Dogtooth Dash Ski-Mountaineering Race

For years I’ve been afraid of competing.  It is easier to harbour delusions of athletic talent if you never test them. Being injured actually gave me an excuse to sign up for a race. I felt that I could cope with mediocrity if I could claim (mostly to myself) to be an off-the-couch cripple.  Admittedly, nearly two months after abandoning my crutches, I’m getting less and less sympathy in the cripple department.  Nonetheless, I’d never done a ski-mountaineering race before and had no idea what I was doing, so I figured that entering the Dogtooth Dash in Golden was an experiment my ego could handle.  The whole thing was also made more attractive by the fact that I could combine the race with some ice climbing in the rockies.

Gear: Dynafit TLT5 Mountain boots, Intuition Denali Liners, Ski Trab Race Aero skis, Dynafit Low Tech bindings (older model), and Exel fiberglass poles. None of it quite top-of-the-line, but all of it good enough that I can't blame it too much for my shortcomings as a skier.

In short, the race was a lot of fun and I didn’t embarrass myself too much.  I was eighth overall, and although I was miles behind the top two racers, I felt like I was generally competitive with a group of competent racers (and one elite woman) for most of the course.

What follows are a few thoughts on the race; probably only of interest to my future self should I do another one.

• Transitions matter.  I practiced taking my skins on and off while skiing to Red Heather a few days before the race, but I really wasn’t very concerned about losing a few seconds in transitions here and there over the course of two hours of skiing.  However, the race contained roughly 15 transitions, so not only did the seconds begin to add up, but again and again I was demoralized to arrive at a transition at the same time as another skier only to leave with a 20 meter gap to close. Besides being generally slow, I also made a couple of rookie mistakes in the transitions.  On the second climb, I didn’t attach one of my skins properly and it soon fell off, forcing me to stop and reapply it.  At the top of one of the boot-pack sections, the transition was in a rather precarious spot.  I ripped the skins off my skis before putting them down on the snow which made stepping into the bindings a very delicate and slow procedure so as to avoid kicking my skis off the ridge.

• I strongly believe that ski-mountaineering races should be as technical as possible (I suspect that liability is the limiting factor in North America); otherwise you may as well be cross-county skiing.  The race in Golden had a few challenging descents where the snow was a bit variable and choppy.  On one of these, about two-thirds of the way through the race, I crashed and broke a pole.  I’m not sure how much less efficient it is to ski with only one pole, but it was certainly a blow to my morale at a critical point in the race.  I noticed people using a variety of different types of poles, but in the future I think I would use light aluminum ones if I thought I might fall on any of the descents.

Just after crossing the finish line.

• I finished with a time of 2:25. During that interval I ate two gels and drank about a liter of water (I carried five gels and 1.5 liters of water).  It’s something that requires further research, but I suspect I would have done well to eat and drink a bit more.  After breaking my pole, I felt as though I was suffering and slowing down quite a bit on the final two climbs.  No doubt my pacing could have been better, although I really did feel relaxed and comfortable through the first half of the race.  I feel that I bonked at the end of the race partly due to lacking a solid aerobic base (1.5 months ago I was in the worst shape of my life), partly from not taking on enough water and gel, and partly from a lack of mental toughness that comes from racing experience.

• I was pleased to be the first non-lycra-clad finisher.  Unfortunately, I was way overdressed and I can now see the benefits of a dedicated ski-mountaineering suit.  Not only was I sweating profusely, but I had a hard time getting my skins to stay put inside the front of my windbreaker on the descents.

• There were a number of sections of boot-packing on the up-hills.  I felt that I really struggled on these compared to the sections of skinning.  The pre-kicked steps were generally far enough apart that considerable leg strength was required.  Given that slogging up snow slopes is pretty much my greatest skill as a climber, I had hoped to be stronger with my skis off.

Eric and I before the race. We had a friendly roommate rivalry and were close for much of the race. In the end, Eric beat me by 50 seconds.

• I think that it would be worthwhile to ski the course (or at least the descents) before the race.  Although the course was always well marked, I still found it difficult to focus on skiing while still keeping an eye on the red flags. At one point, I actually skied slightly off course even though there was a marshall there clearly directing me in the right direction.  I also often skied more conservatively than necessary because I didn’t know what was coming up around the next corner or what the snow was going to be like.

• The race was extremely well organized and the course was excellent. There’s no reason that ski-mountaineering races shouldn’t be both well-attended and competitive in Canada.  Having high quality races like the Dogtooth Dash is a good start.

