Monday, November 4, 2013

The Steck Salathe Route, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite

The #4 BD cam is the money piece for this route 

It was time for our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite. I look forward to this visit from the time we make our camping reservations at 7:00AM, six months prior to arrival.  Short approaches, great weather, warm temps, and no avalanches or cornices trying to kill us….a welcome change.

Sentinel Rock, as seen from just across the street from Camp 4
Not wanting to waste any time, we planned to climb the Steck Salathe Route on Sentinel Rock with our friend and IFMGA certified mountain guide, Jed Porter, the first full day in the Valley. He climbed Mt. Fairweather with us in June, and we were excited to climb together again.

He brought his long time climbing partner, Ian McEleney, who had done the first winter ascent of the Sierra Palisade Traverse with Jed. This is a serious multiday undertaking in freezing temps.

Janelle and I had climbed the Steck-Salathe in 2010, but left the cameras in the van that time. This time, Jed and Ian would climb ahead and get some, much needed, lead climbing shots. Filming pure rock climbing with only two people gets pretty boring as its either a butt shot of the leader or a top down shot of the second.
Janelle on pitch 4
The previous experience had spanked me pretty good. I resorted to French freeing through many of the cruxes. “Feels like 5.12, unless you are 3’10” and “very hard, even French free” and “Only easy pitch” are a few examples of the notes I made in the guidebook after our original effort. This time I wanted to do it in better style and send everything.
We started before dawn and made it to the base as the sun began to creep down the Nose of El Capitan across the Valley.

Route beta after our first encounter in 2010
The first challenging pitch was the Wilson Overhang. Last time I had pulled on gear, this time I sent it. My wide crack and chimney climbing technique had improved dramatically over the past three years. This was an encouraging way to see measurable improvement.

Janelle and I swung leads like a well-oiled machine. Jed and Ian stayed just ahead of us, whipping out the camera at opportune moments. This style of run and gun shooting on a 16-pitch climb does not allow for any wasted time. The pressure is on so you have to get the shot when it presents itself and then move on, with no real setup time.
Mark Smiley on the headwall pitch

We made it to the top of the Flying Buttress, passed through a cool 2’ wide granite hallway and rapped down for the start of the next pitch.

Janelle Smiley mentally preps for the Narrows
The “great chimney”, as Allen Steck called it, is the definitive crux of the route. The lower pitch was mine. 5.10b, stupid wide, no “grips” (inside joke), but I got it done. I wouldn’t say it was pretty, or quick, but I sent. I was pumped about that.
Ian entering the pain closet
This photo (above) is the only way to paint the picture of the next belay. We were roughly 15’-20’ inside the cliff face. Think, vertical caving. This is the start of the Narrows. Allen Steck and John Salathe climbed the outside of the wall on the first ascent in 1950, which avoids the lion’s share of the squeeze chimney. Janelle and I had followed the first ascentist on our first ascent, so we had not been in the slot. This go, we decided to give it a try. Janelle took the lead and did a wonderful job, as did Ian and Jed. They each took roughly 30 minutes to get up this 60 foot section.

I went last. I had sent (climbed without falling or resting on the gear) every pitch to this point and didn’t want to blow it here at the last crux.
Jed Porter gettin' the job done

Walking my legs up the far wall I was able to get my head, chest and stomach into the narrow section just fine. Now, the problem was that I now had to get my legs from the wide part to the skinny part. This requires some kind of double chicken wing arm bar move.

I am as flexible as a brick. This personal attribute did not help me make any upward progress. Things got ugly. After flexing every muscle in my body and going nowhere, 20 times in a row, I ran out of gas and took on the rope. I blew the send. I was mad. Then I got stuck, and got really mad. The ego spanking I was taking made me madder yet.
The real crux.
There is a section that is so tight, when I’d turn my head from the left to right, my nose would scrape on the wall. Then the backpack that I was trailing started getting stuck below me. It too was a little too wide with two helmets clipped to it.

I lost it. Started screaming at the world. Not my proudest moment.

