Cascades, Take Two

Last January, Marcus and I climbed for a month in the Cascades. I started writing something about it a few times, but didn’t end up with much because we didn’t really climb much of anything, bumbling from alpine failure to alpine failure. A bummer at the time, but we apparently learned a thing or two because there was a success or two among this year’s failures.

“Yup, yup, yes,” Marcus says as the car slides forward at an off-trajectory angle. The packed slush-snow is deeper than the wheel tracks of my lifted Subaru and we swim down the road on the brink of control. And then, we don’t. I watch the RPM needle flatline as the engine dies and we slide to a stop in the middle of Cascade River road. I arrived prepared for this eventuality, but my heart still dropped with the tachometer. Shit.

Fourteen months ago I found myself driving down the same road in the same car with the same white knuckles. Knowing the consequences of getting the car stuck this deep in the mountains, we stopped seven miles from the trailhead for our objective, Eldorado Peak, and skied seven miles of snowy road to start the climb. We quickly realized we didn’t have enough food, days, and endurance to push through the deep snow to make it to the summit and skied back to the car the next day.

Cascade River Road

This year, Marcus and I were back for revenge. We doubled the time on our self-register permit, dialed in our approach ski setups, and loaded four days worth of food. Last year’s failure had been hilarious, but still stung a bit. Eldorado was easy. We had both climbed it in a matter of hours in the summer and it was climbed in winter fairly frequently. With another year’s climbing experience on our side, our grudge match was sure to be successful.

At least, until the car died.

The green mile post marker next to the dead Subaru mocked us: MP7, seven miles farther from the trailhead than we got last year. It was late afternoon and after trying everything I could think of on the car and still hearing the ching-ching-ching of an engine turning over with no combustion, we accepted our fate and skied in anyway.

We made it seven miles the first night and quickly realized we wouldn’t have made it much farther in the car anyway. The snow was deep, deeper than last year, which had been a banner snowpack year for the Cascades. Winter climbing in the Cascades is notoriously difficult in a normal season, and more so now. This is where the, “it’s all training,” philosophy comes in handy.

This. Lots of this.

Rain saturates our single-walled alpine bivy tent. The tiny tent is awesome when it’s freezing and snowing, but above 32º it’s like wearing a windbreaker in a rainstorm: cold and wet. Waking up in a snow pit, in the rain, in the middle of a road and knowing you haven’t even started the real approach to an alpine route isn’t the best moral booster ever. Still, we managed to pack our bags the next morning and make it to the real start of the climb before noon.

The trail to the Eldorado glacier is infamous in the Cascades climbing community for being thickly vegetated and very steep — in the summer. In the winter it’s one of two evils: waist deep postholing up a 45º slope or steep bushwhacking on skis. We chose the latter, which could’ve been the wrong choice. The uphill ski took four times as long as the hike did in bare conditions.

Rockfall and wet slides boomed down the slope ahead and Marcus and I sat silently on our packs, finally above treeline. We timed our approach in the hopes of catching the route itself — the NW Ice Couloir — on the one-day weather window in the forecast. This meant that the two days before we would travel in the rain to a base camp while the freezing level was high and climb the route after the freezing level had dropped back down, clearing the skies and hardening up the snowpack.

In spite of the forecast, it was still raining. We thought that conditions on our attempt last year were the worst they could get, but we were wrong. We were still soaked. Things still sucked. And despite better equipment, better fitness, and better mental preparation, we decided to bail a few hundred feet below our turnaround point on last year’s attempt.

Climbing is fun. I look forward to it. Despite this, whenever a decision to bail is reached, especially for good reasons, I always feel giddy and relieved. Sitting on our packs in the rain, we laughed like idiots and ate as much of our food as we could. And we headed back down.

At the trailhead — still 13 miles of skiing away from the dead car — there’s a small USFS toilet. The smelly, hole-in-the-ground kind. A small roof poked out in front of the door to make a 4’x6’ slab of snow-free concrete surrounded by 3’ snow walls. Compared to our soaked alpine tent, this felt like a hotel master suite and with no reservations we setup camp on the porch of the shitter.

With heavy rain, a temperature hovering in the mid-30s, and soaked everything, hypothermia conditions were prime. I laid down for the night suspecting I wasn’t going to sleep much, and fifteen minutes later I accepted the reality that my soaked sleeping bag offered no insulating value and chucked it into a sopping pile next to me. I didn’t sleep at all, spending most of the night forcing myself to eat, doing sit-ups on my pad, and reboiling a hot water bottle to keep my core temps in the safe zone. At some point in the night we realized it would be warmer inside the shitter, and with very little shame made it our home. Somewhere around now we realize we have moved into the ‘Spectacular Failure’ zone, and more laughs were had.

Sleep deprived but thankful the poo-tank beneath me is frozen

The rain doesn’t let up the next day, and at noon we resign ourselves to skiing the 13 miles back to the car in the downpour. It’s a massive relief to arrive at the car in the dark that night to find it still there, though the small hope I held in my heart that it would now start was immediately crushed by the ching-ching-ching that greeted my anxious key-turning. Type-2 fun.

Psyched to be back at the car after a 13 mile ski, bummed to have to walk 8 more miles

The car did mean a propane stove and real food, and with no hesitation we pitched a table in the middle of Cascade River Road at MP7 and Marcus cooked a giant pan of Huevos Rancheros. I slept in a warm, dry sleeping bag in my car. Marcus pitched his alpine tent in the middle of the road, and woke up soaked again — this time quite literally floating on his sleeping pad inside the tent. The morning brought our next reservation: walking the eight miles back to the closest cell service.

Marcus afloat in a bivy tent in the middle of Cascade River Road

Eight road miles in running shoes was a dream compared to the 28 or so slush miles we had done on skis in mountaineering boots over the last few days. We nearly skipped down the road to the Chevron station in Marblemount.  We convinced a tow truck driver to drive a bit of snowy road and got the aging Subaru to an auto shop in Sedro Wooley just before they closed, settling in to the first dry night of the last four in a budget motel.