• A short video that gives the flavour of the race can be seen here.

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Rehabilitation: Skiing

This is the second post of photos from the past month.

Karina just below the summit of Mt. Chief Pascall. It was raining at the car and extremely windy up high.

I wish I had some profound observations to accompany these photos, but if I wait for a flash of inspiration, I may be waiting forever.

Karina skiing across Garibaldi Lake. We spent a chilly night in the Sphinx Hut.

Skiing has been a great way to get back in shape.  Ski boots are quite supportive and the movement is generally low impact.  The ski terrain within a reasonable drive of Squamish is wonderful with no shortage of different areas to explore.

Eric skiing the Northwest Face of Mt. Pattison. You don't have to tour very far from the lifts on Blackcomb to find solitude and untracked snow.

My photos might give the misleading impression that every day is sunny with fresh powder.  Sadly, this is not always the case on the west coast in January.   My efforts to regain some fitness have actually seen me skiing in the rain on a number of occasions. This in spite of the fact that I once declared that I would never leave the car if it was raining.  However, perhaps by skiing on the miserable days I fulfilled some sort of karmic design and was thereby granted a number of truly fantastic days.

Below are a few more photos from the good days.

Skiing the North Face of Mt. Trorey.

Karina on Rohr Ridge.

Ash skiing pillows on Joffre Shoulder.

Paul Cordy is in there somewhere amongst the billowing powder.

Regan and Ed skiing towards Mt. Fitzsimmons with Fissile in the background.

Davey skiing the North Face of Mt. Fitzsimmons. One of the better bits of skiing I've ever done.

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Rehabilitation: Climbing

This is the first of two posts detailing what I’ve been doing during the past month.

Hiking down from the first peak of the Chief. Admittedly not climbing, but not a bad effort for me at the time. "There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."

I just read an essay describing the fervor with which my generation (Gen Y, apparently) has taken to creating “personal brands” through the use of blogs and social media.  Although I’m the type of person who actually untags themselves in photos on Facebook, the fact that I have a blog (henceforth to be strictly referred to as an “online journal”) was enough to make me feel guilty of at least some of the shallowness with which my generation is quite rightly accused.  In my defense, the generational generalizations aren’t always apt.  I feel a bit embarrassed and insecure about having any online existence and am quick to judge others; all supposedly attributes of the preceding generation.  Furthermore, I think that I can take comfort in the knowledge that if I was somehow a brand, I wouldn’t be one likely to catch on anytime soon.

Eric climbing the Crown Couloir. Not only did I take the gondola up Grouse Mountain, but I wasn't even particularly disappointed to find that the route was filled in with snow and easy.

I recently upgraded to a newer but still reasonably cheap point-and-shoot camera and have since been enthusiastically snapping photos – even at times when I probably should have been focused only on belaying.  Of course, I’ve discovered that taking decent photographs requires more than just enthusiasm and a multitude of megapixels.  The visual arts have never been amongst my strengths, and I’m not always even sure that I recognize a good photo when I see one.  As a result, I’ve begun to adopt the “room full of monkeys with typewriters producing Hamlet” approach to digital photography as will become clear if you deign to scroll through the rest of this post.

Eric climbing on Cannabis Wall. I had to be home for lunch so we were forced to climb somewhat efficiently.

I’ve been skiing far more than I’ve been climbing lately which is less a reflection of my priorities than it is of the weather and conditions in the mountains.  Nonetheless, I’ve been rambling around in the alpine or hacking away at pillars of ice as often as I can in an effort to regain some of the strength and fitness that I lost during my convalescence.

Paul during a not entirely intentional circumnavigation of the West Lion (from up close, the North Face didn't look like the casual jaunt I'd somehow imagined). Paul broke his foot just a week before I did and has been a good person to compare notes with on the recovery process.

The transition from crutches to crampons has occasionally left me feeling like a beginner. My tender feet have been prone to blisters.  I’ve been whining and complaining even more than usual.  Lacking strength and fitness makes everything in the mountains appear more daunting.  Although the challenges of climbing are largely mental, I’m not someone with an innate and unwavering belief in my abilities. As a result, my rehabilitation has been as much about regaining confidence as it has been about regaining strength.

Jean attempting to warm his hands while climbing the first pitch of Icy BC on a genuinely frigid day.

