Monday, December 7, 2009

making the most of the wintery weather

For the second weekend in a row frigid weather had squashed my climbing plans. My choices were limited. The trail situation is still somewhat grim with the ongoing fire closures, and I had already done Mt Wilson after returning home early from T-day break on the E Side. I combed summitpost for something suitable punishing. My coworker, Dominic, who had recommended Cactus to Clouds, had also mentioned Iron Mountain. It had a respectable 7200 ft of elevation gain over 14 miles and was within an hour drive from home, so it seemed like a good option. Jascha was once again kind enough to let me talk him into going. The NOAA weather report predicted highs in the 40s at elevation with wind gusts up to 23 miles an hour. I figured we could turn around if it got too nasty.

We left my apartment just before 8 am with the objective of finishing the hike before the big storm rolled in. We set off from the Heaton Flats trailhead just after 9 am. My original plan was to do the SW Ridge from Allison Mine. There were two approaches to Allison Mine; I chose the one from Heaton Flats trail. The second option up Allison Gulch, the one with multiple river crossings, seemed a poor choice this time of year. The well maintained trail climbed gradually through a wooded canyon to a saddle just before the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Boundary before cresting the ridge it would follow for many miles. On the ridge we passed a rustic helicopter landing pad, a small clearing with 3 reflectors glued onto the bordering rocks. My topo map showed the trail ending at Heaton Saddle, the point at which we were supposed to catch the faint trail to Allison Mine.

By now Jascha's pants were soaked from the underbrush. I had managed to grab a pair of North Face soft shell pants that I happily discovered shed water. At Heaton Saddle I saw only the faint hint of a possible side trail on the slope to our left. The trail leading up the south ridge was well worn and seemed far more appealing that the bushwhack over to the mine. After the saddle the trail steepened significantly and was clearly "maintained" only by foot traffic. We stopped for a snack break and it rapidly became clear how cold it was. We saw the coniferous trees of the day and admired the droplets of ice hanging from the needles.

As we climbed higher, the grade became more relentless, similar to the trails in Glendale's Brand Park. The signs of high winds were evident in the horizontal ice crystals that formed on the pine trees. By now mist blanketed the surrounding hills and we crested each hill only to find ourselves at another false summit. As we neared the true summit we cleared the fog bank and found ourselves under lovely blue skies. Before long we reached the top, marked by a lone ammunition box. It had taken us ~4:10, not superb but not too shabby. As with every trip to the San Gabriels I felt fortunate to have this rugged terrain in my backyard.

With the predicted late afternoon rain/snow showers we did not linger long on the summit. The steep,
eroded trail made the going a tad slow on the upper section of the descent. The trail gains an additional 600 feet on the return, and it was nice to get an occasional uphill break. Finally back on the maintained trail we picked up the pace. We were lucky to catch a glimpse of a huge great horned owl perched atop a dead yucca flower stalk. The weather held out for the remainder of the hike and we clocked in at the trailhead for a total time of 7:30.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

unfinished business: cactus to clouds to cactus

As is typical for me I couldn’t stop fixating on returning to complete the full Cactus to Clouds out-and-back that I had attempted several weeks prior. A slightly late start and Jascha’s injuries led me to shorten my original plans to a Cactus to tram plateau out-and-back. As the target day (14 Nov) approached I saw a cold front approaching and I did not want to be up at 10,000 feet with highs in the 40s. I decided to postpone my trip until the following Tuesday when temps were predicted to warm up again. It had taken me 8:40 for my abbreviated out and back, so I was hoping to do the whole thing in under 13 hours.

I headed down to Palm Springs the night before and hoped that my intermittent insomnia would subside for at least one night. With 50 km and 10,000+ ft of gain ahead of me I
needed the sleep. It did not, and I drug myself out of bed at 5:15 am with only a few hours of restless sleep. I arrived at the Museum trailhead just after 6 am with enough light to keep my headlamp in my pack. I borrowed Jascha’s GPS but I suspected that I wouldn’t need it, having just done the Skyline Ridge Route portion in both directions a few weeks prior.

