Friday, January 9, 2015

The Dawn Wall From Silver Strand (WI5 600ft)

Silver Strand!

While many on the West Coast went to sleep, the alarm woke me up at 6 in the morning. It was the first day of 2015 – January 1st! For the fourth year in a row, I went to sleep prior to midnight. To gain an extra hour of sleep, I missed the countdown, the fireworks and the partying that comes with it. To me, a little more rest prior to a four-day climbing trip is much more essential than being shit faced. Putting energy into adventure and exploration is what motivates me to wake up in the first place. However, what do I mean by that? Defining adventure and exploration is simple if you open the dictionary, yet so convoluted when it comes to something as diverse as climbing. How could the definition be so different? Majority would state that the ability to go on original adventures and the exploration aspect of climbing is a huge reason for getting into this madness, it is the bones and soul of this activity. Notice how I did not call it sport? That's because climbing, like exploration, or adventure, could also be defined differently. For some it is a sport, for many it is an activity, at times it could feel like an obsession, personally I called it a spiritual path, meditation, a way of life, an art and for a few it could be more important than religion. With tens of thousands participating in some form of climbing, it is unrealistic to avoid major deviation in opinion or personal preference. Can it be that the individual interpretation of the thing that unites us is the reason that leads to (ego driven pointless) arguments in the first place?

View of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon
Goofing around on top with a nice view of El Cap
Richard leads the 4th pitch
The ice is IN! Or more like climbable...
View of Silver Strand from the approach
Driving through the Bay Area, I felt like an outcast. Only a few cars on the roads allowed me to find solitude in an unlikely setting, the freeway. Since it was the first of January, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the year that passed... But I found it more appropriate to think about the years and the individuals that influenced me in these years that passed. With lord caffeine in my veins, multiple thoughts passed through, than all of a sudden I remembered the Dawn Wall. The Dawn Wall? Yes, the Dawn Wall Project. For a big wall free climb, it is supposedly so sustained in technical difficulties, that it got a lot of attention in the mainstream media. Climbing forums, blogs, news feed on facebook, for the last few weeks it has been the center of attention in the climbing community. Majority applauds the effort and confesses that it is hard to comprehend the technical difficulties of the moves the climbers are pulling. Which is true, strongest climbers from all over the world been going to Yosemite Valley for ages, and supposedly the Dawn Wall has one or two individual pitches that are rated harder than any pitch in the Valley. Some critique the climbers for using the siege style tactics, projecting pitches as if they were boulder problems, adding bolts, having their food and water brought up by others, which is also true. Some claim that the exploration is lost when all the holds are ticked and you are going through the motions, but is it? As a beginner, when preparing for a climb I studied detailed topos. Following leads of an experienced friend up a Sierra classic made me feel like an explorer. Over the years my skills improved. At times I go to the gym and attempt a boulder problem that I can't get, after a dozen tries. At times I hike seven miles to an unclimbed 1,500 foot wall and put up a new route that is at absolute limit of my climbing abilities, without pre inspecting the wall prior, or placing a single bolt for protection. Some weekends allow me to climb a classic Yosemite big wall, or do a rarely formed waterfall...variety, along with many forms of adventure and exploration is what I personally love the most about climbing. Yet every single thing that I have done could be critiqued by someone. Why did you put in an extra bolt into a particular pitch? Why did you onsight solo the Evolution Traverse car to car, but did not do it under 24 hours? Why did you climb Mt. Denali, but did not do the Cassin? Why do you crag at Owens River Gorge instead of doing a winter ascent of the Sentinel? Everything could be improved, nothing is perfect. As a mere human, it is hard to be. And it is a hard life if your purpose is to please others.
Me leading the first pitch

