Category Archives: Climbing

North Guardian Angel

April 23, 2015.

East Ridge | 7.5 miles | 750′ ele. gain | 7.5 hrs. | Photos

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We met up with Rick at a coffee shop before sunrise, and caravaned up to the Wildcat trail head in the central part of Zion National Park. With less publicity and several road closures planned for the day, we anticipated more of a wilderness experience on the trails.

Aaron, Rick and I hiked down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turned on the junction towards Northgate Peaks. At trail’s end, the two Northgate Peaks stood like stone lions guarding the gate of some VIP’s mansion. We bushwhacked down the overgrown blocks of dark lava rock to the sandy valley floor. Heading directly towards our obvious target, we picked our way through scraggly shrubs and the occasional pine tree as quickly as we could. Once we reached the impressive sandstone slabs of North Guardian Angel, Aaron turned back to hike up East Northgate Peak while Rick and I harnessed up for our climb.

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The first bit was a fun, third class scramble up the horizontally scarred slab to the long, flat landing zone above. My approach shoes felt incredibly sticky on this rock. We weren’t in Oregon anymore…

Once we hit the plateau, we roped in and I led up the first pitch of actual climbing. The hardest moves (as always) were right off the ground—within the first 30 feet or so—and so it took a little mental magic to push myself through on lead. Since I rarely ever climb rock anymore, my brain gets a little rusty on exposed, unprotected climbing, even when it’s technically easy.

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Once past the tough spot I breezed up to a good anchor point and brought Rick up. There may not have been anywhere to place nuts and cams on this climb, but there were plenty of Ponderosa pines along the way. Each pitch ended at one such tree, and was almost always shared with a massive throng of red ants. That kept the pace moving. We consulted a photocopy from one of Rick’s climbing books that had a play-by-play route description to keep us on track, but mostly the pitches ran out whenever there was a convenient tree to sling.

We ended up climbing 4 or 5 roped pitches, then carried the rope up the final ascent. The climbing was really enjoyable and never that challenging, but the exposure made us pay attention. It felt nicer to be roped up, even though belaying up my partner was exhausting (since he was cruising along so fast).

Near the summit block, we had some options. We decided to go left and traverse around the “face” of the ridge, since it looked pretty vertical. The traverse was pretty easy, minus one airy step that Rick assured me was no big deal. After that, it was a straightforward scramble up some loose but not exposed sections of rock.

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On the summit, the views were incredible. Pale, slickrock mountains jutted up from the forested scrubland all around it. Voices echoed out from the Subway, a popular canyoneering route nearby. We hung out and ate snacks for the first time today, admiring the colorful mountains and valleys in all directions.

Seriously, 360° views:

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On the way down, we walked to the edge of the summit block wall and set our first rappel. This saved us some time and hassle negotiating the exposed section we passed through on our way up. By combining downclimbing with rappelling we comfortably descended the ridge back to the plateau. One last slickrock scramble brought us to the base of the mountain, where we packed up our gear and headed out.

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It was now pretty warm and we were both ready to be done. We aimed for the gap between the Northgate Peaks and I scrambled back up the lava to the trail while Rick stayed low in the valley. After much yelling, waving of hands, and wandering back and forth on the trail, we met up once again and retreated towards the trail head together.

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At our final trail junction before the parking lot, we came across a group of young women with overnight packs on, who were paused for a break. Rick asked if they were headed to the Subway, to which they basically replied: “whatchutalkinabout?” They clearly had no idea what the (most popular route in the universe) Subway was, where they were or where they were going. We marched away from the confused ladies, remarking on the utter lack of preparation the average visitor seems to have in the National Parks.

We then continued marching along the (wrong) trail for another mile, wondering why we hadn’t reached the car yet.

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It then occurred to us that we’d mistakenly taken the connector trail to the Hop Valley trail head and had overshot our destination. After a brief moment to reflect on the irony of the situation I pulled out the map and noticed that we could bushwhack up the cliffy rock band to our right once we reached the general area of the parking lot, instead of hoofing it all the way back to the aforementioned junction. Conveniently, there was a break in the vertical wall right where we needed it and we clambered up the rocks to the field just south of the lot.

Meanwhile, Aaron had gotten concerned that it was taking us so long to return, and had decided to hike back up the trail to look for us. Fortunately he ran into a couple who had passed us on the wrong trail and based on their conversation, he figured out what happened. We eventually reunited and all was well. Just a hiccup in the adventure.

This would be our last foray into Zion National Park. I enjoyed the solitude, the outstanding views, easy climbing, and unique perspective of the park. I left Zion with a positive vibe and I was ready for the next stage in our road trip.

Route information

Doing more research? Here’s a very bare bones route description on Summit Post. And another from Mountain Project. Bring a rope, material to build belay anchors and a handful of slings; leave the nuts and cams at home.

Great Basin National Park

April 18-20, 2015.

View the photo album from this leg of the trip.

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Spring arrived, so was time for another big adventure. The decision on where to go was made easy when I was invited to climb a pair of peaks in Zion National Park in late April. In order to make the most of my travel time, I crafted a road trip that would last nearly 3 weeks and take us through 4 states. Fortunately, my partner was up for it and the two of us set out from the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon to explore some new territory.

Getting there

After spending a night in Northern Nevada, we got up early to make our way to Great Basin National Park. Driving down highway 50, or the “Loneliest Road in America,” we took a lunch, car maintenance and tourist break in the town of Eureka. I wandered into the Eureka museum, which chronicled the rise and fall of a mining boom-town. There were rooms full of old printing machines, newspapers, kitchen items, and relics of old stores, homes and businesses. There was little information to accompany all these items so it was kind of like walking into a crowded antiques store. Nonetheless, it provided a nice diversion and the woman working there was very helpful in providing information about the town and the area.

As we approached the park from the west, Wheeler Peak came into view. That would be our target for our first and most challenging hike of the trip.

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We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center to ask about current conditions and one of the rangers suggested an alternative route, involving climbing a couloir, that might be easier and more straightforward given the time of year. I thanked him for the suggestion and we settled into camp at Upper Lehman Creek.

