- Erik Rieger.
On January 12, the Alpine Mentors group, which includes Nik Mirhashemi, JD Merritt, Kurt Ross, and I, flew from the US to Munich. From there, we drove south to meet Steve House, first in the small mountain hub of Lienz, Austria. Steve secured lodging for us at the highest farmhouse/lodge above Lienz from January 12–15 from which we could base our initial adventures. Imagine a steep, snowy, winding road, endlessly switch backing up a vertical mountainside—something like you might see in car chase movie scene.
With a notably good late fall season for alpine climbing in Europe—meaning, no snow—we hoped to climb long and technical routes on some of the big walls in the eastern alps, primarily northwestern Slovenia, all the while meeting up with skilled, local “mentors” who’d climb with us. (All we had for prior planning, really, was a handwritten note Steve left us during a prior trip to the Black Canyon.)
It, however, snowed hard in the few days prior to our arrival, with a larger storm forecasted for our first few days in the eastern Alps. Hoping to take advantage of what were previously good alpine climbing conditions in December, our initial plan was to spend four days in Austria’s East Tyrol (Osttirol) before driving a couple hours further south to Slovenia. We’d planned 2–3 days of climbing on the Grossglockner, the highest peak in Austria, which has a number of steep routes on its north and south faces, as well as some easier ridge climbs, and a high hut with a winter room to stay at.
On our first day, January 13, a new storm dropped 30cm+ of new snow and we decided to climb lower elevation waterfalls and mixed routes in a zone just north of the Felbertauern tunnel. We were joined by Austrian alpinist Alex Blümel. The goal route was the four-pitch El Nino (M7) and another similar route rated M8. Exiting the car, visibility was limited to about 10m with strong wind and snow. Using a GPS, we found the base of the wall, though were completely unable to see any of the climbs from below. With such poor conditions we split into two groups, climbing steep two-pitch waterfalls in the gullies adjacent El Nino. We were eventually called off from more climbing by local authorities due to high avalanche danger and the potential for mitigation to affect the highway where we had parked. That night we attended the opening festivities of the local ice festival at Tauernhaus, a classic European style lodge located along the Hochtirol ski traverse route.
On January 14, it was clear that our alpine plans would be delayed, with the storm continuing. We met renowned female alpinist Ines Papert in the town of Matrei that morning, hoping to again climb some harder multi-pitch waterfalls and mixed routes. We drove west from a bakery to a car park at the national park and then hiked over an hour up the Isel River valley to a south-facing sub-alpine wall with many routes. This wall can be viewed up valley from the seasonal IslitzerAlm hut. JD and Kurt climbed a highly regarded two-pitch M8 route that finishes on a hanging 10m-ice dagger. Ines, Nik, and I focused on establishing a new route on an adjacent 30m wall to the right. Nik began leading the route but the difficulties and poor gear (slung horns and a bad cam) forced him down. Ines then tried her hand at it, using incredible effort to climb the steep wall and then ascend up the hanging icicles (25m, M8/9 R). Hard, ground-up, traditional mixed climbing!
Check this video of Ines leading the crux on Nik's Instagram Account.
Double ropes were essential and a fall from the crux would have been bad. After this route, I climbed a 60m waterfall between the two routes. This was a very cool zone with potential for new mixed routes and nice ice climbing in a cool mountain setting. Like with the previous area, overhead avalanche hazard is a potential concern.
On January 15, Ines, Steve, JD, Nik, and I woke up early to try and climb a 1,300m rock route in the Dolomites above Lienz, the northwest ridge of the Hochstadel. Darkness and some route-finding errors on the approach caused us to miss the start of the route by over an hour. Further up valley than intended, we plan-B’d it and continued up higher and climbed a 300–500m long rock and snow ridge on a 2,600m peak. The ridge was mostly easier roped climbing—not hard, but very loose, and with a cool position. The day involved 18 miles of travel with about 2,000m of gain. It was the right thing to climb in the -15°C temps.
Watch the short video here.
Even on the daylight walk down, none of us could figure out how to access the Horchstadel route or where exactly our intended line climbs. For those willing to walk, there’s certainly a huge amount of winter alpine climbing opportunity in this part of the Dolomites, which also had less snow than the surrounding mountains.
On January 16, we drove south two hours from Lienz to Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, located in the heart of the Julian Alps. We were joined that evening by Slovenian alpinist Ales Cesan, who would climb with us for a few days. Ales and Marko Prezelj (who would join us a few days later) informed us that 50–70cm of snow had fallen in the two days prior; that, plus intense cold, wind, and continuing storm conditions would severely limit alpine climbing opportunities.
On January 17, we woke up at a reasonable time and skinned for two hours up the Virsic Pass road, which rises a few minutes drive out of Kranjska Gora. The road is usually plowed but had not been since the storm. Our goal was to climb long waterfall routes at the base of Prisonjnik, a striking mountain home to many long summer and winter climbs. Ales, Kurt, and Nik climbed the Centralni slap (4 pitches, WI5) and Steve, JD, and I tackled the Desni slap (4 pitches, WI5). On Desni, JD established a direct mixed variation to the unformed crux pillar (M7/M8). It was the second impressive ground-up and traditional mixed lead I witnessed on the trip, with JD hanging on to pound in pitons and leading hard moves above some suspect gear.
Watch the video.
We did not climb the final pitch of the route. The waterfall routes in this zone seem world class, on par with the Canadian Rockies.
On January 18, JD, Kurt, and Ales climbed a picturesque and rarely forming 70m waterfall up the Vrata valley below Triglav, called Slap Peričnik, which last came into condition in 2012. Steve, Nik, and I chose to climb an alpine route up the Virsic on a 2,000m peak called Nad Sitom glave, opposite of the Prisonjik where we had climbed the day prior. Without the pass road fully cleared, it took about two hours to reach the base of the climb. We climbed the northeast ridge, which involved everything from moderate rock climbing in gloves to a few pitches of technical M5/6, about 8-10 pitches in all. This route had serious alpine character with loose rock, snow, and knife-edge ridge traversing. The crux of the day was intense cold and constant 50kmh+ winds. We climbed the final 2-3 pitches in the dark, arriving on the summit after 7pm. A dark, whiteout descent took about 2 hours and we were back at our rented apartment in Kranjska Gora by about 9:30 p.m.—approx. a 13-hour day round-trip.
On January 20, we all split up into various groups. Domen Petrovčič (Slovenia), Kurt, and I climbed a rarely forming south-facing waterfall called Krokarjev slap (2 pitches, WI5). An additional pitch above the climb was not in condition. The route was in a nice position with good sticks before the sun hit it. Again, in a good season, Slovenia appears to have world class waterfall ice climbing.
On January 21–22 the group experienced the first bout of good weather and varied (a couple groups got shot down due to hours of deep snow trail breaking) but generally good alpine climbing conditions on various peaks. The best success was had in a group of peaks located east of the Spik, where three teams found nice neve and mixed climbing on two different summits via two different routes over the course of the weekend. Two other groups returned to Nad Sitom glave, one to complete the northeast ridge and another a variation to the ridge on a more northern aspect of the wall.
Overall, climbing in the eastern Alps was a solid experience culturally and with quality climbing. As Marko Prezelj would say about this kind of climbing, “It’s not cable cars,” referring to Chamonix, Zermatt, and other zones in the western Alps. With tricky gear, conditions, long trail-breaking approaches, and challenging mixed and ice climbing, it’s easy to appreciate why so many accomplished alpinists come from this area. Steve House believes we are the only Americans, other than himself, who have done any winter alpine climbing in the Julian Alps or in Osttirol. Anyone looking for “real” alpine mixed climbing in winter conditions, which is not really available in the USA, would definitely find it here. For sure, the hard work, planning, and creativity required would elevate one’s alpine skills.
We began our week in the Black with 3 main goals in mind:
I have known Kurt for a couple of years and Erik and JD have climbed together since college but I came into this program feeling a lot like an outsider. Usually you don't rope up with someone for the first time in the mountains if you can avoid it. Better to pick an area with less consequence and yet some degree of complexity. The Black was an excellent choice. With the help of Steve and each other we began the process of fine tuning our craft.
Unfortunately our trip got off to a rough start with Kurt getting into a battle with a tree branch. Tree branch: 1, Kurt’s eyelid: 0. He had to be driven to the hospital and couldn't climb for the rest of the week. I'm happy to say he's fully recovered and has been enjoying great success in the Canadian Rockies, with an ascent of the Andromeda Strain and who knows what else.
For the rest of our crew it was a very successful week in the Black. We all got to climb together and sync up our systems. It usually takes a while to get on the same page with a climbing partner but I'd say we're on the right path. We managed to climb a bunch of cool routes, get benighted twice, explore a lot of the canyon and see how well Steve could handle our often very immature sense of humor.
The accident with Laurel Fan in the Waddington range was always on our minds for the duration of the trip and still is today. As alpine climbers we have recognize an acceptance of a certain level of risk. I always tell people that my biggest job as a guide is rock management. You can never completely eliminate hazards in the mountains but you can decide which ones are acceptable and which ones are not. Going into these volatile environments is a big part of who we are as alpinists. This thing we call climbing is as much a part of who we are as skin and bone. Might as well take the time to learn and grow with each other and a few great mentors along the way. Thanks for a great week out gentlemen! I am very excited for what the next two years will bring.
