Living the HI Life: Adventures on the Big Island of Hawaii

Twenty feet up the wall, I eyed the roof above me. Long and nearly horizontal, I had to crane my neck back as far as it would go and still I could barely see its lip. Below me the swells came in, pounding against the jet black, porous rock. From above, a voice filtered in, offering words of encouragement and some much needed advice how to climb through it. I recited the lines in my head as I began my ascent. “Move fast. Grab the tufa with your left hand. Big move.” My feet pressed firmly against the roof from the left while my body exploded to the right. My hand latched the jug, but the fatigue was too much. My fingers, soft from prolonged exposure to the salt water, uncurled and I fell. Plunging feet first, I was injected deep into the clear, blue, tropical water below.

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Working the opening moves at the End of the World. Photo by Nico Testa.

After six weeks of nearly constant, high-end climbing adventures it was time for a break. I had opened a new route in Alaska and learned to bigwall climb in Yosemite. Both my mind and body were in need of a little bit of R&R. Thankfully, my family had just the thing.

My parents, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, decided to do it up big. A vacation to Hawaii was planned, and the kids and their significant others were invited along too. I caught a ride straight from Yosemite’s Camp 4 to San Francisco, where an evening of debauchery ensued. Having left nearly everything behind with Tess, I commuted with public transportation to the airport with nothing but a small carry-on. Not a piece of climbing gear accompanied me. Not even my climbing shoes.

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Enjoying a perfect ocean sunset.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is a magical place. While I was very much looking forward to days on pristine beaches, it proved to be so much more. The ecological diversity was unimaginable to me. From the often snow-covered Mauna Kea to the lush, green jungles of the island’s east side, I could hardly comprehend that this was all the same island. As a family, we drove the island by day and returned to our vacation rental by night. We explored the beautiful beaches and reefs on the west coast and the dry, wind-blasted grasslands of the south, which reminded me so closely of the Patagonian esteppe that I nearly forgot where I was.

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The rural and arid southern plain.

Even so, after a bit less than a week the climbing itch returned. I began to catch myself in the evening scanning the web for information about Big Island climbing. Curiously, there was little information to be found. The only area that got repeat mentions was an area called End of the World, a deep water solo spot that, coincidentally, appeared to be just a 15 minute bike ride away from our house. Still, I was hesitant about going. There was many a warning online referencing the dangers of ocean swells. Humbly, I posted on a Facebook page about climbing in Hawaii. Against the odds, by the next evening I had found a willing partner to show me around.

Sweat-drenched and pedaling hard I arrived at the End of the World. Feeling naked (for I nearly was) I approached the cliff armed with nothing more than the swim trunks and flip flops I was wearing, and a towel in my hand. Quite the contrast to the 80+lbs haul bag I had carried down from the top of El Capitan just over a week before. My partner, who happened to be a professional dive master, queried me on if I was a good swimmer. Not knowing what is considered “good” on the dive master swimming scale, I answered cautiously, “I’m okay, I guess.” His responded with another question, “but your not a sinker, right?” I hoped I wasn’t to be.

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Nico showing me the ways of the DWS warrior.

At the area Nico taught me the basics of ocean swells. Three bigger swells followed by three smaller ones; this is the basic pattern almost anywhere in the world. The strategy then was if you fall in and can’t get out right away, don’t panic. Tread water, conserve your energy, and wait for the big swells to pass. Then, when the small ones cycle in, make your move.

In borrowed climbing shoes I took to the rock. Traversing in we stayed dry, at least at first. The mental game was as exhilarating as it was taxing. Climbing solo, with no ropes, over the very unfamiliar medium of a swelling ocean was like nothing I had experienced in climbing before. The rock, in total contrast to the smooth liquid below, was black as coal and coarse as asphalt. After a few hours our hands could take no more of the abrasive and highly-feature stone. Thinking my climbing experience was at its end, I expressed my gratitude and began to prepare for the bike ride home. “You passed the test”, Nico said with a sly smile. I was confused. What test was he talking about? As it would turn out, I had spent the afternoon under secret evaluation. Seeing that I could climb and was in fact not a sinker, I was extended an offer that I could have hardly expected.

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Rock above, water below.

Early the next morning Nico’s white pickup truck arrived outside the house. We were off to a semi-“locals only” climbing area, and what would be one of the most unique and memorable climbing experiences of my life.