The temperatures were mild and I made good time to the familiar landmarks: the picnic tables, the big horn sheep closure sign, the first glimpse of Coffman’s Crag, and the flat rock. I took mental notes on the places where the trail swung far from the ridge proper so I could ensure I was on track during the dark descent. As before I was glad the striking scenery was there to distract me from the steady grind. If I kept this pace I knew I could make the tram area in 4:30. Unfortunately, my left TFL and calves were screaming and I slowed on the grueling upper section. My time was almost exactly the same as before, 4:53.

I made a beeline for the Long Valley ranger station for my self-service permit. Having a copy of the San Jacinto park map was helpful, as there
was no sign coming off of Skyline Route directing you to the ranger station and not all of the trail junctions mention San Jacinto Peak. The fresh looking tourons were coming off the tramway, oblivious that they were blocking off the entire trail perhaps due to altitude stupor. Although my legs would appreciate the gentler grade for the next 11 miles, I knew this would be the mental crux for me as I am not fond of flat, meandering trails.

The route to the summit was slow going and I was not pleased with the
long shallow switchbacks. On the final portion I must have passed under the summit at least three times barely gaining any elevation. Finally I hit the talus pile that sits atop the unremarkable summit. I took my requisite summit photo, refilled my hydration bladder, and headed back down. I ran ~2 miles of the descent, not wanting to aggravate my chronic TFL issues before the brutal descent. I reached the top of the Skyline Route just after 3 pm. I knew I had at least 3 hours of technical descent in store, but if I kept the same pace as my previous attempt I could make 13 hours.

The sun was setting quickly and by 3:30 the shadow of the range extended far out into the surrounding valley. I hurried down the trail to get in as much distance as possible before darkness fell. My ascent homework paid off and I wasn’t caught off-guard this time when the trail made significant diversions from the ridgeline. I was feeling surprisingly good and was able to run some of the rolling terrain. At 5:15 I was forced to extract my light. Shortly thereafter I had a close encounter with a thorn bush, which left me with two nice scratches on my face.

After what seemed like ages I finally passed the big horn
sheep closure sign. I knew the picnic tables (and trailhead) were not far below. The trail below the picnic tables is the most technical and a particularly punishing finish to the long day. I checked my watch and I was on track for a sub 13 hour finish as long as nothing bad happened. At 6:47 pm I reached the trailhead, 12 hours and 45 minutes after I had started. I hobbled across the art museum parking lot, which was filled with valets and fancy cars for what appeared to be a museum benefit, feeling grimy, worked and completely satisfied.

solar musings

My mom and stepdad were on their way back to WA from southern UT, so Jascha and I agreed to meet them for dinner in Vegas. We used the opportunity to spend the day checking out another of Dow’s fine recommended link-ups, Beulah’s Book to Sunflower (5.9). The route proper ascends ~1400 ft over 8 pitches on Solar Slab Wall, a perfect November destination with its sunny southern exposure. My only reservation was that much of the route was on the softer white sandstone, not exactly my ideal rock with its slopey eroded holds.

With the dwindling daylight hours I woke us up at 5:30 am. I did not want to have to deal with stuck ropes on the rappel in the dark. We arrived at the Oak Creek parking lot around 7ish and were on the trail by 7:30. We had a
small shrubby detour getting to the base of Beulah’s Book, but it gave the party in front time to get up to the second belay.

My plan was to take the arête variation on pitch 2 to avoid both the bomb bay chimney and having to haul up a #4 cam. The first pitch was uneventful, a 5.6 dihedral to face. As I got closer to the belay I could see my first major obstacle above the arete, the slanting, lieback dihedral from which the route gets its name. It looked strenuous, off-balance and very parallel. As usual I had skimped on the gear to save weight, ignoring the recommendation for 2 sets of cams in the 0.4” to 3” range. I belayed Jascha up.

