Thursday, July 26, 2012

CAMP- Go Light Go Fast

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Alpine Rock Conditions Update
By Blake Herrington
Are you ready for Alpine Rock season? July is nearly gone and the days are already getting shorter. But with the sun still high in the sky and very low snowpacks from a dismal winter in many prime mountain areas, the time is perfect for long alpine rock climbs. Many of the nation's premier alpine venues are perfect right now, but here's a region-specific roundup to help you plan your trip...
Phantom Pack
The Phantom is a fully featured pack designed for alpine blitzes in all types of terrain and conditions. It is a universal favorite for our athletes who range in disciplines from alpine rock climbing where it excels as a lightweight on-route pack to light & fast peak baggers where it registers as about the lightest rig possible for carrying a light axe, crampons, layers and sustenance for a romp at altitude. The basic design is simple: 15 liters to carry that perfect amount of just enough, but not too much...
In honor of Justin Lichter (aka Trauma), we are giving away a Phantom pack – a product that truly embodies the light & fast minimalist ethic being driven by the world's most prolific through-hiker – and a copy of his new book, 'Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker's Insights Into Hiking & Backpacking,' that was released in May of 2012 and contains more applicable tips and tricks than any book we have ever read on the subject. For a complete review, see our post from May 14 HERE.
Congratulations to last month's winner, Doug, who won a Laser CR harness from Cassin; our newest laminate construction big mountain harness.
As a CAMP USA E-News subscriber, you are automatically entered in the monthly gear drawing. Tell your friends and good luck!
  Trail Tested: A Thru-Hikers Insights into Hiking & Backpacking
Phantom pack
For any questions always refer to the C.A.M.P. USA website, C.A.M.P. Italy’s website For reference to any manufacturing or fall standards refer to the UIAA website
Warning: Climbing is dangerous. It is the sole responsibility of the purchaser or user of any C.A.M.P. technical adventure equipment to get proper instruction and to act safely and in accordance with the uses and specifications outlined by C.A.M.P. in its product literature. It is your responsibility to learn how to use the product safely. Product instruction manuals are available for download on all relevant product pages. If you have any questions about the specific function of a piece of climbing equipment, contact C.A.M.P. USA before use.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Evolution Traverse, July 2012

"When will I stop doing the hardest thing I have ever done?" 

Jon A., July 2012, high in the Evolution Peaks.

The Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9) as seen from its final peak.

That is a great question for any of us!  What ever possesses us to do these things?  Needless to say, Jon does not shirk from challenge.  We have already expounded on his prodigious apetite for facing big endeavors with a hard-core work ethic and tough-to-the-soul grit.  Jon's self-awareness, the detachment that allows him to question these things, does nothing to make these efforts less intense.  For an athlete, the Evolution Traverse is little more than rocks and weather and effort.  For the more philosophical type, tackling the big questions through climbing heightens the experience to nearly life-altering status.   What's not to love about heightening an experience?!  

In any case, words and pictures, this soon after an event of this magnitude, do little to capture it all.  That being said, here you are. looking.  Check us out, and stay tuned as Jon and I "process" all this (not to mention eat and sleep and socialize).  
Early on the route, partway up Mt. Gould

Darwin Summit campsite.

Day 3, foul weather threatens.  You know you're on a big route when just part of it is getting rained on.

Movement is the name of the game.  Constant movement...

"How many peaks have we climbed?

You don't know how good green grass can look and feel and smell. Cruising in "the glow" down at Evolution Lake

A week later, now... (July 30, 2012)

Jon and I are still recovering and adapting.  Physical repercussions continue to manifest.  "Processing" what this route means continues.  I am spinning my legs and lungs at about 60% of capacity.  Jon's fingers are delaminating in a big way.  My laundry just got washed this morning.  Jon's enthusiastic and hyperbolic characterizations of the value of this adventure we shared demonstrate a mind clearly still addled by the altitude.   

"you gave me an adventure of a ever need to be bailed out of jail or 'get rid' of a body just call,  I owe you one"  -The ever-quotable Jon A. July 30, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summery Summary, Part 1

SMG guide Jed Porter expounds on his diverse guiding experiences from Summer 2012 to date. Enjoy!

