Saturday, June 30, 2012

the approach

So you’ve leafed through your guidebook, found your crag for the day’s take, and decided on what routes you’re going to work. So how do you get there? The hike to the cliff base, known as the approach, is the bane of climbers everywhere. Often unmarked, poorly described and dangerous, approaching a crag can be as much if not more work than the actual climbing. Cliffs usually rim the top of a canyon, hang over rivers or rise out of the earth miles from any accessible road. So you’re going to have to hike to the top of that canyon, cross that river, or lace up and walk those miles to get to your destination. Don’t forget you’ve got a heavy pack on - ropes, gear, harnesses, shoes, food, and water can add up to around 40 pounds per person on a two-man climbing team.

The approach is such an undertaking that climbing shoe companies make approach-specific shoes. I used to question the validity of spending 120 dollars on a pair of hiking boots that are targeted for walking to a cliff, but after struggling numerous times in tennis shoes, sandals and rock shoes, I coughed up the cash for a pair. And boy, does it make the difference. Eric and I both have approach shoes, and they’ve saved our asses many times. Sharing the same rubber of climbing shoes, approach shoes stick to steep rock on fourth-class hiking (scrambling up big boulders with the possibility of a bad fall), hold on wet rock, and offer some ankle support. Just last evening, as we hiked down the mountainside of Sinks Canyon in Wyoming, a slow-moving climber in front of us had on some slip-on loafers, and fell at least three times on the way out. Justification complete.

Approaches can be frustratingly difficult to find and follow. Climber trails are often unmarked, undeveloped, or completely non-existent. Guidebooks often have vague descriptions that make you question where the hell you are going. In Boulder Canyon, approaches usually cross a creek on a cable traverse, then begin on talus - huge boulder fields on the side of steep mountainsides where no trail exists. You have to pick your way carefully up the talus, looking for trails to appear, and often end up following what appears to be a trail into nothing. In Clear Creek Canyon, at the River Wall, some walls are accessed by wading along the side of the rushing white water, or accessed by climbing up boulders and over a road tunnel a few hundred feet above creek. Good foot placement is absolutely crucial.

Here is an excerpt from the Lander Rock Climbs guidebook (written by Steve Bechtel from Elemental Climbing publishers) that we followed yesterday:

“Park at the Popo Agie Campground, hike across the swinging bridge, on the far side, the trail splits. Go straight ahead up some short steps on a trail heading toward the cliffs on the hill above. After about 3-4 minutes on this trail, it forks. Go right, [then go left] and head right again. Follow the trail till you hit a fence. Turn left and follow faint game trails up into the woods. Eventually, these trails solidify into a trail heading up the drainage gully. As the angle steepens and the gully narrows, a faint trail breaks left, go to the right of the gully. About two minutes uphill, a new trail breaks left along the base of this crag. The routes are a five minute’s walk away.”

We got lost several times. We hiked up steep hills with no trail looking for trails. We somehow ended up on a trail on top of the cliffs we wanted to climb. By the time we got to the crag, sweaty, tired and thirsty, it was time to go vertical. Just another day in the office. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

breaking the barrier

With more front range sport climbing under our belts, we decided it was time to transition into traditional climbing. Trad climbing, as it's called by rope guns and rock afficianados, is a style of climbing using natural features of the rock and temporarily-placed gear (called pro) for protection on a route. Trad routes usually exploit cracks, corners, dihedrals (concave corners of the cliff face), or other lines of weakness in the cliff face to gain protection opportunities. Pieces of gear such as nuts (chunks of metal slung with wires), chocks (hexagonal pieces of aluminum slung with rope or wires), and cams (spring loaded engineering wonders with four lobes that hold the harder you pull on them) are used along with horns, bulges and other rock features on which the rope can be naturally anchored. Even trees are fair game for rappelling down a route or setting up a belay anchor. The scary thing about trad climbing is that you have to know if your pro is placed correctly - if it's not, a high lead fall can dislodge gear, creating a zipper effect for a bigger fall, or even worse, pulling out the belay anchor. However, trad climbing can be viewed as a safer endeavor than sport climbing, because with sport, you are trusting your existence to hardware that someone else drilled into a wall who-knows-how-long ago.

