Vahalla’s Heavenly Couloir

Having spent a decent amount of time climbing in this little basin I call Asgard Basin on the east side of Mt. Vahalla in the Gores, there was one other goal in this small, secluded basin I had and that was skiing Vahalla’s arcing Heavenly Couloir. The name “Heavenly Couloir” was coined by Stan Wagon and has the shape of a crescent moon extending from Vahalla’s summit east, then north, and finally a bit west/northwest down into Asgard Basin below Asgard Ridge, Loki, & Thor Towers. It doesn’t present a ton of vertical skiing (maybe 1,600′ to Asgard Basin below Asgard Lake), but its proximity to Asgard Basin and remoteness have always been intriguing to me. Its definitely more of an adventure ski as its some effort to make it happen.

During this whole COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a tough to find time for just Kristine and I together. After many ski mountaineering days this year without the other, we were able to top off the spring ski mountaineering season together all thanks to our friend Sarah Sullivan for coming over at 5:30am to do an all day babysit. It really does mean the world to us to do big days together like we did so often for so many years pre-kids. The day before we had driven over to Summit County with the kids and Kona and had left a car at the North Rock Creek TH so we would be able to do an up and over traverse of the Gores from west to east skiing the Heavenly Couloir along the way. We biked on the bike path and attempted to give Sawyer a go at climbing the 1st pitch of the Royal Flush with me belaying her from above. It did not work out so well. It was too daunting for her having me 90′ above her and not below her. Anyway, it was a learning experience. Multi-pitch routes will just have to be something we try way down the road.

Sawyer rolling along the Frisco bike path with a fresh coating of snow on the trees above

Thatcher & Kristine

Up at 4:30am, kids still asleep, we put all the gear in the car, and left Sarah around 5:45am. I think we actually started hiking around 6:30am from the Gore Creek/Deluge Lake TH in our trail runners with skis and boots on our packs. My plan was to take the Gore Creek Trail east to Deluge Creek and take the “winter route” up to Deluge Lake, which I know well by now. It was a lot of miles and effort bushwhacking with heavy packs, but we eventually made it to snow line. We continued to walk up the frozen snow in our trail runners and switched to skinning around maybe 10,600′.

Can you spot Kristine bushwhacking thru the thicket?

We made good progress up past the frozen Deluge Lake to the base of the southwest face of Mt. Vahalla where we traded the skins/skis for crampons.

Skinning towards Vahalla dead ahead!

Kristine and the Deluge Lake basin

Cramponing up! This face is always fun to climb

A little video of Kristine climbing:

Me making my way to the high saddle between Mt. Vahalla & Palomino Point

We took a bit of a snack and water break at the saddle and recharged for the final 400′ to the top up Vahalla’s northwest ridge. This ridge ended up being a pretty fun scramble and I believe we topped out around 11am or shortly after for maybe 4.5-5 hours up.

Kristine and Palomino Point next door to the northwest

Kristine making her way

Final feet to the summit with the southeast face of Grand Traverse Peak in the background – a great ski tour in its own right!

It was great to get back to the summit of Vahalla. It had been several years for me. Probably since J and I climbed Asgard Ridge to Palomino Point and then up to Vahalla from the east in August of 2014. It was fairly chilly so we only stayed on top maybe 20 minutes.

Together on Mt. Vahalla’s summit(13,180′)

We clicked into our skis and set off skiing a few turns down the east face to a point where we crossed over the east ridge onto the northeast face and into the Heavenly Couloir.

Looking down the Heavenly

Ready to drop!

Looking down into Asgard Basin to the east and Asgard Ridge on the left

Looking down on Loki Tower from the Heavenly

Kristine up high on Vahalla

We had gotten a decent amount of rain the day before which equated to at least a few inches of fresh snow up on the high peaks including Vahalla. I knew it wasn’t enough to make it dangerous, but we still needed to manage the fresh snow slough, which would inevitably cave off on top of the firm base underneath. Kristine took a video of me skiing the upper couloir – it was pretty good snow:

I skied down into the couloir proper and stopped above a rock outcrop and caught Kristine skiing down behind me. I think I probably caved off half of the mountain’s top layer of snow over the steep cliff on its east face, but at least the slough didn’t get in my way. Kristine skied it very well and kept on going down from where I was.