Wheeler Peak

16 miles | 5300′ ele. gain | 12 hours

In the summer, Wheeler Peak is a challenging but accessible high peak. The trailhead starts at 10,000 feet so there’s less than 3,000′ of vertical climbing to get there. A nice path leads 4.3 miles one way to the summit.

But now the road to the trailhead was gated due to snow. We’d have to start our hike from the Upper Lehman Creek campground at 7,750′. That nearly doubled the mileage and elevation gain. No worries, we were ready for this.

Living at sea level doesn’t quite prepare you for being at elevation for any period of time so we woke up early in the morning feeling short of breath just walking around camp. We packed up and hit the trail before 6:30 am, with only one group signed in ahead of us.

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We walked along the steadily rising trail through stands of cactus, aspen, sage and juniper. About an hour into our trek we looked across a meadow to get our first view of Wheeler Peak. The bump we’d been staring at from our campsite was not, in fact, our mountain but some insignificant neighbor. The view was stunning. We’d see the mountain several times from many more angles through the course of the day.

After crossing the creek, we began to encounter patchy snow. Two hours into the hike we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground. Picnic tables and grills stuck out of the tops of snowdrifts. We followed the road, as the ranger had suggested, about a mile up the road to find the Wheeler Peak trail. Signs at the trailhead  warned us of the challenges that lay ahead and suggested some easier alternatives.

We followed the trail to a junction to Stella Lake. From here, according to the ranger, we’d find a couloir that would take us straight to the ridge below the summit. It would be easier than trying to find the main trail under snow. Besides, it sounded like more of an adventure.

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The couloir was an obvious ribbon of snow to the left of the lake. We circled around the southwest side of the lake and then headed cross-country over the hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. I was surprised to see so many trees here, clinging to life at over 10,000′.

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The snow texture provided enough grip in most places to allow us to climb up without any gear. Yaktrax would have been helpful in some of the icier spots, but I found that if I moved quickly and stepped firmly enough it was possible to get past the worst of it without slipping. Poles were essential.

Once we reached the ridge we were both a little disheartened to look ahead and see how much further we still had to go. The combination of being at a high elevation and climbing was knocking the wind and energy right out of us. We took a few extended snack and water breaks to keep moving forward.

Along the ridge, the views were stunning. There were snow-capped mountain ranges in every direction. Wind farms were visible in the valley bottom. The sheer rock face of Jeff Davis Peak became more dramatic with each step forward. And the weather was so pleasant! Sunshine, dry skies, and moderate temperatures helped us keep taking steps forward.
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Once on the summit, we really took a rest. It was time for lunch and some backpack-free exploration. There was a summit register placed inside a mailbox that someone left in a windbreak. We watched flocks of small birds swooping above the snow in search of food. And we celebrated the success of our efforts: a panoramic view that very few park visitors have seen, especially off season. Click the link below to get an idea.

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Of course we were only halfway done and it was already 2:30 pm so we needed to start moving down. Aided by gravity we quickly ambled down the ridge and were back atop the couloir in no time at all. Going down was much faster and much more fun than going up. By the time we reached the snow above the lake the sun had softened it up considerably, so it was an agonizing slog to get back to the trail.

Knees wobbly from the cumulative effort of the day, it felt good to be on packed, dry ground and we made good time back to camp, arriving in time for a reasonable dinner. While I cooked many elaborate meals on this trip I had very little energy on this night. We settled for hotdogs and beans, a classic camp meal.

Lehman Caves

Before leaving for our trip I booked a Lehman Cave tour for 1 pm for the next day. I knew we’d be beat after our climb and could use an opportunity to sleep in. We did just that, had a delicious campfire brunch, and packed up our camp. We arrived at the Visitor Center just before the tour and layered up for our descent into the cold, damp cave.

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Unlike many of the caves in the Northwest, which are nearly all lava tubes, Lehman Cave is made of limestone. Our tour guide took us into several rooms of the cave. In the first room, she discussed how crazy it must have been for the first visitors to this space. She turned off all the lights. It was completely dark. Then she proceeded to tell us about experiments that demonstrate how quickly people go insane when they’re held in complete darkness. I could believe it.

Each room had interesting features, including some that were apparently pretty rare to find. There were the usual stalactites and stalagmites, plus several that had welded together into columns. There was cave popcorn and soda straws. What was most impressive to me was how many intricate features there were in every room. The cave was well-lit so we could appreciate the formations in the cave. Early visitors must have had a harder time appreciating it by candlelight.

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After the cave tour we ran to the small cafe attached to the Visitor’s Center to satisfy my milkshake craving, then hit the road. We had to book it to Zion National Park.

Mt. Thomson, West Ridge

August 16-18, 2014.

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Skip to the photo album

It had been about 2 years since I’d even attempted to lead any outdoor rock, and I’d only been to the rock gym a handful of times in that period. So when my pal Rick recruited me to take him up a 5th class route on Mt. Thomson, of course I said SURE!

To be fair, the climbing on Thomson is pretty easy by climbing standards. The hardest moves are rated 5.6, but most of the climbing is 4th class scrambling and easy rock climbing. But the lack of practice with ropework, reading routes and dealing with exposure made me a little nervous about the climb. Nevertheless, I felt confident that I could rally and make the climb work for our little team.

Mt. Thomson looked impressive from the photos I’d seen on the Internet. It lay tucked away, buried deep in the woods (by climbers’ standards) 7 miles from Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT. Rick and I rolled into the trailhead at about 5 pm on a Saturday evening, hoping to make camp by sunset.

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With hardly a few words of conversation, we busted out the 7 miles to camp above Ridge Lake in about 3 hours, barely pausing to admire the famed Kendall Katwalk (shown above) on our way. The lakes below us were overrun with campers, so we were happy to have our own little hideaway just a couple hundred feet up the trail.

We awoke the next morning to a view obscured by fog. We lazily ate breakfast and got our things together to head up the PCT in search of our climber’s trail.