With healed egos, automobile, and bodies, we headed to Snoqualmie Pass a few days later for a two-day weather window. The first day we climbed the South Gully on Guye Peak with a leisurely 12 noon start. We accessed the peak from a parking area right off the interstate, putting on skis literally under an I-90 overpass — popping boots into ski bindings while semi-trucks boomed overhead isn’t a feeling I’ll soon forget. We soloed most of the route, roping up for one mixed pitch near the top and disaster-skiing down a snowshoe track on the descent. The easy route wasn’t much of a climbing accomplishment, but not failing on something was still a soothing ego-balm.

Riley peering up at possible lines on nearby features

Both of us had been wanting to do a classic route called the NY Gully on Mount Snoqualmie, and with the melt-freeze cycles of the past week the chances of it being in shape were good. Marcus lead the first half, stretching the rope through most of the famous box gully pitch, which was a bit thin but still yielded satisfying Scottish-stye frozen turf sticks. This day the forecast was dead-on and at precisely eleven the sky started spitting snow in time for my lead block, which took us through the rest of the gully and to the summit plateau. We both managed to free the crux A2 section of the route with a gloved hand-to-fist jam sequence. This felt pretty rad: having seen many photos of the aid section online, I always thought it looked free climbable and we were both psyched that it was.

Riley leading on the second half of NY Gully

Marcus leading the Box Gully pitch on NY Gully

Riley following

The descent was pleasant plunge-stepping all the way to the massive Phantom Slide avalanche path. In solid snow conditions, the massive slide path makes for a wicked glissade. We dropped almost 1000 feet of vert in twenty minutes and arrived back at the car 9.5 hours after we left that morning. Doing one of the most difficult grade IV alpine routes in the area in under ten hours was a nice consolation for our Spectacular Failure on Eldorado and gave us hope that maybe we were doing something right after all.

Psyched to not-fail

After zero on-route successes last year, our single success on NY Gully was satisfying enough that we decided to cash the last weather window of the trip in on an uncertain objective: unclimbed lines on the SW face of Sloan Peak. Friends of Marcus had graciously offered to give us a place to crash, and a day after climbing at Snoqualmie we found ourselves sitting in front of a wood stove in a yurt in Rockport, resting and scouring photos of the nearby Sloan Peak.

W face of Sloan Peak

Winter climbing in the Cascades saw a huge boom in the early 2000s with the advent of two things:, an internet forum that popularized the phenomenon of ‘Trip Reports,’ which gave people instant access to current climbing conditions and a community-driven incentive to get out and get after it; and the excellent photography of a curious aerial explorer named John Scurlock. Online access to quality winter photographs of Cascade peaks inspired a feverish period of first ascents — in at least one case a new route was done only a few days after Scurlock shared a photo of an unclimbed peak.

Marcus on the Bedal Creek approach to Sloan

Like so many others, our climb started with a John Scurlock photo. The west side of Sloan had been climbed only a few years before but the line we spied on the SW face was, as far as we knew, unclimbed. Getting ready to charge off at something so uncertain felt audacious and exciting. So often in climbing the aspects of adventure are diminished by all the available information: how to get there, what gear you will need, how to get off the thing if you do manage to climb it, etcetera. It’s easy to say, “I just won’t look at it,” but it’s hard to actually do.

We had a USGS topographic map, an aerial photograph, and a weather history that said there would probably be a lot of frozen stuff on the mountain. This is much more than most of the pioneers of climbing history had, but it was still little enough to be exciting — embrace the uncertainty. We found the closest road to the SW face and drove it until we got the car stuck in the snow, strapped on skis once again and set off for what looked like on the map a reasonable camp.

Riley beneath the W face of Sloan

Excitement trickled in as the SW face came into view, bathed in afternoon sun. “I think there’s gonna be something up there to climb,” I said to Marcus. Ribbons of ice threaded all over the face, and a quick contour revealed the line we spied in the photo: fat and continuous. Game on. We snapped some photos in the fading light and fell asleep stoked.

Waking up to the alpine start alarm is a tough thing to do. Usually, you’re being battered by wind in a tiny tent, curled in a sleeping bag and clinging to warmth. It’s cold and dark outside, and you have to open the tent and get snow everywhere while you stuff numb feet into frozen boots. Then comes digging around for the stove and the chilly task of melting snow for breakfast and water. Isobutane canister stoves are the most efficient but are fickle in altitude and cold. I’ve found the best bet for quick water in the morning is to sleep with the fuel canister in your sleeping bag. After digging ours out from between my thighs, melting snow for the day and shoveling our faces with butter and rice Marcus and I head off for the base of the route.

Intended line follows natural flows to the uppermost bench and into the continuous ice above

Once again we are thwarted by the weather forecast. Standing at the base of the route — which looks continuous and incredible — we’re battered by gusts of wind of the 50-mph-knock-you-on-your-ass variety. Dark clouds brood overhead. We decide to wait a bit, and discuss the objective hazards of rapping the route in the wind. Then, we scoot a little closer to the base of the first pitch and wait a little bit more.

Finally, we trade a glance. The glance. Marcus pulls the gear out of his pack and starts racking up while I flake the rope: we’re giving it a shot. High velocity spendthrift pelts my exposed face as I blindly pay out slack to his indistinguishable form. Three excellent pitches later, Marcus retires the lead and hands me the rack, the first logical chunk of the climb over.

Marcus heading into the first pitch

My lead is the first question mark of the climb, a traverse from the belay to a thin runnel of what looks like more of the good nevé we had seen lower on the route. This section leads into a meatier couloir, to another ledge traverse, to what looked like the money pitch of the climb: a long section of steep, blue ice.

Ten feet up with no pro, I gingerly swing a tool into the center of the narrow runnel. My pick slides easily through the unconsolidated snow-ice and bounces off the vertical rock beneath. A gust of wind threatens my stance and fills my nose with powder snow, and I say, “nope, nope, nope,” and down climb to the base of the pillar. The runnel of plastered snow ice is only a couple of body lengths long until turning back to hard nevé above, but sometimes that’s all it takes to shut you down. I scrape around for a few more minutes looking for another way up, but the only viable options look like heinous aid climbing.