There are joys to returning to something that you’ve developed a competency for through years of practice.  Yesterday, after I’d wobbled my way up a few rock climbs that I would normally free solo, the old muscle memory began to kick in and I started to feel comfortable again on the rock.  It’s the same feeling I get sitting down at a piano after a long absence; I’m not likely to be the next Rubinstein or Gould, but the scales and etudes of my childhood didn’t go completely to waste (although if my old piano teacher could hear me playing Elton John, she might disagree).

Eric climbing a smear of ice on the Oleson Slabs. Climbing ice in Squamish is a rare treat.

Likewise, I’m not a particularly talented climber, but I have climbed a lot. The payoff is that on the frequent occasions when my mind is uncertain, my body often remembers what to do on its own accord.

Paul leading the first pitch of White Blotter. This photo fails to convey the amount of icy spray raining down on Paul as he climbed. All things considered, it was a rather impressive effort.

Climbing the second pitch of White Blotter.

Although climbing can often be scary and miserable (see the above photos from White Blotter for example), it can also be genuinely enjoyable while you’re actually doing it.  On the crux pitch of an ice climb called Loose Lady, I was too much of a wimp to climb the obvious line on the front side of the freestanding pillar. Instead, I chimneyed up between the ice and the rock even though I wasn’t sure it was going to work.  I was not looking forward to eventually pulling around to the front, but when the time came and I actually committed to it, the climbing turned out to be dead easy. I arrived at the top of the climb feeling somewhat like I used to as a child when a dreaded piano recital went more smoothly than expected.

In fact, I felt so pleased to be climbing that I even forget for a time to worry about being shallow, talentless and crippled.

Eric climbing Loose Lady.

Jean climbing Fromage Suisse in North Joffre Creek.

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My primary means of transportation for three months.

Four months ago, I slipped while topping out a boulder problem in the forest below the Grand Wall.  I fell awkwardly, missed my crash pad, and landed squarely on my heel. I made it out of the boulders and to the hospital thanks to the kind assistance of my friend Tony.  The doctor in Emergency happened to be a boulderer himself, and it was with genuine sympathy that he informed me that my heel (“left calcaneus”) was broken.

Eric learning to aid climbing. I was able to crutch up to the crag and shout instructions.

This seemingly minor injury confined me to an extremely sedentary lifestyle for three months.

The good news is that there’s more to life than climbing. Being injured has been a good opportunity to focus on more intellectual hobbies (although blogging was clearly not one of them).  It’s also been a good chance to visit with (or perhaps test the patience of)  friends and family. In particular, I’d like to thank Karina and my aunt Sue for their generosity.

My view from the top of the crag while Karina gets in a few pitches of self-belayed climbing on a sunny afternoon in the Smoke Bluffs.

Being injured has made me thankful that I’m not too much of a type-A nutcase.  I’m quite capable of sitting around for weeks at a time without doing much of anything – an ability that’s only really an asset while injured or storm-bound on an expedition.  Nonetheless, a person can only spent so much time studying philosophy, reading Joyce’s Ulysses and writing short stories (a more honest list would include watching TV shows on my computer, researching ski gear on the internet, and reading british crime fiction) without getting a bit restless.  Luckily, there are many opportunities for one-legged recreating within easy crutching distance of my front door.

Drytooling on the drilled pockets of the Cacodemon Boulder.

A few interesting things happen if you sit on the couch for months on end.  Not surprisingly, if you continue to eat as you did before, you’re likely to gain some weight. Thanks to the complex that my university track and cross country teammates gave me years ago, it will likely be months before I’ll feel comfortable taking my shirt off in public.  Further, the muscles in your unused leg begin to atrophy.  The circumference of my forearm is currently greater than that of my right calf (the hangboard in my room hasn’t been completely neglected).  Large chunks of toughened skin peel from your feet in the bath.  While fat accumulates elsewhere, the protective fat pad under your heel disappears and takes months of walking to build up again.  In short, when you eventually get off the couch, you’re likely to be even weaker and more whiny than you were before.

This photo might give you the false impression that I'm reasonably capable in spite of being crippled. In fact, my forearms very nearly exploded shortly after this; something that might have more to do with months of inactivity than with my bum foot.

On the climbing front, I’ve had plenty of time to research and make plans for the coming year.  If I’m able to accomplish even a small percentage of my goals, I may actually have something worth writing about here in 2012.

The view from the Smoke Bluffs on a sunny winter evening.

A fully functioning ascent of Fungus Razor shortly before my mishap. Although it may be a while before I take my shirt off again, it won't be long until I'm back rock climbing.

