Sunday, September 25, 2011


When you're sitting around a fire on a climbing roadtrip yammering about all the awesome places there are to rock climb, Montana is rarely mentioned. It's true, there aren't any major venues there to visit, but the place is just brimming with climbable rock. Locals know this, and I think they've done a pretty good job of keeping things off the radar. To top this off the routes are incredibly sandbagged, and the climbs are graded similarly to some old school areas like Yosemite, Eldo and the Adirondacks.

Prior to my AMGA course in the Cascades I stopped in Bozeman, Montana for a bit of an alpine warmup in anticipation of my Cascade chossathlon. I have climbed ice in Montana on multiple occasions now, and I've climbed a day or two in Gallatin Canyon (an understated gem with bulletproof rock and beautiful climbing). It's not like I didn't know there was climbing in Montana. What I found on this most recent four-day trip though, was that Montana has giant alpine routes on bulletproof rock. This discovery was pleasantly surprising and a bit startling. You hear all the time about the Tetons, the Wind River Range and Rocky Mountain National Park. You never hear about the Absaroka Range or the Beartooths though when you're talking about the Rockies.

I landed in Bozeman at 1 p.m.; one of my favorite climbing partners, Lawrence Haas, was waiting when I arrived. By 4:30 p.m. most of a six-pack Deschutes Inversion IPA was gone and we were on our way to Livingston, bags packed and ready to go. At 5:30 (yes, only one hour from town!) we were on the trail. 9 uphill miles later we stumbled into camp, pitched our tent in a nice bivy site by Elbow Lake and sacked out. 22 hours of traveling plus a bit of elevation gain had pooped me out.

We woke the following morning to chilly temperatures and low lying clouds. The clouds prevented us from wanting to climb our objective, the Montana Centennial Route. After some serious caffeination, bloatmeal (I detest instant oatmeal) and the normal morning constitutionals we wandered up to some nearby formations on the left side of Elbow Lake. Here, a confusing looking set of towers stands sentinel over Elbow Lake and our camp. We decided on a short but beautiful corner system that stood out from camp.

As we approached the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear and the Baby Bear things became much clearer. What looked like one confusing cliff was actually three different buttresses with gullies between them. We found our corner system on the Baby Bear and soloed up the base to rope up. Woohoo! The laser cut corner system had not one but two splitter cracks at the back, at right angles to each other. I won the roshambo and started up the money pitch. 80 feet up, the splitters ended at an awkward 5.9 layback through a wide section. After a puzzling moment I was at the belay. Two moderate pitches later we were on top, with good views of our approach the following day and of the beautiful cirque above.

We awoke at 4:30 a.m. the following morning. The Montana Centennial Route, with a total of eleven 50m+ pitches including several pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 plus a whole bunch of 5.9 and 5.8, was going to take us all day. We were on the trail by 6 and racked up at the base by 7. Two slightly wandering 5.8 pitches deposited us at the first really engaging pitch, an awkward 5.10 crack system that ended with a strange holdless slab move through an overlap. Bizarre unprotected easy face climbing led to the belay.

From here the routefinding was straightforward but the climbing was continuously challenging and reminiscent of the Scenic Cruise in the Black Canyon. An amazing long corner (230' to be exact) with wild 5.9 climbing at the top led to a ramp system. From here a beautiful corner and crack took us to another nice ledge below the crux. The crux, which Lawrence led, consisted of a challenging roof traverse followed by fun corner climbing and a 5.11b layback/stand-up move to crappiest sloper on Earth. Apparently Gallatin Canyon has been good schooling for Larry, he sent the thing first go. I on the other hand, with 4-liters of water, jackets and shoes in the pack on my back, whined, inched and hung my way through things. Typical I guess; I always seem to get the beatdown on technical granite cruxes.

The exposed climbing above, which was intensified by rope-levitating winds, is solid, challenging and memorable. A red Camalot sized splitter runs for nearly a whole pitch at one point and the pitch above sports bizarre holdless friction moves and some thrutching up a beautiful wide crack and corner system. However, like so many other alpine routes that don't go to true summits, the route ends ignominiously on a loose 4th class ridge that's uncharacteristic of the lower 95% of the route.

A short walk and two rappels put us squarely on solid ground. From there it's a load of loose 3rd class plus a few rappels back to the base, or a long easy scramble to the back of the basin for the walk off. We chose the latter, and after a lot of getting cliffed out we finally found our traverse off. Forty minutes later we were sipping whiskey and chowing snacks at the tent.

Our descent down to the car was memorable for one reason only - it's all downhill for 9 miles, which really isn't that cool. Actually, after a while it sucks. However, the cold beverages stashed in the creek at the trailhead were our carrot on a stick.