Eventually I fought my way up, while Janelle performed crevasse rescue on me with a 3:1 pulley. It was miserable. You can’t even call it climbing, more like hangdogging on top rope, only your belayer has tied the rope to a car bumper and is driving slowly away, effectively towing you up. To make things worse, Jed filmed it all. I guess I asked for that one.

Ian McEleney 3 pitches from the top
Janelle took over and lead the next two pitches, and I took the final 5.6 consolation pitch, tail still between my legs. The four of us were on top with a little daylight to spare.

All in all it was a great day with good friends. I do want to go back and do it again and lead the Narrows clean. First, I need to be able to touch the ground with my legs straight, and be able to sit Indian style with my knees touching the ground.

[Note: Following our time in Yosemite we visited Allen Steck, author of the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and first ascentist of this route. It was great to have dinner with him and chat about the climbs he had done over 60 years ago! Watch the video we made about this whole experience, coming Nov. 11 at]

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Waiting On Fairweather

14,500 feet on Mt. Fairweather
In June we headed for Mt. Fairweather (15,325'), located a mere 13 miles from the Pacific coast in SE Alaska. The Carpe Ridge is the "classic" route on its South Face. This snow, ice, and rock route ascends a little under 11,000 vertical feet from the glacier camp. It's huge! I would equate it to a remote, steeper, rockier, longer, Liberty Ridge on Rainier.

Mt. Fairweather is "A"
Having a third person would be safer on a big mountain like this. It would also add to the fun level and make for better filming. We recruited our friend, Jed Porter, who is a fully certified (IFMGA) mountain guide from Bishop CA, which turned out to be a very good addition to Team Smiley., he is the man with the plan there in Haines
The three of us met in Juneau. Janelle and I flew from Anchorage, where we had just finished climbing the Moose's Tooth. Jed flew from Florida, where he had just finished lounging on the beach with friends. From Juneau, we took a six hour ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Haines. There, a facebook friend's daughter picked us up from the airport and shuttled us 10 miles to the tiny municipal airport, home of the very famous, Fly Drake charter air service.

Every bad weather day had a couple hours of blue where we could soak up some UV.
Drake Olson has been an Alaskan bush pilot for many many years. Prior to taking climbers to remote mountains and skiers to some of the steepest powder spines in Alaska, he was a professional race car driver for Porche. Drake is pure Alaskan through and through, and a real riot. We pulled up in the truck and he was sunning himself just outside his hanger. [check out the video to see how that went down]. This airport was perfect. No TSA, no lines, no automated voice telling us that the National Security Level is, "Orange". It was awesome. We pulled the truck right up to the plane, dumped everything out.

The Carpe Ridge from 4,600' to 11,000'. The remaining 4,000' is out of view from this angle.
The sky was blue, very rare in these parts, so we wasted no time packing the plane. We had a ton of stuff. Our lofty plan was to fly into Fairweather, and after climbing it we would "bump" directly to Mt. St. Elias with a different pilot, Paul Claus. After climbing that mountain, Paul would then take us back to his lodge in McCarthy, AK. This would save a lot of transportation expenses if it worked. All that to say that we required two flights into Fairweather. Jed went first and two hours later Janelle and I flew in and joined him on the Fairweather Glacier at 4,600'. The flight in was amazing to say the least.

Experience has taught me that if the sky is blue in Alaska, and you're not climbing, you are behind already. I was antsy. Should we start climbing right now? Forget setting up the basecamp, lets start climbing! Janelle and Jed were the voices of reason, and we set up camp, packed our climbing packs and tried to sleep. 24 hours prior, Jed was on a beach in Florida, now we were 8 hours away from climbing a 15,000'+ mountain.

Pacific Ocean is only 13 miles away.
4:00AM the alarm went off. The sky was still clear as we approached the base of the route. The long Alaska summer day had already begun. The first section of the route took us right under serious serac fall potential. Aside from getting an early, cold, start and moving as fast as possible, there is little one can do to mitigate this hazard. Above that there was some loose rock climbing (5.3), a little waterfall crossing, and then back on a long snow ramp.