How do you measure Summer?  Someone once decided that the longest day of the year marks the start of summer.  Summer partiers count July 4 as their kickoff.  Sierra climbers watch the snow-line retreat and mix in a little consideration to the monsoonal thunderstorm forecast and come up with their own definition entirely.  By the latter algorithm, we've already had a couple months of summer up here.  This particular Sierra Mountain Guide has been out and about, covering dry ground and making the most of a relatively quiet (until just recently...) electrical weather forecast.  This first big round of rain and lightning is the perfect turning point at which to do a little catch-up and reflection.  Let us begin this recollection just after Memorial Day.

The last day of May, Howie, Neil and I went out on a huge day to scout a more efficient and safe way to negotiate a big new SMG endeavor.  Howie did some more scouting more recently. Stay tuned...

On the first of June Thomas G. and I did the big and neo-classic SE Face of Mt. Emerson.

High on Emerson.

SMG all-stars Chad B and John W and I knocked out a traverse of Mt. Russell-in-A-Day (MiRAD?  Well, am I?) Check out about a gazillion of Chad's pictures.

Jon A and I traversed the Palisades and documented it here and here:

Palisades Traverse from Jon Arlien on Vimeo.

Most of us Sierra Mountain Guides got together in mid-June to "train".  Mainly we heckled each other, hassled Howie's 1 year old, Cosmo, and roasted in the sun. We did some good rescue skills and procedures review and had some great technical discussions. We are all better guides for it.

On two separate trips, Brian S. and Sean M. joined me for some customized rock instruction.  These guys each took forward leaps in their climbing abilities and confidence.  To their credit, each of these dudes came in with a fair to considerable prior experience.  Soliciting professional oversight and conjuring the humility to receive that mentorship has done each of them a great service.

Jeff B. came down from Alberta, CA to climb on our solid rock and sunny skies.  His first impression of climbing here, distilled when I suggested we meet at a relatively relaxing 8am, was casual yet athletic.  In the end, I think he left with the same impression.  Good rock, good weather, huge relief!

Jeff near the top of the North Ridge of Independence Peak.  "Well, in Canada..."

North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak.  "... we may have helis and huts and such.  But the Sierra kicks ass, eh?"

Well-representing his home-country, Jeff can hang with the best of our rock jocks all while talking wistfully of skiing the Caribou Traverse, the Haute Route ("A few trips over there") and what seemed like about 8 "annual" mountain trips.   Over our three days together, Jeff managed to give a virtual tour of interior Canada's (and beyond) incredible mountain landscape, humbly painting a picture of a balanced mountain-filled life:   

"Yeah, I try and do a big tenting ski traverse each year."  
"Well, my buddies and I go to the Asulkan Cabin every year".  
"Yeah, my kids love this stuff.  Usually it's a ski trip, but last year we went kayaking in Baja for a couple weeks".  
"This convention each year in San Diego gives me a chance to tour the Southwest on my own.  Last year it was Snow Creek on San Jacinto."  
"One of our crew usually wins the Fairy Meadows Hut lottery.  This year we have two weeks there".  

How the heck does this guy do it?  Inspiring!

You want inspiring?  Tess F. came out from, of all places, Ohio to celebrate her high school graduation with four days in the Whitney zone.  If Jeff can reflect on a long and impassioned mountain life (with much more to come), Tess can look forward to the same.  She's got that "spark" and the focus to pull off big things with aplomb.  Tess has been climbing for a little over a year.  She took an accelerated version of the modern climber's progression:  Climbing gym, outdoor course, job at the gym, lead outdoors, multi-pitch course, lead multi-pitch (Her outdoor experience is from well-known Seneca Rocks in West Virginia), and then here to the Sierra for an alpine introduction.  

We approached, fished, bouldered, sent the East Buttress of Whitney and the Fishhook Arete (with a descent of the East Ridge), all in 4 days.  We had some cold and wind and tons of high-altitude time.  Tess pulled it all off without a struggle.  From the moment we left Whitney Portal, every step up was a new altitude record for her.  Just awesome!