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In about a half mile, we turned straight uphill in a steep drainage to reach Bumblebee Pass. The view from here looked just as cloudy as our view from the tent. We dropped down into the basin from the pass and traversed west across heather meadows and meandering mountain streams to the base of a large talus field. From there, we should have had a striking view of the south face of Mt. Thomson. Instead, we saw the talus rise into a low-hanging, gray cloud. I took out my photo of the route and tried to match up features on the base of the mountain with the view in front of me. We sat and waited for the clouds to rise.

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In the meantime, a couple trotted down from the pass and told us they were also headed up to the West Ridge. We waved them good luck as we continued to wait for a little clearing.

The curtain of clouds slowly began to rise. We ascended the jumbled talus up to the low point of the west ridge. Once there, we attempted to scout the route. After much futzing around, we made one dicey move to get to the belay ledge for pitch one.

And now, the climbing begins

Here’s where the gears in my brain began whirring at a mile a minute. We methodically got rigged up for the first pitch and triple checked everything. I looked up at the chimney, and over at the sloping traverse to get there, noting one very important thing. I’d need a 0.5 cam to protect the bottom of the route and I decided to leave all my small cams at home. Brilliant.

I looked behind me at the other team, waiting in the batter’s box for the two of us to get going. I noticed the leader’s bright, shiny, well-equipped rack. Luckily, he let me borrow his 0.5 and I was on my way. On. My. Way. Well, I’m not sure how long it took me to make that first move, but once I got up a ways and put that cam in, I slowly plodded my way up pitch one.

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The first belay ledge was nice and roomy, with a big tree for an anchor. Yay. Now I was feeling back in the groove again. Pitch two felt a little more challenging for me, with a couple of bulges, not a lot of great pro (I needed those damn tiny cams again) and a lot of zig-zagging, causing too much rope drag. I called it good about halfway up and rigged up a belay station there. Once Rick joined me on the tiny and awkward belay ledge I started up pitch 2.5. I was sure glad I broke up this pitch because soon I was stopped in my tracks by a vertical wall with seemingly nowhere else to go. It looked harder than 5.6, I thought, but maybe that was just my rusty leading skills talking. I located every hand and foot placement I needed to tackle that wall, then all at once worked my way up to the next ledge. Rick told me afterwards that he made some pretty sick Chris Sharma moves to follow me up there. I pictured him gripping the rock tenaciously with one hand, swinging his hips powerfully to one side to plant a toe perfectly on the next rock nubbin, where he’d regain his balance and glide effortlessly to the next hold.

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Pitch three: the slab. Certainly, I was excited to float up an easy slab after all that stressful vertical. Pitch four: more slab and blocky climbing. One account described it as a “5.4 staircase,” although this was not evident from the get-go. The exposure and not super obvious routefinding occupied my brain. I’d forgotten how much rock climbing can dial in your focus and allow you to remain entirely present. That’s the part I love.

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At the top of the false summit, we scrambled down a steep gully along a trail that led to the base of the final pitch. There was one last pitch of easy climbing to reach the summit. Thank goodness. Rick patiently dealt with a serious rope tangle, since I had absentmindedly forgotten to re-flake the rope, while I perched on a nice ledge. I knew a huge notch lay below me, but I couldn’t see the depth of it since it was filled with cloud.

Nearing the end of my rope (literally) I had to stop short of the summit, build a belay with the loosely piled rocks on the ridge and bring Rick up. From there, we untied and meandered over to the summit, reaching the top about 8 hours after we left camp in the morning.

Up until this point I had subsisted on about a half liter of water and an energy bar. I figured it was time to eat some food. We didn’t bring much water, since neither of us wanted to carry it up there, so we’d have to wait for a resupply down in the meadow. Good thing it wasn’t warm today.

Down the East Ridge

Again, our goal was to make it to camp before dark, so we headed into the unknown yet again to descend the east ridge.

We dropped down to the first rappel station, made a quick rap, then saw another tree wrapped with slings and rapped a second time. From there, it was not obvious where to go. We followed a faint path for a short while, then it seemed to disappear. Stupidly, I went to scout the rocky ledges and Rick split off to wander around in the trees. After much yelling back and forth, it was decided that Rick had the route that would work. We found a trail through the heather meadows that followed the east ridge down. My first thought was that the East Ridge as a climb would be boring as hell, switchbacking up a trail 95% of the way to the summit, so I was extra glad that we’d fumbled up the West Ridge.

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Eventually the trail led us to a notch that dropped down into the basin beneath Mt. Thomson. From there we traversed across talus and meadows, refilling our water bottles with stream water, then headed straight up to Bumblebee Pass.

We were both thrilled to catch sight of the PCT once we descended from the pass. That meant we were nearly done. At 7 pm, we crashed back into a soggy camp and quickly began refueling and rehydrating.

The retreat

The next morning, the clouds had released their grip on the valley and a beautiful sunrise brought us out of the tent. It was going to be a bluebird day.

We took our time on the return trek, taking the opportunity to actually see the area we’d just spent a day and a half in. There were beautiful peaks, glassy lakes, and stunning vistas. The Kendall Katwalk, which had been mired in fog just two days before, looked a bit more like the pictures I’d seen (albeit still a little disappointing).

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While we didn’t set any speed records on this trip, I’m glad we made it happen. I felt great getting back onto alpine rock and facing head on all the challenges it brings. It’s not always glamorous; in fact I find it so rare that people actually write about the hard stuff. Everyone’s always ready to inflate their ego retelling the epic awesomeness that they achieve on exotic and aesthetic climbs. But even the “easy” climbs present problems that need to be overcome. I appreciate the opportunity to be challenged, to be humbled and to be forced to think on the fly. Alpine climbing is truly an opportunity to apply everything you’ve learned and practiced, recognizing that the textbook placements you studied and easy as pie sequences are not always realistic.

I hope that Rick will again entertain the thought of spearheading another alpine adventure and force me to get out of my comfort zone again.

Mt. St. Helens Worm Flows

March 23, 2014.

