Archive for the ‘Trip Reports’ Category

4th Flatiron Slowfest

January 27, 2012

….or, ‘How to make a mountain out of the 4th Flatiron (molehill).’

On January 21, 2012, Brian and I chose to take advantage of an amazingly warm late January saturday by climbing the 4th Flatiron. While the mountain snowbase has recovered sufficiently to begin the ski season (just barely), circumstances beyond our control precluded that alternative.  Besides, I like climbing the Flatirons, and the 4th Flatiron with a finish over the top to the summit of Green Mountain is a favorite not done for 4-5 years.

4th Flatiron East Face route to Green Mountain summit

It had been warm long enough since the last snow fall that we simply assumed the conditions would be fine; we should have known better, especially on the 4th Flatiron East Face route (which could have been named, ‘the east face gully route’).

We started from the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am and hustled up the road toward the 4th Flatiron, enjoying our sunny, 30F morning. The temperature forecast was for a high of 61F much later in the day, but we had some sort of Chinook where the higher we got the warmer the breeze became.  About 1/2 way up, I had to stop to take off my jacket; I hiked the rest of the way in my t-shirt.

Chinook: A type of foehn wind. Refers to the warm downslope wind in the Rocky Mountains that may occur after an intense cold spell when the temperature could rise by 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. Also known as the Snow Eater. 

Foehn Wind: A warm dry wind on the lee side of a mountain range, whose temperature is increased as the wind descends down the slope. It is created when air flows downhill from a high elevation, raising the temperature by adiabatic compression. Examples include the Chinook wind and the Santa Ana wind. Classified as a katabatic wind. (Weather Channel Glossary)

At the bottom of the route, we found snow covering the base of the climb. But the bottom pitch on the 4th Flatiron is such a non-event, even though protection-less, that we didn’t even discuss it. I asked Brian if he wanted me to take the first lead, since it was such a short, easy pitch. He hesitated to accept my offer since he likes to start fast, but after a few moments consideration he decided to let me take it so he could do the more interesting 2nd pitch. He handed me the gear and I took off.

1st Pitch (9:30am)

With a plan to head up to the summit of Green Mountain afterward, I was wearing my approach shoes instead of climbing shoes so that I didn’t have to carry 2 pairs.  To keep them dry, I chose to start up a snow-less, shallow gully 10 feet left of the normal start. I didn’t think about it much but figured I could traverse over after climbing up a few feet. I was so unconcerned about the climb that I didn’t even bother to remove my liner gloves.  And, for the first couple minutes, I climbed while finishing a work story that I had been telling Brian for the past 15 minutes.

Normal Start (left) vs. 'Dry' Start Taken (right). Photo taken on rappel.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I had forgotten to do the traverse. Instead of quickly getting onto easy ground, the climbing was getting steep and wet (from snow melt above).  I looked across to the proper gully and saw that the intervening rock was too steep to traverse in my approach shoes.  My only options were to continue up and hope for the best or down climb to a better spot for a traverse. Since I didn’t have any protection in the rock and it didn’t look like I would find anything for another 25′, I decided to attempt the dreaded and always difficult down climb.

I managed to descend about 7′ but could go no further without a high chance of falling.

I decided to try the traverse, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work.  It just seemed too likely that I would end up sliding (or bouncing?) 10′ down the rock to the ground.  I looked back up the line I was on and could see that the holds got better as the rock got steeper.  I didn’t want to take a chance on falling just yet and so I figured my best bet was to climb up and hope to find a way out of my jamb.

Delayed Risk Preference Fallacy: the tendency to prefer solutions that eliminate a perceived likelihood of a bad outcome now in exchange for a likely worse outcome later.

This tendency is related to Wishful Thinking (making decisions based on what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality) and Irrational Escalation (justifying an increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.)…this tendency leads to the pattern of behavior so commonly referred to as “it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up” made notorious by Watergate.

Let me stop here and point out to myself and the world that this decision was horrendous.  It goes against everything I have learned over the last 15 years.  And this fact reveals just how treacherous the slippery slope of delayed risk preference is to human nature.  Clearly the primary mistake was not paying attention to the need to traverse.  But, once I realized that I couldn’t traverse without serious risk, I should have downclimbed as far as I could…even if I would eventually slip and fall to the ground.  It would only have been a 7′ fall.  But instead, I decided to continue up a path that was steep, wet, snow covered, never climbed (loose rock and a ton of lichen & moss), and with no chance for protection until after a fall would be fatal.  By not wanting to face the serious but non life-threatening consequences of my initial mistake, I forced a bad situation and created a strong opportunity to die that I only survived by luck.

Damn it!

I even said out loud after giving up on the traverse that I sure did screw up.  Brian shouted up that if I was really worried, I’d take off my gloves.  Right.  Where was my head?

I finally removed my gloves after reaching a set of bomber footholds and then continued up, one agonizingly slow move after another. I was able to reach the bottom of the snow cover without too much difficulty, but that ended any easy moves.  I tried to dig out the snow and ice to find a crack for a cam, but the ice was too strong and went too deep.  In the few minutes I invested in the effort, I only managed to tire myself out.

Brian recalls:

About 10 feet into the first pitch, I woke up and started paying attention to the rock.  I think Joe did, too, at that point, which was unfortunate for him because he was leading while I was just holding a useless rope.  I watched him try once or twice, then abandon traversing right to the standard groove. The face he was on had just a hint of northern exposure and the accompanying lichen.  But it was dry and the slope seemed to level off just above.  Another 10 feet, still no pro, and chunks of snow start getting tossed down. Lots of snow.  Where is he getting all that from?  At least it is adding to the crusty drift at the base, which is Joe’s sole protection if he slips. I guess I’ll drop the rope in that case and try to “spot” him into the drift.

I looked up to see that the rock above steeped significantly and the improved holds which tempted me from below were now clearly wet. And, I could see for certain that there was absolutely zero protection until I reached the top of the snow cover where a large boulder was wedged. At this point, a sense of doom came over me.  In my mind’s eye, and for the first time in my climbing life, I could foresee my failure and my body bouncing down the rock to my death. I would have given anything to be out of that situation, but there would be no rescue. Lacking alternatives to merely jumping to get it over with, I kept moving up.

Despite not have any issues with my approach shoes, I had to continue to bear in mind that I wasn’t wearing rock shoes that would give me enough sensitivity to the rock to feel the beginning of a slip.  I had to rely on my handholds to give me a 2nd chance if I had a slip; this caused me to grip extra hard and my fingers to get cold even faster than normal. And, the increasing lack of finger sensitivity forced me to grip even harder. I had to continue moving up by smearing the wet rock and could only stop to look around once more when I found two good footholds together.

A view of the Royal Arch from the top of the 1st pitch

Slowly I crept toward the large boulder at the top of the snow cover and marking the easing of the rock angle (and protection, I hoped).  Two more moves, and then only one more move to reach it. I was desperate to reach a bomber hold to save me…to let me recover.  Finally, I was there and I jammed my hand into the crack between the boulder and the rock face….but no joy. The shadows contained only icy, sloping spaces.

Tenuously perched upon cramping legs on one good but wet foothold and one poor foothold, I had only moments left to save myself.  I decided to place some rock gear in the icy shadows, hoping that something would catch somewhere, somehow.  That done, I noticed a small detached flake above my head to the left; surely I was saved.  And with a burst of adrenaline to energize my final effort to live, I placed a small Friend in the perfect crack.  Before clipping, I pulled on the piece, and nearly fell when the piece pulled out easily.  The flake was wobbly and would not hold gear.

I was down to my last chance.  I was tempted to pull on the loose flake, trusting to luck that it would hold just long enough.  But, I could not bring myself to risk it breaking off and sending me tumbling. Out of options, I stepped up onto the ice and reached high, above the big boulder and found a hole in which I jammed my now bleeding and numb hand. It was solid. I stepped up with my second foot and then both feet blew out, slipping out from under me on the ice.  But the hand jam held and I was able to haul my body higher to reach better holds and my escape.

I called back to Brian and apologized for forcing him to follow my terrible path in order to clear the gear.

A short time later I reached the top of the 1st pitch and brought Brian up.  It took him 10 minutes to climb the pitch that I had agonized on for 45 minutes.

2nd Pitch (10:30am)

Joe examining the route and decompressing from a close call

Brian took the 2nd pitch with a promise to check out the fun possibility of escaping from the back of the shallow cave along the way.  The cave route would only work without packs in Brian’s judgement, and so would have to wait for another day.

When Brian reached the 2nd belay, he yelled down to see if I had both cordalettes.  I announced that I had none (I had given no thought to the matter since I was used to not having one in recent days).  Brian then announced that both cordalettes were down at the base.

What a day!

In order to avoid losing both of our cordalettes, Brian untied from one of our double ropes so I could pull it down.  I then untied from the rope Brian retained and used the 2nd rope to setup a rappel that I used to return to the base of the climb. I found the cordelettes hanging on a tree near where the gear was hanging when Brian handed it to me 1.5 hours earlier.  I should have taken at least one of the cordalettes at that time, but it was that sort of day.  I grabbed them both and then used the rappel rope to batman my way back up, this time using the proper path…snow patch be damned. When I got back to the 1st belay, it was 11am. I put the rope away and tied back into the rope anchored to Brian.  I then followed the pitch quickly to join Brian at the 2nd belay.

3rd Pitch (11:30am)

I was my turn, and I needed to shake off the lack of confidence that hung on me like a bad smell. I mostly followed the ridge line as I worked up and right. I managed to not be too stressed despite not finding much gear. I reached the normal belay spot in a small alcove that separates the upper two pieces of the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron. Brian followed quickly.

Brian climbing above the 3rd pitch, on the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron

4th Pitch (12:00pm)

Brian didn’t think he could reach the end of the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron and enquired about the possibility of a simulclimb.  I told him that I had not felt secure all day in my approach shoes and not to push it.  As a result, Brian stopped on a good ledge with a nice big puddle.  I followed without incident.

