Sunny St. George Part I: Breakin’ The Law

On rare occasions I take a short hiatus from thinking about training, writing about training, and training, to actually go rock climbing.  Over the New Year’s Holiday the family and I headed west to the warm climes of St. George, Utah for a week of climbing.  St George is home to a vast array of rock climbing possibilities, from the Grade VI Big Wall free and Aid climbs of Zion, to the bouldering of Moe’s Valley, and everything in between.  The guidebook lists more than 40 distinct crags, and the area hosts a wide variety of different rock types, including sculpted sandstone, basalt, Volcanic tuff, conglomerate, and some of the best limestone in the US.

Sunny steep stone in the capitol of Utah's Dixie.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Sunny steep stone in the capital of Utah’s Dixie.   Fencing with Tortuga, 5.12a, at The Turtle Wall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

My primary objective for the trip was a power endurance route called “Breakin’ the Law“, which climbs out the upper of two shallow limestone caves at the Black & Tan crag.  The route was the vision of Salt Lake hardman and fellow training advocate Jeff Pedersen.  However, a young Dave Graham nabbed the first free ascent, and the name is reminiscent of the confessionary “I Am a Bad Man” (now known simply as Badman), so-named by JB Tribout after his friend Alan Watts told him, ‘you can have any route [at Smith Rock] except that one’.

The Black and Tan Wall.  Breakin' the Law climbs out the subtle dihedrdal in the left side of the higher cave.

The Black and Tan Wall. Breakin’ the Law climbs out the subtle dihedral in the left side of the higher cave.

The route begins with big moves up a steep wall to reach the roof of the cave.  The crux is climbing out to the lip of the cave, then turning the lip to get established on the headwall. It would be quite a challenge for me to send a .14b in a week, but I’d heard from various accounts that the line was soft.  However, just before we set out for Utah I talked with a prominent, much-stronger-than-me climber, who assured me the route was quite hard for shorter folks.  Apparently tall climbers can get a big stem/dropknee that essentially eliminates the first, harder crux.  So as we left Colorado I was apprehensive and anxious to find out for myself.

Breakin' the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Breakin’ the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave. Photo Dan Brayack.

We planned to split up the long drive with a break in Grand Junction for lunch and a hike out to Independence Monument.  I avoid aerobic exercise when I’m in performance climbing mode, but I like to go on “brisk walks” at least every rest day.  It helps keep my metabolism humming (for the purpose of weight management), and it allows an opportunity to clear my head.  The trail was snowy and muddy in places, but it was still a fun hike.  I’ve climbed Otto’s Route at least three times that I can remember, and I suspect I’ll climb it again with Logan some time in the next decade.

Hiking to Independence Monument outside Grand Junction, CO.

Logan and I on the hike to Independence Monument, outside Grand Junction, CO.

We spent the night in a flea-bag motel in fabulous Salina, Utah, then continued toward St. George the next day, making a beeline for Black & Tan.  We met my friends Dan Brayack and Lena Moinova at the crag, who happened to be on vacation as well.  Dan is a fellow Trango team-mate, and an outstanding climbing photographer.  A hefty chunk of the photos in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual were generously provided by Dan. Some of Dan’s images are peppered throughout this post, or you can check out his amazing gallery here. 

After warming up , I got on my presumed project.  The climbing starts out with fun, huge spans between large holds.  There’s a big jug at the crook of the roof, then the first crux comes traversing from that jug to the lip of the cave.  You can either shuffle or cross between several holds, but you end up with a good incut crimp and a tufa pinch.  Depending on your sequence you can either dyno into a big iron cross, and then struggle to climb out of it, or you can make a wild lunge to a flat edge at the lip.  I think this is where the drop knee would be used if you were tall enough, allowing either sequence to go statically.  Since I was not able to use the dropknee, I tried the two alternatives and settled on the Iron Cross solution. 

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin’ the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Once at the lip, a really hard crank off a thin, sharp crimp gets you onto the slab.  I struggled quite a bit with this move, perhaps because I was tired from working the lower crux.  I figured this would end up being the redpoint crux but I was too exhausted to really work it.  I moved on to the headwall, which was mostly fun, technical face climbing, but hosted one sinister move in which you have to high-step your right foot onto a polished block that slopes away at a 45-degree angle.  There is a faint bit of patina on this block that allows you to toe-in a bit, which is key since you next have to reach for an over-head undercling, using this dire foothold to push against.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall. Photo Dan Brayack.

At the end of the day I had all the moves worked out.  Typically if I can do all the moves, I can send, but I had no idea if the moves would come together in the four climbing days remaining. The second crux requires a pretty hard crank after a long series of hard moves, and that is something I struggle with.

"Rest Day" hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

“Rest Day” hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

The limestone surrounding St. George is much more monolithic than the stone at most US limestone crags.  That means it’s not very featured, and generally quite sharp.  There are the odd pockets, but most of the climbing is on small edges.  The result is that the climbing tends to be less steep at any given grade than you might encounter at other, more featured limestone crags like Rifle, or the Wyoming crags.  This is great for technicians like me, and these crags really shine in the 5.12+ and up range.  Below that, the climbing often isn’t all that fun; it’s certainly not the type of climbing you want to do on vacation.  Fortunately St George is all about variety, and there really is something for everyone.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a's in the area.  It's a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a’s in the area. It’s a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards. Photo Dan Brayack.

