Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Leave No Trace? - Some Existential Implications of Ice Climbing

The ethic of clean climbing is the lasting contribution of the Yosemite big-wall climbers to the world of mountaineering. In 1972 an article was published in the Chouinard Equipment catalog (a manufacturer of climbing gear later to become Black Diamond Equipment), written by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, that laid out the theory and method of “clean” climbing. Its methodological core was the rejection of pitons in favor of a series of nuts, hexes, and, later, caming devices. 
What this means is that instead of hammering a metal peg into the rock to protect against a fall, the climber places an irregularly shaped piece of metal into a crack such that it will hold firm against the intended direction of force. One cannot help but notice that these devices were being sold in that same catalog, but their plea cannot be dismissed as a promotional scam. Pitons had been destroying Yosemite for years. Hoping to prevent the area from becoming like the Dolomites in Europe, where popular routes were marked by strings of rusty pitons from bottom to top, Yvon Chouinard had pioneered new hardened steel pitons that instead of conforming to the shape of the rock, could be hammered in just far enough to hold and then be removed by a second; but despite innovations of this type, popular routes were becoming heavily scarred by the repeated placement of such gear. 
Behind all of this rather mechanical, seemingly obscure, controversy, was a growing sense of the vulnerability of the wilderness. The environmental movement, born in the High Sierras of California, was beginning to be recognized around the world and what is now termed “Leave No Trace” principles were becoming standard in all national parks and wilderness areas. While clearly a vital part of the preservation of what little wilderness remains, this ethic is problematic on a number of philosophical, and especially existential, grounds. To leave no trace is an impossible ideal, by our passing we make a mark on the world around us – to not make a mark, to not leave a trace, is to not exist, or rather, for one’s existence to have no possible significance. 
This is true practically as well as theoretically. In the crags of Britain, one of several areas with a claim to be the birthplace of rock climbing, where slings were used to protect against falls before German climbers invented pitons and carabiners, the footholds on popular climbs have been worn smooth and chalk-marked handholds can be found on cliffs all over Europe and America. Thus we see that even in its purest form, clean climbing is impossible – to not make a mark on the rock is to not climb the rock (this is to say nothing of permanent bolted anchors). We arrive, therefore, at an impasse: our central ideal in our striving to preserve the wilderness (the goal and duty of every mountaineer), leave no trace, is at odds both with our nature as humans and the various, inescapable, realities of climbing. Yet can answer can be found through another discipline of mountaineering: ice climbing. 
To an ice-climber, clean climbing is nonsensical. To climb alpine or waterfall ice the climber uses sharply pointed ice-tools and crampons to gain purchase and ice-screws to protect against a fall. An ice pitch is therefore different for every climber, as each climber’s passage has altered it – often dramatically, as chunks of ice as large as dinner-plates commonly come off. As ice is constantly shrinking or growing this is not considered a problem; the melt-freeze cycle every day heals the route, returning it to something like an unclimbed state. Even more poignantly, no matter the damage done to the ice, by the spring it will be gone and the next winter it will return, with no possible memory of past ascents. 
This is, in a micro sense, the way of all wilderness. Every mountain on earth is eroding, slowly erasing the marks of our passage. Nothing we do is permanent. Someday the glaciers will all be gone and the sea levels will rise and someday after that they will return and re-sculpt the earth. The only difference is the time scale involved. Someday all our cities will be rubble and the wilderness will overtake the world again. Therefore, as we consider our actions and our policies, we need to keep in mind that we are not preserving the wilderness for the sake of the wilderness. We do not try to leave no trace so that the earth will be better off. Every mountaineer should know that the wilderness is more powerful than we can imagine – it will kill us and mangle our bodies beyond all recognition and hide us where we will not be found for centuries. We try to leave no trace, to climb clean, for out own benefit, not because we are really trying to not leave a trace, but because we don’t like seeing toilet paper under every rock and beer cans in every campsite. Campfires are not forbidden above five thousand feet for the sake of the trees, but because we like to have shade from the afternoon sun.
This understanding of why we protect the wilderness has more implications that it is possible or profitable to explicate here (read: nasty ramifications for radical environmentalism, but also heavy qualifications regarding the industrial exploitation of the wilderness), largely because such discussions are not really the pertinent point of this essay. Ice climbing gives us an insight into the deeper nature of climbing, and, by extension, existence more generally. Our lives bear far more resemblance to the ice climber, hacking his way upward, altering dramatically, but only for a time, the path behind, than the rock climber, dancing lightly across the wall, striving to leave nothing but some chalk stains.

Chouinard and Frost’s article can be found here, along with the rest of the 1972 catalog (a fascinating artifact in and of itself - don’t miss Robinson’s article on natural protection and the original Whillans sit harness).

