a brilliant 5.13b that climbed out the center of the cave. This was the type of climb that would be a 4-star classic at any crag in the country, even the Arsenal. It was essentially a series of five boulder problems split by rests of varying value. The rock is nearly flawless, and sports some of the most unusual holds I’d ever encountered. The route gets going right off the ground with a burly boulder problem to reach the first bolt and a no-hands shake. In classic Smith Rock-style, the locals have elected to ignore this when considering the route’s difficulty, and instead refer to the next boulder problem as “Crux #1.” This crux comes after a questionable, scrunchy, power-sapping “rest,” and involves a big, committing move to a protruding jug and a tenuous sequence to unwind. “Crux #2” was even harder, with another long move to an incredibly featured hold, before a fun exit of interesting stems on killer rock.

Sticking the long reach in the middle of Crux #1. Photo JJ.

Before we knew it, the sun set and we made the short walk back to the truck. Dave treated us all to a round of fresh-from-the-husk coconut juice, and Justin passed out some delicious fresh lychee fruit. Mercifully, it was pitch-black on the drive home, so I couldn’t see all the road hazards we surely narrowly-missed. Before saying goodbye to my new friends, they graciously shared beta another crag I really wanted to experience, known to the locals simply as “PK.”

The left half of the incredible PK wall.

PK is a totally different experience than the cave we visited, and shows how varied Maui’s basalt can be. The cliff is more columnar and vertical, but it is covered in strange, bulbous mushrooms of protruding stone that climb a bit like tufas. The rock was impeccable and the setting was serene, right on the beach under a canopy of short trees.   The climbing here was much more fingery and less physical—right up my alley.

Warming up on the right end of PK. Some of the bulbous mushroom features can be seen to my left.

Since I was climbing with the family, time was short, but I jumped on a set of excellent routes. Each one was better than the last, with perfect stone and interesting climbing. I quickly learned the mushrooms were all a bit worse than they looked thanks to sloping topsides and generally rough textures, but they were still super fun to climb.

Climbing a 5.12(?) on the steeper, harder, left side of PK.

It’s not often I get a truly new experience on rock, so I try to appreciate it when I do. Climbing in Maui was completely unique. I feel like I barely scratched the surface and I look forward to the opportunity to return and explore a bit more.

Thanks to Jeff, Dave and Justin for showing me around and sharing their little slice of paradise with me, I hope to return again soon. Fingers crossed for a Southwest-Airlines-instigated price war!

See you next time!

 

Slice of Time—New Eldo 5.14b

By Mark Anderson

Injuries suck. Last October I (partially) tore my forearm flexor muscle. At first the injury was relatively minor, but like a climber, I kept climbing and training hard on it for several weeks, and so it evolved into something more troublesome. I spent the next five months or so rehabbing the muscle, thinking I was close, aggravating it, and starting over again (over this process I eventually developed a solid rehab approach which I will describe next week).

By early April I was starting to feel healthy again. My latest batch of hangboarding ended strong, I was campusing without restrictions, and my bouldering was progressing rapidly. It was time to shake off the rust with some actual rock climbing, so I started considering options.

Eldorado Canyon

I hadn’t trained with a particular goal route in mind—the goal was to get 100% healthy. I decided I needed a route hard enough to inspire a proper effort, but not so hard as to be overwhelming or beyond my current, not-exactly-tip-top shape. Mike was coming to Boulder the following weekend, and we wanted to take advantage of the rare opportunity to work a project together, so we tried to find a worthy objective nearby.

I scoured my Black Book (actually a spreadsheet—nobody reads books anymore), and was reminded of an old abandoned line in Eldorado Canyon.  Eldo is a narrow canyon composed of colorful Fountain Formation sandstone, and stacked with thousands of multi-pitch trad climbs, including legendary classics like Bastille Crack, Yellow Spur and The Naked Edge.  It was the epicenter of Colorado climbing for many decades, until the sport climbing revolution took over and the best climbers moved on to other crags.

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Slice of Time climbs the center of the shaded, left-leaning panel.  Nobody wants credit for this photo.

The line we had in mind follows a sheer panel of slightly overhanging stone on the upper end of Redgarden Wall. This incredible panel first caught the attention of Christian Griffith and Chris Hill, who made the initial forays onto the wall, but the big prize remained unclimbed. I first noticed it in 2008 while climbing nearby classics Ruper and Green Slab. A few years later I finally got around to hiking up to the wall to properly scope out the line from the ground, but other priorities kept it on the backburner for several more years.

Now was my chance—for the first time in many years, I was relatively fit with no particular objective in mind. I had no idea how hard it would be, but I was willing to waste a day to find out. Mike was up for it too, and so we dusted off our trad gear and set out.

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About half-way up the towering wall. Photo Mike Anderson.

We were instantly impressed with the quality of the route. Its literally 40-meters long, almost to the centimeter. It overhangs about 5 meters in that length, and except for a single 1-meter-deep bulge, it is sheer and continuously around 5 degrees over vertical. It’s a beautiful panel of clean stone that begs to be climbed, and the rock is among the highest-quality I’ve encountered on the Front Range.

The movement is outstanding, albeit rather 1980s in style—precise technical edging with grippy holds and challenging footwork. It generally gets harder as you ascend, interspersed with numerous rests. The climbing opens with fun 5.11 jugs, then engaging 5.12 climbing that makes for a nice chill warmup, to a good shake below the bulge. The business is the final headwall.  This headwall begins with a couple bolts of easy 5.13 to clear the bulge and gain a crescent-shaped, right-facing arête/dihedral feature that offers intricate liebacking and arête-style movement, reminiscent of the mid-section of Smith Rock’s uber-classic Scarface.  The headwall culminates in a desperate forearm-bursting boulder problem 120-feet off the deck. Simply put, it’s a King Line.

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Low on the Headwall, just over the short bulge, traversing into the shallow dihedral. Photo Mike Anderson.