SW face of Sloan Peak

It doesn’t take much to convince Marcus that’s it not going to go, especially not in these conditions, and we start rigging the first rappel. After getting down safely and packing up our camp, we stared wistfully up at the still-unclimbed line and awesome face above us. By definition a failure, but our most successful failure yet. The climbing was excellent, and the route almost went — our shutdown was primarily due to the brutal wind and threatening skies.

We skied to the car more psyched than ever. The mere act of daring to try something new felt like cracking a door into a new world, and capped off the learnings of the two week trip well.

Riles out.

Posted in Blog, Life on the Road, Trip Reports

Cracks, Coyotes, and Car Life

For the fifth time that night, the feet I have jammed into the crack above my head slip and I am spat out head-first onto the crash pads below me. An hour, a few shots of whiskey, and some moderately-sized skin abrasions ago I was sitting in my campsite gauging the damage my hands had taken on a full day of crack climbing. A group of campground neighbors I met the day before walked by with crash pads and said, “Hey. You wanna come try an offwidth invert boulder problem with us? We’ve got whiskey.” I looked down at scabby knuckles and thin fingertips. “Of course,” I said and grabbed a roll of athletic tape.

For the laypeople: an offwidth crack is a crack in the rock that is larger than your balled fist. They take what is usually an awkward and gut-wrenching effort to climb and are avoided by most people. A google search will turn up lots of fun lore and photos about off width crack climbing — here’s a good video. This particular boulder problem calls for a technique called ‘inverting,’ which is exactly what it sounds like. You take your feet and shove them into the crack above you, hang upside-down, and use this position to gain progress.

Mark, the friendly neighbor, was true to his word and warmed up my first go on the boulder with a swig of Jack D’s. Hard alcohol doesn’t feel awesome in your stomach when all your muscles are engaged in a struggle to keep you hanging from the feet jammed above your head, but the absurdity appeal of the situation made it hard to say no. The next move involves reaching up to get what’s called a hand stack: using the combined meat of both your hands on top of each other to jam the inside of the crack. I pull on the hand stack, slide my feet out in an attempt to move them past my hands, and hit the pads below with a thump.

“Nice burn,” Mark says and hands my prone body the bottle. I crawl to a sitting position to see that more people showed up to see what the yelling was about. In just twenty minutes, our cadre of inverted offwidthers had grown from four to nine and there was a constant line of people waiting for the pain.

“For a few minutes before dinner,” Mark had said when he walked by and recruited me. Several hours later we were still huddled beneath the dirty and awkward roof, surrounded by people we had all just met and a small sea of LED lights. Mark is the first one to finish the boulder problem (and shortly after, the bottle) to wild cheers from those assembled. Shelton, who had walked by earlier to see what the noise was and promptly ran back to his car to grab his climbing shoes, was the only other one to send. I said, “okay this is my last try” three times before hunger drove me and the others back to our camps.

Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree

I am in Hidden Valley Campground at Joshua Tree National Park, a popular winter climbing location in Southern California’s desert. I arrived home from Egypt right before Christmas, having decided to head home a month or so early from the Middle East. After a few failed attempts to find a short term job, I took a look at my bank account and decided to hit the road and climb for a few months, which I’ve been doing since the start of the year.

Joshua Tree is rife with climbing history, crack climbs, and coyotes. I love all of these things. Personal stories from the founders of the sport annotate the online directories of the Josh climbs, the granite cracks are varied and interesting, and I fall asleep every night to the proximal cacophony of the Hidden Valley coyote population.

Home at campsite 22

I started in Red Rocks with a climbing partner blind date I had set up on the internet before leaving home. The blind date worked out well — Kenny was awesome — but the weather at the Red Rock sandstone mecca was less than ideal and thwarted our big-climb aspirations. We drove to limestone crags where the wet rock doesn’t break, like Limekiln and Arrow Canyon — magical places in their own right. The minute that Kenny had to head home the week after we met, another climber I met in a rainy Arizona parking lot days before pulled into my campsite and we’ve been climbing together ever since.

Lime Kiln Canyon

Meeting someone randomly and then camping, cooking, and climbing with them for weeks at a time is par for the course in this life, as is the invert-evening I describe above.  Letting go of the ingrained 9-5 lifestyle anxiety plagued me the first few weeks out, but the older folks I met out chasing the dream squashed it. I try hard all day with healthy levels of climbing stress and fatigue, get back to camp before dark with enough time to cook a bunch of cheap, good food, get quality rest, and do it again the next day. I feel extremely fortunate to have the resources to float the “climbing monk” lifestyle, if only for short chunks at a time.

Clear Light Cave at Mount Potosi

Life’s cheap, I meet lots of interesting people from lots of weird walks of life, and I’m feeling fulfilled, directed, and happy. Up next is a few weeks getting in shape to ice climb in Ouray with different friends, and then a trip into the big mountains in the Canadian Rockies with Marcus in March. Aaand that’s me, for now. Thanks for stopping by!

Posted in Blog, Life on the Road

Along for the Ride

Youssef creeps slowly towards the crest of the sand dune. It’s winter in Jordan now and Youssef is wearing the heavy, ankle-length fleece coat that Bedouin add atop their Galibeya in the cold months. He peers over the crest of the dune and slides the heavy coat off of his shoulders, holding it up. Five feet away a desert fox is nestled in the sand, wind frisking its fine fur. Youssef had spotted the fox nearly one hundred yards away while smashing sidehill across a steep sand dune in his Land Cruiser, and had pulled around the dune to sneak up on it.

I don’t know what Youssef plans to do after he catches a wild desert fox in his winter coat, and I don’t get to find out. “It’s dead,” he says after creeping forward a few more feet. Youssef’s scrunched-up creeping posture drops and he whips his coat back on. It’s not dead though — not yet. I get close and the fox is lying on its side, legs mechanically sliding back and forth in the rich red Wadi Rum sand. Glazed eyes stare at us, spectators of a slow death, as the fox’s legs make the one-sided sand angel. It is strange and beautiful and for a long moment we stare back into the glazed eyes.