12 mi | 5500′ ele. gain | 10:30 hr.

Headlamp, check. Lunch, check. Crampons, check. Snowshoes, yep, I got it all. Is everyone here? Great. Let’s go!

We left the parking lot before sunrise to charge up the ski trail in the dark. We’d only need sunlight for the upper mountain anyways, so it was nice to get a jump start on the day.

At 6 am, just as enough sunlight began brightening up the snowy trail, we got a glimpse of the mountain. As we headed towards treeline, the clouds lit up in shades of pink and orange. It looked like we had a pretty day ahead.

By the time our team reached the 4800′ sign, the summit of the mountain was socked in by clouds. The rest of the mountain was illuminated with early morning sun and soft, blue shadows. Behind us, an endless views of peaks and valleys, a mixture of green and white.

The snow was patchy, leaving large outcrops of bare rock here and there. We negotiated the best route we could in the conditions present today. As the mountain steepened and the snow hardened up, we put crampons on our boots. That little extra purchase gave us the mental and physical boost we needed to climb higher.

The cloud layer dropped down, revealing the shiny summit of Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams also poked its head above the clouds to our right. There were climbers in front of us, behind us, to our left and right. It was a good day to be in the mountains.

We walked, one step after another, for an endless amount of steps. With the summit in view nearly the entire trip, it felt so close and yet so far from our present position. The mountaintop never seemed to come closer, no matter the effort! But, the iciness of the upper slopes made me realize how close we were to finishing. With a firm boot pack I was unlikely to take a slide down the mountain but I placed my feet carefully with each step.

Finally, after several hours of walking we reached the edge of the crater. One by one each team member arrived, jubilant and overwhelmed with excitement! Suddenly all the pain and suffering of the trip up here just vanished into dust. We chose a resting spot far from any potential cornices and ate heartily. Many photos were taken. It was now a crisp, bluebird day.

Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier came into view beyond the summit crater. There was no rush to get down the mountain. We made sure everyone on the team had enough time to revel in their success today and take in all the views.

On the way down, we reviewed the plunge-step technique and made good time getting below the steep, icy stuff. Then, it was time to glissade! Great snow conditions made for some fun glissade runs and took some time off of the descent. Eventually those rock outcrops forced us to get back on our feet and descend in our boots along the ridge. The long slog through the trees began. But everyone was still riding high on that summit rush so we all chit-chatted and filled the time well.

The parking lot came into view just before 3:45 pm, a perfect time to end the day. We geared down and drove into Cougar for a well-deserved greasy dinner and lovely conversation. A superb day in the mountains with a team of mostly first time climbers. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip.

A Snowy South Sister

October 5, 2013.

Devil’s Lake Trailhead > summit and back

11 miles | 4900′ ele. gain | 10.5 hours

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Photos are here. And, none of the photos were edited for color or contrast. It looked just that amazing.

It’s been a crazy fall. Last weekend, the Pacific Northwest was slammed with stormy weather that dropped inches of rain in the valleys and feet of snow in the Cascades. We had planned for months to climb South Sister last Sunday, but it was clear that was not going to happen. We pushed it off a week, and determined our best shot would be the following Saturday. The weather forecast predicted clear skies and temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s, even on the upper mountain. With our team whittled down from 9 people to 5, we excitedly prepared for a summit attempt on Oregon’s third highest mountain.

And then there was snow

We knew there would be snow, but we were unsure just how much of it we would find. The answer to that question came quickly. The team geared up and began hiking up the trail around 8 am. The sun was still low in the sky, and the air was crisp and cold. We warmed up quickly as we ascended through the woods. Soon, we began walking on thin patches of crusty snow. The team stopped to put on Yaktrax for some additional traction on the icy snow.

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When we broke free of the trees, we were presented with a grand view of the task ahead. The snowy mountain rose from the white plateau, standing in sharp contrast to the deep blue sky. From here, footprints led in several different directions. We did our best to follow the most well-beaten path that led towards the mountain. The sun was overwhelming as we were totally exposed on the wide, open plains. We enjoyed breathtaking views of Mt. Bachelor and Broken Top, as well as the intriguing contours of the surrounding lava field.

Where are all the people?

Along the way, we encountered just a handful of other people attempting the climb today. Several would turn back, saving the trip for a less snowy day, or scheduling an earlier start. But, our team pushed on, taking enough rest breaks to rehydrate, refuel, and conserve energy. We still had much of the climb ahead. Along the way, we were treated to the most unbelievable views of Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor.

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Once the trail began climbing up from the plateau, it didn’t stop until it reached the crater rim. We trudged ahead, slowly and methodically, up to the saddle at the base of the Lewis Glacier. The lake here was covered over with snow and ice. It was a great spot to rest and get mentally geared up for the final push to the top.

Mountain sculptures

Now, it felt like we were climbing a mountain. From the saddle, we followed a snow and rock ridge along the steep cliffs carved by the Lewis Glacier. To the left, we looked over South Sister’s notorious scree-field, now covered over with a uniform blanket of snow. To the right, we peered down into deep crevasses in the ice. This doesn’t look like Marys Peak…

The most captivating part of this section of the climb was the endless variation of ice sculptures clinging to the rocks. The thick rime was melting in the heat of the sun, producing elegant, fluted patterns. It was easy to justify a rest stop to take a moment to enjoy the unique beauty that was right in front of us. It made all the physical exertion well worth it.

As we climbed higher, folks passing us on their way down told us that crampons were key for the icy sections above. That sounded like trouble. We ditched our only pair of crampons a half mile below and were left with Yaktrax or bare boots. I figured we’d play it by ear.

Fortunately, the teams that went before us had kicked steps in the snow (someone who had long legs). So, with the exception of just a few, short bits, the snow was grippy enough to permit climbing without crampons. We moved carefully and used our trekking poles to help with balance and traction. For three members of the team, this was a totally new experience, and they all did great!

