Sunday, December 30, 2012

Failing To Succeed

Cannon is the alpine venue for hard winter climbing on the east coast. There are many fine ice climbing areas, and there is a ton of cragging sprinkled throughout the northeast, but nothing rivals the climbing on Cannon, which feels much like the harder climbing found in greater ranges around the world. For this reason it's a great proving ground. With the exception of the Black Dike, all of the winter routes on Cannon feel hard. I know, some are thinking that even the Black Dike feels hard. However, when put into perspective at this 1000' tall cliff, the Black Dike is really the only giveaway.

I've become quite good at not succeeding at Cannon. My failure rate is pretty high. Four visits this year have only yielded two complete ascents for me. All in all, a 50% success rate up there feels pretty good to me though, and every visit has been a new learning experience. Over the years I've tried Fafnir several times in very early season conditions and been stopped by unbonded thin ice or unfrozen blocks. I've retreated off Omega twice now too. I've climbed the first pitch of Sam's Swan song twice only to be stopped by ice falling off above too. Most days I'm back at the car by 1 or 2, sipping beers in the parking lot.

However, every once in a while I'm able hit things just right. Last week, finally, I found some success. After several long rides (2:45 each way from my house in western MA) and short, unsuccessful days this season it was good to spend a full day getting pumped, getting scared and climbing a route I've had my eyes on for years.

Elliot Gaddy near the top of pitch 1 on SSS.

Michael Wejchert, Elliot Gaddy and I were up at Cannon a few weeks ago, just as things were shaping up and we decided to climb the first pitch of Sam's Swan Song. As the day warmed, ice began to rain down and we bailed. As we walked back down through the sketchy, lightly iced, seriously loose talus I kept looking over at Mean Streak. It looked like it was in shape. I kept thinking "why didn't we go over there today?" Last winter I watched Bayard Russell, Matt McCormick and Freddie Wilkinson dance up this steep shady route as I failed on Omega yet again. Cannon, it seems, has me figured out.

I've spent the entire year thinking about that Mean Streak. I knew Silas Rossi and Peter Doucette climbed it this season and I was eager to try it myself. Knowing my chances were growing slimmer as the narrow WI6 column at the start grew older and began sublimating, I began to get anxious. Cannon was actually keeping me up at night.

Alden Pellett and I made plans to meet on Thursday before Christmas to climb. We were hoping to find new routes in Smuggler's Notch. On a last minute whim, at 8:30 the night before, I called Alden and told him I wanted to go to Cannon. He said he'd meet me there at 7 the next morning.

Alden Pellett on Mean Streak

Along with Michael Wejchert and Peter Doucette, we headed over to the Omega amphitheater. Michael and Peter decided to climb the Henderson Buttress to Pilaf, a beautiful 5.9 handcrack. Rime-covered rock made their outing feel very Scottish.

Alden graciously obliged and I took the first lead. I'd been waiting a long time for this, and I was anxious; Cannon has a way of doing that to me. I started up the route. Good rock gear near the start of the ice helped calm my nerves temporarily. I slowly and methodically picked my way up the narrow, 4" thick strip of ice. I stretched out right to place a bomber 3" cam. As I continued up my hands went numb and I began to sweat.

Alden Pellett enters a tricky traverse on Mean Streak

When I read Will Mayo's first ascent report I remember thinking "WI6?". There aren't many routes deserving of that grade in the Northeast. I was skeptical. New England modesty has kept most hard ice routes in the WI5+ range. As I forced my body right, even though the ice was on the left, and struggled to protect the dead-vertical 4" thick, 2' wide strip of ice it occurred to me why Will Mayo, one of the Northeast's most talented winter climbers, was calling this section WI6. I had been bare-handing icicles, trusting so-so tool placements, and trying to find good stances despite the fact that there weren't any. At the end of the ice, below a roof I found my first really good stem and caught my breath.

