2019: Year in Review

I’ve stopped regularly updating social media with trip photos, and I find it not very useful to write individual trip reports for every trip I do. This is partially because every route I do has been done to death and has enough information available, and partially because I lack the time/motivation/discipline to upload photos, put together a report and post it.

2019 was a really fun year of travel and adventure.

This year’s theme was diversity. Apart from the typical alpine scenery of California, I experienced several unique natural environments and wildlife and some unique parts of California. A reasonably chronological summary follows.

Skiing

California had one of the bigger snowpacks in history this past winter, so much of January and February was spent resort skiing. This was my first season skiing in Squaw Valley. The abundance of snow made it possible to ski several lines I would not otherwise.

Mid-February, a really cold and wet series of storms came in. I had 2 days of the best powder days I’ve ever experienced, both on Rubicon Peak. The temperatures kept the powder light and fluffy, completely unlike the usual CA snow pack.

There were also several days spent on the slopes of Shasta. One day, I just skinned up to Helen Lake and back. Another time, Leo and I went up the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge to the summit in really great weather. I skied to and from base camp (~10,800ft).

Mountaineering

At the end of January there was a spring-like week when we did an overnight snowshoeing trip to Dick’s Peak from the Eagle Lake trailhead. This section of Desolation Wilderness is beautiful in the winter. It also has a lot of solitude, something impossible to find in the summer.

In April, Shreya and I summited Shasta via Avalanch Gulch. This was Shreya’s first true mountaineering experience, and she did really well! This was my fourth time on the summit.

In early June, Leo, Ayelet and I did a 2-day ascent of the Kautz glacier on Mt. Rainier. Fresh snowfall had made the crux pitches relatively easy. As people lacking significant glacier travel experience, the route-finding on the upper Nisqually was certainly the hardest thing for us. High winds and waist deep snow shut us (and every other team that day) on the summit crater, and we turned tail down the DC. That was one of the highest exertion days (a total of 13-15mi and 9000ft of up and down over 2 days, with 35lb packs) I’ve had in the mountains, and really made it clear that physically I’m a lot more capable than I think I am, and easily capable of doing longer days. The wind was relentless all the way down to the Muir snowfield, so it was relief to finally stumble into the Paradise parking lot at 8pm.

Best rock climbs

Chamonix

The first two weeks of September was a trip I had been looking forward to for several months. I started writing about it here, until it got too big. Go read about Chamonix separately!

Thunderbolt-Sill traverse

Mason and I did this in the first week of August. This was a really great way to summit 5 14-ers in one go (2 of which I’ve done before). The traverse is extremely scenic, and the exposure stunning, but the rock quality leaves a lot to be desired. It is a lot of class 4 grunt work. The important skills seem to be route-finding and comfort soloing class 4/easy 5th. We soloed everything except the Thunderbolt and Starlight summit blocks.

I want to say something scandalous – I don’t think Mt. Sill is all that great a mountain. I know it has some of the best Sierra views, but every approach to it is painful. I’ve done the Glacier notch approach from Palisade Glacier, and that is terribly loose rock and scree. The class 4 way to get from the summit to the L-couloir is also a death trap. The 3-pitches of the Swiss Arete are passable for that much effort. Similarly, if you come at it via Bishop Pass, the class 2 descent of Sill down to Potluck Pass/Barrett Lakes, followed by the walk to Thunderbolt Pass is again a long slog.

Meeting Doug Robinson

The first week of November is a chance to visit Bishop for the AAC’s Craggin Classic. The highlight was a chance to wander part of Smoke Blanchard’s Rock Course with none other than Doug Robinson. This scramble through the buttermilks is really fun (“mild mountaineering” according to Smoke Blanchard). Getting a chance to talk with Doug and see him guiding at his age was amazing. His Palisade’s feature is one of my favorite pieces of Sierra lore.

Random Yosemite climbs

  • Jamcrack, The Dagger (TR)

Best hikes

Castle Peak, Basin Peak and Andesite Peak.

This was a really nice day in the Tahoe backcountry. I’ve never been in this area before. The Castle - Basin ridge is a fantastic trail run. It is wide, safe and filled with rolling meadows.

Kuna and Koip Peaks

Ashok and I decided to hike Kuna peak, Koip peak and Parker peak from Highway 120 (20mi roundtrip, ~4500ft). This is based on a Peaks for Freaks suggestion. Due to a combination of topography and snow conditions, this is now my second favorite Sierra hike (after the Evolution loop). It is long, but all on trail, with only the last 25-30min to Kuna and Koip being class 1-2. The first 3-4 mi of the trail are boring, but then it gets out of the forest and enters the rolling meadows of Parker pass. The switchbacks up Parker Peak’s buttress are incredible and you get great views of Mono and Grant lakes. Starting at Koip pass, the views are superlative. Every significant mountain in the northern High Sierra is visible, their North faces still holding significant snow. Lyell canyon still had snow until 10k feet! Banner, Ritter, Davis, Rodgers, Andrea Lawrence, Donahue, Conness, North Peak, Matterhorn… the names roll of the tongue, condensing a hundred years of Sierra climbing history. Standing tall above them all, the apron of snow still clinging strong, are Mt. Lyell and MacClure - the roof of Yosemite.