Atop that steep slope, we crested the crater rim and saw the summit within our reach. A broad, snow-filled bowl lay between us and our destination. Instead of taking the easy walk across the crater, we decided to turn right and amble along the icy rim, admiring more ice sculptures and the views of flat, brown, high desert to the east. The rime formations on the stone camp shelters were the most impressive of all.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Blue ice” type=”image” alt=”blue ice.JPG” ]

Once the rim walk became too sketchy, we dropped down to traverse on softer snow, then made the final climb to the summit. Here, we celebrated with lots of photos, chocolate and whooping and hollering. It took us 6 long hours to get here. Although it felt easier to walk on the snow than walking on scree, I think it ended up being more physically and mentally challenging to deal with the snow.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Jess and Aaron” type=”image” alt=”jess and aaron.JPG” ]

Looking north, we saw the snowed in tops of Middle and North Sister. Beyond that, all the volcanoes stood in contrast to the clear, blue sky: Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, and even Rainier. The visibility was great. I hoped everyone realized how much of a treat this view was; these conditions just don’t happen every day!

Racing the sunset

It was 2:30 pm by the time we started heading back down. I was a little concerned about the higher chance of someone in the team slipping and falling on the descent. It can feel a bit more harrowing when gravity is working with you to pull you down the mountain. Before stepping off the crater rim, I offered some technique suggestions for walking down the icy snow. We took our time, and with only a few minor missteps, we quickly made our way back to the saddle below the glacier.

Just for fun, we found a few good spots to go for a ride:

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Fun with glissading” type=”image” alt=”glissade.JPG” ]

All the while, I couldn’t believe how hot the sun felt. The air was calm and the sun blazed down as if it were still August. Everyone stripped down to base layers and still had to stop frequently to cool down. I happily rubbed my skin with handfuls of snow every time I got the chance.

Our only goal was to get back to the car before sunset. As beautiful as this landscape was, we had ample opportunity to take it all in and it was time to go. We arrived at the car around 6:30, a surprising 10 and a half hours after we departed. Everyone was brimming with excitement of the team’s  accomplishment. We all pushed through some barriers and came out stronger, more competent climbers. Plus, we got some bonus training for the snowshoe trip coming up in December. Crater Lake is going to feel frankly civilized after this.

Thanks to everyone on the team for making this an unforgettable trip!

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Successful climb team!” type=”image” alt=”summit team completed.JPG” ]

Luna Peak

August 22-25, 2013

About 40 miles, 8,000+ feet elevation gain. For route information, check out Steph Abegg’s website or buy/borrow Selected Climbs in the Cascades Vol 1.

Photos from the trip | Video 360 from the summit ridge

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Alex heads for the summit” type=”image” alt=”alex.jpg” ]

It has been said that Luna Peak has one of the best views in the North Cascades. But few people ever experience this view because of the rugged, long approach and lack of technical objectives. It takes a seriously determined person to put in that much work to get someplace without a mind-blowing rock or ice climb to top off the effort. I was one of seven such people who set out to ascend Luna Peak on this trip.

It all began at the Ross Dam Trailhead, which was packed with cars. The Ross Lake National Recreation Area is a playground for hikers, backpackers, fishermen, canoers and kayakers. There’s resort accommodations, lakeside, boat-in camping and backcountry camping. At the parking lot, we laced up our boots for a quick 1-mile downhill jaunt to the lakeshore, where we’d pick up a water taxi that would take us across the lake.

The boat ride was short but exhilarating. We sped across the clear, blue lake and exited the boat when it reached the other side. From here, our team of seven set off on the ten mile hike to Luna Camp.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Boat ride to the trailhead” type=”image” alt=”boat ride loaded up.jpg” ]

Big Trees on the Big Beaver Trail

The walk along Big Beaver Trail was lovely. The trail was relatively flat, with small, rolling rises and dips. We meandered beneath giant cedar trees as the path traveled further and further from Ross Lake. It took all afternoon to get to our camp. Feeling heavy under the weight of my overnight pack—my first of the year—I plodded along slowly. I was thrilled to arrive at Luna Camp, where I dropped my backpack and decided which dinner meal was the heaviest one. That’s what I’d eat tonight.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Big trees on the Big Beaver Trail” type=”image” alt=”big trees.jpg” ]

Day one turned out to be a walk in the park. The next day, we walked about a mile and a half further up Big Beaver Trail to a cairn marking the start of the bushwhack. Off we headed, into the brush, to find a way to cross Big Beaver Creek. As we pushed through Devil’s Club and various edible forest berries, it became apparent that this would not be an easy task. After much deliberation and scouting, we settled on walking across a single log that looked far more perilous than it turned out to be. Getting from the riverbank to the log was the most challenging part.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The rest of the team comes across the log” type=”image” alt=”log crossing2.jpg” ]

Once across the creek, we stashed a cache of supplies that we wouldn’t need for our high camp: tents, spare first aid supplies, water shoes, etc. This is where the real fun began. And by fun, I mean not fun.

Whackety whack

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Brushy riverside bushwhacking” type=”image” alt=”schwack.jpg” ]

For several miles, we bushwhacked roughly along Access Creek, crossing it once, and thrashing through a mixture of steep, dense shrubbery and more flat, open forest. At one point in the relatively benign forested section, the front of the team upset a colony of ground nesting bees, which took out their anger on the latter half of the team. That included Simeon, Angela, and myself. Each of us was stung several times. We ran quickly to try to escape the fury of bees, but I still managed to get stung four times: on my right hip, behind my left knee, and on my left wrist and elbow. They went for critical joints, which I would curse them for later.

But there was nothing we could do about that now, so we continued on our journey. As we began to sense that we were nearing the basin and our high camp, the trees parted a bit to provide views of the creek and the rocky sided canyon containing it. As the tall trees diminished, the understory began to thicken. Devil’s club gave way to slide alder, a brand of vegetation notorious for heinous bushwhacking. It was critical to maintain just the right distance between the team member on either side in order to prevent being whacked by a branch or whacking the person behind, as well as keeping close enough so you wouldn’t lose them in the thick mat of branches and leaves.