With this in mind, we opted to experiment with some different warmup crags over the next few days.  The notorious Chuckwalla Wall is often derided by serious climbers, but I really enjoy climbing there.  It’s by no means a wilderness setting, but the routes are just plain fun, and the approach takes about 90 seconds, which is key for climbers with kids.  The cliff is stacked with 30+ classic sandstone jug hauls from 5.9 to 5.12, and they make for great warmups and fun all around.  For the next two crag days we started at Chuckwalla, then after my last warmup we hopped in the car and raced down Highway 91 to Black & Tan, slightly frantic to get on my project before my warmup had faded (note: it took us about 50 minutes to get from crag to crag, approaches included; this turned out to be quick enough that I never lost my warmup.)

Unwinding from the Iron Cross.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Unwinding from the Iron Cross. Photo Dan Brayack.

I made good progress on the second day, primarily refining my foot sequences, and rehearsing the big dyno into the Iron Cross at the lip.  I was able to do the crank onto the headwall much more consistently, and on my second go I managed a 1-hang, which is always a nice milestone, but certainly no guarantee of future success.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching Logan’s Strawberry Shortcake DVD 4 or 5 times in a row and hitting the sack at 11pm.

Spotting Logan while while hiking near the Chuckawalla Wall on New Year's Day.

Spotting Logan while hiking near the Chuckwalla Wall on New Year’s Day.

On our third climbing day we revisited Chuckwalla, then hightailed it to Black & Tan.  My last warmup route felt really soft; either that or I was just feeling really strong.  We got the kids situated (i.e., turned on the Ipad), rigged the rope, and I started up.  Often I have a tendency to sprint on short power endurance climbs like this.  Each of the crux sections involve careful foot placements and subtle pressing to stay on the wall.  Perhaps since I didn’t know the moves super well, I took my time and made sure I did every move correctly, following Alex Lowe’s adage to ‘never move up on a bad [ice tool] placement’.  I expected to pump out at any moment, but I just kept motoring, going from one move to the next until I was on the headwall.  After a nice long shake I hiked up the headwall to the chains.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

The total effort took 5 burns over three days.  I think the route is comparable in difficulty to Mission Overdrive in Clear Creek (which took me 6 goes over 3 days), which is to say its a hard 14a or easy 14b, without the stem/dropknee.  I’m inclined to go with b 🙂  I’ve been crushing the campus board lately and I believe my power has reached a new level.  Occasionally periodization doesn’t work out quite like you hope, but this time I think the timing of my fitness was perfect for the characteristics of Breakin’ the Law.

To celebrate, we headed to Kelly’s Rock (named for my old friend Kelly Oldrid) and climbed “K-8”, ‘one of the best 5.11s in Utah’, according to the guidebook.  The climb includes two exciting roof pulls and some of the most amazing jugs I’ve ever seen.  Certainly a worthy line and easily the best limestone 5.11 I climbed that week. 

Tune in next week for Sunny St. George Part II!

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N' Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N’ Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Logan stoked at In N' Out.  His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Logan stoked at In N’ Out. His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

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Roped Bouldering in Cowboy Country

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

We recently spent a few days in Wyoming to take advantage of the last week of Kate’s maternity leave. Sinks and Wild Iris are among our favorite crags.  I can’t ever recall having a bad day at Wild Iris.  Even when I get bouted by a project there (which happens often enough), the warmup climbs are so fun and the setting so magnificent its hard to leave the crag without a smile.

The weather on our trip turned out to be a bit schizophrenic, varying from highs in the 80’s to snow and a high of 40 only a few days later.  This kept us bouncing from crag to crag in search of bearable conditions, but we were able to spend a gorgeous day at Wild Iris and a few at Sinks Canyon. This was our first serious climbing trip with two kids, so we weren’t sure how things would go.

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

We started at the Killer Cave, and I managed to climb a number of great routes, including a pair of classic 5.13s.  I attempted an onsight of The Urchin, a short, gymnastic roof climb right at the top of the approach trail.  I fumbled the roof sequence, which was probably a blessing because I doubt I could have kept it together on the tricky finishing slab.  I also sent Virga, a super fun, super reachy .13c or d (d in my experience, at 5’7″).  Quite a fine effort back in the day by the frequently underestimated Paul Piana.  Virga climbs some of the best limestone I’ve seen in America, but it only lasts for about 20 feet, and the winch start is literally as long as the route itself.  Still, the climbing is super fun and definitely worth doing if you like dynamic pulls between sinker two-finger pockets. Pretty much every move on the route is burly, but the moves are so big that its over in a flash. 

One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull almost to my knee!
One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull nearly to my knee!

After a couple of days dragging 60 pounds of Logan-plus-climbing-gear up the steep slog to the Killer Cave, I wanted convenience.  I’ve climbed quite a bit at Wild Iris, but I had never been to the OK Corral, which is located almost on top of the car-camping area.  The cliff is about 100-feet from the road, making it the perfect choice for weary parents. 

I had heard that the rock at the OK Corral wasn’t as good as that at the rest of the Iris.  I couldn’t tell; it was way better than any other limestone I’ve climbed in the last year! I set out with two goals for the day, first to tick ten routes, a major challenge with kids in tow, and second, to try to send the elusive “White Buffalo”, an enourmous boulder with a 3-bolt mini-route on its Southeast face.  The route is given 5.13d/V11, which is a good indication of the way things are graded at Wild Iris.  At any given grade you should expect to have to crank much harder moves than you usually would.  This is presumably because the routes are often quite short, but I think it’s as much an indication of the quality of climbers that have graced the Lander community through the years. 