Kristine up high

Beautiful scenery

Asgard Ridge in the foreground with Keller Mountain in the background

Kristine in the lower part of the Heavenly with the slough we caused to her left

And, then another video of me skiing the lower Heavenly:

Kristine skiing the apron

Happy to be together skiing a new peak for us

It was a super fun and enjoyable ski, but short-lived, yes. Now, we had to start preparing our exit strategy. One option had always been to reclimb the couloir and downclimb some of our climbing route and ski out Deluge Creek to Gore Creek. But, to me, it always means more to do a traverse, an up and over, to the other side of the range. I knew the approach into Asgard Basin from the east and North Rock Creek TH pretty well from several climbing trips in there. So, that was my plan – to exit via the lower flanks of Asgard Ridge and into the woods to the Gore Range Trail. I knew it would be a lot of bushwhacking, but I didn’t realize how tough it would be with skis on our backs. It made bushwhacking in there with climbing packs a walk in the park. C’est la vie.

A few of the towers along Asgard Ridge I remember well

Thor Tower’s north face

We had to regain a few hundred feet to reach the nice mellow southern flank of lower Asgard Ridge where we continued to just walk with skis on our backs.

Kristine with Vahalla’s steep east face cliff and the Heavenly arcing on the left

A really cool, steep line we spied off of Hail Peak’s northeast face

We were able to ski where Asgard Ridge dove down into the trees for awhile which was nice. However, eventually the snow got so patchy in the thick trees and brush, we decided to switch to trail runners, put the skis and boots on our packs, and just stay on the dry portion of the ridge on its southern side.

One final look of Vahalla’s east face and our tracks down the Heavenly

Fun turns down the lower, southern flank of Asgard Ridge before the real suffering started in the trees

It was some grunting, some routefinding, and some cursing, but we eventually made it to the Gore Creek Trail, turned north, and headed to the North Rock Creel TH and our subaru finally arriving around 4:30pm for a 9 hour day. We raced home to relieve Sarah by 5:30pm and see Sawyer, Thatcher, & Kona. What a terrific day with my wife semi-celebrating our 10th Everest summit anniversary, which was the day before, May 25. We feel so lucky and are so grateful we can still do these kinds of days together. Hopefully, this will be the case for many more years and decades to come including adventures and climbs with Sawyer & Thatcher, of course!

Our up route in red and down route in blue from west to east up and over Mt. Vahalla

Capitol’s Northwest Buttress via Early Times

After last September’s successful climb of the original line up Capitol’s Northwest Buttress with Chris Baldwin, I really wanted to go back and try the harder 5.10 variation called Early Times established by Jeff Jackson & company circa 2010, which ascends climber’s right of the original route’s 5.9 pitch in four awesome pitches up the initial steep headwall. I had promised J I would go with him as he wanted to visit Capitol’s summit again after not having been on the mountain in 15+ years. After weeks of trying to get a perfect fall weather window and shifting schedules within our busy lives, we targeted the same date that Chris and I had climbed the route the previous year, September 14. Now having 2 kids each, the less time away the better and easier on our spouses. So, I picked J up at 2am on a Saturday morning and made the drive over to Capitol with very heavy eyelids. After some coffee, oatmeal, & bananas on the drive to pep us up (well, J doesn’t drink coffee for whatever crazy reason and never has), we left the trailhead around 4:30am making our way up the familiar Capitol Ditch Trail under headlamps. We cruised the 6 miles to Capitol Lake in maybe 2 hours and 20 minutes and got our pre-dawn glimpses of old Capitol Peak’s north face and northwest buttress.

Capitol’s northwest buttress is the right skyline

I was a bit disappointed to see the fresh dusting of snow on the north face and what seemed to go close to the northwest ridge itself as well as the shallow 4th class bowl below Unicorn Spire. However, we were still confident we could mostly avoid the snow. We refilled a bit of water in Capitol Lake and made our way up to Capitol Pass at around 12,000′. It was then a grunt up the final few hundred feet to the top of the talus cone to the base of the initial headwall and our intended route.

The route is sure intimidating from the talus cone here, but excitement was high!

We caught up with another party of two who were attempting the original line to the left of Early Times. I gave them what beta I had on the initial 5.9 pitch and route-finding up the route itself above the headwall. It was pretty chilly no doubt and the wind was whipping a bit. Climbing hard 5.10 in these types of conditions plus being in the shade at over 12,000′ is a far cry from cragging in warm sunshine at 7,000′. We racked up and I led on up the 1st 5.10c crux pitch maybe around 8-8:30am. The cold was tough to deal with, but got better the higher I went. There were several distinct cruxes in my opinion and some tricky moves protected by only a nut in some places, but I made it to the anchors after 100′ of climbing or so and set up to belay J.