Between the two of us we were able to work out all the moves on the first day. It’s really helpful having an engaged partner to work these things out with—especially one who is pretty much the exact same size and shape, has the same climbing style, and similar strengths and weaknesses! We felt the route was possible, and we were both completely stoked. We set our heads to the primary challenge of shuffling our increasingly busy schedules to dodge the erratic spring weather and find enough opportunities to put it all together.

While we felt it was feasible, we were both a little concerned about the low-percentage nature of the crux moves, and the fact that the crux was so high off the deck. It was hard enough to do these moves off the dog, how would they feel after 120+ feet of climbing (and rope drag)? As we made the long trudge back to the car, we reminded each other of similar climbs, with low-percentage, distant cruxes, that we had each overcome in the past. It’s easy to forget that the process works, especially if you haven’t been through it recently. Over the next few days we eventually convinced ourselves, for the Nth time, that routes really do become easier with practice.

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Mike working up the shallow dihedral. Photo Mark Anderson.

Despite some interference from the weather, eventually it all came together. We were consistently waltzing up the lower wall, arriving at the headwall “without the hint of a pump” (as our hero Alan Watts would say). Once we added a couple servings of Try Hard, the route went down.  After putting our heads together we’ve settled on the name “Slice of Time” for the full panel.

Besides a pair of sends, the process of working the route produced several really important side-effects. The first was that it gave me something to strive for again, for the first time in about six months. I’m accustomed to having tangible goals, and without them I struggle to find motivation.  Working the route made me feel like I was a climber again.

Additionally, having a legitimate objective in the balance gave me the extra push I needed to complete my recovery. Often we struggle to overcome the mental impacts of injuries—we “hold back” for fear of re-injuring ourselves. By the end of the process I was training every facet of my fitness without restrictions, and pining for a send rather than obsessing over my forearm. I recall hiking back to the car one day and realizing that, at no time during the previous session did I think about my forearm. It was the first time in six months I’d gone more than a few minutes without thinking about it. Slice of Time was exactly the distraction I needed to get back to normal, both physically and mentally.

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Mike entering the crux of Slice of Time, ~120-feet off the deck. Photo Mark Anderson.

Finally, the best outcome of the process was climbing with Mike. Despite living in the same state, we rarely climb (hard) together because we both have our own agendas that send us in different directions. We spend the odd day together on less-serious objectives, but I think the last time we worked a proper project together was literally ten years ago. It was really fun, not only to spend time together, but to geek out over micro-beta, weather forecasts and redpoint tactics.

We’re both really stoked to climb such a stellar line, especially in such a historic venue.  We’d both like to thank the many folks who put effort and hardware into realizing this route over the years.  It’s an instant classic and should become a popular testpiece for the canyon, and the entire Front Range.  The best compliment I can think of to recommend the route is: its so good, it reminds me of Smith Rock.

Flashback Series #4: Freerider – The Forgotten First Flash of El Cap

By Mark Anderson

Every so often somebody asks me for beta on Freerider. Freerider is a ~35-pitch ~5.12d free route up the Southwest Face of the world’s premier granite wall: El Capitan in Yosemite. Mike and I climbed Freerider in Team Redpoint* style in May 2004, making the 9th ascent of the route and becoming the 24th & 25th people to free El Cap. Many of the details of that ascent have faded from my memory, but I do remember a few key events and specks of beta, which I will try to capture here for those who are interested. This is not an exhaustive trip report or accounting of every aspect of the climb, but a summary of my general recollections, followed by whatever random details of beta I was able to extract from various emails sent between 2009 and 2016.

*Team Redpoint style means both climbers free every pitch, taking turns in the lead, with the leader onsighting, flashing or redpointing and the second following free.

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El Capitan. Freerider more or less climbs the clean pillar of right just right of the vertical shadow on the left end of the cliff.

We climbed the route “ground up”, meaning we climbed all the pitches in order, and we didn’t rappel in from the top to inspect any of the climbing or stash equipment. We did return to the ground twice, once after climbing up to the start of the Hollow Flake traverse (~pitch 14?), and again after climbing up to the big broken ledge below El Cap Tower (~pitch 19?), so that Mike could fly home to Salt Lake City to take final exams for his Master’s degree in Robotics. Once Mike returned to the Valley, we jugged to our highpoint, and then climbed the rest of the wall in a single 3-day push.

Easily the most notable aspect of our ascent was that Mike accomplished it WITHOUT FALLS! Mike climbed from the ground, to the summit, without a single fall, without rehearsal. This fact has been largely forgotten (or ignored?) due to the fact that in 2002 we aid-climbed the Salathe Wall, so “technically”, Mike’s ascent “doesn’t count” as a proper Flash*. I’ve always found that rather tragic. I was with Mike for every pitch of both ascents, and although I can’t deny my biases, I can attest that our Salathe aid climb in no way benefited what was for all practical purposes the first Flash of El Capitan. At the very least, it was unquestionably the first “Unrehearsed No Falls Ascent” of El Cap, which admittedly, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but was certainly a major milestone in the history of free climbing.

[*Perhaps to a lesser extent Mike’s accomplishment has been overlooked because we were climbing in Team Redpoint style, so Mike wasn’t leading every pitch—however, this was the common, accepted style at the time, as it is today, and the most natural way to climb a long free route—the tactic of dragging a full-time belayer along is far more contrived. Furthermore, Mike led all the crux pitches in my opinion—the Monster OW, the Huber Variation to the Teflon Corner, and the second pitch of the Dihedral.]

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Mike traversing out to the start of the Monster Offwidth on Freerider, May 2004.

For my own part, I fell in two spots (the .11c slab pitch above Heart Ledge, and the crux Huber-detour-around-the-Teflon Corner), onsighting or flashing every other pitch. I’m confident I deserved to fall on the Huber detour pitch, but the other fall has always gnawed at me, since it only happened because I foolishly decided to break in a brand-new, out-of-the box pair of climbing shoes on this pitch. I sagged on one of the bolts because my feet were screaming. Had I known I was only going to fall in one other spot I never would have risked climbing in new shoes!

