The Unpredictable Alpine

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By Jewell Lund

“Should we take bivy gear?”

I peered up at the dauntingly sheer granite face of Mt. Huntington, the scale of which overwhelms base camp on the Tokositna Glacier. Standing so close to the mountain, I knew the colossal face was foreshortened. Traversing the systems all the way across the West Face could take a few hours, or more than a day. Who knew?

“Um. Bivy gear could be nice?”

The enormous west face of Mt. Huntington.Photo Jewell Lund

The enormous west face of Mt. Huntington. Photo Jewell Lund

This conversation has actually started via email a year ago. A friend had connected Chantel Astorga and me, knowing our mutual interest in alpine climbing. Pictures and ideas were bandied about regarding Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range. We’d heard rumors of stellar rock quality and nightmarish corniced ridges, and most importantly promises of adventure. In November 2013, Chantel and I were in the same town and finally chatted in person. It was clear that we were inspired by similar objectives, and we decided to try climbing together. Mt. Huntington 2014 was written in the books. Read More →

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Off-Belay: Colombia Climbing

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Climbing in the digital age presents a philosophical dilemma. With an abundance of information on the web regarding peaks, routes, and beta – the present day adventurer has a decision to make.

On one hand, climbers can take advantage of resources such as SummitPost, MountainProject and other sites that offer full trip reports. Those who choose this path will be well-armed with pertinent information. Information which undoubtedly increases their likelihood of success during the outing. However, it’s not unreasonable to raise the consideration that extensive research detracts from the purity of a climb. It’s easy for online beta to spoil a summit view with a photo from the same vista (always taken on a day with perfect weather), or to suggest you crimp with your left and flag right before committing at the crux of a route. Read More →

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Ode to the Shoulder Season—Skiing and Rock Climbing at Washington Pass

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Dana skinning towards Liberty Bell Massif on a warm May morning.

Dana skinning towards Liberty Bell Massif on a warm May morning.

Photos and Story By Leif Whittaker

By the middle of May, when winter’s final curtains of snow are pelting the North Cascades and warm afternoons are growing longer each day, we in the Northwest are aching for the full brunt of summer. It has been eight months since we last wore boardshorts and flip-flops. All the ski resorts are closed, but the trailheads and crags are still buried in a thick layer of winter’s residue and it will be another month or two before the highest arêtes and dihedrals are completely dried out. For many of us, the shoulder season is a frustrating interlude between two joyous extremes—deep powder and hot rock. However, as I discovered during a recent trip up Liberty Bell, the shoulder season is not a mere delay; it is a unique mixture of two opposing forces and, when combined correctly, the resulting concoction can be wonderfully potent. Read More →

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First Tooth: The Pain and the Glory of New Routes in Indian Creek

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by Luke Mehall Photos by Braden Gunem

Perhaps more than any other climbing destination in the United States, Indian Creek will leave its mark on you. The stout, often painful cracks, rarely allow their suitors to escape without a cut, scrape, or bruise; proof of the struggle, a badge of glory to return home with. This battle often becomes addictive. After one returns from The Creek, he is either determined to never return again, or return as soon as possible. There’s a certain kind of magic is this masochistic pursuit.

The addiction now affects hundreds, maybe thousands of crack addicts. At first it was a small number; now they even come from all the way across the pond, Europeans, desperate to get a hit, a shot at crack climbing glory. And then there are the lifers, like us, just trying to find that same feeling and high, we experienced long ago. But like a true fiend, it takes much more than the original dosage to replicate those same sensations.

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I remember those first Indian Creek climbs: They defined the essence of struggle. Even Supercrack, with its wide hand jams, worked me to the maximum. One climb I tried in my early days, Binge and Purge, just right of the ever-popular Incredible Hand Crack, was the perfect metaphor for Indian Creek climbing. Read More →

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Off-Belay Americas: Climbing in Joshua Tree

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As climbers, our path has led us from one crag to the next while we continue to push south to Patagonia. Two weeks in our route brought us to the community of Joshua Tree, California. I say “community” because Joshua is not simply a National Park or popular crag, but a winter season gathering place for dirt-baggers, weekend climbers, and nature enthusiasts alike. Eleven months had passed since our first visit to the lunar landscape of granite mounds in this unique place and we were stoked to be back. Read More →

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Leif Whittaker on the Privilege of Climbing Mountains

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Leif and Jim Whittaker on the trail to Mount Everest Base Camp.

