Sunday, February 21, 2010

Diablo Punched Me In The Feet

The trip up Diablo last weekend was a raging success. It was especially nice to get onto what I consider an ACTUAL mountain and do some vertical. To be fair, Mission Peak and places here like it are great training grounds, and I do enjoy them for what they are. But grassy rolling hills, no matter how steep they are, are no match for high, rocky peaks, jagged cliffs, sheer faces, and deep canyons.

Now, I realize that as BIG mountains go, Diablo isn’t much in terms of elevation… just 3,849 feet at its apex. (Oh yeah, and never mind the fact that after spending a half-day climbing its steep slopes, you top out into— a parking lot full of minivans. Yep… there’s a road all the way to the top, and you’ll come huffing over the last bit of trail, straight back into… uhhh… civilization? Sorta defeats the point of getting out and climbing, to my mind—but that’s another story.) That said, there are some challenging climbs on its flanks, and that’s exactly what Greg and I set out to do last weekend.

In looking over the possible routes up the mountain, most ended up at the true summit, but we found a route more intriguing than the others… the North Peak side. Despite being slightly lower in elevation than the main Diablo summit, Diablo’s North Peak has a much smaller footprint than the rest of the mountain, which results in a far more vertical and challenging climb. One more bonus… the consensus was that there’s very little traffic on our chosen route, and that, combined with the additional challenges of its terrain, is just what we were looking for.

We chose to do the North Peak loop by way of Mt Olympia, a 10.2 mile stretch of trail and fire roads that eventually took us to the tops of not just two, but three peaks. First Olympia, then North Peak, and then on the descent, you re-ascend a bit to top out on Bald Peak, an extra summit we weren’t expecting when we set out that morning.

When we pulled into the staging area, nearly the entire area, upper and lower on the mountain was shrouded in an opaque fog, with pointy bits poking their heads through at the top. So we could see where we were going to end up… just not what we had to get through to do it. So off we went. I was once again carrying my trusty First Ascent Big Tahoma pack, this time loaded with around 50 lbs of crap from my garage, and fully prepared for the 5-6 hour journey.

I have to say at this point that wide, well-beaten fire roads annoy me a little, only because they’re a constant reminder of what I try to escape on every climb: people. That said, the route in was interesting, engaging, and fun as it wound up the foothills and canyon walls, and soon enough we took a hard right turn onto a beautiful twisty little single track trail that wound up into the fog on the high flanks of Mt. Olympia.

With weight on my back, it was hard to miss the fact that it got ever steeper as we climbed, and the last half mile or so to the summit of Olympia, the kinks in the trail straightened out and turned pretty much straight upward on a 35-40 degree slope. Ouch! But awesome! Haha

And while challenging, it turned out to be an excellent first real test of what my weighted pack training has wrought in the past few weeks. I was able to get up it without too much trouble, though I was certainly breathing hard when we hit the Olympia summit. The fog was such a nice addition to the day! It swirled threateningly above us as we climbed into it from lower on the mountain, and enveloped us in that calm, silent quietness of a snowy day on the summit while we happily munched on some fuel.

We were totally fogged in at one point, and couldn’t really see much in any direction, and suddenly, after a moment of quiet when the talk died off, Greg and I heard a loud “Mmmmmmoooooooo!” from the side of the steepest and most rugged dropoff… cows in the cliffs! Maybe it was just the exertion up to that point, but we both cracked up at the idea of a cow scaling steep rocks with climbing gear on to 2,946 feet.

Fog makes acoustics really interesting, and the unintentionally comical bovine was just hanging out in a distant pasture far below, but his mournfujl plea was carried to our ears on wings of cloud. Very cool.

As a side note, I’m SO impressed by the stellar performance of every single piece of my First Ascent gear. I wore my Rainier Storm shell pants and some Paradise base layer as the foundation pieces for the day, with the shell pants zipped halfway open down the sides for ventilation, ready in case of sudden rain. But I also took along my Serrano, Downlight vest, and Frontpoint jacket for this hike, and as I donned the Serrano in the fog on top of Olympia, I noted just how happy it makes me every time I put it on. It’s a lightweight but toasty-warm oasis in what would have been an otherwise chilly rest stop on top. Feels so good.

