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Whitewater Canyoning in Switzerland — Nala Inferiore

By Mark Anderson

Dark and foreboding anyone? How about some 45 degF water at 9am? Photo Rob Radtke.

Dark and foreboding anyone? How about some 45 degF water at 9am? Photo Rob Radtke.

The primary motivation for our trip to Switzerland was to visit my friend Rob and his family, who had recently moved to Zurich. I first met Rob in 1999*, on my first day of active duty in the Air Force. We roomed together for several years and shared many crazy adventures and near-death experiences during the fearless era of our early 20s. Rob introduced me to Arrested Development, Family Guy, and College Football, and I introduced him to climbing and canyoneering.

[*Oddly enough, Rob and I crossed paths 5 years earlier, unbeknownst to us—we were both Cross Country runners in High School, and although I lived in Oregon and Rob in Michigan, we both ran in the same race at the 1994 Junior Olympics National Cross Country Championships in Reno, Nevada]

Rob and I in one of our first canyons together, Neon Canyon, UT, in 2003.

When we told Rob we were coming to Switzerland, he immediately proposed a canyoning excursion in the Ticino region, just north of the Italian border. This was truly a special opportunity. I’ve probably descended a good 100 canyons, all across the Colorado Plateau, and even in the Blue Mountains of Australia. While the desert southwest is stacked with world class slots, one thing it lacks is whitewater canyoning (those with continuously flowing water). Despite 25 years of canyoning, I’ve only done two flowing slots, both of which were quite mellow compared to Rob’s proposal.

Rob’s guidebook was bursting with amazing options, but we honed in on the Nala Inferiore itinerary, above the tiny village of Osagna. We picked this one because it was among the few that made both the list of “spectacular canyons” and “short canyons.” It appeared to have great narrows, incredible rappels, and outstanding scenery. The guidebook described it as “one of the most famous and beautiful canyons in Ticino…an intense route that presents the sort of technical passages canyoners dream about…one of the most spectacular aquatic descents in Ticino that will leave you with lasting memories.”

Waterfalls above the village of Osagna, in southern Switzerland. Photo reluctantly taken by Kate Anderson.

Once we had a canyon picked out, the next challenge was finding suitable conditions. Water flow is critical in these canyons, and the entire region is regularly closed to canyoning due to high water. It rained quite a bit during our trip, and the canyons were forbidden the first couple times we inquired (fortunately there is a hotline you can call for status). Finally, on our last day in Switzerland, the canyon was open. Rob’s wife graciously offered to babysit, so Kate, Rob and I hopped in the car and zoomed down to Ticino.

Kate and I rigging the first rappel into the slot. Photo Rob Radtke.

After assessing the water level at the bottom of the canyon, we hiked up the steep valley floor to the entrance rappel. The canyons here don’t waste any time—unlike Utah canyons, which are pancake flat by comparison, this slot drops 180m in 450m of travel—a 40% average grade! There was no opportunity to ease into the water either; the first rappel was 30m straight down into a massive swimming pool. The water was not as cold as it could be for a country enveloped by glaciers, but it wasn’t warm either!

Kate making the entry rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

I did my hyperventilating doggy paddle to a lodged boulder at the far end of the pool, clipped into the anchor, and waited for Kate and Rob to join me. For the most part, the canyon had zero walking—you were either rapelling, or swimming. Usually the swim would end at the lip of a pothole or some other chockstone, at a precarious stance with water flowing right over the falls into the next rappel. The upper half of the canyon was neither comforting or secure; it was clearly the sort of place where an unprepared party could get into serious trouble.

Kate rapping somewhere in the upper half of the canyon. Photo Rob Radtke.

The next hour was spent on four more rappels, ranging from 15-25 meters, followed by long, cold swims through the narrow, foreboding slot. Generally the rappels were pretty easy and not particularly intimidating, but the swims were challenging in the cold water with heavy packs, especially entering the pools on rappel, trying to unclip without dropping anything, while treading water.

Kate trying to decide if this is Type 2 or Type 3 Fun. Photo Rob Radtke.

After the fifth rappel the canyon opened and there was an easy exit to the right. Kate took the opportunity to cut her losses and headed back to the car at this point. It was a good decision, with the two most challenging rappels coming up next.

