Sport Alpine Climbing and Siege Sport Climbing

I’m currently reading Greg Crouch’s fascinating book “Enduring Patagonia”. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my mind that when the kids are grown up I’ll go climb Cerro Torre for “fun”.  After reading Crouch’s book I now realize the folly of that idea.  Crouch spent 68 days trying and failing to climb Cerro Torre’s infamous Compressor Route before he eventually succeeded.  Over the course of those 68 days he attempted the route 14 times!  I’ve pondered that number quite a bit and I’m having trouble truly comprehending it. It’s a credit to Crouch’s determination and perseverance. During my currently-hybernating alpine career, I’ve never tried a route more than twice, and even that was extremely rare.  On Devil’s Thumb we were within a few hundred vertical feet of the summit on our first attempt before the weather completely shut us down, so we bailed and returned to base camp and finished the climb a few days later.  Even considering my time as a sport climber, I can only come up with seven routes that I’ve tried 14 or more times. 

Marc Spriner (R) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil's Thumb, Alaska.

Marc Springer (bottom right) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil’s Thumb, Alaska.  Photo Mike Anderson. 

Yet siege-style sport climbing is hardly rare. I know plenty of sport climbers who have spent 100 or more days working a single project.  I have a special admiration for people who can stay devoted to a single pitch of rock for that amount of time.  I don’t think I have the perseverance to do that; I lack the attention span, plus I prefer to bounce around between various crags. But mostly, I prefer to avoid siege-projecting because I believe it’s not an optimal way to improve at climbing.  There’s no doubt that putting in countless days can yield impressive results, far beyond what one might normally achieve, but there is often a significant difference between achievement and improvement.  Mega-projecting can be a great tool to accomplish a goal when used sparingly, like a .13c-or-so climber going all out to climb one 5.14 before he retires. However, if the goal is improvement over the long run, I think a superior use of one’s climbing time is to climb many different routes, on different types of rock.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t reach for the stars.  I do that plenty, but my approach is to try such routes until I reach the point of diminishing returns.  On any project you will eventually reach that point where you know all the moves, you’re falling in the same spot(s) over and over, and you’re just hoping for a miraculous star-alignment to occur to facilitate a send.  At that point you are unlikely to improve much as a climber by continuing on the route.  You may get better at climbing that particular route, but not much better at climbing in general.  On the other hand, if you move on to another route, you will be exposed to an entire pitch of new moves and sequences.  If the new route is at another crag, you may also be exposed to a new type of rock, new warmups, etc.  Focusing on routes that you can send in 5 or less days will get you up 20 times more routes as the guy spending 100 days on the same 80-foot climb.

A good exception to this policy is the climber with a mental block that is preventing physical progression.  If you’re someone who constantly gets close to sending but never quite pulls it off, putting in the time to break through that barrier may pay dividends on future climbs.  For example, if you’ve been stuck at the same grade for many seasons, and you are sending routes of that grade quicker and quicker, but you just can’t manage the next grade, it may be that your mind hasn’t quite accepted the idea that you are capable of climbing harder.  Proving it just once (even through a protracted siege), can allow your head to embrace your new level, and you may find that subsequent projects at the higher grade progress much more quickly.

Grand Ol' Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~14 total days spread over two seasons.  It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.

Grand Ol’ Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~13 total days spread over two seasons. It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.  Photo Ken Klein.

Generally, if I’m not on the verge of sending a project after 5 days or so, I select another, shorter-term objective, then when the season has run its course I retreat to the gym for more training.  When I feel I’ve improved enough that the objective is within my 5-or-so-day target window, I plan for a block of time to try it again.  Part of this is simply personal preference; I prefer not to spend an entire season at the same crag, doing the same warmups over and over, etc.  But I also think it’s a better approach for improving.  It allows me to keep the ‘send train’ rolling even if my eyes are too big for my stomach, it keeps me moving over more terrain, and it makes my training cycles laser-focused on tangible, motivating goals.  The initial reconnaissance of the route provides extremely valuable information that I can use to tailor the next season’s training to the route.  With these details about the route, I can determine which grip positions to emphasize, particular movement sequences that need practice (which I can incorporate into my bouldering sessions), and how to design a power endurance circuit to suit the route.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007. The process never got stale, and by the end of the journey, I had transformed myself into a climber capable of climbing many 5.14s, not just that one 5.14.