Forty feet of slightly overhanging walls loomed above us. Smooth, water-sculpted holds were plentiful. The azure water below, over twenty feet deep, gave the appearance of being much shallower due to its clarity. Teeming with life, tropical fish of every color swam in the ocean below. Lava tubes, exposed at low-tide, made for mesmerizing explorations between climbs. Sea urchins, crabs, aquatic plants, and even small fish made their homes in the tidal pools around the cliffs. Off in the distance, just 200 ft from the wall, the island’s shelf dropped drastically; the dark blue color of the sea signaling its depth change to over a thousand feet. Free diving spear fishermen, effortlessly treading water, waited patiently for the perfect big game fish to appear.

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Nico traversing over the lip of the lava tube.

Moving freely, I picked my way up the wall’s deep pockets and rounded edges. Never once did I have to worry about the typical climbing concerns of rope and gear. With each route my comfort increased as the trepidation subsided. Before long I was following in my mentors footsteps, pushing my physical and mental limits until I would find myself swimming in the water below.

There is little rest when deep water soloing in the ocean. The cliffs need to be steep to be safe and even when you are not climbing, swimming and treading water keeps your muscles from totally recovering. After only half a day we were too tired to continue. Atop the last route we clinked bottles and I did my best to take in the scene before me. It is not the cliffs that impacted me the most, but the impossibly vast and open seascape that stretched out before us, all the way to the horizon.

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Topping out in paradise.

Reflections from Chalten: 4 of 4

Salvation

Slinking through the dusty streets on another perfect day, I was in a foul mood. Since my return I had been berating myself for not doing things differently. Why hadn’t I chosen a better-known objective? Why hadn’t I used the first weather window to scout out the approach? Why, why, why? I had missed the best window in two years and I was angry. I had resigned myself to counting down the days until I could leave this town and these mountains behind.

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Tess walking along the ice cap.

Shunning company, I excused myself from all social duties. It was only necessity that brought me out of my room; I needed food and a bus ticket out of town. My friend Igor had made me a loaf of bread, and being that his camp spot was near the bus stop, I told him I would stop by to pick it up.

Salvation comes in many forms, and this time it came in the form of a trout, or more specifically, a conversation about trout, salmon, and all things fishing. Unknowingly I had walked into the middle of a small cookout. Before I had time to protest I was seated in front of a plate of fried and grilled fresh-caught fish. Surrounding me were two happy strangers and Igor.

It wasn’t long before my forced pleasantries transformed into genuine interest. We spent the next two hours talking about the fishing and nature in our home countries. Not able to express the concept of ice fishing in Spanish, Igor helped to translate and spread my thoughts across the language barrier. Having been swept far away from my world of climbing, I was happy to discover that not all was dark. That my small world with even smaller concerns was far from the whole of existence, and that illumination was just a change of topic away.

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This photo of Jessica fly fishing in Alaska really helped to break the ice.

I never got to thank those guys for pulling me out of my cave of self-pity. They not only fed my body well, but also brought some much needed nourishment to my spirit. This was the catalyst that allowed me to enjoy and make the most of my last few days in El Chalten. Sport climbing, hiking, and a lovely goodbye dinner made the end of my trip a special one. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Chalten, but the memories I have will keep me yearning to return.

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Until next time, Chalten!

 

Reflections from Chalten: 3 of 4

Purgatory

Hope, like fire, is a dangerous element. A two-edged sword, it can offer protection and instill a confidence that can carry you through a storm. Allowed to go unchecked though, it can quickly overwhelm one’s mind, leading to devastation as reality ultimately prevails. In two climbing seasons I have spent ten weeks in this town, most of that time waiting for a weather window like this to appear. Three days long, stable, and predictable. This is the kind of weather that allows those dream climbs to occur. I had a motivated parter. I had the objective. I was feeling rested and fit. Finally, it was all coming together.

A smile crossed my face as the weather closed in around us. Snug in our well protected cave that would be our home for the next day and a half, I was excited that the forecast was proving to be so accurate. Yesterday we had summited a smaller objective, a sort of warm up for the main show which was still to come. Two days of rest and bad weather were to follow. On the fourth day, already in a camp high on the mountain, we would be in an ideal position to begin our multi-day ascent of St. Exupery.

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Igor on the summit ridge of De L’s.

Foolishly, I allowed my to hope to run unchecked. Unbridled and let free, it went nearly to the impossible, and took a firm grasp. Now, instead of one major peak, we would climb two, back to back, in the best style possible.

We rose at midnight and packed quickly in the silent night. It wasn’t until we left the cave to fill our water bottles that we saw the snow falling all around. Visibility was near zero. Already four hours into the forecasted good weather window we were dumbfounded. After an hour of waiting with no signs of stopping we crawled back in our cave and went to sleep. At five, with the light of dawn minutes away, we rose again with another team and prepped for our departure. The snow was beginning to lighten and showed signs of stopping. While all the fresh precipitation didn’t bode well for rock climbing, our route was to begin with a long snow ramp that would take us up the first 200 meters of the mountain. “How perfect”, I thought.

