Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The North Cascades: An Onsight, A Bail, and an Alpine Adventure

It was early August in DC, and most of the city was enjoying vacation. For the unfortunate few who were left without an escape plan, life oozed by like molasses. Our aggressive training schedule for the upcoming October trip to Yosemite had me psyched to climb, but I was bored of Seneca quartz and New River sandstone. I felt like I was missing something in my climbing. It had been too long since I last felt the exhilaration and uncertainty of casting off on an adventure climb. Call it serendipity, or perhaps just blind luck, but in the midst of these feelings, my buddy Spencer e-mailed me and asked if I'd like to meet him in the North Cascades for some alpine climbing. When I read his e-mail, I knew immediately what I had been lacking: I needed to fill up on some mountains. I accepted his invitation, and within a couple of days plans were laid to meet in the Cascades in two weeks.

With little time to plan, we immediately began spit balling. We e-mailed back and forth, sharing links from Mountain Project to climbs that looked like they might possess the right combination of challenge, adventure, and access. We only had five days, so we knew we wouldn't be able to trudge too far into the wilds. Plus, I wanted to maximize the Yosemite training potential of this trip, which meant that pure rock routes would be the flavor du jour. That ruled out some of the big boys of the range. But not to worry; this was the Cascades, after all. There were still plenty of climbs that fit our narrow selection criteria.

Liberty Bell Group.
Photo from Mountain Project.
With our hopes and dreams for this trip laid out, it soon became clear that the routes in Washington Pass were good candidates. More specifically, the Liberty Bell group had a number of clean rock spires that appeared to possess the right combination of good rock, challenging climbing, and access.

The Liberty Bell group, which includes five granite spires, is tucked neatly into a hairpin turn in the North Cascades Highway. Conveniently, this meant that the approach would be trivial by Cascades standards. We decided that these routes would be a good starting point to get a feel for the rock and the range as a whole.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Long Story of The Prow

As we promised, what follows is an after-action report from our Memorial Day weekend trip to New Hampshire. In an earlier post, I shared one of our goals for the trip. We also had another goal, which was to onsight the VMC Direct Direct in a quick push. In short, I guess you could say we failed to accomplish either goal. We did not onsight the Prow and we didn’t even get on the VMC DD. However, I was proud of our efforts, and we did succeed in several unspoken goals: get back safe, learn something, and have fun.

We arrived in Manchester late Thursday night and picked up our rental car. We settled for your run-of-the-mill midsize sedan, but I really think we should have shelled out the cash for a little extra American muscle—something boss, like a Camaro or a Charger. You see, we had no intention of showing up at the base of Cathedral Ledge as boring old Dan and Alex from Washington, DC. An historic and badass line like The Prow would require historic and badass new identities. This particular weekend, we’d be climbing as Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck.

oh yeah
American badasses.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thirty One

I thought we'd try 31 pitches in a day at Seneca for my 31st birthday, then get home in time to enjoy steak and wine for dinner.

What is it about this stage of life that makes me want to inaugurate my years with cute feats of athleticism?  Must I prove something?  Am I satirizing the impulse that I should prove something?  Either way, it's good fun.

Plus, a day of moderate routes has been on my mind for a long time.  We spend so much time pushing the frontiers of our ability that we seldom revel in the hills we've captured.  This would be a chance to enjoy the freedoms of vertical movement we've worked so hard to earn.

"To be home for dinner at 7pm, we need to hit the road by 4pm.  Assume 2 pitches per hour, up and down--that's 15+ hours of climbing, and we'll need to start by midnight."  The calculus was steeped in optimism, but it offered a glimpse of what we were dealing with.

I should note that Seneca is not your typical crag.  It's not a simple junction of vertical and horizontal with a park-like atmosphere, like something out of a Seurat painting.  It's not the Gunks or the New River Gorge.  Seneca is an MC Esher with ledges, ramps, and walls that connect in baffling ways.  These would be 31 rope lengths in a three dimensional labyrinth.  Who knew how this would go?

We armed ourselves with home-made black bean tacos and a trove of addictive cookies baked by Laura,  waded through the Friday rush hour, and exited the highway by the three giant white crosses, two oversized american flags, and municipal water tank--all arranged upon the hill like a still-life representation of the lands were we about to enter.

The steering wheel of Alex's Subaru tugged to the right.  I knew the tires were near bald from seasons of pushing them north, south, west...maybe this was just a warning.

"It's flat."