Ideally, nearly every day I’m on a project I’m learning new sequences, trying unusual moves, and making steady progress (reducing the number of hang points, or moving my highpoint steadily up the route).  From an improvement perspective, this is the most productive way to project routes.  So how do you know when to go big and when to go home? There is no precise number of days; its a matter of identifying the point of stagnation and making a decision at that time.  With anything in climbing, it gets easier to make that decision with practice.  Generally, you should be able to do all the moves within the first two days (unless a particular move is right off the ground or comes after a great rest, and you have good reason to believe the move will go with another day or two of work).  Once you know all the moves, focus on reducing the number of hangs it takes to get up the route.  Ideally that number will go down by one or more on each subsequent attempt at the route (from 4 hangs to three hangs, and so on), but at the very least try to improve your hang number at least once each climbing day.  If you find yourself repeating the same number of hangs on subsequent days, its time to make a decision.  If you’re falling in the same spots each time, it might make sense to move on to greener pastures.  If you’re falling in different spots, particularly if you’re pushing those points higher and higher up the wall, it might make sense to stick with your project.

This approach should not be allowed to undermine your commitment to your goals.  The idea is not to quit, but rather to re-group, reconsider your approach, and then return when better equipped to succeed.  This cycle of effort only works if you remain committed to the goal during the interim period between attempts. Often you will experience a feeling of loss when you retreat from such a route.  To minimize any “wasted” effort, document your attempts at the route to the extent possible.  Shoot video of the sequences you’ve worked out, create a “beta map”, and take detailed notes on your efforts. Note what worked and what didn’t, what time of year or time of day would be ideal for the next attempt, and how you would train differently in the future to better prepare for the route.  This information, combined with a sound training approach, will optimally prepare you to complete the project in a subsequent season, and there will always be plenty of other routes to send in the mean time.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010.  I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season.  At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been "wasted" on a route I didn't send.  When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season!  Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted.  In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010.  The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010. I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season. At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been “wasted” on a route I didn’t send. When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season! Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted. In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010. The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

Oregon Territory

I made it back “home” to Oregon earlier this month for the wedding of two of my best friends & climbing partners, Fred Gomez and Heather Wales.  “Freather”, as they like to be called, are rare examples of high school sweethearts that stuck together for the long run.  The wedding was amazing and I wish Freather the best of luck on their journey together.

When 5.14 marries 5.13, expect strong children.

Since most of my family still lives on the West Coast we had a brief but action-packed reunion, involving camping, boating, road biking, mountain biking, rock climbing and a short back pack trip.  The temps were ridiculous (high 90’s) which made rockclimbing somewhat unpleasant, but we made it out to my spiritual climbing home of Smith Rock for an evening of easy pitches.

Kate & Logan below Broken Top.

The highlight of the trip was our overnight backpack trip to Green Lake, which is perched at the foot of South Sister and Broken Top, two of Oregon’s breath-taking Cascade Volcanoes.  These volcanoes provided pivotal inspiration for my climbing career.  I could see the Three Sisters from my childhood home in Corvallis, and as a young boy I would dream of some day climbing them.  My first real summit was Middle Sister, and my first roped climb was on Mt. Washington, the next volcanic plug north of the Sisters.  These beautiful peaks were the perfect training ground; just technical enough to be interesting, but not overwhelming.  Of course I should mention the rock is horrendous.  Absolute garbage; but the plus side is that even to this day the Canadian Rockies seem solid by comparison.

Looking up towards the summit tower from the Northwest Ridge.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dash up nearby Broken Top, which offers a few more technical challenges and 1000′ less vertical gain than South Sister.  My brother Mike was along with his family, and he was keen to lead his son Lucas (just shy of 7 years old) up his first “real” mountain.  I gave them a good headstart before departing from our 6500′ camp just after 6pm.  Not exactly an alpine start, but I had been riding my bike a lot at altitude so I expected to make good time.

South Sister from the summit, with Green Lake below

The trail goes pretty much straight up through loose scree and pumice to the Northwest Ridge, then follows the ridge to the summit.  I caught up to Mike & Lucas just before the ridge, then pushed on to scout out the tricky summit pinnacle.  Most of the climb is pretty trivial class 2 scramble, but the final pitch requires easy 5th class climbing on putrid “rock”.  Following my nose around to the northeast corner, I reached the 9175′ summit 52 minutes after I left camp.  Not too shabby for an old, fat, bald(ing) guy.  I doubt I could have beat that time even in my college days. 

The view to the East.

A handfull of the Cascade Volcanoes

The views were outstanding, but I decided to head back down to give Mike a hand with Lucas.  I met them about a third of the way up the Northwest Ridge.  Lucas was making good progress despite lots of big steps and loose rock.  We made good progress to the top of the ridge, then Mike & Lucas harnessed-up for the top.  Lucas had no trouble with the technical climbing, but it was really nice to have two adults to spot and route-find. 

Mike & Lucas at the top of the ridge, with the Three Sisters behind.