All told, freeing El Cap was one of my proudest moments as climber, and it still makes me smile almost 15 years later. For me it was a graduation. I never really enjoyed climbing in Yosemite but I felt obligated to master it. Virtually all of my big Yosemite climbs to that point had been suffer-fests, for which I was under-prepared and over-matched.

Our Freerider climb was not like that. It was tough for sure, but we obsessed over it, spent months in preparation, and arrived well-equipped for the challenge. The climb itself was joyous, with nearly everything unfolding better than expected and a wave of momentum pushing us towards the summit. Once I stood on the summit of El Cap, having freed 3000+ feet of the world’s premier granite crucible, there was nothing left for me to prove, either in that particular arena or in that style. It “freed” me mentally to focus on my true love—sport climbing.

And now, the grizzly details…

General Thoughts:

  • If your goal is to send the route, you should be a pretty solid 5.13 sport climber, a solid 5.12- granite slab climber, and experienced with off-widths. At the time I did it, my hardest sport send was 5.13b, so its not like you need a huge margin of power like Alex Huber (who had climbed 5.15a when he freed El Cap). It helps if you can send “hard” pitches quickly; I was sending 13b in 3-4 days, or 13a in 2 days or less. Same for Mike.
  • It’s not a crack climb; all the really hard stuff is face climbing (and all the miserable stuff is OW!).
  • Good footwork is paramount, probably more important than good jamming skills. IME, good footwork gets you up big walls. In Mike’s words: “On granite, footwork trumps everything. If you have good footwork, there are footholds everywhere on granite. If you don’t, you’re f-d.”
  • Most of the route is not too bad grade-wise, but there are a ton of 5.10 & 5.11 off widths that sneak up on you. If you’re not solid on OW, they will wear you down really fast. Furthermore, efficiency with trad skills in general and granite cracks in particular will help a lot. The more time, skin & strength you can save on the 5.10/11 pitches, the more effort you’ll be able to expend on the cruxes.
  • It helps to have some experience on El Cap, so you are somewhat used to the idea of being up there, the exposure, and the commitment. If you’ve never done a grade VI route, it’s probably a good idea to spend a few nights on a wall to get a feel for it.
  • You have to maintain a positive attitude. I think that’s why we were successful despite the tremendous odds against us. Our Freerider ascent was easily the most fun I’ve ever had on a wall, not that it was super fun, but we had a great attitude the whole time, and generally things went better than we expected, which made it easy to stay positive.
  • The key to the entire route is to have a solid plan for logistics: how much water/food to bring, etc. It helps to pace yourself, figure out how much effort you need for each day and plan accordingly. I once said “Freerider is 90% logistics, if you have a good plan the climbing is not too bad.” Decide for yourself if that’s true J

Specific Logistics:

  • As I mentioned before, we didn’t rappel in from the top to rehearse or stash anything; we hauled one modest-sized haulbag and a poop tube. We didn’t bring a portaledge; instead we planned our climb to sleep on ledges. We did fix a few ropes though.
  • We really hate climbing in heat, so we planned our days so we could climb all the hard stuff in the shade. That meant a lot of sitting around and some pretty short climbing days. The route has tons of great bivies so its pretty easy to take your time and enjoy it.
  • I have no idea how much water or food we brought, what our rack was, or whether we shared a toothbrush (pretty sure we didn’t bring any toothbrushes).
  • Retreat: We never bailed, so take with a grain of salt, but we did aid the Salathe, so I have some idea of what would be involved if you wanted to aid your way off the route. Aiding the Salathe is a piece of cake if you have to bail before the traverse to Excalibur. I hear Excalibur is a fairly straightforward aid route, but you would want some #3.5 and #4 Camalots (and you’ll probably want them even more if you free it, haha). The crux of aiding Freerider would probably be the traverse from the Salathe to Excalibur, which would not be a trivial aid pitch in my opinion. But, it would probably make more sense to just finish up Salathe if you had to bail prior to the traverse.

Schedule:

  • Pre-Push Day 1 we climbed Free Blast then continued up to the last good stance before the slab traverse to Hollow Flake. We rapped and slept on the ground. (There were somebody else’s fixed lines all the way up to the top of Hollow Flake.)
  • Pre-Push Day 2 we climbed to the alcove below El Cap Spire and fixed our own lines from there back to the top of Hollow Flake, then rapped to the ground again. We took a few days off at this point (Mike had to fly home to take a final exam). We may have hauled a bag and stashed it at the alcove on this day; I don’t remember.
  • Push Day 1 we committed to the wall, jugged and hauled(?) all the way to the alcove. Our plan was to just bivy and start climbing the next day but we were pretty fired up when we got there and had plenty of daylight. Long story short we sent through the Huber variation to the Teflon Corner (we didn’t do the Teflon corner) then rapped back to the alcove very psyched.
  • Push Day 2 on the wall, we sent to the end of the “5.12a” traverse over to Round Table Ledge, then fixed ropes back to The Block and bivied there (thinking we had climbed all the hard stuff and the last day would be a cruise, haha).
  • Push Day 3 we climbed to the summit. That was by far the hardest day. Shit-tons of OW climbing. Pretty much every move, and we were quite tired by that point.