On the two-hour approach things went very smooth. The cold temperatures kept the snow on the glacier in easy walking condition. Having a team on the nearby mountain was a comfort, while still allowing us to have our objective to ourselves. The day had come and it was beautiful, sunny, and still. A rare, perfect day in these mountains.

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On approach to our objective, St. Exupery, The center tower. Photo by Igor Martínez Gutiérrez

It wasn’t until we were 500 meters away from the base that we realized we had a serious problem. The glacier, while quite safe, was filled with a maze of large, open crevasses. These cracks in the glacier, of indeterminable depth, were far too wide for us to simply step over. Having viewed these from the nearby peak few days ago, I knew they would make for a tricky approach, but I assumed that with time we would be able to find our way though. We had time, so we began the search. Up and down the glacier we moved. Hours slipped away as the sun rose higher in the deep blue summer sky. After nearly six hours, we had exhausted all of our options. It really seemed that there was just no way through this natural labyrinth.

 

 

The dreaming came to a screeching halt. I tumbled off the cloud, falling, hurtling towards the hard, unforgiving reality below. Cartwheeling, and in a last ditch effort to slow the fall, I proposed another radical plan; climb lesser, nearby peak today, then make the grueling 8 hour descent back to the valley to attempt another easy peak. Already being so late in the day, the plan would allow for a maximum of only two hours of sleep that night, capped by two hard days on either side.

The first peak went easy enough, it was actually pleasant. The day was nice, we had some laughs and enjoyed the stunning landscapes around us. By early evening we were back at the cave, packing furiously. After learning all we could from other climbers in the cave about the notoriously tricky approach for our second objective we bounded off down the hill.

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Igor just moves away from the summit on Mojon Rojo.

By headlamp we covered the final kilometers to our camp spot for the night. With only 2.5 hours until wake up we didnt bother with a tent, just a sleeping bag and the stars above. My eyes had seemily just closed when the alarm went off again. There was hesitation about getting up and going for it; it was only my partner’s motivation that convinced me to move my tired and beaten body.

In the pre-dawn we struggled to follow the vague clues our fellow climbers had given us about the approach to the mountain. We crossed the river and entered the forest. We found a stream that seemed to correspond to where we wanted to be on the map. Up and up we ascend along its bank, passing through thick brush and overlooking spectacular waterfalls. We saw no signs of the passage of others, but this did not concern us as we felt we were nearing the mountain.

At daybreak we broke through the treeline. Seeing the mountain laid bare before us, we noticed that a long rock spine lay between us and the start of the route. With confidence still high we picked our way up the loose, gray shale and onto the crest. Immediately, reality hit hard. What we had thought was an easy ridge proved to be a impenetrable mass of steep, red walls made up of loose and crumbling rock. The game was up. No way to cross it, our only option was down. Being too late in the day, too exhausted, and with still no better information about the approach, our attempt was over. Under peaceful, clear skies and with a crushed spirit, I began my return to town.

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An elusive, clear view of Fitz Roy’s summit basking in the light of dawn.

 

Reflections from Chalten: 2 of 4

 

With dreams of a new route I slam the lid down on my new 100 liter backpack. 65 pounds (30kg) of some of the world’s most lightweight and advanced gear fills it nearly to the brim. The weight is oppressively heavy no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. Unfortunately for my partner and I, we have some long days ahead.

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Big packs and many miles. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Hunched over like tired soldiers by the weight of our packs we silently march on. Through the sun and rain, wind and rivers, over hills and across valleys. For hours we move as the voice of podcast drones. Soon I realize I’m not even listening to the words. Lost in a myriad of nothingness, I continue.

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Water above, water below. Tess nears the far shore on one of the many river crossings along our path.

The deep blue water of the glacier-melt lake begins to fill more and more of my field of vision. A small arched wall of stacked stones is the only sign welcoming us to our campsite. Just an hour ago, we finished a 1500 vertical meter climb into a mountain pass. Having descended a third of that, we now camp on one of the final spits of land before the start of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The land, barren and rocky, reminds me of a boulder-filled Norwegian coast. The nearly 17,000 square kilometer Ice Cap, as it is more commonly called, shimmers in the strong light of the Patagonian summer sun. Even though I know it is frozen, I have to look twice, three times, and stare intently to assure myself that it is not just an impassable sea of water.

