February and March in Patagonia
Patagonia: the land of the large footed natives; the land of terrible weather and beautiful splitter granite spires. Ian Nicholson and I embarked on the 'Living the Dream Expedition 2010,' heading to the French Valley of the Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Chile. Our intention was to crush new routes on those beautiful towers, specifically the Espada and the Hoja. Simple right? Of course not...
Seattle to LAX to Lima to Buenos Aires... 18 hours in Buenos Aires, running about with Ros, then off to Califate. A bus to Puerto Natales and we're there. The boys at Erratic Rock hooked it up with a sick place to stay. We bought more food and headed into the mountains. With loads in and out of the 15km approach, we gained some serious walking fitness and before we settled in the French Valley at Campo Britanico.
Then, sitting, in the rain.
The mountains were encrusted in ice. The wind was howling. We festered.
The Russians were stoked on their wine supply. Mason and the Brits were up in the boulders. We read and chilled. Atlas Shrugged was thought provoking and satisfyingly long.
Small bits of good weather passed through and we ran to the mountains only to be shut down by closing in weather or ice filled cracks. We barley even broke out the rope for weeks. Remaining stoked to send, we stayed honed and ready.
Food was running low, so we decided a run to town was in order. We cruised to the boat only to find a weather forecast showing a potential window for the following day. We were there to send, not to head to town in good weather, so we ran back to camp (read 30km roundtrip) to huck ourselves again. Alas no love... we headed back to town and bought all the food we had been yearning for, no more hunger.
Morning of the 25th, it poured till 10am. The sun came out. We ran to the mountains. Hoja and Espada were still encrusted in ice so we ran to the other side of the valley to Los Gemelos; a peak to the North of the massive Catedral. It was first climbed last year by our mate Dave Turner via it's NE ridge and had seen one subsequent ascent via the same route. We aimed for the S ridge. Reaching the base we got started immediately, at the early hour of 2pm. A ramp system led us across the East face, icy pitches up flakes led to some beautiful cracks which led us to the col between the two peaks of Los Gemelos. Up the ridge! The weather was coming along with the darkness. The climbing stayed rowdy. We had to aid, hooking through flakes and cruising through more cracks.
Night fell, the wind howled. Above us an unprotectable steep slab bloked our path. It started to rain. A mossy crack lead us out the right, around the corner. I aided out into another system. On the east face there was less wind. Finally, I could think unencumbered by its barrage. Up another dihedral and back to the ridgeline and the wind. With the summit in sight, one more pitch took us through a beautiful 5.10 OW to the cumbre. We were stoked.
Down we went into the winds. The rope pulling was a fearful affair, but all went well to the col. Ropes took flight into the dark emptiness as we reeled them in. Then down we went into the couloir. With manky rock ice and snow anchors, a bollard failed (before we loaded it). We downclimbed, more raps, before reaching the bottom safe and sound.
As we walked back the sun was coming up.
21 hours of pushing resulted in ¨The Slash¨on Los Gemelos, IV+ 5.10b A2.
One more marginal weather window appeared before we rallied.
It was my 24th Birthday.
It had just dumped snow... rime ice was everywhere. After wallowing in deep snow we made it to the col between Hoja and Espada, intent upon making the FA of Hoja´s N Ridge. Snow covered mixed slabby made climbing hard and scary. It led to a pitch that I threw myself at, aidding, tooling, freeing, nothing would do. I called down to Ian that it was time to go down.
It was time for Ian to leave. His expedition was over and I was done with the Paine. All in all we'd had an amazing time in a beautiful valley.
We sat in Puerto Natales and savored the experiences we have had and dreamt of the future, pitches, mountains, girls, beers, jobs we were back to the real world for a minute. Before I knew it, Ian was gone and I am on my way to Chalten for another 6 weeks in the Andes.
Then I was chilling in another promised land as the worst weather that anyone could seem to remember in Patagonia was still raging over the peaks.
For my month in Chalten the weather was rough. Having not had any good weather earlier in the season the mountains were still encrusted in ice despite is almost being March. We sat in town, ate empenadas and facturas and talked trash.
Eventually though, a blip of good weather appeared on the forecast. Everyone set into sending mode, make plans, concocting assumptions about what would be in and good. Jon, Ben and I headed for the classic Willans Route on Cerro Poincenot, a route with lots of beautiful moderate mixed climbing on one of the most aesthetic peaks in the range.