“Snake bit.” Youssef says flatly. He shrugs, settling inside of his big coat. “Let’s go.” We turn and I slide back onto the bench seat of the old Land Cruiser. My climbing partner and I have just been picked up from three days of climbing in Barrah canyon, a section of Wadi Rum 17 desert kilometers away from our house in Rum village. Like every aspect of the two weeks I spent climbing in Jordan, this latest foray was random and unplanned. My climbing parter Doug and I, as we came to call it, are along for the ride.


Jebel Um Ishrin as seen from Jebel Rum; Rum village nested in far right corner

This trip came about because of the slow start to the Sinai climbing season. I wasn’t doing much at work and found myself trolling the Mountain Project forums for a partner somewhere in the Middle East. Climbing with a parter from the internet is a lot like a blind date: you’re apprehensive and hopeful, trying desperately to find out everything you can about them on Facebook the night before. Except with a climbing partner, your date quite literally holds your life in their hands.

A long email chain set our blind date to meet at the McDonalds in Aqaba, Jordan. The whole thing seemed dubious before it happened: we were both crossing international borders in the Middle East; I was taking a notoriously unreliable ferry used by Egyptian laborers and had an overdue visa, while Doug was crossing from Israel with advice from Israeli friends that said the whole thing would be expensive and maybe impossible.

I rolled into Aqaba a full day early with no food, no currency, and no phone or way to contact the random stranger I was supposed to meet and climb with for the next two weeks. Arab cities can be overwhelming in the busy evening hours and that night felt especially impossible as I stumbled around with a huge backpack and the wrong kind of Arabic on my lips. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta roll with it.


Doug and I on the pitch 6 ledge of Lionheart

The next morning I met Doug, another unmistakable white dude stumbling around Aqaba with a huge backpack, and we managed to secure both money and food. Things were quickly looking up from the night before, though we still had to figure out how to get into the desert where we were planning to climb in Wadi Rum. While I ducked into a store to grab something Doug sat down on the street corner where he was chatted up by two random Jordanian dudes. By the time I walked out and saw him talking to them they had already gleaned our climbing plans and were telling Doug that any taxi would take us there for 45 Dinar.

After repeating for a few minutes that I only had 20 Dinar to spend on the ride one of the dudes jumped up and said, “All right, all right, 20 Dinar. We go. Now,” and he hopped into the drivers seat of a lifted 4×4 Toyota Hilux sitting two feet away from us on the curb. I thought I was speculating on a taxi price randomly with strangers and not actually bargaining for a ride, but 20 Dinar was a good price so we chucked our bags in the back and hopped in the truck. After passing us cigarettes the dude ripped the big Toyota into busy traffic and we were on our way into the desert — along for the ride.

Our new compadre did his best to sneak us through the tourist fee of the Wadi Rum Protected Area Visitor’s Center by yelling at us to roll up the tinted windows and duck, but the swarm of Bedouin tour guides at the gate pounded on the hood and did everything but physically drag us out of the truck. Our trusty chain-smoking truck pilot didn’t envy our fate and as soon as the ruse was up he cut us loose, the Toyota spitting sand as he swung onto the pavement towards Aqaba.

The extent of our accommodations planning for Wadi Rum was hearsay about a place one could pitch a tent for a few JOD a day. The swarm of tour guides around us were trying to sell us spots in desert camps, camel rides, jeep tours, and all manner of other things when they got out of us that we would be there for two weeks. A quiet man in the back, though, won our hearts.


Sand and Sky: looking South from the Abu Ailah towers

Standing away from the chaos with a cigarette hanging from his lips Youssef said, “you can stay at my house for five bucks a day,” and we were cruising in the most clapped-out Land Cruiser I had ever seen in my life towards his house five minutes later. “Don’t lean on the door,” he advised Doug in the passenger seat. “It has an automatic eject feature.”

When Youssef said, “at my house” he also meant with his entire family. When we got to the walled-in compound both of his parents, his brother, and a mob of children and wives were running around and hanging out in an outdoor tent, smoking. We were immediately invited for Bedouin tea and a smoke with what was to be our family for the next week.


Doug espousing the merits of spring loaded camming devices with a young apprentice

The Arabic dialect spoken in Jordan was completely new to me on this trip but I was still able to exchange basic pleasantries and blunder through a conversation. Doug had absolutely nothing, and was looking a little wary of the surprise cultural component of the trip. When he pulled out a package of tobacco and started rolling a cigarette, Youssef’s mother asked him, in Arabic, if he wanted any hash to add to his cigarette. Not understanding anything but the word hashish, Doug started stammering, desperate to explain that he didn’t have an illicit drug in his hands.

After comprehension he laughed and declined her offer. She shrugged, pulled a bag of hash from somewhere in her clothes, rolled a fat joint with one of Doug’s filters and started puffing happily by herself. Meanwhile Youssef was explaining to us that the adorable tiny girl squirming in his lap was from his first wife, whom he had recently divorced. His current wife hadn’t had any children and the girl split her time with him and his first wife. And again I learn that culture isn’t powerful enough to change the fact that we’re all the same species and not so far down, all pretty similar.


Doug rapping out of the sandstone sea of the Jebel Rum face

On either side of Rum village the massive sandstone walls of Jebel Rum and Jebel Um Ishrin reach out of the desert sand. Youssef’s house was a five minute walk from the clean walls of the main Jebel Rum massif, and in our short time there that was where we did most of our climbing. The scene in Rum is a lot more developed than we had expected, having been discovered by a crew of trad climbers from the UK in the late 1980s, who also published the only guidebook for the area. We had a photo-copied printout of the guidebook, which was already infamous for incredibly vague topos and brief descriptions of long, complex ascents, so even the more popular routes still felt adventurous and untraveled.

We started small — first dates, y’know — but eventually worked up to stuff like Lionheart (5.10d, IV) which was both Doug and I’s favorite route of the trip. The climbing in Rum really is excellent and felt to me a lot like the bigger faces of Red Rocks in Nevada, except with no bolts, more adventure, and more splitter cracks. You can read specifics about the climbing stuff on my Wadi Rum page.