Richard following the first pitch

Richard leading the upper section of 4th pitch
View of a dome across the valley
I drove into Yosemite Valley an hour earlier because I was excited to check if any of the waterfalls froze up. Several days prior to New Year’s the temperatures dipped below freezing and there was a slight chance that some of the big waterfalls formed into solid ice. Climbing waterfalls in Yosemite Valley is a combination of risky business and a rare treat – last time I tried we bailed because the bottom pitches collapsed a day prior to our attempt. Even though other people have climbed these waterfalls years ago using inferior gear, frozen waterfalls present much unknown because they vary in thickness, quality of ice and stability – especially in a place like the Valley – where frozen things melt quickly. "Here today, gone tomorrow" in Yosemitean is more like "here right now, gone in an hour." Climbing frozen water in the valley could seem risky to some, but as with rock climbing a runout climb or a well protected pitch at your limit, a climber is taking calculated risk with intention to gain something out of the experience. For some it could be learning a new skill, facing challenges, endorphin rush from exertion, being in an incredibly scenic place or just doing it because that's what you feel like doing at the moment.
From the Tunnell View overlook I noticed the Silver Strand seemed fairly formed up. Filled with excitement I made a lap around the Valley to look at other waterfalls, and made my way to the Cookie Cliff to meet my climbing partner. Even thought I have not climbed with Richard prior to this outing, we planned to go to Patagonia together and climb for a month. Silver Strand seemed like a perfect first test and he quickly agreed. Before that however, we had a full day at the Cookie. Climbing classics like Catchy, Waverly Wafer, Butterballs and Elevator Shaft, seemed like a perfect way to start the New Year. Even though these climbs were not at all new to me, I felt an appropriate level of self exploration was happening.

Monkeys are swingin!

Richard leading the second pitch

"Looks thin up there.." :)

Like any big event in any community, the push to free the Dawn Wall brought out a mix of opinions from over-board hero-worshipping to ridiculously silly comments in the New York Times. In the mean time, many valid points and discussions were brought up. Many discussed the lack of adventure and exploration which is at the root of big wall climbing. The fixed lines that go all the way up the wall, the food that was getting hauled up to the climbers by their friends and the camera crews working on documenting every tick mark that was placed by Kevin along with every particle of food that Tommy ate up. To a knowledgeable climber the individual pitch red pointing tactics reminded more of a sport climbing video than a proper big wall adventure. What does it mean to a climbing community? How is this ascent gonna influence it? Should they wait till they can do it in a better style? As Richard and I bushwhacked through heinous approach to climb the frozen waterfall none of it really mattered. We did not know if the thing will be climbable, too dangerous or difficulties that were ahead. After an hour and a half of hell we racked up at the base. From the look of things, Silver Strand barely formed and will likely fall apart in a day because the temperatures were going up. We swong leads and each of us got an appropriate level of exploring, with the adventure and a dose of adrenaline on the side. Unless it forms again, it was very likely the first and the last ascent of the Silver Strand during this winter season. When we topped out on the rim we saw the beautiful  El Cap, with the Dawn Wall, the circus that came with it, and two incredibly skilled and inspiring individuals that put years of work into a dream. Like personal preference for a romantic partner, can I be critiqued for being attracted ONLY to Caucasian chicks? Am I gonna destroy the world with my personal preference for a chick? Or a climb?

El Cap and the rest of it...