However you view safety, trad is a scary endeavor. The knowledge you need to possess with knots, rope management, and anchor building (not to mention the thousands of dollars of gear you need) just to make it up a route is immense. Add to that the fact that you really don't ever want to fall on your gear placements, and you've got quite a mental game on your hands...the same hands that are chalked up, sweaty, and desperately jammed into cracks hundreds of feet above the ground. The best routes take place on multi-pitch climbs, routes that are taller than the length of the rope (usually one pitch is equal to 115 feet maximum). When the climb starts, the leader climbs above the rope, placing pieces of gear into the rock, protecting his fall. When he reaches an appropriate area for a belay station, usually some kind of a ledge or area where he can belay comfortably and begin the next pitch, he builds an anchor - a complex process using three different points of protections, with a rigging system of rope that equalizes the load on all three anchor points. The biggest thing about climbing is that all systems involve extreme redundancy - you want every single point of impact to be backed up so that if anything fails, you're still attached by one means or another. It might involve a big fall, a hard landing on an edge or an awkward hang in your harness, but it's better than plummeting to a big splat on the ground below. When all is said and done, a multi pitch climb can be anything from a two pitch, 150 foot scamper, to a 25 pitch, multiple-day affair.

Eric's birthday present to himself was a guided traditional climb, which we completed with the excellent help and flawless knowledge of our guide Mike Soucy from the Colorado Mountain Guides, based out of Boulder. Mike taught us the basics of placing gear in cracks, anchor building, and rope management from belay stations. After the initial technique session, it was time to put our skills to work on a three pitch classic route on Boulder Canyon's Cob Rock crag. The route, of the 5.8+ grade (you are always supposed to trad climb well under your sport abilities), put us up an awkward chimney on pitch one, an aesthetic hand crack and dihedral for pitch two, and a tough hand / fist jamming crack to top out the crag. We all sent the entire route clean, meaning no resting on the ropes, and got to practice belaying on the wall. I belayed our guide on pitches two and three, while Eric cleaned the placed gear on his way up. Cleaning a trad route can be awfully difficult, as some pieces of gear become hopelessly wedged into the cracks and pockets of the rock. A cleaning tool is used to dislodge nuts and chocks, while the trigger system of the cam pro is used to close the lobes to remove those pieces. The placement of a cam can become troublesome if the leader has smaller hands. He might be able to place the gear into a crack deeper than his cleaner, with fatter hands, can reach in to activate the triggers. All in a trad day's work.

The view from the top of the route was, of course, epic, and some tourists far below on the side of the canyon highway pulled off to snap photos of the climbers on the tower. It was a great experience that has opened up a whole new world of climbing to us, if only we can trust ourselves enough to place good pro and build solid anchors. Like the best trad rope guns say, crack kills. Better start taping our hands up for the big walls...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

climbing colorado - stepping up our game

Since Shelf Road, a lot has happened in the climbing sector. We've ramped up our game, climbed on new rock, and have both improved our technical and physical climbing abilities. Here's a quick summary of what we've done thus far:

Clear Creek Canyon, Golden, Colorado - This steep rugged canyon, carved through the front range right outside of Denver, features gneiss and schist - two sharp, crystal-studded metamorphic rocks. The holds are incut, but some flakes can be loose and break off if pulled hard upon. We went here with our new buddy Karen in the evening (we've been in Colorado during one of the hottest record-setting heatwaves ever) and got the send train running. Eric onsighted several routes as usual, and I had my first ever lead onsight of a 5.9+ route that featured some pretty tricky moves. For those who aren't familiar with climbing jargon, an onsight means you climbed the route without resting on the rope or falling on your gear - the rope serves only as backup protection. So technically, you could climb the route free without any protection and make it safely to the top. The second part of the onsight means that you sent the route clean, first time, without any beta (tips or tricks about the route) to help you. So any time you approach a new route, you have only one chance to onsight it. If you come back after working the route and then send it clean, that goes in the record books as a red point climb. I was extremely stoked to finally onsight a route, it's an incredible feeling I've been working towards for a while. I hadn't led any climbs since the Red in Kentucky, so to step right up on new rock in an exposed canyon was a big deal for me. We also helped some asshole get his rope down when he tried to pull it through the anchors with a stopper knot tied in the end. The dude didn't even say thank you after Eric climbed to the top and had to do a sketchy traverse over to get the rope out.

