January 10th, 2012

Fred Beckey 100 Favorite Climbs ManuscriptThere are many stories of Fred Beckey, considered one of the most prolific alpinists of our time. He is constantly in motion from one climbing trip to the next, the quintessential “dirt bagger” and master of living cheaply. He is an icon in the mountaineering community.

Nearing 89 years of age, he has established first ascents across the globe and authored, among other books, the definitive climbing guide to the Cascades; three volumes essential to any Cascade climber’s library. And now, Patagonia Books published Fred Beckey’s “100 Favorite North American Climbs.”

A hybrid of coffee table and guide book, it is large format, with narrative and climbing route topographic maps. It is meant to inspire and, as I heard last night, imbue pride in climbers when they see Fred included their favorite route. I also understand it was hard getting him to whittle it down to 100 climbs!

My Fred stories are limited. I’ve gotten lost by misreading his sometimes vague route descriptions (like “trend up and right past the white block to the second corner and onto the ridge”). While working outdoor retail, I’ve accepted his well-worn down sleeping bag for washing. I’ve successfully avoided his propositions for climbing and ski trips, I think more out of fear than anything else, as I understand they are enriching experiences in and of themselves. But with no shortage of Beckey Tales, I’ve been able to appreciate his endeavors from the safety of the published word and the stories I’ve heard from many others.

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November 15th, 2011

Just a short note from a lengthy backlog of blog posts:

As the first snows of the season descend upon the Cascades, I’m toning images from this summer’s photo shoot for Helly Hansen’s Spring 2012 Alpine Clothing Line. I had a great crew from Mountain Madness to work with, stunning weather, and one of my favorite locations: the Liberty Bell group at Washington Pass.

In my summer-reverie, I had to share an outtake the client didn’t choose.

If you’ve been to the Liberty Bell group, see if you can name this line!

Now…on to ski season, please.

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July 29th, 2011

Colin Haley climbing in ChamonixBefore he went to Alaska this year, I had the pleasure of another bouldering session with Colin Haley. He’s built a life that puts him on an international circuit climbing and skiing in Patagonia, Chamonix, Alaska, Yosemite, and the Himalaya which means we don’t see much of him in the Seattle area these days.

I first met Colin in the winter, at the base of The Tooth, nub of a peak that’s fairly accessible from the highway. I’m not sure he could drive yet, but over the next few years he got his license, he went to college, and he kept on climbing. We did some Cascade routes together, some cragging, and I visited him on his first trip to Chamonix (where he was “studying” French).

While bouldering at the gym, he looked at me and said, “I think I’m the same age as you were when we first met.” It was a bit of a reality check for both of us. In that decade, or so, Colin has gone from bold and opinionated teen to professional alpinist; he is a sponsored athlete in a niche market so tight and so new (in the US) that making a living from it is possible for only the rarest few.

Colin Haley Climbing ResumeWe caught up a bit on some of the trips we’d taken and what our personal lives looked like, but mostly it was about climbing and laughter. That’s something I forgot–there’s a lot of laughter when you’re around Colin.

This month, in Climbing Magazine, is a feature in the Question-Answer format with Colin. My friend, Frank Huster has the lead image, Chris Wiedner (who left Seattle for Boulder) wrote it, and I’ve got a couple of historical images of Colin. One from a climb in Chamonix, and one from our first climb together: the NE Buttress of Chair Peak. When he was just 16.

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July 25th, 2011

It was an effort of putting one foot in front of the other and keeping my mind occupied enough that I could press on. It was mountaineering; not terribly technical, but physical, requiring some skill, and managing risk from crevasses, rockfall, and altitude.

At 14,000 feet I shuffled like a 80 year old, teetered like a drunk. Altitude is a hangover without the party. My head was starting to hurt and my nausea passed only after I dry heaved. Forcibly hyperventilating was the only way I could capture enough oxygen; even so, I was out of breath and, more annoyingly, low on energy. Two fast breaths for each step. I wanted more red blood cells.

(Mt. Rainier by moonlight. 13 second exposure, f5.6, ISO3200, using a rock as a tripod. Note the three lights on the mountain of teams on different routes starting their ascent ~2.00am)

For all the effort, it was also a huge relief. I’ve been missing the mountains. I hiked up the Muir Snowfield by the light of a half moon. I watched the sun rise from eastern Washington, spilling its light across the Cascades to brighten the dark valleys below. I made my body hurt, and in that hurt was presence and connection. Immediacy.

It was Frank’s idea to do it in a day from the car; it’s not uncommon, but most people choose to hike the Disappointment Cleaver, a heavily guided trade route, in two or three days. By doing it in a day, with optimal weather conditions (sunny and calm), we could lighten our loads and move faster.