The Rock-over move

The Rock-over move

Based on the forecast it seemed unlikely I would get another day at Wild Iris, so I would have to give it my best shot to send the line that day.  I took my time getting warmed up, climbing a number of really fun but never trivial warmups.  White Buffalo gets sun most of the day, so I kept running between the main wall and the boulder to check the shade status.  It seemed like the sun was hardly moving at all, so I kept dragging out my warmup waiting for shade.  My final warmup climb was a brilliant “12a” buttress called “Give My Love to Rose”.  It had quite a burly mono crank on it, and to be honest it felt like about a 12c effort to get up the thing onsight…so its probably soft by Wild Iris standards!

At the slopy 1-pad edge

At the slopy 1-pad edge

Around 4pm White Buffalo finally went into the shade, so I jumped on it.  The route overhangs maybe 5 or 10 degrees, and follows tiny imperfections up an otherwise impeccable wall.  The stone is so smooth it looks more like the polished quartzite of Arapiles than Bighorn Dolomite.  The route starts out easily, but quickly gets down to business with a huge rock-over move to a diagonal, left-hand 1/4″ crimp. The crux is standing up with this left hand and moving to a pad-and-a-half-deep four-finger pocket. Its possible to reach this pocket with either hand, either with a huge windmill move with the right hand, or by using a half-pad mono sidepull for the right hand and then bumping the left hand to the pocket.  I experimented with both options for a while but couldn’t manage either.  After 15 minutes or so I moved on to the upper panel.  Relative to the crux, the finish is not too bad, but none of the holds are positive and the feet are small, so each move feels desparate and inscure.  From the 4-finger pocket, a slopy, 1-pad edge allows a clip, then a a pair of 3 finger pockets and a big high-step lead to a committing huck to the lip of the boulder.

Gunning for the lip of the boulder
Gunning for the lip of the boulder

I was a bit demoralized, having failed to do the crux move at all on my first go, but with the sun beginning to set conditions were improving rapidly.  I rested for 45-minutes, trying to cool off my skin, and debating which hand sequence I should use at the crux. Heading up a route without a clear plan leads to hesitation, and on routes like this, hesitation almost always results in failure. Certain routes, like White Buffalo, are best climbed with momentum, barreling onward, leaving the climber no time to contemplate his unlikely position, clinging spider-like to a sheet of glass. The windmill beta was less tenuous, but low percentage.  I commited to trying the mono beta and tied on for my second go.  The natives were getting restless for dinner, so it was doubtful I would get a third try.

I climbed smoothly up to the rock-over move, and latched the left-hand crimp. The rock was much cooler and the tiny edge now felt much better. I carefully stood up, shifted my hips slightly to the left, and delicately placed my finger into the mono sidepull. I popped my left hand to the four-finger pocket and exhaled. After a quick dab of chalk, I reached the sloping edge, clipped, and clawed my way to the high pockets.  I brought up my feet, gunned for the lip, and mantled over the top of the boulder.

Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0, in the Tetons

Rest Day in the Tetons with Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0

Tuolumne

A couple weeks ago I spent the weekend in California visiting one of my good friends and original climbing partners Chris Graham.  Chris recently moved to Sonora, which is ideally situated at the base of the Sierra range.  There’s an overwhelming amount of rock in this area, and not just the ubiquitous pristine Sierra granite.  Sonora is home to a number of excellent basalt crags, including the sport crags of Jailhouse Rock, Table Mountain, and Columns of the Giants, and one of the more unique bouldering areas around, a marble crag of sculpted fins known as “Columbia”.

However, since it was the dead of summer, with temps in the 90’s, all of those crags were out.  I was pysched to head up high and re-visit one of my favorite alpine playgrounds, Tuolumne Meadows.  Tuolumne offers the perfect combination of adventure and accessibility.  Many of the best crags are only a few minutes from the road, with quick approaches and straight-forward descents, making it easy to get a number of routes done in a single day.  It seems like no matter what route you end up on, its hard to have a bad day in Tuolumne.  Its just too beautiful!

Pywiack Dome from the road

Pywiack Dome from the road

The objective for the day was a pair of moderate classics that for some reason or another I had never gotten around to trying.  Pywiack Dome is one of the first prominent rock formations you notice if driving in from the west.  It sits right next to the road, and the base is actually 100-feet or so below the road, so you can look straight across at any climbers on the lower flanks.  I had driven by this dome countless times and always fixated on a striking series of dikes that zigzag up the West Face. 

Me and Chris on Pywiack Dome.

Me and Chris on Pywiack Dome.

The Dike Route has a reputation for extremely runout slab climbing.  For whatever reason I’ve always had a pretty good knack for that sort of thing, but I’ve found it requires the right kind of partner; someone you can trust in a tough situation, but also someone who keeps the mood light.  Extremely runout climbing is tense enough without a trembling belayer.  Chris was just such a partner, “Down for whatever” as Ice Cube* would say.

*Note to Generation Z: Ice Cube is the name of a hardcore gangster rapper. In the late 90’s he was abducted by aliens and given a lobotomy, and has since become the star of such hardcore children’s films as Are We Done Yet?”

My old SuperTopo from 2001 calls this route the Bachar-Yerrian of 5.9 climbing, so I expected it to be a bit dicey.  Apparently the mental crux comes on the fourth pitch, where a reasonably protected 5.9 leads to 80 feet of 5.8 split by a single bolt.  Many folks fail to locate the key bolt, turning a hairy but survivable R-rated stretch into 5.8 X.  My plan was to find the bolt.