Golden Cliffs, Golden, Colorado - The short, single pitch climbs on Golden Cliffs offer technical climbing on smooth, slippery basalt - a volcanic rock that forms when lava flows harden. The cliff band sits high atop a mesa over looking the Coors Brewery, downtown Golden, and the distant Denver skyline. The smell of mash and hops constantly drift up to the nostrils atop the hot summer winds. Eric and I each led a handful of climbs and got stumped by the polished, slopey holds. Not to mention it was over 100 degrees, again. We climbed into the evening and ended up doing a route in the dark which I cleaned wearing my headlamp. We lowered down and were resting, prepared to do a nice route called New River Gorge Homesick Blues (an homage to our stomping grounds) when a rattlesnake decided to slither out of the very crack we had just climbed and head under our rope bag. We each freaked out, decided to get the hell out, and packed up our gear quickly. We had a good mile hike down the mesa's mountain side, which we did shouting noises and banging on our water jugs in the hopes of scaring other rattlesnakes away. We must have looked like two bumbling idiots to the people who live right below the mesa.

Boulder Canyon, Boulder, Colorado - We had to get away from the hustle and bustle of Denver and its suburbs, so north we headed to the crunchy, extremely fit, hippy college town of Boulder. Right up from endless stores, bars and good looking people is Boulder Canyon - a 20 mile-long gash in the front range featuring endless multi-pitch sport and trad climbing on bombproof granite. Boulder Canyon features the crag castle rock, which Royal Robbins had some of his classic ascents, including the route Coffin Crack, the hardest climb in the world at the time. Boulder was home to the free climbing revolution of the 70's while Yosemite served as the far western hub of the same style. We spent four days climbing here, testing ourselves on yet another new rock. The first evening endeavor included my lead climb of a 120 foot, 5.8+ in the dark. It was an intense climb, but ended up being really fun using the headlamp to find my next holds. The one mental advantage of headlamp climbing is that your only focus on your next move - your height and exposure don't adversely affect you, because, well, you can't see shit. The next day, Eric onsighted an 5.11c, his hardest grade yet, then two days later onsighed a 5.11d at the end of a long day. Eric has progressed extremely fast, his mental and physicaly abilities show how he does it. I had several onsights as well, including the route Animation, a four star (the highest rating a climb in the Canyon can get) 5.8+ that most consider the best 5.8 in the canyon. Two days later I onsighted a creepy 5.8+ slab route with a huge runout (long distance between protection) to the anchors. Our last day in the canyon, we tried to find the crag called Avalon. To get to the routes on the western side of Boulder Creek, one must Tyrolean Traverse across the white water and jagged rocks of the creek. A Tyrolean Traverse is accomplished by clipping your harness to a fixed rope or cable across the gulley and, hanging from the rope, facing backwards, pulling yourself across to the other side. We approached two different crags before finding our target - the first had a traverse leading to some 5th class scrambling up some dirty rock. Eric climbed higher, with his pack on, pretty much free soloing a moderate pitch. He knocked a big rock while doing so, and I pressed my back against the wall as the watermelon-sized chunk went sailing over my head. The second fail involved another traverse, and some choice words against the info presented by our guide book. After the 5th traverse, which can be pretty exhausting, we finally made it to Avalon. Here we had our last onsights, referenced above, and ran out of water, deciding to call it a day.

Since arriving in Boulder, we've camped at the top of the canyon, outside of a super crunchy hippy town called Nederland situated above a large reservoir with views of the snow-capped Rockies. It's been a great time in the front range, and now we're gearing up to head to Rocky Mountain National Park with the single goal of doing a multi-pitch climb for Eric's birthday on the 25th.

dylan on the tyrolean traverse in boulder canyon - after we crossed, we had to climb that pile of boulders on the right, without ropes and carrying our packs - photo by eric fizer

Thursday, June 21, 2012

greetings from boulder

Since our last post from the Sand Dunes, we've moved up north through Denver and into Boulder. Back in Shelf Road, we met a duo of climbers who live in Denver. Our new friend, Karen, was kind enough to let us crash at her nice apartment for two days while we got our climbing plans in order. It was nice to have the pleasures of a swimming pool, AC, beds and showers for a few days. The three of us scooted up north to Boulder to do some granite climbing and camp above town in the mountains. Eric and I were very excited to get out of the desert and off the flat plains of the front range. There is currently a fire ban in effect state-wide. The camping atmosphere isn't as exciting, but safety first I suppose. We took our first dirtbag showers with environmentally-friendly soap in Boulder Creek today. The freezing cold water and scent of peppermint helped us cope with another day of 100 degree temps. My mind is currently gassed from four days in a row of intensive climbing, so peace out until next time.

