Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pico de Orizaba

Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,511 feet over the rolling farmland of southern Mexico between Puebla and Veracruz.  Citlalteptl is the harder to pronounce, but cooler, name given to this peak in the náhuatl language from the Aztec era.  It translates to something like "Star Peak".  Whatever name you use, this thing is BIG.  Highest peak in Mexico, third highest in North America, 7th largest topographic prominence in the world!  This mountain has a whole bunch of merit badges.  Erica planted the seed in Jeb and my brains that we should climb it, and once the plan was in motion, she was extra convincing -- why not ski it?!  Here we go . . . 
Our journey began, as many expeditions do, on an airplane.  And as is typical of most elements of a good expedition, this flight had its share type 2 fun.  Sharing a row of seats with a 1.5 seat wide dude is fun on its own, but when he has a sweet purple shirt and starts snoring on takeoff, you know you've got something special!

As Jeb observed somewhere near the end of the trip "everywhere we go in Mexico, they're throwing a party!"  And he was right, we chose to visit the high point of the country during the biggest party of the year, the grito!  On this day 201 years ago Miguel Hidalgo gave a speech that sparked what would eventually become the Mexican war of independence.  Every September 15, Hidalgo's speech is reprised from balconies across the country, ¡viva mexico!  After some expert negotiation, we were able to bypass hundreds of heavily armed security guards and soldiers and actually rent a room in the hotel that hosted the mayor of Puebla's speech (no, seriously!).  Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the building to address the crowd.

After quick visit to a MEGAPelican store for supplies, a crash course in rural Mexico navigation, and a 2-hour ride up a dirt road, we were at base camp in the Piedra Grande hut, our home for the next two nights.  The weather was spectacular for our whole time there, with thunderclouds from the Gulf of Mexico cruising around in the valley below us but rarely reaching our lofty altitude.

Our first attempt to climb was cut short quickly by an altitude smackdown on Jeb and I.  It's amazing how being up just a few thousand feet in altitude can crush an otherwise fit person's ability to function.  But equally impressive is how quickly our bodies can adapt.  After just 24 hours of rest, napping and checking out the scenery, our second attempt felt like a cruise.  We reached our earlier high point almost twice as fast as the day before, and ended up curled up behind a boulder to stay warm while we waited for the sun to rise.  By the time we were up on the glacier, the horizon glowed burnt orange softly lighting puffy clouds blanketing the valley below.

Once on the glacier, the uniform shape of the summit seemed to defy depth perception.  We knew we were moving upward, but it was tough to tell whether the summit was getting closer!

Grinding away at the type-2 fun paid off though, and we finally seemed to be making upward progress.  The closer we got to the summit the more the wind picked up, and for the last few hundred feet energy was equally divided between moving upwards and staying standing with skis on our backs like giant sails.

And once we crested the summit ridge, what a sight!  From our northern aspect the summit appeared to be a gentle dome, but once on top we could see that it was really the rim of a thousand-foot-deep crater with nearly vertical walls!  It's the kind of volcano crater that practically begged for a secret criminal mastermind headquarters!

What an awesome way to celebrate a couple of birthdays!  Getting old isn't much fun, but celebrating with exotic ski mountaineering missions is rad fo' sho'.

Tres, dos, uno, dropping!

Lush rolling hills made awesome ski scenery, and the chalky snow wasn't too bad either.  Another climber we crossed paths with during our acclimatization day reported these were the best snow conditions he'd seen on the mountain in years.  Gracias otra vez, la niña!

Fired up with energy from a fun ski and energized with thick air, we happily changed back into hiking shoes for the descent back down to the hut.

Once we were back at the hut, our ride provider Joaquin Canchola was waiting for us.  We shared a Pacifico and some fun stories with him, then began retracing our steps to the Mexico City airport.  We stopped in Cholula to spend the night and enjoy delicious mole and snack on some street food.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the line Jeb and I ate some food that our feeble stomachs were unable to handle, and we had an . . . invigorating evening in the hotel room in Cholula.