Notes on Individual Pitches (note, I haven’t kept up with all the pitch nicknames or numbers):

  • Hollow Flake Traverse: one of the harder pitches is the slab leading to Hollow Flake. That was the hardest technical climbing we had to do; the rest of the route is relatively steep with bigger holds. Fortunately, you are down-climbing most of the way so you have a toprope. I don’t recall any specific beta, except be prepared to smear a lot. It’s pretty tenuous. The topos at the time were kinda misleading on this pitch. My recollection is you climb pretty far up a ramp to the pendulum point, then you basically traverse (with a small bit of downclimbing) around the arete to a corner with a bomber crack. Then you cruise really far down the crack to an easy traverse into Hollow Flake. The crux is getting to and around the arete to reach the crack. The way Stephen Glowacz originally tried to work it out is not the best way (basically you want to down climb farther than that).
  • Monster Offwidth: At the time Rob Miller gave us a key tip, which I assume is common knowledge now–to skip the Ear Pitch (and the left-wards traverse from the Ear) by heading left earlier, directly into the very base of the Monster OW Crack. The Monster OW itself is just plain suffering, it’s not really hard technically. It’s more of a mental struggle than physical, because it just goes on forever without much to look forward to and progress is very slow. It only has one move, you just have to do that move 200 times, gaining about 3 ” each time you do it. If I ever do that again I would wrap tons of tape around my ankle knuckles. I still have scars on both ankles from that. Of note, according to Rock & Ice editor Dougald MacDonald, Alex Huber apparently quipped that this pitch would never be on-sighted. Well, at least not until Mike showed up, haha. Make sure you have a #6 Friend or equivalent for the Monster Offwidth. Perhaps multiples would be best–we had one that Mike dragged along as he climbed, with lots of are between that and the belay.
  • Teflon Corner/Variation (aka Boulder Problem?): I’ve heard the Teflon Corner isn’t too terrible if you have good footwork, but we didn’t try it. Instead, we avoided the Teflon Corner by climbing the ‘Huber tufa variation.’ Basically its pretty easy climbing to a hard Right-to-Left traverse. Back in the day you could do a huge span to reach a protruding tufa thing, but we weren’t long enough for that, so we had to match on a really small crimp on the face and then bump out to the tufa. I understand the tufa feature broke sometime after our ascent, so since then everybody has had to use what used to be the “short person” beta (the beta Mike and I used). Matching on the crimp was definitely the crux for me. I guess for a while the grade of Freerider was upped to 5.13a because of the tufa break on this pitch (perhaps it still is 13a?). I don’t know if that’s true or if people still climb this pitch (I’ve heard the Teflon Corner has become more popular).
  • Sous le Toit: The pitch to Sous le Toit was really cool, kinda heady but not really hard; perhaps my favorite pitch, I really like that kind of climbing. I recall dealing with some seapage and silverfish in this section above the block, but nothing too bad.
  • Dihedral aka Picture Book Corner: The dihedral pitches weren’t super bad. There was tons of fixed tat, especially in the 2nd pitch, so it was almost a sport climb. For me it was just a frantic sprint against the pump. If you have decent power endurance and can just keep moving you’ll be fine. We did these pitches in the late evening, so it was shady, which I’m sure helped. I led the first dihedral pitch and Mike led the 2nd. I recall a lot of fixed pins, since its kindof flared and bottoming. Considering the length of the pitch he didn’t place much gear (Mike clipped a lot of fixed pieces). I basically lie-backed it. I suppose you could stem, though it was pretty casual for me to just lieback as quickly as possible, then swing around to place gear. Of course the fixed stuff can be clipped from a lieback. Mike notes that he stemmed the 2nd pitch, and felt like there were footholds “everywhere.” He also said he placed a few micro cams on this pitch. For me, it was just a race against the pump, and the first pitch of the corner was the perfect warm up. In retrospect I feel like our desert climbing, especially doing Moonlight Buttress, paid off on this feature more than any other.
  • Traverse to Round Table Ledge: The traverse pitch was really memorable. It’s crazy exposed, because you start in a dihedral where you’re somewhat walled in, then you come around the corner, you can’t see or hear your belayer anymore, and you’re pretty much isolated from the entire SW Face of El Cap; suddenly you’re in a new world, with new views and unfamiliar features. Very spooky! This is another spot where different topos provided wildly different grades (from 12a to 12d), so we didn’t know what to expect. I was pretty intimidated by it since it was my lead, but I actually found it to be pretty easy (physically). It’s just a traverse along a pretty juggy rail. There’s some weaving involved but I’m pretty good at that kind of thing. The gear can be tricky but I remember quite a few fixed pegs. No hard moves, just pumpy and there are lots of rests along the way, so you can take your time and think about things. The rope drag was heinous, so bring lots of slings, though I don’t know if it would really help. We were able to fix from the Round Table Ledge to Sous le Toit with one 60m rope, which was key. That was really committing because we weren’t totally sure we would be able to get back to our bivy without having to “down” climb. This was one of the hardest pitches mentally, so have a plan for reversing this pitch if you get stuck midway through it (like trailing a tag line and/or bringing tiblocs or prusiks). It would be hard to get back on the rock on that pitch if you were to fall.
  • Round Table to the Top: Expect a lot of shitty offwidth (OW). I reckon from Round Table Ledge to the summit is about 500 feet of OW, no joke. To be fair, the climbing is pretty good, the rock is great, the features and geometry are cool, but by that point we were totally over OW climbing, and furthermore we didn’t know it was coming, so it was a pretty big shock. We were just looking at the topo thinking ‘ oh ya, 5.11, 5.10, no problem’. I’ve always been able to thrash my way up stuff so I didn’t think too much about it. We got up everything just fine, but with hindsight I’m sure the route would have been much more fun had I spent the time to work on my OW technique. Specifically, bring at least 2 #4 Camalots for the pitch above Round Table, you won’t regret it! I recall it starting with a thin hand crack that slowly widens to #4. It’s not flaring or weird, just long and enduro.

Kid-Friendly Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

When Kate and I were debating European vacation options last spring, a big factor in the decision was Via Ferrata. During our last trip (to France) I introduced Logan to the activity and it was one of the highlights of the trip. What I love about it is that it provides a practical way to take the kids up something relatively big.  Why not just climb a multi-pitch route? To do that the follower (who is at-best seven years old in this scenario) would need to belay the leader (me). With Via Ferrata, I can belay myself using a VF lanyard to a logical stopping point, then belay the kid(s) up.

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Leading Amelie up the final section of “stemples” on VF Sass de Rocia.