Dont like a hold? Just throw it out of the way.
This snow ramp was horrible. Breakable crust FOREVER. The crust was strong enough to hold our weigh for exactly .46 seconds. Once it broke, my leg would drop into the hole, scraping my shin on the crust on the way down. Sometimes sinking up to the shin and sometimes up to my hip. Time and time again, step after step, it went like this.
1. Lift foot out of previous hole, step forward.
2. Shift weight to higher foot slowly, staying on the surface.
3. Have time to think half of this thought, "hey I think its getting firmer"
4. Break through up to shin, knee, hip, waist.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 a billizon times, up 3,000 vertical feet

Basecamp is the little black dot, center in the shade on the lower glaicer

There was another steep rock band with some fun challenges, both low angle ice and some proper rock climbing. We moved quickly though these sections as it was such a welcome relief from the breakable crust.

One of the only pitches we used a proper belay. Short (5.7c) layback moves. [Janelle then downgraded it to 5.7a, but she was on top rope, pissed me right off.  It's totally 5.7c with Spantiks, no heel spurs. If you have heel spurs, it probably feels like old school 5.6d, but Im not one to judge....unless you disagree with my omniscient grade identifying abilities, then I'll tell you you're wrong...& stupid].
Around 8,000' a steep snow ramp (approx. 35-45 degrees) took us to our high camp location at 10,200'. The sun was out in full force now and it was getting hot. We were really happy with our progress, getting from 4,600' to 10,200' in roughly 6 hours. At 11:00AM we had to make a decision. Set up camp, and go for the summit in the morning, or set up camp and keep going to the summit now while the sun was still out? We still had another 5,000 feet above us, and we were feeling tired, and unacclimatized, so we opted to go continue the morning. That afternoon we lounged in the tent, sleeping away our good weather.

The following morning, we were up again early. Dark clouds had moved in over the tops of the mountains in the distance. We could not see our summit yet, but figured it too was cloud capped. Maybe they would blow off? We had only brought three days of food with us, so we went for it, hoping the skies would clear.

Full whiteout conditions. Waiting for things to clear at 14,200' on our first go.
Very quickly we climbed into the cloud and the visibility went to crap. Walking around in a gigantic ping pong ball filled with smoke is what it was like. We had our GPS app (sweetest app ever, and total game changer Gaia GPS), which helped to keep us on the ridge. Unfortunately, it was worthless at steering us clear of unseen crevasses and seracs.

Through the clouds I caught glimpses of both. Wanting to avoid them I lead the team far to the left, NW, of the Carpe Ridge to a solid, but steep snow ramp. This took forever. The snow was knee deep or worse. 98% of the time the visibility was less than 100 feet.  2% of the time the clouds would shift just enough to get a view of what lay ahead, and that keep us moving forward. We climbed a 60-65 degree snow/ice slope to gain the ridge again. Swinging my tools into the slope I thought, "this isn't going to be very fun to descend. Too hard to down solo and not hard enough for V-threads."

Above high camp. This route has tons of this steepness (35-45 degrees).
Once on the ridge, at 14,000', the wind picked up significantly. Gusts of 40 mph wind will knock you down, steady 40 mph wind is manageable. This was steady 40 with gusts to 60. The snow was getting picked up and blasted into our eyes. Any straps on our jackets or packs that had a loose end turned into little whips. It was full on. We kept walking uphill.

At 14,300' we encountered the ice "Nose". We would have to stop and belay. The wind was blasting us. Huddled in a semi filled in crevasse, squinting at each other, knowing each others thoughts. It was grim. Jed took the lead and climbed up around the corner to see if the terrain would mellow out. We knew that belaying was going to make us too cold. The terrain did not mellow, and belaying would be needed. The nail in the coffin. We descended back down a couple hundred feet to a little wind pocket eddy. The air temp wasn't that bad out of the wind, so we sat on our packs for an hour, hoping for improved conditions.

