2016-07-24

Poncione di Cassina Baggio (2860m) via Piccadilly Bedretto (6a+, 10 pitches, 420m)

There's a chance for thunderstorms for most of Switzerland all weekend. Lightning in the mountains is no joke when you are attached to metal pieces and sticking out as the highest point on the ridge. Thus Florian, Alex, Mark and I decide to cross the main ridge of the alps to sunny Ticino on the Italian side. We are met with perfect weather at the Nufenen pass and hike for about 1.5 hours to reach the start of our objective for the day: the route Piccadilly Bedretto, 420 meters of climbing over 10 pitches of beautiful granite. Mark and I make up one rope team while Florian and Alex constitute the second.

The topo...
...the wall.
Approach.

There's another group of climbers at the base, three Italian speaking folks who take an eternity to get started and shout a lot. We are slightly worried this might slow us down and get everyone in danger because of rockfall from the leading party. However, it works itself out perfectly. The trio starts up the Grüen Nils route, Mark and I get the Piccadilly Bedretto as planned and Alex and Florian spontaneously decide to climb the Herbstwind in between the two other routes.

Mark
The slabby beginning.
Alex working his way up.

The wall is separated into two very distinct sections: The lower half is slabby, low angle terrain, while the upper half rises up until it is vertical. I enjoyed the steep pitches much more. They were more sustained and more interesting climbing. The crux however, was in the lower half: a very blank slab that could only be climbed with very precise footwork and still felt extremely slippery. The guidebook marks this as an A0 section, implying many people aid through it by pulling on gear. I tried to avoid that, but still needed to rest on the rope to get my psyche up. Oh well.

I used every opportunity to give my tortured left toe some rest.
Mark in one of the steeper final pitches.

The routes are perfectly bolted in the sense that whenever it is not possible to place gear, you'll find a bolt in just the right spot. Conversely, whenever there is a nice crack you are expected to use your own friends and nuts. Unfortunately Alex and Florian didn't bring any trad gear, so Alex performs some daring leads with long runouts of 10, 15 meters and more. Scary to watch even at a distance.

Florian
Yay! Made it!
On the ridge.

We don't linger around the "summit" (really just the ridge) for long, but start rappelling right away. The rappels are set up for 50 meter ropes while we are using 60 meter ropes. That, and the fact that I didn't study the topo very thoroughly, makes me go down the wrong side of a big buttress and miss the next rappel anchor. I try to improvise something, but the nice flake I eyed from above as a good opportunity turns out to be a man sized loose block that moves as soon as I pull on it. So I climb back up a bit and wait for Mark to rescue me by rappelling to the right side of the buttress and finding the correct anchor. Wasted quite some time on this mistake...

Alex having some fun on the rappel.

We make it back to the car just in time with the goats going home too ;-) The Gotthard tunnel is blocked by the customary traffic jam. We think we are very clever because the Nufenen pass comes in from the side, skipping the entire queue. Unfortunately the onramp is blocked by the police who only let a handful of people in every half hour or so. Still a much shorter wait than the full jam, where people are having picnics on the highway next to their cars. The tunnel delivers its usual magic: nice and warm on one side, torrential rain on the other. It's so bad that even with wipers at full speed visibility is still shit and traffic slows down to 70km/h.

Anyway, fantastic day with great climbing in great company. We can do that again!

2016-07-16

Mt Shuksan (2783m) via Fisher Chimneys

Mt Shuksan.

"Mt. Shuksan epitomizes the jagged alpine peak like no other massif in the North Cascades... it has no equal in the range when one considers the structural beauty of its four major faces and five ridges... There is no other sample in the American West of a peak with great icefall glaciers derived from a high plateau, and in the Pacific Northwest it is the only non-volcanic peak whose summit exceeds timberline by more than 3000 feet... Shuksan is one of the finest mountaineering objectives in the North Cascades and its reputation is certainly deserved; a wide variety of challenges can be encountered on this quite complex mountain. The climber has a choice of rock walls, moderate firnfields, steep ice, and easy scrambling. Despite a sometimes-forbidding appearance, Shuksan has yielded 14 routes, numerous variations, and impressive subsidiary climbs, including some directly up dangerous ice cliffs."