[pe2-image src=”–dcsirVlhs8/UhvnzGf-ZYI/AAAAAAAANUM/vzOXKsQg8KE/s144-c-o/through%252520the%252520crap.jpg” href=”″ caption=”Entering the heinous slide alder patch, while finally seeing a view of the basin” type=”image” alt=”through the crap.jpg” ]

The ground got soft and wet as we approached the creek. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” I thought, as I looked through a window of trees and glimpsed large boulders piled on top of each other just across the way. Oh, how lovely it would be to get to that side!

The team agreed, and we made another sketchy creek crossing to make it to the heavenly rockpile we’d seen from afar. The walk to camp from here felt like a breeze. We all plopped our gear down in the flat, broad basin beneath Luna Peak and promptly fell off to dreamland for a couple hours. It was a peaceful and much needed afternoon nap.

What are the chances?

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Luna Peak hides in the clouds…so close, yet so far” type=”image” alt=”view of the basin.jpg” ]

Gray clouds flirted with the ridgetops all day through the evening. There was much talk about the forecast: 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms for tomorrow. It sure looked like weather was moving in. Clouds swirled in and out the whole time we sat at camp, debating what Plan A, B, and a number of contingency plans were for every possible scenario. Tomorrow was supposed to be our summit day, but we gave ourselves a slim chance of that happening.

At 4:30 the next morning, our alarm clock (Alex) shouted, “the stars are out!” That meant clear skies, and an opportunity to summit. We ate breakfast, slimmed down our packs for the ascent, and made a beeline for the first gully.

Speaking of bees, by this point my arm and hand had puffed up like a balloon from the previous day’s bee encounter. I had a hard time moving my wrist, and everything was very itchy. The swelling would get worse and worse over the course of the day, which I attributed to the vigorous level of exercise, not some crazy allergic reaction.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Swollen hand and arm after multiple bee stings” type=”image” alt=”puffy hand.jpg” ]

As the sun rose, it painted the mountains with orange and yellow. We ascended slowly, taking some time to acclimate to movement this early in the morning. At the top of the gully, we reached a col. Here, there were amazing views of the Picket range right in front of us, and no sign of the predicted thunderstorms.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The team ascends the gulley” type=”image” alt=”IMAG0953.jpg” ]

Take a right, then another right

We quickly powered up with some rugged, alpine blueberries and began the traverse through the heather. Some parts were fairly steep, but they did not necessitate an ice axe, which was suggested in other trip reports. We zipped right across the traverse and then picked a line to reach the summit ridge. Crossing patches of greenery, rock, and snow, we all climbed up to the final saddle, with Luna Peak rising up to the right.

It was here that Simeon chose to hang out, enjoy the views and take care of some blisters while the rest of us made the final scramble to the top.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Blue skies over Luna” type=”image” alt=”light clouds.jpg” ]

The ridgeline leading up Luna peak was bouldery and fairly solid. It never got too steep or treacherous. The rest of the walk was very pleasant, and the views on a clear day would be second to none. At this point, high clouds obscured the tippety tops of the mountains, and occasionally dropped down to fill the valley. We enjoyed peekaboo views of Luna, Challenger, and the other dramatic peaks extending out in all directions.

At the summit, or really the false summit, we sat down and savored the chocolaty treats that Eric brought up for us, surrounded in a gray fog. The true summit lay just a few minutes walk away, along a sketchy ridge that popped in and out of view. We weren’t interested in making that trek today.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”A Luna bar for Luna Peak” type=”image” alt=”luna bar luna peak.jpg” ]

And then turn around

We returned the way we came, back down to the saddle, then down an alleged chimney, across a snowfield, and back to the vegetated traverse. It felt a little steeper this time around.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Peekaboo view” type=”image” alt=”peekaboo.jpg” ]

At the top of the gully, we split into two teams so we wouldn’t shed too much rock down on one another. Going down was painfully difficult, as my knee started acting up and refusing to play nice. I was elated to get back to camp, sit down, and tear into the Hostess cupcakes that I’d left hanging just above marmot’s reach.

But our day wasn’t over yet. We still had to complete the bushwhack and return to the trail, where we’d try and find a place to spend the night. We were all dreading the bushwhack. We put it off as long as we could, then loaded up our packs and began walking down the boulderfield.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Cairn on the climber’s path” type=”image” alt=”cairn2.jpg” ]

This time, we followed some cairns to try and locate a better place to cross the creek and avoid the slide alder. This was a success. Once across the river, we stumbled across a rough path that was a zillion times easier to walk on than our random path on the way up. The hardest part was going down the final steep descent to reach Big Beaver Creek and our gear cache. MIraculously, we hadn’t been rained on, and our unbelievable luck would continue as we re-crossed the creek and popped out on the other side.

We all mentally prepared for the final stage of the bushwhack along the creek. We decided that following a compass bearing and going right towards the trail was the best choice, to try to shave some time. One by one, we filed out in a line, pouring our last stores of energy into tired leg muscles.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”OMG the trail!” type=”image” alt=”IMAG1043.jpg” ]

Not two minutes later, we stumbled across the trail. TWO MINUTES. We all looked at each other in disbelief, then smiled and praised the forest gods for this luck. After a short break here, we walked briskly, no, ran towards camp! We hoped there would be an empty spot at Luna Camp and sure enough, there was. We all unpacked, set up tents for the night, ate dinner and crashed.

Saying goodbye

The last day was a repeat of the ten mile walk along Big Beaver Trail. Again we sorted out into two groups and took off. My body was tired, but my mind was focused on reaching the lake. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Four of us reached the halfway point at 39-mile camp in just under an hour and a half. Sweet. We re-supplied with cold stream water, and hightailed it down to Ross Lake.

We were set to meet our water taxi at 2:15 and arrived at the lake by about noon. That gave us 2 hours to take off our boots, swim, lay down, eat the rest of our food, and bask in the glorious sunshine reflecting off the lake. What a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”View from Ross Lake campsite” type=”image” alt=”postcard2.jpg” ]

The last boat ride felt bittersweet. I couldn’t stop grinning as I looked back at the green mountains, sparkling lake, and wisps of snow on the high peaks. Once on the other side, I had a nice chat with Eugene as we slogged methodically up the final mile to the cars. My body had been on autopilot all day today, and that mile passed in an instant.