The 5.4 first pitch.

The 5.4 first pitch.

The route starts out with 120 feet of gearless 3rd/5.4 slab paddling to reach a nice stance.  The 100-foot second pitch had infinitely more protection: 1 bolt, located about halfway up the pitch.  This route was bolted on lead, presumably without hooks, so the bolts were few and generally located at hands-free stances.  The topo calls this pitch 5.6, and doesn’t mention any sort of crux at the top, but I found it to be the mental crux of the entire route.  Within spitting distance of the belay stance  the angle steepens just enough to make you doubt your rubber.  Either I was off route or something broke, but I had to do some very commiting friction moves literally 50-feet about the lone bolt.  This is the kind of situation where finger strength is useless; eventually it comes down to trust in your footwork. 

The second pitch, and the crux in my experience.

The second pitch, and the crux in my experience.

At the belay I contemplated how we would retreat if I had to chicken out on the 5.9 pitch.  Fortunately the 3rd pitch was essentially grid-bolted, with three bolts in 100-feet.  This was a really cool pitch, weaving between twin dikes.  At one point you “walk the dike” with your feet on the left dike and your hands on the right dike.  It was really fun and not at all scary.  By the end of this pitch I was feeling much more confident. 

The crux fourth pitch begins with a tricky mantle to reach a bolt, then some commiting 5.9 smearing to clear a bulge.  Above this, the dome is covered in a sea of shallow, polished knobs.  The sun came over the top of Pywiack Dome just as I pulled onto this section, and all the knobs were highlight by sun and shade.  At this point I began my search for the key bolt.  All the shadows on the rock made it impossible to pick out a tiny steel hanger.  Suddenly it occured to me that, considering the history of the route, I should be looking for a free stance, not a bolt.  I immediately noticed the only scoop in the entire face and quickly located the bolt five-feet above this stance.  I gingerly made my way to the bolt and clipped.  By this point I was a granite slab-smearing master and I made quick progress over the glassy glacier polish to the top of the slab. 

Tenaya Lake PicAfter a quick rap and easy scramble back to the car, we had a snack and then headed for Lamb Dome.  Our next objective was On the Lamb, a totally unique climb featuring a 500-foot dead horizontal traverse, the ideal terrain for ARC training 🙂 

Beginning the horizontal traverse.  Once you turn this cornerthe ground drops away and the route becomes instantly exposed.

Beginning the horizontal traverse. Once you turn this corner the ground drops away and the route becomes fantastically exposed.

The route starts with a couple hundred feet of scrambling, fourth class and low 5th class climbing to reach an amazing horizontal crack about 300-feet off the deck.  The crack follows a heavily featured dike, offering some of the best chickenhead jugs I’ve ever seen.  Most of the time there are enough footholds that the climbing is super fun and casual, but every now and then the footholds disappear entirely, leading to a hasty dash to the next good stance.  

Its always a good idea to ditch the big gear early; looking for a nice pod to deposit my #8 Flexcam.

Its always a good idea to ditch the big gear early; looking for a nice pod to deposit my #8 Flexcam.

The crux for me was certainly protecting the traverse for the second.  I wanted to get gear in every ten feet or so, but the crack is surprisingly uniform (right around 3/4″ with only a few variations) and the pitches averaged almost 150′ in length.  My rack wasn’t very deep, so I had to be creative and I spent a lot of time fiddling with nuts.

By the time we reached the end of the fourth pitch we had done enough traversing to last us for a few years.  We stopped on the descent to watch a party climb Oz, a classic 10d crack climb, then headed to the General Store for It’s Its.

An ice cream sandwich covered in chocolate.  Mmmmm.

An ice cream sandwich covered in chocolate. Mmmmm.

The next day was designated for Frolfing (Frisbee Golf).  Chris is a 5.13 Frolfer.  He’s got a monster drive and he’s a very good putter.  I’m about a 5.11 Frolfer I would guess.  We played a really fun course near Sonora that follows an old irragation canal through a cedar forest.  We played two rounds, which I will summarize thusly:  The course crosses the canal twice, so in our two rounds I had to throw across the canal four times.  I managed to throw my disc in the water twice.  Even Chris’ dog Hera only fell into the canal once. Fortunately we were able to extract both Hera and my frisbee each time.

Putting my smearing skills to good use.

Putting my smearing skills to good use.

Return of the Viking (Iceland Part III)

Remember how I went to Iceland?  Well, finally, here is the highly anticipated conclusion.  If you missed them, check out Part I and Part II.

         Sunrise in Kirklubaejarklaustur

Day three started in Kirkjubaejarklaustur with an extensice complimentary breakfast at the hotel followed by a couple of quick stops on the way out of town to look at some promising rock formations.  The volcanic tuff-lined Fladrargljufur gorge had some beautiful towers and buttresses, but unfortunately the rock was some of the worst I saw on our trip. 

The sheered off basalt column “floor” of Kirkjugolf

The wind was raging all day, and it really showed how fickle the weather is in Iceland.  The wind made the differnce between T-shirt climbing in the sun, to completely unbearable even in a hooded puffy, and it went form to the other almost instantly.  The penetrating chill kept us in the car almost the entire day, but we were able to find a few sheltered spots to enjoy the amazing scenery.