- JD Merritt
From the 18-21st of April we kicked off the third round of Alpine Mentors. Eight potential mentees met with Steve House, Steven van Sickle, Colin Simon, and Buster Jesik. The previous mentees had returned as mentors. Topher Donahue was also able to meet up with us for a day. We planned to have an “ice breaking” day rock climbing at Lumpy. The snowstorms rolled in, so we changed our plans from breaking the ice to trying to climb some of it. We got a pre-dawn start to climb mixed routes in Tyndall Gorge, skiing from the road. This was the first time in years I had returned to the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, or RMNP. After often making the trip up there to climb during college, my friends and I have come to pronounce it as: “Rah-Mu-N-Puh”. The climbing there is complete with cold, ripping winds, some longer approaches, and wonderfully featured rock. In the winter the crowds subside and RMNP becomes its best self.
The first day I was paired with Noah Mckelvin and Buster Jesik. The buttresses of Hallett were covered in fresh snow and the place was looking very alpine. We climbed a crack system left of Bullet for two pitches of (possibly unclimbed) steep cracks and roofs. It was an interesting warmup, with everything from edging to overhanging offwidths, and even a roof clearing move that necessitated cutting feet and swinging on a mossy picklock. We continued on to the top of Bullet. If this is new terrain, I propose the name Hollow Point in reference to some rattly blocks I had to trundle.
The next day I was paired to climb with Kat Vollinger and Steven van Sickle. The focus of this day was shifted away from harder mixed cragging, and would be an experience in efficient movement on moderate terrain. After picking out the Spiral Route on Notchtop peak, we finished the long approach and stopped to deliberate. It was unanimously decided that the approach couloir would be an unsafe proposition after the new wind loading. We instead scrambled a wind-scoured ridge across from Notchtop, finding interesting sections of climbing on frozen moss and broken gneiss.
After two days in a row of predawn starts, we all took it easy on our third day and went to Lumpy Ridge for a little bit of rock climbing and a lesson in rescuing the fallen leader from Buster. This was an important review for most of us. If you’re in doubt, ask your climbing partners if they know self-rescue and go practice with them. It’s vital for trying more committing routes, and can be a sobering experience--it’s not easy. There are factors outside your control in climbing, and knowing how to help an injured partner gives you a chance to manage the situations no-one wants or expects. For those of us who are guides, this stuff is a job requirement and by now second nature. For people like me who aren’t engaged in any kind of guiding, it’s important to practice self-rescue simply to become a safer and more dependable climbing partner.
We closed out the day on some of the best pitches at the Book. This was a fun way to close out the session, and at this point everyone was relaxing and getting in good pitches on the funky, cryptic, and polished granite of Lumpy.
I was initially nervous for what seemed like a “tryout” for some sort of alpine climbing team. Instead it was more of a social experiment. After a while we started to relax. Everyone got to know each other and did some great climbing. I’m psyched be a part of the next round of Alpine Mentors, and I’m looking forward to two years in the mountains with an amazing group.
It’s a cliche that if you want to get better at something, a good way is to fail at it.
When I very first started climbing, I didn't have any expectations of myself and nobody had any expectations of me -- it was easy to not know what I was doing, fail a lot, and learn a lot. There were plenty of people who knew more standing around to watch out for me, tell me what I was doing wrong and what to do instead. I got lots of encouragement to overcome my fears and go for it, because at that stage, fear was mostly illusion. Learning to fall and fail well, and learn from it was a big breakthrough as a beginning climber.
We came up with Robson as the AM-PNW summer trip while up in the Canadian Rockies ice climbing in the winter. Robson -- an archetypical Canadian Rockies pyramid with stripes of snow, ice, and bad rock -- from an “ice climb” first done over a hundred years ago to a huge face staring out from the back cover of the Selected Alpine Climbs guidebook. And of course, the chance to climb with the legendary Jim Elzinga (who is himself all over the guidebook) influenced our choice.
As I became more self sufficient, failure became paradoxically more difficult. It felt irresponsible to choose objectives where I might fail when others were depending on me as part of a team. Especially in ice and alpine climbing, failure is legitimately scary. I’m afraid to seem scary by admitting that I’m scared. Advice sometimes seems to more often take the form of discouragement, not encouragement. I don’t like being discouraged so I’m afraid to admit when I’m discouraged.
We chose a route, and dates. Fuhrer Ridge had an intriguingly short description in the book and a lack of internet bragging/beta. We Pacific Northwest climbers like to complain/brag about the long approaches, glaciers getting in the way everywhere, crappy rock, and bad weather. It seemed that there was a lot more of that in the Rockies but a lot fewer complainers.
But how do you get better at alpine climbing? It’s not like sport climbing or bouldering where you get better by simply going until you can’t go anymore and falling off. I felt like I was getting stuck succeeding, choosing routes with approaches I’d done dozens of times, with a pitch by pitch topo in my pocket, waiting for bomber weather windows. How could I learn again to accept failure in alpine climbing? If falling isn’t an option, how do you fail well and learn?
The first day of the climb took the same typical form of the approach part of any other climb -- gradually abandoning the trappings of civilization such as wheeled transportation, trails, cell signals, other humans, space to walk between bushes, trust in surfaces to be walked on, etc. After a long day of surveyors tape-based routefinding, treacherous creek crossings and such, we reached a flat rocky bench surrounded by snowmelt creeks at the toe of a glacier as a light rain began to fall an hour before sunset.
Jim gently hinted that we should stop and camp there instead of continuing on the route, which seemed like it was starting to decrease dramatically in flatness.
We were woken up by morning alarms and rain pounding on the tent and seeping into the vestibule. We definitely weren’t going to climb in the rain and there was nothing to do about the weather except sit there or leave. Alex and Andy and I chose by inaction to sit there in our dry-ish tent with our 2 days of extra food and go back to sleep.
We were woken up again a couple hours later. This time Jim and Nino were hinting, not so gently, by having their tent already packed up and ready to go. The guidebook back cover view was hidden in dark cloud but whatever was happening behind that cloud was definitely not improving things. We went back down.
Was that the right time to decide to bail or could we have climbed it if we’d waited another day? Were we not persistent enough in the face of a little discomfort, or wise in quitting while it was easy to quit? If we’d gotten an earlier start could we have gotten higher that first day and seen snow instead of rain? Should we could have chosen a different objective, waited for a better weather window? Were all these things we should have known already?
We parted ways with Jim and Nino and headed back home via Squamish and Index. Back to where we could trust bolts and gear in solid granite to protect us and let us fall and fail.
by Ryan Cupp
About six hours into our drive from Bellingham to Canmore, Bob and I were passing under massive alpine objectives around Roger’s Pass and I became extremely nervous. Less than a month prior I underwent surgery on my big toe and it was still painful to walk, how was I supposed to ice climb on it?
The next day, after a leisurely start, Bob and I were racking up at the base of Louise Falls. Steve recommended this route for my warm-up day as it gets a lot of traffic and tends to be picked
out so if my toe hurt too bad I could hopefully get by without kicking very much. Going up the first pitch I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was no more painful to climb than it was to
walk! Even kicking in wasn’t too bad thanks to stiff climbing boots.
The rest of the trip was spent climbing classic routes, getting to know Andy and Alex and the mentors better, and even a trip to The Ghost (a dream of mine for a few years now). Every day I became more confident on the ice. I was climbing faster, improving my technique, and learning new things with every climb.
The highlight of the week for me was climbing Coire Dubh Intégrale, a mini alpine climb on Loader Peak. Easy ice steps led up a gully to fun mixed pitches higher up on the face. This was my first real experience mixed climbing. It had recently snowed, which covered many of the edges and pockets on the rock and added to the “alpine feel” of the route. I found the climbing to be challenging, and a little scary, but very rewarding. Steve and I topped out to fantastic views of the Rockies and managed to get back down to the car without getting too lost.
This week in Canmore left me even more stoked to be part of the Alpine Mentors program. Thanks to my fellow mentees Alex and Andy and to mentors Bob Rogoz, Wayne Wallace, Jim Elzinga, Raphael Slawinski, and Steve Swenson for such a great week!
by Steven van Sickle
On the October 1st, 2014, Steve House, Jim Elzinga, Steven Van Sickle, Buster Jesik, and Colin Simon gathered in Delhi, India for the final expedition of the Alpine Mentors program. Our goal was to climb a new route on the unclimbed Brahmasar I, (5,850) that rises off of the Satling and Dudhganga glaciers. After a few days of collecting supplies in Delhi we began driving north to the town of Ghuttu in the foot hills of the Indian Himalaya. From Ghuttu we began our four day trek through a series of beautiful mountain villages to our base camp at the mouth of the Bhilangna River. Our amazing cooks Seroch and Hera, manned this station for us while we established an advanced base camp at the toe of the Dudhganga glacier about 3 hours trek from BC. From here we were able to scope the south faces of Brahmasar and the Fortress.