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A Brief Introduction to the Chehalis

The sad truth about a great deal of summer alpine climbing is that it consists mainly of hiking long distances to not very good rockclimbs.  Why would anyone want to do that?

A commonly held, and perhaps not entirely misguided view is that it appeals only to people who are not actually very good at climbing but still want to feel (or appear) bad-ass.  Since that could easily describe me (although believe it or not there have been plenty of famous alpinists who have actually been worse technical climbers than me), I thought I’d present a short defense of hiking long distances to climb mungy 5.9 in the form of a trip report from a recent excursion to the Chehalis.

Looking towards Viennese Peak as its East Ridge emerges from the clouds. In case the watermark didn't tip you off, this and most of the following photos were taken by Rich.

Having never climbed in the Chehalis was a black spot on my career as climber in Southwestern BC.  Motivated by renewed access to Statlu Lake (details here) and some wonderful tales on a supertopo thread, I convinced Rich So that we ought to make an exploratory trip.

It’s not uncommon to encounter challenging off-road driving while trying to access obscure corners of the Coast Mountains.  Unfortunately, in this case, the challenge was entirely self-inflicted.  An electrical problem has disabled the headlights on my car and for some time now I’ve been either too busy, too poor, or too lazy to fix them (this resulted in an ever-worsening white-knuckle commute for my passengers when it was my turn to drive in to BC Place at 5:10am).  The light was gradually fading as Rich and I drove out the Harrison West FSR and every time I passed someone driving a large truck like an old lady, I’d be almost immediately obstructed by someone else.  Eventually, we turned onto the Chehalis-Mystery FSR and I hunched over the wheel and squinted into the gloom in effort to beat the darkness to the trailhead.  In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that I eventually slammed into a rock at high speed.  Thankfully, the dragging sound that resulted was from a part of the wheel-well that I’m fairly sure is strictly cosmetic. After remedying the situation, we continued more cautiously to the trailhead by the flashing glow of my hazard lights.

Rich rappelling into the clouds from the summit of Viennese.

I had originally proposed a couple of unrealistically ambitious itineraries that Rich quite sensibly vetoed in favour of an itinerary that proved to be only slightly too ambitious.  At dawn we left our trailhead bivi for the Viennese to Clarke Traverse.  Rich had been doing an admirable job of sandbagging; claiming that he was completely out of shape and that he hadn’t been doing any climbing (see his blog for the truth).  In fact, I was the one who was completely out of shape and I actually began to get a bit concerned as Rich started hammering up the trail to Upper Statlu Lake.  Thankfully, once we began hopping up a washed-out creek-bed and doing a little unnecessary bushwacking, I was back in my element and we arrived at the ridge below Peak 6500 four and a half hours after leaving the car.

The ridge was an enjoyable scramble that became increasingly exposed until just below the summit of Vienesse Peak where we roped up for a pitch to the summit.  The clouds that had been hugging the summits had yet to dissipate and rappelling off the West Ridge felt a bit ominous. Thankfully, after retrieving a hung up rope and then traversing across a somewhat loose and exposed ledge system, we were soon back in the realm of pleasant scrambling.  This continued up and over the summit of Recourse and down to the base of Mt. Clarke.  The East Ridge actually looked quite unpleasant as we approached it, but once we began climbing, the rock turned out to be quite solid and well endowed with cracks.  We belayed a couple of pitches before taking off the rope and climbing along the ridge, over the east and west summits, and down the Northwest Ridge.

Nearing the summit of Recourse Peak.

We had originally planned on climbing the North Ridge of Mt. Clarke the next day, but the view from the base of the Northwest Ridge was discouraging.  The pocket glacier below the route was rather jumbled and there appeared to be an immense moat between the snow and the rock.  Rich was not especially excited about the prospect of jumping crevasses in his approach shoes and even I had to agree that getting onto the rock was not exactly going to be a sure thing.

Abandoning our original plan, we continued along the high ridge that connects Mt. Clarke to Mt. Ratney.  This turned out to be a pleasant stroll with only one surprise cliff that we negotiated by staying high on the ridge. Eventually, we found a nice camp spot below Mt. Ratney, having completed a rather circuitous approach to the North Face of Mt. Bardean.

Heading towards Mt. Bardean and Mt. Ratney.