climbing in boulder canyon

crashing at our new friends place in denver

driving from colorado spings to Denver

Saturday, June 16, 2012

message from management

Attention all dirtbags, please be sure to look at individual posts on the right side of the blog. As we post things, some get out of order and the length of some posts may make you miss recent posts that don't show up on the main page. Cool beans.

driving colorado - from canyon city to great sand dunes national park

In need of a rest day after the three day climbing stint in Shelf Road, we headed southwest to enjoy the dynamic scenery of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Deciding to take the scenic route, we took a byway through the extremely rugged, steep and lush San Isabel Mountains. We stopped to photograph some bighorn sheep climbing up vertical granite and cruised on through wagon wheel towns dotting the mountainous landscape. We got a good glimpse of the white bark of aspen forests, high alpine pine stands, and saw a few peaks above timberline. Just when we thought we had reached the pinnacle of it all, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range jutted up against the sky, putting the San Isabels to shame. The road ran south east along the Sangre foothills, with a barren high plain ecosystem on the other side. The sun was setting during the entire drive - the huge sky of the west allows for several hour sunsets. As we finally rounded the southern tip of the Sangre range, we headed north towards the Dunes. A high mountain pass (over 9,500 feet) caused the van to sputter, barely making it up with little to no acceleration. High wind gusts blew the van around like a flag on a pole. It was quite creepy, keeping us on edge until we came back down to a still high 8,000 feet. A herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. Darkness finally fell as we cruised up the 16 mile, perfectly straight road to the Dunes. The entrance gate was unstaffed so we pulled in to a scenic view parking lot and slept for the night. I was quite excited to see what scenery awaited us when the sun rose.

The alarm went off at 6 a.m. after a dismal night of light sleep, and I wanted to pass back out. A large "WHOA" from Eric convinced me to sit up, and there they were. Massive sand dunes - dark tan against a deep blue sky. The pine-studded hills and snow-capped peaks of the 14,000 foot Sangre de Cristos surrounded the bone dry dunes with supreme grandeur. The dunes are a geological wonder, formed when an ancient lake dried up and westward winds blew every grain of sand up against the natural barrier of the Sangre de Cristos. Seeing the scale of it all gave a humbling sense of what I call smallitude, feeling entirely significant against the massive landscape.
the medano creek basin flanked by the southern tip of the sangre de cristo mountains - photo by dylan jones

one word - epic - photo by dylan jones

We had to move fast - the sun was already blazing and sand temperatures can reach 140 degrees in the afternoon. We filled up with water and grabbed a few snacks, heading for the intimidating hike to the summit of High Dune. The elevation of the dune basin is 8,000 feet - enough to give us East coasters short breath, naseua and headaches. On we trudged, taking it step by step, from dune ridge to ridge, trying to traverse efficiently. Heading straight up will kill your energy in a few hundred steps. High Dune sits 800 feet above the basin, offering a view of the entire sand dune field and the epic Sangre range. I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like to be in a caravan in the Gobi desert - a thought that brought some scary images of dehydration of third degree sunburn.

bone dry dunes contrast the lush pines of the sangre de cristos - photo by dylan jones
Unfortunately my camera didn't survive the journey, grains of sand got inside the lens and rendered it useless. What I did capture before she died was good enough for me. Some Coloradians hiked up with snowboards ready to shred the dunes but forgot to WD-40 the bottom for lubrication. It was still entertaining to see them slowly drop and roll down the massive dune face. Eric and I decided to run full speed down the biggest, steepest slopes of the dunes, sometimes getting up to 12 feet in a single stride - what took us 45 minutes to hike up, breathless and beaten, took us 8 minutes to speed down with big smiles and everything covered in sand.

forget a beach, we like high altitude and massive mountains for toes in the sand - photo by dylan jones
From the coffee shop here in Alamosa, due west of the Dunes, we will head north, then east back to Colorado Springs on a super scenic drive through the heart of the rockies. As much fun as it has been to experience the desert, I can't wait to get back into my love of lush, rocky and stream-filled mountain forests.

sand dunes national park colorado (all photos by dylan and eric)