5th Pitch (12:15pm)

I finished the last bit of the 1st section with a short sprint to the top and then a downclimb to the dirt and rocks between the 1st and 2nd sections of the 4th Flatiron.  Brian followed and then agreed to take a break for a late lunch.  Afterward, we speculated about where the 2nd section started.  We’d done the 4th several times over the years, but the memory wasn’t clear.  Several place looked right, but I thought we had to scramble up a ways to get to a ledge system that I saw from the top of the 1st section.  But after wandering around for 10 minutes, it finally dawned on me that the proper spot was only a few feet from where we ate lunch.

6th Pitch (1:00pm)

The traverse and climb to the Hanging Garden

Since it was my poor memory that resulted in us not being sure about the start, it was rightfully my risk to check it out. But Brian was chomping at the bit and grabbed the sharp end. It was his turn, after all.

Brian took off and I fed out the rope until it was gone.  I knew something must have gone wrong…we hadn’t simul-climbed here before. But I hurried to ready myself to give Brian more rope and was ready just as Brian yelled out for more rope.  I started the traverse with the knowledge that I must not fall.

Brian’s point of view:

The trench really didn’t seem wet at first.  Flaring, and deep enough to isolate climbers, it was dry except for the few slimy inches of parallel off-width in the center that normally would be the best feet.  Still, I thought I that with the low angle, I could stem across the flare on slopers while pinching the edges.  There was a little snow up above at the first chockstone, but surely it would be drier after that.  But it wasn’t.  The chockstone made a platform ideal for holding snow, and soon I was trying to jam soggy shoes, wishing the pro placements weren’t 15-20 feet apart.

I started looking for a belay perch, figuring that Joe would soon be simul-climbing in the wet stuff.  More snow patches came and went with no relief.  A lone scrawny tree passed by.  It had no backup and gave no hope that a belayer might keep the rope dry.   I reached the base of the crux section, got in a good cam, and knew that Joe must be standing in slime.  I was standing in postholes.  Another 8 feet of rock and I was actually sliding, just breaking even between forward and backward movement.  I could back off to the last cam, but then what?  Ask Joe to lead in his approach shoes with no pro until the next chockstone?

I leaned a shoulder into the flaring groove and stretched the opposite foot way out to some holds, then chimneyed and groveled my way for 15 dripping feet, hollering for rope slack.  That got me to the last chockstone where the grade eased up and the snow reappeared.  A dry, side-sloping ramp on the left was the final remaining section of the 4th’s middle tier.  It promised some cam placements, but it was all lies.   Its dry nature wilted under my wet feet.  When I finally sunk my fingers around a lip that formed a threshold to the hanging garden, I was beat and extremely thankful that Joe had remembered the classic climber’s mantra:  “the belayer must not fall”.

Back at the bottom of the pitch on simul-climb, I found at first that the climbing was no big deal; the traverse was barely technical.  Once I dropped into the gully, the situation became more interesting.

I made every effort to keep my approach shoes out of the snow and water; I didn’t want a slip.  Fortunately, once the conditions deteriorated to the point of ridiculousness, I could see Brian had setup a secure belay; a slip would no longer mean a permanent end to the Brian and Joe show.  The last section was so slippery I said out loud to Brian, “well, this couldn’t have been fun on simul-climb.”  Brian merely grunted in agreement.

4th Flatiron route taken vs. official

Decision to Bail (1:45pm)

Once in the Hanging Garden, it was clear we were done.  We only had 3 hours of light remaining to do 4 more pitches plus a long slog to the summit of Green Mountain and a 30 minute descent.  No way.  We’ve been down that path on this exact rock before; we wouldn’t do it again.  It just wasn’t our day.

The descent was nasty but at least non death-defying. I was glad to be alive.

I’ll do better.  I promise.  And I think I’ll be bring my rock shoes when I go rock climbing from now on.

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See Flatiron climbs


Hurricane Andrew

January 5, 2012

“Hurricane Andrew ripped through Dade County in August, 1992. Winds reaching up to 175 mph left a path of destruction. Andrew forced 50,000 residents from their homes and caused $25 Billion in damages”

Places I lived in South Florida over 25 years

I grew up in South Florida, moving to Plantation from Trenton, NJ when I was 4 years old. I lived in the South Florida area for 25 years before I experienced my first hurricane, Andrew, in the early morning hours of August 24, 1992.  My parents and their siblings were born and raised in South Florida, and their parents continued to live in the area along with most of my aunts and uncles and cousins for many years after I arrived.  I was raised on family stories of terrible storms and imagining what would necessitate the massive iron and steel hurricane shutters that had not bee used since before my Florida residence began.  Over such a long period of time, quite naturally there were a number of near misses; it happened just enough for hurricanes to feel like a myth…something to ignore.

Coconut Grove home

In the Summer of 1991, I purchased a home in Coconut Grove that had been built in the 1920’s.  The fact that the home had withstood multiple hurricanes over the years meant very little to me. Also irrelevant, except for the savings on flood insurance, was the fact that the home was built on the highest natural elevation point for the entire southern Florida geography (16 feet above sea level) despite being only 1 block west of Biscayne Bay.  On the other hand, it had no storm shutters, which was of no concern to me at all.

I loved that house, with the palm trees and wooded patches throughout the yard; it was a perfect shelter from my stressful professional life.

Dangerously Isolated (T-minus 36 hours)

It was August 22, 1992, and I was attending a pre-season football game of the Miami Dolphins in Joe Robbie stadium when I was asked what I planned to do about ‘the hurricane’.  My response was, “what?”  I had heard nothing about it at all.  It may seem hard to believe, but there was no internet news, and since I didn’t watch much TV or read the local newspaper, it was possible for me to be isolated.  Still, it made sense that something had kept the crowd lower than usual for a preseason game (42k vs. 60k); I just didn’t know.

Map of Hurricane Andrew location by date in August of 1992

Yet, when I checked the news later that day, I found that there was no hurricane.  Andrew was just a tropical storm that seemed to have recently shifted toward South Florida.  It wasn’t until 5:45 p.m. that evening (just 27 hours before the storm arrived and 36 hours prior to the eventual landfall) that a hurricane ‘watch’ went out (I made sure to watch TV news that night).

The Public was told that the storm, which was likely to become a hurricane, would most likely come ashore along the Dade and Broward county line, which would miss me by 20 miles to the north. And I had to believe that the storm could also change course again and miss the state entirely. I was relieved and satisfied that events would progress as they had many times before…once more, the storm warning would amount to nothing serious.

At this point, I was cautious but unmotivated to even begin to think about the ‘what-if’s’.

Contributing to my overly slow reaction were four historical facts:

  1. No hurricanes hit south Florida since 1965 (28 years) and no serious threats since 1979 (14 years)
  2. Andrew was the first tropical storm of 1992
  3. Andrew had not threatened Florida at all until the evening on the 22nd (22 hours before the storm began)
  4. Andrew was a fast hurricane, moving 17-18 miles per once it turned toward Florida; it came on very quickly

Looking Serious (T-minus 24 hours)

Once I awoke on the morning of August 23rd and found that the storm had intensified (officially a hurricane with a hurricane ‘warning’ issued) and was still heading toward the Dade/Broward border, I decided that it did seem likely that the storm would hit something.  But I’d seen that before.  I was willing to take some precautions, but I wasn’t going to do something stupidly unnecessary, like evacuating.  My thinking, which I still think is valid, was ‘where would I go to dodge the storm?’  I could only head north, and who was to say the storm wouldn’t push even farther north.  And besides, the southern end of the storm (where I was) is the least likely to cause serious damage. No.  I decided I would stay with my house.  And I would protect my property in whatever way I could at the last moment.

The Right Side of the Storm
As a general rule of thumb, the hurricane’s right side (relative to the direction it is travelling) is the most dangerous part of the storm because of the additive effect of the hurricane wind speed and speed of the larger atmospheric flow (the steering winds). The increased winds on the right side increase the storm surge. Tornadoes are also more common here.

~NOAA, Hurricane Basics

At this point, my emotions ran mostly toward irritation.  I was worried enough to apply myself to the situation, but I didn’t really expect anything serious to happen.

I drove to nearby stores and quickly found out that I was too late; all the wood for securing windows and the non-perishable food and bottled water had been bought out, everywhere.  I bought a trash can for water and tape for windows and returned home to do what I could.  I filled the trash can with water and left it in the central bathroom to protect it from more exposed areas of the house.  I then taped up all the windows and used whatever trash wood I had lying around to board up the biggest window I had….a big bay window overlooking my front lawn.  I took down my awnings and brought inside all patio furniture, and then there was nothing to do.

To make use of the time, I decided to get in my bike training ride.  I decided I would ride over to Key Biscayne to see how people were preparing on the island.  But once again, the preparation had already happened. The roads were empty as I had Rickenbacker Causeway all to myself for the first and only time.  The only vehicle I saw was a van filming a video from an open back, which had so little to see it decided to say with me to film my entire ride up and over the high point of the bridge.  I only rode for a couple hours; I might have been stupid, but I wasn’t crazy.

Once I got home, I didn’t have long to wait, so I watched TV, which was now broadcasting hurricane news full time.

Then It Got Dark (T-minus 9 hours)

The daylight was drawing to an end around 8pm when the winds started to pick up.  The radio said the edge of the storm had arrived, but to me it just looked a bit windy outside.  I was relieved that it wouldn’t be a big deal after all.

And then a massive tree across the street exploded as it twisted off its truck and fell to the ground onto the street in front of my house.  And then, in short order, everyone of my palm trees in the front yard just simply fell over.  Thump, thump, thump.

The winds were only 40-50 mph, about to go to over 100 mph.  And then it got dark.

At this point, my emotions began to shift from being annoyed about the mess the storm would make to being worried about the level of damage that might occur.  It seemed likely that I was going to lose some stuff.

The TV was on until about midnight when the power went out (it wouldn’t come back on for over a week). From then on, I listened to the newscasts on my portable radio that never left my pocket for 30 hours (I used a single earpiece ‘headphone’, if you can believe such a thing ever existed). My Motorola MicroTAC cell phone didn’t have internet access yet (nor an ability to place phone calls for quite a while).  The talk on the radio was all about where would the eye wall make landfall.  Would it come straight west or would it veer off a bit north or south….or even straight north with the Gulf Stream, and miss us all together.  In the meantime, all I could do was walk from window to window to see whatever horrific damage I could see happening to my property.