The next morning at dawn, we cramponed across to the base of the Tuning Fork.  The route begins up a low-angled and somewhat vegetated buttress which I had imagined we would ramble up in no time.  In fact, the climb began less auspiciously than I had hoped. The crack I was climbing was a bit wider than our largest cam and to make matters worse, I ended up with the rope running through a small shrub which gave me some of the worst rope-drag I’ve experienced in a long time.  Next, Rich led a full pitch through some vertical shrubbery that finally got us to some terrain where we felt comfortable simul-climbing.

Midway up the Tuning Fork. High quality rock, but not exactly a plethora of protection.

When the buttress steepened again, the terrain was indistinct.  We followed thin cracks and shallow corners aiming for a large corner a few pitches above that provides the only real landmark on this section of the face.  It may have been the cold, or perhaps my lack of rock climbing fitness, but it sure felt like I climbed some runout 5.10 in this section.  The large corner and the leftward traverse below the “roof” (actually just a steeper section of white rock) turned out to quite moderate, but above, the buttress again became vague with numerous thin and discontinuous cracks.  Rich cruised up some runout pitches.  At one point I arrived at his belay and was horrified to see that it consisted of a single blue TCU.  For my part, I managed to give myself horrible rope-drag on nearly every pitch as I wandered around looking for the easiest climbing.  The worst was to occur on the final pitch below the ridge, where steep but appealing corners all turned out to be slammed shut.  I tried various options, eventually making a traverse that lacked gear but somehow still resulted in me having to pull up slack and hold it in my teeth every few moves in order to continue forging ahead.  It was with a feeling of relief that we popped out into the sunshine near the summit of Bardean after nearly eight hours of climbing.

Rich following in the section of the route that passes next to the "distinct round cave".

The stroll over to the summit of Mt. Ratney was very pleasant and we were pleased to have tagged all of the major peaks ringing the valley.  However, in keeping with what seemed to be the theme of the day, the remainder of the descent turned out to be more time-consuming and difficult than we’d expected.

We made one rappel down the ridge, but discovered that the thought of “slabby downclimbing” where the guidebook suggested it was genuinely terrifying.  Instead, we made a number of rappels, always having to add our own cord to the mess of sun-whitened old webbing at each anchor.  When the ridge leveled out, we rappelled down what seemed like a logical spur dropping down towards our tent.  In retrospect, we probably should have continued to the next spur along the ridge, as the spur that we chose required three rappels and a short pitch of belayed downclimbing when we couldn’t find a suitable rappel anchor (for a belay, Rich braced himself amongst some shrubbery – a classic “coastal” situation).  We arrived back at our camp with daylight to spare, but feeling as though the day had dragged out longer than we had expected.  It didn’t take long for us to come up with some excuses not to climb a harder route the next day: we’d left too many of our slings on the descent and we didn’t have any pitons (which actually seem like they’d be a really good idea on harder Chehalis routes).

It's not alpine climbing without a little objective hazard. Heading back to the car via Statlu Lake.

The next morning we dashed under the active part of the glacier and a down a couloir that led to the valley bottom. There we experienced a brief sampling of coastal backcountry travel: slide alder, boulder hopping, dense blueberry bushes, creek wading, and even a bear encounter thrown in for good measure.  Thankfully, before we could get too frustrated, we reached Statlu Lake and the trail leading back to the car.

Looking over what I’ve just written, I realize that I haven’t done a very good job of defending the joys of alpine rock climbing.  But perhaps that’s for the best.  We were the only climbers in the Chehalis over the Labour Day long weekend, a situation that suited us perfectly.  As long as people continue to think that alpine climbing is simply glorified hiking for people who lack the requisite talent for real climbing, middling alpinists like Rich and myself will be able to enjoy our remote and vegetated 5.9s in solitude.

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Harvey’s Pup

Jason McConnell and I were finally granted a two day weekend free from the roof on BC Place and, wanting to climb something in the mountains but not wanting to drive or hike too far, we decided to check out the Pup Buttress route on Harvey’s Pup above Lion’s Bay.

Jason scrambling up the ramp that cuts across Mt. Harvey's North Face. I'd been here on four occasions in winter so it was nice to see what it looks like without any snow.

We approached the route without particularly high expectations and we were both pleasantly surprised by the quality of the climbing.  The whole experience actually reminded me of the Steck-Salathe in Yosemite: a scrambly approach ramp leads to steep chimney climbing and an eventual descent down an unpleasant gulley.   Admittedly, the climbing on Harvey’s Pup is a little less technically difficult and sustained than its Yosemite counterpart, but the low elevation coastal nature of the route ensures that it’s not completely devoid of adventure.