Can you guess where on the scale we spent most of an evening and morning?  Hint . . . allllll the way down at the bottom.  All part of the expedition experience though!  Thanks so much to the inventor of Immodium, whose product allowed us to drive for several hours with minimal rest stops =).  
Special thanks to Dave Miller for the beta on getting to Piedra Grande, Joaquin and Maribel Canchola for welcoming us and a smooth ride up the hill, Ciro for the ride to the airport, Dr. Glenn for the help with getting Diamox, and of course Jeb and Erica for slaying.  Can't wait for the next mission!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Da Palisades

Simply put, the Palisades are the most mountainous mountains in the Sierra Nevada.  
--Peter Croft, The Good, the Great and the Awesome

   With these words as inspiration, Jeb and I packed our rucksacks and hiked up the north fork of Big Pine Creek.  Our objective was to traverse the ridge separating the north and south forks of the Big Pine drainage, reaching the summits of Temple Crag, Mt. Gayley, and finally Mt. Sill on the Sierra crest.  The climb was exhausting, beautiful, and looooong.  The fact that this is one of the shortest ridge traverses in the Sierra is humbling, but it means there are many more adventures to be had and learning to be done!

Jeb contemplating life, love, and Temple Crag.  Our first climb the next morning would take us up the Moon Goddess Arête, the prominent ridge rising above Jeb's head.

By the time the sun cast its alpenglow on the creatively named 1st, 2nd and 3rd lakes, we were already high on Temple Crag.

Jeb climbing as we moved up past the first tower of Moon Goddess.

On the summit of Temple Crag at 11am, we were full of energy and confidence.  

The long, winding ridge to Mt. Gayley stretches out to the north from Temple Crag, and it was obvious we had a lot of work to do.  The hulking mass of Mt. Sill on the horizon provided a constant reminder of where we were headed.

Hours of climbing on the Gayley ridge, crossing from one side to the other to avoid dead ends, ate away at our motivation and confidence.  GU packets were deployed, water was guzzled, and we continued on.

Finally, at 4pm we crested yet another spire and saw that there were none left, we were on the summit of Mt. Gayley!  With no time to waste, Jeb took off towards the saddle with Mt. Sill while I lingered on the summit snapping photos and enjoying the view of the jagged crest behind us.

Our last thousand feet of climbing up the Swiss Arête to the left of the snowfield would take us to the summit of Mt. Sill.

Just before 7pm, we pulled onto the summit and were treated to our first view of the western slope of the Palisades, and seemingly endless Sierra peaks beyond.  The sun was low in the sky, but we lingered on the summit soaking in magic of the Sierra. 

As we descended the snowfield of Mt. Sill, the sun slipped below the horizon.  Headlamp batteries are cheap though, and we just happy to be on our way back to camp and the burritos waiting there to get in our bellies!

Final stats for the day: 14 hours of climbing, 20 hours on the move.  3 peaks, ~4000' of climbing ranging from 3rd class to 5.9.

The next morning, we hiked out to our car and Jeb headed home to his job(?!).  I stuck around Glacier Lodge for a day resting my legs, then set out to climb the Middle Palisade.

This was my first time up the south fork of Big Pine creek, and I was struck by how much more wide open it was.  And the ridge crest to the west, wow!  Almost continuous knife edge for miles, from Mt. Sill down to Southfork Pass.  Above, the Middle Palisade rears its beautiful head above a still half-frozen glacial lake.

Follow the orange brick road!  The red scar low on the face marks the gully that I used to access the easier scrambling on the face above.

Second time on the Palisade crest in three days, this is the good life!  

Descending down past Finger Lake, my stomach cried out for dinner but I had to stop to take photos!  What a fantastic couple of days, I can't wait to come in the winter with skis!

More photos here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

words of wisdom from the elders

The quest of the mountaineer, in simplest terms, is for the freedom of the hills, to be fully at home in the high wilderness with no barriers he cannot pass, no dangers he cannot avoid.  A fine, fair country it is to call home, but the life is not always calm and easy; even the wisest and most skillful citizen suffers rough and dirty times, violent and miserable.
   This is the first paragraph of the first edition of The Freedom of the Hills, published in 1960.  I was lucky enough to come across a copy in the Sierra Club cabin at horse camp on Mt. Shasta.  It was tons of fun thumbing through a piece of mountaineering history, and often chuckling at the old-fashioned techniques which were cutting edge back in the 60s.  But the poetry of the first paragraph struck me so much that I copied it into my notebook and am sharing it here.
   Now in its 8th edition, Freedom of the Hills has been the standard mountaineering reference since its initial publication.  Lots has changed since the first publication and the 7th edition on my bookshelf that I've read through so many times.  I'm sure a bit more in the new, 8th edition.  It was a total blast reading the chapters about cutting steps (in case it's too steep for crampons!  high end climbers now scale vertical ice and overhanging rock in crampons . . . ), using mineral oil as sunscreen, and choosing the appropriate wood for an alpenstock shaft.  Also in the Sierra Club hut library are original versions of 50 Classic Climbs of North America and many other awesome, historic books.  Definitely worth checking out if you're in northern California!