Granite, water, desert, sliver of snow.  East Buttress, Mt. Whitney.

Granite, water, desert, sliver of snow.  East Ridge, Mt. Russell

Next up, without any pictures unfortunately, was an attempt at ticking off the classic Evolution Loop Trek.  Kim and Sean came out for a vacation.  When it turned out that the full loop, given their intense travel schedule and a death in the family and the altitude, would be a bit much, we quickly and smoothly adapted.  We did some camping, some day-hikes, some fishing, and some rock-climbing.  Now that's a vacation!

Speaking of vacation, and summer, the SMG kids programs (Scramblers and the new Senders) present an opportunity for young visitors and residents of the Eastern Sierra to participate in that summer vacation "rite of passage".   Summer camp has it's own distinct feel.  You remember that, right?  While a summer camp might offer some specialty skill or fit some genre (music, camping, wilderness, "sleep-away", etc.  Our offering is rock climbing, duh!), to me the distinct summer camp feel is the sense of playful relaxation that is unparalleled anywhere else.  Fortunately, this carefree feeling is accessible to participants and staff alike.  Sure, we all work hard, whether it's staff setting up ropes at 6am and keeping "the-head-on-a-swivel" 'til 4 or "campers" trying yet another hard climb.  But we also play hard, conjuring that essential sense of buoyant whimsy.

Barbara (with the bucket) and Jed (behind the camera) "working" hard.  What feels like summer more than clingy wet clothes after a hot dusty day?

Finally, bringing us to this arbitrarily chosen summer "mid-point", I just finished a 6-day custom itinerary with John B.  (what is it with Jo[h]ns and Seans this summer?)  

Our week together shook out like this:

Day 1:  Hike to 3rd Lake
Day 2: Venusian Blind Arete on Temple Crag.  "The biggest rock climb I have ever done!"
Day 3:  Move camp up toward Glacier
Day 4: Swiss Arete, Mount Sill.  "My best day in the mountains ever!"
Day 5: Exit, with a swim in 4th Lake.  "The best beer I have ever had"  ;-)
Day 6:  Crystal Crag.

Classic view of a classic pitch on a classic route in classic conditions.  With the classic reaction:  "Damn, that was big!"  Venusian, Temple, Sierra, CA, USA.

Whew, eh?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Evolution Half-traverse" with Glen Plake

The Evolution Ridge near sunset
The Evolution Traverse is an impressive length of continuous ridge on the Sierra Crest not far from Bishop, CA. It features an aesthetic wilderness setting, spectacular climbing on the very crest of the ridge, and reasonably solid alpine granite for much of the way. Peter Croft called it "...the best traverse I have done." in his Sierra rock climbing guidebook. He first ran the complete ridge in 1999 by himself.  Since then there have been less than 20 complete traverses by some calculations. Not surprising given the length and remoteness of the ridge, but a little surprising since the climbing aesthetics really are quite a bit better than many other alpine ridges in the range.

Solid granite on Mt. Warlow
To complete this ridge requires high-level fitness, solid alpine rock climbing skill, as well as light and fast backcountry gear and technique. Croft, and most others after him, have sent the ridge in a single big effort with no bivies, from a camp at Darwin Bench. To do this generally involves climbing ropeless for nearly, or entirely, all of the ridge. Not all climbers are willing to take that risk for themselves. Some bring the weight of a small cord and a very lightweight harness for rappels, to avoid soloing some challenging downclimbing. Most have gone without bivy gear and committing to the full distance, or possibly opting off the ridge early if out of daylight. Jed Porter, one of our guides, has been spending some time up there lately. He and his partner Alex showed that using common guiding rope management techniques it was possible to protect many of the most challenging and exposed climbing sections with a rope and minimal climbing hardware. SMG started offering the Evo Traverse this year on a custom basis as an advanced guided climb, which means it will be roped for maximum safety on all technical sections.

It takes a lot of skill and experience to traverse the Evolution Ridge, guided or unguided. That doesn't mean that you can't opt to bite off a bit less of it in order to experience the majestic location, scenery, and aesthetic climbing it has to offer.