Jason climbing the "left-leaning, left-facing corner" pitch. I'll admit that the route might not be quite as classic as the Steck-Salathe.

Although it’s featured in “Alpine Select”, the Pup Buttress doesn’t seem to be especially popular so I figured I’d provide some beta in an attempt to encourage future ascents:

• The logical start to the route is only slightly downhill from the “gut”.  The goal is to traverse under a low roof to gain the base of a slender chimney with a small tree at it’s base that makes a good landmark.  I didn’t notice the cairn or fixed pin described in the guidebook.

Jason following the first pitch. From here, the route-finding gets considerably easier.

• Linking the first two pitches on the “dark headwall” would be nice as neither pitch is particularly long and there aren’t really any great stances from which to belay.

• A #4 camalot-sized piece protects the crux moves rather nicely.

• The descent only requires a single rope.  The descent gulley is not particularly enjoyable.  Climbing directly out from the notch also looks quite unpleasant, but it might be worth investigating a traversing line towards the hiking trail beginning just a short ways down the gulley.

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BC Place

Amongst my many idiosyncrasies is the fact that while I derive considerable satisfaction from hard work for the sake of recreation, hard work for the sake of handsome financial remuneration makes me sullen and ill-tempered.

I was working way too much to have time for things like shaving my awful facial hair. Also, it's a mystery to me why no helmet will ever sit squarely on my head.

Thankfully, I’m oddly unconcerned with accumulating wealth and possessions (with the exception of climbing gear and books) so my misery is generally short-lived.  And while I occasionally curse my parents’ career choices and thereby my lack of a trust fund, I have many great memories and a touch of blue-collar pride from doing jobs such as bushwork in remote coastal inlets and seismic exploration in the Middle-Eastern desert.

Pulling out the final bundle of fabric on the roof. The bundles were landed by crane onto truck-strap runways and then pulled lengthwise before being stretched widthwise over the arches. Eventually, after considerable tensioning, the fabric gets clamped to the radial cables that run from the masts into the node at the centre of the roof. Finally, everything gets closed up and the panels get welded together.

My most recent attempt at avoiding utter destitution involved entering the world of construction as a rope access technician.  For the past few months I worked twelve hours a day, six days a week on the roof of BC Place Stadium.  The long hours combined with the commute from Squamish meant that I barely had time to buy groceries, let alone write on my blog.  However, now that it’s over, here are a few photos for those who’ve feigned interest.

Lunchtime on the roof. On hot days, shade is a precious commodity.

Rope access is pretty darned safe. Here, Alisha is in a rope-to-rope transfer so she's attached to four separate ropes. The only real challenge is not getting too tangled.

The motto and the reason my hands and wrists are messed up.

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An Update

Climbing-related blogs such as this one exist mainly as a forum in which their authors can brag, however understatedly, about how badass they are.  Unfortunately, I’ve been decidedly un-badass lately; hence the lack of recent posts.

However, in the spirit of blogging, I’ve decided not to let the fact that I have nothing to say stop me from writing at some length.

First, a couple of photos from Red Rocks, which was the final destination for Karina and I on our spring roadtrip.

Karina following the final corner on Cloud Tower.

In Las Vegas, we stayed in a rather deluxe hotel (by my standards anyways) for a measly 15 bucks a night.  After being subject to Utah’s draconian liquor laws, it was a shock to wander the streets and feel as though we were the only people not drinking sickly sweet alcoholic concoctions from neon plastic beakers.

In the morning, we’d walk through the casino, it’s air sanitized to mask the chain-smoking of the old women who sit at all hours in front of the slots.  On the street, discarded cards advertising call-girls would obscure the pavement.  Driving along Charleston felt like running a gauntlet as the smug faces of lawyers, politicians, and even doctors stared down from billboards.  The hangover in Vegas is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Karina cruising along, somewhere on Crimson Chrysalis. It's a wonderful route, if you're as lucky as we were and get to enjoy it in relative solitude.

Moralizing aside, Vegas is a fascinating city.  The scale of the place is undeniably impressive. Walking the length of the strip is more grueling than just about any approach in the nearby canyons.  I can understand why people find the glamour attractive.  Why they might want to pretend to be high-rollers as they gamble away their meagre savings. And I’ll admit that I think the Bellagio fountains are pretty neat.

Somehow though, I always find Vegas to be a bit disappointing. It’s a place where most things are permitted and money is (or at least was) no object.  It’s Disneyland for adults. The possibilities should be endless, if not entirely wholesome.  But the whole apparatus seems a bit unimaginative to me.  The scheme to separate you from your money is the same wherever you look, though the decorations may change.  And the sins are the same old universal ones; sadly there are no new sins awaiting discovery in Sin City.