Dragon Peak and Mt. Gould

We went up the Golden Trout Lakes trail (not much of a trail) and finished via Kearsarge Pass. I had never really been to this area, and only skirted past Independence on the JMT, so it was a really fun trip! The scramble up Dragon is very nice. It is just exposed enough to keep things spicy, and the final moves below the summit have a short traverse reminiscent of North Palisade. Mt. Gould’s scree descent is disgusting in comparison, but you gotta do what you gotta do…

These Sierra loops have made me more enthused about long scrambles with minimal (read: no technical) gear.

Organized events

Broken Arrow Skyrace

I was running the 26K for the second time. I finished in 3:42 this year even with significant snow, shaving 30 minutes off last year’s time. It was an excellent event as usual. Skiers and runners on the same slopes was a unique experience. Too bad the race lunch did not include all-you-can-eat pizza like 2018 :(

June Lake triathlon

Shreya and I had signed up for the June Lake Triathlon. It was the first triathlon for both of us. We did the Olympic distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run). I wasn’t a big fan of the swimming. I finished, but powered mostly by breast-stroke and back-stroke, in about 43min. Apart from not swimming regularly (I had done 8 swim sessions before this), the water temperature was also 63F and the altitude was ~7500ft, which made breathing difficult. The bike and run were well within my abilities. Of course, my tire tube was traumatized from riding in San Francisco and couldn’t handle the extra PSI. It proceeded to get a flat 10 minutes into the ride :/. Apart from that the June Lake loop ride was really beautiful. The bike and run had about 1200ft of elevation change each. The run wasn’t as pretty. It was sandy, hot and only a small section offered views of Ritter and Banner. I highly recommend this event. They are not going to have another one until 2023, so you’ll have to wait a bit.

Parks visited

  • Denali National Park (only via air)
  • Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Mt. Rainier National Park

My parents visited the US for 3 weeks in mid-May and we used that as an excuse to visit Alaska. The Seward-Aialik Glacier cruise and the Denali flight-seeing were singularly amazing experiences. The latter is likely to be one of the coolest things I do in my life and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting Alaska. It was worth the 3 days we had to keep postponing the tour for the clouds to clear. We also visited the Matanuska glacier and the Exit glacier, where my trusty iPhone SE died a water-logged death :(

  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park

This was another easy paced, sight-seeing trip with Shreya’s family. We didn’t spend much time in Grand Teton NP; just swam in the lakes and looked at the range. I think the Tetons are inspiring mountains for people living nearby, but for someone used to the Sierra… they are nice, but nothing special.

Yellowstone was a real treat! Spectacular geology and a bunch of unique wild-life. Grand Prismatic was my favorite spring. The Yellowstone campgrounds are really nice. They are all full-service and well maintained compared to the shit-show that is Yosemite.

  • Redwood National and State Parks

We went here over Thanksgiving. A cold storm hit California over that weekend, rendering most places cold and wet. The redwoods had a relatively mellow time, with even some bright sunshine on Friday. Hiking in Redwood forests is a spiritual experience. The air feels thicker and there is a sense of peace. We hiked the West Ridge and Prairie Creek loop, spent another day driving along the Howland Hill road and visiting a few more groves before driving back.

  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

We had no specific plans for the Christmas holidays; just a vague idea to go somewhere south. We got a good last-minute deal on a camper-van. The final trip ended up being far more interesting than I expected. We spent 4 cold days in Joshua Tree, ekeing out a few climbs around Indian Cove campground. That is one of my favourite campsites now, due to the from-the-campsite close proximity to climbs, and the relative comfort due to the short pitches. We drove through some stunning wind farms, then recuperated for a night in Palm Springs. There is a cool hike called Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon near Mecca, CA. We spent a night at Fonts Point in Anza-Borrego enjoying both sunset and sunrise. Anza-Borrego State Park has surprisingly cool hikes. We saw several bighorn sheep, a couple of hummingbirds and some cute palms on the Palm Canyon trail, then spent a short time browsing The Slot and the Cactus Trail.

Not content with seeing the tallest trees in the world, we ventured to see the largest trees in the world. Sequoia-Kings Canyon is the National Park with my fondest memories, but they’ve generally been in remote peaks on overnight trips. Visiting the parks in a relatively civilized, if chilly, form was equally memorable. Snow lends extra magic to the Sequoia trees, and reduces the number of people dramatically. We “celebrated” New Year’s sleeping away in sub-freezing temperatures at Azalea campground. The reward was getting the General Grant trail entirely to ourselves early the next morning. The opportunity to have a place purely to oneself, particularly one visited by millions of people, and only half a mile from a parking lot; that was magic!

  • Yosemite National Park - random trips

Other things

  • Days of ice-climbing: 2 in Hyalite Canyon
  • Days skied in non-CA resorts: 1 in Big Sky, MT, 1 in Whistler, BC

I’ve been spending more and more nights sleeping in my car instead of finding accomodation in the busy California mountains. This is mostly working out well, although it can be a bit harder in the winter. I had some of my coldest nights in February (low of -17C), where only a hot water bottle in the sleeping bag, and the Tahoe House Bakery & Gourmet in the morning made it acceptable.