Kate cruising one of the few straightforward rappels. Photo Rob Radtke.

Rappel number 6 is straight down the incredible-yet-daunting 50-meter waterfall that Nala Inferiore is most known for. This rap starts easily, down a smooth groove tube a bit off to the side of the main flow, with the water stream fanned out wide. About halfway down the rap, gravity forces you directly into the water stream. As you descend beyond this point, the force of the water falling some 40-meters onto your head becomes riveting. I paused for a moment to absorb the situation and spontaneously, hysterically, burst out laughing. It was such a crazy, wild, ridiculous position to be in. It was both incredible and absurd. Why would anyone do this? Why wouldn’t you, if you could?

Almost half-way down the skull-pounding 50m rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

By the end of the rap, water was raining down everywhere in massive quantities. I had to time my breathing carefully to avoid mouthfuls of water. Mercifully, right at the end of the rap, a large cave appears to the right that offers an eerie stance, sheltered from the torrent. I unclipped from the rope here and Batman-ed the rest of the way into the pool so I wouldn’t have to mess with the rigging in the pool.

Another shot of the 50m rap. Photo Rob Radtke.

After yet another frigid, oxygen-sapping swim we arrived at the 7th rappel, which turned out to be the most difficult. Although “only” 25 meters long, this rappel drops over a car-sized lodged boulder, resulting in a freehanging/overhanging rappel right through the main water course. There was no way to avoid the full force of the river, and at one point I unwittingly titled my head to the right and got a firehose straight into my ear. Lesson learned! Once I could touch the canyon walls again I was able to direct myself out of the main stream and the rest of the descent was a breeze.

Enjoying one of the spectacular-yet-mellow rappels of the lower canyon. Photo Kate Anderson.

After the two crux rappels, the canyon’s character changed completely. The slot widened, the pools became shorter, and the rappels much more straightforward. The chasm was no long dark and intimidating, but now open, bright and welcoming.   We quickly reunited with Kate, who was waiting for us on the canyon rim, and then made four more easy and uneventful raps to the final swimming pool.

Rob, just down-and-right-of-center, jumping the last bit of the final rappel. Photo Kate Anderson.

It was an incredible experience and one of the most unique I’ve had in a canyon. It was a lot different than canyoning on the Colorado Plateau—the scenery is totally different (and not as good in my opinion). On the other hand, the swimming pools were not steaming cesspools of fermenting cow shit either (although some of my best mates would argue that adds to the charm). I relish the opportunity to do something different, and Nala was most certainly that. After desceding Nala Inferiore, I mostly felt contented and stoked to have been given the opportunity to experience such an amazing place in good company. It was one of the top two highlights of the trip and to do it on the last day really wrapped everything up in the best possible way. Thanks Rob for the incredible experience and hospitality!

Teaching the kids to play Ultimate Frisbee beside the Rhine.

Swiss Sport Climbing Part 2: Off the Beaten Path

By Mark Anderson

While I really enjoyed the world-class routes at Lehn and Gimmelwald, I place great value in going to new places. On these whirlwind trips to Europe I try to cover as much ground as possible, so I see virtue in going to a crag I haven’t seen before, even if my research suggests the new place may not be quite as good as the old.

Elsigen.

Elsigen.

With that in mind, I decided to forego a second day at Gimmelwald in favor of another limestone crag I’d just recently heard about called Elsigen. This west-facing cliffband is about an hour’s drive from Lauterbrunnen, and accessed by a short cable car ride. The rock is super high-quality limestone, mostly of the gray sticky & sometimes prickly variety. Although about half the routes were wet, there was still plenty to occupy us for a day, including (mercifully) some great warmups.

Zweierlei, 7a+, Elsigen.

 

Prisma, 7b+, Elsigen.

Every route I climbed was excellent. The climbing is generally just over vertical, with fairly intense cruxes but enough continuity to keep the pump going all the way to the chains. My favorite routes were the towering 7a+ (12a) Zweierlei, which climbs impeccable gray Verdon-quality stone, the classic Prisma (7b+/12c) with its burly undercling crux, and a super crimpy, in-your-face 7c+ (13a) called Panther in a Cage.

Panther in a Cage, 7c+, Elsigen.