I found 4 semi-mediocre gear placements and launched into the mixed climbing above. After several tool placements in turf that looked good but was actually poor I reach a flake that swallowed my picks. Relieved and elated I began placing small but solid gear and stemming up the corner. A little while later I reached the traverse where Will and Andy (and  Peter and Silas) exited the corner. I slung a giant detached obelisk and began traversing through snow-covered slabby rock to another corner. Rope drag made these moves tricky. I'm not sure why I was surprised, everything up to this point had been hard. A few minutes later I was off belay at a small square stance. Alden took a hike to warm up and I stacked ropes in lap coils at my waist. By the time I pulled all the rope up Alden was ready to go.

Peter Doucette on Pilaf

Alden, who claims he's out of shape (with a full-time job) dispatched the pitch easily. Not long after starting he was at the belay. We continued up the wall, me leading and Alden following for the remainder of the route. Steep, secure climbing punctuated by short insecure sections defines this excellent route. 30 feet from the end of the hard climbing I surrendered the lead to Alden. I was tired and it was getting late. Alden comfortably lead the final, loose 30 feet and belayed above. Not long after we were rappelling from the top of Pilaf.

Even during descent, Cannon has it out for me. Peter and Michael left an anchor on top of Pilaf. They had some trouble pulling their ropes but managed to get them back. Assuming their trouble was due to a lack of "rap rings" I left two bail carabiners on their slings. Safely on the ground, we pulled with all our might. Our ropes would not budge. In the darkness, we opted to leave them. I would come back for them the next day.

The next day, Friday, I returned and retrieved the ropes from above. In driving rain and howling wind I waded through wet snow and managed to find the top of Mean Streak. Silas had given me a few landmarks that made the task a little less daunting. I rappelled through slabby, vegetated terrain, put the soaking wet ropes in my Bullet Pack and began rope soloing back up the cliff. I had no issues, except for the fact that I had a pack full of four soaking wet ropes and a 40-minute descent down and icy, slush-covered trail.

The first pitch, photo courtesy of Peter Doucette

It's interesting. Mean Streak has temporarily satiated my appetite for hard winter climbing. The climb was a major tick on my list, and I've been sleeping better knowing that I don't have to get up at 3:30 a.m. again to go to Cannon anytime soon. For so many years I just climbed things because I'd never done them before and success came easily. I still do this to some extent, but my efforts are much more pointed, and when trying many of the Northeast's harder lines success doesn't come right away. It's a hard lesson to learn, but a good one - success frequently rides on the back of failure. You can't really have one without the other, especially when you're trying you're hardest.

Google+ gallery of images for this post can be found here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Planning Strategies

When I first began climbing I didn't plan or strategize at all. I would start late, or underestimate the size or difficulty of a particular climb. Consequently, I wouldn't always succeed on my chosen route.

There are many days now where I don't succeed, but for different reasons. The objectives I've chosen over the last few winter seasons have been more challenging, and success frequently happens only after several attempts and the right set of weather conditions. This, however, is not due to a lack of planning.

On the east coast, where terrain is small, it's easy to think that "shooting from the hip" will work as a strategy for planning. Usually things work out for the best. When it comes to approaching, climbing and descending on bigger routes though, I don't usually wing it and expect things to work out well.

Whenever I go somewhere I feel unfamiliar with I make a plan. If the route is straightforward and the weather is clear that plan might be as simple as a few mental notes about terrain and key route features. When the weather isn't expected to be clear or I'm navigating in the dark, and the approach, climbing, and descent are complicated I usually have a much more detailed plan. In this post I'm going to detail some planning strategies that many guides use to avoid getting lost, disoriented or stuck in a bad place at a bad time (usually when you'll get stuck).

Planning is common sense and yet it's overlooked by many folks. If you can begin planning more acutely for your trips you'll have greater confidence when the going gets tough. Remember, you're planning so things don't go wrong, not planning for if things go wrong. Here are a few important points you can use while planning your 1-2 day climbing objectives.

  1. Do your research - this means looking at guidebooks, maps, using the internet and trying to contact other climbers that have climbed the route, or climbed in that area in the past. Come up with a navigation plan, a reasonable time estimate and a required gear list.