Fladrargljufur

We also got a chance to inspect a herd of Icelandic sheep up close along the drive.  These sheep are considered the most pure breed in the world, and their wool is one of Iceland’s key exports.  Everywhere you go wool sweaters, gloves and hats are for sale, but a regular wool sweater will set you back $180!  The sheep are really fun to watch, with a hilarious waddle-like gate and enormous fluffy coats of wool.

The massive Dyrholaey (“Hole in the Door”) sea arch

The next major destination was the coastal town of Vik and the nearby Dyrholaey sea arch.  I’ve seen quite a few sea arches around the globe and this was easily the most massive I’ve ever seen.  You could sail a decent sized ship under the thing, and that is in fact one of the primary industries in Vik (shuttling tourists under the arch).  That isn’t really our kind of thing so we admired the arch from the lookout.

The day before while browsing in a gift shop I saw a postcard that showed a promising escarpment of basalt columns on a black sand beach with the arch behind.  I made a point to find this beach and explore the climbing potential.  I either failed to find the correct beach, or the postcard was heavily photo-shopped, because I never found the idyllic view pictured in the post card, but I did find a beautiful sheltered cove of impeccable basalt. 

                            Bouldering near Dyrholaey, with the arch behind

Most of the seaside cliffs I’ve seen are decomposed garbage due to the harsh weather conditions, but this rock was completely flawless, and even featured some aesthetic marble green swirls in the stone.  There was a nice sized cave with some intriguing horizontal potential, but most of that stone was dripping wet, so I focused on the nice cliff to the left.  The cliff is at least 40′ high, and interesting enough to warrant atleast a toprope if not a rack.  The bouldering was excellent with perfect sandy landings.

Skogafoss

Next on the agenda was a pair of outstanding waterfalls famous waterfalls.  It was pretty amazing how much the landscape had changed in only 24 hours.  When we blew by these falls the day before they were falling straight down and surrounded by lush green moss.  Now they were falling sideways and all everything was plastered with ice for 50 yards in every direction.

Skogafoss was the first and we stopped in the gift shop for lunch where I enjoyed the most hilarious “sandwich” I’ve ever had.  This feat consisted of two slices of white bread with a single slice of lamb, literally 1/16″ thick.  It was actually really tasty thanks to a healthy serving of honey mustard but I’m skeptical of its nutritional value.  We were beginning to get the feeling we may not see the Northern Lights on this trip so we took some photos of the dramatic posters in the gift shop just in case.

Seljalandfoss

After a brief and bone-chilling stop at the dramatic Seljalandfoss we continued on to Hveragerdi to search for some of the delicious pastries we had heard about and check out the nearby Reykjadalir geothermal site.  There was an impressively large boiling mud pit and a convenient “hot pot” that wasn’t really warm enough to compensate for the incessant wind.

Smoldering craters at Reykjadalir

We headed to Reykjavik to finally check out some of the city sights, get some dinner and hopefully some rest before heading out again in search of the Aurora Borealis.  Reykjavik was quite “quaint” for a capital city, and has some interesting architecture.  The best way to describe the urban areas is “punk”, with lots of graffiti and murals coating the alleyways.  The centerpiece of town is the Hallsgrimkirkja church, situated at the top of the hills, with streets plunging steeply down the hill in every direction like a miniature San Fransisco.

Leif Erickson statue in front Hallsgrimkirkja. In 1930 this statue was given to the people of Iceland by the US on the 1000th anniversy of the first Althing

After dinner we returned to our hotel to get some rest and finalize our plans for Northern Lights hunting.  We planned to head out around 8pm and head straight east.  We initally stopped about 20 miles east of Reykjavik in the middle of a large snow-covered lava field.  There were some faint glows on the horizon that gave us hope, but it was clear we were still too close to the city, so we continued east on Highyway 1 with the plan to eventually head northeast towards Thingvellir National Park. 

Reykjavik

We headed east on Highway 1 for nearly an hour, then turned north towards the park.  Almost as soon as we were clear of the lights of Selfoss we began to see the characteristic green streaks…

                                                                        At last!!!

You need a tripod and a camera that does long exposures to shoot the Northern Lights

We stayed until the lights began to fade and then slowly made our way back to Reykjavik, stopping from time to time to get another look.  We arrived just before midnight exhausted but satisfied. 

These are all 15 second exposure with heavy post-editing. Longer exposures would be better, but that is the most my camera would do.

By day number four we were pretty much tapped out as far as tourism was considered, so we headed a bit north of town for a nice scenic hike.  Next we headed to the Reykjanes Peninsula to explore the dramatic volcanic landscape and see a few sights on the way to the airport.  The peninsula has some tempting mountains that would be casual dayhikes.   

We stopped at the Gunnuhver geothermal area which produced overwhelming amounts of steam and fueled a nearby geothermal energy plant.  The final stop was the “Bridge Between Two Continents”, a cheesy metal footbridge that spans an exposed section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

The comical Bridge Between Two Continents, a monument to Industrial Tourism

The airport experience was typical, with a fun diversion at the duty-free shop attempting to calculate the maximum amount of cholcolate and alcohol we could get with our few remaining Krona.  It was an exhausting trip, but completely amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone, but I might suggest  visiting in the summer 😉

Northeastern Canada from the plane.

Iceland Part II

If you haven’t read “Iceland Part I” (or you thought it was so awesome you want to read it again) check it out here.

Sunrise over snow-covered lava fields along Highway 1.