Cover of the 1st ed.  Image courtesy of
   I found the following link while searching for the cover image above, lots of old books worth reading. Mountaineering history is so cool!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

tuolumne enduro sesh

Jeb and I have our sights set on some long routes in the eastern Sierra, so when we had two days of time off that lined up, it was on!  Plenty of time for 3 classic routes.  We met in a supermarket parking long in Minden, piled climbing gear and nutritious food into my car, and headed south towards Tuolumne meadows.

After camping in Lee Vining for a few hours, we rolled through the Yosemite eastern entrance station just before sunrise.  After a few miles of cross country hiking, we crossed a final snowfield to reach the southern end of Matthes Crest.

We stopped for a quick, energy-dense brunch at a saddle as the warm sun was finally creeping towards us.

490 calories in a single serving!  For only $1!  That's right, Hostess fruit* pies are the ultimate energy food.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Clif Bar.
    *Hostess fruit pies are not believed to contain any fruit

I am an aspiring extreme pie eater.

Energized by High Fructose Corn Syrup, now referred to by the processed food industry PR department as "corn sugar", Jeb took the lead up the first pitch.

After a section of steep climbing to reach the crest, we saw why Matthes is known as a classic climb.  A full mile of wandering knife-edge ridge!  

Most of the time we could travel quickly along the ridge, but there were short sections of technical climbing and downclimbing to keep us on our toes.

Jeb demonstrating some of the coolest climbing on the route.  Traversing with hands on the ridge actually felt incredibly secure because of the unique, knobby texture of the granite in Tuolumne.

The south pinnacle afforded awesome views of the Clark range and surrounding high country.

The south summit is a common end-point for the climb, but we took Peter Croft's words to heart, believing that a traverse only counts if you go from one end to the other!  Jeb consulted our photocopied route description for beta on how to proceed north (it's a ridge, just keep going!).

The intimidating north pinnacle.  The was the view that made us wonder "how are we going to get up that?", but once we got close the route became clear and we were on top reading the summit register in no time.

A prime example of the knobs that make Tuolumne climbing so unique.

The north half of the ridge had less opportunities for walking, but lots of moderate climbing with cool step-across moves like Jeb shows off here.

One of the coolest features of the north half of the crest (and really, the whole ridge), it the "rock cornice".  Here I am peering down trying to figure out how far it actually overhangs, my best guess was 15'!

After 6 hours of climbing, we were able to walk off the north end of the crest.  It felt great to relax and be on flat ground for a little while!

We hiked over a saddle between the Echo peaks, and were treated to a great view of the entire Matthes Crest.

As well as our next objective for the day, Cathedral peak.  The southeast buttress route follows the sun/shade line.

After several hours on the move, and with more to come, I was pretty zonked and obviously forgot to include the summit of Cathedral in this photo.  Exhaustion also led me to make silly statements like "this is going to be a cruise" and "we'll definitely finish in less than an hour".  

Three hours after starting up and after a few routefinding errors, harder-than-expected climbing and rope drag thrashing, we finally reached the top of Cathedral Peak.  Jeb had enough gas in the tank to muster a blue-steel pose, luckily.

Beautiful sunset alpenglow lit up the Cathedral range and Budd Lake as we headed down the trail, racing the last sunlight of the day.  We bumbled around in the "dusk" reached my car at the trailhead without headlamps though, so it doesn't count as getting down late!  We got to town 5 minutes before closing time as the BBQ shop, and stuffed our faces with delicious food to fuel up for the next days' outing, Fairview Dome. 

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The Regular route on Fairview, an awesome line right up the gut of the 1000' dome.

Jeb leads off toward a bright future at the start of the third pitch.

At the start of our weekend, that blister was intact and my skin was smoothe and ready for cosmetics commercials.  I guess 15 hours or so of climbing aren't the same as a manicure.  Although I read on wikipedia that Yosemite's domes are created by exfoliation joints in granite, so maybe there is still synergy between skin care and rock climbing waiting to be found!  (

Two happy and exhausted climbers on the summit of Fairview dome.  My level of exhaustion became clear when I fell on perfectly flat forest ground during the walk back to the trailhead, tripping on two rocks during a single step and ending up face down in the dirt.  Perfect timing, thanks for a fun weekend Jareb!