After a few days of shuttling loads and acclimatizing we split into two teams and went out on an exploratory mission. Jim, Buster, and Colin explored the Dudhganga glacier up to “The Eye of Mordor” while Steve and I climbed a spire we named Sickle Spire (M5, 5334m) apart of a feature we dubbed “Brahmasar du Tacul”. From the Summit of Sickle Spire we were able to gain good views of the south face of Brahmasar.
After a bit more recon on Brahmasar the mentees decided to head for a prominent couloir on the south face while Jim and Steve climbed a parallel mixed route to the right of our line (Elzinga/House, M6). The first half of our route was 45 degree snow up to a rock headwall and an icy couloir. From this point Elzinga and House climbed straight up rock to the top of Brahmasar III, while we headed up left and into fun WI3/4 pitches. The couloir had very few ledges and steeper climbing than we assumed from our recon; so brewing up was harder than we thought it would be. At around 4:00 pm we found a ledge large enough to fit 90% of our two man tent. Here we set up a very cramped bivy and tossed and turned until morning. The following day of climbing brought us into a high altitude choss pile, spitting distance from a shoulder near the summit. From here we began rappelling down the route and back to ABC with tails between our legs.
The last bit of climbing on our trip was to the top of Brahmasar du Tacul`s highest point. After a lot of post holing out of ABC, we accessed fun ice and firm neve to the summit boulder problem. After a day of rest we began breaking down our ABC and began the trek back to Ghuttu where we met some locals that introduced us to Indian scotch and roof top disco.
all for coming to the first Alpine Mentors Ice Bash. For those who couldn't make it, here a brief redux:
The Ice Bash is an Ice Fest for young rock climbers who want to venture into the mountains and broaden their experience as alpinists.
We had no set clinics, participation was free and we also tried to find local lodging deals (4 pieps in one room), so young climbers could afford coming down to Ouray for climbing with us.
Mentees become Mentors
Colin, Steven and Buster finished the first cycle of Alpine Mentors with their final expedition to the Indian Himalayas. Two years and climbing trips to Canada, Alaska, Europe and Asia prepared them to be mentors by themselves now.
At the Ice Bash Colin, Steven and Buster took out their fellow climbing buddies and past on their knowledge from what they learned during the past two years.
Besides these three guys, we also want to thank the following mentors for donating their time:
- Danika Gilbert
- Stephen Berwanger
- Vince Anderson
- Jack Tackle
- Andres Marin
- Ralph Tingey
- Jay Smith
Mentors went climbing in Ouray with the mentees and that's it. Just climbing. Making friends.
Graduation & Slideshow
In the evening Colin, Steven and Buster were sharing with a full house their adventures of the past two years. It was fun, exciting and astonishing to see how much progress they all made. All in different areas, but mostly on a personal level. Climbing is only one part of the equation, telling the story in an authentic, real, humble and honest way, is a whole other story. JT Thomas, a friend, science journalist and story-telling mentor was working late - past midnight - to get the presentation ready for the next day.
For Alpine Mentors Steve and I have been pulling in all the favors from our friends and now we want to invite people who doesn't know us personally, but believe in Alpine Mentors, to come and join the tribe as volunteers.
Big THANK YOU to all our volunteer mentors:
Brian Gilmore, Vince Anderson, Steve Swenson, Scott Backes, Raphael Slawinski, Ines Papert, Jon Bracey, Jim Elzinga, Rob Owens and David Göttler.
Thank you all for great two years,
Eva & Steve
by Andy Dahlen
My first night in Squamish was spent sleeping in my car in the Chief parking lot during a rainy, rainy night. I was unable to meet
everyone at the start of the trip due to work commitments so at the end of my work day in Seattle, I jumped in my car and headed north. As I didn't want to barge into an unknown house and wake up
everyone at 1am, I curled up in my backseat until morning. I was welcomed in the morning by Steve, Alex, John, Ryan, and Jim and we settled into planning what we could climb, if the rain decided
let up & the walls were able to get just enough sun to dry.
After a day of sport climbing at Cheakamus Canyon, day or two of wet and muddy trail running, John, Steve, and I were finally able
to get on the Chief (Cruel Shoes to Grand Wall) on our last day together.
I had been slightly anxious to show up late to my group's first development session but those thoughts were quickly erased with
homemade group dinners, talks of our future trips together, and time spent at cramped belays. Of course getting to spend a week climbing in Squamish with a bunch of strong climbers is a
blast but getting to hang out with people you have only read about and have climb some of their routes is something else. The experience from this trip that I had the biggest impact on me was
hanging out at Perry's house. He made us a delicious pasta dinner and got to hear what climbing meant to him, which helped me put my own climbing and the decisions I make in life in perspective.
He was incredibly hospitable and I can only hope to repay his generosity someday. While this is only the beginning, I feel that we all contribute to the group in different but beneficial and
symbiotic ways. I'm psyched to be able to spend time with these guys and our mentors in some of the most amazing locations in the world.
Alpine Mentors was really lucky to have such an accomplished, all-around alpinist to join us for this expedition. Raphael has been one of the most active climbers in the Canadian Rockies for the last 20 years and resently won the Piolet d'Or for his first accent of K6 West in Pakistan.
Thank you Raph for joining us on this trip and sharing your experience with us.
- Steve House
Humble Horse on the north face of Diadem Peak was my first “hard” alpine route. Or at least it was the first route I’d ever done where you couldn’t sit down anywhere. Stopping for a drink and a bite meant kicking out a foot ledge in the ice, hanging the pack from a screw, and carefully fishing out bottle and sandwich. Anything you dropped, be it a piece of ice or a snack, would end up in the ‘schrund hundreds of metres below. Still, given all the gear I dragged up and over the route, it couldn’t have been that hard. Empty, my pack weighed nearly three kilos. A board-stiff Gore-Tex suit, plastic boots, Footfangs, a Canadian Tire sleeping bag, a bulbous Peak 1 stove: today I wouldn’t like to hike with that kind of weight, much less climb vertical pitches with it. Luckily twenty years ago I didn’t know any better.
I like the mountains up north. I like the endless days of late spring, the glaciers filling the valleys from wall to wall – and the massive blueberry pancakes at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna. When Steve House asked if I would join him as a mentor on a June trip to Denali, visions of the Alaska Range filled my head. But mentoring? What could I offer to twenty-something climbers who were probably stronger and fitter than me? Then I thought back to the long, long days Jim and I’d shared on the Rockies’ shattered rubble (Jim also liked to say that most alpine routes are day routes, provided you keep in mind that a day has twenty four hours). I might've been the stronger rock and ice climber, but without Jim’s experience to lean on I would’ve never launched up something like Chephren. Read more...
- Buster Jesik
After having some time to hang out in Anchorage while waiting for the weather to improve, we took a shuttle to Talkeetna and finished packing up for Denali. On June 2nd, we boarded an Otter ski plane and flew to base camp at 7,200 ft. We decided to “hit the ground running”, packing up our sleds and skiing to 8,000 ft camp the same day.
Our second day on the mountain we carried most of our supplies to the 11,000 ft camp, leaving behind some food and extra gear at 8,200 ft, which we retrieved the next day.
On June 6th we moved up to the 14,000 ft “advanced base camp” and settled in to our home for the next two weeks. After a rest day the whole group went for an acclimatization hike to 17,000 ft, which was a personal altitude record for Colin, Steven, and Marianne. The weather had been mostly stable to this point, but that gave way to consistent snow storms followed by days of cold and wind.
After 3 days of sitting in the tents, Steve, Raphael, Steven, Colin, and Buster set out on another acclimatization hike while Marianne rested in camp. Buster turned back at 16,000ft having not felt well that day, while the others continued. Around 11pm the climbers walked back into camp, and to Marianne and Buster’s surprise had gone all the way to the summit of Denali!
The next day, June 13th, Buster and Marianne set off at different times to try and make up for not summiting. Buster made it to 18,000 ft solo before being turned around by wind and bad visibility. Marianne and Buster met up just above the 17,000 camp and descended together back to 14 camp. Two more days of bad weather kept everyone in camp, and we we’re starting to wonder if we’d even get the chance to attempt our main objective, the Cassin Ridge. On June 15th the weather looked good enough to head out again - Colin, Steve, Buster, and Marianne set out for the main summit while Steven and Raphael decided to try the seldom visited north summit. Despite worsening weather, everyone summited there objective for the day.
Steve, Colin, Marianne, and Buster ran into a disoriented Polish climber on the descent who was separated from his team and lost in the white out. They helped the climber find the way down until he slipped and fell a couple hundred feet down Denali Pass. Steve went to rescue him as the rest went on to navigate through the storm. Part way across the Autobahn (a steep slope above 17 camp) the Polish man fell again, and luckily arrested him self in the fresh snow on the infamous slope that has killed several others in the past. Steve rescued the climber again, and anchored him to a fixed picket where he wanted to wait for the rest of his party. After making it down to 17 camp, the Alpine Mentors team alerted the NPS rangers to the situation before descending back to 14 camp.