We pulled to the side of the road, swapped the tire by the light of a kind WV officer who'd come to investigate our hazards, and continued on our way listening to the whine of the front differential compensating for the doughnut.  Our adventure had officially begun.

We could see headlamp beams draped across the distant wall as we pulled into the lot around 11pm.  We met their owners as we silently marched up the darkened stair cases in the woods, and exchanged a few words.  They had their adventure--finally coming to a happy and welcome close, triumphant over stuck ropes and the uncertainty of darkness--and we had ours, just now emerging from belligerent daydream to the conflicting sensations of reality.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Arcteryx Acto MX Hoody Review

9 years ago I stood in a Philadelphia art gallery next to my professor, gazing at a blank white canvas with a $7000 price tag.  I was pissed.
"This isn't art!" I told my professor. "Who's going to pay $7000 for a blank canvas?"  It wasn't completely blank.  The artist had painted it white.
"Ah, but what is art if not something that evokes an emotional response?  Look how flustered you are."

I thought it would be easy to write a critique for what was, effectively, a blank canvas.  Yet, I learned, if I was going to pass the assignment, I'd have to offer my definition of art--my paradigm for what it should and shouldn't be--and show why I thought this was a poor specimen.

You would think reviewing climbing gear would be an easier, more concrete task, but you still have to reveal your calculus of psychology, environment, hopes, and dreams to qualify your opinion.  Otherwise you're like this guy, who reviewed the Arcteryx Acto MX Hoody on the Backcountry.com website:

"I had the chance to try this jacket on recently and I found it to be an amazing piece of equipment that I can't live without. You can rock it on it's own or use it for layering. It is super versatile and extremely technical. Perfect for any outdoor enthusiast. The liner is a fleece grid that can let heat out while wearing it alone or keep heat in if you are layering. Use this for anything you do in the snow. Not to mention it has a lifetime warranty. Awesome!"

His basis of review is from trying it on?

Anyway.  I have been interested in the Acto MX Hoody since Jason Kruk's "Acto PSA" (found via ColdThistle) piqued my interest in the jacket.  Then I got it for Christmas and have barely taken it off.  Here's my take:

Monday, April 2, 2012

NRG - Area 51- Replicant

Alex and I returned to the New River Gorge last weekend, this time attached to a crew of five experienced and talented climbers from the DC area.  We arrived at the crag, Area 51, Saturday morning, and proceeded to dispatch more hard climbs than I've witnessed being climbed in such a short period.  The company both daunted and inspired me.

There was one climb I thought stood above the rest.  It was a perfect dihedral perched upon a massive overhang--a line called Replicant.  The route caught Andre's eye too, and he went for it without delay.  Past a thin and crumbly start, large whipper potential at the roof, and well into the smooth corner and tips crack crux, Andre took a fall.  Undetterred, he finished the line, rested, then quickly red pointed.

The leftward traverse to gain the hanging corner looked dicey. Your last protection is well behind, and below you, and the thirty foot ride would have you swinging backwards, uncomfortably close to the rock.  But having watched Andre, and ruminating on it, I thought I just might be able to piece it together.

I climbed in a state of total focus, and stole every possible stance where I could regain strength.  Safely beyond the roof, I entered the crux dihedral, but I couldn't get my finger tips to dig into the pencil-width crack.  I edged on that damning feedback loop where you pull harder on the muscles that are losing feeling, but then eased my grip, and transferred weight to my feet.  The stream of blood in my forearms trickled back to life.  I'd have but a moment once my forearms recovered to finish the section before my toes gave out.  I leaned to the right on my finger tips, stepped up, and smeared hard on the left wall with my right foot, then the left.  Jamming my right shoulder into the wall, I stabilized, removed both hands from the crack, reset them higher, and pulled to a bridged stance.  Gradually the crack opened to accept more of my hand.  Gradually it dawned on me that I would pull this off.  What a great feeling.

Here's a photosynth with the photos I took of Andre's on-sight go.  It captures the first half of the climb up to the roof.


Summit of Campanile Eslevano, Frey, Argentina '08

A friend showed me Photosynth this weekend.  It stitches photos into a 3 dimensional collage.  This is a test with some shots I took on a trip four years ago.  It's from the summit of Campanile Eslevano in the Frey climbing area, which is just outside of Bariloche.  We'd just climbed a spectacular 5 pitch 5.10 called Imaginate.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

This One's For the Bobcat

I found myself more centered last weekend at the New River Gorge than I was on my prior outing.  I was rested, and not so thirsting for beer as I am sometimes at the end of the week.  I felt simply glad to climb--not overly eager, and fretting over details.  This would be a good weekend.