The bolted arête variation started off with fun thin face holds then turned onto the arête before rejoining the main route at the top of the chimney. I paused below the dihedral for a while trying to figure out my best strategy with my limited gear supply. Fortunately, there were decent face holds and I was able to sling a horn before moving left toward the crack. After 2 cams (and some grunting) I was through the first 5.9 crux. Jascha cruised the lieback and we were soon on to pitch 3, which was run out but easy.

Before long we were at the base of upper Solar Slab wall. The party ahead of us was two pitches up Solar Slab. We took a snack break and I tried to get psyched about leading 5.9 trad on crappy white sandstone. We scrambled up the fourth class slabs to the varnished corner that marks the start of Sunflower. The varnished section was slick, but fortunately there were plenty of other holds available. I arrived at the first belay ledge that is shared with Solar Slab and belayed Jascha up.

The crux pitch looked innocuous from below, but I knew better. I headed up the curving hand crack which soon turned into tenuous hand jams with seemingly insecure friction holds for feet (I admit that the friction was far better than I anticipated). I was happy that secure gear placements popped up just when I needed them. The scary part behind me, I soon arrived at the belay ledge and waited for Jascha to join me.

Dow’s description was right on for pitch 6. I followed the 5.8 corner to
face, then angled up and left to the bolted belay. Pitch 7 was a bolted slab pitch on somewhat hollow holds. To stay in the 5.9 range the route meandered right and then left of the bolt line. I had a difficult time recognizing “the pod” mentioned in the climbing descriptions so I ended up running out the rope, which I figured would work out to our advantage on the long final pitch.

After Jascha arrived I started up pitch 8 which heads up toward a roof then traverses up and left before reaching it. From here the route diagonals significantly leftward to join up with the top of Solar
Slab. Because it’s low angle you have to guess the exact trajectory, but because it’s easy terrain you don’t have to worry too much about route finding errors. With the low angled slab, the rope drag was significant and I was glad we were almost done with the technical part. Jascha was happy to be off the hanging belay and was soon at the final anchor.

It was a little after 3 pm and we contemplated our descent options. I had read that the quickest option was to rap Solar Slab (4 double rope raps), then downclimb (or rap, 6 single rope raps) Solar Slab Gully. With the rope eating cracks and clingy edges typical of Red Rocks I found it hard to believe that this was a faster option that the 2 single raps required for the Black Orpheus descent even though I knew
we had several hundred feet of elevation gain to access the rap stations plus a longish walk-off. The Black Orpheus descent it was.

We had climbed Black Orpheus earlier in the year, and I posted an annotated descent description on summitpost, so the details were still fresh in my mind. The Solar Slab walk-off heads right initially then left to gain the huge ledge system below the summit. We found the cairns that lead left down the gully and to the first rap station. We didn’t bother with the second rope, but instead angled climber’s left to the intermediate ledge and rap station. One more rap and we were in Painted Bowl. We cruised down the slabs and finally down the slick slab into the canyon floor. I had forgotten about the huge boulders that line the canyon floor for quite some time. We passed the party that we had seen on Solar Slab and finally reached the trail. Darkness fell as we were approaching the parking lot. It had taken us 2:20 to descend. Showers and Japanese food awaited us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

cactus to clouds intro

I first heard about Cactus to Clouds a few months ago from one of my coworkers, Dominic. The route to the tram gains 8,000 ft in ~11 miles (10,000 ft in ~16.5 miles if you include the summit of San Jacinto Peak). October rolled around and with the more reasonable daytime temps, I decided to give it go. I talked Jascha into accompanying me. I had read varying reports about what to expect for time. The most authoritative C2C site said that that middle of the pack marathoners can expect to reach the tram in 4-5 hours. I’m not exactly in ultra shape and although I’ve been doing my usually shorter hill runs during the week, I haven’t done any long alpine days since August. One of the Summitposters I know took 16 hours to do the full out-and-back so I figured I’d be in that ballpark if I did the whole thing. There was also a lot of online chatter about the steepness of the trail and the difficultly of navigation the lower trail system, so I had Jascha download a GPS track. I also printed a topo map, but I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the hand drawn route annotations. Unfortunately, the Tom Harrison topo series only covered the areas in close vicinity to San Jacinto State Park, not the portion of the trail that passed through the Agua Caliente Reservation.