Frank was great company and, as another photographer, understanding of the camera weight we carried and our pausing for pictures. His only complaint was that I was wearing all black on the summit, which isn’t so great for his photos. Fine by me. At that moment, all I wanted to do was head down to the thicker air below.

See more images in this gallery:

Deception Cleaver, Mt. Rainier – Images by Tim Matsui

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Fall Day at Index

October 14th, 2007

Fall day. The colors stood out amongst the evergreens. The air was cool but the sun warm; the combination made the perfect temperature. A twenty minute hike straight uphill through the woods took us to the Upper Town Wall and the base of Davis-Holland, a three pitch crack climb. Dan had left some of our climbing gear at the car so Fred and I began the climb. By the time Dan returned, Fred had heard enough stories to decided Dan and I were an old married couple, so intimate was our knowledge of each other.

A sport climber, and unfamiliar with cracks, Fred slowly worked his way up the first pitch testing his protection and trying to figure out how to hand-jam and finger-lock in the granite. Watching and encouraging him to work it out was uplifting for me and, on a later pitch while I struggled, the positive enthusiasm was returned.

We swapped leads on the steep face, climbing higher above the toy-sized houses of the Index town site. Trains would rumble by, crossing the Skykomish river with a wail of their horns. Miles away, towards the mountain passes, we could seen their bright headlamps in the forest-carpeted glacial valley.

Halfway up the wall we transitioned onto another climb, Lovin’ Arms. The energy we had was good and, below us, Kasi and Andreas were grunting their way up a much harder route. Hello’s and laughs were exchanged.

We topped out to a pine-needle forest, still in a breezeless afternoon, and sat there looking up at the towering summit of Mt. Index and the recent snow clinging to the northern shadows of Gunn peak. Hunger and thirst beckoned, but bodily desire could wait; we were unwilling to break the spell of the moment.

Several rappels later we were in the cool shadows of the forest, hiking down to the car. Beers from the Korean-owned General store, a walk across the street to the river bank, and in the fading light of a fine fall day we skipped stones on the blue waters of the Skykomish.

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Climbing: Ptarmigan Ridge

June 28th, 2007

For years I’ve looked at Mt. Rainier from afar and from commercial flights, picking out the line of Ptarmigan Ridge, noting rock fall and crevasses indicative of the route’s conditions. I’d been up the mountain twice before, but this route was the line I wanted, a challenge that for one reason or another I hadn’t faced.

Having attempted the route once before I knew it would be a long, physically demanding trip. I watched reports on route conditions, casually discussed it with friends, and tried to get back into alpine shape after a winter season spent abroad and chained to the computer. I had been pursuing my other passion, journalism, and was out of physical and mental shape for this exertion. Like so much in life, climbing takes fitness, skill, tenacity, and acceptance of risk…but maybe turned up a notch or two. (at left: Dan crossing the Carbon Glacier)

I consider myself a mediocre climber at best and yet I participate in this consuming lifestyle; I don’t plan my weekends based on events, I plan them based on the weather. I can sleep in my car and have more closet space devoted to gear than button-down shirts. I identify as a climber, and I know the return is what you bring to it, but of late I’ve felt it slipping from me. Not the passion, but the ability.

When the weather looked decent enough Chad Kellogg, Dan Aylward and I decided give it a try. Were going to stay in town Saturday for weather, work and social obligations, drive to Rainier that evening and hike through the night. With our permits taken care of, we headed off into the darkness. (at right: Dan near high camp)

Dawn caught us on the glacier crossings; there were several as we had to hike around a good portion of the mountain’s north side. Low clouds kept the snow fairly firm as we climbed to the 10,200 foot high camp.

In the afternoon light we brewed up and tried to sleep in the brightness. Even after being up all night, and as exhausted as I was, it was a struggle to sleep. It wasn’t from the apprehension I feel before some climbs. I wasn’t scared, I just felt this one was just going to be arduous. It was probably Chad snoring beside me. He is exceptionally loud. (at right: the looming seracs)

We awoke in the dark to make our final preparations, mostly melting more water. Dawn came and with it a fear-inspiring rumble. We jumped up to watch a house-sized chunk of serac break loose and pummel the approach to the climb. Climbing is about risk management but there only so much you can control. If we weren’t melting water there was a good chance our five minute crossing of the debris path would have coincided with the serac fall and we would be dead. Simple as that. (at left: puget sound enshrouded in clouds at sunset)

In a ‘safe’ zone, our gear packed, crampons a-fixed, we tied into the rope, gripped our ice tools in hand, and moved as fast as we could across the slope to cross the bergschrund easily right where the serac debris flows. In relative safety we paused to evaluate the route ahead; we were opting to simul-climb a less-traveled, more technical path through a band of rocks. (at right: at dawn)