Day two started out slowly with us sleeping in till 9am. We slept 12 straight hours, probably for the first time since Logan was born.  It was perhaps the highlight of the trip.  This was going to be a big day.  There are a number of worthy sites in the southeastern quadrant of Iceland, so we were going to try to drive as far east along Highway 1 as we could get before sunset.  Originally the plan was to secure lodging wherever we wound up, but the latest forecast forced a change in plans. 

Reykjadalir Geothermal Area. We soaked in some hot springs here on the return trip.

The ability to see the Northern Lights hinges primarily on two factors, cloud cover and auroral activity.  The latter is hard to predict (although NASA’s NPOES satellite provides near-real-time data that can be used to make dubious predictions).  As for the former, Iceland’s weather service provides detailed cloud cover predictions in 3-hour increments.  Obsessive analysis of these predictions told us we needed to spend the night in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, about 150Km west of our day’s eastern turn-around point, so we would be much more hurried than we wanted.

Mt Eljafjalajokul from Highway 1. This is the volcano that erupted in the Spring of 2010, causing weeks of mayhem for European air travel.

The upside to our late start was that we could finally enjoy the landscape around Reykjavik, which we had only previously experienced in darkness.  The landscape in Iceland is stark, or perhaps even bleak at times, but it is always interesting.  Hwy 1 winds and twists through rolling hills, and you are never more than a few minutes from a beautiful waterfall, striking rock formation, or sparkling glacier.

We passed a number of amazing waterfalls (more to come on this) and glaciers.  As an avid rock-starer, the highlight of the drive for me was an amazing rhyolite rock arch I spotted along the highway just east of Kalfafell.  We didn’t have time to stop, so I planned to stop on the way back to hike up there and assess the rock quality, but I failed to note its location and we didn’t find it on the way back.  I hiked up to another cliff a ways further west and it seemed like it would be climbable, but would require an adventurous spirit and a good bit of cleaning.

Kalfafell Arch. This thing is huge, probably 50 feet or more at the apex.

After Kalfafell comes the enormous Skeidararsandur, which is basically an enormous (20 mile wide) sand flat covered by a spaghetti web of rivers delivering Vatnijokull’s runoff to the sea.  The sand in Iceland is all black, and its an unreal setting, with visibility for miles and miles.  The amazing thing about the glaciers to me is how accessible they are.  I’ve spent plenty of time on some big glaciers and ice caps in Alaska and Canada, but it always seems like it takes a mini-expedition just to get to them.  The glaciers in Iceland are everywhere, and its eerie to drive along a busy highway, passing almost suburban neighborhoods, with enormous seas of ice in the background.

Rainbow over Skeidararsandur

The first objective for the day was Skaftafell National Park, gateway to the mind-boggling Vatnijokull (‘Water Glacier’).  The term “sea of ice” gets bandied about, but this thing is bigger than the state of Delaware, and its omnipresent to anyone traveling in this part of Iceland.  Its more visible than the nearby Atlantic Ocean, and almost seems bigger.

Svartifoss. This cliff has impeccable overhanging basalt, but the water and conspicuous location would make it an un-wise climbing objective. Surely there are other cliffs like this waiting to be discovered.

There’s a lot to see in Skaftafell, but at the top of our list was the remarkable Svartifoss (“black falls”) and the turf house village of Sel.  If we had time, we were also hoping to set foot on Vatnijokull for no particular reason.  The hike to Svartifoss was nice; our first real exercise in several days, and provided gobsmacking views of the nearby glacier tongues.  Sel was completely unspoiled, and all the doors were open allowing use to poke in and out of the houses and underground stables.  The barren landscape provided a real appreciation for the courage and perseverance of the early Viking settlers.

                                                Kate admiring the view at Sel

We jogged the short path to the glacier, and had a fun time routefinding through the gnarled moraine to reach the ice.  I was champing at the bit to get to Hnappavellir, Iceland’s premier sport climbing destination, so we snapped a couple pics and headed back to the car.

It was a bit of an adventure getting to the cliff.  This is a summer crag (frrankly, every crag in Iceland is a summer crag).  I didn’t even know if we would be able to climb, but we have a lot experience visiting distant crags at the totally wrong time, so I thought we would have a good chance.  The most pressing problem was the swampy nature of the surrounding fields.  You could see countless puddles glistening in the sun, and I was not looking forward to driving down the sketchy, soaked-mud roads that lead to the crag.  Fortunately the west end of the cliff is near an old air strip, which has a nice gravel road we could take to get within a 100 damp yards of the cliffline.

The ‘Skjol’ Sector from the car. The highest peak in Iceland (2110m) is partly visible behind the cliff.

The first crux was to leap across the narrow creek, then we had to hop across the marshy field.  I devised a clever scheme to leap between raised tufts of grass, which resulted in totally soaking both of my feet.  Fortunately this particular cliff sector sits up on a small rise so the ground under the routes was dry. 

This sector only has seven established routes, and it looked like they were all wet to some degree, but a couple were mostly dry.  I started on a brilliant 5.11, which started on a slight overhanging up amazing, hidden, sculpted water pocket jugs.  The climbing was super fun with gymnastic long reaches and heel hooks between huge jugs.  Every time things were about to get tricky a seemingly shallow hold would reveal a sinker jug.  Next I tried a cool-looking 5.12 arete.  This one was pretty wet, and I had to avoid a lot of holds to keep my hands dry.  Not as good as the previous line but still fun and cerebral.