We rallied to Paso Superior and found a snow cave to occupy. The next day we started walking around three in the am. It felt wonderful to be moving over the glaciated terrain. As we moved up onto the ramp that marks the beginning of the real climbing on Poincenot we moved together through the 300m of 60 degree ice to the base of the crux mixed chimney. Good squeaky ice interspersed with beautiful granite took us to a traverse to the South Face and more pitches of beautiful mixed and rock climbing. With a few harder detours we made it to the summit for a gorgeous cloud free view of the range, but of course the winds were high.
Rapping turned into a minor epic when we got a rope stuck. We hung out while the fellas we were rapping with went to free the line. The sun was going down and the wind picked up, it was bitterly cold. The rest of the descent went without incident and we made it back to out cave safe and sound.
It was an unfortunate matter when I removed my boot though to find that my toe was a strange hue of purple. It has been nipped while waiting at the rap station.
We headed down. After few days of waiting and watching I realized that the best way to heal was to head back stateside early. A disappointing option due to good weather being on its way but the rational one in the interest of preserving my body. So while my mates headed back to the hills I went to a lake and cast my rod for a few days before returning stateside a few weeks early. And while disappointment was present in heading out, I knew that I would be back.
Now it is time to prep for Alaska, get the body ready to step back into high gear and continue living the dream. Thanks to everyone who helped me make it happen and who helped me to make the right decision regarding the toe. It is now nearly better, ready for crushing in the Alaska Range.
May in the Ruth Gorge of AK
[This is an article written by Mr. Allen about our trip to the Ruth. It's long. But it captures the trip beautifully. Thanks to Mark for writing it. The original can be found on the Black Diamond site in their Journal, along with many other wonderful tales of mountains and rocks.]
“To achieve vigorous manhood at least five qualities are necessary; muscular strength, endurance, energy, courage, and will power…There are numerous examples of vigorous men in recent history and present day in American life…By faithful adherence to the five requirements previously mentions, one develops a high degree of bodily resistance”
~ E. H. Ruddock, M. D., Vitalogy 1899
Mt. Bradley SE Face this April in the condition the SE Buttress was noticed during the late March reconnaissance. ~Photo Graham Zimmerman
Walking up after a third bivy on the wall was not the plan. We only had resources for one night on the buttress and with little padding. We anticipated a second night during the descent, but not the third—and certainly not a fourth. We agreed to not have enough fuel for breakfast brews. We shared an energy bar and a beef stick to kick-start our metabolisms. We peered out the door of the Firstlight tent having a strange aerial vista. This vantage of the North Wall of Mount Wake reminded us of our position; Twenty-five pitches up a 4600-foot buttress in undiscovered country on a tiny bivy ledge just big enough for our two-person tent.
We were in mid-swing of the second major crux network of the route. We had fixed the lines the night before and rappelled down to the exposed ledge after the climbing became a game of diminishing return. A near-perfect bivy blessed us part way up the 800-foot granite tower that stood like a bouncer guarding the summit. One corner of the tent that was draped over the ledge collected gear like a sinkhole. Ropes ran out of our sleeping bags, to the door, and up to the anchor. Gear hung clipped under the visor of granite that protected our bivy from what loomed above.
This morning marked the last day of steep mixed terrain before the buttress broke down and we could count on the summit. We couldn’t afford to have another night out on the wall.Graham indecipherable words came over a mouth full of Turtle Bar combined with gestures indicated his appreciation for the view. I couldn’t help but share the excitement for what we had done already. We were having the time of our lives and we were the only lives in the Alaska Range.
Seven years ago, Graham Zimmerman and I met in Washington on an alpine course through the American Alpine Institute. I was a young North Cascades guide and he was one of my youngest clients at 17. He absorbed everything I had to offer. He was, and still is, one of the most positive and motivated people I have ever shared the rope with.
Paul Roderick landed us in the Great Ruth Gorge. According to the National Park Service we were going to be all alone; have the entire range to ourselves. Storms shut down any more traffic to ensure this. This was a rare opportunity for our climbing team and provided a new element of remoteness to the range. The Alaska Range is funny that way. On a sunny day one could easily flag down one of the many passing planes. On a no-fly-day you might as well be in the Hymal. Now we were on our own. No climbers. No planes. It was just the ravens, the mountains, and us.