Glen Plake beneath Mt. Haeckel
Famous ski athlete, and international ambassador to the sport, Glen Plake (yes, a friend who put extreme mohawk skiing on the map in the 80's) and I went out for a little mountain romp and found that the "Evolution Half-Traverse" is a way worthy outing to consider if you are up for a lighter version of the original Croft itinerary. Here are the details:

  • About 3.5 miles of ridge line from Haeckel Col to Mt. Huxley. This avoids the crux section of the full Evolution Traverse, just south of Mt. Darwin, but some would argue that it features the best rock climbing sections in terms of aesthetics and rock quality.
  • First, bring some excellent mountain fitness, prior acclimatization, climbing skills of around solid 5.9, and solid rope management skill and climbing systems application (if you choose to use a rope).
  • Have some prior mileage on exposed, technical alpine rock ridges to improve routefinding and comfort in exposed terrain.
  • Have backcountry camping experience, but also the ability to go light and fast, and take care of yourselves (stay warm, fed and hydrated) overnight with a minimalist bivouac kit.
We did this as a trailhead to trailhead 2-day summer trip which was fun, and recommended for some, but I suggest to consider going for 3 or 4 days to make it more comfortable and reasonable, without any more ridge climbing weight. The full Evo Traverse generally takes 3-5 days roundtrip to trailhead with 1-3 days on the ridge, versus this itinerary at 2-4 days with 1-2 days on the ridge.

Recommended Itinerary: 3 or 4 days

Haeckel Col
Day 1 - Hike in from Sabrina Lake trailhead to the alpine lake just below Haeckel Col (Lake 12345). there is a beautiful sandy campsite just north of the lake. The approach can be done either up through Midnight Lake or from Hungry Packer Lake finding the line of weakness and some class 3-4 on ledges that lead up to the cirque above.

Near Mt. Fiske
Day 2 - Decide if you wan to try to do a big 1 day blast or 2 days on the ridge. This will make a big difference in what you carry and climbing strategy. Most 1 day climbers will be comfortable soloing the majority of the ridge, which will save time. Be prepared for a total of around 8-20+ hours of ridge travel for the full distance. You will have to know enough about your own individual or team climbing speed to anticipate whether to go for it in a single push or a 2-day climb. Obviously, going as a 2-day requires a heavier pack and will slow things down considerably. That said, 2 days can still mean a light load in the Sierra. The slower speed and security of having the ability to spend the night as needed is refreshing, and the ambience of a night on the ridge is unforgettable.

Approaching Mt. Warlow
Mt. Haeckel is a delightful 4th class romp. After that it gets pretty non-technical with lots of class 2-3 and some looser sections, until the ridge turns southwest toward Mt. Fiske. On the entire traverse be sure to stay as close to the ridge as seems practical. When you see an easy, obvious sidewalk around complicated gendarmes, it makes sense to take it. Otherwise, stay right on the ridge crest as much as possible. There you will generally find the most solid rock, the most exposed and beautiful climbing, and plenty of good juggy handholds and cracks. The best bivy spots are just East of Mt. Fiske, many of which hold snow for melt in early season, and some even late into the summer. Just east of the Fiske summit is a big plateau with tons of awesome sandy spots that are as comfy any alpine bivy site can be. This is also a good stopping point for breaking up the effort into 2 days.

If doing the entire "half-traverse" in a day combine Day 2 & 3 as described here.

On Mt. Warlow

Day 3 - continue over Fiske to Warlow. The Fiske-Warlow col to the summit of Warlow is the highlight. A nice long section of rising ridge traverse on excellent granite. Again, stay on the crest or risk missing the best climbing. The ridge to Huxley is super fun, and the ridge that ascends to the peak has some of the most fun climbing on the entire ridge. After the summit of Mt. Huxley, continue north on the ridge, past the first gully to the west that you can see from the summit. Look for cairns that mark the ridge entrance to one of 2 descent gullies. The gully to the left of the ridge is probably a bit easier to get into than than the one on the right, but either go with some loose, steep scree sliding.