The initial crux headwall. The 1st pitch of Early Times goes up the center dihedral

Me on the initial, easier climbing of pitch 1

J in the thick of it on pitch 1

I don’t know how J climbing this pitch wearing gloves

J getting close to the belay approaching the upper crux of pitch 1

The other team of two were heading up the 5.9 pitch on the original route and actually were trying to dislodge the #0.5 purple cam Chris and I had lost exactly a year ago on that route. We could communicate with them and had a good laugh at the fact that it was mine.

The follower on the original 5.9 pitch to our east

A more scenic shot of the climber on the original 5.9 pitch as seen from the top of the 1st pitch on Early Times

We swapped the rack and I belayed J as he led off up the mentally taxing 5.9+ pitch 2. The climbing initially surmounted a small roof protected by a bolt and then angled up and right following discontinuous cracks.

J on lead up pitch 2

The crux came near the anchors at the top of pitch 2 where J was making the moves first and then placing gear below him. A scary way of leading. He really persevered and did so well and made the onsight.

I’m down there somewhere following and cleaning pitch 2 as seen from the pitch 2 belay

Pitch 3 was 5.8ish and after an airy, no-pro traverse west to a small crack, I led on up this short pitch to a decent belay.

Me leading up pitch 3

J back down at the pitch 2 belay

We then did the final swap of the rack and J took us home up the 5.8 pitch 4 to the anchors at the top of the headwall. The moves at the top of pitch 4, or at least the moves we did, were certainly not 5.8 in the least. Maybe we were off route, but they were much harder than 5.8, that is for sure!

J doing the initial traverse east on pitch 4 before heading straight up past an old piton

As J brought me up to him, the other team of two was finishing up their 2nd 5.8 chimney pitch down below us to climber’s left. Another team of two had started up the original 5.9 route as well below them. We stowed the rope and began the really fun class 4 climbing up and right avoid the snow in the easiest terrain which Chris Baldwin and I climbed in last time.

J on the class 4 climbing up and around Unicorn Spire to its west

After climbing the scariest, loosest, & blockiest pitch (in my opinion) below the actual arete from the west, we crested out on the arete itself slightly above Unicorn Spire. We roped up and began the 500′ or so of awesome simul-climbing. The climbing on the arete really ranges anywhere between 5.0 and 5.7.

Me leading up some 5.7 terrain on the arete

J climbing the awesomely exposed arete with Unicorn Spire now seen far below

What made the upper part of the arete a little more sketchy than last time was the fresh snow. The snow was a little more covered and deeper towards the top of the arete bypassing the small tower to its left (east) when the angle eased up a bit. I was essentially tip-toeing on the dry exposed rock, brushing off small ledges, etc on 5.4 terrain. J did not enjoy this part one bit. His feet being blocks of ice didn’t help either. Nonetheless, we topped out at the small saddle above the heart-shaped snowfield and took a sigh of relief. What was next was the 5.7 upper headwall pitch, which I told J he should do since I led it last time.

J managing (or not managing) the rope as we walked the 4th class terrain saddle above the heart-shaped snowfield

J leading over the mini-roof on the 5.7 upper headwall pitch

Me on this same pitch enjoying the sun

At the belay, I told J we were really close – just a few hundred feet below the summit – and that we should just simul-climb from here. I led on away, but belayed J up to me briefly to protect a few exposed moves and not risk them in a simul-climb.

J almost to me on the upper headwall. The heart-shaped snowfield and 4th class saddle can be seen below

I then told J to take us home to the top and he led the final few hundred feet of mid 5th class terrain in the sun to the summit ridge.

Me on the summit ridge with Mt. Sopris in the distance

Capitol Peak summit (14,130′)

What a gorgeous summit it was. We arrived maybe around 2:30pm though I cannot really remember. The weather couldn’t be better – my favorite weather of the year. Warm sunshine with a tint of cool, crisp fall air. We probably spent 30 minutes on top texting Kristine & Megan that we were just fine and may be late getting home.

Looking southeast from Capitol’s summit to Pyramid, the Bells, and the wildfire near Salida

Me on Capitol’s summit – my favorite in Colorado, by far. I think this was my 6th visit to its summit

J and I descended the standard northeast ridge pretty quickly and had fun across the knife-edge ridge one more time. J had not crossed that ridge in over 15 years and really didn’t remember it at all.