I started thinking about how to get down. Our tracks were getting filled in. It would be difficult to backtrack. We gave it one more attempt up to the Nose, but it was futile.

Walking back down was just as epic. We couldn't see anything in front of us. I had to walk like a drunk blind person, feeling my way inch by inch. Using my hiking pole to see if the next step was up down or flat. Nerve racking.
Iconic knife edge snow ridge at about 11,000'

At 12,000 feet we exited the cloud cap, and it was actually a nice day from that elevation and below. We went from "full on survival mode" to "casual day in the mountain" simply by being able to see.

We went back to our high camp and slept. The following day we descended the remaining 5,600', through more waist deep breakable crust, to our basecamp. At one of the rappels Janelle asked me, "do you want to try this again?" I said, "you can't ask me that now! I need a couple days to forget about these horrible snow conditions."

The following day was nice, yet there was still a cloud cap on all the mountains above 13,00'. After that, the high pressure moved out to make way for the infamously bad weather this area is known for.

Tent bound for 11 days. Rummy 500 became rummy 5000.
For 11 days we sat in our tents, killing time. Many people ask what we do to pass the time while tent bound. I think it's probably similar to being in a nursing home. You have to turn the small everyday activities into individual major events. Things you normally do while multi-tasking (eating, pooping, grooming, etc). That, and try to sleep as much as your body will allow. For me, that is 13 hours/day. We also had an ipad, two computers, lots of movies, angry birds, some shooting game that I mastered, and a sweet Goal Zero battery and solar set up to keep the juice flowing.
Unlike a nursing home, we had a finite amount of food...oh, and we were not forced to drink cranberry juice.

Everyday there was at least an hour or so to get out and walk around. I skied "crop circles" into the fresh snow around our camp, breaking trail in an ever growing circle, lap after lap until it looked like a circular plowed bean field. Then it would snow, effectively shaking my giant etch-a-sketch, and I would do it again, making a fun new shape.

You are looking at a big mountain south of Mt. Fairweather. [In real life it is not black and white, I made it look like that using my computer.]
Day 14 on the glacier we started walking uphill again. We were well rested after 11 days in the tent (understatement). We reached the same high camp at 10,200'. Day 15 we climbed to the summit under some of the most perfect conditions that mountain might ever get. We could see all the way up and down the coast. We could see St. Elias to the north, Glacier Bay to the southeast, and I think we might have got a glimpse of Russia. I'll have to confirm that with Tina Fey of course.

The man, the machine, thee Jed Porter.
The summit was amazing. We topped out eight hours after leaving our high camp. In hindsight, it was a really good we had not tried to push it any higher on the first attempt because after the Nose pitch there was still a bunch of climbing to be done.

Heading down with the Pacific coast running endlessly in both directions.
The only bummer was that we had burnt through our food supplies, and Paul Claus was not willing to fly anyone into the range without at least two weeks of food. St. Elias would have to wait. Drake picked us up on day 16, and 45 minutes later we were back on the warm asphalt in front of his hanger, sunning ourselves, talking climbing, and eating cheesy quesadillas.

Summit oxygen deprivation at 15,325'

[to see the video of this climb, which happens to be my current personal favorite, please visit our website:, or click play below. Play it big, its better!]
Check out our facebook page as well.
Here is Jed's trip report. He is an entertaining writer.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mt Stuart's North Ridge - Complete

The North Ridge of Mt Stuart is a gem. This climb, when done from the bottom of the ridge, is over 30 pitches of high quality moderate climbing. The first time I did this route in 2005 my partner and I epic-ed and had to sleep on the summit!

Much experience has been gained in the last 8 years and this go we had a fun time with a couple friends, Alec and Ian Lovett. This was one of their first big alpine rock routes and it blew their hair back. It was fun to show someone a quality route like this.

Since the web is crawling with beta on the North Ridge of Stuart I am choosing to not add to that. Instead, here is a photo documentary of the experience. The video I made will also shed some light on just how cool this route is.  It should be on every Washington climbers list, and maybe every climber in North America.