We didn’t do anything particularly exciting on the 4th of July. Since I’m doing so many trips regardless of actual holidays, I’ve found that I don’t have the energy to deal with planning and executing trips on long weekends. Everybody is trying to go to the same places, everything is unavailable or expensive and traffic is horrible. It is easier to just get some work done then, and move the time off to other times.

Gear

Not much new gear this year, as I haven’t changed hobbies. Some favorites:

  1. Scarpa Ribelle Tech mountaineering boots
  2. La Sportiva TX2 approach shoes

Old stuff I continue to love:

  1. Ortovox Trad 35L
  2. Glacier literide axe
  3. Salomon Sense Ride train running shoes

Stuff I’m not a big fan of any more

  1. MSR Dromlite - This developed a leak, and it wasn’t the lid. I really like a collapsible container as one of my water bottles, but the MSR is also hard to pour out of into another bottle. I’m now using a Hydrapak.

Chamonix

Photo album

The first two weeks of September was a trip I had been looking forward to for several months. Shreya had a conference to attend in Oxford, UK. We spent a couple of days in London meeting an old friend, then worked from Oxford. Oxford is a really quaint town and running along the old canals with historical buildings all around was such a nice experience. Parts of the UK look very similar to India, and parts of it sound very similar to India, so there is always a sense of familiarity.

The best part of London is the food. I can’t wait to go back to Dishoom, and the ridiculous creations in Treatz were eye-opening! I don’t understand why there are no US milk shake parlors with a “add whatever chocolate you want to this shake” option.

Of course, London wasn’t really why I was excited about this trip. The real deal was spending 9 days in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is the birth place of alpinism as a sport. The names of the routes there are famous across the world, and represent the who’s who and what’s what of climbing. September isn’t the best time to go any more because the glaciers become heavily crevassed and cut of access to several popular routes. I wasn’t going to complain when one person’s round trip ticket to Europe was being paid for :P

Chamonix itself was everything I had imagined. Spectacular granite needles rising out of immense glaciers, and funny names I couldn’t pronounce. We stayed a block away from the iconic Midi lift and lived on croissants and quiches. Unfortunately we didn’t have the best luck with the weather. Our itinerary:

  1. Friday - Go up the Midi in really low visibility to experience the snow arete descent (spooky as F for one 20 foot section); Do a quick romp up the Arete Laurence.
  2. Saturday - Terrible visibility in the mountains. Go up the Brevent chair and climb Mic et Mousse to make it back to the cable car before it started to rain.
  3. Sunday - Rain and snow all day.
  4. Monday - Sunny but cold (-11C). We used the opportunity to climb the Cosmiques Arete. The route was incredibly exciting, but definitely type 2 fun. First the Midi lift didn’t open till 9:30, so we didn’t get to the base of the route until 11:30. Several inches of snow made the route the worst combination of “not really rock, not really snow” that required way more belaying and simul climbing than is usually necessary. This necessitated some really fast climbing at the end to finish in time for the last lift down. The crux itself was very straightforward due to the crampon points and the vertical (snow-free) nature. Shreya definitely had a worse time than me. She had no previous experience technical climbing in crampons, nor in such cold weather, so it was painful for her.
  5. Tuesday - Take the Bellevue cable car and the tram to the Nid d’Aigle. Hike up to the Tete Rousse hut.
  6. Wednesday - Attempt Gouter Route on Mt. Blanc. Turn around at 4200m because it was too cold. Back to Tete Rousse.
  7. Thursday - Back to Chamonix. This would’ve been a gorgeous and perfect day to actually climb the Gouter. See my thoughts below.
  8. Friday - Take the Midi + Panoramique (Holy shit!) to the Torino hut (Italy). The Panoramique is a truly stunning ride. I can completely see why non-alpinists would also enjoy this. It is awe-inspiring, both in the terrain it traverses and the sheer technical capability. Do a quick jaunt up the Petite Flambeaux. The Torino hut has incredible facilities.
  9. Saturday - Climb the Aiguille de Entreves (don’t ask me to say that) in wonderful weather. Descend down the Skyway Monte Bianco and take the bus back to Chamonix. Tour Ronde was falling apart the whole day.

So 3 days of bad weather, 3 days of cold weather and 3 days of perfect weather.

I’d go back to this place in a heartbeat. There is so much stuff to do even without leaving the classics!

I have mixed feelings about the guiding situation though. A huge majority of groups out in the mountains were guided (partly because we stuck to extremely classic routes). This made it somewhat disconcerting for us as the guided parties would go all over and around in a bid to finish routes quickly. It was odd that they were rushing to finish when the day was incredibly beautiful and the weather was good and there was no hurry to get anywhere.

In addition, some guides were downright condescending on the Gouter Route. Particularly given that their practices are incredibly unsafe when performed by non-guides (to be honest, I think they are incredibly unsafe for anybody…). We ascended and descended the rock part of the Gouter unroped, because it is fairly steep class 4, easy 5-th scrambling for over 2000-ft, so it isn’t something you can reasonably protect with fixed gear. We had 3 different guides comment on and call out that what we were doing was dangerous and that we should be roping up (short-roping) so that we can die together… I hope this is because they see too many novices on the route who really should’ve done it guided.

