Thursday, June 28, 2012

Temple Crag Celestial Weekend 2012

I met up with Taylor and John at our Bishop office to do a gear check and packing session prior to our weekend journey to Temple Crag. Both Taylor and John have climbed with SMG for some time and were well prepared for a big adventure. Taylor and Howie planned to climb Darkstar while John and I would be on the stunning Sun Ribbon Arête. Darkstar is rated Grade V 5.10b and Sun Ribbon is a Grade IV 5.10a. After a quick lunch in Bishop we swung by Howie’s house in Big Pine and then cruised up to the trailhead at the North Fork of Big Pine creek. The approach to Temple Crag involves classic variable Eastern Sierra terrain. We started at the Glacier Lodge and quickly gained elevation crossing some footbridges and making our way up the dessert trial. After about an hour we rounded a corner and were greeted by the North Fork of Big Pine creek falling down the valley in several cascades and waterfalls.
Just above the dry dessert gave way to an amazing high alpine meadow. The new terrain was replete with Quaking aspens, alpine flowers, meandering creeks, and grassy expanses. The contrast is so striking that is never gets old. All of us have spent time in the area and for me I can’t imagine getting to a point where I take this area for granted. After the meadows we passed a forest service cabin on our way to our first views of Temple crag.
As you near 1st Lake you come around a bend and are slapped with an incredible view of the lake and Temple Crag in the background. That time of day the light pulls the arêtes out form the crag and allows great views of the routes.
It didn’t take any time from there to get to camp at 3rd lake. We set up camp, had a great dinner and went to bed early to get some rest for a big day. We got a dark start on our climb day and John and I said goodbye to Taylor and Howie at 5am.
They started for Darkstar
and we went up to the Sun Ribbon arête. Our climb started off with some easy talus and scree climbing to the bottom of a steep snowfield. John and I got our crampons and ice axes out and headed up the frozen neve. The snow brought us to a big ledge traverse that lead to the bottom of the first pitch.
With 20 pitches of climbing ahead of us we wasted no time diving in. The sun was just warming us as we started up the first pitch. After an remarkable morning of arête climbing
we found ourselves staring at the Tyrolean Traverse pitch.
After about 8 tries we were able to catch one of the flakes on the other side of the 20’ gap. Many more marvelous pitches let to the summit ridge.
Near the ridge we were able to see Howie and Taylor on Darkstar to our North. You really can gain perspective when you can see climbers mixed in with the big terrain. I thought about taking a picture of them but reconsidered as it would have been a classic where’s Waldo. John and I went for the summit of Temple
and then descended to Contact Pass. We could see Howie and Taylor making their way down and we descended back to the base of the route. After connecting with Howie and Taylor on the descent to camp we traded stories from our climbs and finished our 15-hour day with a big dinner and a well-deserved rest. All in all this was a mind-blowing adventure for all of us.
Big thanks to Talyor and John for being well prepared and trained for such a big day. -Neil

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wild Alpine / Ultima Thule - Alaska Ski! 2012

This year's AK ski adventure was "all time." I think that is the modern lingo for "best ever." Aside from the fact that we skied perfect snow on all but 1 out of 7 mountain days, numerous descents in the 40-45 degree range on rarely (if ever) travelled, gigantic scale glaciers; and aside from the great company, excellent food, fine lodge hospitality, and breathtaking scenery, we did all of it in the heart of the most incredible and remote ski mountaineering range in the world - the Wrangells.

Check out these stats on the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve:

  • Largest National Park in U.S. (13.2 millon acres)
  • Contains 4 mountain ranges and 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S.
  • Contains the largest concentration of 14,000'+ peaks in North America
  • Contains the largest glacier icefield, largest inland glacier, and the largest tidewater glacier on Earth
  • Features Mt. St. Elias, 4th highest mountain in North America, with greatest vertical relief of any peak on Earth. (18000' in 10 miles)
  • Part of the largest Protected Landmass on Earth  (Wrangell-Saint Elias + Kluane in Canada)

Wild Alpine is the guide service we use that holds permits to this incredible Park. Ultima Thule is the lodge and outfitter that gave us fantastic, remote Alaskan accommodations, food, and flights. Paul Claus is one of the best bush pilots anywhere and I have been privileged to fly with him many times since 1996. Returning to this inspiring place after almost 10 years was a powerful experience for me. Like connecting to a very special time in life when mountains played a major role in forming my young adult perspective. Alaskan friends are friends for life and it was great to reconnect.