The Dolomites were an obvious destination for our trip, since they are literally the birthplace of Via Ferrata. The first “iron ways” were installed during the grizzly Mountain War—the battleground between Austria and Italy during the first World War. Confrontations occurred all across the Dolomites, and various relics of that horrific conflict are dotted throughout the range. Both sides created VFs to enable troop movements, and the work that went into them is incredible. In some cases, troops tunneled through miles of rock, to the summit of mountains, to little effect. The Mountain War was one of the most futile ventures in the history of armed conflict, resulting in the death of ~600,000 Italian and ~400,000 Austrian troops without achieving any strategic objectives (despite the fact that Italy was “awarded” significant lands from Austria at the end of the war, which explains why so many towns in the Italian Dolomites look, sound and feel Austrian).

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Presumably a Machine Gun nest, near the trailhead for Lake Sorapis.

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A Mountain War bunker and trench system at Cinque Torri.  These fortifications were primarily used by the Italian side for long-range artillery operations against the Austrian lines on the Lagazuoi peaks, which are the distant mountains across the valley in the upper right corner.

In preparation for our trip I got a pair of proper Lanyards for me and Kate* and rigged up a temporary VF to the top of the Gaudi Wall for the kids to practice on. I learned early in the planning stages that Dolomite VFs are much more utilitarian than the designed-for-kids route we did in France—they are generally designed to get people to a destination, not necessarily to provide a Type-I-Fun experience along the way. Generally they involve big spaces between rungs, a high element of adventure, and long, steep hikes to approach (especially in early summer when most lifts are closed). It took quite a bit of sleuthing to track down some kid-friendly options, but they are out there if you know where to look (and come prepared to hike!) [*Standard VF lanyards are not safe for kids, because kids don’t weigh enough to activate the built-in shock absorption systems–kids should be belayed on a dynamic climbing rope].

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The Schuss is the steep snow slope between the towers.  The left tower is Ra Pegna. The VF route starts in the vertical shaded gulley on the left, then traverses up and right along the obvious cleft, then zig-zags up the bushy ledges on the right side.  There’s also a VF on the right tower (Ra Bujela), but by the time we finished Ra Pegna we had had enough for one day.

The first VF we did was located right outside of Cortina on a famous ski slope called the Schuss, which is often used as a World Cup Downhill race course. The Schuss is a narrow chute between two steep rock towers, and our objective, “VF Ra Pegna,” ascends the east face of the southern tower. I learned of this route from Guidedolomiti.com, which turned out to be a key resource for our trip planning. It was designed to be family friendly, and would have been a great introduction for our kids if I didn’t totally hose up the approach beta.

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Amelie leading the descent from the summit of Ra Pegna.

We didn’t have any driving directions, so we just drove to the base of the ski run and attempted to drive up the service “road”. This was basically like trying to drive up a black diamond ski slope, and fortunately we quickly realized our two-wheel drive rental car, with it’s 8 cm of clearance, was seriously out-matched. We parked along the track and walked the rest of the way, which was still quite difficult given the steepness of the pitch. We arrived at the start of the climb already exhausted, but after a short break we were ready to conquer the tower.

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Logan on the last vertical stretch of the descent from Ra Pegna.  Frankly, the descent was more interesting than the ascent, and if I were to do it again I would consider climbing up the descent route instead.

The VF itself was uneventful, but a bit tedious due to a long traverse in the middle. Traverses are the bane of any VF-with-kids. It’s really easy to belay kids on straight-up pitches, and even haul them up if necessary, but not so on traverses. When traversing, our kids clipped into the cable (in addition to the rope belay) to protect against pendulum falls. This works great when the kids can reach the cable easily, but most of the time the cable is placed such that an adult can stand on the best footholds (usually some kind of ledge) and easily reach the cable, around chest-height. That puts the cable well out of reach of a 5-year-old girl most of the time. Despite these challenges, we made it to the top, but we were VF’ed-out for the next few days.

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Entering the first slot canyon on the VF Sass de Rocia.  Yep, still wearing the same shirt!

The next adventure was the perfect objective for a family on a sport climbing trip. The outstanding sport crag Laste is in fact a big plateau of limestone with a series of slot-canyon-like chimneys weaving through it. VF Sass de Rocia ascends these slots to reach the top of the tower. I got my fill of sport climbing in the morning, then the whole family did the VF at the end.

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Kate and Amelie heading up the first set of stemples on VF Sass de Rocia.  You can see one of the route’s bridges in the upper left.

VF Sass de Rocia was pure fun with zero approach and all the elevation gain spent on the wire. There were some wooden steps, several sets of metal rungs (aka “stemples”) and a couple of bridges. The round trip adventure took about an hour and culminated in a great view from the top of the broad tower. It is exactly the level of commitment you want for VF with young kids.

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From the top of the ladders, looking up at the first stemples and Kate on the first bridge of VF Sass de Rocia.

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Amelie and I descending VF Sass de Rocia.

We saved the best for last, but not by design. VF Grotte di Volpera wasn’t described in any of my guidebooks or online. I figuratively stumbled upon it while researching sport climbing destinations. The Cortina tourism board put out a series of short videos touting the various sport crags around town. In one of these videos I spotted a fun-looking ropes course in the background, so with some sketchy approach information I wandered through the forest until I found the crag.

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Logan on a long section of stemples on VF Grotte di Volpera.

The ropes course had been replaced by a proper VF, presumably installed by local guiding companies to introduce newbies to VF, because it was perfect for Logan. It had several sets of ladders, some exposed ledges, a slack line crossing and a “monkey bridge”, all zigzagging across the same small gorge, making the descent trivial. Logan had so much fun on it that he did the slack line 3 times, once as a zipline. As soon as we finished he asked if we could do it again. It was a great father-son experience and the perfect way to end our trip.

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Logan on his first trip across the VF Grotte di Volpera slackline.  After this he went back across walking the line, and then back to me using the safety cable as a zipline.

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The VF Grotte di Volpera Monkey Bridge.  This is the last obstacle before the easy descent path.