Panther in a Cage, 7c+, Elsigen.

The views at Elsigen were spectacular, although to be fair, every single crag we visited on the trip had spectacular views—that’s just the nature of Switzerland. Although not quite as spectacular as Gimmelwald, for the typical travelling climber Elsigen is probably a much better destination for limestone cragging simply due to the greater variety of grades. It was certainly more popular than either Gimmelwald or Lehn (which was not really “in-season” during our early August visit).

After climbing at Elsigen, we popped over to the next valley east to check out the incredible Oescheninsee.

Before we knew it our short week in the Lauterbrunnen Valley was up, and it was time to head south for the jet setting village of Zermatt. Another “car-free” village, Zermatt is the typical jumping-off point for the Matterhorn, and it swarms with camera-toting tourists hoping to get a cloud-free shot of the iconic peak.

The Matterhorn from the “5-Seen Weg” hike.

Alpenhorns in Zermatt.

Like everyone else, we were also here to see and hike around the mountain. Zermatt is not known for its sport climbing, nor can I recommend it. It’s an uber-ritzy ski-town, like Aspen or Vail on steroids. It’s not exactly climber-friendly or family-friendly, but this was my first time in Switzerland and I really wanted to see the Matterhorn. In hindsight, I would have preferred to wait for a promising forecast and then just make a day trip to Zermatt to get a quick look at the mountain and then spend our time somewhere a little less spoiled.

Eschelbalmen from Zermatt. There is a climber in red on the lower left, and another in a dark shirt climbing the central black streak.

Fortunately there is a sport crag right above town—like, right above town—you could jump onto the nearest chalet’s roof from the crag base. This small cliff, called Eschelbalmen, is comprised of some pretty mank metamorphic stone covered in a very thin coating of calcified flowstone that sortof holds everything together. It’s not a destination crag, but its passable for a desperate OCD climber who is paranoid about falling out of shape over a 3-day break.

Warming up on Butchered at the Bitch, 7b, Eschalbalmen.

Like all Swiss crags, it has amazing views, but the best thing going for it was a really chill, relaxing vibe. The base is a beautiful grassy meadow, and you can even pick raspberries between burns. I’m not going to waste too many electrons recommending it because its not worth that, but suffice to say, if you are in a pinch, its better than nothing (or bouldering, haha).

Fun with Pano mode. This is the Monte Rosa massif, just south of the Matterhorn, which is quite a bit more interesting in my opinion.

Obligatory reflection pic, this one of the tiny ponds around Riffelsee.

We put in a pretty quick session here after a long day of hiking around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn, including a quick dash up to the Hornli Hut at the base of the iconic Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn. The shortness of the routes meant it was easy to pack a lot of burns into a short period of time. The highlight of the day was a 7c (5.12d) I did called Victoria, which apparently starts by scaling the roof of the small hut at the base of the cliff. I made a good effort on the 8a (13b) THC, but came off when I failed to spot a mungy roof pocket at the end of the crux.

Cruxing up Victoria, 7c, Eschelbalmen.

The best part of the session was putting up a bunch of routes for Logan and his buddy Sam on the crags highly-featured and low-angled southeast face. They had a great time swing around, scrounging for berries and generally messing around.

Logan crushing at Eschelbalmen

With the Matterhorn in our rear-view mirror, we headed back north to stay with my friend Rob’s family in Zurich. Nothing in the immediate Zurich vicinity caught my eye as far as a climbing destination, but Switzerland is small enough (and Zurich central enough) that we had plenty of good options within a short drive.

Zermatt has a sweet kid-focused rope course that all the kids loved.

I really wanted to visit a crag in the village of Engelberg I learned about just before we left called Schlanggen. This compact cliff sits at the back of a beautiful alpine valley and is stacked with 60-some tightly packed routes and linkups. At over 40-meters tall and continuously slightly overhanging, this white-and-blue-streaked limestone buttress is a paradise of endurance climbing.

The Schlanggen cliff just outside of Engelberg. Rather wet on the day this was taken, but it was almost completely dry two days later.