Saturday morning at Endless Wall, Alex won our customary rock flip and started us on Discombobulated.  Apart from fingery holds at the second and third bolt, the difficulties were punctuated enough for the route to serve as a decent warm up.

Next came Aesthetica.  I was pleased with my flow, and lack of hesitation on the aesthetic long moves, but it wasn't enough to win the onsight.  I took a fall at the crux.  Then, high stepping to a two-finger pocket, I skipped the big hueco out left, and climbed the second half to the chains.  Alex flashed the route.

Winning the second rock flip, for Mig Squadron, Alex racked and hiked the starting layback flake to a good stance preceding a blank traverse.  He inspected the diminutive holds, committed, toes smedging on glints in the sandstone, but ultimately fell in a slight pendulum.  Second try, he negotiated the thin part to an awkward stance, high stepped, and gained a moderate dihedral to the finish.  Informed by Alex's ascent, I cruised the route.  How great to cruise 11a on gear.  The training must be working.

Monday, March 5, 2012

DC Tribute: Earth Treks Rockville

Climbers are keenly aware of the best places to live to support their life style.  There's Boulder in Colorado with it's many crags and 14'ners; Southern California with it's fair weather and sun-drenched granite; and Salt Lake City, UT with its backyard of desert walls.  However, beyond these obvious climbing centers, there are many unsung locales that harbor all of the basic ingredients, just on a smaller scale.  Some make up for that scale with other, less obvious ingredients--ingredients that combine in unexpected, yet fortuitous ways.  It's like arugula on pizza.  With a squeeze of lemon, and a compliment of prosciutto, you have an unexpected masterpiece.  That's DC.  Its vertical assets are modest, but the way they combine is exquisite.

This will be the first post of many that will identify and honor DC's finest ingredients.

1. Earth Trek's Rockville

When they opened the expansion this new year, I felt how I imagine you would feel if your company went public and you became a millionaire over night.    ET Rockville is now the largest climbing gym in the country, and 20% larger than the 2nd largest.  The expansion offers the Gnarwall, which overhangs as far as it is tall; the Death Star, a floating planet of a top-out boulder; the Reactor Wall, which looks is like climbing the outside of a cooling tower; 5 cracks (yes, I'm including the off-width curtain slot in the new birthday area); an upgraded work out room; and a yoga room.  The gym single-handedly quashed this military brat's impulse to move every few years.

Just a corner of the new gym.
Here's to the route-setters: to Skilla for his bounty of quality, flowing routes; to Dickey for his damning cruxes; and JK for finding ways to make large holds utterly useless.

Here's to the Roadies and Road instructors who would all have bright futures in alpinism given their predilection for suffering.  I'm with you, but enough plank already.

Here's to the staff who wear their calves on their forearms, and campus more naturally than they walk.

Here's to the kids on the climbing team who hike my projects mid adolescent hormonal spew of gossip, texts, and posturing; who remind me that I could barely do a pullup at that age; who make me wish I found climbing much, much earlier.

Here's to the members who make the place feel like a second home.  I'm constantly impressed by how hard you pull after a full day of keeping government secrets, and saving the world.  That's right.  I'm on to you.  I know you're all spooks.

Earth Treks Rockville

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Goals experiment: The Prow

It's common knowledge that most climbers don't like to talk about their future goals. Honestly, I don't really understand this. I guess talking about your goals feels a little too exposing, for some. Or maybe the fear is that it will set you up for failure. The fewer people who know that you intend to climb something, the fewer people you will need to explain your failure to. Maybe some are just frightened of jinxing themselves? I can't say. But I do know one thing. That shit is boring.

Crux pitch of The Prow (it can't be that hard...girls can climb it!)
Photo from mountainproject.com
We aim to push the boundaries here at the Bailure Blog -- climbing norms, societal expectations, and even good taste. So we decided we'd not only talk about our dearest, most closely held climbing goals, but we'd also like to lay them out in detail on this blog for all to see and judge.

For our first experiment, we decided we'd give you a gift, dear reader(s?). We're going to offer up one of our longest-held, most sacred free climbing goals for your scrutiny. Dan and I have been talking about onsighting one of Cathedral Ledge's tespiece climbs, The Prow, for over a year now. We think we're capable, and we're going to give it our best effort.  We hope to post a few times on this blog in the weeks leading up to our attempt, in order to document our training and thoughts on the upcoming climb (but no promises). Then, of course, we'd like to do a trip report or after-action debriefing.

Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory
We realize that by posting this, we're opening ourselves up to a lot of criticism. In essence, we're calling our shot, Babe Ruth style. We're going to walk up to The Prow and onsight that bitch. We understand that we may get exactly the type of crude, malicious invective that only anonymous internet posting can deliver, according to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. But, we hope we'll receive thoughtful, incisive commentary instead. So, feel free to engage in this experiment. And that's exactly what this is, an experiment. We'll see how it works out. In the meantime, check back for possible pre-game posts about this classic New Hampshire route.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A collection of movements and a pair of testicles

What makes a man a man? Luckily, we've had the answer to this question since 1998, when the Dude summed it up so nicely: It's being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost ... along with a pair of testicles.

But what makes a route a route? Can a climbing route be more than just a collection of movements over rock and ice, or is it exclusively the sum of its parts?

Well, I think that depends on the person who climbs it. After all, it's people who create routes. Without the individual's experience, a route would be nothing more than just a series of movements. But when you add the human element, a route can become so much more. Take for instance New Hampshire's classic alpine route, The Black Dike. After three winter climbing seasons, I finally had the opportunity to climb this route in late February. To me, this route was much more than just three pitches of moderate rock and ice climbing in a stark alpine environment.
Black Dike in condition, February 2012
(photo taken from mountainproject.com)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Old Ragged

When I started climbing 5 years ago, I liked how it brought out the best in me.  I liked how it drove me to bed early, how it inspired me to eat well, and how it stripped my focus to a crystal edge.  Climbing still focuses me, but I've become more comfortable, and have allowed my other life--real life--to encroach upon my climbing discipline more and more.  This weekend my "comfort" reached a new level.

The plan was to join Andre, one of DC's finest trad climbers, for a day on the granite of Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains of VA.  To prepare, I planned to get a light workout in on Friday night, have dinner with Laura, and get a solid night of sleep.  Nope.

Friday we said goodbye to someone I've worked with for the last 5 years.  He was a boss, colleague, and friend.  What started as a farewell happy hour at Matchbox gained momentum until there was no jumping off.

My alarm went off at 6:15am Saturday morning.  "Why do I have an alarm set on a Saturday?  That's ridiculous."  Then it all came back.  Andre would pick me up in 15 minutes.
"What have I done?"

In a stupor, I filled my climbing pack, and jumped into Andre's waiting car.  Part of me engaged in conversation about our coming day, and another reeled in horror.  "When did I go to sleep last night?"  "How did we get to Cleveland Park from Rockville? Right, we took the metro, but Grosvenor Station was closed, wasn't it?  We rode a shuttle bus?"

On the rolling, curved roads at the base of Old Rag I became overwhelmed by nausea.  Andre kindly stopped the car and stood aside as I retched coffee and fruit.

Thank goodness for the hour and a half approach hike.  Thank goodness for the redemptive, cleansing therapy of long slow cardio.

Friday, January 6, 2012

White Thumb

I can't shake the feeling that I came into climbing in the wrong generation -- all the low hanging fruit has been plucked, coddled, and juiced. I want to explore! People say that we're now in a prime place in climbing history with modern techniques and gear opening up new amazing FA possibilities, and it's true. New routes these days blow my mind. But all that still falls into the elite category. If you look at the rates of growth of techniques, gear, and FA completion, I would propose that there was a knee in the curve when techniques became fairly modern but a lot of rock remained unexplored. It might be interesting to try to put some numbers to my harebrained proposal; in the mean time, my real point remains: new challenges are just fun!

The Sandias are full of unclimbed rock, linkup options, hardman potential, and training opportunities. When the first cold, snowy day hit us this winter (Dec 3, 2011), Micah and I sniffed the curious alpine fruit -- a snowy rock climb to whet our ambitions for AK 2012! (Note: I'm not suggesting this was the first snow climb of the route, no doubt it's been done.)

Excited for the unknown?
We would hit the NW ridge of the Thumb (III 5.5), a route I'd done in a few configurations already - with rope, without, etc. It'd be a perfect avenue to scratch up with crampons and a tool. And it was a blast!

Starting up easy ground.

It was a treat being completely alone in the canyon!

We roped up about 1/3 of the way up, where the sidewalk ends.