J walking the ridge with K2 beyond

Me just taking a sit and enjoying the view from the knife-edge ridge

I always forget how long the descent from K2 back to the Capitol-Daly saddle can be and just hard on the body, especially a torn meniscus (me), with all of the boulder-hopping. No matter though as J and I just took our time and chatted about past climbs, future climbs, and life in general. It was a beautiful sight seeing the sun actually beginning to shine on the lower crux headwall of Capitol’s northwest buttress at around 4:30-5pm. Maybe that’s the time to actually climb the lower headwall!

Cap’s northwest ridge in profile with the sun beginning to shine on the lower crux headwall

The lower crux headwall in the sun as seen from the Capitol Lake area all zoomed-in

Happy to be on the way out and have an easy 6 mile stroll back to the car, but the weather was so unbelievable I sort of wanted to stay out all night!

It was a nice hike out and we just made it back to the car around 8pm having just turned on our phone lights making for about a 15.5 hour RT day. Definitely longer than Chris and I took exactly one year before, but more technical pitches take time! It was a phenomenal day. One for the books. A big burger at the Glenwood Springs brewery was just what the doctor ordered and we finally arrived home about 11pm. I’m so happy my meniscus did well on a long day like this. I guess we’ll just continue to see how it goes and if it gives me further problems. Maybe it will just lie dormant for awhile. The older I get the more physical ailments will come about, but as long as I can continue to enjoy days like this, I’m a happy man.

Reunion on Thunderbolt

Since our good pals Baba and Lizzie has moved to Truckee, California, we have been trying to reunite and climb some California 14ers like the good ole days back in Colorado when they lived in Vail. Finally, after not being able to get a Whitney permit, J and I booked a flight to Reno to see Baba and head down south to the Bishop area and try our hand a California’s hardest 14er, Thunderbolt Peak. In the end, we thought this plan was worlds better anyway than the highly popular Mt. Whitney further south, the tallest peak in the contiguous US. However, our sights are still set on one of Whitney’s classic rock climbs as well as neighboring Mt. Russell for next summer 😀 Our other long lost Colorado pal Mikey Johnson, Kristine and my ex-roommate, and good pal and climbing buddy of all of us, came up from his surf life in San Francisco and joined us as our 4th. A reunion tour indeed this would be and we were all excited. Personally, for J and myself, to get into a new range altogether was amazing in itself. Especially, such a dramatic, jagged range of wonderful alpine rock.

Baba picked J and I up in Reno on a Thursday night and we spent the night at the Aldrich Residence in Truckee catching up with Lizzie and the kids. I even got to cuddle with their golden retriever, Khumbu, who we all like to think Rainie and Kona taught how to climb mountains back in Colorado. One thing drastically different than Colorado in planning for peaks is the whole summer permit system. Mikey had driven to Bishop the night before to be in line at the ranger station first thing in the morning for a camping permit for the North Fork of Big Pine, the more standard way of approaching Thunderbolt and the Palisades. However, somehow those permits were taken but ingenious Mikey somehow got a permit for going in from South Lake and out the North Fork of Big Pine figuring maybe we could play dumb (if caught by a ranger) going into Sam Mack Lake or perhaps say we were on our way out. Anyway, Baba and J and I took the minivan south on 395 to meet Mikey in Bishop. After grabbing street tacos in 100 degree heat and a few more supplies we all drove up about 4,000’ into the hills to Glacier Lodge at about 8,000’, a 20 minute drive west of Big Pine. One thing about the Eastern Sierras is the big vertical relief above the valley of around 10,000’ considering Bishop is around 4,000’ and the tops of these peaks are over 14,000’. Pretty impressive. We get to the Glacier Lodge parking area and begin to pack our backpacks and sort gear. We were hesitant about going in this way but I figured these California guys can handle it and do the talking in case we confronted a ranger. As luck would have it, a ranger had just finished hiking out and asked to see our permit. Mikey did the talking and explained to her we were setting up the shuttle, which clearly it didn’t look like 😀 Whatever. She took the bait and then we asked another hiker who had just finished about possibly seeing rangers and he responded he thought there was one camped way up there. That solidified it – we were going to go in from South Lake, which started at a higher elevation of 9,800’ but was a lengthier and more complicated approach. We thought about daytripping it as well but we had brought all our backpacking gear and were all looking forward to getting remote in the backcountry for 48 hours. So we drove back out to the valley and headed back to Bishop and up to South Lake and the trailhead.

The four of us about to set out from South Lake on Friday afternoon

The mosquitoes were pretty bad, but we tried to move fairly quickly and the higher we got the less present they were. We passed several beautiful lakes including Long Lake and a phenomenal peak called Mt. Goode, a lowly low 13er, with an imposing yet inspiring north face.