ANYway…. next was the traverse to North Peak across grassy 50-degree slopes with hundreds of feet of dropoff. If it were covered in snow, it would definitely be expert ski terrain, but we passed under huge rock outcrops and through wooded buttresses dotted with spectacular views as the fog cleared and closed intermittently. And then one of the finest scenes of the day descended upon us as we walked into a mossy glen around a cliff corner. The sun broke through, and the greenery practically fluoresced with vibrant, verdant color.

Upward we continued into some spectacular open views, and we topped out onto a fire road that leads to the summit of North Peak. The last 200 feet was a wicked 35-degree climb, and the hard-packed road surface makes for very treacherous footing, but it was worth the pain. My bootsoles proved adequate, but those pesky 50 lbs on your back can make balancing up this kind of stuff tricky. (I also tend to top-weight my pack for training, too, so that when I get a properly packed pack with a lower center of gravity, I’ll have an advantage.)

While on top, we got another lucky break as the fog cleared and we had crystalline views above a sea of cloud, all the way to the snowcapped Sierra in the distance. Just stunning. Interestingly, walking down that steep summit approach slope didn’t prove as tough as I thought it would, and Greg and I just chatted our way down it without thinking about it too much.

On our way again, we dropped down into more fog about 500 feet toward Prospector's Gap, where we dipped off the main ridge and underneath the main peak, heading downward.

As we topped out on Bald Peak, we spotted a couple of huge black condors chilling out on the outcrops of rock that banded the Bald summit ridge. Those two were pretty much the only wildlife we spotted all day—apart from some hairy mountain men (and yikes! women haha). We encountered only two or three groups the entire 6 hours… perfect.

On the way down, my feet and knees were hurting under the load, but with a few strategic rest stops and a quick patch of a tiny blister on my left foot, it was no big deal.
As we came back into the staging area, the fog had completely disappeared, and a grand vista we’d not been able to see when we pulled in that morning was revealed. It’s a vast and beautiful cirque-like area, filled with rolling green grassy hills at the bottom, and steep crags starting about halfway up. It was the perfect way to end a breathtakingly beautiful day.

And yeah… my feet hurt for a while, but my performance was exciting, especially being under that much load. 6 hours at 50 lbs is about 2/3 of my goal weight and time for Alaska, so I’m feeling very optimistic that my training will be more than enough to get the job done there.

Oh, and if you haven’t done that Olympia / North Peak loop… you should.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Before or after Alaska...?

Shortly after I rolled out of bed this morning, I was having my coffee in the living room, chilling out like I normally do... and I headed to to see if I could find more mountains to climb. Duh... Shasta. And although it's sort of been in the periphery of my brain for a while as something I'd dearly love to climb, it never really struck me that I *could* do a 1-3 day training seminar on it with Shasta Mountain Guides in advance of my RMI expedition to Alaska. What a brilliant idea! (And not terribly expensive, either.)

The beauty of mountains like this sometime beggars belief for me. I was cruising through the site, and the majesty of the mountains just takes one's breath away. In Shasta's case, it's conveniently A) the second-tallest peak in the lower 48... yay! and B) is  within driving distance for me, so it doesn't seem like it would be that big a deal to spend a day or two training on the mountain in advance of May. It would also C) give me a jumpstart on the skills I need for success and safety in Alaska instead of just going in ice-cold (if you'll pardon the expression), AND it would D) scratch this mammoth itch I'm having right now just knowing I have to wait another three months to get out and practice on a seriously big mountain. ARRGH! In some way, a shorty trip to Shasta would also make up for the anxious excitement and subsequent disappointment I had when I found out all the spots for my originally-planned Rainier trip were booked up so quickly.

I mean... LOOK AT THIS!
Anyway, that's TBD. In the meantime, I'm reallllllly looking forward to Mt. Olympia and the North Peak side of Mount Diablo tomorrow. Greg and I are gonna go climb it starting bright and early, and I'm stoked to get out into the open again, big mountain or not.