The thing to realize about Cham is that even with the crazy lifts, there are some logistics depending on your route. Due to lift times you often need to spend a day hiking in and a day hiking out (which is why we didn’t do anything in the Tour sector), and it can be a little difficult to fit all of that within weather windows and other objectives. In particular, I will not try a fixed-date Mt. Blanc attempt again as it encounters the same problems with reservations and permits as in California. You can’t predict the weather months in advance, which means your success or failure is entirely dependent on luck, which is not a good place to be in mentally. It was very easy to get last minute hut spots for everything else. After turning around at 4200m I lost the motivation to go up the Gouter, because I know it is well within my capabilities when the weather cooperates, so I may try it at some other point in my life via a more challenging, and thus easier to “book” route.

For the moderate routes, everything is about your technical skills as an alpinist, and not much about pure rock skills. Everything can be pulled on gear if you really need to (in boots). What matters is using terrain anchors, simul-climbing, quick alpine anchors and practiced rappel transitions to progress through the day, enjoy the views safely and still be done in time for the last lift.

In terms of gear, Shreya used the Nepals for boots. I used the Scarpa Ribelle tech, which was excellent for everything except Mt. Blanc (where it would’ve been fine if our reservation was for Thursday). All our routes were climbed using one 60m half rope as both the glacier rope and the climbing rope (doubled up for Mic et Mousse) and a single rack. For the conditions we faced, steel crampons would be the way to go. We had one steel and one aluminium pair, and the aluminium were completely blunt by the end of the trip. That’s because the entire Cosmiques Arete was climbing in crampons on rock/snow, as was the ascent and descent of the entire Gouter (conditions were an inch of snow on rock). We both had Ortovox 30-35L backpacks. My Ortovox Trad 35L continues to be an incredibly good pack, but Shreya’s Peak Light 32 is even better suited for Cham due to the nicer axe holders and the helmet attachment.

Apart from that, get the Rockfax guidebook, buy the right lift pass, and try hard to be the first in line for the Midi lift! :D

Notes on Rock Self Rescue

I recently took a class on basic self-rescue skills. I wrote up some notes to help me remember things and figured it would be useful to others!

Before we start, none of this complicated stuff matters if these are not true:

  1. Always lock locking carabiners!
  2. Check your and your partners harness, figure-eight and belay setups!
  3. Wear a helmet!

There are a few different knots used in all technical mountaineering/climbing and it is best to be able to do them in your sleep, one-handed. They are:

  • Overhand
  • Figure eight
  • Figure eight on a bight
  • Clove hitch
  • Munter hitch
  • Munter + Mule hitch with overhand backup
  • Prusik/Autoblock/Kleimheist

Notes on the munter

An easy way to remember a munter is to create a loop towards the inside of the A formed by the brake strand and load strand and flip it over into the carabiner.

If you put another locker through the “tongue” of the munter and then capture the load strand, the munter becomes auto-blocking. To avoid rope twists when using the munter, try to keep the rope strands as parallel as possible (Parallel is also when the munter moves freely, anywhere else adds friction and increases braking)

The guide mentioned that in europe they are starting to belay leaders of the anchor. I’m not sure how exactly that works with quickly feeding rope in and out, since you can’t use your waist to maintain tautness on the carabiner. This is something to look into.

When belaying a second, using a prusik or autoblock on the brake strand is a quick, valid way to back up the system when lowering. Check all friction hitches before trusting them. Dress all knots neatly!

Raising systems

Setting up raising systems as a leader, from the top belay, is really easy. Compared to crevasse rescue, you already have an anchor ready, and no imminent danger of dropping the follower further into the crevasse.

The munter is not a progress capture (ratchet). An auto-blocking munter is. A guide mode belay device is. We can leverage this to go through a progression of raising systems.

  1. Have the follower french-free by pulling on existing gear.
  2. Simply yank on the load strand. This may help the person get to a hold an inch away, or take some weight off them.
  3. If the follower is close enough, throw them a strand of rope from the free end. They should clip this to their belay loop (does not need a locker since the belay device is the primary attachment. This is a 2:1 system. They can assist by pulling on the strand from the belay device to them.
  4. To create a quick 3:1, attach a friction hitch to the load strand. Clip a non-locker to the other end and pass the free end of the rope through it. Remember to mind the prusik, extending it back out once it reaches the belay device.
  5. To create a 5:1, attach a double length sling by a carabiner to the anchor. This is the fixed end. Pass both strands of the runner through the carabiner attached to the prusik on the load strand from step 4 (instead of the rope). Clip another carabiner to the other end of the runner. Put the free end of the rope through here.
  6. Any of these systems can be complimented by adding another carabiner on the anchor to change the direction of force so it is easier to pull. Remember: The weight on the anchor is increasing for every addition. Make sure it is bomber!
  7. Friction can be reduced by using a pulley in place of one or more of the non-locking carabiners.

Lowering systems

Lowering is dangerous! You can lose control of the guide mode device once it is unlocked (has happened to me once, fortunately w/o bad consequences). Always back up the brake strand with a prusik attached to your belay loop, and tie a BHK (Big Honking Knot) for good measure below the prusik far enough to finish the lower. Unlocking the belay device has several steps, depending on the weight of the person and angles that make it difficult.