We headed down to Palm Springs the night before to avoid adding 2+ hours to the start time. I set my alarm for 5:30 am. My alar
m didn’t go off and I woke up at 6:30. We left the well-marked Museum trailhead at ~7:20. Below the picnic tables there was a fair amount of trail branching, some of which was obvious switchback cutting but some also fed into alternate systems that headed off to the east and west. For the most part at the alternate trail junctions the correct trail was to the right. Parts of the trail are marked with painted white dots and arrows, although at one point the markings led in the wrong direction. The trail heads up the ridge initially in a northerly direction then diverts to the northwest, with the primary visible landmark being a major drainage the east. The Mojave desert flora included Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and various species of cacti (the most striking being the red-spined barrel cactus, Ferocactus acanthodes). Along with the backdrop of granite boulders the plant life provided some major eye candy to take my mind off the long path ahead.

After the picnic tables we passed the warning signs about the strenuous nature of the trail and lack of water and the one for big horn sheep lambing season closures (1 January to 30 June). With the exception of one primary junction (which I suspect led to the Ramon road trailhead), the trail was well marked and there were less side trails. Before long we hit the ~ 3.5 mile section where the trail flattens out somewhat. We took a short snack break and I found out Jascha had
accidentally deleted the GPS track while recalibrating the elevation from our recent Peru trip. The intermittent winds kept the temperatures down, although it also kicked up eye-stinging dust. As we approached the crest of the ridge we caught our first glimpse the large pinnacle that marks the top of the tramway. With the introduction of manzanita and pine trees, the Mojave desert flora slowly transformed into that of the Peninsular Ranges.

The trail contoured below the ridge proper and crossed the stream bed with the huge water worn granite slab marked on many maps as “Flat Rock”. After the slab the trail again steepened. To add to the psychological crux, the trail was in worse condition than below (due to the its above snowline
elevation) with deep sand and loose rocks in spots. I checked my watch and knew that I could likely break 5 hours to the tram if I kept a steady pace. Near the top Jascha started to lag behind, but told me to keep going. I passed 3 guys and made it to the top of the plateau (the other side of the rock from the tram station) in 4:55. In ~10 minutes Jascha crested the trail and announced that he was done due to hamstring issues. He encouraged me to do the whole route, but I felt bad making him wait and have to shell out $25 for a taxi to go the 6 miles back to the car. Plus, I knew I’d likely finish in the dark and wasn’t sure how easy it would be to navigate by headlamp and topo map. I decided to backtrack to retrieve the car, which I estimated would take somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.

I managed to avoid most of the side trail detours on the return trip. Fortunately, I remembered some of the distinctive rock formations from the ascent and was able to confirm that I was on route. I could see the golf course below the museum so I knew in what cardinal direction to head. About 0.8 miles from picnic benches I thought I may have taken a wrong turn and was headed for the Ramon trail system. It was hard to tell with the trail weaving in and out of the large granite boulders. I could see where I wanted to go, but not which trail system to take. I decided to cross the boulder field to a trail that I was fairly certain was headed in the right direction. Finally, I made it to the warning signs. When I got to the bottom Jascha was there to meet me. He reported that he had caught the tram almost immediately after we had parted and scored a ride back to his car from two of the guys we had passed on the trail. He passed the time at the coffee shop and napping on the grass. Total time: 8:40. I'd like to head back and go for the full out-and-back before the days get too short and the snow starts to linger. Stay tuned.

The trail is similar to Mt Wilson in terms of steepness, but longer. The bottom section is navigable without a GPS, but it may add some extra time with detours; a descent of the lower section in the dark would be trickier. If you get off-route the terrain is accommodating to x-country travel.