The power of Hurricane Andrew winds

The Wind was Unreal (Zero hour)

I could no longer see anything outside, except for my biggest palm tree on the north side of the house which had leaned over until it was leaning up against and banging the roof over the master bedroom.  It worried me enough that I felt I should go outside to see if the bedroom was dangerous.

I knew it was stupid to go outside, but I just had to know.  I just had to see what a hurricane was like.

I put on my bicycle helmet and the rain gear that I had purchased for my rock climbing trip to Colorado earlier that summer, grabbed my flashlight, and then I ventured outside.

The wind was unreal.  The trees were blowing around so violently that they seemed to be trying to reach down to kill me; it was like a horror movie.  The black sky was broken and streaked with green light, which seemed to be lightning shining through tons of water in the air.  The wind and lightning blended into a freight train like cacophony or a very angry god. If I had imagined that it was directed at me, I would have been terrified.

I was persistent in working my way around toward the other side of the house, but after I was thrown to the ground the second time I started to worry about being killed. I finally retreated to the house for shelter before being able to see the palm tree.

I abandoned the master bedroom just in case and sat in a central portion of the house.  I didn’t know what else to do.

A Terrible Mistake (The storm shifts to the south)

With nothing to do but listen for radio updates, I heard them all.  Mostly they didn’t have anything new to say other than how terrible the storm was and how people were certainly dying in large numbers.

Around 3am, the radio said that the storm seemed to be shifting to the south.  Instead of passing me 20 miles to the north, it was coming toward downtown Miami, which was only 1 mile to the north.  That left me with a very small margin; if the storm shifted just a bit further south, it would come directly toward me.

At 5am, the radio announced that the hurricane was passing over and destroying Key Biscayne (5 miles away) and would soon cross onto the mainland.  I sat in stunned silence as I realized that the storm was now heading directly for me.

My heart sank as I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. I didn’t believe my old wood frame house would stand up to the abuse, and being exposed to the elements and flying debris would certainly cost me my life.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  It was like piloting an airplane falling from high in the sky due to pilot error…no way to avoid the inevitable, terrible end and with too much time to regret the error.

I just sat and waited for the end.  I waited for the eye wall to reach me and tear my house down and kill me.  I didn’t know what else to do.  I could only hope that the central portion of my house would survive and protect me from collapsing and flying debris, and could only hope that the storm surge would not be high enough to reach me at 16 feel above sea level.

Hurricane Andrew (1992) - Map of Storm Path: Real & Imagined

But the radio broadcast was wrong….the broadcaster, and so I, didn’t know these 4 things:

  1. The storm was destroying only the southern tip of Key Biscayne, which was 5 miles to the south of me (98% of trees were flattened)
  2. The storm only seemed to be further north than it was because the damage on the north side of a hurricane is worse
  3. The most destructive part of the storm, the eye wall, was actually much further south
  4. The storm was moving so quickly that the storm surge was far below the normally expected level

Instead of getting worse, the winds started to die down after a few hours.  The full force of the storm has missed me.

Piecing together what really happened

It was strange to learn that the weather people really didn’t know what was happening or even where the storm was.  It actually took some work after the fact to establish where the storm had traveled.   While everyone had thought the storm was heading directly west, for the Dade/Broward border, it really was located much further south.  While I had thought it had shifted south to head directly for me, it was never aimed in my direction.  Still, a hurricane is a big storm, and I certainly learned to respect its power.

All that mattered to me at that moment was that I was going to live, at least for a while longer.  But ordeal wasn’t over by a long-shot.

When the victims of Andrew and their would-be rescuers emerged from shelter sometime between 7 and 8 in the morning, they found unimaginable damage. It took four months for the toll to be tallied. But that hot and soggy Monday no one could have known that 92 percent of the power grid in South Florida needed  reconstruction with 1.4 million or 84 percent of FP&L customers in Dade without power and not likely to get power for longer than a week. It would take 34 days before power was restored to 100 percent of the Dade County homes that could accept it.

Buildings on the Deering Estate (12 miles south of my house). Storm surge measured at 16.5 feet, which is higher than the elevation of my Coconut Grove house.

Something Awakens

When I walked out into the light the morning after, it felt great to be alive.  Oh, it was a terrible tragedy, but I lived.  And I felt alive in a way I had never felt before.  The fact that I lost some ‘stuff’ was completely irrelevant to me, emotionally.

I knew that I had some misery to endure to clean up the mess, but I didn’t really care.  My life was good and I was never going to be satisfied with the way I had been wasting my life before the storm.  Something had awakened in me; I wanted more adventure!  And it didn’t have to be in Florida!

Aftermath (+1 to 7 days)

The next week involved a mixture of cleanup work and awe-inspiring exploration of the damage just 1/2 a block toward the bay.

The first thing I did after the storm was walk (scramble over fallen trees, really) 1 block to the park between my house and Biscayne Bay to see what happened below the limestone ridge my house sat upon.  I only had to walk 1/2 a block to see that the storm surge would have reached me if I was 10 feet lower (vs. being at 16′ elevation).  Where the storm was strongest, the storm surge would have just barely reached me.

And once I could see the water, I could see boats up on land everywhere.  It was surreal.

At my house, the clean up involved removing all the fallen palm trees and picking up the massive volumes of debris that had come from everywhere.  But my house had survived intact.  My car didn’t even have any damage due to be hidden under a concrete carport.

The food in the refrigerator lasted a day before having to be thrown out onto the gigantic trash pile that would remain for many weeks.

I walked 5 blocks to the local grocery to find it had been looted.  Nothing was left except for the paper trash not worth stealing.

But I had water and supplies for peanut butter sandwiches to last me for three days, and then I lived on spoonfuls of peanut butter and the occasional gift from a neighbor.

Back to Work (+8 to 14 days)

Destruction of Homestead Air Force Base

Once I managed to get back to work, the company had mobilized into helping employees who had been hit the worst. I drove a truck for a week to pickup supplies and deliver them where needed.  The most amazing sights were when we delivered a fleet of trucks to Homestead Airforce Base.

On the drive down, it looked like the city had been bombed.  There was not a single leaf on a tree and every roof was destroyed to some extent.

And once we arrived in Homestead, we knew where the storm had wreaked its worst damage.  There were even f-16’s destroyed and laying, broken, on the ground.

It was a life changing experience, in many ways. And my love for Florida was permanently shaken.

Later that year, when I had a chance to relocate for work, I took it.


Click here to see my reports from adventures taken in the years since Hurricane Andrew

Achean Classic

October 29, 2011

October 22, 2011

We’re in that ‘inbetween’ season where the weather can be sunny and cool, when it isn’t laying down a bizzard.  Ah, Fall.

As we do so often in this season, Brian and I settled on looking for something in the Flatirons to find some weekend fun. Brian had the idea to head into Skunk Canyon for a change. It has been a while since I did a new flatiron; my quest to climb all the flatirons has turned into a lifelong project.  I was excited to pick off another classic:  Achean Pronouncement (5.7+).  Yes, it is a Roach ‘classic climb’…a designation that is at least as good as the ‘Two Thumbs Up” used to be back in the Ebert & Roper days.


Our 1st view of the Achean Pronouncement provided a clear view of the route: up the crack to the right of the dihedral, follow the skyline, then pass underneath the summit block to mount on far side.

We started from the NCAR parking lot and made quick progress to the creek bed beneath Satan’s Slab and the Achean Pronouncement (“AP”).  Brian gazed longingly at Satan’s Slab, but we had done it many years ago. I insisted we add to the list and so we followed the climber’s trail up and left to reach the bottom of AP.

Roach indicated that the start was ’60 feet up and south of the low point’.  But that didn’t look right, so we hunted around a bit until settling on the bad news that the blank looking, dirty slabby path to the two trees was probably the path.  Holy cow….it looked like you’d have to jump for a tree, if you fell, in a desperate effort to live. Ugh.

But the more I looked at it, the more I could see pro and features.  The only thing I could not see what the last couple moves to escape the danger zone, but I decided I’d volunteer.

Pitch 1

Starting from the tree on the ground approx. 60 feet from the low point of the flatiron, I picked my way up and right toward the 2 trees that marked the bottom of the 2nd pitch. I moved high enough to place the gear that was possible but made sure to stay left of the Juniper bush that was flowing down the face.  After a moment of exposed difficulty, the short pitch was over.

As I sat in the shade, slowly getting cold, I realized that I’d dressed for a summer climb instead of a cooler, breezier fall climb.  I shouted down to Brian to bring up my sweater that I managed to bring in a spasm of thoughtfulness.  I couldn’t do anything about my short pants, but at least I’d have a jacket, even if it was only a light fleece.

Pitch 2

Heading up the obvious crack toward the next tree-based belay station, Brian moved a bit more slowly than I’ve come to expect of him. I noticed more than usual as I was very cold despite now wearing my sweater, and I wanted to move up into the sunshine as soon as possible.

When it was finally time for me to climb, I discovered the source of the slow pace:  lichen. The route was very dirty for a ‘classic’ Roach climb, and it was slick as snot.  And the pro was surprisingly sparse; I was able to forgive Brian for his careful pace.

I worked my way up, slipping 3 separate times before reaching the belay.

Brian belaying after leading the 4th pitch; photo taken while straddling the ridge

Pitch 3

The third pitch stayed close to the dihedral, which was more of a scramble than a rock climb, so the lack of pro wasn’t an issue.  As I neared the top of the ridge, I could tell that a mere fleece sweater would not be enough…the wind was really blowing.

The promised fixed pro was gone, but I was able to set a strong anchor before bringing up Brian.

Pitch 4

Brian took off over a blank slab, angling up and left, and placing questionable gear every now and again, for moral support, I suppose.

I followed quickly, only stopping once after regaining the ridge to snap a photo of brian below the summit block.

Once I was able to check the topo, I realized that Brian had taken most of the 6th pitch as well.  I figured the final and crux pitch would be mine, for a change.

Pitch 5

The climbing was much more pleasant than earlier. This was why Roach had picked this climb as a ‘Classic’.  It was a very nice finish.

I worked my way across the slab below the summit block, looking for a path upward.  I had to move fully past the summit block to find a good path upward, which I took to wind around to the south face where the pro was scheduled to disappear.

