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!

Climbing in Japan: A Lesson in the Ways of the Weekend Warrior

The metallic clink of climbing gear keeps me awake as we bounce along the narrow mountain road. The tricked out climber van’s defrost is running at full tilt to stop the cool morning air from fogging up the windshield. Even with our pre-dawn start, the hands on the clock near their way toward 7:30 a.m. “We aren’t going to get a spot”, my partner says to me with a slight head shake. I can hardly believe the statement. No way could a 40-car climber’s parking lot be filled so early on a Sunday morning. I mean, this is sport cragging we are talking about. As it would turn out, this was to be my first lesson in Japanese climbing culture, and there would be many, many more to follow.

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We did manage to get a spot, albeit the last one.

The Japanese Way:

Life in Japan seems to be dominated by two main themes, the first being social etiquette. Polite manners, orderly conduct, and respectful efficiency are just some of the many unwritten societal rules that play a part in nearly all aspects of life, climbing included. The second is a ferocious dedication to all that one does. In Japan, there is little room for half-hearted efforts. With work as with climbing, the Japanese tend to put in long days and take little time away from their commitments.

Horai:

We stroll along through the forest at a leisurely pace, enjoying the bird songs and bright green leaves of spring. The familiar weight of my climbing pack feels good and the uphill hiking pleasant after months of the Finnish flatlands. My partner, Sasaki-san, and I had met in-person for the first time less than 36 hours ago. A friend of a friend, Sasaki-san kindly offered to be my guide and liaison into the unknown world of Japanese climbing. The day’s objective, Horai, is arguably Japan’s most famous sport climbing area.

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Pocket pulling heaven at Horai.

Arriving at a single-pitch sport climbing crag at 8:30 a.m. anywhere else in the world will almost surely get you first-dibs on any route you desire. In Japan though, it will put you about the middle of pack. I took in the scene before me; a dozen or so routes existed with a handful of them already hosting the day’s first challengers. There was already six rope teams on hand, and more arriving every minute. “Is it always this crowded?”, I ask. A friendly nod was my response.

Keeping with the codes of etiquette, after exchanging morning greetings with others at the crag, Sasaki-san lays a small tarp on the ground near the outskirts of the cliff’s clearing. Next, he unrolls a foam sleeping mat and places it on top. Looking around, I see many other similar setups. One, I note, even has two napping climbers on it. He motions for me to set down my gear and have a seat. The tarp, I will later come to understand, is an ingenious system used to keep the cliff clutter-free. All one’s personal belongings stay in single, confined area, eliminating the classic yard-sales and pack explosions that so often infect popular crags in North America.

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A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Sasaki-san exchanges a few words, smiles, and bows with a team climbing a pocket-filled 5.9. He then comes to inform me that after these climbers, and the team of sleeping climbers, we will warm up on this route. “On really popular routes, people even write their names on a ‘waiting list’ at the base of the route”, Sasaki-san tells me. Polite, orderly, and efficient, even at the crag.

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A busy day at Horai.

During the wait, Sasaki-san takes the opportunity to introduce me to some of his fellow climbers. I do my best to stay reserved, not wanting to unknowingly break some rule of conduct, but the warm greetings and sincere interest I receive melt away my initial hesitations. As the day progresses the rope teams begin to dissolve and more of a community feel emerges. Those who wish to climb more do so. Those who wish to rest and conserve energy for their projects, belay. Laughs are had, gear is shared, and the hours pass pleasantly. I begin to understand that for all its differences, at its core, the basic ideals of cragging – enjoying climbing in the company of others – remains the same. We all hike out, en mass, with the last hints of daylight.

Nabari:

On a Friday evening, one week later, I arrive back on the doorstep of Sasaki-san’s home. Being that the Japanese live in an extremely work-oriented culture, the only time for climbing is the weekend. Unfortunately, the forecast calls for rain everywhere within a 5-hour driving radius of Sasaki-san’s home. Not to be dissuaded, and even after a full Japanese work-week, we pack the van for another pre-dawn (4:45 a.m.!) departure. Our destination is an off-the-beaten-track area called Nabari. Known for its stiff grades and long, splitter cracks, it is an area that sounds right up my alley.

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It is not everyday that you get to climb offwidth on a “5.9”, unless you are in Nabari!

Sasaki-san informs me that this weekend will be a busy one at Nabari; a “hanami”, or sakura party, has been scheduled. During a few weeks each April, the whole of Japan is filled with the beautiful, pale-pink flowers of the sakura. The spectacle is celebrated by both gaijin and locals alike. A standard hanami usually involves meeting friends in a park, and sharing food, alcohol, and, of course, views of the cherry blossoms.

The group rendezvous at a convenience store not far from the cliff. Last-minute weekend supplies (beer) are purchased and the caravan departs. Hopes are high as the sun breaks through the clouds and reveals promising burst of blue sky. Though, with one look at the water-streaked wall from the parking lot, all these hopes are dashed. No matter,  we are heading up anyways. In Japan, everyday you climb, you climb like it is your last. At the cliff, lines are scoped. Some are lead and some have top ropes set up on them. Wet rock and muddy climbing shoes become the standard complaints. After two desperate leads, I am thankful for all those wet cracks I climbed while living at the New River Gorge. In the end, the rain wins out. A heavy shower that moves in forces even the most committed to call an early end to the day. We head to a small, local park and establish camp.