Additional References:
San Jacinto State Park topo map
Summitpost description
Trail topo (from the Cactus to Clouds Hiking Guide site)

Friday, October 23, 2009

the most spectacular barnyard on earth

Due to Jascha’s intestinal issues, our Huayhuash departure got pushed out a day. My guidebook advised that we take a bus to Huallanca and get let off at Quartelhuain (aka km 38), so we booked bus tickets from Huaraz to Huallanca. My topo map (Brad Johnson’s Cordillera Huayhuash 1:50000 map) did not show the alternate route from Huaraz to Huallanca that completely bypasses Quartelhuain. Fortunately the road was good and the detour didn’t add much extra time. We hired a taxi to take us from the dreary mining town of Huallanca to km 38. Although Jascha’s turista has mostly abated he now had a cold, not ideal at altitude.

y initial plan was to hike up and over the Cacanan Pass (15,387 ft) to access the east side of the range for a day, then cross-country over Garagocha Punta (Pass) back catch to the westerly route. I knew we would have to do an abbreviated version given our late start. At the trailhead we saw the remnants of a trekking camp from the night before. That group, like most, was employing mules, porters, and cooks. We were self-supported. I’m not a huge fan of backpacking for the sake of backpacking, but having climbed in the Andes previously, I know that glaciated peak slogs are not high on my list of fun activities. From what I’d seen from other people’s Huayhuash photos, I figured I could make an exception to my anti-backpacking principles.

We started up the trail around noon. About 500 vertical feet from the pass it started to rain. We backtracked and took shelter in a cave. Jascha told me he wasn’t doing well with the altitude. I had him take an acetazolamide pill and we decided to abandon our easterly excursion. On a 2003 trip to Bolivia I had been up to 19,974 ft, so I had some experience with higher altitudes. Jascha had not been higher than 14,200 and his cold was compounding the effects. Once we saw a break in the weather we headed down to camp near the trailhead. The rain started up again so I left Jascha in another alcove while I looked for a tent site. I was starting to get the feeling that we would be hiking through a giant pasture for 3 days, albeit a scenic one. I found a flat spot behind some boulders and we set up the tent in the rain. At this point I was regretting that we had not brought the larger tent, although I was thankful that I had invested in an e-book reader before I left and read up on Sister Ping’s human trafficking ring. Jascha went to sleep immediately, but I woke him around 6 pm to make him eat.

The next morning I awoke to first light and a tent covered with ice. We also had 2 visitors in the way of friendly dogs, who were thoroughly enjoying the rolling terrain. One of them extracted half of a freshly killed sheep carcass from a small cave ~100 feet from our tent and proceeded to roll on it. As we were packing up a local woman approached and asked for a fee of 15 soles each (~$5) ‘por la protección’. I had read that we should expect to have to pay camping fees so it didn’t come as a surprise. She gave us a receipt and left with our money and the sheep carcass.

The trekking route detoured onto the dirt road to the village of Rondoy (more like a few
stone huts). At this point we had to decide whether to take the direct dirt road to Llamac or take the more scenic trekking route over another pass and along the base of the Huayhuash or split up and take separate routes. After some deliberation Jascha said that he would join me on the more scenic route. We left the dirt road and headed up the valley following cow trails. From time to time we were followed by one of the curious, drooling bovines. As we heading south the views of Rondoy (19,258 ft) and its subsidiary peaks came into view. We were in the most picturesque cow pasture I had ever encountered. I was glad that I had the topo map because with the cow trails, the hikers’ trail had become increasingly more difficult to follow and I had to navigate by topographic features. The crux, the 15,584 ft Sambuya Pass, was in view but Jascha was having a difficult time keeping up, and the wind and cloud cover was making it increasingly colder.