I hunted around for the right path to the top, first examining the SE corner and then settling on the south face 20 feet to the left.  I placed the last piece I could get in and started up only to find that the rope was dragging on something I had missed along the way.  After fiddling with it I surrendered and setup an anchor to belay Brian.  The 6th pitch would be his after all.

An impressive view of the four ridges to the north of the Achean Pronouncement: Ridges from right to left: 1 (Stairway to Heaven), 2 (Devil's Slab), 3 (Angel's Way) and 4 (Mohling Arete).

Pitch 6

Brian took about 1 minute to pass the crux above my head and then another 5 minutes to scramble to the top.

It was a nice climb to find and do for the first time after climbing in the Flatirons for 15 years.


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Alpine Flatiron

October 9, 2011

The first day of the snow season brings a double-sharp sword:  the body’s ability to cope with cold is at a low point which combines with the mind’s poor memory of (and ability to prepare for) the cold. Such a day can cut clean through the self-deception of a risk-less rock climb.

Brian and I knew the weather would be colder, as in the 40F area, and rainy. But Saturday was the only day we could get out, and since we’ve climbed the flatirons in the rain before, we decided it was no big deal. I remarked to Brian that the cooler weather would keep away the lightning, so we shouldn’t have any problems.

We met at the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am, both of us wisely with full waterproof shell gear.  I even had a light sweater and liner gloves, just in case.  I thought about bringing a heavier jacket but couldn’t fit it in my pack and didn’t want to wear anything hot on the hike in.  I also could not find any waterproof gloves, but I figured I would be okay with wet hands for only a few hours.

We started up toward the 3rd Flatiron (39.98760, -105.29163) in a light drizzle.  Along the way, we could see the snow dusting that had fallen and stuck to the trees up high on Green Mountain.  We didn’t think it would be too bad.

We were wrong.

A view of Chautauqua Park from the 3rd Flatiron on a snowy rock climb

Naturally, we were alone on the rock. We started up, taking the easiest possible path along the East Face of the 3rd Flatiron.  On a normal day, it would be easy enough to skip a rope (only a few spots as hard as 5.4).  But lichen-covered rock dripping wet in a steady light snow, we knew it wouldn’t take much bad luck to create serious problems. Let’s just say that our progress was justifiably slow.

Within the first 10 minutes, I was very sorry not to have brought more clothes. I was thinking, what kind of idiot goes out to climb in a snow shower without waterproof gloves or even a warm hat, for the love of God.

With my core getting cold, my exposed hands were doomed, and they got worse and worse until they refused to function properly. The climbing gear was nearly impossible to manipulate with immovable fingers.

Fortunately, the climbing required few hand holds.

At first, I stopped every 20 feet to warm my hands on my legs; it helped well enough to get me to the first belay. I told Brian to continue leading if he was able; I was too cold and needed some time to warm up.

He said he was okay and so organized the rope and gear as I jammed my hands inside my clothes to warm them against my belly skin.  My core was warm, but I swear my hands won the temp battle and cooled my core instead of the planned opposite impact.

A view of the First and Second Flatiron from low on the 3rd Flatiron, as the weather worsened

After 2-3 minutes, I accepted failure and put my liner gloves on and made ready to belay Brian.  He took off just as the sky started snowing harder, throwing large clumps of snowflakes. Within a few minutes, my gloves were wet and worse than useless.

We repeated this process 3 times, with the weather getting worse and worse.  On the 4th pitch, my hands were completely gone and my feet were starting to get numb.  I knew I had to get off the rock quickly before I lost the ability to get down at all.

When I reached Brian in the notch below the final pitch, I told him I had to skip the final pitch and scramble to the rappel anchors from there.  He agreed as he had finally succumbed to the elements as well and was shivering like a wet rat.

Brian climbing through a wet, heavy snowfall on the 3rd Flatiron

It was my job to move the belay through the escape gully, but first I had to get some functionality back into my hands.  Once again I jammed my claws down my pants to find warm skin.  This time, I had to endure the thawing agonies that we all know so well.  I was yelling out loud to disrupt my mind’s focus on the pain.  After five minutes, my hands started working again, and in addition, the adrenaline from the pain had warmed up my entire body and mind!  I’m sure it helped that I was sheltered from the wind throughout the process.

I moved the belay and setup the rappel.  I quickly rapped down to the rap ledge and then traversed west to the second anchor where I clipped in before taking myself off rappel.

While I waited for Brian, I could see that the wind blowing south was fierce.  On a south-facing ledge, we were protected for the moment; but soon we’d have to step and rappel into that freezing hurricane.  I was thankful for not facing it all the way to the summit.

Brian quickly followed.  He pulled the rope and handed me an end that I used to setup the 2nd rappel. I clipped in and stepped over the edge.  Only 75 feet from the ground, I was almost safe. Almost.

Brian escaping the brutally cold wind after the descent

About 1/3 of the way down, I noticed that the rope dangling below me had been blown around the corner of the arête and been tangled on rock features seemly designed with deadly intent.  While hanging in a freezing wind, clawing my way toward the snagged rope, the thought ran through my mind:  if I cannot clear the rope quickly, I’ll die here today.

I attempted to clear the tangle as my brake hand (holding my weight on the rope) slowly lost feeling. I couldn’t quite get far enough around the corner to see what the rope was caught on, so I kept flipping the rope in hopes of clearing whatever it had gotten hooked on. After 4 attempts, the rope fell clear.

Then the wind blew again and the rope below me swung around the corner to get caught again. Once again I clawed my way to get as close as I could, and finally was able to clear it.  Before heading down I looked to see if any more tangles would impede my retreat, and could see a massive knot in the ropes well below me, blowing far out to my left in the wind.  My heart sank for a moment until I realized that I could reach the ground before needing to clear the knot. I was safe!

After reaching the ground, I cleared the knot and then scrambled to find some shelter from the hurricane winds while I waited for Brian, who soon joined me for a snowy scramble back to civilization and warmth.

I know it sounds rather pathetic, my near brush with disaster while doing a 5.4 rock climb in the Boulder Flatirons.  But I have to say that Brian and I both felt that we could both be pleased that we found an adventure and persevered on a day when a self-inflicted adventure was all we had time for.

I suppose it is true, adventure is where you find it. And, twenty-four hours later, my fingertips are just starting to regain feeling.

Another Boulder 3 Banger

August 7, 2011

His Majesty, The Brian

I know, I know. Who cares about a hike in the foothills above Boulder. Well…I do. While not an achievement of note, it is a beautiful way to spend half a day, when no other exercise is available.

Brian had a sore back (born of unusual circumstances) and could not carry a pack or even wear a climbing harness, so we decided to do another Boulder 3-Banger hike. It had been almost 6 years since we did our car-shuttle 4-Banger and even longer since our last round-trip 3-Banger. It felt like the right plan.

My Boulder Foothills History

  • 06/96 – 1st ascent of Green Mountain
  • 11/96 – 1st ascent of Bear Peak
  • 05/98 – 1st ascent of S. Boulder Mountain (and Bear Peak; 1st 2-Banger)
  • 12/98 – 1st 3-Banger (Green, Bear, S. Boulder)
  • 11/05 – 1st 4-Banger (Green, Bear, S. Boulder, Flagstaff)

We agreed to start hiking at 6am, and I was only 5 minutes late (which was long enough to miss the bear romping through the park).

Green Mountain

To spice things up a bit, we decided to head up the 1st Flatiron descent route and then cut over toward the Green Mountain summit. From there, we followed an old trail (along the way I got a cool photo of Brian silhouetted against the dawn sky) to reach the NE Ridge Trail that we followed to find the Greenman trail about 1/2 mile from the summit. By 7:45am, we reached the summit of Green Mountain. It wasn’t a fast time, but we stopped several times to explore.

A view of Bear and South Boulder peaks from the Green-Bear trail

Disappointingly, it was too early for a snack. After gazing longingly at my peanut butter pack, I joined Brian in climbing on rocks and admiring the views, both east and west. I also finished off my 2nd liter of water with the confidence of finding water in Bear Canyon along the way to Bear Peak.

Bear Peak

We descended toward Bear Peak, taking the Green-Bear trail. Once we reached the creek that runs down Bear Canyon (oddly named, Bear Canyon Creek), we found a trickling brook just deep enough water to mostly fill our bottles while mostly avoiding visible biological matter.

Hiking back up the other side of the valley on Bear Peak’s West Ridge, we began the long trek toward the summit of Bear Peak.  We both remembered that it was a long way….and it certainly looked to be a long way off (it was 1.8 miles).

A small sample of the plague of lady bugs (actually 'multi-colored Asian Lady Beetles')

As we approached the top of Bear Peak, we decided to go up the scrambling approach below the summit rather than hike along the ridge.  Unfortunately, I could not quite find the right spot and took us off route a bit. It was still fun, perhaps it was better than the

Brian laughing at my lovefest with the ladybugs

regular path, but our path took me on a collision course with zillions of ladybugs.

As I scrambled up, I had to crawl beneath a small pine tree to reach a section of rock that I could climb.  As I grabbed the tree, I heard a slight tinkling sound, like pine needles falling onto the ground.  Once I crawled through the tree, I knew that the sound was not from pine needles.  It was ladybugs falling out of the tree.  And now 100’s of them were on me.

I was too busy scrambling up to deal with the bugs.  Once I pulled up to the top, Brian (who had taken a more direct and faster path) said something like:

“Oh, Joe. You are covered in bugs….it’s like a horror movie!”

When I asked him to brush them off my back, he replied:

“Oh, that wouldn’t help.  You need to take of the pack and the shirt.”

I look off the pack to find a solid layer of ladybugs covering nearly the entire pack.  It took a few minutes to shake them off, during which time Brian reminded me that I needed to take off my shirt to remove the rest to avoid crushing several hundred additional bugs.

After disrobing and shaking the bugs loose from my shirt, I refused to put that cold, wet t-shirt back on for the remaining 50 feet of scrambling.  I wanted the fresh shirt in the pack, but would wait until we reached the summit, which we reached at 9:30am.

Dang!  It was still too early for a meal, but I could not longer resist.  One peanut butter pack, one bar and one liter of water ceased to exist in rapid fashion.

Joe finally free of the ladybug embrace (I definitely need to get more sun).

