Monday, November 23, 2009

Joshua Tree Women's Seminar Trip Report

Every year after a busy summer in the mountains John and I look forward to October, also known as "rock-tober" in the guiding world. This is when we, along with much of the climbing vagabond culture, pack up our cars and head to the desert for a month of sunny rock climbing and sleeping in the dirt. This same event that we so look forward to used to be a major source of consternation for our dog Bear. Every time we started packing, a frequent event, Bear was convinced we were finally abandoning him for good. As soon as we started loading the car he would load himself just so we wouldn't forget him. Sadly, we had said goodbye to Bear in June of this year but we still couldn't imagine a road trip without him. As John started loading the car this fall it only made sense that the first thing to go in would be a little box marked "Bear" that contained his ashes - our thought process being that if he was still hovering around he would be relieved to have made it into the car one last time.

With the car loaded to capacity we headed south. After a brief stop at Smith Rock for some climbing and then San Francisco for a good meal we made it to our 1st objective - Joshua Tree National Park. J-tree is a spectacular place with a prehistoric feel. The desert landscape is littered with Joshua Trees (which are actually a type of Yucca) and blobs of Quartz Monzonite, a particularly rough type of granite which has never experienced the smoothing effects of glaciers. While most of the climbing in Joshua Tree is single pitch in nature, there is an endless supply of quality crags.

2009 was the second year Northwest Mountain School has run a women's climbing seminar in Joshua Tree. While we usually prefer mixed-gender trips in the mountains we believe there are a few situations where the single gender setting can make for a less stressful learning environment. This removes the possibility for any odd male/female dynamic and provides an opportunity for each woman to push herself at whatever level she is comfortable with. Plus it is fun to meet and climb with other gals.

Part of Joshua Tree's appeal is the other-worldly setting and a super-cool car camping scene. We love staying in Hidden Valley Campground which is ringed by crags that are home to some of the classic J-tree routes. You can spend a whole day just climbing on the crags around camp. Understandably this camp is very popular so we always arrive a day early to secure enough space for our group. When Alexandra, Michelle & Renee arrived this year their tents were set up and ready for them to move in. Since you can drive to the sites we are able to bring lots of amenities including camp chairs, coolers, firewood & real pillows! There is no need for alarm clocks as the local coyotes usually wake us at dawn with their pleasant calls.

The gals all arrived Saturday evening and by Sunday morning we were ready to get started. While there is some sport climbing in J-tree much of it tends to be a slabby high-friction type of climbing. The large quartz crystals allow you to climb seemingly blank walls. Many of these bolted routes were put up in by bold climbers and tend to be a bit on the run-out side of things, meaning long distances between bolts. Long distances between bolts translates to the potential for long falls for the leader, me, and on a rough slabby climb this is not fun. So what this means for us is we tend to focus on crack climbing here and fortunately for us there are lots of cracks in Joshua Tree.

While some climbers are sport climbers, others trad, and still others are boulderers (or "pad people") I believe there is value in being a good all-arounder. While you might not be able to push your number grade as high as if you were a specialist, you are also not going to run into a climbing situation that stymies you within your grade. We have witnessed many 5.10 sport climbers that cannot get up a 5.8 crack. With this in mind, and to avoid those run-out sport climbs, we turned our attention to the plethora of cracks surrounding us.

The first thing you need to learn in order to climb cracks in J-tree is how to make a tape glove. This protective layer of athletic tape protects the delicate skin on the back of your hands from those large quartz crystals.

Crack climbs are protected primarily with spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs or cams for short) & passive protection such as stoppers. We usually pick an area with a good variety of routes, the leader (one of the guides) will lead the pitch and then the route is available for top-roping. Most of the participants in our seminars climb on top-rope to focus on their climbing technique without the possibility of falling. For participants who are more experienced and interested in learning how to lead we also provide opportunities for mock leads. During a mock lead the climber is still protected by a top-rope but they also place protection and practice clipping a second rope (the mock lead rope) through the protection. The guides are then able to evaluate each of the placements and give the climber feedback on their quality.