Overall, I had an extraordinary experience in the North Cascades. It was one hell of a way to start climbing season for me.

Mt. St. Helens: A Spring Adventure

June 14, 2013.

Winter Route, or some rough approximation, from Marble Mountain Sno-Park | 12 miles | 5500′ ele. gain | 9-ish hours

Hike Photos

On a whim, I decided to join a group from who had a few spare permits to climb the mountain on this Friday. I’ve climbed St. Helens several times before, but always in the winter. See, I can’t be bothered with the process of acquiring a limited entry permit and *gasp* paying for one. I was happy to swoop in where some poor soul ducked out of the opportunity to climb this amazing volcano.

I met this motley crew at the Lone Fir Resort at 6 am, where we filled out the climber’s log and dutifully tied our permits to our backpacks. Shortly later, we reconvened at the trailhead and put the finishing touches on our packs and outfits for the day. Or so I thought. Turns out, the tennis shoes, shorts, and track suits that my new climbing partners were wearing were not “drive up” clothing, but the clothes for the hike. Oh boy, I thought, this was going to be an interesting day.

The hike to treeline was completely snow-free. This wasn’t a mountain that looked familiar to me. It was interesting to see all the greenery and flowers on what, in my mind, was an icy, windswept, white wasteland. Soon after emerging from the trees, we continued walking straight on a rough, rocky ridgeline that was dotted with trees. The well-packed trail became indistinguishable from the rest of the ridge, and I knew that we were off course. The hike organizer was out of eye- and ear-shot, so I jogged ahead to try and get his attention. “We need to go left,” I said, “although I’m not sure where the route is.” Everything looked surprisingly foreign to me. At least the ridge to our left looked like it had more solid footing, so we ventured that way.

Corralling the group into a tighter line, we veered west to try and regain the climbing route. We followed the ridge until it petered out, then fumbled our way roughly up and left, looking for the path of least resistance. By now we’d hiked into a thick, low-hanging cloud that reduced visibility at times to about 50 feet. Morale was low. Some of the team members were struggling with the snow and loose rock on our off-route adventure. With some coaching through these tricky sections, they performed wonderfully and group confidence and enjoyment (I think) began to improve.

At last, we reached some long snowfields that made the traveling easier. The organizer passed out various traction devices to his friends, which helped them walk more easily through the snow. We kicked lots of bomber steps in the sloppy snow. I left my crampons in my pack, as my boots were performing nicely.

We slogged ahead for hours in a cloud, chit-chatting about miscellaneous things to keep people from feeling too lousy about what was supposed to be an easy and straightforward climb. It reminded me how much of mountaineering is pure drudgery, and to normal people, it kinda sucks.

“Don’t worry, we’ll climb above the clouds and you’ll see, it will be spectacular.”

I counted on breaking through the thick cloud layer like a winning marathon finisher, breaking through the tape with a huge grin of joy. Sure enough, we saw the sun poking through the edge of the clouds and we emerged victorious, with the summit of the mountain in view. We took a break above the clouds and looked down at the earth below. It was covered in a giant, puffy blanket, through which only Mts. Rainier and Adams were tall enough to penetrate. It was spectacular.

After some refueling and sunscreen-slathering, we continued along in the final summit push. We picked up a hop-on who joined our group, and we took turns kicking steps all the way up to the crater rim.

It was thrilling to stand at the edge of the crater and look at the world around me. It was extra exciting to share that moment with the rest of my team, who were totally troopers for enduring the day to that point. Everyone was feeling good, and the summit was well-deserved.


Time to go. So, how do we get back down? I was really surprised that we’d hardly seen anyone so far today. The sign-in book was filled with names of people who allegedly would climb the mountain, including some groups of 10-12. We didn’t see a thick line of bootprints leading the way back down the trail, either. We decided to begin following the flags and posts marking the summer trail, since it overlapped a bit with the winter trail near the summit. Whooping and hollering ensued as we walked, then glissaded, and glissaded some more. Everyone was having a great time.

However, the excitement of glissading distracted us from keeping an eye out for our junction, and we ended up far from the winter route again. The trip leader was way out of earshot; I was worried that we’d end up at the wrong parking lot and have a lot of backtracking to do to return to our cars. Before veering to the right of a huge rock formation, I rallied the troops and we took a sharp left, following some snowfields and gullies as we approached treeline. From a distance, we could see a short stretch of trail following a short north-south ridge. We made that our goal.

But getting from point A to point B wasn’t so easy. First, we had to negotiate a fairly steep and loose wall of rock to drop down into a narrow basin. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, since I’ve done lots of dumber things before, but I was concerned about some of our team members. They took it slow, and everyone made it down in one piece. From there we scrambled up and over some blocky lava flows, crossed a brushy bump, and landed on our trail. Phew! Awesome.

It was cake from there. We picked up the winter climbing trail just before the switchback we’d missed on the way up. Of course, it looked much more obvious on the way back. We ran into a group of climbers who’d been similarly confused earlier in the day. But they ended up bagging the climb as they got disoriented in the clouds. Bummer. They were busy placing some arrows marking the trail and blocking the herd path that deceptively led them (and us) astray.

Every climb is different. The mountains always present different conditions, challenges, and secrets. I’ll never get tired of taking opportunities to climb peaks I’ve climbed before.  Each time, another story: Feb 2012 | Feb 2011 | Jan 2006.

Smith Rock: Assisting AR

April 28 and May 19, 2013.

My climbing had taken a nose dive since moving away from Portland so in an attempt to get back into it, I signed up to assist new trad leaders on their Mazamas Advanced Rock practice weekends at Smith Rock. I chose to participate on just a couple of days so I’d have time to do my own climbing, too.

Lower Gorge

On April 28 I met my partner Kristin at the picnic tables near the parking lot. From there we talked about what she wanted to climb. We decided to take a walk down to the Lower Gorge to try out some moderates there. I was pretty familiar with that area so I was happy to head on out that way.