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Home, Sweet Home.

After a quick dash back into town for a relaxing dip in an onsen, we return to camp and begin the festivities. As the rain pours down, the party continues, protected by two large tarps and fueled by good spirits (both in the personality and alcoholic respects). After a couple group sing-alongs of Country Road, I am one of the first to call it a night at 2:00 a.m. The Japanese are dedicated. In the morning, I awake to the sounds of voices and the pattering of raindrops. By 7:30 a.m. I am out of the tent, and one of the last to do so. Between rain showers, camp is broken down, and my new friends begin to depart.

On the way home, I join one of my new friends in a last-ditch attempt to find some dry rock at a bouldering area whose name translates to “Old, Beautiful Mountain”. Surprisingly, we are successful and get a few hours of granite crystal pitching in before obligations force us to call a close to our event-filled weekend.

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Bouldering at Komiyama. Photo by Shogo Nakamura.

While both the quantity and, even more impressive, the vast diversity of climbing that Japan has to offer should be enough to attract almost any climber to visit, it was the unique relationship between the social and climbing culture that truly captivated me, and set this experience apart from any other.

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A view from the top: Nabari.

Smash and Grab or Swing and a Miss

A few years ago a friend of mine stumbled across a style of climbing called the “Smash and Grab”. This concept is mostly aimed at those 9-to-5 climbers hoping to tackle bigger objectives than their limiting schedules might otherwise allow for.

In its grandest form, Smash and Grab can involve such shenanigans as last-minute plane ticket purchases, big mountains, and new routes. For most of us though, it takes the form of long drives and meaningful, classic climbs.

My first date with the Smash and Grab had humble beginnings. After watching the weather and ice reports for weeks, my partner and I finally spotted favorable conditions for some classic ice routes in the North East of the U.S. Driving from my then-home in Virginia, we raced through the night, driving the 12 hours in a single push. Over the 3-day weekend we were able to climb two of the most classic, test-piece, Adirondack ice climbs, and still make it back to work on Tuesday morning.

With enough patience and flexibility, Smash and Grab trips can often be extremely successful. Reader bewared though, it is still risky business. With such little margin for error one’s trip can quite easily become a “Swing and a Miss”.

This past December I had not one, but two Swing and Misses. The first was a trip to one of Europe’s premier ice climbing destinations, Rjukan, Norway. Unfortunately, while the destination for our trip was extremely flexible, the timing was not. Trying to work around a long weekend, courtesy of Finnish Independence Day (“Findependence” Day, anybody?), conditions all across the Nordic world proved unfavorable for skiing or climbing. To top it off, inaccurate weather forecast and a bone-headed call, made by yours truly, in which we bailed from the one climbing area with good ice, assured near-maximum time spent hiking and scouting with minimal climbing. Thankfully, on the last day, I did manage a few good leads.

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Climbing Gaustaspokelse (WI4) at Krokan. Photo courtesy of the talented Rami Valonen.

My second Swing and a Miss occurred just two weeks later in Northern Sweden. For two years now the long, isolated ice routes at Stora Sjorfallet have called to me. Finally being in Finland for a winter, visiting this area became top priority.

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Nastan Alpint (Almost Alpine) WI3, 400m

As my friend and I drove the 12 hours north and west, the temperature, as if playing games with us, steadily rose, and continued to rise to above freezing, where it remained for the duration of the trip. Thus, poor ice conditions were abundant. The final nails in the coffin included an overambitious agenda and a lack of ice climbing fitness. In short, it was too warm and we were too weak.

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Being that we were there for the winter solstice, the sun never really rose. This was sunrise, sunset, and everything in between.

Overall, these trips were hard ones for me. There was frustration. There was disappointment. You win some, you lose some. Yet, interspersed, there were still some magical moments. Watching moose walk down the approach trail at Stora Sjorfellet gave me pause to reflect on my enchanting surroundings. The soft, warm, winter sunlight casting long shadows on the blue ice of Krokan reminded me how much I have missed winter in the North. Are these moments enough to make these trips “worth it”? For me, it is hard to know. At least they help ease the burden of the long journey home.

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The boys, heading home.

 

 

 

Julbo Vertical Session

It is no secret; I have lifetimes worth of climbing adventures dreamed up. The priorities of these objectives are forever changing depending on partners, fitness level, and a plethora of other variables. One location that has always remained near the top of the list is Greenland.

At the end of May I had a unique opportunity to participate in the Julbo Verical Session. This contest chose one lucky amateur climber to join Chamonix mountain guide Christophe Dumarest for an all-expense-paid, month-long climbing trip to Greenland’s Fox Jaw Cirque.

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Christophe Dumarest seen (on right) chatting with fellow competitor, Ester. Photo courtesy of the talented Marc Daviet.

On a whim, I decided to apply for this contest. I spent a few hours teaching myself the basics of Apple’s iMovie and produced a short, but passable, video. I submitted this and the written application, and promptly forgot all about it.