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Tess cautiously exploring the ice field.

In the morning, we rise with the dawn. We ready ourselves in silence, the feeling of intimidation hanging heavy on our already burdened shoulders. By daybreak we find ourselves entering the world of ice. It is clear after only a few moments of being in this eerily exposed environment that life does not sustain here for long. As the hours and kilometers tick by, the wind begins to howl. “Let’s just wait here until it clears”, my partner suggests after arriving at the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped mountain range. While the sky above the ice cap has remained mercifully clear all day, the clouds, thick as cotton, blanket the peaks completely. I stare at the map on my phone’s screen. If not for this, I would never know the mountains were here.

We wake at 3:00 a.m. on the third day. Even the act of sitting up has my body screaming. My partner lies beside me sniffling, losing her own battle to a worsening cold. The wind outside is still blowing viciously. Now, the moment of truth. I close my eyes tight and stick my head out of the vent in the rear of the tent. While I came here with high hopes of climbing, now I wish for nothing more than the clouds to still be in their place. For them to give me a reason to lay back down, snug in my cocoon of down and safely protected by a few tenths of a millimeter of waterproof nylon. The weather, fickle as ever, obliges me.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I know what this means. All of our efforts have been for naught; those hopes of climbing blown to pieces by the merciless Patagonian winds. All that remains of our dream is the long, brutal walk home. But for now, that is none of my concern. I lay back down and listen to the snap of taught nylon in the breeze as I drift into a dreamless sleep.

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The long walk home, beaten and empty-handed.

Three Stikes: A trilogy of trails in Torres Del Paine, Chile

Strike one

The pressure was growing more and more uncomfortable. We had already spent over a week strategizing and carefully maneuvering our 350 lbs of gear into position. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we waited with a hunger for the chirp of our satellite messenger, signaling the arrival of our daily weather forecast from the outside world. After days of updates that left us with more questions than answers, the time had come to leave the relative comfort of our camp in the forest and move higher into the mountains. We needed to know what was really happening up there.

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Tess on approach.

Little did we suspect the conditions we found. The forest in which we had resided had cast a thin, green veil over our eyes and senses. Unassumingly I laced up my approach shoes for the three hour hike. With only a mist hanging in the air, I opted for a windshell, leaving my waterproof jacket in my pack. It was only 500 meters later, after breeching the front line where the forest and mountain met, that I saw my errors. Snow clung wet and heavy to even the lowest of the peaks. On the ground, precipitation was beginning to accumulate rapidly. The towers, as if swallowed by an ocean, uttered no signs of their total imprisonment.

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Entering a world of snow. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Two cold, damp days followed. Our tent, pitched just outside the final bivy site, required regular snow clearing in order to avoid total collapse. Our goals, to shuttle loads across the glacier and fix the first few pitches of the route, disappeared as slowly and frustratingly as the hours. By the time the weather finally broke, so had our hopes of climbing the Central Tower.

Strike Two

Our four days of good weather had been reduced to two. Consequently, our goals had been reduced accordingly. After an evening of contemplation followed by preparation, we were fully recovered from our earlier disappointments and committed to our new objective; attempting a new aid line up a smaller, unnamed peak. Rising before the first rays of dawn we packed silently in the crisp darkness.

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Pre-dawn gear sort. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Once again we had been misled by our senses. Only after nearly completing our preparations did we take notice of the haze of clouds that obscured our objective. With no visibility, nothing of consequence would occur. We returned to the familiar confines of the tent to wait for a break in the cover.

An hour later with clouds lifting, we left with the arrival of dawn. Having underestimated the weight of our packs, the hiking was slow and laborious. Contrarily, the disappointment came quick. As fast and final as a guillotine, we understood the fruitlessness of our plan after cresting the final moraine. The approach, which only then revealed itself completely, involved a long and technical mixed climb just to reach it’s base. With such harsh time constraints, we knew with totality that our climb was over before it began.

Strike three:

The remainder of the day, while beautiful, did little to rid the peaks of snow. Another pair of climbers joined us at the bivy site and we enjoyed the comradery and reassurance of the highly experienced team. With our climbing options dwindled down to a bare minimum, we chose the one that offered the highest chance of reward.

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Red sky at morning.

Needing a win, we cast out the next morning under a beautiful sunrise. Our goal was to climb a new, shorter free route on one of peaks that made up the nameless, sawtoothed ridge opposite our camp. As the peak grew closer we found a labyrinth of false ridges, scree gullies, and loose rock. With little to lose and less to go on we started up one of the gullies. Hours later, having found our path blocked by an icy couloir on one side and a cliff of snowy loose blocks other, we began our descent, having yet to climb a single meter. With the the sky a cold grey and flurries beginning to fall, we cautiously made our return to camp.