  1. Rotate the carabiner that is holding the rope through the belay device. This will let out a centimeter or so at a time.
  2. Put a carabiner through the small release-hole on the ATC and lever, using the carabiner as a handle.
  3. Put a sling through the small release hole (if possible). Girth hitch it, then redirect sling through anchor. Pull (You may need to use body-weight by attaching the sling to your belay loop and weighing it, or by putting your foot through the sling and pressing down.
  4. Load Strand Direct method: The intention is to use a carabiner to separate the load and brake strand where they enter the device, to remove the friction that creates the locking behavior. Clip a carabiner between the strands, trapping the load strand. Clip a sling to this carabiner and reroute through the anchor. Pull as in step 3.

Devices like the DMM Pivot are easier to release for lowering.

Passing knots

Knot passing and escaping the belay are simply applications of transferring the load from one system to another until it ends up going from one primary attachment point to another primary attachment point, in a safe and methodical manner. The standard sequence is something like:

  1. Initially the person is attached to one primary anchor, which we have to unclip for some reason (pass a knot or because it is on the belayer’s body and we want it on the anchor).
  2. Use a friction hitch from the anchor to the load strand as a secondary system. Use the free end of the rope to attach to the final anchor. At this time, the victim/person is attached to various places by 3 systems (the primary rope, the secondary rope, the prusik).
  3. Use a series of munter lowers and slack management to unload the primary rope and load the prusik. Since the prusik by itself is not load rated, we need the secondary attachment as a backup. Undo the primary.
  4. Take the slack out of the system. Use munters to weigh the secondary attachment (which has now become the primary). Undo the prusik.
  5. It is important in all cases to manage rope lengths so that the prusik does not go out of reach while it is being moved around!

To put this into context, here is a good video by Northwest Mountain School.

For passing knots (due to core shot isolation, or because two ropes are tied together), it is important to decide when to start the transfer to avoid 5 above. Also, do some creative slack management as required. We are not trying to pass an IFMGA exam here, so as long as the anchor is solid and the person on the load strand is OK with it, it is acceptable to induce some shock load on the anchor.

Mule overhands: The complete combination of using a prusik attached to an anchor by a munter, and then tied off (hands-free) using a releasable mule hitch and an overhand for backup, is referred to as a PMMO (Prusik-Munter-Mule-Overhand) in literature. The Munter Mule Overhand can also be used on the rope itself to go hands-free. A Mule Overhand can also be tied on a belay device. A mule is releasable under load unlike using an overhand or figure-eight to close a system. A mule is formed by forming a loop from the free end of the rope that captures the brake strand and the load strand on the same side and pulling a bight from the free end to finish the “trap”. Make this as close to the munter or belay device as possible. The bight is tied into an overhand that should capture the load strand. Leave enough tail out to ensure the overhand can’t untie. If there isn’t enough to tie an overhand, clip a carabiner through the bight of the mule and clip it back to the anchor or similar. Remember, the mule is releasable and we don’t want it to release just yet!

A rope MMO tie-off just by itself is considered completely secure and does not need any backups.

For passing the knot, we are going to use the scenario of us lowering a climber from an anchor. The system stays the same in other scenarios. Think through it in terms of steps 1-4!

  1. We are using a prusik on the brake strand to control the lower. Eventually the knot we want to pass approaches the prusik. Before this gets too close, stop the lower, release the prusik (careful!) and tie off the rope using a MMO. Now you can go hands free.
  2. Use a long cordelette to tie a prusik/kleimheist to the load strand. Attach another locker to the master point. MMO the prusik to this carabiner with no slack (pull the prusik close to the primary anchor).
  3. Add another locker to the anchor. This locker is going to replace the primary carabiner so we can pass the knot.
  4. Grab the free end of the rope past the knot. MMO this to the carabiner you just added. You have now “passed” the knot. We will use the system we set up to transfer the load — take out the little slack between the two rope attachment points — without shock loading the anchor.
  5. Remove the very first rope attachment MMO completely. Take the carabiner from the anchor if it is easy to retrieve. Otherwise you can grab it after the transfer is complete (Remember at this point you may have 4 carabiners through the master point!) It is also OK to connect the prusik carabiner to the carabiner holding you to the anchor via a clove hitch. Now, the prusik is holding the load, with the rope MMO as a backup.
  6. Undo the MO on the prusik and slowly lower the munter until the rope takes the weight. Remove the prusik setup. You are done! Release the rope MO and continue lowering.

Logically, the first rope MMO is solid by itself, so step 2 can actually be done after step 4.

When using a belay device instead of a munter, the process is only slightly different.

  • In step 4, instead of MMO, tie a figure eight on a bight past the knot (leave 0.5-1 feet of slack between the figure eight and the knot to pass), and clip the bight to the second locker. While the prusik holds the climber, this acts as a backup knot.
  • In step 5, after removing the first rope from the system, you will have the empty ATC at the anchor. Put the part of the rope between the backup and the knot to pass (the 0.5-1ft of slack we left) into the ATC. The ATC is now usable again.
  • Again use the PMMO to transfer the climber onto the ATC. Then undo the backup and continue lowering.