The stellar Kndajaxlafelagid

Sveitaland, 5.12

We still had one major objective another 50km down the road, so with light snow falling we packed it in.  I would have loved to climb more at this intriguing place, but we were clearly here in the wrong season, and we didn’t really have the time to stay longer anyway.  This is one of those crags that just has a nice vibe.  Basking in the sun, with a nice grassy base; its just a great hang, and throw in really fun climbing on great rock and it all adds up to a great experience.  I hope to have an oportunity to return here (in the summer!) some day.

A crazy rock arch on the way to Jokulsarlon

“Jokulsarlon” translates to Glacier Lagoon, and this is one of the coolest spots in Iceland.  Its a small lake situated at the toe of the Breidamerkur glacier tongue, with a short river at the south end flowing a few hundred yards directly into the Atlantic Ocean.  The lake is full of beautiful sculpted icebergs, and we were fortunate to arrive just before sunset.

Jokulsarlon

My favorite part of Jokulsarlon was watching the icebergs flow into the ocean.  It really brought home the “tip of the iceberg” metaphor, as seeming small blocks of ice would constantly high-center on the river bed, creating temporary heaving ice dams.  When the bigger swells hit the ice blocks would break free and continue their journey to the sea. 

                                              Sculpted ice blocks on the beach.

The nearby beach was littered with ice blocks of all sizes, creating some outstanding photo opportunities.  I convinced Kate to stand on one of the flat icebergs nearest the waterline so that it would look like she was in the ocean when the next wave came in.  This worked out a little too well as the next wave was a doozy, and it looked for a while like she would have to wade through the icy sea to get back.

Kate standing on an iceberg!

Next we headed to our hotel in Kirkjabaejarklaustur.  Long story short, we stayed up for hours and never saw the Northern Lights (though we did see some amazing stars).  It was completely clear, and we could see a really faint glow to the northeast, but that was it.  According to NASA if we had been about 100 miles further north it would have been brilliant.  We had one night left to accomplish our primary goal.  Would we be so lucky??  Tune in next week to find out! 

                                                          Sunset over Jokulsarlon

Iceland (Part 1)

Ya, that’s right, Iceland.  Why wouldn’t I go to Iceland?  In the winter.  Alas, this was not a climbing trip per se, but I did manage to climb three out of the four days we were there.  Ya, that’s right, we went to Iceland for four days (technically we were only there for 83 hours).  Why would anyone stay any longer?  Especially in the winter.

“Why Iceland?”  This is the most common statement you hear after uttering the words “we’re going to Iceland”.  Well, Kate has this friend with a bit of a Carrie Bradshaw complex (those of you with girlfriends know what I’m talking about), which is beside the point, but anyway, she was visiting over the summer and told us about a friend of her’s who works for Iceland Air selling travel packages to gullible Americans.  Apparently this year is supposed to be one of the very best in our lifetimes for viewing the Northern Lights, so Iceland Air is promoting it.  Kate’s long wanted to see this phenomenon and as a result of the 2008 financial crisis (which hit Iceland really hard) its currently cheaper to visit Icelend from the continental US than any North American destination where one might see the Aurora Borealis.

The Mid Atlantic Ridge runs right through Iceland.

While the main purpose was to see the Northern Lights, Iceland is a really cool place with a lot of intriguing things to see.  Geologically speaking its absolutely fascinating, with volcanoes, continental rifts and plentiful glaciers (including Vatnijokull, the largest glacier in Europe).  Throw in countless waterfalls, rugged coastline and hot springs everywhere you look.

Of course, to see the Northern Lights you need to go in the winter.  The darker and colder (and further north) the better.  This limited our options somewhat, but due to its location near the Atlantic Gulf Stream, the island never gets terribly cold (the lowest temperature we experienced was about 20 deg F, in the middle of the night).  Day time temps were always between 32 and 40 degF.  The problem was the incessant wind.  If it was calm the place was downright tropical, but occasionally gail force winds made the outside completely unbearable.

                        Hjalparfoss.

The rock climbing is pretty limited and completely under the radar, but that is not for lack of stone (ice climbing on the other hand is pretty well established).  The island has boundless potential for new development, and I was kicking myself on multiple occasions for not bringing a light rack.  We had a rope and a handful of draws but no trad gear.  Most of the rock is volcanic choss but there are plenty of solid cliffs spread around for those with a discerning eye, and a I spotted a number of incredible features that I would love to climb some day (in the summer!).

Tempting sea stacks near Dyrholaey. I reckon the foremost would go at around 5.9 with bomber gear but some tricky choss to negotiate near the top.

The key to this trip was that Kate’s sister Kendall agreed to care for Logan while we were away.  Kate & I were very much looking forward to this aspect of the trip, and that is part of the reason we only went for four days.  This was our frist time away from Logan for more than 24 hours, so we were pretty psyched but a bit apprehensive.  But mostly psyched. 

We took a 7-hour red eye from Denver direct to Keflavik, arriving in Iceland at 6am local time.  I had mapped out an extensive itinerary for each day in order to “maximize fun” as we like to say.  The first day was the most demanding, but I figured with the early start we would have more time than any other day.  I failed to account correctly for the darkness though.  The sun didn’t come up until 9:45, and even then you couldn’t really see all that well for another hour or so.

Interesting rock formations in Thingvellir National Park.

