Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tahoe West Shore Traverse

Oh man, this mission had been on the tick list for a long time and it was fun to finally get it done!  The idea: ski the longest roadless stretch in the Tahoe area, from Echo pass to Donner pass along the crest of the Sierra.  Ski conditions were variable after a long dry spell, but coverage was good and with a forecast for sun the time was ripe!

Jeb was kind enough to wake up while it was still dark outside to drive me down to South Lake.  Thanks, amigo!

It's always good to start a long walk with high fructose corn syrup and saturated fat!  Sadly, Hostess fruit pies have gone the way of the dodo and the generic brand ones get the job done, but they're not quite the same.

Goal for the weekend: keep putting one foot in front of the other . . .

Day one was glorious, the sun was out and Desolation had on its winter coat.  Lake Aloha has always been one of my favorite spots, such a strange barren feel with Pyramid and friends rising up behind it.  The Crystal range was a travel companion for the day, always there on the left, stretching unbroken all the way from Pyramid to Loon Lake.

On the shoulder of Dick's peak, I could see one of the longest glides of the trip.  Long, contouring traverses were the name of the game, trading vert for progress north.  Red X down at Middle Velma Lake is the goal.

BAM, almost 3 miles in 15 minutes!  Back to walking, up and over Phipps peak into the northern reaches of Desolation Wilderness.  

If anyone has ever wondered where helium balloons go to die, I think I might have figured it out.  This is the second one that I've found out in the Velma lakes area.

After a nice dinner of salami and cheese on the top of Lost Corner Mountain, I used the last light of the day to cruise down into the Miller lakes and find a campsite.

Day two dawned windy, not quite the glorious spring weather of the day before but it provided good motivation to keep moving and made it easier to keep cool.

Cresting the first ridge into Blackwood canyon, the order of the day was laid out.  First Twin Peaks, then Granite Chief, and then on out to Donner pass!

Cool rock formations on the way to Tinker's Knob.  At this point, my head was down and I was grinding so I didn't stop for too many pictures, but the Sierra never stopped showing off.

Totally spent on the last high point of the journey, Mt. Lincoln.  
Final stats for two days of adventure were 21 hours on the move, 44 miles and 12,000ft of human-powered skiing.

Recharging the batteries at Burger Me in Truckee.  The milkshake/beer double fist is the newest thing in recovery technology.  Headed to Chamonix in two weeks, gotta keep the legs strong!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Adventure skiing with Harold

   Great skiing today in Desolation Wilderness!  After a crazy couple of weeks at the resort, it feels like winter finally started this week.  The crowds have dissipated a bit, the snowpack is relatively stable and the temps are nice and cold.

   Our plan was to climb Maggies, descend north-facing trees and then drop into the Cascade Creek drainage and have a look at the North face/ridge trees of Tallac (anybody have a good name for this area?  I haven't heard of a ton of traffic back there, but we saw tracks from several other parties).  Other than descending south-facing terrain from Granite Lake down into Cascade Creek, we found 6-8" of blower cold hero snow on top of a soft, edgeable base.

   Both McD and I were on new, lightweight setups and this tour was a great test!  My Dynafit TLT5/La Sportiva GT combo handled these conditions pretty well and I felt like I was in nordic gear during the climbs, it was awesome!  

   Two big dorks, excited to be on a peak in the Sierra with no wind!

   The snow was great for uphill travel, but the North Trees area of Tallac was a bit steep for skinning the whole way and we ended up having to bootpack part of the climb.  It would probably be more efficient to climb the conventional way towards the North Bowl and then traverse out to this area. 

 It was a great pitch for skiing and protected from sun and wind, leaving great snow conditions!  Thanks for the work behind the camera Matt, always fun to have great pictures to remember a day like this!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

climbing the Hotlum headwall and glacier

Drew, a friend and fellow Shasta Mountain Guide, had been jonesing to climb the Hotlum headwall for quite a while.  He mentioned the idea to me, and we both thought it would be a great adventure.  This cliff  sits just above 13,000' at the top of the northeast face of Mt. Shasta.  Falling away beneath the cliff is the Hotlum glacier, with multiple beautiful icefalls and holding the largest volume of ice of any of California's glaciers.  Nervous about the headwall's reputation for loose rock but excited for the climb, we sipped coffee and drove in the dark to the Brewer Creek trailhead.

Catching the first rays of the morning sun, the headwall lit up as we stepped onto the toe of the glacier.

We made good time on the glacier, only needing to rope up for a questionable snowbridge crossing on the final bergschrund.  Soon we were standing below the headwall organizing gear.

Drew had the advantage of a rad mohawk, so he led off for the first pitch, stepping right from glacial snow onto steep rock.

Drew beginning the first pitch.  The rock here was some of the more solid on the route, but still had both of us on edge.  As Drew summarized later "you don't trust your hands, or your feet, or your gear!".

Drew found a good stance and brought me up to him.  I tried leading out above, but a broken foothold with rock quality deteriorating even more higher up brought me back to the belay ledge.  The rock looked better to the climbers right, so we tried a tension traverse to get back on "route". 