More rest days and snow gave way to blue skies on the 17th. Raphael, Steven, Buster, and Colin left camp to enjoy the fresh powder on skis and got some epic turns in just above camp. By now we had realized that we wouldn’t get the weather window needed for the Cassin this year, and decided to have fun with our last few days on the mountain.
On June 18th Raphael, Buster, and Colin set off for “another lap” while Steve and Steven took their skis over to the West Rib to explore and play. Colin and Raphael were well acclimatized after two summits already, and went ahead to see how fast they could make it from 14 camp to the summit. Buster hung back and enjoyed climbing solo on what turned out to be the best weather day of the trip. The clouds parted, the wind stopped, and it got so warm that Raphael was able to take a nap near the summit while Colin waited for Buster on the top of North America.
The next day we packed camp into our sleds and packs and began the ski assisted descent back to base camp. After 6 hours of wrestling with the pesky sleds that had a mind of their own, we caught
the last flight out of base camp and made it back to Talkeetna in time for hip hop night at the Fairview Inn. Going from the summit of Denali to an all night Alaskan party in just over 24 hours
was a surreal and memorable journey…
Next for the Alpine Mentors team - an expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya in fall of 2014.
Every second editing means a second less climbing outside. Thanks Buster for taking on this job and putting together a cool video about the Alpine Mentors trip in the Alps. October 2013.
Steven Van Sickle and Steve House established a new route on the dark side of Camp Bird Road this winter in Ouray.
- by Steven van Sickle.
FIRST A SHORT HISTORY- the Skylight area of Camp Bird road in Ouray is one of the most classic alpine cragging areas in North America. It is the place where our heroes and our sport progressed and evolved into what they are today. I think of this often when I climb there. I think of how excited Donald, Lowe, and Breashears were when they first climbed the Skylight. And how it makes perfect sense that Lowe, Fowler and Wilford gravitated to the narrow-ice-line of Bird Brain Boulevard. In the 80's some of the more creative lines like "Snow Blind Friend" and the "Racing Stripes" began to get ticked off by the early explorers. It would only be a matter of time before the more visionary, technical lines on the "dark side" of Camp Bird where climbed.
Enter House, Yurdin, Kennedy, Turner, and Gilmore. Between 2011 and 2013 the five of them established "Goodnight Irene", "Dirty minds", the "House/Kennedy" route, and the desperate test piece "Desperado". These are fantastic contributions to the area; additions that display what the new standard is.
On a fantastically cold and snowy day in November, I was taking a reprieve from ice park labor to go camp birding for bit. In-between attempts on a scratchy roadside project, I received a text from House asking if I was interested in working on dark side project. Does the pope shit in the woods?
The line Steve described is currently mislabeled in Jack Roberts, Colorado ice guide book as "Walk the Line". On the wall to the left of the Ribbon there are two obvious gold stripes that run parallel down the wall. "Desperado" is the left gold stripe, and our project is the right.
We chatted a bit on the phone before our first day of work on the route. We talked about the experience we wanted to create; and how to go about establishing the route. Steve knew the route was going to take bolts, at least to make it reasonable for mortals to climb. He suggested installing bolt anchors on rappel. I offered that “every route deserves a ground up attempt”. In hindsight I now realize that by obliging my idealistic proposal of “only ground up attempts” he would be taking on considerably more risk while leading some of these hard, loose, run out pitches. None the less we went for it ground up.
The first and last of the five pitches are the easiest, though still heads up. After Steve led 100 feet to an appropriate belay ledge; I waited patiently while he hammered in a self-drive bolt with the back of his super light Quantum tech ice tool. I began to follow the mixed groove with pure enjoyment. The climbing, though a bit loose was superb. There isn’t really any way to climb this kind of stuff fast, but I did the best I could. Stemming onto edges where I could find them; swinging into frozen turf when I could spot it. In all the climbing I have done with Steve throughout the Alpine Mentor program I never really have seen him lead much. Usually the mentees are on the sharp end climbing ourselves into holes with the Mentors there if we need them.
Watching Steve climb this stuff really expanded my concept of mixed climbing. He treated his tools like two pitons with handles. Swinging them with no concern into rock, with the hope it might be frozen turf. Placing them into cracks, then beating them in with the other tool to make them secure. Brilliant climbing; in one pitch my arsenal of mixed climbing techniques grew. And though I have experienced it many times now, his confidence and cool brushed off on me a little more.
At the next belay we began to scope the path ahead of us; more loose climbing through the groove with a few cracks for pro. I offered with an apparent lack of confidence to take the lead. “Don’t worry, I got it” Steve appeased. “Yeah you better take it, I think it would be dangerous for me to lead” trying to sound objective about the decision. Steve stepped down and right off the ledge and into the rusty red groove. After a few stemming moves up and into the inexorable, he decided to place a bolt on lead. I can’t recall how long it actually took to place the bolt but I do remember how much work it was. Every five or so whacks with the ultra-light ice tool he would have to climb down from the front point stem to shake out the calves. It took a great amount of effort, especially considering it was the beginning of the pitch and there was still another 30 meters to the next ledge; and plenty of hard climbing to get to it. I followed the pitch with no regret for relinquishing the lead. I arrived at his hand placed two bolt anchor where we fixed ropes, stashed gear and rappelled.
Winter time is pretty busy for anyone who works the climbing scene in Ouray. I was busy getting the Ice Park ready for the annual Ice Fest; so out of the five days of work put into the route I was only able to be there for four. Steve jugged the skinny fixed lines alone one day and threw in a few protection bolts…with the power drill. The next day I went up there we managed to work our way to the base of the “Rusty Cage”, the appropriately named crux pitch. A short San Juan Red chimney capped with a bulging roof. Again we fixed and rapped leaving one more day of work. Nothing worthwhile is easy.
The final day on the route we started early and stormed the wall; it was time to finish. We brought two power drills this time and installed protection bolts on each pitch as we ascended to our high point. At the base of the crux we re-organized and Steve charged the pitch armed to the teeth with rack, bolts and the power drill. Into the rusty cage he went; stemming, chimneying, bolting and pulling his way through and out the roof to the top of the pitch. It was in the bag, the crux behind us and one more pitch to the summit, my pitch.
After a few days of climbing on this vertical frozen choss I began to feel more solid. I was excited to break into new terrain and take us to the chains. Another 20 meters of rock then a snow slope and all we had to do was rap and walk out. I took off from the belay stemming and hooking as delicately as I could manage, constantly sniffing around for elusive pro like a starving dog. I took me a bit of time, but broke through the last of the real climbing and post holed to the summit tree. We rappelled to the base packed up and glissaded down to the parking lot where I had stashed a couple beers in the snow. The Rusty Cage was finished, and I am psyched to contribute to Camp Bird history.
This 2-minute video shares the Alpine Mentors group climbing in the Canadaian Rockies and learning what is needed to survive as an alpine climber from mentor Scott Backes.
Rochefort Ridges on Grand Jorasses
by Colin Simon
On Sunday, October 6, the Alpine Mentors Team attempted to traverse both the Rochefort Ridges and the crest of Les Grandes Jorasses, one of the Alps' largest and most iconic peaks. We planned to climb it in two days: start at Point Helbronner, spend a night at the Canzio bivouac hut, and descend back to Courmayeur.
The team smoothly crossed the glacier and ascended the first obstacles, passing the Dent du Geant (Giant’s Tooth) and continuing across a corniced ridgeline to a small peak, l’Aiguille de Rochefort. A half-meter of fresh snow slowed our progress, and we descended the peak in quickly deteriorating visibility. This is where we made our first navigation error.
We misinterpreted a guidebook picture and failed to study the nuances on our map. In poor visibility we climbed the wrong ridge and traversed loose, snow-covered rock to the far side of the wrong mountain. We found no ridge, no Grandes Jorasses. Only a cliff pouring thousands of feet into the abyss.
Those of us who spend a lot of time in the mountains will inevitably make route-finding errors. I’ve made plenty, but this was different; we were on the wrong mountain, and thoroughly confused.
We reversed our steps to the Aiguille de Rochefort, and through the whiteout we could barely pick out the correct ridge. We contemplated bailing, but decided to keep climbing. In fading daylight, we climbed over a small peak until we could barely make out a large, steep, dark wall in front of us. Steve told us this was the side of the Grandes Jorasses – the hut would be in a notch right in front of it. We looked around the notch. No hut. When we finally pulled out the map and GPS we recognized that we were again in the wrong location and that several pitches of snow-covered rock climbing stood between us and the hut, so we made the decision to bail.
Weather and vision got gradually worse and worse.
We retraced our path until Steve found a crevasse we could safely sleep in. Between five climbers we had three sleeping bags, two sets of puffy pants, one bivy sack, and an emergency blanket. We had no sleeping pads. To insulate us from the snowy floor of the crevasse, we laid on empty packs, ropes, and boot shells. Wet spindrift sprayed us all night, melting onto us and saturating our clothes.
Eventually we emerged from our shivering half-sleep and willed ourselves out of drenched sleeping bags, except for Buster, who didn’t even have one. We climbed out of the crevasse and were greeted with an epic sunrise. It was cold but gorgeous as we returned to the warmth and safety of the Torino hut and a telepherique down to Courmayeur. I removed my boots and was thankful to see ten lively toes, undamaged by the cold.
by Buster J.