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Time to go down. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

You’re Out:

With the window closed we moved back down the hill. The forecast continued to offer nothing but discouragement. The rains, the winds, the cold managed to find us even in the Eden of the forest. The small red handle that was once barely visible in the mind’s eye grew bigger and bigger as the hopelessness became more final. Eventually we pulled the handle and self-ejected ourselves back into civilization ten days ahead of schedule. While the stereotypical overly-optimistic American in me desires badly to avoid the reality and mask the disappointment, it would be untrue. Of course, the mountains do not concern themselves with our petty needs, and I hope they will remain like that, both merciless and wonderful.

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The Central and South Tower of Paine.

 

 

 

Reflections from Chalten: 1 of 4

The Arrival:

Two travel-weary souls, wearing matching red slippers, meet in an airport far, far away from either of their homes. This has become the standard meeting scene of Tess and I over the years; this time was no different. After our reunion, another long layover, a flight, and a bus ride delivered us to our destination, the town of El Chalten, Argentina. Two years ago Tess and I had spent six weeks together in this town. It was an experience that for me was equal parts challenging and rewarding. The brief time we actually spent climbing during that month and a half was incredible; I had the single best climbing experience of my life on those steep, golden-hued granite walls. The time in town, the waiting, was hard and often dark. There were sunny moments, too. I made some great friends. Friends who I would come back to see again and again even if it wasn’t for the climbing. But when the time came to leave, I was beyond ready. I returned to my home weaker, slower, heavier, and more unhealthy than when I left.

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Dawn breaks on the Glacier Marconi

I promised myself it would be different this time. The town of El Chalten has so much to offer in terms of outdoor recreation. Even when the weather in the mountains is bad, it more often than not beautiful and clear, alibet a bit windy, in town. There are hundreds of sport climbs within walking distance of the hostels we frequent. A plethora of fun bouldering lies waiting in excess in the nearby foothills. The hiking and trail running options, almost all of which are accessible by a short walk from town, are beautiful, fun, free, and nearly limitless in potential. The icing on the cake is that with friendships already established, finding a motivated partner is never an issue.

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Training in the park with eyes on the prize.

This time my problems came from the other end of the spectrum. How do I stop my activities in town from negatively affecting my mountain experiences? No doubt, a high level of suffering often occurs when attempting to climb in these mountains. The only thing that can effectively combat this is an even higher level of motivation to be there. With options to sleep in, eat well, relax in good company, and then head out for some fun, mostly safe climbs and trail runs, i found this motivation beginning to wain. In addition, when things didnt go well on those “easy” climbs, I struggled to convince myself that the results would be different in the harsh and often unforgiving mountains. If I cant climb a 6a graded sport climb, why think I can climb a 6a ten rope lengths up on a cold, intimidating peak?

Free Space:

We kept hoping, but dared not whisper a single word aloud. A 36-hour gap in the notoriously bad weather and appeared and it was Tess and I’s first foray into the mountains this season. Attempting to climb a peak called Guillaumet, one of the the Fitz Roy range’s “bookends”, in a single push from “car-to-car”, we left at midnight during the still ominous weather. Hours of hiking separated us from the base of the peak. The wind, strong enough at times to make us gasp for breath, was a constant companion during those early morning hours.

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Readying for another pre-dawn, alpine start. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

We reached a large, overhanging boulder and took refuge under its cold, granite roof. The rain had changed to snow, and though the forecast promised and end to it soon, we remained skeptical. We sat, waiting for something to happen. Sure enough, something did. Climbing team after climbing team walked biy us, no doubt, on their way, to the same objective. We too, hiked on.

A pink-hued dawn greeted us at the base of a large snow slope. The clouds, lifting ever-higher, slowly revealed their closely guarded treasure. Forms began to take shape, and vail was finally removed from the mountains.

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The storm retreats, the climbers approach.

We followed the conga line of climbers up higher and higher. Commands between partners in every language filled my ears. Above climbed a guide and client from Italy. Below, two Frenchmen, one who had lived in Finnish Lapland for 6 months. The now cloudless day was warming up rapidly, and the snow we were climbing, that bonded us to the side of the mountain, was turning more and more water-like. Finally we reached the rock. After waiting in line a while, it was our turn to climb. Two more pitches of snow-filled cracks and very scrappy climbing lead us to the summit snow field. Ten more minutes of moderate effort saw us on top of my first Chalten summit. While it was far from the remote mountain experience I had imagined, it was special all the same. All that remained now was the 12-hour decent back to the road.