You can see the video of the climb on Epic TV's video player

Join the Facebook page for even more fun

Hiking in from Leavenworth - Took a few hours to get to the base.

Where did the trail go?

Janelle on the first 5.8 pitch on the Lower North Ridge. Splitter!

Working our way up the great long lower pitches.

Ian Lovett enjoys the last sun rays of the day.

From our bivy site, an amazing night. Carrying bivy gear is never fun, but views like this make it worth it.

Enjoying the night

Day 2,  Ian Lovett.

Which way to go? Oh yeah, stay on the ridge.

Alec crushing it in his approach shoes

Ian palming the North Ridge's knife edge

Classic shot of the slab that leads to the 5.9 Great Gendarme.  
Looking back from the Gendarme area.

Money Shot.

Above the crux, Janelle works across on yet another beautiful finger crack.

The crew on top, after the sweet climb. (L-R) Mark Smiley, Janelle Smiley, Ian Lovett, Alec Lovett.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Moose's Tooth via the West Ridge - Alaska

Mooses Tooth's West Ridge
Janelle and I were very excited to get back into the classic climbing circuit for the fourth year in a row, after an amazing winter overseas. We had spent 90 days in Europe, where Janelle competed in several countries with the best ski mountaineering racers in the world, while I made videos of the experience. The videos can be scene here (episodes 1, 2, 3, 45).

In May we flew back to the States, and had 13 non-traveling days to pack and prep for our expeditions to Alaska. This was definitely not enough time, but we made it work. Most of the time I feel like a professional packer, always lugging around at least two fifty pound duffle bags and a way-to-heavy carryon. Life is so rough =)

The first climb on our calendar for the year was the West Ridge of the Moose’s Tooth. This would be our second attempt. In 2010 we tried to climb it but got turned around largely due to Alaska sized intimidation, and horrible snow conditions.

This year we had a plan, and a bunch of experience to draw on, to make the climb go as smoothly as possible. We flew into Anchorage where our ever-faithful Anchorage hosts, Bob and Celia Lohr, picked us up from the airport. The forecast was looking bad so we delayed for four days in Anchorage. After the delay we stocked up at Costco, and made our way to the quaint tourist town of Talkeetna, AK.
walking up the Ruth Glacier....forever!

Talkeetna Air Taxi is the best in the business, flying hundreds of climbers all over the range every year. The added bonus is that they keep track of you while you climb. Having eyes in the sky is a true comfort. We got to fly in with Paul Rodrick, the owner, which is always a treat. He landed us on the Ruth Glacier and we were at the base of the West Ridge two hours later. It was awesome.

Our base camp duffels were flown to a different location by a friend and fellow mountain guide, Kurt Hicks, who was flying into the Root Canal campsite. That would be the finish line after climbing the West Ridge. This very conveniently removed the need to cross through the dangerous icefall that connects the Ruth Gorge to the Root Canal. We had traveled through this serac zone twice in 2010 and had no desire to repeat it.