This knot passing remains the same on top rope lowers, except all of these locking carabiners will be on your belay loop instead of on the anchor. When passing a knot on rappel, you will do the same, with the backup figure eight on a bight below the knot to pass, clipped to your harness so you only fall 2-3 feet if your prusik fails. Use the prusik, clipped to your belay loop, to hold you while you undo and redo the ATC. When raising, a knot can be passed by putting another ratchet on the climber’s side of the knot once they are close enough (a PMMO backed by a figure eight on a bight on the rope). Remember that unlike an ATC in autoblock mode, a prusik ratchet has to be slid down the rope and made taut for it to act like a ratchet.

Escaping the belay

Necessary when you were belaying off the body and now need to transfer the climber onto the anchor so you can go assist them or run for help.

  1. Lock of the belay device on your harness with a MO, so you can go hands-free.
  2. Use a long cordelette to tie a PMMO from the load strand to the anchor.
  3. Set up another MMO using the rope on the anchor. This is both a backup while you are escaping, and will eventually become the primary anchor.
  4. Load the PMMO by undoing the belay device MO and lowering until the prusik is taut and holding.
  5. Remove the rope from the belay device. Take in slack into the MMO if necessary. (This is important to avoid the prusik going out of reach).
  6. Release the PMMO and lower the climber onto the rope MMO. Remove the prusik. Boom! You are out of the system.

Rappelling tips

  • Extending the belay loop is always a good idea for multiple rappels.
  • Only the first descender needs a third hand. Everybody else can receive a fireman belay.
  • Gloves are nice to have!
  • If you need to ascend the ropes, remember that an autoblocking belay device is a ready-made progress capture for ascension. Use a locking carabiner from your belay loop to the guide mode loop on the belay device (This requires the device to be extended!). This will orient the device into friction mode when weighed. Haul up, let it lock. Haul up, let it lock!
  • Use saddlebags on low angle, loose rock, or high wind situations.

First time in the Bugaboos: I will be back!

Every once in a while, a trip goes so well, you want to thank the entire Universe for not conspiring against you. Such was the Bugaboos. The weather was ideal, the company was nice and the views were spectacular! The rock? Bugaboos rock is perfect!

All the major spires seen from Crescent Spire - Lion's Way
(5.6)

Much has been written about the Bugaboos, so I won’t go into the logistics and route details, focusing instead on the trip. We hiked in July 22nd and hiked out July 29th.

I flew to Spokane Friday night where Mason picked me up so we could crash at his parents house in Couer d’Alene. On Saturday morning we drove 7 hours to the Bugaboos parking lot, with a requisite “when-in-Canada” Tim Horton’s stop in Cranbrook. This was a longer drive than Calgary, but saved us a lot of money on a car rental. We bought all our food in the US since there is more choice here. After the requisite chicken wire around the car, it was time to hike in. It should be pointed out that nobody has really tested what happens to a car without chicken wire in years. Perhaps it is just a cargo cult. But then, you wouldn’t want to be stuck without a functioning car in the middle of logging roads, some 30 kilometers from civilization.

The drive in was typical Canadian beauty, lakes and rolling valleys with some nice western view of the Canadian Rockies.

Views on the drive
in

To get to Paradise, you’ve to pass through suffering, and prove yourself worthy. Appropriately, the hike in to the Bugaboos is hard. If you are making a trip from far away, you’ll be spending at least a week, so there’s 7 days of food, plus all the climbing gear, and a smattering of luxury items like a larger tent, flip flops, and various changes of clothes. I estimate my pack was 45-50lb.

Hiking to Applebee
camp

To get to Applebee camp you gain some 3000ft in ~4mi, traversing dynamite cut ledges up a glacial valley. By the time I got to the Kain hut, about an hour before Applebee, I was having to stop, if not sit, every 10 minutes. The only thing keeping spirits from dying were the spectacular views. The Kain hut itself is set on some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. At least if you are a climber :) For some reason, it felt harder than the Palisades hike in, even though we had less gear and less distance. The humidity lower down didn’t help. By the time we collapsed into Applebee, the only shirt and pants I intended to wear for all the climbs, was completely soaked through. As if to front load general misery, it rained that night and I ended up cooking in the tent.

That was it; we had passed the entry test and we were rewarded with a week of nearly windless and rainless days.

The next day, hips sore and skies cloudy, Mason, Yelly and I scrambled up Eastpost Spire via the easy class 4 route from Applebee. It took about 40 minutes to reach the top and we got to see great views of the Bugs. Ryan and Leo went to McTech Arete for their idea of an easy day.

Back at camp, there is a left leaning, slightly wider than hands, crack about 50ft below and north of the main tent spots. Mason and I toproped these after a failed attempt on lead due to a shortage of #2 and #3 pieces.

On Monday, all of us headed up to the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire (5.4). For 35 of us, this was the first experience up the col. While it looks pretty imposing from camp, the col isn’t that high, may be 600ft, and Applebee to top of the col takes about 90 minutes for most people. Pretty standard ice axe and crampon technique, and there is a decent boot pack.