Long Lake and the north face of Mt. Goode

Our evening approach was so relaxed and mellow

Baba heading up into the upper basin

Camp with Mt. Agassiz (13,893’) behind

High 13er Mt. Agassiz

We reached Bishop Lake at around 11,200’ after 2-3 hrs and maybe 5 miles and found a nice place to set up camp. This was the last decent place to camp and lake for that matter before the 12,000’ Bishop Pass. We settled in and had a great time reliving old memories and catching up like we never skipped a beat. Up at 4:30am, I started up the jetboil for coffee and oatmeal. The sky was amazing and the weather even better. You don’t get this kind of high pressure systems in Colorado often except maybe in September whereas here in the Eastern Sierra apparently it’s pretty typical for the summer months.We began the hike up to the 12,000′ Bishop Pass and then left the trail veering due south across snow and rock along the west side of Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Winchell, and eventually Thunderbolt Peak. We made our way to Thunderbolt Pass and took a break.

Traversing under the west faces of Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Winchell, and Thunderbolt Peak ahead to the left. Thunderbolt Pass is center of picture

Here we are at Thunderbolt Pass staring down the Southwest Chute 1 route

The Eastern Sierras remind me of the Wind River Range

A cool little ridge out to the west from Thunderbolt Pass

The Southwest Chute 1 begins in the obvious snow apron at left in the picture

We donned our crampons and began the climb up the couloir until we reached a chockstone, but I had read that there was a 3rd class ledge to the right to bypass this obstruction in the steep gully.

Getting on snow

Gaining the 3rd class ledge when the snow ran out at the chockstone

It was then a good 1,200’+ climb up a steep, loose, and dry chute to a small col between the north & south summits of Thunderbolt Peak.

Southwest Chute 1

Fun, easy scrambling, but a bit loose with no snow

Our original intent was to climb the North Couloir up Thunderbolt from Sam Mack Lake, but this Southwest Chute 1 route seemed more remote and more of an adventure than just kicking steps straight up the North Couloir. I think we were all sort of glad the North Fork of Big Pine approach didn’t work out. Once at the little notch, J and I climbed up class 4 (would have been low 5th class in Colorado) slabs for about 60′ to a little ledge and set up a belay for Baba and Mikey. I then set up a belay and brought big Baba up to me. Keep in mind that J and I rock climb all the time…well, as much as two dads ever can. Mikey and Baba rarely ever rock climb, especially Baba, so this whole deal of rock climbing at 14,000′ was a bit of a new deal for them. However, they did fantastic and brought a great sense of accomplishment (I think).

Me belaying Baba up the class 4 pitch in a spectacular setting

me at the belay with the north summit of Thunderbolt behind me dubbed the “Lightning Rod”. And, it was at this point that I saw some webbing at the top. I knew if we didn’t traverse onto Starlight Peak, I’d want to climb this tower 🙂

It was then a short scramble to a nice viewing ledge of the final 5.9 summit block. It was then another 40′ of scrambling up to the summit block. This summit block is the part of the climb I was really looking forward to. Its about a 15-20′ boulder problem of 5.9 moves with no protection. There are, however, anchor bolts at the top to top rope the summit pitch and lower off of. I led off up the block with my 30m/8mm rope tied to my harness and made the super fun moves topping out at the anchors.

Baba took this pic of J belaying (well, not really) me climbing the summit block

Summit of Thunderbolt!

J then wanted a crack at the lead, so he took off. Got several shots of him making the moves.

Getting on the block

Getting the feet set

Right hand on a crimp and left hand up over the lip

Right foot up on small ledge

Mantle over

J on Thunderbolt’s summit!

Now, it was Mikey’s turn. He top roped it clean (as in not hanging on the rope).

Mikey on top of California’s hardest 14er

Last but not least, it was Baba’s turn. He later told us he was concerned all that morning about whether or not he could make the moves to summit Thunderbolt. He stepped up to the plate and gave it 110% of everything he had. After a few attempts and some beta from J and myself, he made it!

Baba on the block

Reaching over the lip, bringing the right foot up

Doing the mantle

Baba on top of Thunderbolt!

J and I then played around a bit and tried a really hard slab, crimp route on the block’s north face.