My friend Rob and I split from the families to make a quick stop there on our way back from Zermatt. Many of the blue streaks were partially dripping with water, which limited the options somewhat, but there was still plenty to do. The rock is pretty unusual for limestone, and any given route will likely contain some tricky sloper climbing, pockets of all varieties, and intense crimping. It took a while to get used to the style, and in typical fashion I struggled to scrape my way up the 5.11 warmup. After that things started coming together.

Attempting Onan, 8a, at Schlanggen.

I cruised up the outstanding 7c+ (13a) Zollo del Lachel, which required some intense pocket cranks and pumpy edging. Next I set my sights on the masterpiece No Time for Wanking (8a/13b). This incredible route opens with a 7b+ entry pitch to a good rest, before tackling a gentling overhanging pillar of velvety gray flowstone. The crux is a devious and reachy sequence working off a sharp undercling crimp to reach distant gastons. If you scrape your way through this bit, you are rewarded with a long, pumping exit, slapping franticly between big slopers, culminating in a desperate mantle onto a holdless-shelf just below the anchor (or at least, that’s how it was for me, haha). The pitch was absolutely phenomenal and easily the best route I did in Switzerland.

Low on No Time For Wanking, 8a, Schlanggen. Could you imagine being in such a hurry?!

In short, I loved climbing at Schlanggen—it was hands-down my favorite stop. With one climbing day left I was torn between the prospect of returning, or visiting the super-highly-recommended crag Voralpsee in eastern Switzerland. While I really wanted to go to Voralpsee, and likely a first day climbing there would have been better than a second day at Schlanggen, I also wanted to take the kids up one more Via Ferrata, and there was a good looking kid-friendly route only a few miles from the Schlanggen cliff.

How can you say I made the wrong choice? Amelie cruising the Brunnistockli Via Ferrata.

By our second visit the rock had dried up completely, providing a bunch of “new” routes to try. Once again the routes did not disappoint. Everything I did was excellent, but the best route of the day was the towering, 35-meter Mousse au Thon (7c+/13a). This classic endurance climb was stacked with hard sections split by good rests, culminating in a long, burly boulder problem out the 30-degree overhanging visor right at the lip of the cliff. My beta was essentially to bare down like a mofo on some tiny sharp crimps and slap for the chalk marks. Fortunately I hit everything well enough to get to the top.

High on Mousse au Thon, 7c+, Schlanggen.

Overall I really enjoyed the sport climbing I did in Switzerland. The country is not particularly know as a sport destination, and its hard to recommend it to the pure climber over more traditional destinations like Catalunya, Provence or the Mediterranean islands. However, if you are looking for crags that are a bit less polished, or climbing isn’t the primary focus of the trip, Swiss climbing has a lot to offer and there are few better all-around destinations.

Rest day visit to the legendary Aescher Hotel above Ebenalp.

 

High Wire Act: VF Murren

By Mark Anderson

There were two activities on the Swiss trip that were the unequivocal highlights. This was the first one. I’ve done about 10 Via Ferratas now, and this was hands-down the best I’ve done. It has spectacular scenery, incredible position, interesting apparatus and it’s well-designed and maintained.

VF Murren culminates in a spectacular hanging bridge that spans a massive, 1500-foot-deep chasm. This shot was taken from the cable car that runs between Gimmelwald and Murren.

For most well-travelled climbers, the typical Via Ferrata will seem mundane, if not completely boring. Not so VF Murren! While never physically challenging by climbing standards, the exposure on this route is no joke, and will get the attention of even the most grizzled El Cap veteran.

The west wall of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The village of Murren is sunlit and visible in the far upper left corner—the VF starts in Murren and follows the lip of the massive cliff to Gimmelwald (which is south, or left in the photo).

To appreciate the route, it helps to understand a bit about the surrounding geography. The Lauterbrunnen Valley, located about 10 miles south of the bustling outdoor mecca Interlaken, is perhaps best described as a limestone version of Yosemite Valley. Although not quite as deep or long as Yosemite Valley, the upper rim of the gorge is studded with cloud-piercing glaciated peaks, including the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

The village of Murren, and the massive cliff it sits atop—from the top of the Eiger Rotstock. The VF Murrent starts in the village and traverses the lip of the cliff towards the south (left in the photo).