Finally, we crested the saddle and caught a glimpse of the intensely turquoise Solteracocha Lake with the massive Jirishanca and Yerupaja peaks and associated glaciers looming above. The am
azing views made the slog well worth it (at least for me). Again we encountered a maze of trails, but this time we chose poorly and ended up on what Jascha called ‘a third class grass' slope. Fortunately, we made it through the cliff band and onto some sheep trails which dropped us into a nasty patch of brush, easy passage for those under 3 ft in height. After what seemed like forever we found our way to the valley floor. As we cruised toward the main camping area once again the storm clouds rolled in. Rainy season was a month away yet we had experienced persistent afternoon/evening showers two days in a row. We sped up, but by the time we reached a suitable site the rain and winds were in full force and our nerves were frayed. We hurried to get the tent set up (which was still wet from the previous day) and once again piled in with our damp gear.

I warned Jascha that we’d need to get an early start the next day if there was any hope of making it to Ch
iquian or Huaraz the following day. It was Sunday and taxi/bus availability in Llamac were uncertain, plus we had one more obstacle, a 13,800 ft pass. We spent another restless night in our cramped tent. The next morning, like clockwork, some locals came by for our camping fees. Apparently, we had crossed into another zone, so our previous payment wasn’t transferable. We hurriedly packed up and headed out toward Llamac. On the way we were advised by the father of the men we had paid that it was too late to make it to Huaraz. Conveniently his daughter owned a hostel in Chiquian, so I decided to ignore this advice.

After not too long the trail began to gradually climb out of the river valley; it reminded me of the oak chaparral hills of California minus the backdrop of 19,000 ft peaks. Jascha was still not feeling well and started falling behind. While I waited I chatted with Martin, a guy from Switzerland who had done the entire Huayhuash circuit self-supported in 10 days instead of the usual 18 (with support). He said that the locals confirmed that the weather had been unseasonably wet this year. I was most impressed that he had lugged around a huge SLR set-up the whole time.

When Jascha caught up I found out that he was doing even worse than before. We still had a mile or so to the pass and I offered to take so
me of his gear but he said no. I was happy to finally crest the pass. Jascha was out of water and still feeling nauseous. I knew we had to hurry if there was any hope of getting out of Llamac that day so I urged him to keep moving. I was aiming to reach Llamac by 11:30 am to make the 1 pm Chiquian-Huaraz bus, but I watched 11:30 come and go. We played leap frog once again with Martin and finally rolled into the village of Llamac. The first thing I noticed was the total lack of taxis. Luckily one of the locals came up and said ‘bus?’. By some stroke of luck we’d arrived just in time to catch the 12:30 bus to Huaraz. That meant a hot shower at the Steel Guest House and dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Brasa Roja, but best of all no tent.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

on the ají trail

We arrived in Lima at 3 in the afternoon to uniformly grey skies. I wasn't sure if it was overcast or smoggy, but I strongly suspected the former. Our hostal was run by a kind older woman, named Marisol, who stopped by to make sure our room was OK. We ventured out for our first taste of true Peruvian pollo a la brasa, which we found in a nondescript place next to the gargantuan supermarket, Plaza Vea. When I asked for a the waiter brought us out the special red version from behind the counter. The chicken turned out to be the best pollo a la brasa I've had to date, with the perfectly spiced dry rub and smoke-infused flesh.

After remediating the sleep deprivation from our red eye flight to Lima, and a fresh pot of Bialetti espresso from Marisol, we caught our flight to Cuzco. I had exchanged emails in Spanish with the company we'd arranged for the Machu Picchu part of the trip and to the best of my knowledge we were supposed to be picked up from the airport. We were greeted at the gate and escorted by a man from the guiding service whose cell phone ring tone was amusingly, Bon Jovi's 'Shot Through the Heart'. Our hotel, the stylish Picola Locanda, was high up on the hill on a steep, cobblestone pedestrian walk above Plaza de Armas, so I got in some training for the Cordillera Huayhuash portion of the trip (Jascha let the driver carry his pack as usual because he can't say no).