Me climbing the north side of the summit block

J & I on the summit of Thunderbolt Peak (14,003′)

Once everyone was down back at the large ledge, J and I scrambled south to the edge of the ridge looking down at the downclimb to the Thunderbolt-Starlight saddle. “Not today” we thought. We would need to move fast and unroped and feared we would be belaying a lot and time just didn’t allow. Next time, we may come in from Sam Mack Lake and climb that Underhill Couloir to the Thunderbolt-Starlight saddle and start south from there climbing Starlight, North Palisade, and Polemonium all the way to Mt. Sill at the end of the Palisade Traverse. This was absolutely fine because I wanted him to go with me up Thunderbolt’s north summit since I saw rappel webbing at the top. The primary objective was Thunderbolt, anyway, and everyone was satisfied with that.

Scoping lines and ridges

We backtracked and rappelled the class 4 slab pitch above the notch between Thunderbolt’s two summits.

Baba rappelling

Upon all of us reaching the notch and pulling the ropes, I racked up and J belayed me from the notch on a traversing pitch to the south to get on the Lightning Rod. Mikey and Baba sat back and enjoyed the show.

Looking back at the notch on the traversing pitch

Its hard to know what this north summit is rated (maybe 5.8?), but it was fun nonetheless. A small intermediary pitch was necessary to get in place for the last pitch. I placed two pieces on the last pitch and then ran it out maybe 40′ on much easier 5th class terrain to the webbing.

J on the final of our short little 3 pitches up the Lightning Rod

J with Baba & Mikey seen way below

We then belayed each other up the final 5′ to the actual tippy-top with supreme exposure.

J on the summit of the Lightning Rod with Starlight in the background to the right

Me on top of the Lightning Rod

Looking down Thunderbolt’s North Couloir to Sam Mack Lake and beyond

After a rappel snafu and me reverse rapelling up to get the knot unstuck (I could not be belayed by J due to length of rope issues and where the knot was located), we retrieved both my 30m/8mm ropes and made our way down the chute.

Baba glissading – been a LONG time for him

Regrouping on Thunderbolt Pass, we made our way across the lengthy traverse on the west side of three peaks (upper Dusy Basin) back to Bishop Pass. Crossing deep sun-cupped snow and rocky terrain with a torn meniscus (me) is not the fastest. I had town this guy maybe 5 weeks prior with too much mountain running, especially the downhill. Baba heard a pop in his leg too on this high traverse and was a bit gimpy as well on this terrain. I believe we arrived back at camp around 5pm maybe and all went for a super frigid dip in the icy Bishop Lake. Sure did make the knee feel better, though.

Looking north from Bishop Pass area down to our camp at Bishop Lake and beyond

What great pals…so glad we were all able to make this happen together

Mt. Goode’s mellow backside (south side)

After a great evening and a long night’s sleep, I got up Sunday morning thinking I may wanna go summit Mt. Goode. However, I couldn’t get any takers. Baba wanted too, but his knee was not feeling the best. After lots of coffee and breakfast, we leisurely packed up and made our way back to South Lake and the trailhead by early afternoon. We all just had to take a dip in the frigid South lake and man was it awesome. I tried to walk these logs out into the lake but failed miserably when they started spinning in the water. I made one whole log though. Ninja Warrior-esque 🙂

Goode’s north face and north pillar up close

This thing looks perfect – got to come back for that route

Log walking on South Lake

We drove into Bishop blasting 80s like we used to do a decade or more ago in Colorado and ate enough pizza to feed a small army (primarily, J and Baba). After discussions of what to do next, we decided to go rock climbing near Mammoth on the way home. Granted I had never cragged and led 5.10/5.11 with 8mm ropes, but now I can say it does work. Not ideal, but it does work. Mikey had a full-fledged climbing rope in his car, so we put up a few routes and made pals with the locals. They were great folks and wanted us to stay for some concert, but we had to head out as J and I flew out at 7am the next morning.

Baba climbs crack?

We said our goodbyes to Mikey who got a room in Mammoth before heading back to San Francisco the next day. It was so great seeing Mikey again. As much as I wanted to cuddle and sleep with Khumbu again, J convinced me we should stay in Reno at a casino and that he would pay for it. J really does LOVE casinos. there is no denying it. Obviously, this plan was better for Baba too as he could just drop us off at the airport in the morning. After many drinks and some Mexican food and margs, we turned in around 2am.

Just a phenomenal weekend with all these fellas. Its just what we needed to kickstart an annual California 14er trip. I cannot wait until next summer to head back out.