There were several different types of rock, from weird flaky salt deposits to bright red and orange andesite.  It was pretty to look at even though it was falling apart!

photo:Drew Smith drewsplan.blogspot.com
Our route traversed climbers right virtually the entire time.  We were trying to follow more solid rock, but it also had the advantage of protecting the belayer.  When the leader would pull off a loose block (this happened a LOT), we could throw or roll it harmlessly down to the glacier below.

After an exciting pull over a roof, I reached the north ridge of the headwall and easier ground.  Drew followed me up, both of us excited to have finished the climb safely.  
photo:Drew Smith drewsplan.blogspot.com
We scrambled up the ridge to the North summit and then on to the true summit pinnable with the Hotlum glacier and the flanks of Mt. Shasta laid out below us.

We both spend a whole lot of time on Mt. Shasta, but it was still really exciting to cover new ground.  This time up to the summit pinnacle, even though very familiar, seemed a little bit special.

photo:Drew Smith drewsplan.blogspot.com
And then came the descent!  Conditions were perfect and we were both thirsty for cold beer, so we boot-glissaded for 3500' non-stop, a true leg-burner!  11 hours car-car, and we were headed back into town for burgers and cerveza with buddies at the Goat Tavern.  Thanks for a good one Drew!  Check out his awesome photos at http://drewsplan.blogspot.com

photo:Drew Smith drewsplan.blogspot.com
Our approximate route, with circles indicating belays.  The crux of the route was definitely dealing with the tremendous amount of loose rock.  We had heard guesses of a rating of 5.8R which sounds about right to both Drew and I.  We took a single rack of Black Diamond cams .3-1 and several medium sized nuts.  That rack was mostly sufficient, but if we went back, we would bring smaller nuts to increase the range of crack sizes we could use for protection.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

14 days on Denali, the Great One

So happy be back home by the lake, basking in the sun and resting the legs after an awesome couple of weeks in the Alaska range.  The mountains surrounding Denali are so spectacular, it was impossible to pull the camera out and not end up with a couple of keepers.  Below are the highlights, some because of the dramatic scenery and others because of the fun stories that they come with.  Thanks Zeb, Jeb and Matt for a super fun trip and helping to make a longtime goal a reality.

Matt walking across the tarmac at Talkeetna airport, excited to be flying after a day waiting for the weather!

The flight into the airstrip on the Kahiltna glacier almost overshadowed the climbing experience.  A lifetime of climbing and skiing played out just a few hundred feet outside the windows of our DeHavilland Otter skiplane.  We all felt the way Zeb looks, tough to wipe the smiles off our faces.  The airstrip was in some ways high-tech (a permanent basecamp manager with a satphone and aviation radio gave weather reports, scheduled flights, and played air traffic controller) and then felt awesomely informal (the airstrip was marked by half-buried kiddie sleds, the same ones we dragged food in!).

Our basecamp experience was brief, and within an hour of landing on the glacier we had saddled up our loads (~125lbs apiece of food, goose down and climbing gear).  The weather perfectly embodied the saying "if you don't like the weather, wait an hour".  During our first day of trekking across the glacier, we experienced 3 separate snowstorms along with wind and perfect bluebird clear skies.

The higher we got on glacier, the more dramatic our surrounding became.  This icefall just below Kahiltna Pass was like many we saw, glacier ice seems to stick to any face shallower than vertical up there.

The only way to get water on the glacier is to melt snow . . . lots of snow.  Thanks to GSI for hooking us up with an awesome cook system, the 5L pot was clutch for making the kind of water we needed,  light for its size, and the rest of the cook kit was nicely designed and built.

One of the coolest features of being as far north as we were was that the sun never went down.  Light all the time was awesome for climbing and a bit weird for sleeping, but the bonus was that the "magic hour" of alpenglow lasted for like 4 hours in the middle of the night!  This sunset (sunrise?) is really just the sun going behind the mountain.

The second day of the approach was one of the hardest of the trip.  Motorcycle and Squirrel hills block the way from from 11,200' camp to Windy Corner at around 13,000'.  Back home these two climbs wouldn't seem so daunting, but with thin air in our lungs and heavy sleds pulling back with every step, we all found ourselves doubled over and sucking wind.

After two days of slogging with heavy packs, it felt great to rest our legs and build a snow fort!  Jeb installing snow bricks to protect our cook tent from wind and snow.
Camp built, we raised the pirate flag and enjoyed balmy 14k camp weather and views of Mt. Foraker.  When the weather or schedule doesn't call for climbing, 14 camp is a great place to hang out.  Tons of like-minded climbers milling about and big mountain features in every direction meant there was rarely a dull moment.

We spent several days climbing to lower elevation landmarks to acclimate and have some killer pow skiing after the multiple 12-24" dumps that discouraged climbing on the upper mountain.  Here, Zeb makes pretty turns on the lower Orient Express, 14 camp is visible on the right and Windy Corner is the pass at the top center of the photo.