The valley hub is the village of Lauterbrunnen, which can be accessed by car, train, etc. The lower valley is renowned for its 2500-feet-tall limestone walls and ubiquitous waterfalls. Atop these walls, along the rim of the canyon, are a serious of tiny, “car-free” hamlets, accessed by train, cable car, or a combination. Two of the more well-known are the hamlets of Murren and Gimmelwald (home to the world-class sport crag of the same name).

Logan starting the second 3-Wire Bridge.

The VF Murren traverses the lip of the west side of the canyon for two kilometers, from Murren to Gimmelwald. It weaves in and out of forest as the terrain dictates, but in the key spots it is literally right on the lip of a 2000-foot tall cliff. It’s like stepping out of a dense forest onto a small ledge on the side of El Cap with nothing but air beneath your feet. It is so perfectly exposed that there is literally a BASE jumping platform built into the route!

Logan heading towards the business.

I was really psyched to check out this VF, but I wasn’t sure how Logan would handle it. He’s very brave, but that’s a lot of exposure, and in my experience it can really take some getting used to. There’s a big difference between climbing your way up to a really exposed position, allowing your mind to acclimate as you steadily ascend versus just walking out to the edge of a cliff, and it’s hard to know how someone will react to that situation.

Entering the incredibly exposed lip traverse.

The route begins with a long stretch of easy hiking through forest, protected by wire. A series of downclimbs along stemples takes you out to the top of the cliff, where the route gets right down to business. The most exposed stretch comes pretty early, traversing an intermittent ledge system. The walls drop straight down here, with nothing but air for 2000 feet. For a brief stretch the ledge disappears and stemples lead across the void. This is not the technical crux, but surely the psychological crux.

Logan never seemed concerned about the 2000-foot drop. Should I be worried about that?

It turned out my concerns for Logan were completely unfounded. I don’t think Logan would have even noticed the exposure if I hadn’t pointed it out. He cruised it all with a smile on his face, and if anything I struggled to keep up with him while taking pictures and managing the rope.

Me in the same spot as above. Note the arcing line of stemples up and left from my head.

After the lip traverse, the route heads back into the forest for a while, eventually leading to a “Monkey Birdge” (or “Three-wire Bridge”) that crosses one of the many waterfalls. Logan wasn’t quite tall enough to reach between the wires on this one, so I rigged it as a Tyrolean for him and pulled him across.

Logan Tyrolean traversing the first 3-Wire Bridge.

More wire through the forest leads to what I felt was the physical crux, a series of 4 long ladder down-climbs, the last of which was slightly overhanging. Since we had sport-climbed at Gimmelwald earlier in the day, I was doing the VF with my entire sport-climbing kit on my back, 70-meter rope included. After a morning of struggling to grasp Gimmelwald’s biceps-bursting routes, I found that last, overhanging ladder to be rather taxing!

Logan cruising the long ladder down-climb.

Once again, Logan had no issues and didn’t think it was hard despite my whining. Next came a shorter 3-wire bridge, which Logan was able to traverse on his feet. Another long stretch of hiking leads to the highlight of the route, and the most incredible VF feature I’ve ever seen, a massive hanging bridge (aka “Nepalese Bridge”).

The incredible hanging bridge.

I don’t know the exact dimensions, but I’d guess the bridge is over 100-meters long, and crosses a chasm over 1500-feet deep. This was the first obstacle that gave Logan pause. Sadly he’s already a bit jaded and hard to impress, but when he came around the corner and laid eyes on the hanging bridge, he was in awe.

Logan starting across the bridge.

Contemplating the view.

The view down!

Despite its impressive engineering, the bridge was quite rickety, and the hand wires were hard for Logan to reach, so he took his time traversing the wobbly catwalk. Eventually he became comfortable and cruised the second half of the crossing.

Once on the other side, it’s a brief, steep walk along cow pastures to reach the Gimmelwald Cable Car station, followed by a quick zip back down to the valley. Of all the activities we did on the trip, this is one I would absolutely do again. This should be considered a must do for any capable visitor, no matter how jaded by rock cliffs you may be, and the great news is that it’s super easy to tack-on at the end (or beginning) of a day climbing at the fantastic Gimmelwald cliff. Its possible to rent VF gear in Murren if you don’t have your own, just be sure to save some arm strength for those ladders!

Watch our videos of the Murren VF here:

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!

 

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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