The protection, a mixture of ice screws and a rock gear, was sparse as Dan climbed up in a traversing fashion trying to break through the slightly overhung rock. Finally, with the last of his gear dozens of feet behind, he pulled up a slot of ice and onto easy snow where he set the best belay he could. It was marginal. Chad then took us up ice and snow couloirs to the base of a rock step, the last technical hurdle before the long glaciated slopes below the summit. Being in the middle was nice for photos but meant I did no leading. We regrouped and Dan led out again, pulling through the short step with a series of hook moves, his crampons scraping and tools pawing for purchase. I followed quickly and received a rock in the face. It hurt, my nose bled, but nothing felt broken so off I went. There wasn’t much choice anyway; at this point it was up and over the mountain.

The slog that came after was mind-numbing. The wind had picked up to a steady 30 mph with gusts up to 60. The altitude was starting to take its toll on me, as was my level of fitness. I was regretting every ounce of weight; the heavy camera, the spare battery I kept warm against my chest, not having lighter boots, crampons, or tools. Otherwise, my pack was fairly light for I was wearing all my clothing except my down parka. I don’t think I had recovered from the previous day’s cumulative 7000 foot elevation gain and I was slowing down. I was slowing everyone down. And I didn’t even have group gear on me. (at right: at dawn)

By the time we reached Liberty Cap, what I thought would be our high point, I was on the edge. My body was depleted; I noticed how a packet of Gu, the one-ounce wonder of simple sugars, would bring me back from the edge but for shorter and shorter periods. Bars had a similar effect and the meat I had with me wasn’t satiating the craving for calories. (at left: Chad after crossing the debris path)

We paused on the windswept knoll for some pictures and a moment for Chad’s wife Lara. It was less than two months since her death. Both had been climbing rangers on this mountain and they were intending to climb the route together. Exhausted, I knelt in the snow, my tears hidden behind mirrored lenses, my shudders disguised by the gusting wind. (at right: Chad low on the route)

If I had been thinking, I would have eaten and drank what little water I had left, for after Chad quickly took the lead and plodded off, down the ridge to the saddle between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest. By now I desperately needed to eat for I had bonked and was digging a hole I wasn’t sure I could rebound from. But Chad kept on going, not understanding my repeated requests. He yelled he was searching for a spot sheltered from the wind. As we trudged on, my incredulous laugh was lost in the wind. There was no shelter in this saddle. When he began climbing the last few hundred feet to Columbia Crest I was pissed; the descent did not lay over the true summit like he said, he was being figurative. It lay right in front of us but he insisted on the summit. I unclipped from the rope and, shivering uncontrollably, wrapped myself in my down parka to begin the futile process of hydration and food. Dan had managed to stave off his bonking by eating a bar while walking. That and he’s in better shape. (at left: Chad in the initial mixed climbing rock bands)

Indeed, after the two tagged the summit–which I’d only been an immensely distant 100 vertical feet shy of–we headed back down our track and then cut east across the top of the Winthrop and Emmons glaciers, following a boot track beaten into the snow. Each step was jarring, the snow firm enough to warrant crampons. Occasionally it was a bit icy and there were the inevitable crevasses to cross, some gaping and deep enough to swallow our entire rope, the three of us attached. (at right: Dan on snow slopes)

I had to rest often as my steps grew sloppy. I fell once, to be caught by the rope as Dan self-arrested above me. Another time I didn’t quite make a snow bridge, my foot plunging through the fragile snow into some unseen abyss; I managed to hurl my body over my leg just enough to make the other side of the crevasse. Chad looked up and jokingly said “What, are you trying to get a helicopter ride out of here?” I had to laugh. (at left: Dan leads the upper mixed step)

I had been to this state of emptiness before, but not quite as far. It was strangely familiar to be pushing with my mind when my body clearly wanted to stop, to be disassociated but unable to escape my physical state. My tongue swelled with dehydration and I alternated between overheating and freezing.