Mt. Huxley
At the bottom of the gully,  there are options for getting into the Sapphire Lake basin. Beware that the north facing gullies hold snow from the winter. Unless you have crampons and ice axes (because it is early season), we recommend either descending the small gully that starts at 11,400, assuming there is no unavoidable snow in it, through talus. Or, alternatively, play it safe by descending gently west to the John Muir Trail. 

Either way, cross country east up the drainage west of Mt. Haeckel. Haeckel Col is accessed via a surprisingly stable scree gully just left of a major slabby granite cirque. Pass below the giant chimney to the right (class 3) to a stable talus field. Aim just left of the rounded rock outcrop on the ridge and you will arrive at the ideal spot on Haeckel Col. Descend to your camp by the lake.

Route back to Haeckel Col is just left of granite slabs 

Day 4 - Hike out in the morning. Consider some fishing on the way out, or if feeling randy, tag Picture Peak via one of the NE face routes.

This lollipop loop offers a "lite" but fully worthy outing for those with time constraints or for any skilled climber who really wants to take their time to make ridge traversing more safe and enjoyable. It avoids the most technical sections of ridge and can be done relatively easily with light packs, no ice axe or crampons, and with few to no rappels or belayed pitches.

Recommended Equipment (typical summer conditions):
  • Lightweight shelter - for camp
  • Food hang kit - to keep rodents out of stashed food at camp 
  • Bivy kit (for 2 days on ridge)
    • bivy sac (optional, weather dependent)
    • sleeping bag (30-45 degree down)
    • ultralight sleeping pad
    • ultralight cook kit (stove/pot/fuel capable of melting snow for water)
    • ultralight meals (just add water, cook in the cup style for saving fuel and weight)
  • Headlamp
  • Clothing
    • Weather resistant shell(s)
    • Light fleece
    • Light down or synthetic insulating sweater
    • Baselayers
    • Handwear
    • Climbing pants
    • Hat
    • Socks
  • Sunscreen/lip balm
  • Sunglasses
  • Technical Gear (totally depends on group and climbing strategy) 
    • 30m single or half rope, (or emergency dyneema/spectra rap cord). Note that small diameter ropes are less strong and take extreme caution to avoid being cut on sharp edges during use on rock. 
    • Very light alpine rack
    • A couple slings, extra carabiners, and a belay device
    • Helmet (highly recommended)
    • Ice axe and crampons - may be needed early season.
    • Sticky rubber approach shoes (if climbing shoes and chalk seem necessary this route may be beyond your skills)
  • Cup & spoon (a titanium or aluminum cup can help collect firm snow if without an ice axe)
  • Stuff sack - for collecting snow
  • First aid kit
  • Knife, tape
  • Snacks, bars, gels, sandwiches, etc.
  • Toiletries - remember to Leave No Trace, pack out your TP or burn it completely.
  • SPOT or other satellite communication - consider that this area is very remote for rescue and there is likely no cell service in this area in the event of an emergency.
Evolution Ridge from Evolution Basin

Enjoy this classic traverse and we would love to hear how it goes for you! If you like it, come back and do the first section of the ridge. If you are interested in some technical instruction or review on light and fast alpine climbing technique, adding security and efficiency on classic ridge traverses, or alpine bivy technique feel free to contact us and we are happy to  put together a custom course for you and your climbing partners.

Happy climbing!
Howie Schwartz, UIAGM guide & SMG co-owner

AMGA Certified Guides

*Sierra Mountain Guides was the first, and is currently one of the few, guide services in the US that require guides to be AMGA certified or actively on track toward certification in the guiding disciplines they work.

Elevation Outdoors

The Guide Line

by Doug Schnitzspahn on June 27, 2012
Guided Red Rocks
Haul Bag? Nope. The six-day AMGA rock guide exam requires climbers to learn client care beyond belays.

The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is attempting to make sure people who go out climbing, mountaineering and skiing with guides get what they pay for. But in a culture that encourages free enterprise is Euro-style guiding the answer? It may be the only way to go as younger climbers buy into international accreditation and land managers nationwide demand that guides know what the hell they are doing.

Read the full article here at Elevation Outdoors Magazine!