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Arrigetch Peaks: A new route in the Wilds of Alaska

Hours after we had begun and only half way up the wall, our situation felt desperate. The climbing continued to increase in difficulty and the conditions remained far from ideal.

I had spent far too long at the stance. Willing, trying, failing, and cursing the rock for not offering up better gear placements. My mind, as dark as the cloud surrounding us, was reaching it’s limit. The climbing had been challenging. I had seen more meters of dead-end terrain on this wall than I could count. Steep, loose rock flakes coated in ice hung down like row upon row of glinting shark teeth. Mercifully, every time thus far I had barely managed to dodge my way around the jaws and onto more moderate ground.

Now though, it seemed the jig was up. Above me was a short, steep dihedral. Committing moves were required before reaching the first possibility of a gear placement. My toes and hands, frozen into little blocks of wood, were not inspiring confidence. Jessica was calling out, I had been standing here too long.

Two weeks ago, under clear skies, we had flown into Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Wild and remote with no roads or trails, it is one of the United States’s last great wildernesses. Our diverse team of four had originally convened in Fairbanks, Alaska, where we took an eight-hour 4×4 shuttle ride north along the Dalton Highway. We debarked at the town of Coldfoot, pop: 20. There, under the direction of our pilot, Dirk, we piled all of our food, equipment, and persons onto a cattle scale in order to assure that we were not overweight for the bush plane ride into the backcountry.

The team

The single propeller started with a whirl. Even with headphones on, the drone of the engine dominated the hour-long flight. The plane, so light and small, was easily rocked about and moved by the wind. I imagined I was in a lifeboat being tossed around at sea. After a bit of scouting, Dirk set us down on a dry river bed. The plane landed almost like a mosqito, coming to a stop right away and barely needing any sort of “runway”.  Twenty days later Dirk would return to this spot for us. Until then, we were on our own.

Back on the climb, I finally managed to build a hanging anchor a few feet lower. One marginal cam and a shitty nut is all that anchored us to the wall. Jessica climbed up to the stance and we hung there, slumped against each other and the wall like limp flags on a windless day, trapped in our silent grey worlds as the snow swirled around us.

Jessica was here for me. I was here because after four days of hard load carrying, ten storm-bound days of cold, rain, and hunger, and this being only our second (and more than likely last) chance to climb in the range, I wanted to finish this route. This day the forecast had promised a brief, 24-hour weather window before returning to its standard fare of rain, snow and cold for the next seven days. The plane was scheduled to pick us up in five. This was our last chance to either climb a new line, or walk away empty handed.

With the caution of a person trying to disarm a bomb, I gingerly unlaced my too-tight climbing shoes and removed them, trying my best not to fumble them into the void below. Slowly, with much rubbing and flexing, the feeling returned in my toes. Jessica soon pulled a thermos of tea out of her backpack and handed a cup of the piping hot liquid to me. As the warm cup thawed my frozen hands a sliver of light, of hope, returned to my mind.

The hike into our basecamp had been grueling. Even with our bare-minimum, 1200 calorie per-day diet of mostly dehydrated foods, the weight of our packs was oppressive. We had to make two complete trips to get all of our supplies from the drop off point to our camp, 12 miles (20km) as the crow flies up the Aiyagomahala Valley. For much of the time we followed the creek itself. Loose, slippery river rocks, rapids, and hip deep water were all too common hazards of the journey. The alternative was often undergrowth so thick that one could hardly fall down if they tried. On the last day of our load carrying, while hiking in early dawn of a silent, wet morning we spotted a grizzly bear mother and two cubs.  From up on the rocky bank of the creek they watched us, unafraid and unmoving, their gaze following us as we made our way back down the valley.

I refocused on the climb. Like looking at it through new eyes, I began to see small features I had missed before; a small chip had fallen from the wall and exposed a tiny edge, a perfect foothold. The lower crack in the corner might take a small cam at two meters height, not four. Every climber has their own risk limits. While this climb was not worth pushing my personal boundaries, with these new discoveries it now felt safe enough to proceed. Jessica, too, seemed to be in a lighter mood. With the spell broken and the dark moment past, it was time to continue.

The pitch, of course, went fine. The few moves that felt like real rock climbing actually helped to warm my muscles and in only a matter of minutes I was standing on a big ledge with good gear. Again, I built an anchor and Jessica came up. Both on the ledge, with cracked, dehydrated lips we actually smiled at each other. I set off again. By the end of the next pitch the sun had broken through the clouds and the weather seemed to be clearing out. The last pitch, which lead to the summit ridge, was technically the hardest of the route. A steep bombay groove of increasing difficulty and decreasing rock quality lead to the top. Even up until the last move, I was unsure if the route would go.