To our surprise and amusement there was a Fugi LED tv with 400 channels in the room Doug and I shared, a fact made ironic by the lack of functioning overhead light wiring in the house. For the first week we dropped into the unexpected routine of waking up early, climbing hard all day, having tea and broken conversation with Youssef’s family around the fire in the evening, and watching tv at night. I’ve found that when climbing and psyched on it, the other facts about what you do during the day don’t dampen a feeling of profound content and the strange and hilarious scene we returned to at Youssef’s house each evening made this feeling even better.

On day five we found ourselves being dropped off 17 kilometers farther into the desert with three days worth of food and a mysterious quantity of water in “the water jug” that Youssef procured for our use: a large welded steel tank that looked suspiciously like it was meant for gasoline. We plunked it into the sand and watched Youssef’s creaky Land Cruiser disappear in the dunes, wondering if he really would be coming back in three days.


Barrah Canyon campsite with suspicious tank lugged onto the rocks

The prior evening Youssef had interrupted a session of glazed Sky News Arabia viewing by announcing that he was taking us into the desert with his friends from Amman, and could drop us off to climb in Barrah canyon the next few days if we wanted. We suspected that our presence was a source of entertainment and gas money but agreed readily enough, and after driving around until midnight, assisting with breakdowns in the desert (“Gasoline car is always better. Diesel will leave you to camp in desert at night,” Youssef advised us as we drove away) and waiting, the friends from Amman showed up where the pavement ends.

“I hope they brought a big tow rope,” Youssef said when he saw the Hyundai crossover with five dudes inside. They didn’t, and after we all got out to push the Hyundai out of a few jams Youssef hopped behind the wheel for the rest of the way, disregarding concerns about suspension, ground clearance, or rev-limiters and rallying the Hyundai through the desert. The language barrier was lowered with whiskey and cooking and a campfire, and though we never really understood who the dudes from Amman were we shared a memorable desert night with them.

The next morning, as we were watching the taillights disappear behind a dune, we realized that we didn’t really know where we were but our water-filled gas tank was heavy enough to declare its current location our new home — and so it was. We deciphered the topos and for the next three days climbed a selection of classic Barrah Canyon routes. We joked about the lack of our Fugi LED tv but you really can’t beat sleeping with the cycle of the sun in the desert sand, especially when surrounded with spectacular sandstone domes in every direction.

Youssef showed up an hour early with a giant pot of rice and bread and we felt shame for doubting him. He looked smug as we thanked him for the food and loaded the water tank in the truck, which he happily announced had just had a new engine swapped into it. I asked him what the criteria are for a ‘good engine,’ seeing as how KMs on the clock probably don’t have much bearing. They are the following: doesn’t smoke, makes power. The new motor purred and we rolled away from our impromptu home.


Hidden valley between Abu Maila tower and Jebel Rum

And so it was I found myself staring into the glazed eyes of the snakebite fox, limbs twitching with neurotoxin but still alive, and still beautiful. Other strange things had happened on the short ride, including picking up a strange man in the middle of the desert, almost crashing the truck after plowing through a bush on a steep slope, and uprooting a small tree with the truck and a cotton scarf. I didn’t know who the man was we had picked up, but he was with us then, holding on for dear life as we soared over sand dunes, and was with us now as we stared in silence at the dying fox.

We left the next day. When I asked about when the ferry left port that day, Youssef said that there was a national holiday in Jordan and it wasn’t running. I fretted about how I was going to get back to Egypt until Youssef said, earnestly: “Oh, that was a joke. Just messing with you. That’s how it is in life, yes?”

Thanks, Youssef. For the wisdom and hospitality, and for taking us along for the ride.

Posted in Blog, Egypt

City of Magic and Beauty

“Dahab: City of Magic and Beauty,” a battered steel sign says in both English and Arabic. It rises in an arch over a section of desert highway that feels to me, random. Sand encroaches on the asphalt; tire tracks leading off the road into the yellow beyond further diminish the boundaries of road and desert. The paint is chipped and the sign is dented, but I don’t necessarily disagree.

I am on a long walk. Fifteen kilometers outside of the city of Dahab, Egypt is a complex canyon system. A flat, sandy bottom rises slowly up from sea level into a warren of steep walls of precambrian granite. A lot of it is choss, but a lot of it isn’t. This is Wadi Gnai. Home of the Bedoin, and in the last few decades, some rock climbers as well.

Marine Garden Camp and the Red Sea beyond

Marine Garden Camp and the Red Sea beyond

What takes me three hours of walking in sand and brutal sunshine usually takes only a half-hour in the back of a truck. Today, I told myself in a grasp for autonomy, I would walk to Bedoin Garden, a bolted crag deep in the Wadi, and rope solo. In August I bought a plane ticket — four and a half months — to come to Dahab and work for a local guiding company, Desert Divers, as a climbing instructor.

Bedouin tea at the crag

Bedouin tea at the crag

Dahab is a diving mecca. More than fifty dive shops and guide services operate in this relatively small town nestled on the coast of the Red Sea. Through a scuba mask the reef is stunning, and quite literally a few feet from the waterfront path that runs the length of the city. In the evening, the lights of Saudi Arabia twinkle on the horizon and beams from night-divers light the water below.


Camel Canyon

Magic and Beauty, indeed. Dahab boomed until the Arab Spring crushed incoming flights from Europe and America. Now, as people say, they are on survival mode: foreign tourists are trickling back in while businesses find ways to foster domestic tourism. This is no easy task, as catering to European culture and Egyptian culture is a much different thing. Skeletons of unfinished and abandoned resorts haunt the horizon in every direction. The roads and infrastructure, like the government, are broken.


Precambrian Granite at Waterfall

But this is Egpyt, and people find a way to make it work. Desert Divers has managed to snare the interest of the young professional Egyptian crowd, though the climbing scene here is still in infancy. Most of the route development has been from international tourists who wandered into the Wadi and the interest among young Egyptians appears (from my limited time here) to still be a novelty activity. But this is how things start. In the last group of Egyptians I climbed with a few of them were leading, setting up, and cleaning sport anchors.