Some time later, and much to my surprise, I received an email informing me that I had been shortlisted for a “try-out”. Myself and five others were to join Christophe and the Julbo team in Chamonix, France for two days of climbing in the Alps.

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The view of a snowy Alps. Photo courtesy of the talented Marc Daviet.

With only a week before the try-outs started, plane tickets were expensive. Also, I had already tested my work’s patience for letting me take time off. With only a one in six chance of being chosen, I hesitated on whether or not I should even go to Chamonix. In the end, with some encouragement from the right people, an understanding boss, and an acceptance that the Russian Roulette odds were pretty high as far as my trips are concerned, I bit the bullet and went for it.

When I arrived in Chamonix the afternoon before our try-outs it was in the mid 70s (+23c) and full sun. Perfect weather. By the next morning, it was snowing in town. Overnight the weather had worsened drastically. In the mountains there was almost 2ft (60cm) of new snow and a blizzard still raging.

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Standing in the blizzard. Photo by the talented Marc Daviet.

As snow continued to fall, the entire Julbo Vertical Sessions contingent met at a small cafe in town. Brief introductions lead to a discussion about what was going to take place over the next two days. Plans were shaky at best, as all were weather dependent. Our plan was to take the Aiguille du Midi cable car up to its summit, then descend the ridge to arrive at the Refuge des Cosmiques where we would spend the night.

As the cable car ascended, the weather worsened. By the time we were half way up it was white-out conditions. At the summit, we cautiously ventured out onto the ridge. None of the guides had ever seen it in such poor condition. With it being too unsafe to continue, we spent the day doing a variety of skill tests and taking a lot of video and photographs for P.R. purposes.

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Francois battling the storm. Photo courtesy of the talented Marc Daviet.

Day turned to evening, and with no improvement in the conditions, we descended back to town via the cable car.  An enjoyable night was passed in fun conversation at a nice restaurant.

The following morning we all piled into cars and took a ride to the Italian side of the Alps. The weather was perfect and the day was spent climbing at a picturesque crag overlooking the quaint Aosta Valley. It was a feast for the eyes; ancient towns, terraced hillsides, and castle ruins laid in the foreground with the mighty Alps serving as a backdrop.

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Enjoying the view.  Photo by the talented Marc Daviet.

The pressure was on to perform and climb well, as it was really the only day that any of the candidates had to show their skills. Many of the routes were trying and there was the added challenge of climbing with the hodgepodge collection of the guides’ climbing equipment.

At the close of the day, we all headed back to Chamonix and shared a parting meal. Soon after, the Spanish contestant, Fatima, and I were graciously driven to the Geneva airport by  Antoine, the French contestant. We had a great time on the road, singing and dancing to songs on the radio and releasing some tension. The sunset over the Alps was breathtaking.

As fate would have it, I did not win the trip to Greenland. That honor would belong to the kind Antoine. In addition to being the strongest climber out of all the contestants, his caring and fun-loving personality will make him an excellent addition the the Julbo Vertical Sessions team. I can truly say that I am extremely happy and excited for him. Congrats, Antoine!

Striking While the Iron’s Hot: The Tampere Triple

In the header of my blog I have a list of three things: quixotic quest, adventure travel, and local endeavors. These are the three categories that I hoped to feature here. While the first two have certainly been getting a lot of attention recently, the last has fallen by the way side – that is until now.

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Getting lost.

A few years ago, a respected local shared with me his vision of a good, close-to-home challenge. This challenge required climbing ice, rock, and boulder routes, all in a day, and with all transportation being done by bicycle. Always enjoying a unique challenge, I have been eagerly awaiting a spring where the weather and conditions would make this endeavor possible.

Almost exactly a week after I returned from El Chalten, all the variables finally came together. The ice was still in, the sun sun had come out, and partners were found. Early on a grey Easter Sunday morning, two friends and I all left our homes and pedaled to the pre-determined meeting point.

Our longest cycling leg came first. As the sun slowly emerged, we pedaled along 30km of mostly paved bike path.  The pavement ended with an especially arduous section of dirt road, which due to the recently melted snow felt like “riding on glue”. Once past this difficulty, we reached the boulders.

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Henri cranking hard.

While we had no boulder pads, we did have two foam sleeping mats. This, along with the snow, proved to be adequate protection for our two-and-a-half boulder problems.

With our butts already sore and legs tired, we continued our journey and made the short hop to the ice crag where (thankfully) surprisingly solid ice awaited us. Being that we had to carry all of our gear on our backs, we took turns sharing the two pairs of tools and crampons we had packed between the three of us.

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Me, leading some fat, wet ice.

On the ride home, we stopped at the local sport crag and finished our day, each leading a different route.

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Jimbo leading his route with Henri on belay duty.

Upon reentering the city, we each split off and headed our own ways home. In total, we had covered 60km, climbed 2 boulder problems, 2 ice routes, and 3 sport routes; a fine way to start the spring climbing season. I owe huge thanks to my partners, Henri and Jimbo, for helping with all the logistics and sharing their enthusiasm with this dream.

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The dream team.