2009 Tick List

Day 1:
  • Rainy Day Women 5.7
  • Maggie's Farm 5.7
  • Men With Cow's Heads 5.5
  • Wet Pigeon 5.8
  • Scrumdillyishus 5.7
  • Frosty Cone 5.7

Day 2:
  • Almost Vertical 5.7
  • Ain't Nothing but a J-tree thing 5.6
  • The Face of Tammy Faye 5.8
  • Count on your Fingers 5.9
  • Sail Away 5.8
  • Hands Off 5.8

Day 3:
  • Anchors & Cleaning Anchors
  • Rappelling
  • New Toys 5.6

Day 4:
  • Fote Hog 5.6 - 2 pitches
  • Young Lust 5.9
  • Double Dogleg 5.7
  • Beck's Bet 5.8
  • Split Personality 5.9

Day 5:
  • Toe Jam 5.7
  • Keystone Crack 5.6
  • Climb to R of Keystone Crack 5.6
  • Life's a B & then you Marry One 5.7
  • Marital Sin 5.10 c
  • Another Roadside Attraction 5.9

Eventually the arms and fingers begin to notice the cumulative effect of many pitches. Usually sometime around the middle of the trip we take a day where we focus on the technical aspects of climbing and give the body a bit of a break. This year we used our skills day to venture out to a little visited area of the park called Stirrup Tanks. J-tree National Park covers portions of 2 different desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado. While most of our time is spent in the Mojave desert, amongst it's numerous Joshua Trees, our field trip to Stirrup Tanks took us into the Colorado desert. Here we practiced placing gear and building anchors, cleaning anchors, and rappelling. Other topics we have covered in the past include footwork for climbing, multi-pitch skills, belay escapes, and passing a knot. Our goal is to teach the skills that allow participants to become competent climbers on their own.

This hump day also gave us the opportunity to wrap up the day in time to make it into town for a shower. Since we were already in town, and clean to boot, we decided that a visit to our favorite local eatery, the Crossroads Cafe, was in order. Although a big part of the fun of this trip are the evenings spent around the campfire, while the guides prepare delicious (so we're told) meals we occasionally like to mix things up.

After a couple more days of climbing, including some multi-pitch, it was time for the gals to head home. Not wanting to leave we found one last climb on our way into town for our celebratory dinner. We pulled the rope off the aptly named "Another Roadside Attraction" as the sun was setting and the desert bid us farewell with yet another spectacular display.

After saying goodbye to the gals John and I prepared to head east to Moab for the AMGA's annual meeting and the world famous cracks of Indian Creek.

The 2010 Joshua Tree Women's Seminar will be held from October 12-16, 2010. We have also secure a permit to guide at Red Rocks and we will be hosting a Red Rock's Women's Climbing Seminar sometime in the second half of October.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route Ski Tour - GPS Track

Two years ago our high-tech friend, Tor Lundgren, carried a GPS the entire way from Chamonix to Zermatt as we skied the Haute Route. He has a habit of doing this and I am the first to admit that I have often questioned the reason one would go to such great lengths to track a route. The answer was provided a few years back when Olivia and I were guiding up at Christophe Dietzfelbinger's beautiful Burnie Glacier Chalet and I was momentarily disoriented, perhaps due to such a sound sleep the night before. Either way, Olivia and I were having one of those polite, restrained conversations that married couples have from time to time about where the skin track from the previous day might be found. Tor graciously stepped forward and indicated that we were in fact just about 50 feet to the lookers left of the trail and presented his GPS as evidence, which was a bit hard to dispute in this case.

I had been meaning to get these up since he sent them to me. What you see are a series of images taken from Google Earth that show the actual GPS track we took on our Verbier Haute Route Ski Tour a few years back. This is the same route that we will be taking on the Guided Haute Route trips we are running from March 28-April 3, 2010, and April 4-10, 2010.