All told, I can’t say the Dolomites are an ideal destination for kid-friendly Via Ferrata. To be fair, there were a few routes we were interested in that were inaccessible due to snow pack (if you are looking for more options in high season, others that sounded plausible and interesting include VF Grotta di Tofana, SA Galleria del Lagazuoi, & VF De Luca/Innerkofler, described in this post).  On the bright side, we never ran into another VF party on any of the routes we did.  Apparently crowding can be a big problem on VFs in high season, but not in May!

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Logan near the start of VF Grotte di Volpera.

If kid-friendly VF were my primary consideration I would probably start with some of the newer VF setups in other parts of Europe (such as in the Haute Alpes of France, which, based on my research, appear geared more toward providing a fun and low-commitment experience for adventurers of all-ages). However, with some digging and careful selection it is possible to string together some great itineraries that kids will enjoy in the Dolomites.

Sport Climbing in Canada Part 2

By Mark Anderson

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The impressive east face of Mt. Lefroy.

The primary purpose of our short trip was to share this beautiful place with our kids and reacquaint ourselves with the range—the backdrop for many of our fondest adventures. After the Grand Sentinel day we took the kids to Lake Louise and up to the Plain of Six Glaciers.  It ends just below the massive hanging glacier on the east face of Mt. Victoria, and the scenery was just plain spectacular.

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Near the end of the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. Lake Louise and the Chateau are visible at center.

The hike was ~17km roundtrip, with ~2000 feet of elevation gain. Amelie did the entire hike without any assistance—easily the highest and longest hike she’s ever done (which got the wheels in my head spinning about options for higher objectives on future trips!)  On the way back I got a chance to route-stare at the legendary “Back of the Lake” crag—a big cliff of super-high-quality quartzite, offering both sport and trad lines.

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At the turn-around point of the hike, with Abbott Pass to the left.  The Abbott Pass hut is a popular jumping off point for the ascent of Mt. Victoria (the big broad glaciated peak on the right).  Mt. Lefroy is left of the pass.

Besides dragging our kids up a bunch of endless hikes, I also wanted to scope out the Bow Valley rock climbing scene, which has really exploded since I last visited. I had climbed at Back of the Lake a couple times, as well as Grassi Lakes, but that was it.  There were now many lifetimes of new sport crags around Canmore and I wanted to get a feel for the options.

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Passing “Back of the Lake” on our way to the Plain of Six Glaciers.

Once we returned from Lake Louise, I scoped out the hike to a new-ish crag called “Planet X.”   The wall is super tall, apparently over 40m in places, with angular limestone fins reminiscent of Rifle, though generally not super steep—in other words, perfect for me!  My favorite aspect of the cliff is that the approach passes some 20 other crags along the way, with a nice, non-threatening creek trickling along the base of most, which would make a great hang for the kids. The climbing itself looked fantastic too, and definitely worth many trips despite the somewhat heinous approach (“heinous approach” is a relative term—Canmore climbers are not at all deterred by 1-hour-plus, uphill approaches to sport crags, which is quite a contrast to the endless whining I hear from compatriots about the 20 minutes needed to reach crags like The Bunker or Aftermath.). We only had one day budgeted for sport climbing, so I chose not to spend it there, but certainly plan to climb there on future trips.

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Acephale is the angling band of limestone.  This is typical of the last half of the approach.  Steep and rocky!

For our sport climbing day I decided to visit Acephale. This is a world-renowned crag, recently making its way back into the news thanks to Adam Ondra’s visit in July.  With the promise of flawless, Euro-style limestone, I had wanted to check this crag out for a long time.  The crux of the day was the approach, which was really easy to follow thanks to detailed instructions, but super long and involved for our weak Colorado legs.  It took 70 minutes to get there, which was definitely a record for longest-approach-to-sport climbing-with-kids, and made for a very disappointing “rest day” for Logan and Amelie.

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Where’s Mom, 5.12a, Acephale.

However, it was well worth it! It took me a while to get warmed up to the style, but the climbing was phenomenal.  It was easily the best limestone I’ve climbed in North America.  Every route I did was excellent, although not always super fun, if that makes sense.  The rock is not terribly well-featured, which can result in really technical and sometimes insecure climbing, often on polished slopers.  The rock is quite hard to read, making for difficult onsights but really engaging and rewarding redpoint climbing.

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Deal With It, 5.12c, Acephale.

The more I climbed, the more familiar I became with the style and the more I liked the climbing. The movement involves lots of crimping, pinching, and thin footholds—all things I really enjoy.  Highlights of the day were Where’s Mom and Last Dance, which is one of the best limestone 5.13s I’ve climbed in a long time (and I think my first Canadian 5.13!)  I haven’t been this stoked about a crag in a while and I really look forward to returning and trying some of the harder lines.

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Last Dance, 5.13a, Acephale.

That night Jeff and his family had us over for dinner. It was a great time talking climbing and getting to know each other, highlighted by a delicious meal of home-made lasagna courtesy of Jeff’s charming wife Christa.  Jeff and Christa also have a boy and a girl, a few years ahead of Logan and Amelie, but they all got along great despite the age differences.  Jeff was an incredible host to us and I feel really fortunate to know him.  After climbing Grand Sentinel, on the hike back up to Sentinel Pass we ran into a pair of young bucks from BC hoping to climb the tower.  We talked about conditions and gear, and Jeff noticed they didn’t have any gloves, which we felt were critical to our success.  He literally took the gloves off his hands and gave them to these young kids so they could have a shot at the spire—that’s the kind of guy he is.

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Bow Lake.

We tried to keep the next day “easy,” but that’s always tough when there are so many incredible things to see. We opted for Bow Glacier Falls, which is the source of the Bow River and about a 45-minute drive north of Lake Louise.  The hike offered a nice mix of scenery, skirting Bow Lake, hiking through the flood plain of Bow Creek, and passing a nice little slot canyon before climbing up onto the Bow Glacier moraine.  The hike ends in a big cirque with curtains of waterfalls, the coolest of which spring right out of the middle of the cliff.