We had an hour before the service was supposed to give us an overview of the Machu Picchu trip so we took a walk up the hill to Sacsayhuaman, one of the many Inca ruins in the area. We found a pathway that cut under a barbed wire fence (the lower wires conveniently tied up to form a passage way) and bypassed the roadway. The pathway took us up to a series of stone terraces and from the top provided a view of the remaining ruins. We didn't have much time so we headed back to our hotel.

After handing over our trip fees we headed down the hill for a satisfying set lunch at El Fogon and a visit to Qoricancha, the remains of an Incan temple housed inside the Cathedral de Santo Domingo. Sadly, very little of the actual ruins remained (most had been restored post-earthquake), so we spent more time looking at the Catholic paintings, which were littered with a pleasing array of demons, sickness, and death. I noticed that no one, Spanish speaking or otherwise, was paying any attention to the 'no photography' signs.

Next on the list was hitting the local pharmacy for Cipro and acetazolamide. As we passed the Plaza de las Armas we noticed several displays of political art bringing light to Alberto Fujimori, his head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, and the numerous victims of the regime's death squads. After finding a phramacy, I made Jascha return the Cipro after he got charged $25 per course (we later found it for $3 in the non-touristy part of town). We wandered around the locals' part of town and found el Mercado de Santa Ana, where we picked up cheese and Jascha's new drink of choice, Negrita brand Chicha Morada. Morada. As dusk started to fall the anticuchos stands started coming out and for ~$0.35 I picked up a skewer laden with scrumptious a.

At 7:45 am the next morning we were picked up for the long trip to Aguas Calientes. I
decided that I didn't want to deal with the train/hotel/entrance fee logistics and the tour provided logistics coordination at less than what I could arrange on my own. The trip was long, ~6 hours of driving (much of it on dirt roads) plus another 30 minutes on the train. We reluctantly set our alarms for 4:15 am to allow time to hike up to the entrance and procure one of the coveted numbers for the trek up Huayna Picchu in lieu of the guided portion of our tour.

We set out just before 5 am and after 50 minutes of trails and stairways we reached the entrance station. The gates opened at 6 and everyone anxiously awaited for the perfect
photo op as the first light hit the ruins. The size of the complex was massive, but what set it apart from somewhere like Angkor Wat was the topology of the site and surrounding land. We crossed the site, admiring the perfect granite boulders that littered the area, and wandered over to the Huayna Picchu checkpoint. After 25 minutes of standing in line it was our turn to enter. We passed at least 20 people on the steep stairways that led up to the peak that overlooks Macchu Picchu and provides excellent views of the snow-capped surrounding peaks. Once we returned to the site we toured more of the ruins and lounged on the grassy terraces, knowing that we'd have to face the long van ride back to Cuzco. I was covered with bug bites, which I suspected were from the flies I had seen that looked a lot like the S American vector for leishmaniasis, but I knew my risk of contracting anything was extremely low.

On the ride back home Jascha was having a hard time staying warm and felt nauseous. Ironically, two days earlier he had scoffed at me for not eating doner kebab, which I had thought wasn't sufficiently cooked. He though that he had some life-threatening exotic disease; I figured he had a somewhat severe case of turista and made him take Cipro. I wasn't sure what that
meant for our trip to Huaraz the next day or for our Cordillera Huayhuash trip, but he agreed to fly back to Lima as planned 'for access to better hospitals'.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

one with the moon

Jascha's announcement that he no longer wanted to solo 4th class+ with fatal exposure put a major damper on this year's alpine climbing plans. The season had already gotten off to a slow start with busy work schedules and lingering t-storms, but now I had to either quickly round up partners or adjust my wishlist. Having soloed Venusian Blind last summer with Miguel, Moon Goddess didn't seem totally out of question. Granted it was a grade higher (5.8 versus 5.7), but like most High Sierra routes I knew it wasn't sustained. I was familiar with quality of rock on Venusian (just one arete over), so I took reports of horribly loose rock with a grain of salt. I also knew that there was a gully to the left of the route into which one could bail if things got too sketchy. My main concern was getting off-route on more difficult terrain, but I figured between the detailed route descriptions from summitpost and Supertopo I'd figure it out.