For their third trip together, the participants and mentors of the Alpine Mentors Program headed to the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif to explore one of the most significant areas in the history of alpine climbing. The climbers enjoyed good weather and conditions upon arrival before the weather turned halfway through the trip. Heavy snowfall and cold temps had an effect on the planning, but not before everyone got some great climbs in.
On October 1st, the first day out, German climbers David Göttler and Ines Papert joined Steve House and the participants for a tour of the glacier near Point Helbronner and some practice with crevasse rescue. The next day Steven, Colin, Ines, Steve H., and Buster climbed the North Face of Tour Ronde as a warm up, while David and Marianne climbed a difficult 5.11 crack on the Dent du Geant. Confidence was up, so everyone turned in early and made plans for a big day.
October 3rd - Steven and Ines made an exciting ascent of the super-classic Super Couloir in lean conditions. David, Colin, and Buster climbed the Kuffner (aka Frontier) Ridge to the summit or Mt Maudit. Adjacent to the Kuffner, Marianne and Steve H. made an attempt of the Cretier route, backing off after some route finding difficulties. The next day was spent resting in Courmayeur, with a navigation lesson from David. As David is the head-Mentor for the German Alpine Club’s Alpine Mentors program (more here: http://www.alpenverein.de/Bergsport/Expeditionen/Expeditions-Kader-Teams/)
October 6th - Ines and David departed Italy, while Steve and the four participants set out on what would be an eventful attempt of the Rochefort ridge traverse to the Grand Jorasses. The plan was to reach a bivouac hut the first night, but deteriorating weather, route finding errors, and moving too slow found the team searching for the hut in the dark, before realizing that they were still over half a kilometer away. Turning around, the 5 climbers settled in for a rather cold and wet night in a crevasse before returning to Point Helbronner the next morning.
October 8th – After sleeping in the participants were treated to a tour of the Grivel factory located in the Aosta Valley. Besides seeing lots of shiny new gear, the team got to check out the solar panels that completely power the building, watch carabiners being tested, and meet the family that owns and operates Grivel. http://www.grivel.com/company/solar_energy
October 9th – Rejuvinated by improving weather and a rest day got the crew psyched to head for Mt Blanc du Tacul, approaching from the French side. Jon Bracey, a British mountain guide living in Chamonix, joined Colin and Marianne for an ascent of the Chere Couloir, while Steve, Buster, and Steven climbed the Contamine-Mazeaud. All climbers summited Mt Blanc du Tacul and returned to Chamonix the same day.
October 11th - After a snowy rest day the climbers decided to attempt the Cosmic Arete of Aiguille du Midi as an exercise in climbing through bad conditions. The team succeeded with the traverse, and expanded their thresholds for tunneling and groveling on an extremely windy day through nearly a meter of fresh snow.
October 12th - Despite consecutive days of heavy snow, everyone wanted to get in one more day before before parting ways. Colin, Steve, and Buster set out to traverse the Aiguille du Entreves via the standard route, while Jon, Steven, and Marianne attempted a more direct line to the same objective. Once again, the day became a lesson in post-holing, climbing with googles on, and navigating in a whiteout. Things became more real then anticipated for Steve, Colin, and Buster when they found themselves unsure of where they were on an exposed ridge in a whiteout with potential avalanche and crevasse hazards on all sides. Fortunately everyone returned safely to the hut that night, before returning to Courmayeur the next morning.
October 13th - The trip ended with a day of debriefs, reflection, and looking ahead to future outings. Overall the voyage to Mont Blanc was productive, the participants learned a lot about the hardships and survival skills demanded by serious mountains.
The next expedition will be a trip to the Alaska Range in June of 2014...
As the rain continued to fall in Chamonix valley we all were waiting for someone to use it as an excuse to not go climbing. "You don't want to go up there", some locals told us. "Nothing is in".
Steve gave an unaffirming "yea" to their recommendation. Later that night he gave us his own recommendation, "Go up". "If its bad than you will get to practice climbing in bad conditions".
How can you say no to that? In my experience, any climbing experience is a learning experience. We didn't fly 4000 miles to drink espresso and walk around Chamonix talking about climbing.
So we packed our bags and set our alarms. The next day we were on the first cable car up the Aguille du Midi, and before we made it to the top of the Plan we had broken through the inversion.
It was beautiful, above the clouds and in the mountains. Immediately our unsure attitudes changed. We went for it And it paid off. What we thought might be a mediocre, failure of a day turned out to be fantastic. (Except for the unrelenting up draft of wind and snow that prompted thoughts of suicide in my tortured mind...thats a different story though) the point is we went for it and it was good. And if it hadn't been good weather it would have still been a good day. Always go for it, even if people are “nay saying”. Even if the espresso smells good and you just want to eat French pastries all day. Go for it. The only way to get better is to go for it.
By Steven van S.
A year ago Marianne, Buster, Colin and Steven decided on trips for the next two years that ramp up in difficulty and commitment level.
Last Monday, September 30 the group was welcome in Courmayeur/Italy by the “Societa delle Guide”, which was a great honor as those guys have lived and breathed alpinism for centuries. The guide service in Courmayeur is the second oldest mountain guide office in the world and was founded in 1850. Only the office in Chamonix is older.
The Silver Lining
by Steven van Sickle
The clock in Steve's jeep read 4:00 am and the data on the console said we had spent over 70 hours in the car since Steve H. and I left the western slope and headed to Canada. It was pitch black outside as we drove up the Icefields Parkway. Having been back and forth on the road so many times this trip, I knew the classics hiding on the side of the road; Weeping wall, polar circus, had we arrived a few days earlier we may have done them, but this trip was about the alpine and the Canadian Rockies are chocked full of that.
Buster, Steve, and myself were off to climb the Silver Lining, a route put up 16 years earlier by Steve, Barry Blanchard, and Joe Josephson. Obviously a real treat to climb the route with one of the first ascentionists. The other half of the group was leaving a little later to climb asteroid alley with Steve Swenson, another mentor friend and climbing legend.
I wasn't sure if my new double boots would work properly in my ski bindings. So with some nervousness I placed the toe in and then carefully pressed the heal down. No
click. All I could think about was how tedious it would be to have to walk behind people skinning.
Not to mention how it would compromise our time frame or how annoying it would be to wait up for me. With some apprehension I leaned forward to reset and the heel stayed in place. So I torqued it every way I could, stepped the other foot in, made a few shooshes and all was good. Though this would not be the last time my boots gave me trouble, one of the days many cruxes was still behind us.
In the typical Earl style I was out of the gates hard and fast. "Slow down," Steve said from the back of the line, "it's a marathon". I began to pace myself and as a result, start to pay attention to our location. Or timing was perfect, just as the very first light began to refract the deep purples of space we found our selves at the base of the route. Buster prepared to lead the first block of three inch ice, while I belayed, and Steve took pictures.
By the time Steve and I started to follow the first pitch the morning light was shining on the whole valley and illuminating the silver lining above us. After following a long pitch
of thin ice and a bold mixed pitch, it was now my turn to take the sharp end for a few pitches.
My first lead was 60 meters of memorable WI4. It started out interesting enough, steep and thin. Then it got fat and relatively steep. About a body length from the top of the pitch I placed the best screw I could find as high as I could manage and made motions to top out. Kick kick, stand tall, swing swing. My axes were over the top of the pitch perpendicular to my body. The picks were nestled securely in that sweet sweet snice we all love so much. Now here's where things got a little dicey. The night before I thought the climb would have a lot of mixed pitches on it. I adjusted my crampons so the front point was at its shortest position, that combined with the extra bulkiness of the double boot and the angle that I was kicking at, I was in a sense, rendered front-point-less. After a few fruitless high step kicks with my left foot, my right foot popped. In what seemed like less than a second, my feet slipped and my arms fully extended. I aimlessly kicked my feet and stuck a previous step, whew. Relax and execute. Two moves later I was at the end of my rope pounding a knife blade in and equalizing it with a fat cam. 120 more meters of easy snow and ice and we were ready for Busters block.
A few more pitches put us in a comfy cave where Steve and I were able to take great pictures of Buster stemming out its mouth and the top of his block.
Having already passed the exit slopes, I found myself scraping for holds over the top of a roof, until Steve yelled up to me, "I don't remember pulling any M7 roofs when I did this Steven!" I looked around some more, and noticed a traverse to the left. Somehow the M7 roof seemed like a more inviting option, so with a trace of concern in my voice I hollered down "pretty sure we should have traversed off a couple pitches earlier". Silence, I knew what Buster was thinking, Steve on the other hand knew all along and was taking some pleasure in watching us create and solve a problem.
is just a part alpine climbing, but when you start to consider going down to find a way up, it inevitably becomes time consuming. So with a bit of apprehension I began the traverse hoping
it would lead to an exit. A few side steps and some horizontal torqueing on my tools put me in a right facing dihedral a body length from a nice belay. I stepped up with my right foot
then looked left for another foot. I remember thinking "that's a big foot, nice!" And as I made contact with the hold, the entire microwave size block of rock came loose with a trajectory a
foot to left of Busters head. "ROCK!!!!! ROCK!!!!" I yelled. It was more of an after thought as the rocks had already hit the ground, but its just the nice thing to do.