Literally 10 feet below the summit Lucas announced he had gone far enough, and didn’t really need to go to the top.  Figuring he might regret that decision later, we were eventually able to pursuade him to continue by telling him if we sang “Happy Birthday”, he would be on top before the song was over.

Scrambling up a short rock band near the top.

Lucas was psyched to check out the ancient crater.

This is where Lucas decided to stop (I took this pic from the summit)

That seemed to do the trick, but we I had to pick him up and hoist him over my head to get his feet on the summit block just as we finsihed the final “…to you!” 

On the summit again.

The descent was a blast with Lucas bouncing from boulder to boulder like a pinball.  He was pretending to be some type of video game character I’m not familiar with, holding my hand as he literally ran down the ridge.  It was all I could do to remain upright, but I was psyched to get back to camp before dark and I enjoyed the challenge.  It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on descending a high peak.

The Cascades (Middle Sister, North Sister, Mt. Washington, Three-Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams)

Good Evans!

One of my best buds Chris was in town last week for work trip to Boulder. Chris was a key protagonist in many of my near-death experiences during that 16-24 year-old phase of manhood when your judgement hasn’t quite kept pace with your physical progression. On one particular occasion Chris & I were the passengers in a car heading home after an all-nighter expedition to a hot spring when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into grove of saplings. Not to blame the driver; everyone in the car had fallen asleep–except reliable Chris. He was wide awake. Unfortunately he was in the trunk since our 2 door sedan only had room for 7 passengers in the main cabin.

Anyway, with the absurd heat-wave on the Colorado Front-Range this summer, we were looking to beat the heat with some casual alpine climbing, and nothing fits that description better than the excellent granite walls flanking Mt. Evans. The Black Wall lies about a mile north of Summit Lake, topping out at a bit over 13,000 feet, so named for its resemblence to the notorious Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Our objective for the day was the super-classic “Good Evans”, said to be one half Yosemite, one half Black Canyon.

The Black Wall: Good Evans climbs the next crack system left of the really obvious crack system (which is The Road Warrior).

After a 7:30 alpine start we headed up the twisty Squaw Pass Road. It never ceases to amaze me how fortunate I am to live in a place with so much accessible rock. To be able to get from my doorstep to the trailhead in less than an hour seems like cheating. The approach turned out to be harder than I expected so I guess that makes up for the easy drive. From the view point at Summit Lake the Black Wall appears to be an easy stone’s throw away, but the reality is you have to hike over a significant ridge to get there. Coming from near sea-level, Chris was not psyched on this ridge that I failed to mention.

The hike turned out to be fairly enjoyable, and we were able to locate the rap station with no trouble. I had some clever beta that would allow me to skip one of the 4 raps with a 70m rope, but at the end of the first rap it became clear that my 70m rope was not as long as I had expected. Fortunately this type of “jiggery-pokery” (as the Aussie’s would say) is my specialty, so we were able to make it to another anchor, but after the added delay, we were both psyched to get on the route.

The first two pitches were absolutely stellar, every bit as good as advertised and easily worthy of Yosemite Valley. This was probably the best granite I’ve touched in Colorado. The first pitch started out with some moderate flake climbing, then some bomber splitter cracks, leading to a short boulder problem crux. This section required some awkward lie-backing up an offset seam. The handholds were great but the footholds were small, sloping bumps that required good confidence in your footwear. I was wearing my new Tenaya Ra slippers and they were well up to the challenge.

Chris gives the Black Power salute to the end of pitch 2.

After the boulder problem a long traverse leads to a small grassy ledge and the typical first belay. I still had a huge rack of gear and plenty of rope so I decided to link through the second pitch. This ptich starts with a fun lieback up a precarious but bomber detached flake. In order to protect the second on the traverse at the end of P1, I chose to run it out past the flake, which made things a bit more spicey than usual. The next section was absolutely out of this world, 5-star hand jamming up impeccable granite. Bomber jams and bomber gear in an amazing alpine setting. The only catch is that the crack widens slightly over the last 10 feet before the belay. I have relatively small, girl-ish hands, so I was full-on fist-jamming through here. Not my forte, but fortunately the footholds were plentiful so I was able to escape with minimal bleeding.

I set up a belay in a flared groove of Black Canyon-esque pegmatite below an ominous & puzzling roof. Chris quickly followed pitch one. Despite limited crack climbing experience he cruised through the splitter sections in fine style.

Chillin’ at the first belay.

The next pitch begins with some easy chimneying and deceptive route-finding, culminating in a spectacular traverse around the arete–from no exposure to 400 feet in one step. A few more moderate but intimidating moves lead to the next belay, and exposed perch high above the Chicago Lakes Basin.

Just before the P4 capping roof. For those unfamiliar, this is the “What did you get me into?” look.