- Fred Becky (Cascade Alpine Guide : Rainy Pass to Fraser River)

Front to back: Anton, Ralf, Matt
Archer, Matt, Ralf, Pawel, Anton

I invited my cousin Anton along for the trip. Here's what he had to say about it:

Mountaineering for dummies: wait for one of your cousins to email you a climbing invitation; accept invitation; print off gear checklist and purchase all items you do not currently own; try on new boots and crampons, walk around yard and climb up steep piles of dirt to test;

Hello Mom!
Scrambling up the chimneys.
The chimneys were mostly free of snow.

put gear in truck and drive across border into USA; sleep; wake up early, meet said cousin + backup Googlers + guides; walk for a long time through a beautiful national forest (note: it appears preferable to pick a very foggy and/or rainy day to set out); when trail becomes extremely steep, deploy climbing harness and fasten yourself to someone nearby; keep climbing; if you find a small flat spot, call it a ‘camp’ and leave half your important stuff there;

On the Upper Curtis glacier.
Scaling the steep Hell's Highway.

apply crampons and deploy ice axe; climb and/or walk around on a glacier for a long time; when you reach a steep pile of rocks, remove crampons; climb steep pile of rocks until you reach the top; take photograph;

Looking back to Hell's Highway.
The summit pyramid - we're not done yet!

it will now likely be very late and the sun will be going down, so deploy headlamp; start rappelling down off the steep pile of rocks, and half way down, for added excitement, rappel down a rope that is attached to a sling that is about to break – for maximum enjoyability, land in a small patch of snow; remind yourself how important it was that you reached the top of this particular pile of rocks while waiting for the second rope team to rescue you; keep rappelling until at bottom of steep pile of rocks;

Climbing up the summit pyramid.
Summit!
View towards Mt Baker. Not much sunlight left.

climb and/or walk around on a glacier for a long time until you reach your ‘camp’; it will now likely be 3AM, but don’t worry, it won’t take very long to set up your tents, because you don’t have any – instead, set up a small tarp that is pretending to be a tent; eat dinner; put on everything warm that you have packed and go into your sleeping bag for no more than 3.5 hours (it appears to be very important to minimize sleep while mountaineering); enjoy fantastic view of Mt. Baker on waking (bonus: because you’re not actually in a tent, you can just lay there in your sleeping bag to enjoy said view);

Anton, on a rappel shortly before the anchor snapped.
Returning in the light of the (nearly) full moon.
Setting up snow anchors.

Optional activity: shit into a plastic bag and then pack this into your backpack (note: I am still very confused by this bit of mountaineering);

Comfortably sleeps four ;-)
Contemplating the universe.
Mt Baker.
Scrambling down.

down-climb and/or rappel until the trail is no longer extremely steep; walk for a long time through a beautiful national forest (note: it appears preferable to schedule a thundershower for at least the last hour of this final walking part); if you have followed these steps properly,

Lake Ann.

congratulations, you will have just spent 31 hours going up to the top of a large pile of rocks and coming down again!

"Hey Anton! What do you think about pooping in bags and hiking in the rain?"
Delta knows what's up.

2016-07-10

Mt Stuart (2870m) via West ridge (5.4)

Our original objective for the weekend was the Mt Baker North ridge. However, the weather was really bad and it didn't seem feasible to go. So we sat in KAF adventures' office and discussed our options with the founder and head guide Mick. We eventually settled to try a local rock climbing crag on Saturday and go for Mt Stuart on Sunday. Stuart is on the East side of the cascade range which enjoys drier weather.

We only climbed one route here - too wet.
This corner was much more fun!
Pearl Jam radio - how awesome is that?!
Not too shabby a campsite.

The poetically named "Exit 32" crag is well bolted and easily accessible by a short half hour hike. The first wall we tried was all wet and slimy, making the climbing all that much harder. So we went a bit further along the trail to a wall that is overhanging enough to stay mostly dry even in rain and climbed a few pitches there. Overall a pretty enjoyable experience and a good getting to know one another excercise. After all, Mick will be trusting us as his belayers later on the mountain. We found us a nice spot to pitch our tents along the Lake Ingalls trail and went to sleep early. Mick had to sleep on the rope and backpacks because he forgot to bring a mat ;-)

The trip nearly ended early when I broke through a snow bridge and fell into the Bergschrund for 1.5 meters or so.
This guy wasn't intimidated by us at all.
Mick, Sören, Marmot.