I stared down at the cluster of tents imagining the refuge of the ranger hut at Camp Schurman where our friend David Gottlieb was sure to have gallons of water. The Emmons descent takes between one and two hours. We took four but with Chad and Dan’s patience we made it. On the flats I took my first pee in about seven hours; it was painfully yellow. I climbed up to the flagstone patio of the hut and with great relief collapsed on my pack, my crampons still on my boots. (at left: Dan pausing near Liberty Cap)

Water, conversation, and ramen were served by Dave while I contemplated staying the night. Unfortunately Chad had to be at work the next morning; the sun was beginning to set and there was still the several mile, 6000 foot descent to the car to make, half of it on moderate glacier. I decided to stay for I would be too slow and a danger to myself as my normally strong steps were reduced to a shuffle. They got home at 3 a.m. and the next morning–because he’s unemployed and a generous guy–Dan and his girlfriend Alison came back down to the park to pick me up. I had hiked out with Dave, who was on his way to do a technical body recovery of a hiker who fell off a cliff. They met me at the ranger’s residence. (at right: self portrait of a bloodied face on Liberty Cap)

In spite of the suffering, I genuinely enjoyed the route and am glad I finally climbed it. It also gave me more time to learn who Chad is; like many, I knew Lara better. And it was good to share the experience with Dan for, like planetary orbits, friendships are alternately close and distant. Our orbits had a chance to meet. (at left: friend and climbing ranger David Gottlieb at Camp Schurman)

Besides reminding me to be extra vigilant about fueling my body, the climb gave me time to think about how much work it takes to be in shape for this kind of endeavor. I was gone most of the winter on a self-assigned job to report on human trafficking and afterwards worked many weekends at home to catch up. Until Ptarmigan Ridge, I hadn’t swung an ice tool since last spring in Chamonix. My work had taken precedent and I was out of shape.

Which brings me back to the idea that climbing is a lifestyle choice. But so is the kind of journalism I want to do and while they share the similar need to be free, flexible, and willing to take risks, it seems the levels I want to push for are exclusive of each other. My hobby and my profession are disparate and yet frighteningly similar, I just hope I can continue to balance the two because without climbing I am lost and without meaningful journalism I am empty. (at right: St. Elmo’s pass seen on the hike out)

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Fall Season at Smith Rock

November 1st, 2006

SMITH ROCK, OR – In past years it has been a weekend ritual; five o’clock rolls around and you find yourself hoping you made the right choice to take I-5 south to Portland instead of I-90 over the pass and then south on US-97 through Yakima. 97 is longer, but there’s less traffic on the six hour drive to Smith Rock, Oregon. (at right: Marshall falling on Latest Rage, 5.12b)

The rock formations of volcanic tuff at Smith are an internationally re-knowned sport climbing crag. In the dry reaches of eastern Oregon, about 40 min. north of Bend, the park offers a unique climbing experience; pockets from body-sized huecos to single-digit ‘monos’ combine with fingernail to foot-sized sharp edges. At the base of one classic it’s not uncommon to find climbers discussing body position and how to reach the next hold from the cruxy ‘dime-edge.’ Imagine the core strength to stand your tiptoes, paste the fingers of one hand onto a U.S. dime while reaching out with the other, all on a slightly steeper-than-vertical wall with 20m of air beneath you.(at left: crossing the crooked river at sunset)

Smith is not a crack climber’s mecca. Nor is it best suited for beginners, although to judge by their numbers, it is quite popular. Nor is it for the faint of heart; years of erosion by countless feet has worn the earth away, making the first bolt even higher than the route creator envisioned. Sometimes the first place to clip the point of protection is over 30 feet off the deck. And on some routes the bolts are spaced so far that falls are a mandatory 20 or 30 feet.(at right: kasi stemming at nearby Trout Creek)

What Smith is offers is a lot of 5.11, 5.12, a sizeable collection of 5.13, and many 5.14’s. By comparison, the scale (really) starts at about 5.6 and ends at 5.15, with sub-classes of a,b,c,d (ie. 5.12a is harder than 5.10d). It also offers a social scene of die-hard locals, climbing bums on an international circuit, well-intentioned beginners who make me scared (I was once one), all climbing beside some of the sport’s biggest celebrities. The evenings, at one of the dirt-bag camp grounds, are fires, laughter, and copious quantities of beer. Midweek, with fewer campers, the desert quiet fills with coyote howls and the scent of juniper.(at left: Andreas and the Trout Creek views)

This year I only went twice, both for long weekends, one of which was to check out a ‘new’ area of amazing basalt cracks. Trout Creek, north of Smith by about 1.5hrs, has splitters from fingertip width on up to ten-inch monstrosities. I’d have to say my favorite was a crack so uniform in width, and long, that with my desire to make gear placements every body-length (or so) I used three 3″ pieces, nine 2″ pieces, and one 1″ piece. Were I stronger and bolder I suppose I would have ‘run it out.'(at right: mindy’s fingers, the bloody result of poor crack technique)

Sometimes the trips are about focus and ‘projects’; hard climbs you’re trying to complete. Sometimes they are simply about being there in the sun, with the freezing nights, eating while crouching in the dirt, relating stories beside the fire, falling asleep under the stars and waking up to dawn’s first light with frost on your bag. Every weekend, for the full season. Hm…the climbing life.(at left: Trout Creek at sunset)

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