After a bit of equalizing, I began belaying my friends up.
Steve followed the pitch in an impressive couple of minutes, arrived at the belay, looked around and calmly exclaimed "oh boy, off route for sure". From this perspective it was an easy decision to go down and try to find a different exit. And after one rap, a bit of traversing and a short loose pitch we were on our summit. Some world class butt sliding and we were strenuously post holing, crawling, and rolling back to our skis, ready to head back to Canmore and enjoy one of Canada's fine imported PBR beers.
by Colin Simon
The same day Buster, Steve House and Steven left to climb The Silver Lining, Marianne, Steve Swenson and I had a small epic on Asteroid Alley on Mount Andromeda.We leave our hostel along the Icefields Parkway and are hiking by 8am. We cross the small glacier and spend half an hour breaking up the large snow cone that wind into the gullies that form Asteroid Alley and Shooting Gallery.
Marianne leads the first roped pitches through a progressively harder gully, to the base of a long chimney. I take the lead and enter a chimney. I hip scum past a chockstone and follow a long runnel of ice in the back of the chimney – it seems brilliant: the chimney is not a squeeze, and has smooth, continuously steep ice in the back. It would be pumpy, but the sides of the chimney allow me to rest when needed. I follow the ice for another thirty meters to the base of an intimidating pair of chockstones that choke the top of the chimney. The outer chockstone is far out on the outside of the chimney, and the inner chockstone is a jagged triangle just outside the ice runnel I am climbing, looking straight down on me like an enormous tooth. There is just enough space to squeeze between the two chockstones.
I place my last ice screw in ice behind the tooth, stem my feet on the sides of the chimney, and lean back to undercling the tooth with both hands – my soaked gloves instantly gecko to the cold, rough, dark brown Canadian limestone, pinning my hands. I kick my shiny new Grivel crampons into a smear of ice, and rip my gloves off the tooth, leaving small shreds of fabric on the frozen rock. I pluck my ice tools from the ice and find positive hooks above the chockstone. As I chimney higher and begin to “beach the whale” onto the ledge, a shock cord on my pack catches on a small edge of the outer chockstone, preventing me from climbing higher. Unable to cut it, I lower myself from my ice tools to release my pack before completing the Alpine Whale Maneuver on top of the chockstone ledge, covered in snow and loose rocks. Now that feels like mixed climbing!
While in the chimney, I was breathing and moving constantly; my activity kept me warm despite my lead taking a long time. Marianne and Steve Swenson had been shivering at the belay for a while – I could tell how cold they were when they followed the pitch wearing their puffy jackets. Even after reaching the belay and leading another short couple of pitches, we weren’t warm, so Steve started leading. His pitch was also unfortunately not straightforward, so he exited the gully and had to aid climb. The three of us reached the final belay right as night fell – we put our headlamps on, and immediately proceeded to get our ropes horribly stuck. It was really great to have a mentor with us at this point – Steve quickly decided to re-lead by headlamp, to retrieve our ropes. Marianne felt her legs radiating her bodyheat away, so she fashioned a skirt out of her emergency blanket. Apparently it made a large difference – not a bad item to bring on an alpine climb! A few more rappels through darkness put us onto the ledge at the bottom of the route, but we descend the snow cone the wrong way and set up more rappels, costing us more time. We finally downclimb the base of the snowcone onto the glacier, cross the crevassed section and take our harnesses off at 3:15am.
I felt solid during our mini-epic rappelling into the dark; I saved my last two GU packets for the descent, allowing me energy and caffeine so I would be unlikely to bonk and make a simple rappelling error.
We found out our friends had less solid feelings about our little adventure – on the way back to the car we met a very anxious Steve, Buster, and Steven racing up the approach to meet us! After an alpine start, climbing and descending The Silver Lining, they drove back to Canmore, and eventually got so worried about our late return that they drove two hours back up the Icefields Parkway, fully prepared to come rescue us if need be. Steve had a tremendous, relaxed look of relief when he found us all unscathed. I felt an odd mix of guilt and comfort – guilt that our friends had put in such an effort when we didn’t need help, and comfort that if we did had an accident, there were people imminently coming to get us. After trading driving shifts down the Icefields Parkway for two hours, we got back to our place in Canmore and finally got to some sweet sleep at dawn.
On my two previous trips to the Canadian Rockies, I watched friends have accidents, I struggled to find alpine routes with acceptable levels of avalanche danger, and I even failed not on approaches, but on the drive. One day in 2011, Kurt Ross and I neglected to fill up the gas tank the night before our climb. At 3am we discovered all of the nearby gas stations were closed. We drove around, unable to find gas, returning to our place in Canmore at dawn. The next year, one morning my decrepit, two wheel drive car with bald tires simply couldn’t get up a snowy hill, with an hour of driving still to go to the parking lot. When avalanche conditions became serious, my partners and I were at a lack of knowledge of safer, if less ideal routes. I was unable to get off the ground on real alpine climbs.
This time, I showed up with some of the most experienced alpinists in the world, who have climbed extensively in the Canadian Rockies. We found good conditions, and got on some really great routes, on a couple of which I struggled with risk acceptance. You can have one of the strongest alpinists in the world belaying you, but that doesn’t make blocks any less loose, ice any more continuous, or snow more consolidated. I come away with a greater understanding that you don’t have to take an expedition to 8000 meters at the end of the earth to find a very “real” mountain. You just have to drive to Canada!
by Colin Simon
March 24 - April 7
In an effort to spare driving time, the group moved to a hostel off the Icefields Parkway for three nights. We would save three or even four hours of driving each day by staying closer to the Columbia Icefield – nearby are Mount Andromeda, Athabasca, the Weeping Wall area, and The Silver Lining.
Buster, Marianne and Steve were to try Asteroid Alley as Steven, Swenson and I planned to climb Shooting Gallery. A glacier bus was driving up the approach road, and the driver let us hop on, sparing us a mile of walking up an asphalt road. We crossed the crevassed section of the glacier and arrived at the base of our routes to find we had been scooped by another team! Buster, Marianne and Steve ate a bullet and left to go climb Skyladder, kindly allowing Steven, Swenson and I to try one of the routes without a team on it.
An enormous snowcone sits beneath both gullies – it took us half an hour to break trail up it, leading to a ledge where we could belay. Swenson led a quick pitch to the crux, a short, steep band of rock filled with rotten ice. Steven quickly led it, yelling “watch me!” but looking solid despite his not-so-solid protection. I led the next pitch through a wide gully of rock and snow. Swenson informed me that the belay was sub-optimal, and that a factor-two fall was not an option.
I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to tap pitons into poor chunks of rock – I eventually got one to stick, but it was questionable. Next I dug through sugary, faceted snow, stuck my head in a hole and found a small cam placement. I proceeded up the easy but horribly loose pitch, and I lost focus and my mind wandered to more terrible thoughts…
I am standing at the base of “Mixed Master” with my friend Kurt. Eighty feet above us, Jessica removes one of three pieces of a rappel anchor. Halfway down the rappel, the anchor blows, and Kurt and I watch in horror as her body spins and bounces off the wall, and smashes into the ground before sliding down the snow slope like a corpse. I dive onto her rope, still connected to her by her belay device, arresting her slide. Kurt sprints to her and cradles her head. She is conscious, but talks about how bad her neck hurts. Three hours and a helicopter ride later, she is in a hospital, only needing three stitches for a crampon laceration on her leg.
Would my protection rip out too?
I am in an ocean of choss, covered by patches of unconsolidated snow and scraps of ice. The pitch could be rated M3 X. Technically quite moderate, but a catastrophic place to make mistakes. I eventually find a small nut in questionable rock and a piton in a shallow but solid crack. With a quarter of the rope left, I cannot see any places to build an anchor near me. I traverse right, and back left before getting to an old anchor; I put it back together, Steven and Swenson follow the pitch and we decide to leave a couple of our own nuts before rappelling to the ground.
To be continued...
March 24 - April 7
by Colin Simon
The Alpine Mentors crew showed up in Canmore, Alberta for two solid weeks of raging up ice and alpine routes in the Canadian Rockies.
Steve Swenson, Scott Backes, Rob Owens, and Raphael Slawinski all showed up to climb with the team. In addition we had a tour of the Banff Moutain Rescue Center from Steve Holeczi. The Semple family graciously provided us with an awesome place to stay in Canmore.
You may notice we have an awful lot of climbers named “Steve.” If you want your child to be an alpinist, they will be statistically stronger if you name them “Steve.” (Stevette? Stevina? Stevelle?)
Routes we climbed:
On our third morning in Canada, two teams go to the Stanley Headwall. Steven goes to the Coire-Dubh just outside Canmore with Rob Owens, Buster and Steve go to French Reality, and Marianne and Steve Swenson and I go to Nemesis. I use skins for the first time. After zigzagging up to the base past some avalanche debris, Swenson leads to a huge ledge belay on bolts. Marianne leads the next pitch through the steepest part of the route and ends up making a hanging belay. Swenson follows the path Marianne led while I go a little to the left. I find shallow ice, surrounded by chandeliered daggers. In my panic I swing into the shallow ice and slam my new ice tool into rock for the first time. I get a grip and traverse back right and meet the two at the belay. Swenson leads a short pitch to a small ledge, and I start leading the final pitch.