The Montana Centennial Route, which is graded IV 5.11a, is similar in length to the Scenic Cruise (V, 5.10d) in the Black Canyon but with slightly harder climbing. This grade seems consistent with the sense of understatement and the traditional grading found on a lot of the climbs in Montana. The area was so impressive that Lawrence and I are already scheming about even bigger objectives in the Beartooths, just east of the Absaroka Range. So, if you're looking for good alpine climbing in an easy to access spot with zero crowds consider the Cowen Cirque in the Absaroka Range near Livingston MT, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Photoessay: AMGA Advanced Alpine Course

It's rare for me to post photos with only small amounts of text, as I am much more a writer than a photographer. However, I've just returned from a trip to the great "Northwet" region (the North Cascades!), where we had surprisingly dry weather for more than 90% of our 12-day AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course. The weather, route selection and positioning left me with some really great images. Below are some of the best, with the nighttime shots from Forbidden Peak's West Ridge Col being my favorite.

Thanks to Rob Hess, Jeff Ward, Thor Husted, Mark Fallender, Gary Falk, Mike Abbey and Karsten Delap for being great company on this 12-day choss odyssey!

Late September wildflowers on the Hogsback.
Heading up the Coleman Glacier for crevasse rescue training

Sunset on the Coleman Glacier
Crevasse rescue training on the upper White Salmon

Sunset at camp near the Upper Curtis Glacier

Sunset at the spectacular camp near the Upper Curtis Glacier

Nearing the Northeast Ridge of Shuksan's summit pyramid
Karsten Delap managing steep snow and moats near the NE Ridge

Thor Husted scoping a good line down the south side of Shuksan

Karsten Delap in the Fisher Chimneys

Rob Hess near the top of Cutthroat Peak
Karsten Delap looks for a good line on Concord Tower
Managing tough terrain on Concord Tower

Bellingham lights up the night sky

Cloud banks fill in the lowlands

Somehow, Pink Floyd comes to mind.

Bad weather on the W. Ridge of Forbidden

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Still The Best: Cold Cold World Chernobyl

If you've read any of my other pack reviews, you'll recall that I have had several Black Diamond packs over the past few years. My most recent heavily used pack was a Sphynx 32, a 35-ish liter bag that worked for nearly all of my daily and multiday climbing pursuits and was reasonably durable. I say "worked" because I don't really feel like it excelled at all those things.

The Sphynx was the right size for cragging, alright for day length or overnight alpine climbs and a bit too small for full-on "bring the whole kitchen sink" winter endeavors. The non-reinforced bottom and fixed top lid were, in many ways, detrimental to the pack's design as a day/multiday alpine load hauler. Whereas my older CCW Chernobyl had almost four years of devoted guiding and recreational climbing use on it before I retired it, the Sphynx was looking pretty knackered after only a year and a half. The lid and top load adjuster straps were ripping off, there were two dozen small holes in the non-reinforced bottom, the drawstring grommet had ripped out, and worst of all, the suspension design caused the pack to squeak like a dying duck all the way to the cliff.

It was time for a new pack. After a lot of searching I came to this conclusion - my hope for a more well-built and better designed all-around bag than the Chernobyl was an absolute pipe dream. Yes, there are times when it would be nice to have more suspension, and times when would be nice to have a pack that was superlight, but not at the cost of added weight, complexity and a lack of durability. I am a minimalist, and while I do have a lot of specialized gear, I like to have gear that serves many purposes whenever possible.

I looked at almost all of the available bags out there, including the Cilogear and BlueIce bags, and determined that having a local guy (Randy Rackliff) from NH make me a durable well fitting bag made the most sense. No other bags have the same build quality, value, or the lightweight/durable combination shown in CCW's packs.

So, knowing that I wanted a new Chernobyl, I dropped Randy an email. I mentioned that my old Chernobyl felt too short in the torso. He suggested making the torso length 1" longer which I liked, and offered it at no additional costs. Less than two weeks later I had the package at my doorstep. It took one day to ship from Jackson, NH and with shipping cost me a whopping $188.

After receiving the package, excitedly opening it up, and inspecting the pack I was impressed by the workmanship. No detail has been left unattended - there are no loose threads or missed stitches. The pack is flawlessly crafted, and despite the use of durable materials and large, fairly heavy-duty buckles, the pack is lightweight. There is nothing superfluous in the design - no modular suspensions, rotating ball joint hipbelts, squeaking framesheets or fancy straps and buckles. The design remains much the same: a straight-sided top loader with a floating lid that allows for maximum versatility in a year-round cragging/alpine climbing pack.

Randy has made some simple design improvements to the CCW packs over the past few years. Some of these improvements include ice clipper attachments on the waistbelt, a layer of ballistics nylon reinforcing the bottom of the bag (as opposed to the older double layer of packcloth), and more durable fabric on the shoulder straps and waistbelt which make the straps feel stiffer. The 1" longer torso is going to make a huge difference when carrying heavy loads. Everything else about the pack is pretty similar to my older Chernobyl, making this newer version about the best climbing bag I've ever owned.