I arrive in Bedoin Garden exhausted and more than halfway through my gallon of water. I don’t have much heart left for top-rope soloing after being crushed by the heat, but I set up a short route anyway and run it a few times. It’s pretty wild, being here. Rock climbing in Egypt.

The pace of life has been slow and frustrating at times — vacation purgatory, I call it — but that’s all part of the learning. It’s been ten days. The usual ups and downs and anxieties of being in a new place have happened.

Four months to go.

Posted in Blog, Egypt

Life Update + Writing Things

My record-compulsion has been nagging at the back of my head for months now, so here I am.

Marcus and I concluded our run with a semi-burned out trip back to Sierra Eastside to get some alpine climbing in on our alpine climbing trip. You can read about our misadventures on my Sierra Alpine trip report. This saga concluded with a few more memorable characters: Angelo the very stoned Hostel caretaker in Bishop who answered the door in the middle of the night in a rainstorm, took us in, and earnestly discussed the merits of Totem camming devices in his dank bouldering cave well into the next morning; and Stan the Man, the most excitable FS ranger anyone will ever meet.

Riley scrambling on North Ridge. P/C Marcus Russi.

Riley scrambling on North Ridge. P/C Marcus Russi.

After the Sierra, Marcus and I parted ways — both beat and ready for a break. I motored home to Myrtle Creek, Oregon to stay for a few days before heading East to Wyoming. After working the rock climbing section of an Outdoor Educator semester I bummed around Lander for a few weeks getting my sport climbing on. I made an interesting few friends in the free camping section of Sinks Canyon and was reminded again of that powerful and hilarious tendency of climbing to bring bizarre people close together.

Soon after I met up with a friend Bryan and we headed to the Tetons to hopefully catch things in winter condition, still. You can read about our numerous (and eventually successful) attempts to climb the Grand Teton car-to-car in a day in winter conditions on my Grand Day trip report page. In between our Teton attempts, we spent some quality time at City of Rocks — a spectacular maze of granite domes in rural Idaho. Here we made friends with the cattle we shared our random BLM campsite with, ticked off a long list of classic trad climbs, and got very dehydrated. It was hot.


Bryan kicking steps to the Upper Saddle on the Grand Teton

Bryan and I concluded our honeymoon with a humbling trip to Fremont Canyon for more Wyoming hardman climbing, which, you guessed it, is on my Fremont Canyon page. Since then, both Bryan and I set off on 30-day backcountry rock climbing courses in the Wind River Range. Every year it seems I am awed again by the scale and potential of the Winds.


Intimidation at the West Canyon, Fremont Canyon

After that I moseyed home for family time at the South Umpqua Intertribal Powwow and to give much needed love to my wheezing Subaru. On a short trip to the PNW to visit friends, Marcus and I met up again to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Baker, which was awesome.

Starting in October I’ll be living in Dahab, Egypt doing a whole bunch of cool climbing things in the Sinai desert like teaching basic climbing classes, developing new routes and areas, and working with Bedouin guides. The Desert Divers Dahab webpage has some info and guidebooks for climbing in the area.

Now it’s written down. Phew. I’ve been writing a few other things, too, so check them out:

Adventure’s Beginning, a story about my first time riding a motorcycle

Posted in Blog, Life on the Road

Life in the Desert

“Campghanistan,” one of my climbing friends and Red Rock local called the particular patch of BLM land we inhabited for two weeks. “The worst campground you’ll ever pay money for,” the rest of the climbers we met in the next few months would call it. We’re right outside Las Vegas, Nevada, climbing at a mecca for long traditional rock climbing: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Only 15 miles outside of Vegas and visible from the strip, almost 200,000 acres of public conservation land house a set of red rock formations called the Keystone Thrust. The walls are steep and as high as 3,000 feet. In short, it is awesome.

Looking down to the Scenic Loop Drive from Oasis

Looking down to the Scenic Loop Drive from Oasis

Lying shirtless in my underwear on a concrete slab, our neighbor from the campsite next to ours approaches me and launches into the introductory conversation typical among climbers: What did you climb today, what’s on your tick-list, et cetera. Except when my part of the conversation is over, the guy doesn’t stop. He goes on a veritable rampage of his most recent climbing accomplishments and future goals. In climbing culture, “spray” is a derogatory term for the unwanted monologue of climbing accomplishments or route information.

Thus our neighbor earned the name, “Spraylord.” Forever more he shall be known. Spraylord was a constant presence in the rest of our two weeks in Campghanistan, and his nightly monologues about climbing adventures with a colorful cast of cohorts became a reliable source of entertainment and an integral part of our Red Rock experience.

After a week of personal ventures, Marcus and I are joined on our particular slab of concrete in the desert by a posse from the Yale Climbing Team. We ticked off some classic, fun lines like Triassic Sands and set off on some more adventurous experiences like a topout of Dream of Wild Turkeys and a linkup of Inti Watana and the top of Resolution Arete. On the approach to the latter climb we made some new friends in the dark hours of the morning in the Nevada desert, which you can read about here.

Riley following upper pitches on DWT. PC Marcus Russi.

Riley following upper pitches on DWT. PC Marcus Russi.

Despite our best efforts to convince new members of the climbing team that trad is indeed, rad, we only got a few of them to tag along on multipitches. But by the end of our tenure in Campghanistan we had a couple more climbers leading on gear and the assurance that the stoke would spread, eventually. What work we could do was done.

After a few weeks our friends hopped planes to return to that former life of academic rigor and the competition for concrete slabs in the BLM campground became fierce. The dates for the Red Rock Rendezvous loomed — an event for climbers that “celebrates the climbing life,” but meant intolerable crowds for the grumpy-old-trad-guy attitude that Marcus and I had developed. We agreed that while there was much yet to do, it was time to move on.


Where is there to go but further into the desert? The next stop on our tour of international climbing destinations was Indian Creek, Utah. We framed this entire trip around the idea of collecting skills for the mountains. Get comfortable on steep ice in Ouray, get fast on long rock routes at Red Rock, build crack climbing competency at Indian Creek.