South Boulder Mountain

We decided to continue to South Boulder Mountain, but refused to descend via Shadow Canyon.  It would add just too many miles of boring hiking along the Mesa Trail.  We decided to return to Bear Peak and then descend via Fern Canyon, between Bear and Green.

The hike to South Boulder Mountain went quickly (0.7 miles), which was a good thing (as Forrest would say) since the day’s temperature was climbing rapidly. As we stewed in our own juices, we reached the summit amid a forest of raspberry bushes.

I thoughtfully called my wife to check in while Brian passed time by gorging on the berries missed by the Bears (who were down in Chautauqua Park looking for yummy trash).

It was only 10:30am, so once again we could not eat lunch yet.  So back down the trail we went.  And, once again I regretted not having sufficient excuse for a peanut butter snack.


View of South Boulder Mountain from Bear Peak

The hike back was mostly downhill, but it was a lot of downhill.  The Fern Canyon trail is quite steep and a steady down, down, down for over 2,500′ feet.  I’m sure my quad’s will be angry for a couple of days.  I will not even speak of my knees.

But, finally, we stopped for lunch at 11:30am when we reached the intersection with the Slab trail.  I ate my two remaining peanut butter packs and my 4th liter of water for the day.  It was fantastic!

We reached Chautauqua Park an hour later, for a 6.5 hour, 10 mile, 4,000′ elevation gain round trip.

It was a nice hike (unfortunately, the news of the day was rather shocking).

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Petit Grepon: 14 Years Later

July 27, 2011

Me (right) and Mark (left) and Jim on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992, shown here instead of the 1993 Petit summit photo which has been lost to the ages.

Ah, The Petit.  It was the second rock climb I ever did in RMNP (07/04/1993), back when I lived in the Flatlands and dreamed for 12 months at a time for my next high peaks adventure. I climbed the Petit with my Chicagoland friends, Mark & Jim (summit photo lost to the Ages) after a high altitude bivy beneath the stars .  It was a scary, wonderful experience that weighed heavily on my decision three years later to move to Colorado.

I repeated that climb in 1997 as a part of a bargain with Brian who wanted to climb the Petit while I wanted to climb Northcutt-Carter.  We agreed to do both to further our mutual progress on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

And, then, out of the blue, fourteen years later, Brian said, “I’ve been thinking about doing the Petit again.”  Hell, yes!  Why haven’t we been back?  It was a plan.

I remember back in the pre-internet days, route information was hard to come by.  But these days, the trick is sorting through the noise to find the information.  In this particular case, I had only to dig out my old trip report to confirm what I already knew….the key to climbing The Petit Grepon, 17 and 14 years ago was to arrive before the crowds show up to climb one of the most popular climbs in North America.

Early Bird Tenet: early starters get the best parking spots, the best trail and snow conditions, the most comfortable temperatures for exercising hard, the least lightning, and the highest success rates

~ CliffsNotes: Rules, Laws, etc.

A view of Petit Grepon and South Face (5.8) route. Taken after descent.

My old trip report indicated that we started hiking at 4am, which today meant leaving the house at 2:30am, and rolling out of bed at 1:45am. And then I remembered why we haven’t been back to the Petit in 14 years. Ugh.

Oh well.  The only thing worse than getting up at 1:45am to do a rock climb is getting up at 1:46am, committing to a 10 mile hike, waiting on the rock for hours for slow climbers to move, and then having to bail because of weather.  I set two alarms and then woke up 10 minutes early.  July 23rd, 2011 had begun.

We left Boulder right on time (for a change) and arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 4am to find a 1/3rd full lot.  As if we needed reminding, it was time to haul ass.  We pushed hard the entire way, passing 2 parties along the way to Sky Pond. To match my previous efforts (done in a 35-year old body), I had to put my full spinning-induced fitness to work.

As we neared the Petit Grepon in the early light, we could not see or hear anyone ahead of us.  Our ‘start early and hike fast’ plan worked again.  The old strategies are the best strategies, it is said.

1st Pitch (“Why Bother?”):

Brian approaching the top of the 4th pitch

Since the bottom part of the climb was wet, and not very interesting looking in any case, we decided to skip it and hike up the left side of the Petit to reach the ‘1st Terrace’ (a big grassy ledge at the bottom of the giant chimney).  It was rather easy route finding, but the climb was quasi-technical in my boots.  I’d call it hard 4th class.  But it was fast.  We reached the bottom of the giant chimney at a little before 6am.

That’s when we noticed the climbers already 2 pitches up.  Now that was an early start.   They were far enough ahead that we didn’t figure they’d factor into our day, and we were almost right.

2nd pitch (“The Giant Chimney”):

I took the giant chimney pitch so Brian would have the crux pitch without interrupting our pitch swapping.  The “chimney” was big, cavernous and chilly in the early morning, and the climbing was mostly dodging around chock stones or steep face moves on the left side.  It appeared dirty looking but the holds were solid and clean from frequent use. The pitch finished by passing the second of two large chock stones to the left, and setting a belay on top (approx. 150′).

The holds were so positive (5.6), in fact, that I was tempted into hauling legs rather than stepping up. It was a mistake possible to make on many of the pitches on the Petit, and one that would pay dividends for me later it the day.

3rd pitch (“The Bombing Range”):

Brian took the 3rd pitch, climbing up the left side of chimney and exiting the top of the chimney to the left (dodging the roof), into a steep hand crack (5.7). The crescent crack was offwidth-sized, but there was little need for crack technique.  Its jagged interior was  a source of fun holds to go with the foot edges on the wall to the left.  It soon turned into a steep but easy chimney which spit us out onto the second terrace.  Like most of the belay ledges, this one was shaped like a drain, designed to funnel plentiful loose rocks directly onto the pitch below.

I followed and made ready for leading the 4th pitch when a sharp whistling sound arrived an instant before a big rock (about 12 inches cubed) falling from far above hit like a bomb 15 feet from us.  It scared the crap out of us and spooked us with the reminder that random death was so close.

It is criminally negligent for climbers to knock down big rocks that would mean instant death (as Brian pointed out, “Helmets wouldn’t have helped with that rock”).  We’d have to be extra careful, until Beavis and Butthead were no longer overhead.

4th pitch (“The 2-Pin Belay”):

Brian at the top of the 5th pitch with Sky Pond far below

I took the 4th pitch, which started up into a roof-less chimney through which I could see the knife-edge summit ridge.  This had 20 feet of easy chimney, but then returned to STEEP.  Never hard, but a sustained face.   Near the top, the line angled right to reach a right-facing dihedral below the left edge of a shallow, sharp-edged roof. From the dihedral, I followed a short ramp to reach a belay below the right edge of the roof, where I found two pitons. The belay ledge was nothing more than a sloping ramp with room for one belayer, one itinerant climber and no guests.  But at least it was clean.

5th pitch (“The Crux”):

The crack overhead (5.9+) seemed obvious, but we followed common advice and 14-year old memories to the run-out right.  Slabby feet and hard-to-see finger edges took us right, then up and back over the belay to the first pro:  a flaring TCU hole and small stoppers.  Yuck, but only 5.6.

Better holds and a vertical finger crack brought us to the “v-slot” where another clean crack separated two smooth walls.  A couple crack moves later we pulled out of the slot onto flatter ground followed by the belay ledge.  This had the usual funnel-shape, and it would be the last of the grassy ones.

I had strong memories of the crux section…that might have been from my first climb 17 years earlier.  It was really the only thing I thought I remembered from either previous climb. But my memory was nothing like the climb, and the climbing was also harder than I remembered. Heck, I was grateful to not be leading it.  

When I crawled out onto the grassy ledge on the east side of the pinnacle, I was careful not to repeat the rock fall that the earlier team has produced.  This looked to be the source, with lots of loose rocks, small and large.

A view of the upper pitches (photo taken on descent)

6th pitch (The “Pizza Pan Belay”)

The 6th pitch was mine.  Once again I had zero memory of it. The route description said to go up and right and then go back left to reach the arête. So, I started up and right, following the easy ground.  After I passed below a large detached flake, I decided it was time to start back to the left.  I was torn between moving back over the flake or climbing the off-width crack formed by the right edge of the flake.  Even though the off-width crack looked dirty, it looked interesting plus I thought I could work back left after the flake.

It worked, although was a bit thinner I expected as I worked to reach a crack that led to a small ledge that extended to the arête.  I wasn’t sure that this was the ‘pizza pan’ belay at first but stopped because it was a good spot for a belay.  Later, I noticed the triangular ledge jutting out from the ridge (at my feet) that was approximately the area (but not the shape) of a large pizza, and finally noticed the piton above my head that I had failed to use in the belay anchor

Brian says:

We were now on the east side of the PG and would only occasionally visit the south face again, as it changed from a narrowing face into an overhanging arete.  Like most of the next 3 pitches, we had to wander through the wide east face following out-of-sight handholds and brief weaknesses, hoping to find the next belay ledge.  Joe’s lead seemed a bit far to the right, jamming the right edge of a huge detached flake before sliding over thinner face moves to attack the pizza pan belay hanging on the arête.  Restacking gear while dangling 800 feet over Sky Pond was a challenge.  Joe offered to surrender the big cam out of the anchor, but I preferred to have him in as solid as could be.  The cam also turned out to be holding 100 feet of rope stored in loops.

7th pitch (“The Sacrifice”)

The view of Pitch 7 from the 'Pizza Pan'

Back on the arête, the wide edges were gone, replaced by nubbins, hooky points, cracks and stems, all clean, solid and steep.  After 20 feet the route dodged left into a crystal-filled chimney that took us back onto the east face.

Brian took the 7th pitch which was supposed to be longest pitch on the route Brian noticed that the team below us was catching up and would soon be joining me at the Pizza Pan belay (where there was absolutely no room).  I think this factored into his thinking to shorten the pitch to 100′ when he arrived at the 1st good belay ledge.

The climbing was once again hard as the start felt like a 2nd crux, although now the problem was my hands were giving out after hours of leg hauling. Still, the position was spectacular:  almost 1000 feet of air below my feet, climbing along the knife-edge arete.