As you near the top, pay attention to the left rock buttress as the second from the top rap anchor is hidden in a sort of overhang. At the top of the col, is your first unique restroom experience; should you choose to use it!

The upper Vowell glacier is a remarkable expanse of ice, and is well behaved when compared to the Bugaboo and lower Vowell. It was crevasse free on the Pigeon-Howser straight line, until the very end, where a crevasse was starting to open up right below the base of the west ridge. It was about 3ft wide and easy to jump or circumvent. The 50ft to reach the col where the trickiest part of this whole trip; icy and loose rock. With three parties ahead of us, we took our time at the base. The second green restroom in the park is here, as is a giant marmot.

Pigeon
Spire The West Ridge of Pigeon Spire has been called the best 5.4 on the planet. It is not hyperbole. The solid rock and easy route-finding let you enjoy the ridiculous views. Pigeon’s location lets you see the two major glaciers in the park in all their glory; the Howsers rise in splendor out of the Vowell, while the Hound’s tooth towers over the Bugaboo icefall.

Mason and I were one team, while Ryan, Leo and Yelly would climb as three. We soloed until the first false summit, with only the mantle move left of the chimney squeeze being spicy. The descent down the ramp south of the first summit is a really beautiful space; my favorite feature of the climb. From here we simul-climbed. The terrain keeps changing between easy 5th and wide 3rd class ledges, with great protection throughout. On the final section, the route is north of the ridge and it got extremely cold. When Mason finally put me on belay from the summit, I was glad to start moving on numb feet.

View from the first summit of Pigeon
Spire

Glaciers!

Mason on the
descent

The descent raps require some contortion and drop you to the base of the last “pitch”. From here, reverse the route to camp.

On day 3, Mason and I did the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire.

Kain Route seem from B-S
Col

We ran into a couple from California at the beginning of the route, and we took turns route-finding until we ended up at the 5.4 “chimney” section. Here, we roped up and I led the chimney, and belayed everybody up. There are 3 rap anchors on this lower section of the ridge. The lowest of them avoids a tricky, but really short downclimb, and I’d suggest not using it unless your party is really uncomfortable. The rope tends to get stuck! The top of the “chimney” gets you to the top of the ridge. The scramble to the base of the 5.6 pitch is nice and spicy, with great hero shot potential. The couple soloed this, while we simuled, so we were surprised to see them just sitting at the notch when we arrived. They hadn’t brought rock shoes and didn’t seem too keen to climb the difficult pitch. This seemed like one of those “stupid light” decisions. Adding another pound of weight would’ve meant they didn’t have to do all of this climbing only to turn back 2 pitches from the summit. Oh well!

Mason and I only had a single rack for this ascent, this was about to send my adrenaline response through the roof. Cue “stupid light” above. Haha! The Kain Route’s crux isn’t hard, but it is exposed. I laced up a lot of the crack, and ran out of gear by the time I reached the final slab traverse. Oh oh! A stuck tricam offered one clip, but I was still dealing with a 6ft swing into rock should I mess up. Going from the slab to the chimney requires one committing move, that would go much easier with a piece right above the move. Fortunately I stuck it, scampered up the boulders, used my personal anchor and the carabiner that had the nuts to clip the one old bolt and then the web-o-lette to anchor myself at the belay. Phew! Mason followed and then led the flaky corner to the summit. The views from Bugaboo Spire are gorgeous. Several NE ridge climbers turned up at the same time and we spent some time chatting and relaxing. It was now time to start the descent. Steph Abegg’s annotated guide is really helpful for this. A couple of rappels are in non-obvious locations while others require diagonal traverses. It is also nice to not be the last party on the descent. There is plenty of potential for stuck ropes. Needless to say, our rope got stuck on rap 3 and we spent 30minutes waiting for the party behind us to come free it (We could have climbed up and freed it, but we were in no hurry and the weather was stable, so we just waited). The rest of the descent was uneventful, in fact we soloed the ridge on the descent. The Kain Route descent is best done by sticking to the ridge as much as possible. It is a long way back to camp.

Final pitch of the Kain
route

Great views from the
top

One of the
rappels

On the day we did the Kain, Leo and Ryan had done Sunshine Crack, a 5.11 crack that goes from bottom to top on Snowpatch. Given that all of us were exhausted, we opted to do Lion’s Way, which is a really short walk from camp. Ryan was going to use the rest day to get more food from the car. We left camp around 10, waited for an hour at the base for another party, climbed occasionally, and eventually reached one of the summits of Crescent Towers. There are a few cool moves on the climb that are worth it. The descent is ugly choss that drops you at the north end of the Crescent glacier. Here we wandered uphill a couple hundred feet to scope out the ascent for the NE ridge of Bugaboo spire before heading back to camp.

Leo on the top of Lion's
Way

Neither Mason nor I felt great about leading pitch 1 of the NE ridge, which is rated 5.8, but has awesome exposure and is just the beginning of a long day. That is, I was confident in my ability to lead the pitch independently, but doubted I had the mental strength to climb another 7 pitches after that. Leo, nice guy that he is, was willing to lead it for us and belay us up. Yes!

