Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mt. Conness

In The Good, the Great, and the Awesome Peter Croft says of Mt. Conness's North Ridge, "This route has the most alpine feel of the Conness routes...." and describes it as "undeniably classic." That's exactly what we got climbing it this last Friday. Due to old man winter and his cronies hanging around longer this year, Conness looked more like the Sierra in March rather than late June. What is normally scree, scree and more scree was snow, snow, and more snow.

On the approach. This is summer?!

We got an early start, were around Saddlebag Lake in no time, and before long crampons were on, ice axes were out and it was on.

We headed up the snow field on the right, then climbed up and moved left along the snow toward the ridge where the climb began.

Pitching it out on what turned out to be fairly steep snow. One pitch up put us in a much better position.

We short-roped along the snowy ridge before and gained the first tower before we could finally ditch the crampons and do some normal climbing. The sound of crampons grinding on stone is none too pleasing.

Looking up the ridge, just after the initial snowfield climb.  This is before we took crampons off.  

A similar photo, early season, from  Look at how much less snow there is than when we were there!

Another shot of the ridge.

Barbara rocking it on lead.

Steve and John on top of the first tower (on the right).

Once we gained the first tower it was 2 rappels before the 5th class climbing began.  After the rappels we roped up and headed for the summit.  We got the treat of ducking around a corner and climbing over some seriously exposed terrain.  Fun-scary, for sure!

A 360 from the summit.

We summited, but as you know, that's only half the battle.  We had soft snow on the descent and definitely wanted to stay away from south-facing slopes.  What first seemed like it could have been a bit of a dicey descent was some down-climbing, a rappel, and lots of awesome glissading.  

The plateau after downclimbing and before the rappel.

The ridge we climbed as seen from the descent.  The first steeper section and change in incline on the left, moving right to left, is the first tower.

Steve showing us how it's done!

We ended up getting back to camp and continuing on down to the cars for a victory dinner at the Mobil.  An awesome alpine climb, snow, rock, beautiful weather, beautiful views, glissading; what more could you ask for?  What a great day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sawtooth Mountaineering Seminar, June 2011

Dan G. and I just finished this year's version of our comprehensive "Sawtooth Mountaineering Seminar". Designed to be a thorough introduction to snow and rock mountaineering skills, the SMS is always a great time, in a great place, with the usual cast of great SMG people.

This program was conducted as part of our scheduled offerings. We have a very deep list of possible courses and trips all around the world. All of these are available on a customized basis. Some of them, rotating on a seasonal and yearly basis, we offer scheduled, and therefore discounted below the custom rate. Lots of other guide services operate on that model. We, however, offer our scheduled trips with "no minimum to run." And that's unique. It means that folks, upon first signing up for a trip, can count on that trip running. Pretty simple, eh?

Dan was stoked to score a 1:1 course this time around in the Sawtooths. On the first day, we hiked from Twin Lakes near Bridgeport, CA up dry and flowery switchbacks to the snow line. We pitched camp, then did an afternoon of snow skills.

Each day we had awesome summer weather. Valley temperatures hit near 100 and the mountain sky stayed clear. We love those summer conditions, usually using the long days, dry afternoons, and good footing to cover tons of ground in the high country. This week near Matterhorn peak, however, represented the first distinct warm-up of the year. A very long winter and spring of abnormally heavy snowfall and cold, windy conditions left unseasonably deep snow uncharacteristically late. Warm temperatures will eventually melt and consolidate the snow, but the first big warm-up means some sloppy travel and elevated avalanche hazard.

Travel conditions and mountain hazards are very real parts of mountaineering, and we took the opportunity to discuss and make appropriate decisions. In this case, our best risk management tool was early morning travel on firmer snow.

The second day of the course we woke at 5 am and moved camp a couple thousand feet up into the snowy zone. We had our next camp set up by 9am, that day's lessons completed by noon, and were in "bed" by early afternoon.

Day 3 we woke at 1 am for a go at the summit of Matterhorn Peak. Dan, with fitness and stoicism from a long and happy career flying for the Air Force, never hesitated with the unorthodox sleeping and action patterns.

We caught sunrise from just below the summit of the peak. That's what its all about!

While descending in early morning light the snow was actually still firming up as the sun's heat intensified. At 2 am the snow was softer than at 8 am. These solstice nights are short, and the days are long and hot. Having a firm grasp of your solar patterns and the physics of phase changes helps with mountaineering. Who knew we'd call on those high school science lessons way out there?

On day 3, we were back in camp at 9 am with snow skills and a sweet summit solidly behind us. With another day and a half ahead, and high altitude rock existing as islands in a stormy sea of transitional summer snow, we elected to retreat to lower ground for the rockier portions of our course.

Day 4 we climbed the Regular Route on Cardinal Pinnacle, enjoying smaller packs, continued great weather, and discussions of climbing technique, interpersonal relations, and small-town gossip. What more can one ask for?

Monday, June 6, 2011

AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course, Eastern Sierra, June 2011

"The American Mountain Guide’s Association (AMGA) is the premier source for training, credentials, and services for professional mountain guides and
climbing instructors in the United States."

Becoming intimately familiar with the "training" portion of that organizational mission statement has become a large part of my life in the last number of years. And it looks like the "credential" portion of that will consume much of my life for the next few years, as I take my final exams on the way to securing IFMGA certification. Right now, in early June of 2011, I find myself in what I think is a bit of a unique position. With an observation of SMG's AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course this past weekend I have now participated in every outdoor course the AMGA has ever offered. Anyone else want to claim that?

What does it all mean? What ties it all together? The overwhelming theme among all these courses (9 of them: TRSMC (no longer offered), RIC, RGC, SGC, SMGC, AGC, AAGC, IIC, SPI... Gesundheit!) is professionalism. Guides work in a highly demanding, stressful environment. Whether that is at a crowded rock crag with a group of never-evers, or deep in the wilderness, alone with a strong climber on a technical ridge traverse a guide needs some structure from which to make choices and decisions. In these difficult and varied environments, we need experience, knowledge, personality, patience and a whole slew of other attributes you can't even begin to imagine. Formalized professional development courses provide that structure, as well as peer review and crucial skills.

This round of the AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course (June 3-5, 2011) was attended by a talented and varied group. We had a father-son team, just a few months into an open-ended climbing road trip. We had a charismatic veteran of 112 El Capitan ascents. We had a 5.12 crack climber and a relatively new leader. Also attending in various capacities were an SMG "consultant/intern", wrestling-coaching-single-father-engineer, and myself as the token "perpetual student". Talk about diversity of background!