Richard on top of the climb

Richard following on P3

As I thought about things that influenced me as a climber, I remembered Tommy Caldwell’s slideshow, which I saw at the Donner Summit. It was about four years ago. That weekend was my second or third time climbing rock. A friend took me out to top rope some of the classics that spanked me. Spanked me so hard, I signed up for a climbing gym after that trip. But that is not important, the important part was Tommy's slideshow. He talked about this project he is obsessed with and has been climbing on for several years, without knowing if it will be possible for him, or anyone else. Guy who free climbed numerous other insanely hard free climbs on El Cap and other formations around the world, chose to give a slideshow about something he doesn't even know will be possible? HELL YES, isn't this the exploration? Going to a cliff, a frozen waterfall or a big wall with an intent to explore new routes, your personal limits and put in the best possible effort?! Not many will have a chance to relate to the pressure that pro climbers are going through. The pressure to complete the long term goal, the pressure to look good on the camera as you send, the pressure of having all eyes on you as you struggle on a multi-year project. Watching Tommy talk at Donner, I saw a guy full of excitement. Driven by hope. No million dollar rewards for sending. Excited to explore personal limits, putting hard work into a fragile dream. Yeah, I wanted to be like that guy! Finding own Dawn Wall through exploring my skills on classic test pieces, frozen waterfalls or unclimbed big walls. As Royal Robbins explored personal limits on Half Dome, Tommy and Kevin are exploring personal limits on the Dawn Wall in a logical step to improve on their style from earlier attempts. First it was finding out a climbable path, than it was trying to redpoint the pitches and now it is to free climb each individual pitch from the bottom to the top. Using these little rules could seem silly, but each climber can determine an appropriate challenge to their abilities. It is important to remember the Dawn Wall is unlike any climb in the world. If you take into consideration that Dawn Wall has seen approximately eight years of work put in by two of the top notch climbers, it seems they picked a challenge with LESS CHANCE FOR SUCCESS THAN ANY COMPLETED CLIMB IN THE YEARS THAT PASSED! Of course it does not have the objective danger found in high altitude alpinism, it does not have the same type of adventure one would find if they were dropped off by a helicopter in an unexplored Canadian sub range, it does not have a 5.15c endure pitch found in Chris Sharma movies, it is unlike any of it, it is different, and that's ok.

View of the third pitch
Me leading the third pitch
Got a screw in....time for another picture! Looking down on pitch 3. The climb turned out to be more exposed than I expected!

Richard all smiles after the business on pitch 3
Bottom line is that I find their ascent really f*#king inspiring. Not even the ascent itself, but the amount of work they put into it. Year after year of HARD f*#king work. Hell with their style, tick marks, individual move ratings and this whole camera circus that comes along with it. The climbing community will swallow the movies that come as a result and beg for seconds! Their ascent is not only a personal feat, it is a bridge into the future. It will give the next generation of big wall free climbers the motivation to explore own limits, a way to raise the evolving standard, no matter if your goal is to free climb a new route in Baffin Island, send the Freerider, or maybe free the Dawn Wall in a day. What ultimately matters is that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen were on a HUGE ADVENTURE to find a free route up one of the blankest parts of El Cap for the last eight years, and still are as I type. It is a GIANT test to EXPLORING personal patience, skills, work ethic and for them, like for many climbers, the prize is the journey. Just like the guy that soloed Cerro Torre in a storm a few days back, or my first experience on Munginella years ago or Richard's experience on the Silverstrand, what matters most is what we get out of it in the end. How many people we know can claim to put in eight years of efforts into a first free ascent which contains the hardest single pitch in the Valley? What excites me the most about the Dawn Wall is that it unified the climbing community in a way that I have not seen prior. Coming from the roots of trad, the climb started from a vision and a belief that something impossible is doable. Along with it, the skill set of a high end boulderer and endurance of top notch sport climber were required. An ascent that subconsciously touched many without even a notice. If every story has a lesson to be learned, maybe the lesson here is that to be a successful climber at any discipline of this lunacy, one has to first be an inspired mad-man. No matter how you define the word climbing, what you seek from the adventures you choose, which aspect of this world or personal limits you decide to explore. If you are a human and you have things you want to accomplish, impossible and achievable shouldn't be separated by a fence. Like in a poem, it is all about that dash between the numbers. I am happy those two are doing something they find worthy of so much energy, and I am happy to climb in a place that spiritually links us all together, each individual finding own way to be an explorer.