Photos and story by Leif Whittaker

The view from the barren promontory above Namche Bazaar in Nepal looked out on a windswept hunk of the Himalaya where the sunrise struck, bathing the world’s highest mountain in flattering gold light. Dad and Mom stood next to me, their breath white in the frigid morning. The alpine air was redolent with juniper. We talked about climbing, a favorite subject of the guides, Sherpa, and photographers who clustered around us. I listened intently to Dad’s stories about his ascent of Mount Everest in 1963 and Mom’s stories about the 1978 K2 expedition. Though they spoke of daring, superhuman feats—like descending from 29,035 feet half blind and without bottled oxygen—I heard a conspicuous tone of humility in their voices, as if they acknowledged how lucky they had been. It was a tone that is far too rare in today’s extreme vernacular, one that declared a genuine reverence for the landscape and a visceral understanding of the fact that climbing has almost nothing to do with conquering mountains. Read More →

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Paring it Down to the Essentials: A Guide’s Gear for a Three-Day Mountaineering Trip

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Story and photos by Shelby Carpenter

As a guide with the American Alpine Institute on Mt. Baker, I often end up working with clients who try to bring all the appropriate gear but end up bringing just a tad more than necessary. In this post, I will talk about the gear I bring with me on a 3-Day Baker Skills and Climb trip and how I pared it down to its current amount. I hope this will help you on your fast-and-light adventures!  Read More →

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Photo Essay: Bailey Range Traverse

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Story and photos by Aili Farquhar

Mike Natucci and guide Aili Farquhar headed out on the sunny morning of July 20th to traverse the Bailey Range, a remote interior sub-range of the Olympic Mountains. The Baileys are known for intricate glaciated terrain, rotten rock, and abundant vegetation, all of which the team encountered during their nine-day crossing of the range.

When Mike and Aili arrived at the High Divide at 5,000 feet elevation they were pleasantly surprised.  The five feet of snow the ranger had warned them about had melted out and left in its wake waving fields of white glacier lilies with bright yellow centers.

In the cool of the morning the team climbed over the shoulder of Stephen Peak onto the rocky ridge above Cream Lake Basin. The ridge proved quite a challenge – loose, third-class ledges gave way to groveling through thick evergreen branches of the ridgetop krummholtz.

The Hoh Glacier flowed down into blue ice, moraine, then became the thundering Hoh River below.  They descended steep snow to the island in the sky that is Camp Pan, a small enclave of trees and flat dirt perched on a rocky outcrop a few hundred feet above the Hoh Glacier.

The next day found them again on steep glaciers.  They ascended snow to the base of the East Summit of Olympus.  Fourth and low fifth class loose Olympic rock led them to the summit and through a loose and blocky downclimb to the security of snow below the summit.

On the seventh day of the traverse they reached the ceiling of the Olympic Mountain Range.  They took photos and ate a snack as they looked at Baker, Rainier, and St. Helens floating in the distance.

The next day Mike and Aili descended into the moss-draped old growth forest once more.  They hiked along the Hoh River.  Days before they had traversed the ice that would someday swell these waters during the summer melt.

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On A Recce: Exploring New Terrain in the Waddington Range

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Story and Photos By Ben Kunz

rec·ce: (noun) a slang word for reconnaissance, reconnoitre

Climbing the McNerthney Pillar was the primary objective for our trip to the Waddington Range, but when we returned down the Bravo Glacier route to Sunny Knob, the ensuing days continued to bring excellent weather. During our one and only rest day, we took turns man-handling the guidebook and staring at the walls, piecing together known climbs and potentially unclimbed crack systems on the incredible west faces of the spires of the Stilletto Group. We didn’t settle on any particular formation or climb, we just knew we were psyched to get up there and explore, and if the stars aligned, go for a first ascent.

PhotoRecce1And what better way to seize the opportunity than to head out on a recce!

The next morning, Joe and I headed out of camp by headlamp to investigate the best route through the Stilletto glacier and see what we’d find looking up close at those big walls. We found plenty of tricky routing through the maze of seracs and icefalls of the Stilletto, but eventually found a way through to the base of the walls.

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As we passed under Bicuspid Tower, we couldn’t help but notice three prominent dihedral systems. The middle and right system looked very steep and the cracks thin, but the bone white rock looked impeccable! Joe’s excitement to just get up there and give it a go was infectious and our mellow reconnaissance day changed gears and we were soon messing around in the moats between the glacier and the tower, trying to find a way on the rock.

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I took the first pitch, linking a full 200 feet of beautiful blocks and crack systems through varied terrain from low fifth to 5.9 hand cracks, which took us to the bottom of the thin crack systems we’d spied from the glacier. Some traversing right on ledges allowed us to get a good look at each of the crack systems; the middle crack system seemed to provide the most continuous climbing. Joe organized his rack and started leading up into the steep terrain. Despite the excellent quality of the rock, we still had to do plenty of cleaning to get good locks in the cracks and solid foot placements (mostly smears!) on the rock.

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The next pitches were the highlight of the route with varied and exciting climbing: technical face climbing, powerful hand traverses, a tricky and insecure boulder problem, then a stemming corner to ear-to-ear grinning hand jamming!

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At the top of our fourth pitch, it looked as if we’d top out on the south ridge crest and scamper up to the top from there, but Bicuspid had another crux for us. The final, long pitch started with a steep, slightly right tilting finger crack followed by a tricky pod that could only be exited using a strong dynamic move to the jug up high—definitely not your average alpine rock move!

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We had extreme luck with our descent, linking three full double rope raps (60m) to drop us at our boots and bags. It was a miracle we didn’t snag anything on the way down!