8th pitch (“The Knife Edge”)

This is the part everyone sees from Sky Pond and can’t believe that it’s the route.  When you’re on it, it’s too steep to plan your line, and there’s no major features to discern except up.  But the holds are all there, often thick edges, many times positive, sometimes requires deft sidepulls.  Pro gets a bit thin, and the route touches the arête near the top

A quick calculation confirmed that I could finish the climb on the 8th pitch; adding the 60′ of the normal 7th pitch to the standard 80-90′ of the 8th pitch meant I would have the longest pitch of the route.  I was delighted while also hopeful that my arms would hold out. Surely the climbing difficultly would ease, right?  No.

The pitch started with a 10-foot lay back finger crack that I took a few minutes to figure out.  When I finally committed to it, I counted on finding a hold to pull myself up to stand on top of a large (12″ square) platform but found nothing.  So, I was left with a balancy move that I regretted needing.

Joe enjoying a moment of satisfaction on the Petit summit

From there I moved straight up to a nice ledge below the ridge line (after it flatten out), which I figured was the normal 7th pitch belay.  I stepped up to continue directly to the ridge (as I thought proper) but paused to noticed that there was no pro or holds above me. Out of self-preservation, I decided to down climb a bit and then move right to find better ground.  This area was passable and led me to the ridge line which I followed to the always spectacular summit, which turned out to be the only thing on the entire climb that I remembered.  Oh, the ravages of age!

The summit (“The Teeny, Tiny Platform in the Sky”)

I brought Brian up and we once again marveled at the uniqueness of the Petit’s summit.  Over the years somewhere I misplaced my fear of heights; so this time the summit did not feel like it was about to fall over or that I might simply fall off.  But it is really something to experience every few years.

Brian on the 'far' end of the summit

It was approximately Noon, so we had taken 6 hours to do 8 pitches.  Not bad, but 6 hours is a long time in the high country without a drink of water.  We couldn’t stay long, and didn’t try.

The Descent (“Let’s Leave the Boots”)

A rappel descent is always a 2-edged sword:  little or no physical effort is always attractive, but the added risks of rappelling error, anchor failure and failure to find anchors makes for a bit of extra stress.  A 6-part rappel makes the problem larger by somewhere between 6 times and to the 6th power.

We made it and can recommend the rap route highly.  It was put together very well, but the necessarily twisting route means that the anchors are not simply below you.  We found it important to review the directions for finding each anchor just prior to each rappel.

The only problem we had was the infuriating tendency for the ropes to tie them selves into knots when tossed.  Fortunately, we noticed the knots before becoming stranded while dangling in mid-air, and we resorted to feeding the ropes over the edge.  The ropes didn’t often make it far down the wall, but they no longer became tangled.

Still, it took us 2 hours to descend the 6 rappels.  It was the longest continuous rappelling effort of my life.

We did pause briefly on the 1st Terrace to pack up & drink our water.  We had gone without water for 8 hours at that point.

There could be no delay in the consumption of water.

The rappel route from the summit of the Petit to the base...leave your hiking shoes and pack on the ground

We took our time getting out.  We started with a dash for a water fill-up and then ‘skied’ down a snow field to Sky Pond that we skirted to link-up with the hiking trail.  We took some photos, admired the beautiful rocks of the area, and eventually worked our way down long enough to allow the iodine pills to dissolve.  We stopped at 3pm below the waterfall marking the transition to the Loch Vale level to eat lunch and consume every drop of liquid we felt confident wouldn’t make us sick.

The hike out went easily for a change.  We reached Brian’s truck at 4pm for a 12 hour round trip….only 1 hour longer than our time 14-years earlier.

Brian gazes upon the Petit after acquiring more water

Thus ended another great day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  And, a big ‘Thanks‘ to Brian for contributing mightily to the story.

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Chaos Canyon Loop

May 14, 2011

May 14, 2011

The weather forecast was iffy for snow climbing…rain/snow after noon with higher temps.  We chose Flattop Mountain to give ourselves some options for choosing a descent after we see the conditions.  My guess was for Brian to drop down from the Flattop summit toward Notchtop via the Ptarmigan Glacier into Odessa Gorge and then circle back to Bear Lake via Lake Helene trail to Fern Lake trail to the bottom portion of Flattop Mountain trail. I liked having the option of simply returning via the Flattop trail.   Of course, my personal decision would be based on how I felt, the weather conditions, and the condition of the snow.

Brian picked me up at 5:30am and we headed up to Estes Park…for the 3rd weekend in a row. As we drove up, a solid wall of dark clouds blocked our view of the mountains….and even extended down to the tops of the foothills.  It was not going to be a nice day. But that was okay; I came for the exercise.

Flattop seen from Hallett. The trail approached from right to left.

The closer to RMNP and the higher we got, the darker the sky became; at the same time, we could tell the temperature was unusually warm.

Hello Spring.

Eventually, we got high enough to reach the cloud bank; we were driving inside a cloud. As we neared the Bear Lake parking lot in RMNP, we could see, to our surprise, that there were blue skies above the cloud bank. Suddenly we realized that we were going to get a lot of sun, at least until the after noon weather arrived.

As we pulled into the parking lot, Hallett Peak looked as beautiful as I have ever seen it.  And, once out of Brian’s truck, we could tell there was not a bit of wind for the first time in the 2011 season.

The plan for the ascent was to skirt Bear Lake (9450′) which sits at the mouth of Tyndall Gorge, taking the Flattop Mountain Trail for 4.4 miles to the top of Flattop Mountain.  The trail ascends the long north slope of Flattop that rises between Tyndall and Odessa Gorge.

We started up around Bear Lake at 7am…the snow was perfectly frozen hard, somehow.  My snowshoes were needed to grip the trail, not float on the snow. We made great time. I felt good enough that I took the lead and kept up a fast pace all the way to tree line without a break.  It was hot as Summer. At tree line, we stopped to put on sunscreen and admire the solid bank of cloud cover below us.  I had only ever seen it once before.

It was a spectacular day: blue sky, warm temp, no wind.

The great views from Hallett Peak. Longs Peak is the big peak pictured; the fog below can be seen to the left.

As we neared Flattop’s summit @9am, we decided to keep going to Hallett Peak, 1/2 mile and 500′ of elevation gain away.

Hallett Peak (12,713′) sits on the Continental Divide between Tyndall Gorge (on the north) and Chaos Canyon (on the south).

I arrived first, for a change; Brian had to stop to remove & put away his skis, and I kept going in a fit of competitive furor.  I cannot remember the last time I beat Brian to a summit.  The Spinning continues to deliver a high level of fitness.

It was only 9:45am, but I decided to eat my lunch.  I wasn’t hungry as much as I couldn’t think when I’d have another chance. It didn’t seem fair to have to wait until returning to the car.

Even on Hallett’s summit there was no wind.  Brian spoke of the conditions being perfect for spray painting….absolutely zero wind. It was truly spectacular.

Joe on top of the world! Not really....Estes Park is buried beneath the fog in the background.

After the obligatory summit photos, I asked Brian how he was planning to descend. He shocked me by saying he was going down Chaos Canyon.

I had zero interest in that Chaos Canyon.  But Brian did make a good point when he said we needed to use these perfect days to try new things. I wavered.

I got up and walked toward Otis Peak so I could see the Chaos Canyon and Chaotic Glacier which links the canyon to Flattop.

The glacier looked steep; I thought ‘no’….too dangerous without an ice axe. But then I remembered Brian’s comment and got back on the fence.  I wanted to find a way to agree, but I didn’t want to die being stupid.

I moved back to Hallett’s summit where Brian and my gear were awaiting my decision.  I said that I wanted a closer look before deciding.

A view of Chaotic Glacier from the southern flank of Hallett Peak

We hiked down the southern side of Hallett; I took particular note of how firm the snow was on that side.  Once I could see more of Chaotic Glacier, I could see that it was way too steep if the snow was hard.  No way.  I said out loud that it would be plain stupid for me to descend something that steep with nothing to arrest my slide.  Brian gave me hope by offering to let me use one of his ski poles that had a plastic pick extending from the handle.

I agreed to continue to the top of the glacier to see how the snow felt.  If the snow was hard, I planned to turn back toward Flattop and descend the way we came up.

Once we reached the glacier at approximately 11am, the snow felt promising.  It was soft in spots, sometimes as deep as 6-8 inches; I decided I would descend Chaotic Glacier and then hike out Chaos Canyon to Emerald Lake and back to Bear Lake.  I had never descended that way before; it would be an adventure!

A view of the descent into Chaos Canyon

I traded Brian for one of his poles, per his earlier offer.  After fiddling around with the two poles, I decided that I would be better served with just the pole with the pick.  I figured that if I really needed to self-arrest, I was likely to drop both poles if I was fumbling around with two.  Then we walked together down the top of the glacier to reach the part where the slope increased dramatically.  Too dramatically. And, the steeper snow was not soft.

Was I really going to do this?  Crap.

The angle was terrible, but there were no obstructions below.  Even if I lost control, I wouldn’t hit anything.  At worst, I’d get injured.  But I didn’t want to get injured.

What was I thinking?  Okay, I would do it.

Brian started down and stopped after skiing about 50 feet to wait for me to start down.  I sat in the snow and got used to the new pole.  I envisioned how I’d use the pick to self arrest and did a practice roll over.  The pick was made of plastic and so was made thick so not to break.  The thick material didn’t want to sink into the snow and so the pick tended to roll to the side when I weighted it. Crap.

I couldn’t do it.  Could I?


I tried going down face in with both hands on the pole with the pick buried.  It was working!  I was able to get the toes of my boots into the snow and then reposition the pick lower, and then repeat.  As long as the snow didn’t become frozen at some point below me, I would live. But now I was committed.  And that’s when it occurred to me that the pick could break-off at any moment.  These poles were 10 years old and made of plastic.  If it broke, I was going for a long, fast slide.

But I got lucky.  The lower I got, the softer the snow became.  I would live…with my parts unbroken.

Brian in a whiteout on Chaotic Glacier

I decided the snow was soft enough to glissade, and so I turned around to begin.  Suddenly, I couldn’t see anything.

The cloud bank beneath us had rolled up the canyon and now completely obscured our vision.  It is not a good idea to start sliding down steep snow without being able to see what I might hit or fall into.

I’d just have to trust that my last view of the glacier, which showed nothing to worry about, was accurate.  And, so I started.  Down I went….woohoo! And then it was over.   I made it.