Tunnell View

Richard leading the last pitch (4th)

Us back at the Tunnell View
Another view of the upper pitches
Thank you for reading and remember....climbing is very pointless and if you want to define the word exploration, or adventure, use the dictionary. And don't read this piece, it is also very pointless...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Oddyssey to Shangri La

“We climbers are tribal. It sounds trite, but it is true. The brotherhood of the rope is real. It spans the globe, cultures, bitter national rivalries, languages. Climbers from the world over gather around a fire and by virtue of common experience and shared passion, they know they sit with brother and sister.” –DMT

Red – FFA Brutus of Wyde Memorial Route (IV-V 5.11a) – free version of Et Tu Brute (V A2 5.9+)
Orange – FA/FFA Parasitic Nematode (III-IV 5.10+)
Right skyline is NE Ridge which was first climbed by Fred Beckey and partner(s)
 I never got a chance to meet Bruce Bindner—or Brutus of Wyde, as he’s known. I got into climbing a few years after Brutus passed away in 2009. Nonetheless, I feel linked to him through the brotherhood of the rope and the numerous reports he has posted online. Even without photos, the excellent writing and quality content of his reports are more than enough to seize the reader’s interest. I have spent hours browsing through tales of his adventures, which included first ascents on backcountry walls, climbing ice routes in Canada, aid climbing in Yosemite, general mountaineering, and much more—Brutus was one of the few people I would label as a true climber. I value climbing as more than a weekend activity; I see it as a method of self-expression, an art. Unfortunately, he stopped producing masterpieces, but without a doubt he left his mark. As an artist, Brutus influenced me greatly.
Awesome pool for soaking during warm summer days
The valley has other goodies, not just rock climbing
Parasitic Nematode (III-IV 5.10+) goes up the right-leaning crack and corner system in the middle of the photo.
 While reading an article DMT wrote in tribute to Brutus, I came across a reference to Shangri La. My curiosity instantly grew. A beautiful place in the High Sierra that people rarely visit? A rugged thousand-foot wall? There were no photos posted of this mysterious wall, but the drawing done by Brutus pushed my curiosity to an unbearable level. As a kid I had dreams of exploring different worlds and reaching new dimensions. Finding new places and figuring out a way to pass challenges is what lured me into climbing. The adventurer in me wanted to experience the serene valley, spend time exploring an area few had seen, and hopefully find an easy way to scramble to the top of the peak only a handful had summitted. Problem was that Craig kept the location of this valley a secret. My attempts to ask him for clues were ignored, however I kept faith. This was back in 2010, the year when I got hooked on scrambling around the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. This passion grew into an addiction—the most satisfying high. Back in 2010, climbing the face of that mysterious wall was beyond my deepest dreams, or abilities, but the obsession with finding Shangri La grew stronger as the years passed. Over time my passion for peak-bagging grew into a love for taking difficult routes up mountains. Acrobatic movement over rock added the needed variety when simple scrambling got old. I rock-climbed often, and by the time I discovered Shangri-La, I had scaled over a hundred peaks in the High Sierra, multiple big walls in Yosemite Valley, high altitude death traps in Cordillera Blanca, and had even put up my own routes.

Shangri-La—Lost World. A fictional land of peace and perpetual youth.

Tip of the monster illuminated by first light
Me, Gleb and Max after climbing the NE ridge in 2013. Photo by Daria. A fun day in the mountains.
Something my mom would like...
Doing the approach for the first time was a torture. Would we see a steep wall or a chossy crag? Was this area seriously serene or was it all a bit puffed-up by the writer? Were we going up the same valley? Was the object of my imagination becoming real? The approach followed a raging river, passed several beautiful meadows, and rewarded us with a seemingly infinite amount of redcurrant. With berries all around, the approach took us longer than expected, but after several hours of hiking we spotted the menacing wall. As we got closer, my excitement grew and my fearless attitude vanished. The wall was steeper than I imagined, and I did not feel comfortable attempting the direct line on it during shorter days of autumn. We climbed an easier ridge route to the summit, had a great social outing and none of my friends left the valley disappointed. We were rewarded with exciting climbing, great views, meadows full of alpine flowers and a true adventure. By the time we returned to our cars, my aspirations had grown. I was not only planning to repeat the direct route (“Et tu, Brute!” V 5.9+ A2)—I wanted to find a free-climbable path up the rock face that I found too frightening a few hours prior.