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Investigating a short slot canyon along Bow Creek.

The hike was uneventful until halfway through the return when we saw a wall of snow/rain mix heading our way and decided to hightail it back towards the car. We all got wet and cold but nothing a cup of hot chocolate from the Bow Lake Lodge couldn’t solve.

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Bow Glacier Falls.

On the final day we did a relatively quick hike up Johnston Canyon, which was the only let down of the trip. The hike is unbelievably crowded with tourists, and even on a frigid Tuesday morning in September it was rather spoiled.  Fortunately once you pass the falls the crowds thin out significantly, culminating in a gorgeous view at the “Ink Pots”—springs of water bubbling up from the ground—with jagged, snow-capped peaks in the background.

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At the “ink pots”–natural springs that feed into Johnston Creek.

The highlight for Logan was stopping at the Calgary Olympic Park on the way back to the airport to experience their version of an Alpine Slide. This one was unique in our experience (having done Alpine Slides all over Colorado, and in Italy and Germany), because you aren’t confined to a narrow track that directs the sled.  Instead each driver gets to steer their cart down a 12-foot-wide, curbed concrete road that winds down the hill.  Logan thought it was the best Alpine Slide he’s done.  I think the Rodelbahn’s in Germany are also in the conversation, but that was 4 years ago so I doubt Logan remembers them.

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The alpine slide at the Calgary Olympic Park. The side rails seen here are only to corral the sled at the end of the run. The track itself is about 12′ wide, allowing for lots of maneuvering and passing of slower riders. Also visible in the background is the Olympic Ski Jump. We’ve seen 4 of these–in Salt Lake, Garmisch (Germany), Cortina (Italy) and here.

All told it was an incredible whirlwind trip! I reckon the kids hiked almost 40 miles in five days, and it felt like we crammed the best parts of a typical two-week vacation into one long weekend.  We are most stoked about how well the kids did.  They’ve never hiked so much or handled it so well.  For years I’ve been telling Logan if you want to do cool stuff you have to be willing to do a little more work to make it happen, and it finally seems like he’s starting to understand that.  He kept saying how much he loved Canada and wanted to live in Canmore.  We are really excited to return and explore more of this unparalleled region.   Now that we know how quick and easy it is to visit we expect to return often.

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Sport Climbing in Canada Part 1

By Mark Anderson

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting long-time climber and developer of the Sloper Climbing App Jeff Moore. The Sloper Climbing App is the next big thing in smart phone climbing tech. It’s definitely worth checking out, but that’s not what this post is about.

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The incomparable Canadian Rockies.

Jeff lives in Canmore, Alberta, the epicenter of Canadian climbing. He visited Denver recently and I mentioned to him how much Kate & I love the Canadian Rockies and longed to visit. As kids, Mike and I traveled there several times on family road trips, and between 2001-2004 I made three climbing trips to the area, but sadly I haven’t been back since then. It seems like every year Kate & I would make vague plans to return to Canada, and every year some other trip would take its place.

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Amelie and me, with my new friend Jeff Moore on the right.

Jeff mentioned cheap airfare from Denver to Calgary, which I relayed to Kate off-hand. She took it seriously and started making plans for Labor Day weekend. I had to re-work my training schedule a bit, but within 24 hours she had the trip booked, commencing only 4 days later! That’s some seriously alpine-style trip-planning by Kate. After a two-and-a-half hour direct flight and an hour of driving we were in Canmore.

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Above Lake Louise, with Mt. Aberdeen, Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria.

Kate offered to hang with the kids the first day so I could climb something with Jeff. I knew immediately what I wanted to climb. My previous forays to the Canadian Rockies all revolved around alpine climbing—ascending the big peaks, by various routes. During those trips I climbed Mt. Temple twice, by the classic East Ridge, and the neo-classic Greenwood-Locke route on the imposing North Face. Both routes descend the southwest ridge of the mountain, returning to Sentinel Pass and then down through the Valley of Ten Peaks to Moraine Lake.

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Mike following high on the North Face of Mt. Temple in 2003.

Just on the other side of Sentinel Pass stands an incredible spire of teetering quartzite dubbed the Grand Sentinel. This is surely one of the great rock towers of the world, and I would know.  There are others that are skinnier (height relative to width at the base), but considering its position, the environment in which it stands, and the quality of rock in these mountains, its truly incredible this finger of stacked choss is still standing. The fact I had climbed and descended Mt Temple twice meant that I had passed this remarkable feature twice, gazed upon it in awe twice, and longed desperately to climb it ever since!

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Grand Sentinel!

The tower is about 100m tall, involving 4 pitches of climbing, with two route options that I know of—the classic 5.9 crack route of the South Face, and the fully modern, fully bolted Cardiac Arete (5.10d). The “problem” with the route—the reason I never got around to climbing it—was that in my alpine days, it was “too small” to justify a proper climbing day, and “too big” (with ~3000’ of hiking to approach and descend) to pull off on a rest day. But it was just right for this trip, and Jeff graciously agreed to do it again (for the 5th or 6th time?)

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Light shining through the upper 15 meters of the Grand Sentinel illustrates just how precarious this spire is.

We rolled out of Canmore just before 5am, anxious to beat the holiday-weekend crowds to this uber-classic route. The parking lot was already swarming with cars when we arrived just after 6, well-before dawn. Anxiously we raced up the brutal approach trail by headlamp, up and into Larch Valley. The area was experiencing unseasonably cool and wet weather, which must have dissuaded other suitors because we arrived at the icy pass totally alone.

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On the approach, looking back toward Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks from just below Sentinel Pass.  Note all the white stuff…in August!

The tower was every bit as staggering as I remembered. We picked our way down the snow-covered talus on the north side of the pass and made our way to the base of Grand Sentinel. The weather was absolutely not what either of us had expected—Sub-freezing with persistent wind and the ever-present threat of more precipitation—in August!