The snow was deep as we made our way up to the high camp, which was slow going.  The camp site, located at 7,800',  is one of the most beautiful in the range. The only neighbors in this neighborhood are Denali, Huntington, Dan Beard, and several other striking peaks. It had taken us about 8 hours to travel from the landing strip to this camp.
the access couloir had perfect snow
The next morning we woke up around 6:00AM and started climbing around 7:30AM. The lower parts of the access couloirs were in great condition. Firm pick and crampon placements allowed for quick movement. As we approached the ridge, the snow got deeper and softer. The hairs on the back of my neck started perking up as we traversed this 55-degree face. Thankfully everything stayed in place and it reached a notch in the ridge.
Reaching the notch, we got our first look at the foreboding North Face. The entire upper half of the face was covered in huge snow mushrooms that ran the entire length of each snow spine. Below that, the glacier drops off a vertical wall for several thousand feet to the glacier below. Along the skyline the West Ridge, our route, weaved up and down like the crooked spine of a snow-breathing dragon. The cornices were both large and intimidating, and we would have to navigate them for more than a mile. Taking photos of this view was spectacular in an eerie sort of way. Probably similar to capturing a beautiful photograph of a tidal wave, right before it hits you.
tough knowing where the cornice is overhung
We dropped down from the ridge, picking our way along, paying very close attention to where we were relative to both the rocks on our right and the cornices on our left. As it turns out, our high point from our 2010 attempt was about 20 mins of climbing away from the West Summit. Attaining this high point we had an even better view of the West Ridge route. The steep corniced slopes coming out of Englishman’s Col were in perfect view. Perfectly scarey-knarly-intimidating-steep-snow view.
climbing out of Englishman's Col, first mega crux
“How in the world are we going to get up that?” I thought. Janelle and I discussed possible options of how to best climb this 500 foot section of terror. We down climbed and then rappelled into the notch where the route Shaken Not Stirred meets the ridge. We knew there were an established rappel anchors down the entire route, making it a possible bail out option. Directly up from that was this super scary face, creating a gigantic mental fork in the road. Do we turn right, rapping down Shaken Not Stirred, to a comfortable base camp where chips and salsa were waiting for us? Or do we stay the course and tackle this daunting snow wall? I’d be lying if I said the pull to bail was non-existent. Blue pill red pill, which will it be? Janelle kicked in a descent belay spot on the other side of the ridge and I started up the pitch.
Peru or Alaska? More cornices, loose snow, walking over air

It was slow going as I could not afford to fall. Every step had to be spot on. Every tool placement had to be spot on. Janelle called up, “half”, meaning I had gone 100’, and I placed a picket. Above me was and overhanging cornice. I had to excavate a trench and then climb through it. 180’ up, with only one lame picket 80’ below me I cut out a ledge for a belay. This was probably the worst belay anchor I’ve ever made. Totally not AMGA passable. The snow is loose, I’m standing on a corniced snow pillow, 60-70 degree slope, with buried ice tools in loose “snice” (snow ice combo). The only thing providing significant holding power is the fact that I’m straddling the snow in a way that provided some resistance to downward pull. I yelled down, “climb on….carefully!”

Janelle made it up to me with no falls, and took the lead over the next roll. She made short work of it, fighting through the loose steep snow. We swung leads again, and got into a rhythm of fighting through these cornices. Creeping ever-so-carefully along this sleeping dragon’s spiny back, trying very hard to not wake her.
Look back where we had traveled, Denali in background
As we descended down to the final col, which is the top of the uber classic “Ham and Eggs” route, we were able to let our guard down a bit as the terrain mellowed. Walking past the top of Ham and Eggs there was another slight mental tug to pull the eject cord, and rap the route. The tug to get to the main summit was much stronger thankfully, and the weather was holding, so we continued up the final ascent. This section of the route was more of the same. Playing the game called, “where to walk so I don’t die” as we traversed the backs of these cornices.
La Cumbre - The Summit
We reached the summit 12 hours after leaving our high camp on the Moose’s back. It was a spectacular evening in the Alaska Range. Windy yet beautiful. The top of the Moose’s Tooth is actually a big cornice, so the true elevation of the mountain likely changes on a weekly basis. Being an idiot, I wanted to touch the very top. Janelle just shook her head as she belayed me up. First walking, then using my ice tools in the cane position, then on my knees, and for the last six feet on my belly as to distribute my weight as best as possible. I picked my head up and could see unobstructed 360 degrees, the tippy top. In hind site that was probably stupid to climb a big cornice like that, but whatever.
Rapping down Ham and Eggs- Root canal airstrip lower center of photo, fishhook shape
Many many rappels later, around midnight thirty, we walked into the Root Canal campsite. Our buddy, Kurt Hicks, had heard us coming down and put out our base camp duffle, a thermos of hot water, and a bottle of whisky. I read his accompanying handwritten note by the dim Alaska midnight light, “Way to crush Smileys! See you in the morning.”
Root canal camp, with entire West Ridge in view.
The video we made of this climb will be released Sept. 2, 2013. And can be seen on the main website:

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