My only addition is a thin stiff framesheet with a single aluminum stay from an older backpack. This helps the bag keep it's shape during the constant unpacking and repacking associated with cragging. During multiday alpine trips I remove this framesheet and store my Big Agnes Aircore pad alongside the foam backpad. I remove the Aircore pad at camp. The softer foam suspension helps the pack climb well when it's a bit more empty during summit attempts or day-length objectives on a multiday trip.

So, after using a Black Diamond Sphynx 32 and a Black Diamond Epic 45 (look for a review of this bag soon and perhaps a comparison with the Chernobyl) for a short while, how does the Chernobyl compare? Well, for one thing, it doesn't squeak. I also noticed right away that the Chernobyl is very straight sided, meaning the bag is easier to cram your stuff into, and stays upright during packing more easily than the Sphynx. As far as carrying goes, the bag is comfortable and rests right up against your back. It moves with you like few other packs do, but is going to be hot to wear on long tedious approaches and may not carry as well with really heavy alpine loads. The Chernobyl carries well with moderate loads, but like many other "suspension-less" packs requires careful packing so that it doesn't feel too top heavy when overstuffed.

I'm just now wrapping up a 17-day trip to Montana and Washington where I've been doing short (2-4 day) alpine climbing objectives. I brought the Chernobyl along for the trip and used it to haul a big load into Montana's Cowen Cirque for 4 days, for a trip up and down the Fischer Chimneys on Mt. Shuksan, an overnight on Mt. Baker, and a 2-day trip up Forbidden Peak in Boston Basin where we carried our loads up to the col on the West Ridge. It worked brilliantly for all of these, demonstrating it's versatility. It's a functional and durable alpine pack that I plan on having along for most of my alpine and winter objectives.

In fact, I was so pleased with the Chernobyl that I've ordered a CCW Ozone as my cragging pack. When I return home to Massachusetts tomorrow it should be there waiting for me, so look for an Ozone review sometime down the line.

As climbers and consumers we seldom think long and hard about where our gear comes from. For me, the time to think about these things has come; I encourage others to do the same. I want gear that, as much as possible, supports fair labor practices and promotes a high standard of living for those involved in the production process. Over the next couple of years I'm planning on replacing my aging fleet of gear with products from companies like Cold Cold World (NH), Wild Things (NH),  Sterling Ropes (ME), Misty Mountain Threadworks (NC) and Metolius (OR). All of these companies make their products locally in their respective regions, consider durability and functionality as necessities, employ local climbers and receive feedback seriously when developing new designs.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course

Times have changed. I'm sitting at the saddle between the White Salmon Glacier and the Upper Curtis Glacier on Mt Shuksan on day 4 of my 12-day Advanced Alpine Guides Course. Tomorrow we'll circumnavigate the summit of this beautiful Cascades peak.

I've had a pretty high tech phone since June and with the Wordpress app for Android I'm able to post from anywhere there's cell service. So, here are some pictures from our trip thus far.



The Longing

Alpine climbing takes us, as climbers, to places that are high, wild and seldom visited by others. These unique environments, while beautiful, are frequently devoid of many of the smells that we associate with life as we know it.


In my experience as a climber and guide, after spending several days living in an alpine environment, the return to a place that has smell produces a purgative experience of sorts. This return to “smell” often brings me back to places or times I hold near and dear to my heart. It produces a longing for something previously unidentifiable. Sometimes this thing is a comfort food I've been craving. Other times it reminds me of experiences I've had with old friends. It frequently produces an urge to visit a place from my past.

This time around my longing was for a place along the New England coast I visited during many summers as a child. The flood of familiar smells, most likely due to the fragrant alpine vegetation, produced an overwhelming urge to visit this summer spot from long ago. It's funny, all summer long I'd been feeling strangely incomplete. I realized then that a visit to the coast, where I could relax and collect my thoughts, was long overdue.

It's strange, but it makes sense. After many alpine trips I want nothing more than to sit near the ocean and do nothing. So much time in the hills and mountains, and I just want to be near water, plain and simple. For me, growing up near the coast, it's usually the ocean I crave. It's the antithesis of the mountains and the place I'd spend much of the time in if I wasn't a climber and guide.

I paid a visit to this spot after my trip and that's where the real catharsis occurred. The funny thing about a longing like this one is that, frequently, it's for a place as you knew it in your past. That place, things and people that populated it, aren't there anymore. It only exists in your memory and that nostalgic feeling has been spurred on by a series of "smells".

I'd be willing to bet others have had these “alpine longings”. If you have and you'd care to share your experiences feel free to post a comment below.