I feel pretty soft leading with a double rack of Camalots on a route that was put up on hexes in the ’70s. The hardmen and hardwomen who established all the hard routes here bemoan the magazine cover shoots and incoming crowds of gym climbers like me, but they’ve got the right to complain. And there’s a reason for all the people — it really is an incredible training ground. We learned more about crack technique here in a few weeks than we could have in months anywhere else.

Riley leading

Riley leading

“I dunno, man. We might be staying somewhere else.” A flowing creek has rudely interrupted the dirt road that leads to our intended stay at the Bridger Jack BLM campsites. Plastic chunks of passenger cars litter both sides of the stream crossing; casualties of the low-clearance vehicle. I feel underneath my Subaru, guessing at how tall a rock would have to be to knock the oil pan off. I pop the hood and check the intake, guessing at how deep the front end could go underwater before the engine started sucking H20 into the cylinders instead of gasoline.

“Nah.” Shrug. “Should be fine. Let’s hit it.” I guess at a shallow line through the creek, rev it high in 1st, and plunge in. I cringe when a wave of water laps on top of the hood, but the car breaches the opposite bank with nary a choke. The rest of the road into the camping area makes every attempt to destroy the suspension on my car, but we arrive in our new kingdom in functional form. Flat rocks stacked into chairs and tables greet us. Our neighbors are distant, and the beautiful Bridger Jack buttress dominates the skyline. There’s no bathroom, but this sure beats the hell out of Campghanistan.

Sunset from the campsite

Sunset from the campsite

We developed a fascination for our new neighbors. There was a large vinyl sticker on their car roof-box of a giant mustache and a hashtag slogan something to the effect of, “Mustache Crew,” and they lived up to the sticker hype. Our first sighting of the human occupants of the Mustache Crew car revealed five dudes, heavily sporting their vinyl namesake. We were duly intimidated. “Dude. I bet those guys are crushers,” Marcus said.

If face climbing is like dancing — delicate, precise, controlled — crack climbing is like boxing. It’s abusive and often desperate. You squash, shove, and torque appendages. You pull hard just to stay in place, and pull harder to gain precious vertical inches. We were disappointed in ourselves when we first counted how many pitches we were climbing in a day as it was half of what we would get done on a typical cragging day. Crack climbing is work, and we got worked.

Bridger Jack Campground

Rain Dance at Bridger Jack Campground

Returning to the now-fond Bridger Jack campground one afternoon after a rest day in Moab, we found that a recent windstorm had wreaked destruction on our neighboring campers. The trusty Coleman tent I unearthed from the family closet employed its usual (and highly effective) tactic of jettisoning all support poles and lying flat. The Mustache Crew, with un-staked tents of higher quality, were not so lucky. Of the five tents we counted originally in their site we now saw one, tangled upside down in a nearby bush. Of the others we saw only hints: a headlamp in the road, bits of clothing strewn here and there, a backpack twenty yards off.

"Collapse the poles, Captain!" -- Coleman high command, probably

“Collapse the poles, Captain!” — Coleman high command, probably

Lots of yelling heralded their return. After their initial shock, we helped them stumble through the desert to pull socks off of tree branches and tents out of drainages. Along with most other people in the Bridger Jack BLM campsites, they packed up and left shortly after, the vinyl mustache on their roof-box now a symbol of shame. We decided that maybe they weren’t crushers after all.

Our taste of desert climbing ended with a whipper. We made the mistake of planning out our next destination — alpine climbing in the Sierra — on one of our rest days, and got too excited about leaving. I promised myself one last redpoint effort on a harder climb, and three feet from clipping the anchors I melted out of a cupped hand-jam with the rope behind my leg and fell twenty feet upside-down. “Uh. I think we should just go to California, dude,” I said after righting myself. And we did, that same afternoon.

Posted in Blog, Life on the Road

Ice, Avalanches, and Failed Desert Towers

After getting showered with powder snow for the tenth time, I look up to see Marcus peering down at me. “Uh, I’m not sure what I should do. My feet are numb.” We are on Otto’s Route, a moderate trad climb that follows the historic first ascensionist’s line up drilled pipe-holes and cut steps on the Independence Monument, a desert tower in the Colorado National Monument.

Colorado National Monument

Independence Monument

The snow on the ground was mostly melted. The snow in the cracks and slabs on the route we were climbing was not. We found this out the hard way. This is our rest day activity, and we treated it with the seriousness one would expect of a rest day. We slept in and stuffed a large pizza in our packs, driving late and lazily towards what we expected to be an easy romp up an aesthetic desert tower.

It’s February. For the last two weeks we’ve been racking up pitches in the Ouray ice park. Climb ten to fifteen pitches of ice a day for four or five days, take a rest day to recover. It is Marcus’ idea to climb Otto’s Route on our rest day. I readily agreed. Now I’m yelling up at him: “Screw it dude, just get a piece in to lower off of. This sucks, let’s bail.”

Two pitches in and our rest day romp turns into a gear-leaving bail epic. After excavating cold powder snow out of a vertical handcrack for 60 feet, Marcus’ attempt to reach the first fixed anchors on the route is foiled by an ice covered friction slab. It turns out bare hands and tight climbing shoes are suboptimal snow travel equipment.

After lowering Marcus on a micro nut, we convene on a snow-covered ledge to eat our large pizza, laugh, and make a rappel anchor on a chockstone wedged into the wide crack in front of the belay. We flee, feeling a bit guilty about leaving a nut and some tat on the route but happy to have warm feet and hands. This is the first time in the sandstone desert environment for both of us, and I’m starting to see the Edward Abbey magic.

We got what we came here for — mileage. No where else in the world has the accessibility and sheer number of ice climbs than Ouray, and it has lived up to its reputation as an ideal training ground. The weather has been unseasonably warm the entire time we’ve been here too, taking all the usual cold and misery out of the experience. In terms of goals, both Marcus and I are on track with what we said we wanted out of this month. Check out my trip report for Colorado Ice.