Upon first arrival the range was freshly loaded by recent storms. This put most of the climbing on hold until safer conditions. We narrowed our alpine climbing faire down to what would not predictably kill us. Mount Bradley. Initially it was the 1000-foot ribbon of ice that sucked Graham’s binoculars. Our eyes connected what looked enticing, possible, and had a hint of full-on. Weather was good, so we went for it.
We retreated after seven pitches. Our timing was all off, a schoolboy mistake. We didn’t get high enough to gain the upper snow bench and we scratched around below. We were under a giant solar collector. The warming snow grinded on my psyche. Graham picked up on my stress. Our mortality felt like a coin toss. I slammed in two knifeblades and we bailed. Rappelling from our high point I could foresee the rope becoming stuck. We now had more time. We took sanctuary in a cave when the avalanches came. Snow poured over the cave. We resorted to alpine trickery to get the ropes back then hung out cracking jokes for an additional hour. The stressed molted away like dead skin and without remorse. The sun faded, the wall cooled, and we descended to camp.
It was exactly what we needed. A warm-up. We received a freeze thaw and mileage on ice tools. We were going to return to the wall smarter, with less weight, and with beta. We needed a different strategy. Climb through the cold of the day and through the night, bivy in the heat of the day. We'll get about nine hours of climbing, bivy in the sunshine, and then come off the next day. That was the plan. It was simple.
At 6pm we simul climbed up the 500-foot Lightning Bolt Couloir. We set Graham up for the first crux, a 5.9 A1 offwidth in the cave. I watched him squirm through a hole in the ceiling just wider than his hips and haul our packs. Before night fell Graham swiftly took us through two more pitches of runout mixed cruxes and belayed off our bail pitons from the day before.
The next block of rock and mixed climbing were key to our progress. We get through this and we are onto the “fun climbing.” The approach to the uncharted territory was to climb out off the snow ledge, change into rock shoes, and send. This was a time-consuming arduous process. After the transitions I had so much shit on my harness. The ice tools, double boots, crampons, and rock rack all created a hoop dress effect. It was a blue-collar pitch. A chicken-wing and hooked tool behind a frozen block while stemming in rock shoes. I found the next belay and watched Graham’s headlamp progress up from the abyss. After some scraping about we agreed I would tension off the anchor into the void. I made it to a small stance and was able kick a perch with rock shoes in the snow. The long arch of slack back to Graham’s anchor terrified me. A fall here would be radical. I excavated some frozen dirt moss near my waist and pounded in the pick of my Cobra ice tool and clipped off my waist. It was a tenuous 30 minutes to return back to boots and crampons while tethered to the tool. A thousand feet of exposure hidden by the darkness. My world had the radius of my LED beam and I was glad. With my feet in crampons again, I began work up the mixed pitch. Deliberation was forced by lack of gear found in the compact headwall. Necessity is the mother of invention; I forcibly drilled a 19cm ice screw into a patch of frozen dirt moss, my only good piece. It was like a bolt… crazy-solid. I laugh reflecting on what brings us peace in the chaos.
It was several more hours of easy mixed and steep snow climbing pitches to the first bivy on The Prow. We positioned the bivy safe from any avalanches on a spine abscessing from the buttress. Graham and I had one of the most astounding views of the long Ruth Valley Glacier. We sunk into the bivy basking in the sun, letting the stress of the mountain shed away.
We packed up in cooler temps. The blue shade pushed out alpine yellow glow. That was the cue. We headed up to explore the Ice Ribbon. A thousand-feet of moderate gully ice protected by an entrance fee of M5+ and thin eggshell WI 5. Graham led off the belay without hesitation. It was a burly pitch and one of the route’s headiest points. Watching at the belay I fumbled with the video camera trying not to give a bad belay. Each gear placement was like a small triumph. Graham’s persistence was admirable and right then he was my personal hero. Off belay. We were in!
We jammed out the next five pitches like it was routine. It was the first time on the route that the climbing was straightforward and predicable. We gained the momentum we needed, swinging into fat, sticker blue ice in a chimney just wider than our shoulders. The climbing rivaled the world-class gully climbs of the Moose’s Tooth on the horizon just over my right shoulder. We were in our element. The formidable objective was far from our minds.