And after last week's performance in the cliffs on Mission Peak, I'm feeling pretty confident about my ability to carry a heavy pack fairly quickly, and I feel like I'm ready to move up the weight in my First Ascent Big Tahoma pack a bit. Maybe 45-50 lbs and see where that gets me...? I don't wanna go TOO heavy this time around because although this will be another steep climb with reasonable vertical gain / loss, it'll take place over twice the distance as last week, so it's more of an endurance exercise with the weight.

This is a climb I've never done. (There are a lot of those around here, since it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot within easy striking distance that's very challenging in both length and steepness... but whaddayagonnado...) So I'm looking forward to getting onto a new mountain this weekend. There's apparently some very steep loose rock scrambling on the last pitch to the North Peak summit, so I'm kinda drooling over that for the moment and looking forward to seeing how I perform overall.

... I'll just have to see how much heavy crap I can find lying around my garage to stuff in my pack to take up there HAHAHA. I'll be taking a couple of other FA pieces as well, just in case of inclement weather or cold winds at the ~3,600-foot summit. Might even pack a pair of gloves, as I was kinda wishing for them on the descent of Mission Peak last weekend. More to come on this one...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Training log: Mission Peak

My buddy Greg and I did Mission Peak yesterday. By now, I've been up Mission Peak many times, cuz it's a good training ground for scrambling up steep terrain, but it was my first summit of 2010, so that was cool, and although it's not a long climb, it's a steep-ish one. If you stick to the trails, you get vertical pretty quickly: 2200 feet in about 3 miles, but yesterday we were feeling ambitious, so we got off track a lot and pretty much went straight up the West face, which gave us the same elevation gain in about 2 miles, over some very steep terrain.

 We knew going into it that  rain was coming, but I decided long ago that  since expedition weather won't be ideal every climbing day either, I should just do my training climbs on the day they're scheduled, regardless of the weather report. (Besides, it gave me a chance to put some new pieces of First Ascent gear to the test, too haha) So we expected to get wet... and I was not disappointed. It started out mild, with some light drizzle in the staging area, but about halfway up the mountain, we ascended into a dense fog that obscured the normally-sweeping valley views.

We pushed into the steeps as much as possible, as I was loaded with 40-ish lb pack and wanted to get the most benefit possible. I should note that for training purposes, I've started intentionally loading my pack as awkwardly and as top-heavily as possible, so that when my life depends on getting up and down far bigger mountains safely with a properly loaded pack, I'll already be accustomed to carrying much worse. I'm thinking that kind of training will give me an advantage on balance and stability--and I figure a mountaineer should use every advantage they can get at altitude. I also like the idea of training to a standard of conditions well beyond what one would experience on bigger mountains or expeditions, and one's life may depend on that extra margin of safety someday. 

At only 40 lbs, my weighted pack training is just beginning, but I'll be pushing myself over the next few months before Alaska to be able to do full 13-hour day climbs over much greater elevation gain/loss with as much as 80-100 lbs. The day I can do that, I'll know I'm ready.

Anyway, as we approached the main summit ridge cliff face of Mission Peak, we decided to do some route-finding among the rocks, and spotted a way up through a very steep pitch of the upper mountain, which we attempted successfully. Here's me in the cliffs, loaded:

Climbing up the couloir, surmounting the last cliffs in the fog and rejoining the main trail above, we were swallowed whole by right-and-proper nasty weather on the remaining ascent to the summit. Winds whipped us at 30mph, hands began to get very cold, and the winds drove the rain and wet fog around us as the cloud layer we climbed in fairly flew past.