Monolith Spire

Well, being under the weather with the flu makes for good time to catch up on a nice Grand Junction day out back in early November. I had always wanted to climb to the top of this tower within Colorado National Monument called Monolith Spire, but had only ever climbed its first lengthy pitch several times without continuing on upwards. The first pitch, called Dewar’s Dihedral, is a fantastic 5.10+ crack in its own right, but the real adventure comes in the 2nd & 3rd pitches. Good pals J, Ryan Marsters, & Mikey Santoro joined me for the daytrip from Edwards to climb this sucker – finally! We rolled down in my Tahoe to the familiar Monument Canyon Trailhead and made the hour hike into the base of the tower. It was chilly, but actually warmed up just enough. I led on up the familiar Dewer’s Dihedral and belayed Mikey up to me.

Me leading up Dewar’s Dihedral. Pic by Marsters

Mikey almost up to me at the top of the first 130′ pitch

Mikey was pretty exhausted and not feeling it this day, so we re-rigged things at the belay and I lowered him to the ground. J had started leading team J-Marsters and Mikey just lowered right behind him. It all worked well.

J leading Dewar’s Dihedral

J anchored off at the pitch 1 belay and we figured J would belay me up the unknown (to us) off width pitch 2 while Mikey would belay Marsters up pitch 1 on top rope from the ground. I led off horizontally east from the hanging belay and got a #0.75 in high to protect the unknown traverse. After studying where to go I figured one had to make a leap[ of faith and completely let go of the left hand and hope your right hand went into something solid. Fortunately, my right hand went into a perfect hand crack and I climbed my way up to the bottom of the obvious off width when seen from afar. I placed a #6 high in the off width and chimneyed my way up using my horrible off width techniques. It was tough for me  – a true battle. I mean 5.9 off width is tough enough for me, but 5.10 off width is another level. I was able to get in another #5 and then a #4 up high where I could fist instead of the awkward chicken winging and buttterfly hands I was doing below. After 40′ or so, I topped out and then did another 25′ of much easier 5.8 climbing to the belay ledge. After some radio calls with J and me ready to belay him up, J began climbing. He made the leap of faith traverse and then really climbed the of width well.

J beginning the traverse up and to the base of the off width. Pic by Marsters

J topping out on top of the off width

J cruised on up to be trailing the 2nd rope. I took J off belay and he set up to belay Marsters up the 2nd rope. After a lot of grunting and some choice words, we see Marsters emerge from the belly of the off width and make his way up to us. We told J he should lead the final 5.10d A0 bolted face/arete climb to the summit. He was excited. He led out onto the arete and clipped the first bolt. He actually climbed this pitch super well and didn’t rest on a bolt until the final 2 bolts.

J leading the final 3rd pitch

Marsters took this of J from the edge of the large belay ledge

J on the super tough upper portion of the 3rd pitch. This was much much harder than it looked from below! Pic by Marsters

After an aid move near the top, J topped out and set up to belay me up.

Me beginning the 3rd pitch. Pic by Marsters

So, all I got to say is that with the extremely sandy and slick crimps, this pitch has to be at least 5.11+ free. I definitely had a rest or two on the rope. However, I did dyno the move J aided at the top. Finally, I topped out with my dignity between my legs. Fortunately, Marsters thought it was just as tough.

Marsters on the upper portion of the final pitch

Marsters perfecting the chin hold

Me on top belaying Marsters up. Pic by J

J and Marsters on Monolith Spire’s summit

Gorgeous Colorado National Monument. Pic by Marsters

Group shot on top of Monolith Spire

Mikey took this pic of us on the summit of Monolith Spire from below

We then readied the rappel down to the big belay ledge at the top of pitch 2 with a single 60m rope.Back at the belay ledge we double rope rappelled down of the back side of the tower to the ground where Mikey was waiting for us. We wrapped around the base of the tower and sorted gear and ropes and packed up.

Monolith Spire from below with Dewar’s Dihedral is on the left side and the off width pitch is seen above the center of the picture

Out just before dark at the cars, we reflected on another adventurous day in the high desert. I just so love these winter days in the desert. Not only because there is never another soul around, but the colder temps always feel so good on the sunny sandstone.

One Last Fall Gore Traverse

Welp, I think we all knew the snow was coming, so in an attempt to get up in the Gores one last time without dealing with the snow, I wrangled together Dylan, Chris, & J for one last day. The one last area of the Gores I had really not visited was the Peaks X, Y, & Z area to the northwest of the North Boulder Creek drainage. There was also Peak W between Peak X and East Partner, but that would wait for another day.