  2. Develop an ERP - an Emergency Response Plan has information about what to do if things go wrong. This information can vary depending on the type of objective and it's location. This is usually information about where the nearest hospital is, emergency phone numbers for the local land manager (if there's an emergency number, sometimes you have to call 911), contact information for people in your party and perhaps a SOAP note/incident report form. You'll want to make sure your partners know what to do as well. Give them a copy of the ERP to keep in their packs as well. Sometimes I'll keep this emergency information on my smartphone. Storing emergency numbers as Google contacts ensures you have them when you get a new phone.

  3. Watch the weather - Watching the weather is really important. In the mountains the difference between getting to the top and turning back frequently amounts to differences in weather conditions. If you have the ability to choose your days outside you'll have better weather. This is tough if you are a weekend warrior.

  4. Carry the right gear - You'll want to choose the right ice tools and crampons for your route, or the right type of rock shoes for the style of climbing, an appropriately sized pack, the proper rack, and the right amount of food, water and clothing. If the climbing is easy you can bring less gear. If the climbing is more technically demanding things feel safer and easier with more gear. You can climb longer pitches, stop less often to belay and move with confidence because youll have gear to protect cruxes. Light is right on each route, but to go as light as possible  on every type of route your gear closet is going to be full and heavy.

  5. Don't carry too much - You can go a little hungry or a little thirsty if you know you're getting down at the end of the day, and bring less clothing if you can keep moving. During the winter the only extra clothing I have is a puffy jacket (gets worn when I follow pitches and for leading easier pitches) and extra gloves. Extra crap slows you down.

  6. Think about "alternative" first aid kits for shorter objectives - If the shit really hits the fan, what is a dinky little backcountry first aid kit going to do? Absolutely nothing. As a guide we carry a lightweight practical kit to address small issues. This is for client care. During personal climbs (even on very "full" day or single push routes) my first aid kit is nothing more than duct tape, a headlamp, a lighter and ibuprofen (benadryl in warmer weather for allergy stuff too). I'd be surprised if my partners carried anything more than that. Most of them might bring less. There really isn't much you can do in the field to address severe trauma except stabilize the injured area and get help. Band-Aids, ace bandages, gauze, etc won't help these things so you might consider leaving them at home.

  7. Trade the first aid kit for a useful communication tool - Part of doing your research is finding out what forms of communication work for areas you'll be visiting. If you have cell phone coverage, it's probably a good idea to bring it along. However, you might need a HAM radio, SPOT or Satellite phone and the knowledge of how those devices work. Self sufficiency is, and always will be the name of the game as a climber, but not having a form of emergency communication when it's easily available is negligent.
In an upcoming post I'm going to discuss the navigational planning aspect in greater detail. I'll look at navigation tools and techniques for creating tour plans which help you develop an idea of how long your route will take, where to go, and what type of elevation change is involved in your route.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Valley Vertical Adventures Guide Ryan Stefiuk in Subaru Drive Magazine

Valley Vertical Adventures guide Ryan Stefiuk was interviewed for an ice climbing article featured in this winter's Subaru Drive magazine. He and climbing partner Alden Pellett , who've made several trips to Newfoundland to climb ice above the ocean and in remote fjords together, both shared their feeling about ice climbing and why they continue to pursue such a strange, yet engaging pastime. The author Sky Barsch Gleiner wanted to understand what makes ice climbers tick and why they continue to engage in what can be a really challenging physical and psychological sport. Here is the link to the online version of this article

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shades of Granite and Far North

Well, for once I'm not the only one writing about my experiences. In fact, this time around I don't think there's too much to say, except that much of my success as a climber lies in the partners I've chosen along the way. I'm not a soloist, so climbing has always been a very social experience for me. Here are blog posts written by Erik Eisele and Michael Wejchert. Not only do these guys catalog our experience last weekend in Huntington well, they explore the more personal side of climbing in a way that isn't always addressed.

Below is a picture of Erik on the crux of Skywalker, a variation on Central Buttress in Huntington's. It's as steep as it looks. With big moves and a few insecure sections, the first pitch packs a punch, especially early season.