The next pitch, though not the best rock, is probably the most memorable and the most notorious. This pitch follows insipient cracks up an awkward leaning corner towards another ominous roof. The entire lead I was straining for some clue as to how I would surmount the seemingly impregnable looming roof. Things seemed to get steadily harder as I climbed, with a slight pump getting progressively worse, unti I reached a good shake right up against the roof. At that point a Gunks-style line of jugs revealed themselves, leading left and somewhat down around the arete to the left. I plugged in a good cammed and monkeyed my way around the corner, swinging my feet around the prow to reach a huge ledge and the belay. Chris followed with ease and we quickly finished the last short pitch to the summit.

About to make the committing step left.

The last belay with the Chicago Lakes Below. The bulk of Mt Evans’ bouldering is found in this valley.


Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part I)

Goal-setting has been an essential tool in all athletic pursuits for decades. You could make the argument that it is an essential tool in all human endeavors. Even chipmunks set out every Fall with the intention of gathering enough acorns to make it through the winter. Goal-setting is just as important in climbing. Goals create focus, steer the training plan, and provide motivation when the going gets tough.

On the summit of Denali

Summit of Denali, 2001

Achieving the goal turned out to be the easy part

Our climbing roots in the world of mountaineering provide a great metaphor. Ultimately the goal is to get to the summit (and back home), but on the big peaks this is usually accomplished through intermediate steps. For example, this may be a typical goal-oriented strategy for climbing Denali:

Main Goal: Summit Denali via West Buttress & return home safely

Intermediate goals:1: Climb from Kahiltna Landing strip to 10K
2: Haul load to 12K, return to 10K camp, establish camp
3: Move camp from 10k to 14k, establish base camp in Genet Basin at 14k
4: Back-haul cache from 12k to 14k
5: Acclimatize with day trip to 17k, return to Base Camp
6: Establish High camp at 17k
7: Climb from 17k to Summit & return
8: Break down high camp and return to Base Camp
9: Retreat from Base Camp to Kahiltna strip, bottoms up!

In the above example, there is a main goal, and a set of intermediate goals that lay the foundation for achieving the main goal. However in this example, the entire process is completed in a few weeks. Most goals are not so quickly realized, and in truth the above goals would not suffice. If you’re sitting at home and thinking you’d like to climb Denali, setting the above set of goals will leave you overwhelmed and a bit lost in terms of how to proceed with achieving the main goal. I climbed Denali via the Cassin Ridge in 2001. In actuality the goal was set several years before I ever set foot in Alaska, and I laid out a multi-year plan to achieve the goal.

The first step is to identify the objective. That’s the easy part, though it presents some pitfalls as well (see Part II). The next step is the most critical and perhaps the most difficult: identify the gaps between the desired end-state (the goal) and your present state. In other words, my goal was to climb the Cassin Ridge. At the time I set the goal, I had never traversed a glacier, summited a peak higher than 12,000 feet, climbed ice of any kind, spent more than one night camping in the snow, experienced temperatures below 0 degrees, planned or executed an expedition, bivied over 8,000 feet… I could go on and on about my lack of credentials for such an activity.

So I developed a list of intermediate goals, each of which would help provide skills and experience that would be necessary on Denali:

Step 1: Climb Mt Rainier. This provided some more alititude exposure, several nights spent on a “high” mountain, and glacier travel experience

Step 2: Climb Mooses Tooth. This provided experience in the Alaska Range, more days (~7 days) spent on an expedition and living on a glacier, more serious glacier travel experience and more challenging alpine climbing experience

Step 3: Climb El Pico de Orizaba. This provided significantly more high-altitude experienace, with a summit over 18,000 feet, and more experience with logistical planning

Step 4: Climb Mt Waddington. This was a much more technically demanding climb than the Cassin, but at a lower altitude with less harsh weather conditions. The climb helped to improve technical skills and provide confidence, plus required 7 days on a remote glacier.

Step 5: Climb Grade 5 Ice: Knowing the Cassin would likely have nothing harder than AI4 (in reality was more like AI2 or 3), this provided more confidence in ice climbing skills and some margin for error.

High Camp on Moose's Tooth, with Denali behind

While striving towards intermediate goals,

it helps to keep the big picture in sight

It took roughly three years just to complete the intermediate goals, but once completed, I knew I was ready to give the Cassin a decent shot. In the end, the Cassin was relatively easy by comparison, which made the route that much more enjoyable.

This approach can and should be applied to all types of climbing. If you’re stuck at 5.11 and you want to climb 5.13, establish some benchmarks and a rough timeframe of when you plan to accomplish them. The benchmarks should not be arbitrary numbers. Rather, they should help you develop a specific skill or confidence that will help you achieve the main goal. Part II will go into more detail about how to select specific goals for rock climbing.