At the summit, a forgetful leaving open of the top compartment of my pack allowed rain and moisture to puddle in its exposed folds, leaving the stuff inside exposed to possible wet. It served me well as a reminder to pay attention at all times on any mountain. Mission Peak is the kind of place where a mistake like that is only a minor disturbance in the Force... no big deal (especially since we weren't staying on the mountain, so there was nothing but objects chosen solely for their weight in the pack). But at high altitude on big mountains, a simple mistake like a dropped glove can cost you a hand, a pack left open at the wrong time can cost you crucial equipment you might need later... equipment that could ultimately save your life. It provided some good lessons for me on how to deal with my gear in high winds, lessons on preparation for even the most seemingly-innocuous summit

I was surprised to discover how much easier this week's climb was over last. At just one training climb per week with a weighted pack at this stage of my training, I wasn't really expecting to see any significant differences in my performance from last week to this, but I was feeling significantly stronger, to the point where much of the time, I forgot I had the pack on. (That may also be at least partially attributable to the design of the First Ascent Big Tahoma pack suspension, as well.) Here's a fun pic from the descent...

At any rate, the ascent and summit weather made for a wet, mucky, and VERY fun afternoon, and I'm happy to report that all my FA gear passed with flying colors.
Climb high, sleep low, friends...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I think I've already got my first climb after the RMI Alaska trip scoped out

Man, I am getting itchy... itchy like trigger finger itchy to get to the top of some big rocks in serious-ass cold this spring, clad toastily from head to foot in my First Ascent gear--the self-proclaimed largest privately held collection in the world (lol), and then it hit me...

I've already told you about Mt. Timpanogos in my last entry and posted some late summer pics, but THIS is what it looks like all winter long, and well into the spring months:

Pretty cool... and it occurs to me that my brother, and experienced rock climber himself who cut his teeth in one of the golden ages of rock climbing, and who has succeeded on multiple ascents of many routes on the faces of Yosemite's Half Dome and El Capitan, would almost certainly be down for trying the Everest Ridge route up the west face of Timpanogos with me when the time comes.

The route looks like this:

And when you get to the top of the south summit (just a few vertical feet short of the true summit) the Utah Valley inversions common in winter can get you a view like this:

Wow. What better training ground than a mountain that runs in my blood?

Make no mistake... even at ~11.7kft, this is a serious rock, and it can bite--and even kill if you're not paying attention. Growing up, I heard the reports of day-trail hikers who headed off-piste into the steeps or or of those attempting wintry ascents for more challenge who ended up needing helicopter rescue, or even dying on this mountain.

I have tremendous respect for her, but I'm now also completely intrigued by climbing the front. There's another route on the back side -- Razorback Ridge -- that offers some interesting, and even more challenging possibilities, too, but I feel like that's one for another trip farther down the line, and with more experience behind me.

For now, Everest Ridge is enough to blow my mind and fire my imagination until the time comes to do it in late May.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An 83-year-old mountain climber? You bet!

3,581 meters never felt so good. Doesn't sound like much in terms of the biggest peaks in the world, and indeed, climbing 11,749-foot Mt. Timpanogos -- one of the tallest peaks in the Wasatch range, and a mountain in whose shadow I grew up -- never seemed like a big deal to me. But last summer changed that.

That's because my long-awaited return to this glorious mountain last summer came in the companionship of my 83-year old dad and one of my brothers.

My dad, Stormin' Norman Wright had the wisdom of an old soul even when he was young, and the irony of his nickname is that he's always been a mild-mannered computer science professor -- but nevertheless a quiet and towering presence of inspiration and motivation in my life. Long before I was born, he was spending more time than I can imagine on mountains and in wildernesses with my older brothers as an outdoorsman, an adventurer, as a teacher and scoutmaster, and an avid backpacker.

He's my inspiration, my hero, my mentor... and what he did on old Timp at age 83 was an equally towering accomplishment. He's climbed the mountain many times in his life, but by taking up its challeng once more, he aimed to honor the same accomplishment of his grandfather, who did the same climb of the same mountain on HIS 83rd birthday.

Knowing ol' Norm, he'll probably be kicking around in the mountains for another decade or two (and hopefully many of those years I will get to share those trips with him), but his achievement is now something I'm really looking forward to duplicating when I reach that age.

And if you've never been there, Timpanogos is an AWESOMELY beautiful mountain.