Marianne’s pitch was substantially more chandeliered, with daggers everywhere, but I feel intimidated by the big piece of Canadian ice. I overgrip my tools and start to get pumped. My mind quickly becomes cluttered with memories:
I posthole a few feet away from the ice route “R&D” in Kananaskis Country in order to stay warm as Kirill leads and Dave belays. I hear a scream, and turn around to see Kirill’s 40-foot fall arrested by an ice screw, slowed by the shattering of his ankle. Dave and I drag him back to the car while he helps by crawling. Two days later Kirill flies back to Boston to get surgery for his ankle.
I start moving again, hesitantly, with much Elvis legging and get to the easier ice at the top. A traverse left brings me to a large ice ledge, which I find out is a water dam when I punch through and a pool of water begins seeping out. I manage to belay Marianne and Swenson up. We rappel to the ground, and start skiing downhill – it’s really hard in mountain boots! I fall over repeatedly, and Marianne does a few times, giggling the whole way back to the car.
Canada 2013 trip. Day 3.
by Buster Jesik
"Nauseating thoughts of falling, avalanches, and hurtling ice were transformed into amazement at the infinite complexities, subtleties, and variables of alpine climbing that occasionally combine to create such extraordinary experiences."
With the help of Rob Owens, Steve Swenson and Steve House the Alpine Mentors crew spilt into three small teams and headed to different objectives today. Steve House and I paired up to have a crack at French Reality on the famed Stanley Headwall. French Reality (145m V, M6 WI6+) turned out to be one of the best and most gnarly days of climbing I’v ever had! Rob Owens and Steven Van Sickle went to a route called Coire Dubh and Steve Swenson, Marianne Van Der Steen, and Colin Simon went to the nearby classic Nemesis.
The first leg of our French Reality adventure involved in skiing up a 30-35 degree gully while being cautious of avalanche conditions - the thought of having to ski back down a real ski run in mountain boots with packs lingered with me for the rest of the day. After we sent the approach gully, we made a wild traverse around the corner to the base of the route. A 200 meter exposed steep snow traverse above a cliff, with the occasional catastrophe bolt every 40m or so. While the traverse is “only” steep snow, a fall or small avalanche (without the rope) would result in certain death!
Steve led the last two ice pitches including a delicate and fragile pillar, only about a foot wide at the base! Drop knees, heel hooks, and other “rock climbing techniques” got us up the steep and wild ice. I began to see and feel the pieces come together. Fear was replaced with confidence. Nauseating thoughts of falling, avalanches, and hurtling ice were transformed into amazement at the infinite complexities, subtitles, and variables of alpine climbing that occasionally combine to create such extraordinary experiences. Despite 15 years of personal climbing experience, days like today make me feel like I’v only begun to scratch the surface.
Tired but psyched after the most sustained mixed / ice route I’ve ever done - we were pleasantly surprised with an enjoyable ski out, even in our mountain boots!
March 27, 2013:
Our group of climbers and mentors has convened in Canmore, Alberta for a two-week climbing trip, and the psyche-level is definitely high. At our last meeting in January, we all built training plans to be in top physical shape for this trip. The crew is looking and feeling good and we decided to start with a classic ice route with a long approach: The Sorcerer. It's an important part of every trip to do a few shakedown climbs and get our systems running smoothly and adapt to the scale and character of climbing in a new place.
Shortly after the initial week last October, the Alpine Mentors participants went along with Steve House and Bryan Gilmore to the Black Canyon for their first official outing. For the next 10 days the climbers camped, got to know each other better, and worked on climbing full day objectives quickly and efficiently. Colin, Steven, and Buster had all climbed in the Black before, while Marianne was discovering the area for the first time.
Climbing in teams of 2 and 3, the crew started out on well-traveled classics before moving on to more serious objectives later in the week. By the end of the trip some teams we’re doing linkups.
Several routes we’re climbed from October 10th - 19th including...
After each day the climbers gathered around the campfire to discuss the day. What went well, what could have been better, what they learned, and what they re-learned. After making dinner together the teams we’re mixed up and the next day’s objectives decided. Below are stories from some of the days out by the AM participants.
I left work at the Pub around 5 pm and blasted as fast as I could to the North rim campground of the Black Canyon. I arrived well after dark as it was October and the sun was, thankfully, setting earlier. When I pulled into the campsite we planned on occupying for the next ten days, I was met with Steve Houses` classic zealous and eager smile, a testament to his psych and commitment to the lifestyle and our mission. Buster Jesik, and Marianne Van Der Steen, were already there discussing plans for the next day. We only needed Colin Simon to arrive from Boulder and the first official gathering of Alpine Mentors first generation could begin. We decided our first day to do a Grade III, 5.10 just to get acclimated to the Black, and each other’s style. We would then begin doing routes that fostered rhythm and efficiency, the theme of this particular trip. One of 6 in a series of trips to prepare us for our ultimate goal of a 6000+ meter peak in the pure alpine style.
The next morning I could feel the temperature inversion as I began to sweat 600 meters down the appropriately named, ”SOB” gully. I stopped to stow my fleece and wait for my crew while I oriented myself to the magnificence of the Canyon. I was quite excited to get on the rock with Steve and Marianne. Marianne and I had not climbed much multi pitch yet together and it is always a learning experience with Steve. At the edge of the Gunnison River, an obvious line of splitters and chimneys dividing the Hooker Buttress comes into view. The Russian Arête is not a very hard route; and though it is one of my favorites in the Black, we were not necessarily here to climb difficult routes. Our mission this trip was to begin sharing ideas, skills, and experiences. We have a couple years of training, traveling, and of course climbing ahead of us. And with an ultimate goal of a 6000+ meter Asian peak in Alpine style we needed to all be on the same page.
Throughout our 10 day trip we climbed some great routes, practicing whatever was possible to save time. And though sometimes the vegetation and the abundance of wide cracks (Womb Fight) do not foster speed, we paid close attention to whatever reduced down time. Feeding and hydrating the leader (or belayer) while they do their jobs, trading belays when necessary, or even racking for the leader makes a big difference. And we were here to refine those skills as a team
When Andreas Hinterstoisser made his traverse to the First Icefield on their fateful attempt of the Norwand, I can’t help think Tony Kurtz wasn’t impressed by his partners “to the chains!” attitude. And while the Russian arête in the Black Canyon is not quite the Norwand, and I am not Tony Kurtz, I certainly took a lot from watching a truly experienced Alpinist lead the 6 pitch block that makes up the Russian arête. From the time Steve House, our Mentor, and a climber who has been to the edge of what the Alpine has to offer. Marianne Van Der Steen, one of my protégé companions and mixed climbing master and I started our approach from the North Rim Campground we employed simple techniques to increase our efficiency. While I watched Steve flow through the 1st pitch, Marianne and I traded the belay to put our shoes on and be ready to climb. It wasn’t very long and Steve finished the 1st pitch and we began climbing smoothly and efficiently. Two weeks prior to our Black Canyon rendezvous I climbed the route with a friend in a casual 5 hours. This time in a team of 3, we were able sit on the summit and drink water after only 3 hours.
At the end of the trip , I felt content knowing that we all work together as a cohesive group, and most importantly have a great time together. We are all very motivated to test ourselves and make sure we are prepared for our objective(s). The Canadian Rockies Is now only 8 weeks away, and I have begun to truly train for the first time in my life. After reading the early draft (twice now) of Steve`s new training book that will be published sometime in Spring 2014, I am impressed at how little I know about my body and its potential, and am fascinated to see what I can do with it. My training has so far consumed most of my time, and thoughts. I begin every day by checking my heart rate, and end every day early making sure to be well rested for the next training session.
Most climbing trips are devoted to climbing harder grades – Steve recognized that all of the mentees spend plenty of time pushing technical difficulty. The Black trip was made a little different; we did relatively little climbing near our technical limits, but instead focused on making the whole route go smoothly. Between two mentors and four mentees, we tried as many combinations of two-and-three man rope teams as we could. We emphasized mechanics of multi-pitch and alpine climbing, like transitions, simul-climbing, eating and hydrating, and rockfall management. Instead of trying to send stacks of 5.11 pitches, we focused on teamwork.
The Black Canyon is a mythical place. If it would be in Iceland I'm sure there would be big Goblins and Trolls living under the big river boulders.But here we only found poison ivy and loose rock.The gneiss and schist is old, oxidated and worn by the strong water and it's filled with white pegmatite dikes.First the walls look small, until you reach the lowst, darkest point at the river and suddenly realise that the little stream you saw from the viewpoint is a violent white river... And thats where you start your climbs.
Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve and I were going to be the team.We were going to be each others teachers, mentors, climbing buddies and friends.Goal was not to climb the hardest of the Black, but become efficient, get to know new techniques and systems, be fast through using the right systems and route finding skills.