In the end, our route, Ask and You Shall Receive (II, 5.9, 150m), took us 21 hours to complete from camp to camp. While quite small, moderate, and seemingly insignificant compared to not only the other routes in the region, but also our own ambitions for the trip, I am proud of it and the efforts we put into its completion. It should also be noted that the forecasted 24 hours of good weather actually arrived a day late, coming the day after our climb. All four of our expedition members, too drained from their efforts the day before (read about Tess and Anina’s harrowing adventure here), could not take advantage of this final break in the weather.

Only a few days later with the snows coming we began the hike out to the landing zone. In a process that always feels simultaneously too slow and too fast we were dumped back into the civilized world. Emails and news reports of Finland’s first terrorist attack and Trump’s seeming demolition of all things good left me wondering if I was ready to be back in this, the real world.

 

Postcards From Lofoten

Just before leaving the Nordic world to embark on my Alaska adventure, I had the good fortune to take a two-week “pre-trip” to the Lofoten Islands of nortwestern Norway. Having drawn poor luck with the weather during my  previous visit to the area, my partner and I headed back again with hopes of completing some unfinished business. For two weeks we sparred with the weather; overall, we held our own. Mostly good strategizing allowed us to rest when it rained, strike out during the too-brief climbing windows, and take full advantage of the midnight sun. While we climbed many pitches and nearly all of our goals, the major objective, Storpillaren, remained unclimbed. Even when the rest of the area was basking in the sun, clouds hung low over the pillar, keeping it wet for the duration of our stay. Being that the route’s difficultly was at the upper end of what we dared to attempt, anything less than perfect conditions meant that it would have to wait for another year. While frustrating, my father summed it up nicely when he said, “I can think of some worse places to have to visit three times.”

Below is a series of photographs from the trip accompanied by short stories, brief moments and memories from my two weeks in the Lofotens. The photos have not been edited or photoshopped in any way, which is much more a testament to the beauty of Norway than the skills of the photographer. Enjoy.

​Tero, preparing to step into the void on the last pitch of the route, Silmarillion. The route was an intense and interesting mix of challenges. The payoff, the position, is well worth the cost of admission.

​After seeing the feature, Pillaren (above left), while hiking into climb Bare Blåbær, both Tero and I had desires to climb it. The route we chose, Celebrian, promised 12 pitches of mountain-route style adventure on this feature at a moderate grade. Below, Tero leads one of the opening pitches under uncertain sky.

​Upon reaching the summit, we could not locate the rappel anchors marked in the topo. We spent hours moving up and down the ropes in a futile effort to locate them. Never appearing, the search was called off and we spent the next 14 hours slowly working our way down and off the mountain. Twenty-four hours after leaving, we reached the car once again.

​Home sweet home. I prepared a late dinner outside of our basecamp, an old ambulance that Tero converted into the ultimate climber vehicle. Photo by Tero Marttila.

​During this trip I did have aspirations of climbing a new route. On my last visit to the area I had scoped a potential new line, though after only one attempt I knew it was too difficult for me. Thanks to the rainy days though, I had  plenty of time to pour over the guidebook and look for other promising locations. One evening I ventured out to one of these choice areas with an old friend from the United States. Through the night, with help from the midnight sun, we established a short, three-pitch route on an obscure crag. With plenty more potential for other new routes in the area, I convinced two friends from Tampere to join me there for what would be my last day in the area. Above, Liisa makes the third ascent of the new route, Rally English. After that, all that remained of my trip was a long and pleasant car ride home under clear, blue skies.

Offwidth Climbs of Finland- The Incomplete Guide

It is no surprise to most climbers that Finland is not much of a rock climbing destination. Sure there are some sweet places to rope up, but on the whole, it is often viewed as a bit lacking. Beware though, Finland does have at least one ace up its sleeve: its collection of high quality offwitdhs. Much like flannel and fixies, offwidth climbing is seemingly trendy now. So, for those of you looking to break into the “scene”, may I present Mamu Allu’s Select and Incomplete Guide to Finnish Offwidth Climbs.

Kustavi

Kustavi is a collection of crags centered around the south-western, coastal town for which it takes its name from. Many of the climbs here are short, but powerful, and ascend the sharpest granite I have ever had the (dis)pleasure to touch. Two of Finland’s best wide cracks can be found here, and a nice warm up.