Gunn Peak

6240 ft. (high point of the Wild Sky Wilderness)
3rd-4th class scramble route accessible via a rough, although discernible, trail.
Also summited two other unnamed high points, generally informally referred to as Tailgunner and Point  5760+
The climbing potential in this area is truly astounding.

Cliffs on the approach trail

Adam and Brian approaching the saddle between Tailgunner and Point 5760.

Gunn Peak

There has got to be a route up that face.

Traversing across to the notch.

A ledge on the north face, the only reason this route is possible.

Final scramble to the summit.

East summits of Gunn.

Downclimbing the hidden gully.

Point 5760+

Gunn, in all its glory.

Merchant, a peak well worth returning for.

Adam went swimming.

Monday, September 17, 2012

More Mountaineering Literature

This summer I managed to get through a pitifully small number of climbing books, my thoughts on which are presented here.
In general, Roberts was disappointing, Habeler was surprisingly good (one of the finest pieces of climbing literature I have read) and Terray was as expected - that is, a true classic.

Last Of His Kind - David Roberts
Bradford Washburn, known in mountaineering circles as one of the Harvard Five, was a pioneering climber and aerial photographer who achieved the first ascent of many Alaskan peaks in the 30s and 40s and whose photographs inspired many generations of American mountaineers after him. To David Roberts he was something of a personal mentor, and it is notable that this biography, not the first book Roberts has written on Washburn’s achievements, was only published after Washburn’s death. Although he attempts to avoid the vapid glorification of hero worship that commonly comes out of that sort of relationship, and he is critical of Washburn in several instances, Roberts is, overall, too close to the material, too personally involved, too attached to his subject, to give a satisfactory account. Although the narrative does pick up toward the end, Roberts frequently lapses into cliche analysis and even more frequently reuses his own statements so as to sound repetitive and shallow.
As a Harvard graduate and noted mountaineering writer, this is somewhat surprising. Although his knowledge of the material is solid, Roberts skills as a scholar, notably the cultural-historical and social-historical expertise necessary to understand a man who came of age in the 1930s, are lacking. What Roberts offers is a fascinating account, but more because of the latent material than his own contributions; he offers little cohesion or sense of unity and his characterization of Washburn edges between the two dimensional and the simplistic (an argument or thesis is, of course, lacking, but that is to be expected in a popular biography). It is possible that Roberts was simply too tentative, or perhaps nervous, to write a stronger account of his hero’s life, and what we are left with is a summary of Washburn’s published works, including descriptions of his photography, and a loose narrative cobbled together from his correspondence.

Five Miles High - Charles Houston, Robert Bates, Richard Burdsall, and William House
Essentially a glorified trip report, this classic of mountaineering literature tells the story of the first American expedition to K2. From the offset there is a lack of dramatic tension – the story is known so well, especially as compared with the epic second American expedition to K2, that the I found myself simply relaxing and enjoying the read – and it was quite enjoyable. The expedition’s journey through Kashmir and Baltistan is especially fascinating, as is their descriptions of now-vintage mountaineering technique, food and equipment. In the face of so many sensationalist novels, it is refreshing to read a story in which no summit is reached and no tragedy ensues.

Nanda Devi - Eric Shipton
In the early days of Himalayan mountaineering most of the range was completely unexplored and major expeditions often took as their goal not summits, but range traverses or mountains themselves. Shipton and Tilman’s expedition to Nanda Devi was one such expedition; together with three sherpas they were the first team to penetrate the Nanda Devi basin, the “inner sanctuary,” and step foot on a mountain that had only ever been seen from afar (several years later Tilman would return with an Anglo-American expedition that summited the peak, which would be the highest point reached by man until the ascent of Annapurna). Most of the narrative of the three month expedition describes arduous river crossings, dense bamboo forests, fantastically tumbled moraine, and general misery as they subsist on locally purchased flour and rice. Shipton’s writing has a mystical edge at times but its most fascinating turn is in his descriptions of his and Tilman’s Sherpa companions, whom he regards with the odd mix of admiration and condescension common to English explorers of his time.

The Lonely Victory - Peter Habeler
In 1978 Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner became the first climbers to summit Chomolungma without bottled oxygen, an achievement that was widely considered impossible at the time. Although the book recounts what is among the most important mountaineering achievements of the 20th century (on par with the first ascent of the Eiger Nordwand and Buhl’s summiting of Nanga Parbat solo), it is quick read. Habeler tells his own story and only occasionally veers into the story of the 1978 Austrian expedition of which he and Messner were a part. Although Habeler openly refuses to entertain any criticism of him, it is interesting to read about Messner from a point of view other than his own. This tendency is not limited to Messner, his long-time climbing partner, Habeler, seeming to have an unrealistically sunny view of human nature, often mentioning and then dismisses attacks on fellow climbers.
It should be noted that Habeler’s account, despite its apparently benign appearance, was deeply offensive to Messner and, in fact, ended their relationship. For this I can find two possible causes, the first is how Habeler portrays Messner’s relationship with the media, mostly his enthusiasm for press attension compared with Habeler’s own ambivalence. The second is how he describes helping Messner down the mountain after he became snow-blind, for a climber as independent as Messner this must have been deeply embarrassing and possibly even undermining of his achievement.