It seems that Taylor and Louise, the skiers on this trip, had a life changing experience as well. They walked around in utter disbelief of where we were the whole time, and it was indeed surreal to be having such a good time skiing in such an out there place. Louise was the true inspiration of the trip. At age 70 she kept up like a champ and showed that you are never too old for the spirit of adventure. She even skied a few very steep lines that were slightly outside of her comfort zone. What a courageous mountaineer! Taylor was so enthusiasic and it was such a pleasure to be able to share this landscape with him. He has become such a strong ski mountaineer over the last few years of trips we have enjoyed together. Both of these skiers may never experience this level of wilderness again and I am grateful for the opportunity to share turns in this special place with both of them.

Thanks to everyone who helped us pull this adventure off. Stay tuned for more ski trips in the Wrangell-St. Elias in the future.

See the photos and video from our trip which will give you more of the full story. Enjoy!
- Howie Schwartz, UIAGM Ski & Mountain Guide

Friday, June 8, 2012

Palisade Traverse, June 2012

Jon asked the typical questions.  "How many times have you done the Palisade Traverse?"  "Does it ever get boring?"  The first question does not have a ready answer, which is the reason that the second does.  First of all, it never gets boring in the Palisades.  That is because it is never the same twice.  I have indeed spent a lot of time on the ridge-crest between Thunderbolt and Sill.  Guiding and personal trips have had me up there linking at least four of the area's five "14ers" eight times in the last four years.  And that doesn't count the attempts that came up short.  I can honestly say that no two of those trips were at all alike.  This trip with ultra-running and self-deprecating B.A. Jon A. was no exception.  We wanted to get Jon up there early in the season, and keep us both in approach shoes the entire way.  We wanted to get some huge days of traversing under our harnesses.  Fulfilling these objectives would get Jon on his way to his next big mission.  Stay tuned, and in the meantime ponder that this was just Jon's "warm-up".
This view never gets old.
Anyway, we set out to tweak the standard guided Palisade Traverse itinerary.  Inspired by our very own Peter Croft's interpretation of this mega-classic traverse, we set out to approach and exit on the east and connect Winchell Col and Mt. Sill via the crest.  Measured on Google Earth (using my new favorite tech tool, USGS topo overlays available here) this section of ridge is a mile and a half.  The "meat" of it is found between Thunderbolt and Polemonium.  This section contains the best rock in the Palisades and the highest concentration of technical 14ers in the country.  And this section is just a half-mile long.  The often, and understandably, skipped NW ridge of Thunderbolt is a half-mile long on its own.  The mathematician will quickly deduce that the section from Polemonium to Sill is a half-mile long also.  In any case, we couldn't let Jon settle for anything less than the whole beast.

Jon and I met in Bishop on Tuesday morning to talk logistics and gear, then headed out to the North Fork of Big Pine Creek.  We busted in, as quickly as we could, to the Thunderbolt Glacier tarn camp.  We napped on Yosemite-style glacier polish and grubbed on a big fat steak.  That's livin'.

We woke with the sun on the chilly first morning and strode over to Winchell Col.  That NW ridge has rock that is a little looser than further along, but it is a totally worthy addition to the traverse.  We found mainly dry Cali rock, but did have to do some icy PataLaska style tunneling.

"This is just like Peak 11300, but different"

I hate to say it, but the section from Thunderbolt to North Palisade was almost "routine".  What a joy to traverse very familiar terrain with a strong partner.  I don't pretend to think that Jon felt it was routine, nor do I mean any disrespect to this chunk of terrain.  I was simply content to remember my first trip through that section a few years back and reflect on the accumulation of experiences there.  Jon, in his way, will down-play his own performance.  But, mark my words, the guy can move and tough it out.  As much as he talks about enjoying suffering, I can only guess the misery this 100 mile runner can stand.

The latter part of the day, up onto North Palisade.  Smack in the
middle of the High Sierra's own Circus Maximus.  
Sunset on North Palisade.  Thankfully camp is just a single rappel away.  Boo Yeah!
Morning lounging at 14k.  That's livin'.  Or does livin' mean steaks and glacier polish?  Damn, what a trip!
We woke, again with the sun, on the morning of day 3 high in the S. Bowl of North Pal.  We knew we had made better than excellent progress, and even had the hubris to propose making the trailhead a whole day early.  In the end we did exactly that, going from North Palisade over Polemonium to Sill and down and out.  This last day was long, but felt like the wind-down after the prior day's blitz.  All that, and we didn't short ourselves on anything:  We slept, ate, and drank what we needed.  We gathered a bazillion gigs of data via a total of five cameras.  We never walked or climbed by headlamp.  We did indeed work hard, but, as Sam Ewing said "Hard work spotlights the character of people:  some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all."  Jon turned up and turned it on.  He very well may cite various challenges faced up in those Palisades, but as an observer, I can vouch for smooth adaptation to considerable difficulty.  
Sun sets on a day past, looking to a day ahead.