But now we couldn’t see anything about where to go.  If we had to rely on simply going downhill, it was going to be a hard escape.

Then I noticed the tracks again.  I could follow the tracks.  And, if these folks could see where they were going when the hiked out, then the tracks would lead us out.

Down and down, we followed the tracks down Chaos Canyon and past Lake Hayhafa.  Visibility as still poor, but I figured we just had to keep following the tracks out toward Dream Lake, which was the only exit from Chaos Canyon, right? Keep reading.

Once past Lake Hayhafa, the terrain looked less and less trail-like. After some distance of plunging through tree branches where sunglasses were necessary as protection from poking, Brian stopped and said, “do you know where we are?”

I said I did not, but indicated that I assumed that the tracks had to lead to Dream Lake.  Brian then said, “well, we’ve been heading right (south) instead of left (north) for a while now….I think we are headed toward Glacier Gorge.”

Glacier Gorge!  He might as well have said ‘The Moon’.

I said I didn’t think it was possible to go to Glacier Gorge from Chaos Canyon.  Brian said he didn’t think so either, but that where he thought we were going, possible or not.

We looked around and couldn’t see anything beyond 100 yards.  We certainly had no way to see any landmarks to guide us. We were screwed.

Then I remembered that I had brought my smartphone, and that I might be able to figure out where we are…if I could get a satellite signal.

It worked.  Of course the screen was almost entirely unreadable in the weird light conditions, and Google Maps is not designed for optimum readability on tiny screens. But I was able to make out that we had indeed been heading SSW, toward Glacier Gorge. I pointed toward Dream Lake and then Bear Lake. Brian didn’t think turning north toward Bear Lake would work as there could be cliffs and other obstacles between it and us. We either had to backtrack or continue toward Glacier Gorge and hope we could find a path to join-up with the winter trail next to The Knob.

The Knob seemed to be the easiest choice, but, even if it was successful, we’d have to loop back to Bear Lake.  Crap.

For some reason, we stayed with the tracks that had led us to the middle of nowhere, but the tracks did seem to head in approximately the right direction.  Heck, either they made it or we’d find their frozen bodies along the way.

Another 30 minutes in and our situation hadn’t improved.  I decided it was time for another direction check.  We were still in the middle of nowhere. And, then I noticed that my battery was about to die.  I gave Brian a heading and then we stayed with it until we finally joined up with the well-established trail.

Our approximate route looping from Bear Lake to Flattop to Hallett toward Otis and then down Chaotic Glacier and Chaos Canyon, where we got lost. The line east from Chaos Canyon does not reveal the unpleasant wandering involved in such a bushwack.

We plodded along, happy to know where we were for the first time in a while.  By 1:30pm we reached the Bear Lake parking lot.  It was over.  We had taken 6.5 hours to hike approximately 11 miles while gaining and losing 3200′ plus a 100-250′ needed to wander from Chaos Canyon to the Glacier Gorge Winter trail and back up to Bear Lake.

On the drive home, Brian told me about a tale he heard from a fellow who took a bad fall skiing down Lambs Slide.  This fellow used the same poles as Brian, with the plastic picks.  When he fell on Lambs Slide, both picks broke off, sending him to serious injury.

It is plain stupidity for me to fail to bring an ice axe when venturing high in the mountains, especially given my apparent inability to refuse an opportunity for adventure.  I’ll not forget again.

Another great day in RMNP!

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Andrews Glacier Season Kickoff

May 1, 2011

April 30, 2011

I had been trying to kickoff my 2011 climbing season each of the last 4 weekends, ever since the ski season ended for me at the end of March. My recent passion for

Andrews Glacier from Glacier Gorge TH

Spin cardio had left me with a hip so sore that I couldn’t imagine 10 miles of hiking in soft snow.  I have been a poor climbing partner to Brian lately.

A slight modification to my technique left my hip feeling good enough to give it a try.  We picked Andrews Glacier as a nice starter adventure; well, it was a season kickoff for me anyway.

The glacier was named for Edwin B. Andrews, a relative of Abner Sprague. These two men climbed to the glacier in 1897, and Sprague named it for Andrews since he was one of the area’s best fishermen. Sprague settled in the Park in 1875, was an early landowner, hotel owner, guide, and Estes Park historian. Several features in the Park are named for him. (Source: High Country Names by Louisa Arps and Elinor Kingery)

Brian picked me up at 6am and we did the slow Bronco drive to RMNP.  We arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 8am and found the expected cold snowy conditions (approx 3 inches of new snow at the trailhead, but much more fell up high). I was well and truly sick of the cold after a long Winter, but this was the hand I was dealt.  An accurate weather forecast allowed me prepare properly, e.g., full Gore-Tex outer layer, slight insulation on for hike in, extra insulation in pack for more severe conditions up high).  Bundled up like Arctic Explorers, we started up the snowy trail toward Loch Vale.

Brian hiking toward Loch Vale

My hip felt good and allowed me to make pretty good time up the snowy trail: me on snowshoes and Brian on his tele-skis. I was pleasantly pleased to discover my gym-based conditioning to be very high; my spinning cardio plus weight-lifting workouts have kept me in good shape despite a lack of outdoor work.

We took the standard winter shortcut up the creek where we found 6, and then later, 8 inches of new snow.  The trail was not yet packed down, but had been clearly marked by a few earlier hikers. We were lucky to find footprints for much of the way.

The wind was strong, even in the trees; it foretold of terrible winds up high.

We passed one group as we approached Loch Vale and then continued to follow the footprints across the frozen Loch Vale (a lake).  The route-finding to Andrews Glacier vs. Sky Pond is always tricky after a heavy snowfall; I wondered which of the two was the destination of the people ahead of us.  After a while, we passed the exit that 1 or 2 people had taken toward our objective; but it seemed to early so we continued to follow the better trail with hopes that it went the entire way.  The new snow at our feet was by that time around 12 inches; we knew it would be murder to break trail or even follow poor tracks.

Unfortunately, just as we neared the group ahead of us, we also noticed that we had already gone too far toward Sky Pond.  Crap.  We’d have to backtrack and then crawl up the deep snow.

A view through the trees toward Sky Pond with Powell Peak in the background

A short way back we found the creek bed that marks the Summer trail cut-off; it was a slight concave shape in the deep snow.  And, up we went. Brian took the hard duty, but since we had different equipment, his efforts didn’t save me much effort.   Fortunately, Brian’s nose quickly led him to a set of tracks that aimed in the right direction and packed the snow down enough to make a difference. It turned out to be a far easier hike than we deserved under the heavy snow conditions.

As we exited the trees below Zowie, we could see and feel it was time to cover as much skin as possible to hide from the wind.  We could also see 2 more parties ahead of us, breaking trail. Right on!

We continued up the valley toward Andrews Glacier and caught up with the people ahead at about the turn-off point toward Sharkstooth.  It was our turn to break trail, and this time it was on a steeply sloping traverse….in a freezing strong wind. Yuck.

The traverse ended with slippery tip-toeing over the top of a steep couloir.  A slight avalanche tried to claim Brian, but we eventually made it across to the Andrews Tarn level (the lake below Andrews Glacier). Naturally, the lake was frozen solid, which enabled us to walk across to finally reach Andrews Glacier.

A self portrait with the top of Andrews Glacier in the background

Up we went, the low angle slope allowing rapid progress. Once we reached about 1/2 way up the glacier, the visibility was reduced to zero.  But all we needed to do was go up hill; it wasn’t too hard to find our way.

The higher we got, the colder it got.  From previous visits and experience with Hurricane Andrew (coincidentally), I knew that once we exited the glacier, it would be hurricane winds.  With close to freezing ambient temperatures, the wind chill would be deadly.  I knew that I’d have to get the rest of my gear on before I stepped into that wind.  About 100 yards from the top, I stopped to put on a down insulating layer beneath my wind jacket, a facemask, and a wool cap beneath my hood.  I felt like an astronaut stepping onto an alien world.

Brian skiing down Andrews Glacier

When I arrived at the top of the glacier around noon, Brian was already freezing. He didn’t want to stay long but agreed to let me have a quick drink and snack.  With my extra insulation, I was able to tolerate the cold wind.   I wasn’t able to tolerate the cold ground I was resting on, so I hurried along for both our sakes. We agreed to stop for a full lunch once we got to treeline.

We started down blind. I squinted desperately to see a hint of the snow rolling down hill in front of me.  I was looking for any possible clue to an impending step into oblivion.  I have no idea how Brian managed to ski.

Conditions started to clear a bit as we got lower.  Once we were about 1/2 down, the visibility improved dramatically.

Approaching Andrews Tarn on the descent

And then I could see Andrews Tarn.  We were almost at the bottom of the glacier.

We continued plodding until reaching the steep couloir below the tarn level.  With so much snow, we some concerns about avalanche….but not enough to prefer retracing our steps on the long traverse.  So, down we went.

The snow was not heavy, but there was so much I could not glissade.  I was able to work out a sort of skiing technique (using snowshoes) where I faced uphill and used my arms to push as my feet slide down.  It was weird, but it worked.

Once at the bottom of the couloir, I was able to follow the tracks of earlier parties that had turned around at that point.  Brian skied ahead and found a nice (read:  not deadly) spot for a full lunch.  I caught up with him at about 1pm and enjoyed my standard peanut butter and cherry bar lunch.  Dee-lish!

The hike out was uneventful and strangely non-strenuous.  I should have listened to my wife, Susan, about the benefits of cycling a long time ago.

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The Flying Buttress

March 23, 2011

A view of Mt. Meeker's Flying Buttress

Brian & I had been climbing in the Park for weeks. We decided to push it a bit and try out the imposing, intimidating, Flying Buttress of Mt. Meeker. It had been on my goal list since I first climbed Mt Meeker the December before.

On September 12, 1998, we hit the trail  at 4am.  The rain started at 4:30am. Crap.

Determined to not to lose the weekend, we pressed on and hoped the rain would let up. We made good time as we hiked past the Ranger Hut and turned toward Mt. Meeker and the Flying Buttress. We weren’t sure of the best approach and so just followed our noses as we aimed for the impressive, steep, narrow, western-most rib of rock on Meeker’s North Face.  It promised amazing exposure and great views in nearly every direction.