Crux of the approach - a V5 dyno over a stream. On the way back we did not send.
Caitlin following the fun first pitch on Parasitic Nematode
Celebrating good climbing before hitting a few crux overhangs (Parasitic Nematode)
Looking up at the intimidating wall from the base
As winter approached, I began fantasizing about the wall and increased the amount of time I spent on rock. I couldn’t hold back the excitement and emailed Craig Harris. Along with Brutus and a few more, Craig was one of the first ascentionists of Et tu, Brute. His reply fueled the fire: “The face will go free, we were close!” Given that finding the wall had been a mysterious journey, I kept the spirit going and did not request beta. Finding the free route and picking the appropriate gear was up to me. Free climbing this face turned into the most significant rock-climbing goal I had for 2014. That was before I found Bubbs Creek Wall, but that's another story...

“Standing there in Shangri La as we came to call that place, we might have been in Pakistan or even on some other planet. No other hikers, fishermen, no body at all, came up this canyon the whole time we were there. We had it to ourselves. We were a short twenty minute hike from the base of the first pitch of a thousand foot tall, dead vertical to massively overhanging chunk of orange granite and we as far as we knew were the only climbers on the planet who knew anything about it.” –DMT

Somewhere in the middle of a giant wall
About to traverse right into a cool hand crack
I did not know when the appropriate time would come. Only a few people were excited about a trip to a thousand foot rock-face with vertical walls, questionable rock and no beta. It happened unexpectedly. After one of my partners bailed, I included a trip to Shangri La as one of the options to my friend Caitlin. She had less than two years of rock-climbing experience and only a few multi-pitch routes under her belt. “First ascent in a secret valley?! That sounds really fun,” she replied. I was not sure if posting this option was wise, but the train was off and running. On the few outdoor routes we had done together, she had proved to be safe, but most important of all, I knew she was excited about having a true adventure.

As Bay Area desk jockeys, we had way too little time and way too much on our agenda. The itinerary I proposed involved an absurdly busy weekend. On Saturday, we would haul our gear seven miles and attempt a first ascent of a different line I had scoped on the first trip. On Sunday we would try to find a free climbable variation to the grade V route “Et tu, Brutus,” summit, hike out, and drive back to the Bay for five hours. All without much chance to acclimate. Saturday’s climb did not give me much hope for a successful Sunday. The approach took a little longer, the first ascent we completed turned out to be a full value climb. As a result, we got back to the camp pounded. Though she had led a few 5.10 sport climbs, it was Caitlin’s longest route, first time following on a FA, and her first alpine climb. She deserved a lot of praise, so I honored her with picking a name for our new route!  Since Caitlin is a neuroscientist at Stanford University who spends her workdays playing with worm DNA, our route got a sexy worm-inspired name –Parasitic Nematode (III 5.10++ PG13).

Another view of the wall. Rock seemed fairly loose in most spots
Cool chimney with a cruxy roof on pitch 3
Good views and exposure on the route

The pristine setting, a simple dinner, and our warm sleeping bags would have to be enough to bring our psyche up again. We woke up to a windy morning and ominous sky. Our chances for getting on the route seemed slim to none, but by the time we finished our coffee the sun had begun to illuminate the wall. I had mixed emotions about coming face to face with the climb I had dreamed about for so long. I felt a mix of excitement and fear of the unknown: fear of being unprepared, not finding a free-climbable way, loose rock, climbing with a much less experienced partner and not having enough protection to feel safe enough to continue. In addition to standard double rack to #3, we brought a single #4 and a #6 cam, and I was glad we did. Brutus of Wyde sure loved the offwidth; on photos from his various first ascents it was evident that his arsenal of big bros and giant camming units was as impressive as his tick list. The first pitch was a warm up for a sustained wide crack on pitch two. The original 5.9+ rating was likely spot on for technical difficulties, but it did not speak to the level of required exertion. Fists grew into stacks, which transformed into a squeeze chimney below the third pitch – an intimidating roof.