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The ominous view to the north from Sentinel Pass, just after sunrise.

Jeff and I had only recently met and never climbed together, so neither was sure what the other was thinking. We kept asking every 5 minutes or so, “Are you still psyched?” The answer was always yes. Both routes can be easily rapped, and we brought gear for either option, we had raincoats, so we figured we would keep going until we reached an impasse. Personally, I was brimming with stoke. I wanted to climb this thing desperately, and if the experience itself was miserable, I figured that would only make it that much more memorable. Plus I felt like I had to represent for Colorado—show our friendly neighbors to the north that we can handle a little bit of bad weather.

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Grand Sentinel from the little pass just south of the base of the tower. The classic “South Face” route follows the obvious dihedral system at center.

Fortunately the wind was relatively calm huddled in the col below the south face. We chose to go for the Cardiac Arete. Ascending the SE prow of the tower, the arete is certainly more exposed to the elements, but also a much better-looking line (and much better quality, according to Jeff). We racked up and donned every bit of clothes in our packs. Jeff cruised up the first pitch, only stopping to shake blood back into his fingers periodically.

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Cardiac Arete pretty much follows the right skyline, with a few excursions onto the (hidden) east face.

The first pitch is pretty much an endless series of horizontal breaks, offering big jugs, with the occasional long reach between them. A small roof at mid-height is the crux. Jeff commented often about the cold rock, but it didn’t seem to slow him down much. I brazenly reasoned all my years of climbing in Clear Creek through the winter had me well-prepared, and grew eager to show my Canadian friend how it’s done.

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Jeff cranking over the crux roof on the first pitch.

I followed the 1st pitch in full-on sprint mode, figuring I could stave off numbing by minimizing my time on the rock. At the belay I re-racked the draws and then went right into leading the 2nd pitch. This pitch was much different, starting up the south face with some fingery face climbing on incredible rock, then turning the arête to the east face for some more intricate face climbing.

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Jeff cruising the second pitch.

By the time I turned the arête I was completely numb, more so than I can ever remember. It’s pretty typical for my fingers to numb out on the first cold day of each winter season, but often it’s only my finger tips and rarely an entire finger. On this pitch my entire HANDS were numb, from the wrist up! It was like climbing with clubs. I thumped my hands against the rock and felt absolutely nothing. It was like my hands were gone. I could see them, but that was the only feedback I had that they were still there.

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Jeff on the second pitch. This last stretch to the belay was desperate for my frozen hands!

To make matters worse, I was short on draws and had to skip a couple bolts at the end. I wanted to shout “Take” sooo badly, but again, I had to represent for Colorado, so I sucked it up and tried to pull through. I would grab a hold, have no idea how big the hold was, if I had it well, or if I had the strength to pull on it, and just crank up towards the next one and repeat. It was the strangest feeling—like watching someone else climb. At each move I half-expected to pitch off into the void, but fortunately the holds were big enough to scrape through. It was easily my most desperate 5.10 lead of the last decade!

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The view from the top of the second pitch into Paradise Valley.  The big broad peak is Mt. Aberdeen.

Finally I reached the luxurious ledge atop the 2nd pitch. I mumbled to Jeff that I needed a minute, curled into the fetal position, and experienced the worst case of the screaming barfies I can remember. After a minute or so of agony I could feel the blood coursing back into my hands. Within a couple minutes they were back to normal and I was good to go for the rest of the climb. Jeff came up quickly and offered to let me lead the rest of the route since he had previously led all the pitches. I happily agreed and set off for #3.

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Starting up the third pitch. Note the puffy! Photo Jeff Moore.

The third pitch is relatively straightforward except for a big roof in the middle. This obstacle is awkward and scrunchy, but ends in killer jugs, once you can reach them. I hesitated a bit, unsure how to tackle it, but eventually unlocked the sequence. The fourth pitch was hands-down the best. It climbs right on the arête the entire way, often using the arête as a hold. The exposure and setting are spectacular, and it offers a tricky crux just below the summit. It’s one of those sequences that is at first perplexing, and so that much more rewarding once you figure it out.

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Starting up the premier fourth pitch. Photo Jeff Moore.

I cruised up the slightly chossy last few feet (despite appearances, the only bit of poor rock on the climb) and balanced my way up onto the summit block. The views were spectacular, despite the sub-par weather. The route was truly fantastic, with excellent rock throughout and engaging climbing, surpassed only by the incredible setting. The stone is really varied and so is the movement, with each pitch offering something unique. It’s truly a world class route at the grade.

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Jeff on the summit (that lump of rock to the left is another formation west of Grand Sentinel.

One of the most common questions I get is whether or not I am still able to enjoy “easy” climbs. Absolutely! I just plain love climbing, and I love it at any grade. Certainly, more difficult things can be more engaging and offer a bit more to sink my teeth into, but I will always love being in the wild, moving over stone, in whatever capacity the day has to offer. This was an incredible day in the mountains, up a stellar route, on a spectacular feature, with a great new friend. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Rigging the first rappel from the top of the fourth pitch, just a few feet below the summit of Grand Sentinel.

We made the descent without any issues and worked slowly back up to the pass. For one brief moment the sun peeked through the clouds to shed a glimmer of warming light onto the Grand Sentinel. It would have been nice to see the sun while we were climbing, but we were happy to have the tower the way we did—with the entire valley to ourselves and an unforgettable experience to go along with the tick.

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Also, we saw a Gorilla (the North Face of Mt. Fay).

Just below the south side of the pass I was stunned to meet Kate, Logan and Amelie hiking up. This was easily the hardest hike Logan or Amelie had every attempted, and considering the weather I was certain they would have bailed. Kate and Logan continued to Sentinel Pass while Jeff and I continued down with Amelie. A couple hours later we all rendezvoused at the Moraine Lake Lodge for a well-earned cup of hot chocolate.

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Isn’t it fun when you run into someone you know? Kate and Logan just below Sentinel Pass.

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My little geologist Amelie collecting rocks at Moraine Lake.

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