Conquistadors of the Useless - Lionel Terray
A classic of post-war continental climbing, Terray’s memoir is among the most complete and quintessential texts available. The first few chapters, Terray’ youth, do begin to drag but once he becomes involved in the French resistance movement and the Italian alpine front Terray’s writing picks up dramatically. Although he does not explicitly formulate a theory of alpinism, Terray’s many comments on ideology and style strongly reinforce the ideas about post-war continental climbing’ existentialist bent that I first noticed in Bonatti and Rebuffat.
Additionally, he postulates at length about the role played by alpine guides and the various strengths and weaknesses of the profession. As a climber and as a thinker he seems to be a man of great moderation, able to see both sides of many issues and willing to admit complexity over uniformity.
Some of his most poignant passages are in reference to his good friend and climbing partner, Louis Lachenal, who was maimed by frostbite during the descent from Annapurna and died while skiing several years later. Especially if one is familiar with the story of that climb, Terray’s frequent descriptions of Lachenal’s genius on rock and ice are painful to read.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mount Baker with AAI

For my birthday this year my parents sent me on an alpine ice climbing course on Mount Baker with the American Alpine Institute. We spent six days cragging around Coleman icefall, learning a variety of techniques for traveling across progressively steeper exposed glacial ice; this including top-roping a number of vertical-to-slightly-overhanging ice pitches. With the North Ridge badly out of condition this time of year, we summited via the Coleman-Deming route on the last day.

Chad, the AAI guide, on the Heliotrope Ridge Trail.

Our first view of the Coleman Glacier.

The lower icefall of the Coleman Glacier, one of the premier alpine ice training areas in the lower 48.

Practicing ascending a rope.


Our main cragging area, we started with some more moderate pitches on the left and then progressed to the vertical and overhanging sections on the right.

An ice arch

Mount Baker, with the North Ridge on the left, the Coleman Headwall in the center, and part of the Coleman-Deming route on the right.


Colfax Peak, part of the infamous Black Buttes.

The same ice-arch the next day, now collapsed.

Topping out is often the most difficult part of an ice pitch.

For our summit attempt we moved camp out of the forest to the Hogsback.

The Roman Wall

Grant's Peak, the summit of Mount Baker.

Myself on the summit, leaning into the wind.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dome Peak and Spire Point

Five days (four in terms of hours)
Forty-four-ish miles
9900 feet of elevation gain
Two summits:
Standard route on Dome Peak - glacier travel and an extremely exposed class three scramble.
South face of Spire Point - 5.6, five pitches (I led the easy one), with a class four scramble to the summit and two rappels down the standard route to the north.

Adam has posted a full trip report here

One of two actually damaged sections of the road; encouragingly, we saw  quite a bit of work being done between the gate and this point, suggesting that they really do intend to open the road next year.

Cub Lake at last, Glacier Peak visible to the south.

Itswoot Ridge, our camp was at the saddle just left of dead center (6400 ft).

One of the finer campsites any of us had ever seen.

Dome Peak hidden by afternoon clouds, a typical occurrence as we would discover.

Heading out toward Dome Peak.

The Dana-Dome Col.

Sentinel and Old Guard Peaks, finally proving that that the couloir I reconnoitered did reach the lower snow fields.

Exposed glacial ice on the Dome Glacier.

The wrong col.

Approaching the summit ridge.

Four lenticulars on Glacial Peak, supposedly a sign of bad weather coming in.

Class three traverse to the summit, to his right is a  straight drop of several hundred feet.

The route to Sinister Peak blocked by a bergschrund (mostly out of view)

Matt found a full 60 meter rope in a bivy spot below the peak.

The south faces of the east and west summits of Spire Point; the east, to the right, is higher.

Adam opting out of the Spire Point climb, if I had brought a warmer sleeping bag I might have been tempted to stay too.

Our route would follow chimneys just on the other side of the prominent buttress to the upper bowl before traversing the south-east face and ascending the final hundred-ish feet to the summit.

Class 3-4 scrambling to the chimneys.

End of the first pitch.

West summit of Spire Point.

Ryan leading the fourth, and hardest, pitch

The summit!

Rappelling down the scramble route.

Sock options

Last camp, on the Bachelor Creek trail.

Huge fish in Downey Creek.