Fun overhang - making my way up to the double roofs and a perfect steep splitter
SICK two pitch variation with a 40 meter overhanging splitter! And a roof!
Looking down at the splitter (photo by Caitlin)

Climbing stayed fun for the whole duration
I made a solid 5.10 move to pass the crux of the third pitch and fought horrific rope drag to combine the next two. Another moderate pitch with a solid 5.10 crux put us on the exposed arête. I could see the next bolted anchor above a crack system to our left, but straight up was a beautiful splitter that started close to the exposed arête. It looked steep, passed two roofs, and continued up into the unknown. It looked harder than the original option. Part of me did not want to jeopardize my free ascent, but those who don’t take risks never taste champagne. This climb was about challenges, adventure, and the unknown, so I decided to test my luck. After doing a few spooky moves to gain the arête, I got into a fingercrack and worked hard to pull the first roof. As I had no idea how long the next pitch would be, I set up the belay right under the second roof. It was a great decision: it gave me a chance to rest, and the next pitch turned out to be about fifty meters long.
Caitlin with sweet exposure below.
Me on somewhat loose last pitch of the face. One that was aided on the FA
Looking down the NE Ridge - First climbed by Fred Beckey and partner (what a surprise!)
By the time I got to the anchor, my forearms felt like Jell-O. This crack was likely the best splitter I had done in the High Sierra. I pulled the roof on thin hand jams and ring locks. The crack then widened to accept hero hand jams, but only for a short while. It grew into cupped hands, and the angle never allowed me a rest stance. This crack belongs in the Cookie Cliff, and it made Outer Limits feel slabby by comparison. I led the ninth pitch and came face to face with the crux. I knew it was the last pitch that was aided on the first ascent, but by this point I was not sure I had enough juice to put up a good fight. The previous two days had not exactly been restful. The only way was up, and I did not see any alternative. The last pitch began with a game of “choose the right block.” If I chose the wrong one, I was fairly certain the house of cards was going to come down. When I got above the loose section, I found myself staring down the crux — getting over a bulge and into an offwidth crack. Even though the move was incredibly hard, for the first time on this pitch I felt secure—the #6 camalot was in a perfect spot above my head. The pitch kept throwing burly bulges in my way, and while locking off on a jam I began to cramp. When I finally traversed to the anchor and saw the sunny ridge a few feet above, I wanted to cry with joy, but we still had to scramble another 500 feet to the summit. Combination of easy scrambling, low fifth and a few steps of 5.7 took us to the top. The sun was setting, the wind was chilly, and we still had to descend, gather our gear, hike out, and drive home. We did not stay on the summit as long as I would like, but we did have enough time to snap a few photos and sign the register.
Caitlin on the summit ridge
Summit glory after the climb :)
Our register entry
It would be impossible to pick one factor that was responsible for our success. Was it my obsession and hard work? Was it Caitlin’s willingness to suffer and jump way out of her comfort zone? Was it the well-written tribute to Brutus that gave us the inspiration to travel off the beaten path? I am not sure, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the day we drove out for our adventure coincided with the five year anniversary of Brutus’ passing. Perhaps we weren’t alone in Shangri La that weekend, but even if his spirit does not roam those valleys, it will forever be linked to our climb, the Brutus of Wyde Memorial Route (V 5.11a). We decided to maintain the location of the valley a secret. Not because we are greedy, but because we want to preserve the mystery of Shangri La for those who seek a voyage into the unknown.