Map of the approach up Pitkin Creek to access Peaks X, Y, Z, & friends

J, Dylan, & I had actually never ventured off the Pitkin Creek trail to the northeast to access Usable Pass, so this was all a real treat. Chris overslept his alarm and missed our departure at the TH, but I told him to just catch up as we were just steadily meandering up the trail (partially due to Dylan’s super late night of a substantial quantity of beer and Taco Bell – ah, 25 year olds). After a semi-close encounter with a black bear on the turn-off, we made our way up into the beautiful basin below East Partner’s east slopes and up to Usable Pass in the steadily increasing wind.

Looking up the basin to Usable Pass and Peak X’

The wind was whipping and chilly at Usable Pass, but the sun was warming things up and we pressed on up the southeast ridge of Peak X’.

Scrambling up the southeast ridge of Peak X’ with Vista Peak in the background

Dylan

We came up to the large south-facing slab up Peak X’ which looked amazing. However, with old Hokas on and no traction, we decided to skip this scramble (low 5th class?) and curve around to the right of it.

The south-facing slab of Peak X’ as seen on the descent later in the day

Nonetheless, I chose to climb this dihedral around the corner which was probably tougher than the slab itself. J and Dylan took a line further east of the dihedral.

The dihedral I climbed with the large south-facing slab to the left

Dylan took this of me half-way up the dihedral

After these completely unnecessary climbing lines, we scrambled our way to the fun little summit of Peak X’.

Dylan and J working their way to the summit of Peak X’ (12,710′)

We descended the much mellow class 3 terrain down the east ridge en route to Peak X. At this point, we looked back to Usable Pass and saw Chris! He had made it after all and was at Usable Pass. I motioned for him to just contour over to Peak X’s west ridge and skip X’ altogether. We meandered up Peak X and relaxed on the summit waiting for Chris to join us.

J and Peak X ahead

I descended a bit down Peak X’s northeast ridge to scope the traverse over to Peak Y and it looked fairly straightforward. By the time I came back up to the summit of X, speedy Chris Baldwin had arrived.

Peak X summit (13,085′)

Looking forward to Peak Z and Z’ to the east. Still some distance to cover

Poor Dylan was really feeling the activities of the previous night and wanted to get down. I told him to follow us a bit down to the low point with Peak Y and we can find him a gully to descend down to the basin below.

Descending Peak X’s northeast ridge

We did find a decent class 3/4 gully for young Dylan to descend and we said our farewells. Chris gave Dylan the keys to his car and he ended up rolling all the way back to the TH solo and getting on home. Chris, J, and I continued on to Peak Y.

J on a mini knife-edge

En route to Peak Y with Peak X behind

Peak X from the summit of Peak Y (12,939′)

J on the summit of Peak Y with Peaks Z and Z’ still yet to come

Staying on the ridge crest, we traversed east from Peak Y’s summit. Fairly mellow scrambling led to a drop-off down to a small col hundreds of feet down (would require a rappel). Darn! I guess we would have to descend to the south on steep ledges to bypass this notch. J remained low and contoured up to Peak Z’s west ridge. Baldwin and I ascended back to the small notch and scrambled the remaining ridge down to the low point saddle between Peaks Y & Z. Peak Z’s west ridge was simple enough and soon we were on Peak Z’s summit.

Peak Z summit (13,245′)

Peak Z’ from Peak Z’s summit

We relaxed for a bit and soaked in the views and made our way down to the very cool northwest ridge of Peak Z’.

Ridge to Peak Z’

Chris & J on the summit of Peak Z’ with Peak Z behind

Looking back to Peak X (right) and Usable Pass (center) from Peak Z’

We then reversed the northwest ridge of Peak Z’ and made our way down into the upper North Boulder Creek basin visiting several of the small lakes.

Looking up at Peak X (left) and the traverse to Peak Y from one of the high alpine North Boulder Creek lakes

After some liquids and a PB&J, we made our way uphill across minor cliffs and boulder fields back to Usable Pass.

Peak X’ again and its large south-facing slab en route to Usable Pass

Usable Pass from the east

Once at the pass again, we made our way further west into the basin below East Partner’s southeast face and admired a ski line we would like to try as well as potential rock climbing of its southeast buttress.

This couloir is now on our radar 🙂

And this buttress :)\

I think we made it back to the Pitkin Creek TH by 4pm and motored home considering J had a week old baby girl at home. Dylan was there and seemed to be doing better and was refraining from beer for the evening for obvious reasons. Fun to get another few Gore peaks in before the snow really started to fly. And, fly it did the very next week.