We headed up the trail around 4 in the morning. Mt Stuart is quite inaccessible, so we'd have to cross two passes in order to even reach the mountain. This is why Mick kept calling this "A Big Day!" and had never before climbed the mountain in a single push. This would become a recurring meme between the three of us: Mick told us that he'd typically set up a bivy about three hours short of the summit, camp there, and then climb the mountain. So Pawel and me kept exclaiming "bivy!" for every good bivy spot we found (and there were many). To which Mick would always respond: "Not even close yet". Long day indeed. In the end the car to car round trip time would turn out to be around 21 hours after which we'd drive back to Seattle and go to the office the next morning.

Still on easy terrain on the approach.
Finally we've reached the mountain proper!

The mountain is huge and the route complex and convoluted. Says the guidebook:

"Without a rival as the crown peak in the central Cascades of Washington, Mount Stuart has been pronounced the single greatest mass of exposed granite in the United States...its northern and eastern faces are the alpine climax of the Wenatchee Mountains. They make a powerful impact on first sight...The mountaineering problems are magnified by the mountain's massive dimensions and its complexity." -- "Cascade Alpine Guide - Climbing and High Routes - Columbia River to Stevens Pass, Second Edition" by Fred Beckey.

"the route is long and complicated with many opportunities to get off route onto more difficult terrain. While a strong experienced party can complete the route in one day car to car from the Teanaway Trailhead, it is not uncommon for parties to have route finding problems and bivouac on the route or descent" -- summitpost.org

Visibility was shit most of the day because we were climbing in a cloud. Thus even Mick's navigational skills were tested and I'm pretty sure we deviated from the easiest line occasionally. The West ridge we were climbing is supposedly graded 5.4 climbing which translates to a 4a in the French system more commonly used in the alps. This is a grade I've climbed barefoot and hands-free before, thus it shouldn't pose any difficulty whatsoever. Not so here. The rock was wet and the crux section so difficult that Mick had to aid it by pulling on gear while leading it.

Mick leading into the difficult bit.
Nice balcony. A bad placement nearly made a pillar of rock as tall as a man collapse onto us.

At one point Pawel got completely stuck in a tricky sequence of moves. He's an endurance monster, but his most recent climbing experience before this weekend was 7 years in the past. We fumbled around for nearly an hour, trying to find a solution with stepping on slings and such. Pawel was about to give up and call it quits before I eventually managed to place a small cam in a crack that enabled me to hang off the wall and offer my shoulder as a foothold. This unblocked us and the rest of the route turned out much easier. Booked as a team building exercise ;-)

The way ahead? I completely lost any sense of direction and didn't even know which compass direction we were headed in anymore. Luckily Mick did (and used his iPhone GPS...).
"Bivy!"
Summit!
The gang.

Spirits were high and we went a little insane along the way (altitude? jet-lag? ;-)). After I related the story of Boaty McBoatface we took to naming everything after this scheme and we had Chilly McChillface and Slimy McSlimeface and so on. Mick was also really easy to get started chanting made up songs. You'd throw some random sentence fragments at him and he'd pick them up and turn them into a spontaneous nonsensical limerick. Good fun.

Finally clearing up a bit.
Easier, but weird terrain. Never encountered a sandy beach this steep before.

When we finally made it to the summit I got a good laugh out of the others when I proudly proclaimed that we had climbed "Mount... What is it called again?". The descent was long, but much easier than the ascent. We had to negotiate steep snow of about 40 degrees and a lot of scree and sandy slopes. Around 7pm the clouds finally cleared up enough for us to enjoy a view. From that point on it was still an endless slog over two passes back to the car. We did a lot of that in the pale moonlight, using our headtorches only once we were in the shade of the trees.

Using any opportunity for rest at this point...

All in all a fantastic outing. Thank you Mick for turning a rained out weekend into a truly remarkable experience and for trusting us with "A Big Day" like this.

~2774m up and down, ~30km