The base of the NE
ridge

Leo, Yelly, Mason and I left camp at 4. Even at this ungodly hour, there was a party ahead of us on the route. Getting to the base of the route requires some sketchy slab climbing, especially if the snow patch at the base is still large. We were waiting at the base by 6, and watched more and more parties scurry up. We would find out later that some 8 parties showed up after us, and eventually several of them just had to turn back. I was happy we woke up early!

Pitch 1 of the
route

The sunrise was amazing!

Sunrise on the NE
ridge

Leo made short work of the pitch. I definitely felt the hollow flakes at the top were harder than the 5.8 lieback that is considered the crux. We switched into 2 rope teams and I took the lead for the remaining two pitches that put us on the ridge. From here Mason showed that he is great at hand jams and made his way up 3 more pitches, where we got into the wide chimney. We took turns simuling and belaying based on rope drag until I stepped out onto the final part of the ridge. I wish I had a 70m rope, as we had to do an extra pitch for less than 15m to gain the North summit. The exposure and rock quality on the NE ridge are spectacular, no wonder it is one of the 50 Crowded Climbs of North America. The views are unbeatable too!

Traversing to the south summit

The traverse to the South (true) summit starts awkwardly, gets obvious and really spicy on a pant-tearing-ly knife edge ridge, before mellowing out at a rappel station below the summit. Since Mason and I had already signed the register, we didn’t go up to the summit, but retraced the descent from 2 days ago. Yelly and Leo were happy to have someone who knew the route guide them. Clouds and rain came in just as we got to B-S col. Fortunately they did not last long.

Descending the Kain route
again

Our final descent of Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col was also the fastest and smoothest one. Our graduation went something like:

  1. The first time, we did 2 single rope rappels, then downclimbed steep terrain. This was the slowest. We didn’t know the third rappel station was on the western side of a rock outcrop.
  2. The second time, we spotted the third rappel station on the way up. We did 2 single rope rappels to the third station, then another party let us use their double rope rappel. This was perfect because it dropped us straight to the gentler part of the col and sped things up.
  3. The third time, with 4 people and 2 ropes, we put everything together. We did a double rope rap straight to the third anchor. This saved time and avoided the really awkward second rappel stance. Then we did another double rap straight to the gentler part, and glissaded all the way to the bottom of the col. The col had deteriorated significantly in our week there, going from no visible bergschrund to a sizable hole.

Friday was a complete rest day, we literally did nothing but sit around camp and talk and eat. On Saturday, Mason and I took our time hiking out, while Leo and Ryan went for their attempt of the Beckey-Chouinard on South Howser Tower. The hike out is almost as brutal as the hike in as the temperature rises, the insects are back and your knees are hosed. Finally the car! After a quick stop in Radium for lunch, we made it back to the States.

Mason’s parents were gracious enough to host me for another day and a half and I spent some time experiencing non-California America. Lake Couer d’Alene is beautiful and I had three fantastic meals - a great Chicken and Waffle at Crafted, “nutritionally dense” crepes at Le Peep and home-made burgers.

Chicken and
waffles

I flew home on Monday with an excellent view of Mt. Shasta on the way.

Mt.
Shasta

What a great trip!

Various observations

  • Many of the moderate routes in the Bugaboos don’t require extraordinary fitness. The elevation gain is 2-3k feet and only a short walk from camp. What is required is the ability to deal with exposure and climbing rock for hours. You will also want to be fast on rappels.
  • Learning to use, and carrying, half ropes would be a very valuable skill. It would save each climber some weight, none of the classic routes are hard, so they can be led with just one half, and getting down the col would be really fast.
  • For base camp trips like this, a larger tent is worth the weight. I carried an ultralight 2p for just me, and it was great to have the extra room to spread out gear, not worry about weather and sleep comfortably.
  • Don’t stay at the Kain Hut if you want to climb. It is another 45min and 1000ft of gain for most climbs. Do stay at the hut if you are there just to enjoy the views. This might be the best equipped hut in North America.
  • Take the smallest ice axe and lightest crampons you can. I had the Petzl Leopard FL and they were perfect, but I only have a 65cm axe, and that was annoying while climbing. You can leave gear at B-S col for some climbs, for others, it just has to come with you.
  • If it’s possible, carry up light mountain boots, approach shoes AND flip flops to Applebee. Whenever I was moving up or down the col, or on the route to Pigeon, I was glad to have mountain boots, the approach shoes will help on non-glacier routes around camp and keep you comfy on the West Ridge of Pigeon. Your feet will thank you for having flip flops around camp.
  • I have to get a better alpine rock harness. My gym harness is bulky and doesn’t fit well into packs. I opted to take the BD couloir instead. This worked great for the easier routes, but on the NE ridge, with a full rack, I was fighting it a lot.
  • Mason and I each carried a “single rack” - for me this was 2-3 micro cams, C4s from 0.5-#3, DMM wallnuts 1-7 and 6-7 slings. This was more than enough gear for the routes we did.
  • We also each carried a 60m single rope. My rope ended up staying in the tent the whole time, and was 8lbs of training on the hike in.
  • I drank the water, both from the lake and the tap, untreated for 7 days straight, and have yet to suffer any distress.
  • The snow melts really fast in July!
  • Chasing Mastery has some great information.
  • As usual, Steph Abegg’s two reports are unrivaled for climbing detail.

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