We topped the Ribbon and gained the buttress crest. The terrain above us was supposed to be easy and fun ridge climbing. Graham and I looked up into the darkness at a complex fortress of rock. We needed sunlight to navigate such a gauntlet. Unwilling to deal with the physiological stress, we pretended the mountain was not there and bivied until light.
We woke to the eerie shapes of lenticular clouds on the horizon. They were right on time. Large spindrift avalanches began to pour off the slopes above. We dared not leave the spine of the buttress. I was taken away from this predicament by Graham’s positive demeanor and conversation about cute Yosemite girls that slackline. We never had a conversation about committing, but this would have been the time.
Out of the fog came the ominous Tower. We planned on skirting the feature on exposed snowslopes but the triple-x death conditions omitted any further discussion of the option. We squared up to the 800 feet of granite. In most cases I would have felt in over my head. But instead Graham and I were overriding dread with laughter and fist bumps. “Yeah, get some” became the mantra to stoke the other on. Our humor was driven by the gravity of the situation. Above us were hundreds of feet of steep technical mixed climbing tattered with fresh spindrift, below were thousands of feet of frozen alpine big wall. Our spirits were the protective shell against all that would attempt to impede our progress.
Graham and I were revitalized after the exposed six-hour bivy on the Tower. Our minds told us this was the end of the climb; we couldn’t have been further from the truth. We finished the tower and the terrain broke down. We could feel the reality of the top for the first time. Its as if dreaming of food and getting the first realization of its aroma as it becomes near to ready. My fear, my fatigue, my hunger all faded away for the moment as we sauntered towards the highest point of this giant. While walking I pointed out the two ravens that circled the summit just tens of feet above. There presence felt as if they knew the significance of our arrival. This was a climax of our climb…a very special moment in our friendship, the partnership, and our lives.
We gazed at our descent. It was still going to take us 33 hours before we would finally be done. We finished the last of our food and began heading the only way we could, down.
On April 5th at 4pm Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman summited Mt. Bradley via a new route on the SE buttress. This 4600-foot buttress of sustained mixed climbing required 29 pitches, 19 of which are M5 or WI 4 or harder. After sixty-six and a half hours including three on-route bivies, Vitalogy (Alaska grade V, M6+ WI5 5.9R A1) was opened. After summiting the climbers began to descend but the descent was not in condition when a second storm began to present. With the remaining time the two were forced to rappel 1500 feet down a headwall to an alpine glacier and then descend 1000 feet of active icefall to the Backside Valley Glacier to escape avalanche terrain were the two found a “safe bivy” (under an overhang of rock tucked close to the massif base) while spindrift avalanches began to run down the wall. This storm brought 15 inches of new snow, pinning the two down for a day without food and little fuel. A clearing 12 hours later allowed the climbers to start wading seven kilometers through new snow on Backside Valley Glacier, back around though 747 Pass, and then down into the Ruth Glacier to regain their camp. A third storm hit, requiring them to navigate in a whiteout, in the dark. After 99 hours they removed their packs for the last time.
November in Nepal
POST 1: Seattle
Mark flies out tomorrow. I have another week. He wanders around the living room of a house that neither of us own, making last minute arrangements. Climbing gear is EVERYWHERE.
The madness of planning seems to be nearly dealt with, but it might also just be beginning. We won’t be in the mountains until we are there, all of our energy is focused on reducing pit falls and excuses and making sure that nothing is forgotten.
Constant transition is a theme in our lives. Moving to where the work and goals take us. Prioritizing these goals over a more ’stable’ lifestyle. Skiers gravitate to the Chugach, Surfers to Indo, we are headed to the Himalaya.
Training ended last week and now we eat. Trying to bulk up on the energy reserves that will get us through the exertion of the next few months in the mountains.
The plane rides will be the calm before the storm. Then we will be on the ground headed for the hills, getting acclimatized our bodies to the altitude and our minds to the relief.
We are psyched to get underway.
Alone, walking through the Khumbu twilight; Cho Oyo ahead, Chalotse Behind. The sun is long gone from the valley but the fresh snow on the high peaks reflects it down around me.
My day has been spent attempting a push on the SE face of Phari Lapcha. Hayden came down sick on the last attempt requiring a run of antibiotics and a drop in elevation. So while he recovers in Namche I am left to climb alone.
The attempt had started in the early morning walking from basecamp in Gokyo down to the village of Machermo and up a valley above town. The attempt had been thwarted by a broken glacier covered in the same fresh snow now shining light on my evening path. It was terrain that would have been appropriate for a climber with a partner and a rope but not for a soloist.