Yes, this man has climbed El Cap. Seth Adams masters the art of the lower-out while jugging the Shadow pitch on U-Wall. There was not much free climbing going on for me on this day and we bailed after this pitch.

Since returning from the desert, the weather in Squamish has been rather uninspiring. I’ve been bouldering more than ever, motivated predominantly by a desire to tick as many problems as possible from the “Top 100” list that appears in the newest Squamish Bouldering guide (here are some slightly more humorous lists).

Karina climbing Survival Enhancement on the Papoose.

Though I’ve not always held a particularly charitable opinion of bouldering (likely because I’m a terrible boulderer), I’m beginning to develop a reluctant appreciation of it. Standing on top of a boulder that you’ve managed to claw your way up after countless attempts results in a feeling of instant gratification; the kind of feeling that you ought to get from standing on top of a big peak, but seldom do.  Often when climbing on a rope, I find that I focus a great deal of mental energy on not falling.  I arrive at the anchors relieved not to have fallen, but not particularly elated.  With bouldering, where falling is the rule and not the exception, the occasional successes are remarkably satisfying.

Tony McLane making an onsight attempt on El Indio. His Dad made the first ascent of this route more than 25 years ago. Tony made it through the bold lower section but ran out of steam on the upper headwall.

Of course, not all boulder problems are safe to fall from repeatedly.  I’ll admit that I often seek out these “highball” problems.  Perhaps I’m trying to prove that in spite of taking up bouldering, I haven’t gone completely soft (as proof that bouldering doesn’t make you soft, here’s a photo of two of the world’s best alpinists – and Seth Adams – bouldering in Squamish).

One such problem is called No Excuse for Porn Hair.  I tried it one day with no warmup and surprised myself by making it to the lip of the boulder on my first go.  Tony, who had done the problem before and was there spotting me, assured me that once at the lip, the problem was effectively over.  The guidebook, as I discovered later, takes a different view and describes the mantel as “adrenaline charged”.  In any case, I threw my toe up on the lip, rocked my hips over it, and had pretty much completely stood up when for some reason my foot slipped.  I went flying off backwards and completely overshot the pads. Thankfully, the area beneath the boulder is a dried-up puddle and when I landed feet-first, the soft soil cushioned the impact and left me shin deep in muck.  Cleaning off my shoes was such a pain that I made sure not to fall the next time around.

Demonstrating how not to sport climb on 14 Shutouts in Skaha.

A few weeks ago, Stefan Albrecher and I embarked on what promised to be a very grueling ski traverse.  Thinking that we’d be skiing for close to 24 hours, we left the trailhead at midnight, having consumed large quantities of caffeine.  Sometime just before dawn, the caffeine wore off and Stefan curled up in a tree-well for a short nap while I sat huddled on my pack, rocking back and forth and awaiting the first hint of daybreak.  Our motivation completely evaporated shortly thereafter and we turned around (but not before taking another nap).

Hannah Preston climbing on New Life, a great route on the North Walls of the Chief.

There have been just enough nice days lately to remind me of what great place Squamish is when it’s sunny.  Hopefully there’s more sun on the way so that I have something more exciting to brag about on the internet in the near future.

Looking out towards Howe Sound. Karina climbing on Jer Frimer's new route Skywalker.

Looking north, up the Squamish Valley. Jesse Mason climbing on Nonsensical, a relatively obscure route on the Squaw.

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Indian Creek is a beautiful place to hang out, even if the weather's a bit unsettled and your arms are weak.

In Utah, you can ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but you can’t buy beer stronger than 3.2%.  It’s a familiar yet exotic place; both culturally and geographically. The locals are incredibly friendly, while their religious beliefs and customs are simply incredible.  For someone coming from damp coastal climes, the desert itself possesses a certain exotic beauty that hopefully even my inept photography will convey.

Bryce Canyon. No climbing here, but pretty cool nonetheless.

Karina climbing one of the beautiful sport routes in Kolob Canyon.

After a rigourously scientific survey, I determined that the average family size on the Zion tourist shuttle bus is seven.  In a similar study, I determined that approximately nine out of ten hikers on the Angel’s Landing Trail will stop you to ask if you “climbed up the face” should you be so foolish as to hike down with any climbing gear visible on your person.  Compare this to approximately one in ten on the backside trail on the Chief, and you’ve got another piece of data supporting my long held belief that Americans are far more obnoxious than Canadians.  Sadly, the recent Canadian federal election suggests that my belief is only 60% correct.