The rain did stop, but the skies didn’t clear. We managed to get up three pitches before the rain started coming down hard enough to convince even the hard-headed to go home.

Flying Buttress topo

And while that was not my hoped for accomplishment, it was a first.  After 5 years of climbing in the Park, I finally had to bail on a climb.   We took an awesome 145′ rappel to an escape ledge and then made the long hike out in a steady rain.

7 Days Later (9-19-98)

Once more toward Mt Meeker, and once again we hit the trail at 4am.

This time the skies were clear. But our late season effort delivered a cold, windy day.  We once again approached the Flying Buttress, aiming for the right-most of the rock ribs protruding from Mt Meeker’s north face.

I did have some warning about the weather and brought a heavier jacket and some down mitts, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the freezing temps and 50 mph winds  My toes were numb for an entire week after the climb.

1st pitch

I took the first lead.  We took the easiest line up the right most dihedral on the east side of the rib that finishes up a 5.8 chimney.  At the belay, to stay warm, I changed into my hiking boots and put on my mitts.  It helped a little.

2nd pitch

Brian took the 2d pitch, a 5.8 dihedral around the corner of  a 5.10 line directly up the obvious line on the prow. The protection (or lack thereof) allowed me to follow the 10a variation just for the practice. I took a fall before reaching Brian at a nice belay ledge with a couple bolts.

3rd pitch

The Neck-Stretcher

This was the 5.9 roof pitch; I was delighted for Brian to take it. But after sitting in a freezing wind tunnel for 30 minutes, I was a popsicle.  Still, I enjoyed the excellent pitch, right up to the moment that I became tangled in a sling right at the crux.  It somehow got wrapped around my neck during my unsuccessful efforts to remove the #4 Camalot.  But I couldn’t get it out and my arms were giving out.  I needed to rest, but being so entwined, I couldn’t back-off nor could I yell over the heavy wind-noise for Brian to take in the rope slack.  I had to get that piece out or die by hanging. Shit.

With the proper motivation, I persevered to success. I continued up a short distance to reach Brian at a nice ledge.

4th pitch

I took the 4th pitch.  It was generally an up and rightward traverse over moderate ground.

5th pitch

I also took the 5th pitch, which turned into a difficult adventure.  Pulling though a 5.8 crack I found myself below a crusty roof.  instead of risking the dirty direct path, I decided to traverse around a bulge to the right and began a miserable rope drag struggle. It was a mistake.


Looking back at the top of the route

After bringing Brian up and apologizing for my messy line, we started talking about the rest of the day.  We had planned to do the entire ridge, including the upper section to reach Mt Meeker’s summit ridge, but the day was old.  As it was, we’ figured we’d barely make it back to the car by dark if we started down right away.

Brian spotted a line to scramble off the buttress which we followed, scrambling (3rd-4th class) across the exposed top of the rib and moving right when possible. We eventually exited the Flying Buttress and reached a horizontal break on Meeker’s north face, from which we were able to scramble down to the base to recover our gear.

Another long hike out and the day was over after a 15 hour effort. I went home satisfied with the day, but still wanting to come back someday to finish the entire ridge.

But 13 years later, I’m not so certain of the inevitability of that success.

Our approach, climb & descent routes

Lost Again on Hallett Peak (Hesse-Ferguson)

March 1, 2011

Our Route

I wanted that big, giant roof.  You know, that imposing structure jutting out to the right of the Englishman’s Route. And, since that roof was on the last of the major routes on my tick list for the 2nd buttress of Hallett Peak:  Hesse-Ferguson (5.9).

I HAD to do it.

Brian was game, naturally, but even more so having failed to get past the 3rd pitch on his earlier effort due to route finding difficulties.

“I’ve never NOT been lost on this rock!”

~ Joe, shouted at no one in particular while on Hallett’s 2nd buttress in the vicinity of the Hesse-Ferguson route

On August 29, 1998, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am and, after a brisk 2.5 mile hike in darkness, started climbing at 7am.

The climbing promised to be hard, so I left my food and water at the base to save on weight. It was good to not have a pack weighing me down and trying to pull me off the mountain, but I just didn’t think about how long it might be before getting a drink of water.  Think 2,000 year old mummy, when I later describe how dehydrated I became on this long, long climb.

Our Climb

1st Pitch (5.6)

I took the first lead and began as for the Love Route, climbing through a pink band of rock left of a big, right-facing dihedral. I continued up a dirty, right facing dihedral to reach a good ledge with a good anchor after ~160′.  The entire pitch was very easy with good pro (5.6).

2nd Pitch (5.7)

Brian took the second pitch in which he went straight up the dihedral from the belay ledge to reach a left facing dihedral below a white roof that blocked the way above. Brian climbed to just below the roof where he set an uncomfortable belay.

As I watched, I thought the correct dihedral for Hesse-Ferguson was further to the left, to allow for the roof above us to be defeated to the left (per Rossiter). But the party ahead of us blazed a path past the roof to the right and, I suppose, Brian was still smarting from his recent route-finding challenges. So, with a long day ahead of us, I just had to hope the guys ahead of us knew the way.

3rd Pitch (5.8s)

To my great relief, I turned the white roof to the right rather easily.  But, having lost sight of the group ahead, I decided to pick my way left to get to the large left-facing dihedral capped by the big, giant roof, which was, after all, the goal for the day.  But that was easier said than done.

To get to the large left-facing dihedral below the big, giant roof, I would have to climb up and over some seriously run-out, slabby, dirty 5.8 rock.  Yuck. I proceeded slowly, checking out every hopeful indentation.  I got stuck in a spot where I was sure I could get in some protection only to abandon the effort after burning 30 minutes in the attempt.  I then found the courage to proceed after spying another ‘certain’ placement that turned out to be good only for ‘psychological‘ protection (read: almost certainly worthless).

Brian recalls:

You were stuck forever (it seemed) on that section.  When I followed, I could see why:  it was thin, slabby, and the only relief that could be seen ahead was thin, slabby, and covered with grass.  The one piece of pro that I cleaned was absurd.”

After the longest 50-foot climb of my life, I reached the dihedral and safety, at the cost of burning up my reserves of energy and courage for the day.  I finished the pitch by ascending the dihedral to near the roof where I set my anchor, leaving the terrible-looking crux for Brian (the best climber on our team).

Note: many years later I figured out that we’d gotten onto the ‘Right Dihedral‘ route that would skip the big, giant roof. It was fortunate that I lost sight of the party who’d led us astray.

4th Pitch (5.9)

With all due excitement, Brian took off to figure out how to escape that big, giant roof…which turned out to be a fiendishly hard trap we’d been so careful to get into.

Brian recalls:

“From the distant ground, the giant roof appeared to have a hand-jam crack slicing through it along the right wall.  But after reaching it, I saw that the hand jam was much larger:  more like a bomb-bay chimney – just wide and deep enough that one could scrunch into it and inch toward the roof’s edge, with good placements in the narrower crack above and the vast Tyndal gorge below.  Turning the roof edge to regain the face was stunning.

I watched with amazement and dread as he crawled up into the bomb-bay chimney and shimmied his body further and further out over Tyndal gorge.

“How was he going to get out of there and onto the face?”, was my big question, as I looked at the blank wall below him.  He threw down a lay-back to reach past the blank wall and grab the face climbing holds that took him out of my line of sight.  It was beautiful.

I followed and found the moves to not be too technical or strenuous, but wildly awkward.

2nd Buttress of Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson route


5th Pitch (5.8)

The next pitch was described as 5.7 serious…it was both.  And I was tired.  But since it was only 5.7, I figured I could manage.

I started by climbing straight up from the belay, aiming for a small roof.  I was able to find pro until I reached the roof, but then the pro ran out.  My choices were to continue up over completely run out face climbing to a belay on a flake (official route) or traverse 40 feet, up and right, to join a left facing dihedral on the Culp-Bossier route.  The Culp-Bossier route had good pro.  As I was completely exhausted and had already burned through my entire supply of courage, it wasn’t a hard choice.

I climbed as far as the rope let me, not quite reaching the top of the Culp-Bossier dihedral.

We were off route again, but I was alive. It was a good trade.

6th Pitch (5.8)

When Brian came up, I mentioned that I was tempted to stay on Culp-Bossier, since we knew the route and the day was old.  But Brian wanted to get back to Hesse-Ferguson, and it was his lead.  So, he traversed left to reach the flake belay atop the run-out section before realizing that the Hesse Ferguson route then moved up and right to a point directly above my belay. We could have just gone straight up to get back on route, but all we lost was a little more time.

7th Pitch (5.8)

After bringing me up to get a full rope, Brian continued climbing up to the base of a white band (face climbing) and belayed on a nice ledge we shared with a couple of guys who insisted they were on Culp-Bossier.  I couldn’t swear I was actually on Hesse-Ferguson, but I sure I wasn’t on Culp-Bossier route, at least not the route I’d climbed twice. But they were nice guys and Halletts can be forgiving for that sort of error, if you’re willing to work for it.

8th Pitch (5.9)

My lack of water (and courage) was taking a toll. I was too tired to lead anymore, so I let Brian finish the route. He climbed up the left side of the white band through some small, fun roofs and a shallow right-facing dihedral. It was a great pitch; it started hard (steep with good holds) and then became harder (move under roof without feet) and then ended with a thin, blank traverse to reach the top at 5pm.  It had taken 4 hours longer than expected.  Ouch!

Since we’d left our packs at the base, there was no reason to stop for a rest.  It took us another hour before I could have my first drink of water since 7am. I’ll just say that I was seriously dehydrated.  Brian went without a drink as long as I did, but he is unnaturally immune to dehydration.

After a long rest, we packed up at got back to the parking lot at 8pm.

What a day! Despite my fatigue, I thought Hesse-Ferguson was a great route:  far better than merely a way to climb that big, giant roof.  It was a classic Hallett climb.

Hallett Peak, 2nd Buttress

And, now, 14 years later, I’m amazed that that was the last time I did a rock climb on Hallett’s 2nd Buttress.  At least it was a good one.

“This is my favorite route on Hallett Peak. It is demanding both physically and mentally. The run-outs epitomize what climbing on Hallett Peak is all about, and it has some burly, physical cruxes.”

Mountain Project (Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson Route)


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