Joe put it best when he describes his passion for opening new routes. “I get really excited about spotting a clean, direct line and just giving it a go. If it doesn’t go, you just come back down, but you always have an adventure! And just once in a while you climb an amazing, clean line—this is when all that work pays off! You never forget these experiences!”

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Pained and Pampered in Chamonix

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Photo: Chris Garren

Surrounded by seracs and pristine rock at our camp below the Blatiere

Story And Photos By Chris Garren

In Colorado, I wake every day to a scenic mountain panorama. Still, my jaw dropped when I first saw the Alps in Chamonix. Endless peaks shot up from crevassed glaciers and sunny hills. Mont Blanc was a commanding presence above the valley. A climber’s dreamscape!

Drinking questionable amounts of coffee to get the better of my jet lag, I gazed at routes I’d been reading about for years. I was in the heart of the alpine climbing world; the stage for legendary first ascents and home to the best long, moderate routes anywhere.

Once a pursuit strictly for the elegantly clad upper class, climbing is now written into the DNA of Chamonix. Gear shops, huts, cable cars — a vast infrastructure supports vertical endeavors. From cafes I watched a spectrum of climbers pass by: smiling families bound for local cliffs, so close that everyone bikes there already donning harnesses and clutching a café au lait, and hardened alpinists, eyes dulled from brutal efforts in the mountains.

My friend Jeff guides in Chamonix. We’d decided to do a big climb, one he’d never done. He picked an ambitious link-up on the Aiguille de Blatiere. The lower portions are often climbed but the mountain rarely summitted. We dug but unearthed little info.

We were whisked halfway up the Aiguille de Midi. Laughs and screams echoed in the crammed cable car as we felt momentarily weightless passing each lift tower. We had superlight alpine climbing gear. Also, plastic bags full of indulgences, made possible by the easy lift access. Instead of gels and sports bars, the staples of American endurance outings, I brought bread, cheese, and tons of chocolate croissants. Such juxtapositions abounded in France.

We slept on a moraine below our objective. With no shelter above, I lay watching stars glimmer above the silhouetted Alps. In the serene night, I felt a mix of giddy excitement and pre-climb nerves.

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Just off the cable car, looking up at the iconic Aiguille du Midi on the right

My 3:45 a.m. alarm woke me abruptly. With much grunting and grogginess, we stuffed ourselves with oatmeal and chai tea. We cramponed up nicely frozen snow, traversed exposed ledges, and arrived at the start of Nabot Leon. Our light summit packs had little but raincoats, down jackets and emergency blankets. Our secret weapons were straws for drinking snowmelt and garden gloves for grippy protection in cold weather. With unknowns ahead, we brought one axe and one pair of mountain boots.

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Sipping refreshing melt water during our rappels off Aiguille de Blatiere

Racing the sun, we flew up pitch after pitch of perfect granite, belaying hard sections and simul-climbing when we could. Cracks, slabs, face climbing, edges, stemming — so many different styles and a stream of motion that reminded me of everything I love about climbing. It was exhausting but perfect. We linked up with a route called Osez Josephine. At the end of the route, we crested a large pillar. The backside dropped off a thousand feet and a circular view revealed hanging glaciers broken by cliff bands, steep ridgelines, and the spread of the Chamonix valley.

Moving on, it was a choose-your-own-adventure. Wearing boots and with axe in hand, Jeff climbed a skinny, snow-packed couloir. Once he secured the rope, I swung off my rock island and climbed hand over hand up the rope, my rock shoes offering no help on the steep snow. A tension traverse and stellar crack climbing followed. And then, we were stuck!

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Jeff rappelling into the mist, searching for the next anchor

The nearly featureless rock immediately above was unprotectable. Climbing lore is full of improvisation. So, we went old-school, our method effective, if not glamorous. I stood on Jeff’s shoulders. With him on tiptoe, I did a precarious transfer onto the rock face, mantled over a ledge, and happily saw better terrain ahead. We progressed but faced frustrating route-finding. At one point, Jeff sent cams to me using the rope like a zipline. Ancient wooden pitons marked previous passages.

Jeff led one final pitch, a tricky and dirty corner finishing on a ledge slippery with loose rock. A handful of pitches from the summit, we decided to descend as daylight faded and clouds moved in. Searching through the mist, we eventually found the top of Fidel Fiasco, a route with bolted anchors. We rappelled quickly, stopping only to feed the ropes through each new anchor and take rejuvenating sips of meltwater. Oddly, we could hear music rising from town.

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Jeff enjoying our epic meal after a long day on the Aiguille de Blatiere

Boot skiing and talus hopping brought us back to camp, where we scooped the rest of our gear. In the dark, we rallied across an endless snowfield that rolled into blackness. Drained, I was on autopilot but still smiling. The hut was a sight for sore eyes! After 20 hours and 20+ pitches of climbing, we kicked back, had beers, showers, and an outrageous gourmet meal. What a wild mix of pampering and suffering. With salmon cream sauce and blueberry- topped dessert in my belly, I headed to bed satisfied.

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