Karina on the top of the unfortunately named Toilet Crack in the Temple of Sinewava, Zion.

Karina on the phenomenal crux pitch of Shune's Buttress.

During the week that we spent in Zion, we seldom hiked more than five minutes from the road (the exception, oddly enough, was to go sport climbing in Kolob Canyon) and all the routes that we climbed were well-known classics.  Nonetheless, we experienced no shortage of adventure.  We climbed lots of wide cracks, we got sand in our eyes, and we rappelled off countless scary anchors consisting of spinning bolts or half-protruding drilled angles (why doesn’t anyone do something about these?).

Karina leading the second pitch of Ashtar Command.

Perhaps because I’m just not a very talented rock climber, I tend to value adventure more than pure technical difficulty, so it’s not surprising that Zion is one of my favorite climbing areas.  Karina, on the other hand, is definitely more talented and as a result prefers thought-provoking technicality to groveling up sandy offwidths.  Still, thanks to her stoicism we enjoyed some memorable days climbing high on the canyon’s sandstone walls, looking down (both figuratively and literally) on the cultural peculiarities of the bustling throngs below.

Karina following the last pitch of Monkeyfinger. I think that her eyes are closed because they're full of sand. While the first six pitches of Monkeyfinger follow beautifully varnished cracks, the last couple pitches are rather more adventurous.

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A Dispatch from the Desert

Karina and I have spent the last week doing some climbing tourism around Moab.

Karina clearly enjoying the wide third pitch of the Kor-Ingalls.

For our first day of climbing we figured that the Kor-Ingalls route on Castleton Tower would make a good warmup.  All I’d heard about the route was that it’s really popular, and our guidebook rated it 5.9- so it seemed like it would be a fairly mellow way to ease into our trip.  That the route follows a system of offwidths and chimneys and was first climbed in 1961 should have made me a little wary.  I did begin to have some doubts when we pulled into the parking lot and saw the size of the talus cone we’d have to hike up to get to the base of the tower.  These doubts were further reinforced when Karina got stuck and threatened to vomit while leading the “5.5” chimney on the first pitch.  Castleton and some of the other surrounding towers have areas where the sandstone is coated by a patina of hardened calcite.  The calcite actually provides some nice edges, but on the Kor-Ingalls these edges are incredibly polished.  As I laybacked around the crux offwidth on the third pitch, my foot greased off a glassy knob and I very nearly pitched off.  Terrified that my ego would never recover if were to fall, I looked around and noticed that the crack opened in the back into a chimney and that I might be able to slip gracefully into it through a narrow opening.  The reality was rather more ignominious; I dove in head first, and then experienced a few moments where I worried that I’d serious misjudged the width of my hips.  Eventually I slithered in and before long we were celebrating Karina’s first desert tower ascent on the flat but windy summit.


Karina heading towards the Rectory. Fine Jade climbs the sunlit face.

The next morning, we hiked right back up the talus cone to climb Fine Jade on the Rectory.  It was a beautiful day: windless, not too hot, and we had the route to ourselves.  The climbing was also fantastic.  Admittedly, some vomiting was threatened on a wide section of the first pitch, but generally it was a day of pleasant hand and finger cracks.  We lounged around on the summit for quite a while and Karina even stripped down to her underwear to work on her tan (but for some reason she won’t let me post the photos on the internet).

I'm pretty sure no one's taken this photo before. The summit of Ancient Art.

Why would anyone want to climb the grotesque, crumbling mud spires of Fisher Towers? I’m sure that there’s a not particularly flattering psycho-analytic explanation revolving around their distinctive shapes.  Also, spires and towers are symbols of the inaccessible. They have no tourist trails up their backsides.  They mock the entropic forces of geology, although in the cases of Ancient Art and the Cobra, it’s not clear that they will be doing so for long. Symbolism aside though, the main reason to climb these tottering piles of mud is because it’ll make for a cool photo.

The Cobra. Castleton and the Rectory are in the background.

We’ve spent the past few days in Indian Creek where it’s been unseasonably windy and cold.  Karina has been making quick progress learning the intricacies of steep crack climbing while I’ve been learning that not climbing for months isn’t exactly a recipe for forearms of steel.


This is a photo of me from few years ago, but it pretty much sums up my experience in Indian Creek the past few days.

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