This week I was dragged out of what I call 'my comfort zone'. I was feeling better, the cold almost disappeared, and my mind found that my body should train harder.
The idea was to do a link-up with another route to get to the top of the Canyon again.
I felt slow, insecure on the strange granite, I was cold and was far from fast. I felt disappointed in my own achievements before I even started on leading. Ashamed for my bad climbing results my mind started to give up on me. Just as usual.
My head is my weakest climbing parter, weaker then my pumped forearms, weaker then my hungry stomach, weaker then my dehydrated body. Weaker then the worst cam I ever placed.
When my mind tries to get involved, thats when I get out of my comfort zone.
And the request for getting out of that comfort zone worked, I got totally out of it... (Thanks Mind for helping out...Thanks for nothing...)
And then we realised it was getting dark. The sun coloured orange on the other side of the Canyon making the shades to become big monsters and finally it all turned into silence.
We had to go down. Now. Rapidly we build an anchor, left a cam, abseiled down, pulled the rope, abseiled another pitch and another. And... Stuck.
The rope got stuck.
The sky turned black, the moon that accompanied me in the start of the trip had disappeared. It was just us now and our tiny emergency light. Steve climbed up in the darkness, miraculously fixed the rope and got down again.
We pulled, and pulled, and pulled, and...Stuck, again?! We pulled the wrong end... There we went again, down another pitch, and another...Stuck. Again. Buster prussiked his way up and down. We prepared our abseil gear all together with the light, in the darkness we were dragged onto the cold rock until one of us found the next belay.
Meanwhile we were in contact with base-camp through our little radio's. The rope got stuck twice more before we were finally down. Down in the poison ivy. There we searched for our bags, lights and food.
Now the Tyrolean, the river and the Cruise Gulley...
That Gulley is meant to walk/abseil down, not to 'cruise' up. We climbed up the two fixed ropes, avoided all poison ivy and loose rock. Around midnight we arrived at the campsite. Steven and Colin prepared pasta. I never drink beer, but this one, with the pasta was the best I'd had for a very long time :)
The next day was a restday.
But it was not over yet.
Colin had still one route to do, and me too. The longest rock route in Colorado.
The Southern Arete on the Painted Wall.
A challenge again. Not too hard. I thought. Until Colin said "you make it look like it's an 5.13".
Apparently I was still not used to this typical gneiss chimney climbing and got myself pumped in an 5.9
Great. I'll climb the scary traverse, you can do the chimney here :)
I was lucky, I climbed the beautiful finger crack at the end of the route!
Strangely my mind started to bug me again. The loose block at the end made me feel insecure. I was afraid to drop one on Colin whist leading and asked him to take over for me. Asking it made me feel weak, can't I even lead an easy 5.6 anymore (hello mind?!)
In the darkness we walked back to the campsite. We found big deer bones on our way through the bush and found it hard to get back to the hiking path.
Every evening we had a campfire. Hot chocolate or tea and good discussions about how to improve all we did.
Steve referred to his own mentors and his time in Slovenia.
He told us "climbing is 80% mental." Maybe even 90% if you just take the Black Canyon climbing or Alpine climbing. I'm sure my climbing success is depending on my mind. Hard. And maybe thats also why climbing is such a beautiful thing.
Climbing for me is a combination of many different elements. If those elements all all in the right direction then climbing is perfect. It feels perfect, looks perfect, sounds perfect... Although my mind wasn't perfect, my body, the surroundings, the new friends I now have, the climb, the rock, the food, the air, the... just everything felt super good. Especially us five as a team felt super good. All, Buster, Colin, Steven, Steve are original and special individuals all with different strengths. That combined was, as to say in American English; awesome.
And that climbing feeling made this one of the most intense trips I've ever made.
All I learned, felt, experienced this month are things I'll keep with me for my whole life. And I feel that is going to happen again, for the next two years. Two years for a lifetime. That is just worth anything.
It almost feels like love, maybe it does feel like love. Uhhhh, yes...butterflies in my heart, is that the same annoying itchy butterfly that I sometimes feel in my tummy?
Hey there you butterfly, shall we fly together for these two years?
...and what about after those two years?
Then I hope to create those butterflies for others, so we can pass on our new experiences and keep the Alpine Mentor Programme for many next generations to come.
It was Buster's 14th season being at the Ouray Ice Fest. He wanted to compete this year, but was not selected.
"It is a very competitive event, with several climbers flew in from Europe this year to have a chance at this year’s larger purse. The silver lining was that some of my friends, including fellow Alpine Mentors participant Marianne were accepted. Also, Vince Anderson, the route setter for the comp, was psyched to have me along with the other non-competing AM participants to forerun the comp route. I found the mixed rock and ice climbing to be a breeze, but discovered I have much to learn about climbing dangling logs."
Friday night we were at the Outdoor Gear Fair at the Community Center in Ouray. Many of the festival-goers dropped by for the free beer and to check out the latest in climbing gear, and the latest in non-profit organizations!
The lucky winners of our raffle were:
Marianne placed second behind Ines Papert in the Elite Comp at the Ouray Ice Fest 2013. Here is her report:
"The whole week in Ouray I kept on waking up, nervous for the upcoming competition. On the final day that Saturday I actually felt pretty ok. Although I had the worst warm-up ever, but with the -27C I was feeling pretty fine.
In Ouray I was happy to have climbed some quite hard things in the ice-park and at the new crag, The Hall of Justice. Several M10's onsights, M11+ onsight, M9's onsight and all that
without getting severely pumped!
I knew I was in shape and I knew I could do much more.
On the competition route, I felt fine in the first bit. I couldn't get my axe out of the wooden log and couldn't figure the next move properly. Getting confused even more with the dangling chain around my shoulder I made a mistake: I thought it would be better not to kick my feet in the log as it was so hard to get my axes out, I reached for the next hold after the first "fixed ice axe" my feet popped off and out of the competion... I was fairly disappointed there. Not just because I figured it wouldnt be enough for the first place, but more because I really wanted to climb that route.
Vince Anderson and the whole team had put SO much effort in making that route there! And yes, as Steve said afterwards, I would have been happy only if I'd beaten Jeff Mercier, the overall winner.
He was right.
I'm a climber, preferably an outdoor climber. And outdoor stuff like rock and ice doesn't care if you're a man or a woman. I mean: the ice is not going to form any easier when it sees that you're a woman trying to climb up..."
Sunday evening before three of our group embarked upon a six hour drive across Colorado, we met to go through everyone's training plans for the next two months. I was happy to answer lots of questions, as that's the key to learning.
I encouraged everyone to make sure they started doing the strength training routine I had developed for myself several years ago. Strength training is often overlooked by climbers who worry about getting too heavy, but done right there are huge benefits in getting stronger for alpine climbing.
We also reviewed the three basic tenets of training consistency, modulation. It's important to practice all three of these to get the most out of your training:
Each of them now has a plan that includes 10 to 14 hours of workouts each week. These hours will include throwing weights around the gym, chucking laps at the crag and long days of hiking/skiing uphill.
The guys gave Marianne plenty of grief about Euro-dance music; for this video she found an extra nice specimen of this genre. Enjoy the vibe!
More pix to come...
Travel plans are made. Marianne is packing her climbing gear to take the big journey over the big pond to meet her Alpine Mentors cohorts in Ouray. Steven has been climbing all the local ice routes around Ouray since November and Buster and Colin will be making the drive over the mountains to arrive in time for the Ouray Ice Festival.
When they ended their last visit, Steve gave everyone a copy of the draft of his next book “ Training for Alpine Climbing.” Since then, everyone has been busy creating their own training plans. The next time the group meets theses plans will be discussed, revised, and refined. Fingers are crossed that Mark Twight will be able to make an appearance and instruct a one-day training seminar.
What happened in the last two months:
Buster and Steven set out on what would end up being one of Buster’s best ski days in recent memory. Buster made a short movie:
"Eye the sweet spot, line up the swing, tap once, twice, third time a little harder... Ice climbing appears "easy" and "monotonous" to the die hard rock climber, but what can't be conveyed by watching someone else climb is the refined sense of balance, precision, and subtly required to really climb ice well." Buster writes on his blog.
Marianne was busy working on the Dutch Drytooling Event 2012 and training for the mixed climbing comp season. She will take part in the Ouray Ice Festival competition as well as the 2013 Ice Climbing World Cup. We are keeping our fingers and toes crossed for her.
And Colin went on an ice climbing trip to the Canadian Rockies.
I’m full of respect for the six climber who came from literally all over the word to join this project because every one of them showed up with the attributes needed to be a good alpinist, a good climber, and a good human being: Integrity, a bullet-proof work ethic, a strong dose of humility, and an eagerness to learn and improve.
Soon the individual team-members will be introducing themselves here on this blog. And not long after that, they will be taking control of all content here. This story is now their story. -Steve House
The Alpine Mentors team climbed two routes on the north side of 14,150 foot-high Mount Sneffels today. We had a great time and everyone is now busy preparing for tomorrow. We’ve had a day of sport climbing, a day of alpine rock, a self-rescue day, an alpine day and tomorrow is dry-tooling day. -Steve