If you haven’t had much practice with shredding your ankles to ribbons and hunting down enough #5 cams to make any offwidth safe to lead, Kaunokainen is a great place to start. At 5+, it is the “easiest” on the list. While the crack is wide, much of the burliest offwidth climbing can be avoided by using face holds, making it perfect for the uninitiated.

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Far from uninitiated, Liisa makes offwidth climbing on Kaunokainen look good. Photo by Juha Ahtiainen.

Next, comes Kylmä Hönkä, checking in at 6c. This might be Finland’s most oft-tried offwidth testpiece, and for good reason. Think: lots of #5 and #6 camalots, heel-toe cams, and classic arm bar/crimp/grimace combos.

 

 

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If you are still feeling spry, head on over to Uhrikallio and test your wide pride on Kirnu, a lesser-known 6c+ offwidth. Short, steep, and powerful. This crack starts with rattly fist, and  ends with a full-on squeeze chimney. Nice thing is, it requires only three pieces of gear. Rumor has it that some years back, a contender fought so hard on the upper part, that they passed out mid-route and were held in place by the chimney – way to save the onsight!

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The infamous Saku Korosuo takes a lap on Kirnu. Photo by Olli Koiso-Kanttila.

Olhava:

Olhava is unquestionably the most iconic climbing area in Finland. Therefore, it’s only fair that Finland’s most iconic offwidth be located here. Eklipsi; the name alone strikes fear into the hearts of all but the fiercest offwidth warriors. Graded at 6c, it offers 40 meters of sustained, wide crack combat. When you get on this route, you better be ready. It will take all you have to give and then some.

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Beautiful setting for a beautiful battle. Mark testing his mettle on Eklipsi. Photo by Liisa Peltonen.

Kyrkskär:

Now this is where people angle their heads a little to side and say “Mitä?”. The climb is Kodiak and it goes at 6c+. Overhanging and powerful, the business section is mercifully short and located low on the route. The area, Kyrkskär, is located on a tiny little island in the Turku archipelago. Remote and hard to access, getting there is definitely part of the adventure.

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Henri working hard on Kodiak.

While this list isn’t long, it sure is strong. For all the climbs I have ever done, only on three have I pushed myself so hard that I was sure I would throw up. On the above list are two of those three. When the time comes for you to climb these, let me know; you can always borrow my big cams!

 

– If I missed a classic Finnish offwidth, please comment below!

Alpine training – In Finland?

Since my return from Japan, I have been working hard to get my mind, body, and skills in shape for some upcoming alpine climbing adventures. While previously I was spending much of my training time focusing solely on becoming a harder, better, faster, stronger rock climber, now my goal involves much more cardio and full-body fitness.

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Lots of time spend riding now makes for easier approaching later. Photo by Katja Silomaki.

To help give my training some direction, I have been following the basic principles and concepts from Steve House‘s book, Training for the New Alpinism. Until recently, this has worked great. Running, cycling, weight lifting, and moderate amounts rock climbing have been easy enough to participate in when required. That was, until last weekend. Last week, the training program called for “one day of alpine climbing”. Alpine climbing, in Finland; in your dreams.

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While Finland is certainly beautiful, it is not known for its mountainous terrain.

Having to get creative, I drew on my past experiences. To replicate alpine climbing I would have to first complete a long, weigh-baring cardio workout (long approach), followed by many meters of moderate climbing (the route). After an hour of research on Google Maps, I had a plan.

Step 1: Bike from home to Mustavuori Ski Hill

The bike ride, about 15km, offered a nice warm up to the day.

Step 2: Hike the ski hill for a total of 500 vertical meters

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Janne at the beginning of another round.

Surprisingly, there were MANY people out walking up and down the single-run ski hill. One man even ask if my partner and I were training for Kilimanjaro. Apparently, the previous weekend he had met some folks who were hiking up and down the hill 40 times for training. Yikes. For my part, eight times up and down was enough. I kept a slow and steady pace as I hiked, carrying rocks with me on the way up and discarding them at the top, in order to save my knees on the descent.

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Watch the pile grow! Photo by Janne Ruuskanen.

Steps 3 and 4: More biking to the climbing area. Climb!

After the hill, we once again mounted our noble steeds and pedaled to the Melo Crag where we climbed all but one of the routes on the wall.

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Janne leading one of the area’s more difficult routes.

Step 5: Bike home.

In total, we cycled about 50km, hiked 500 meters of vertical, and climbed 120+ meters. While it might not be exactly alpine climbing, it is about as close as one can get in Finland, and a nice way to spend a beautiful, early summer day.