Over the years, Olivia and I have guided nearly every inch (or centimeter if you are in Europe) of the Haute Route in whiteout conditions. Fortunately we have not had to do it all in one trip, but if planning to go the whole way it pays to be proficient at whiteout navigation. Tor made these maps by carrying a GPS on his pack the entire way and then stitching together the tracks he saved and importing them to Google Earth. Enjoy!

This shows Day 1 of the Haute Route from Grands Montets (Argentiere, France) to the Triente Hut and then on Champex, Switzerland

This looks back at Days 1 and 2 of the Haute Route and shows the descent down the Val D'Arpette into Champex, Switzerland on Day 2.

Days 3 and 4 of the Haute Route from the ski area in Verbier, Switzerland and the Mont Fort Hut on to the Prauflueri Hut and then on to the Dix Hut. Note: Rough weather prevented us from going over the Pigne D'Arolla on this trip, so we diverted over the Pas de Cherve, and skirted the ski area above Arolla on Day 5 enroute to the Vignettes Hut.

Days 4 and 5 of the Haute Route from a different angle. You can see where we toured on La Luette after a big lunch of Rosti at the Dix Hut.

This is an interesting view of the alternate route from the Dix Hut to the Vignettes Hut that can be used if the weather or snow conditions prevents your from going over the Pigne D'Arolla. As the Dix Hut is a popular destination that can be reached from several places, it is not uncommon for you to not be able to spend a second night at the Dix if the weather prevents forward motion, thus the alternate route has saved our program multiple times. The ladder over the Pas de Chevre more than makes up for any disappointment in missing the Pigne D'Arolla. Alternately you can bail to Arolla, stay at the wonderful Hotel Du Glacier, or take a taxi on to Zermatt. We usually fight our way up to the Vignettes if the weather is rough, and then make our final decision on the last day.

This is the last day of the trip and shows the long, but amazing trip from the Vignettes Hut to Zermatt, Switzerland. The trip is not as long as it looks as the entire route from the Col de Valpeline is a huge downhill to the tram in Furi, or if you like a little adventure you can usually bump down into Zermatt itself.

And finally, one view looking back at the last day of the Haute Route. The final ski down from the Col du Valpeline with the Matterhorn towering over you and a cold beer waiting in Zermatt might be one of the finest on the planet.

Many thanks to Tor Lundgren for providing these GPS tracks. He has similarly good ones of the Shackleton Crossing on South Georgia Island, many of the tours at Burnie Glacier Chalet, and other ski tours.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Berner Oberland Ski Tour - April 20-25, 2010

The Northwest Mountain School is proud to announce its latest addition to our European Alps guided ski touring programs. From April 20-25, 2010 we will be running the Berner Oberland Ski Tour. This 6-day trip is similar in difficulty to the tours we already offer on the Verbier Haute Route, and the Ortler Ski Circuit.

The 2010 trip will be led by IFMGA guides John Race and Olivia Cussen and will start in Interlaken, Switzerland.

Trip Cost for 2010: $2275 per person.

Berner Oberland Ski Tour Itinerary: Spring 2010
  • Day 0: Meet in Interlaken, Switzerland
  • Day 1: Jungfraujoch (3471m) to Monchjoch Hut (3630m)
  • Day 2: Monchjoch Hut (3630m) to Hollandia Hut (3240m)
  • Day 3: Hollandia Hut (3240m) to Konkordia Hut (2850m)
  • Day 4: Konkordia Hut (2850m) to Finsteraarhorn Hut (3048m)
  • Day 5: Finsteraarhorn Hut (3048m) to the Oberaarjoch Hut (3258m)
  • Day 6: Oberaarjoch Hut (3258m) to Munster (1388 m)

This tour is similar in difficulty to our Haute Route trips and to the Ortler Ski Circuit. The tour takes place in the spectacular terrain in the vicinity of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.

For full details on the trip feel free to call us at 509-548-5823 or visit our website at:
Berner Oberland Ski Tour.