When the weather wasn't so nice for sunbathing, our cook tent was the hangout of choice.  We were lucky enough to have Mark and Janelle Smiley as neighbors.  These guys cook some mean blueberry pancakes, and are also total cardsharks.  They were in Alaska working on their project to climb every one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.  Check out more at http://www.smileysproject.com.

Fed, acclimated, and rested, we were ready for a summit push!  Packing summit packs was exciting for everyone, and along with crampons, axes, rope gear and warm clothes, our packs all carried a hefty supply of Clif food.  Clif styled us out with a healthy collection of bars, gels and shot bloks and they were great for keeping the energy up and being quick to get calories in on the go.  Thanks Clif guys!

After a couple of false starts, the weather finally cooperated and we were off on our summit push!  The most beautiful and exciting part of the route is the ridge traverse (the actual West Buttress that the route is named for) from 16'000' to the camp at 17k.  Conditions were perfect for moving fast, and we made good time.

Jeb cruising on the buttress with the Peters glacier behind.

A couple of teams had been pinned at 17k camp due to weather.  When we rolled in, we could see that they had made the most of their free time by building impressive walls and snow sculptures.  We stopped and were grateful to an RMI team for lending us their tent to warm our toes before pressing on.

At 17 camp, the Smileys caught us up and brought some welcome energy and vibes before they took off at a pace that we couldn't hold.  Nice work guys!

The next pitch was the infamous Autobahn, although instead of scary ice we were lucky enough to encounter powder snow with a great bootpack.  Here, the team making headway towards Denali pass.

After Denali pass, the cold and altitude hit our team pretty hard.  We put our heads down and "suffered well" for a few hours, and were finally rewarded with the view up the heavily corniced summit ridge to the summit.

The summit ridge seemed to roll into one false summit after another, but we huffed and puffed and rambled on.  I promise Zeb, this false summit is the real one!

Here we are, the roof of North America!  After hearing report after report of high winds and brutal cold, we enjoyed perfect calm weather and the Alaska Range laid out in every direction.  Nice work fellas!

The first couple of thousand feet were tricky windboard and crust, but we carefully navigated down, happy to have been able to ski off the summit.  Here we are traversing below Archdeacon's Tower towards the reward we know is waiting, powder on the Autobahn face (Fantasy face, maybe?)

And after all the hard work, high altitude powder skiing!  

Mirczak, making it look good for all the ladies down at 17 camp.

At 17 camp, we switched back to crampons as the evening alpenglow swept over the peaks around us. Zeb gives a triumphant salute with his axe before walking down towards food and celebratory whiskey.

Beautiful, glowing peaks provided distraction from the descent.  We couldn't have had better summit conditions, so fortunate that the waiting paid off.

After our long summit day, what better way to recharge than burritos!  The Smiley's brought over their Thanksgiving dinner, and we gorged on stuffing-mashed-potato-gravy-bean-rice-guacamole burritos that would have made any fusion cuisine chef proud.

Well-fed and rested, our team was itching for more skiing.  With just a few days left before our flight out, we once again started climbing, pointing our skis towards the Orient Express couloir near the West Rib.  As we passed under the Messner couloir, Zeb and I liked the look of conditions above us so we split the team, two teams of two, each heading for one of the classic ski lines on Denali.

The setting of the Messner is amazing, sustained and steep enough to keep us on our toes, but great climbing snow conditions kept it manageable at the same time.  As the day progressed, clouds started to build below and billow around us.  The prospect of descending such a big line in a whiteout was enough to convince Zeb and I that it was time to turn the skis downhill, but we had a great time skiing from just above the hourglass rock choke of the couloir.

The snow in the Messner was firm but chalky enough for confident turns, as Zeb shows off just below the crux constriction.

Zeb making turns on the lower apron of the Messner, with unsettled Alaska Range weather looming below.

Matt Paul fired up after his and Jeb's ski of the lower Orient Express.  An awesome cap to a great trip, we were all grinning and ready to ski towards home.

After a packing up and starting the descent, we ended up caught in a storm for almost 24 hours at Windy Corner.  As one might guess from the name, this is one of the prime camping locations in the Denali area.  After catching up on some reading in our tents, the storm finally broke and the fresh snow was a blessing in disguise!  The lower glacier was frozen solid for safe travel, and had a dusting of snow that made for a serene, almost silent glide down the glacier, surrounded by beautiful peaks and lit by midnight sun.  We pulled into base camp in awe, just in time to brew a cup of coffee and catch the first flight back to Talkeetna.

From our vantage in the airplane, we could follow the whole lifecycle of the glacier in fast-motion.  The lower sections with less snowfall became dramatically crevassed, eventually giving way to dirty, dry glacier and then forested river valley.

As the ground elevation fell away below us, we saw where all that glacier meltwater was going.  The lush green drainages of the Susitna river valley, where Talkeetna is nestled at the confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna rivers.

We were four happy climbers just off the airplane, enjoying the simple pleasure of t-shirt and flippy-floppy weather.  And headed for a BIG breakfast.

The famous FULL standard breakfast served at the Roadhouse cafe.  The most satisfying gut bomb that money can buy in Talkeetna, AK.