The night before the weather report daytime max temps in the high 40s, but I hoped it would likely be warmer as it was the weekend before on Spire Col. I gave myself an extra hour of sleep to let things warm up and left the trailhead at 6:10 am. It was 42F. Fortunately, as I got into the sun things started to warm up. There was one other party on Dark Star, but amazingly no one that I could see on Venusian or Moon Goddess. Last July there were at least 3 other parties on Venusian on a Wednesday. I made good time to the
bottom of the snowfield, reaching its base in little less than 3 hours. Unfortunately, no parties ahead of me also meant no steps kicked into the snowfield and I hadn't bothered to bring crampons or an ice axe (I realize this happened last year as well). The snow was too firm to kick more than tiny ledges with my approach shoes. I grabbed a sharp rock and stepped from sun cup to sun cup. At the spots where the sun cups ran out I chipped out handholds and gingerly traversed the slope. This whole exercise added at least 20 minutes.

The first part of the route
is shared with Venusian and consists of heading up a series of 3rd class ledges. The next six or so pitches were 4th class and provided the perfect warm-up for the exposed 5.7 traverse I knew would come when I reached the first tower. At the bottom of the tower I changed into my climbing shoes and peeked around the corner. For once the descriptions were accurate when they said exposed. Granted the holds were positive, but the wall was completely vertical and it was a long way down (more descriptive photo courtesy of Miguel here). The thing I find so satisfying about soloing it that once I'm on a committing section my mind is completely clear to focus only on the task at hand. Even doubts about my ability to complete the moves or concerns over holds pulling out completely disappear. Other than lane-splitting on my motorcycle it's the only activity I've found that truly frees my mind of its usual thought storm.

With the traverse past me I climbed into the notch that leads up to the Ibrium Tower and the crux. From the cushy belay ledge the crux looked somewhat intimidating, a 5.7 lichen covered chimney followed by a 5.8 dihedral. I could see a
reasonable escape route into the gully, but decided that I might as well give the route a go since I was here. The chimney was fairly easy and despite the two desperately placed cams jammed for eternity in the dihedral, the crux wasn't too bad. I scrambled up to the white marble belay ledge and around the corner to the narrow 4th class ledge system. I could how other parties got sucked into the harder terrain above, but with Dave Daly's excellent route description routefinding wasn't an issue.

I easily found the "diving board" chockstone (as described by Dave) that marked the top of the next pitch. The 5.7 gully took me up the back side of Ibrium tower. The 5.7ish downclimb into the notch was more like 12 feet than 20. I approached my final
challenge, an exposed 5.7 crack requiring committing lieback moves. This section wasn't as steep as I expected and although it did require a few lieback moves, there were large intermittent footholds and it wasn't sustained. With that behind me I knew I was home free. The final 5.6 tower was uneventful, and before long I was on the class 2-3 terrain that led up to the summit. It had taken me 3 hours, 30 minutes to climb the route. In another 30 I would be at the summit.

There were still no signs of other parties once I topped out. The views of the Palisades were spectacular as always. After the requisite summit register session I headed down, hoping I'd easily find the Contact Crack downclimb. The route was well cairned and I
remembered that the crack lay to the left of the usual rap station. Once at Contact Pass I made the mistake of descending too close to Temple Crag (hoping I could get in a glissade) and traversing the loose moraine debris to reach more stable ground. I was happy to be back on the more stable talus field and even more so back on the trail. I cruised back down to my car stopping only to take a photo for some guys from Bakersfield. They asked if I'd been hiking. I pointed to Temple Crag and said "See that ridge in the middle. I just climbed it." They were shocked. I hurried back to the trailhead, hoping to get back close to our Temple Crag time. I clocked in at 10:55, just 6 minutes short.