A rental car is pretty much a must, and they are really expensive; in the neighborhood of $100/day.  We opted for 4WD, which is probably a wise choice no matter the time of year.  There are icey roads all over the place in the winter, and numerous worthwhile dirt roads to explore in the summer.  Driving in Iceland can be somewhat treacherous, due primarily to the narrow roads and heinous weather.  All of the tourist guides go out of their way to warn travelers of the perils of driving, and the Iceland Air flight even had a special movie on Driving in Iceland, but we’re from Colorado so we know how to drive in bad weather 😉  By looking at off-brand companies I was able to get a nice 4wd Toyota Rav 4 for 10,500 ISK per day (about $80) including taxes and insurance.  By the way, this insurance is mandatory and almost worthless, it covers almost nothing except a total loss to the vehicle, in which case you still have to pay a $1500 deductable.  Driving on dirt roads or through water voids the insurance–good thing there is none of that in Iceland!

A look at Heckla, near where we almost totalled our car.

The plan for Day 1 was to basically follow “The Golden Circle” tourist route with a few added excursions.  The first really excitement came as the sun was rising and left Highway 1 (the major loop road that circumnavigates the island).  We had been buzzing along at 90 km/hr when our vehicles suddenly lost traction and we started fishtailing all over the road.  Apparently we had been driving on a sheet of ice for some time.  Once I got things under control we got out to see a solid 1/4″ layer of perfectly invisible ice covering everything; even the gravel on the side of the road was slippery to walk on. 

These burly horses thrive in some really awful weather.

This provided a good opportunity to check out a nearby heard of Icelandic horses.  These hearty steeds are quite a bit shorter than regular horses (but they aren’t ponies!), with wild manes that remind me of Mad Max mullets.  They are far more friendly than most horses, and have been pure bread in Iceland for more than 1100 years (the importing of horses to Iceland has been banned since 983 AD).  We were also just below Iceland’s most active volcano Heckla.  Europeans of the middle ages considered this peak to be quite literally one of two gateways to hell (the other being Stromboli in Italy) after a massive eruption in 1104 AD covered half the island in noxious ash.

Gulfoss

We proceeded northeast (at a much slower speed) past moon-like volcanic landscapes en route to the ancient Viking village of Stong.  This village was completed buried by the 1104 Heckla eruption, and was excavated a la Pompei in 1939 to reveal the only remaining turf homes from the Viking era.  We visited the worthwhile Hjalparfoss en route to the impressive Gulfoss (Golden falls).  This waterfall was the site of some early environmental activism when Sigridur Tomassdottir threatened to throw herself into the falls to prevent the construction of a dam in the early 1900’s.  The falls were very impressive, perhaps more so due to the crazy ice formations lining the canyon.

Some of the ice formations down-canyon.

Somewhere in there we stopped for gas and what turned out to be our best meal of the trip, a big loaf of fresh bread and a block of some type of sharp local cheese (I should mention gas is very expensive as well, around $7.50 a gallon!).  The next stop was “Geysir”, which is the root of the english word “geyser”.  This turned out to be about the least interesting of the three geothermal areas we visited in Iceland, but it did have an active geyser (“Srokkur”) that erupted every 5-10 minutes or so.  Frankly the geysers of Yellowstone are far more impressive than anything we saw in Iceland, but Iceland is special in that these sites are pretty much everywhere and its easy to have such a place to yourself, unlike Yellowstone.

The next and final stop for the day was Thingvellir National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Thingvellir is primarily revered for its historical significance as the site of the “Althing”, Iceland’s original parliment.  When Iceland was originally colonized in the 800’s, each Viking settler became the “Godar” (literally God, but more like lord) of his local lands.  After a few decades problems began to arrise between neighboring Godars, so they decided to assemble once each summer at Thingvellir (literally, “Fields of Parliment”).  This is assembly still exists today and is considered perhaps the longest running parliment in the history.

“Law Rock”, site of the Althing. The foreground is the Eurasian Plate, the cliffline is the edge of the North American Plate.

In addition to the  human history, the Logberk (“Law Rock” where the Althing convened) sits directly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the divergent boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates).  The cool little canyon is growing at a rate of about 1″ per year, and the Oxararfoss waterfull tumbles into the Ridge, flows down it a while, then spills out.  The area is litered with cool little fissures and other signs of geologic activity.

The Flosagja fissure is filled with glacial runoff and is a popular spot for SCUBA diving.

I found a nice clean section of basalt on the edge of the North American Plate and did some fun bouldering.  The rock was really nice but I assume the locals would frown on further exploitation by climbers.  One nice thing about visiting in November is that we had most places to ourselves.

Some fun bouldering on the eastern edge of the North American Plate.

Next we cruised into Reykjavik to check into our hotel. The trip package included lodging in an Iceland Air-owned hotel in Reykjavik, which was probably our biggest mistake.  If going to Iceland, there’s little reason to spend more than one or two nights in Reykjavik.  Best to spend the other time out in the country.  After a brief stop we decided to head to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous hot spring.  This place is a Disney-style operation, with conveyer-belt style efficiency design to funnel heards of people in and out.  Fortunately there were only 30 or so other tourists there that night so it wasn’t a circus.  The minerals in the water give it a milky blue color, and are said to be really good for the skin.  Although the place is a bit of a travesty from an ecological perspective, it was a really fun, relaxing experience, and the pool is interesting with little bridges and waterfalls. 

The Blue Lagoon, not as blurry in real life.

We got back to the hotel at about 8:30 pm, completely exhausted (having been awake for about 33 hours).  That’s about enough for Part 1, I promise to skip all the endless rambling about history in Part II.