So I was turned around… Well before the technical terrain that would have brought comfort, speed and the joy of physical exertion.
A few hours later in the darkness I reach Gokyo once again. The stars are exploding above; before heading into the teahouse I sit and look upon them. Happy to be safe and finished walking.
Inside I sit by the fire, the matriarch of the teahouse brings me milktea and is very happy to see me back safe and sound. I am eternally grateful for her friendship and motherly instincts towards me, the lone climber living in the tent outside.
Tomorrow is another day.
I lay on the teahouse bed admiring the beautiful and well varnished carpentry that composes so many of these amazing mountain structures. I am back in Lukla the location of the predominate airstrip in the Khumbu. Bathing and chores completed, I left to hang about in another tea house.
I ponder the last couple of weeks. In the past I have been on expeditions which have come out unsuccessful but this is different. For days I sat in my tent looking upon beautiful skies but was withheld from soloing by dangerous snow conditions over crevasses (not good terrain for a soloist) and the lack of a partner.
Hayden is very strong and motivated, but this time the developing world got the best of him. Even after a retreat to Namche he was still not in shape to climb. So after 2 solo attempts I packed our gear and went trekking. While wandering I saw many beautiful mountains and devised many plans for future attempts. But alas the trip in the Gokyo has come to an end.
But! The main event is yet to come! A recovered Hayden and Mr. Cory Richards arrive today in and we will head back into the mountains. With all of our combined strength, psyche and knowledge regarding conditions in these mountains I feel excellent about the coming weeks.
But for now I am left to hang out and ponder.
I sit in a rooftop hukka bar in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. Honking horns and pop music blend with a techno remix of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra "Omani Ped Me hom". I savor the flavor of blackberry tobacco and watch yet another
chaotic night unfold in a place whose name is synonymous with the edge of the map.
I have spent two months in the mountains of the Khumbu sub-range of the Himalaya, attempting to climb some of the most beautiful mountains upon which I have ever laid my eyes. I began the trip riding a string of successful climbs and expeditions, my ego was strong, and failure felt remote. However, despite looking at mountain faces which I felt myself and my teammates capable of climbing, they successfully eluded us.
When designing an expedition into the big mountains I make all sorts of contingency plans. Med kits, antibiotics, whiskey, and ipods cover potential eventualities. But when the planning is done for the day, while sitting back thinking about the expedition at hand, I visualize climbing high on beautiful technical terrain, of pushing through fear and exhaustion, and of SENDING.
Nevertheless, sickness, heavy snowfall, high winds, and melting ice conspired to break down our psyches and keep us off the flanks of the mountains. Despite changes in objective, group psyche meetings, runs of antibiotics, and finally a day of drinking whiskey and smoking cheap Nepali cigarettes, we found ourselves defeated in a realm that we felt ourselves savvy.
Now alone, my partners having left a couple of days ago for the hills, crags, and loved ones of home, I hang in Kathmandu waiting for an Indian visa to be approved. My days and evenings are spent walking the streets plugged into my headphones and sitting in restaurants writing. Heavy beats, loud guitars, and poignant lyrics carry me around the cars and motorcycles weaving down the narrow streets and past peddlers selling fake antiques, illicit substances, and tiger balm. With nothing to do, I am left to wander and digest the experiences of the past months.
Why do I live a migrant, intentional, and extremely frugal lifestyle in order to pursue steep unknown terrain in wild places?
The answer is simple, I climb and attempt new routes on demanding terrain to taste what is not easily attained, to step close to the edge and come back to share. Along with pushing personal limits comes the discovery of personal boundaries; the edge of the envelope.
I love to push my limits and I love to climb. In the Khumbu we made decisions that kept us mentally healthy, alive, and ready to push again another day as stronger more humble and confident alpinists.
In the evening, the streets of Kathmandu, lit by bare light bulbs in open-air shops, have taken on a more ominous quality, and I walk back to my guesthouse. I have just finalized plans to return to the greater ranges in the spring, this time to
Alaska. I consider with a humble attitude, the recognition that failure on the mountain is a real possibility, with real learning opportunities. I rejoice in being drawn to the flanks of these mountains that I find so beautiful. With excitement and anticipation I think of climbing high on beautiful technical terrain, of pushing through fear and exhaustion and of SENDING.