She was a strong climber and safe about placing protection, but she was a little nervous to be on lead. She led three climbs in the 5.7-5.8 range and called it a day. 

Front Side

On May 29, I repeated the drill: meet the group at the parking lot and get paired up with a new leader. Today I climbed with Andrea. We began on Friday’s Jinx (5.7), a two-pitch climb. She led the first pitch and then started the second. At the base of the dihedral, she decided to come back down. I picked it up from there. It was my first lead of the year and it felt good to have that behind me!

Next up, Andrea led Rabbit Stew, a fun 5.7 trad lead. It’s technically a crack but there are so many face holds it moves like a sport climb. I followed her lead and then had her toprope it so she could practice hanging on her gear. This hopefully helped her build up some confidence in her placements. The afternoon finished up with two quick leads: a trad 5.7 and a sport 5.8, before returning to the parking lot.

I was happy to have spent a couple days climbing with other women who were wrapping their heads around leading trad. This class did so much for me when I was a new leader and I enjoyed giving back to the program. It didn’t hurt that these were two fun, strong, capable women that were great to be around. I’ll take more opportunities to surround myself with these folks whenever I can.

Smith Rock All-Stars

October 27-28, 2012.

Somehow I managed to wrangle my way into a group of strong climbers to take our chances with the weather this weekend. I was excited to climb but I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.

The Zoo

We hiked into the “Zoo” in a misty drizzle. There, we ran into the developers of this new sport area: Kevin and Jen. They gave us the grand tour. All the routes were heavily bolted, but most were in the 5.11-5.12 range. There was an upper gully with more moderate climbs, but they were slabby and too slick to climb in these weather conditions. That meant our warm-up was a 5.10d. D, as in dog. 5.10d. Like pretty much at the upper limit of my skill level.

To paint the scene: it was about 50 degrees outside. Foggy. We were all cold. I had to hop around just to warm myself up for the warm-up route. My hands were so numb it felt like I was climbing with mittens on. The rock was really sharp, but I didn’t even notice until I looked at my hands: cuts, gauges and bleeding. Fantastic.

The weather began to dry up and clear. There was even a short burst of sunshine. I followed a few more routes in the mid 10-11 range. Everyone led something except me. It was okay though, it was a fun bunch of people. And I can’t believe we got so much climbing in. We returned to the cars after dark.

Note: The road is gated in winter, making the hike in about an hour long.

Lower Gorge

It was mild and partly cloudy all night and part of the morning, but the weather took a turn for the worse. We thought about bailing, but took a walk down to the Lower Gorge anyways.

First I top roped Cornercopia (5.10b). A bouldery, balancey start led to a stem box. I botched the starting moves big time and struggled to find a flow up the remainder of the route. Meanwhile, another member of our party led Quasar (5.10a) so I hopped on that next. That was super fun with a couple of tricky spots.

We sneaked in two more climbs before the rains came for good. First, Prometheus (5.10c). Finger jamming, liebacking and wide mother-effing stemming on this one. I found it challenging at some points. Once I calmed down and let myself settle into the stemming work I found the moves much easier. Fittingly I made a final attempt at Last Chance (5.10c). This was a really fun climb with killer finger and hand jams that were sometimes very painful. I struggled to find my feet and fell several times, eventually having to bail off. It was my favorite climb of the day, regardless.

Wow, am I wiped out…

Back to climbing at Smith Rock

October 6-7, 2012.

This weekend I joined up with three friends to do some climbing at Smith Rock. I hadn’t climbed as much as I would have liked this summer, since moving to Corvallis. So I wasn’t feeling awesome about my climbing skills and I was just coming off of a cold. Enough excuses? Ready and go.

Lower Gorge

Saturday we wandered down into the Lower Gorge for some trad climbing. I followed a couple fun and easy 5.9’s to start: Sitting Duck and Lost Souls. Then we crossed the river to Shakespeare Cliff.

I followed up Lusts Labours Cost, a 5.10b. We protected the bottom “scramble” or did an alternate start that took the dirty crack just below the rockpile at the base. This climb was REALLY hard! There were hardly any feet and the jams were painful. It took me a few falls to figure it out. My partner struggled with it too, so he led it again after I finished.

Finally I tried to get back on lead. I chose Othello, a 5.9. I had a rough time, placed a lot of gear and gave up after about an hour of thrashing around on it. My partner led it and I followed. I still had a lot of trouble climbing it on top rope, so perhaps it was just not my day. Time to pack up and head to camp.

Fourth Horseman

Why not start on lead the next day after that disaster? It sounded like a good idea at the time. So I was coaxed onto Snuffy Smith, a 5.9, for my first climb on Sunday morning. I fought my way mostly to the top but ultimately had to bail out. Another wasted hour. I took some practice falls before coming down in order to try and get my head in the game. The longer falls were freaking me out, even though I practiced falling from just above the last bolt. UGH!

My friend led it and I followed. I decided it was challenging for me to do any high step moves on lead, even though high stepping feels really solid on top rope.

I tucked my tail between my legs and let my partner take over. He led Tuff it Out, 5.10a . This felt more do-able and had a fun start. Go figure. Next, the first pitch of No Golf Shoes, a 5.10c. He found it easier but I thought it was harder. It was challenging enough for me to start in a chimney and make a wide step across nothing to get on the face. He belayed me from above so he couldn’t give me any pointers. The rest of the climb was delicate and hard.

Christian Brothers East

We sat in the shade, ate lunch and then meandered over to a project he had been working on. Some 5.11. I can belay 5.11. We were both thrilled that he sent his project, so we went to find the other half of our group to share the news. They had a rope up on Jete, an easy sport route. I happily top roped that.

On the way out, my partner suggested putting up Blasphemy, a sporty 5.11a. To my utter disbelief, I followed it almost clean, with maybe one fall or take on it. I even managed the awkward bulge without too much of a hassle. An excellent way to cap off a mediocre weekend.