Riley leading pitch one of Stairway to Heaven

Riley leading pitch one of Stairway to Heaven

Climbing in Colorado is a much different experience than climbing in the Cascades. On the few climbs I did in Washington, the route descriptions were vague, the approaches long and difficult, the weather shitty. On the backcountry ice climbs we’ve done in Colorado, complicated-sounding approaches were wicked easy, the weather has always been mild, and the climbs have been straight forward. Working with a super small sample size here, but I’m starting to see why people say that success in the Cascades often predicts success in the greater ranges. The difficulties of the Cascades only increase the allure for me, but there’s no better place than where we are now to get strong fast.

One Colorado thing we’re not so stoked about, though, is avalanches. One day after cruising a route in Eureka a few hours faster than we expected we rounded a bend heading back to Ouray to see a massive wet slide had ripped at the top of a drainage and had taken out highway 550 — our only way back home. Driving up to it we realized it was the biggest slide either of us had ever seen. Later classified as R3/D3, the skiier-triggered slide had run for almost 2000 feet, depositing debris fifteen feet deep on a 350 section of road.



Happy with our climb that morning and not particularly bothered by the day of waiting ahead of us, we cut some snow ledges, pulled out the sleeping pads, and slept for a few hours. We woke to a huge line of people sitting in cars — the front-end loader that had been clearing the road had bailed back to Silverton to get a better snow-clearing tool, and the tension in the car line was rising.


With our camp stoves, hot food, sleeping bags, and satisfaction of a day’s work already done we were the envy of the car line. We picked a safe path and hiked to the top of the ridge to get a better look at things and to kill a couple of the seven hours we ended up waiting for the road to be cleared. The wind-loaded gully had ripped all the way to the ground, leaving a muddy and raw wound all the way from the top of the ridge to the bottom. Somehow the skiers that triggered the slide were not buried and sustained no injuries. The avalanche forecast for that day was Moderate above treeline, too. Yikes.

The last few days here we spent at Escalante Canyon, a well kept secret of incredible desert sandstone. We got spanked on splitter cracks and our asses kicked on off-widths. Fun for all — can’t wait to go to Indian Creek.

Sunlight gazing down into the chimney on Interiors

Sunlight gazing down into the chimney on Interiors

Next up for me is a NOLS rock climbing seminar in Arizona, where I’ll part ways with Marcus for a few weeks. After that we’ll be spending some quality time with long trad routes at Red Rocks, Nevada — where we’ll meet up with a crew from the Yale Climbing Team on spring break. The ice has been nice, but we’re both itching to get on some desert rock. See ya around!

Posted in Blog, Life on the Road

False starts, alpine flops, and winter cragging

January was a time for some good lessons winter climbing in the Cascades.

The biggest was, don’t try to plan a short trip in the Cascades. Guidebooks and websites stress this: weather windows are hard to predict, so buy your flights with caution. I even planned for this, asking to take longer weekends at work during the month rather than a solid chunk in the middle. We had plans to get two-person rope team skills dialed in for glacier travel but never made it onto a glacier — the constant deluge of wet snow kept the avalanche danger consistently high  the entire month. The time we did make an attempt on a bigger objective we ended up skiing seven miles on Cascade River road just to start the approach to the climb. After a miserable wallow through deep, unconsolidated snow that night we bivvyed well below our planned elevation. The next morning we woke up to new snow, realized there was no way were would make the return date on our backcountry permit, and went back to sleep until noon. The Alpine Flop was born.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom — the stoke stayed alive, and we spent my days off backcountry skiing and cragging in the snow at Tieton and Smith Rock.

We started up Pinnacle Peak:



With Avy conditions lower on the East side of the Cascades, we made a couple of trips out to Tieton. Our multipitch aspirations on Goose Egg rock were foiled by gushing water on the face:


Ride the (wet) Lightning


But we made the best of it and ticked some classic basalt cracks in the snow, like Inca Roads and Jam Exam:


Inca Roads


Sunshine and snow and handjams















We caught a couple of spectacular days at Smith and continued the Alpine Flop tradition, getting stormed out the last day of each trip.

We knocked out some classic trad moderates like Moonshine Dihedral and Karate Crack and finally made the crawl into the Monkey’s Mouth on West Face Variation Direct:


West Face Variation Direct — Monkey’s Mouth in the center slot!


A solid start to a long trip.  Next up is a short stop at the house in Myrtle Creek and then we’ll be off to Ouray, CO to get strong on waterfall ice for the next month. See ya around!


Posted in Blog

A Place for Records

This is a place for records. It’s a habit I’m trying to start, so we’ll see what happens. I’m writing here to appease my compulsion to record everything, and because I feel I owe it to friends and family to keep people updated on the lifestyle I’ve chosen. Which in a way I’ve realized is pretty selfish.

And so it begins. After skipping my college graduation in May to suffer in the snow in the Wind River Range for a NOLS instructor course, I worked field courses and climbed in Washington most of the summer. For four or so weeks in August and September I went on a trip to Japan, climbing and hiking in the Japanese Alps and drinking on trains in Tokyo. At the end of September I headed to Ashford, WA to hunker down for a few months in the winter with a job at Whittaker Mountaineering, a climbing shop at the base of Mt. Rainier. Curious about the lifestyles of professional guides and Outdoor Industry people, I happily took a job in Retail and Rentals with the promise I would leave in January to embark on a vaguely planned climbing road trip.

My time here has been good — restorative in many ways. I’m only just beginning to grow bored of the low-stress 9-5 life, a welcome change of pace from the planned-every-hour schedule of college. Time to write, I told myself (something I didn’t do) and time to train (Something I did do). I built a motorcycle, I pieced together some last bits of gear, I took an AIARE course, and I got a splitboard setup dialed for climbing approaches.

Time to leave.

A few months ago, my friend Marcus made plans to come visit and climb in the Cascades for a few weeks over his winter break. Our text conversation went something like this:

“I have a home base in WA. Wanna come climb in the Cascades on your winter break? Think I’m gonna quit in Jan and climb the next four months after that. ”

“I’ll buy plane tickets. And pitons. People still use those in the Cascades, right?”

A few days later he told me he went ahead and took the rest of the semester off. I didn’t believe him until he told me he had already found someone to replace him in his house. Marcus, a friend from the rock climbing team, is the only person I met at school with any serious interest in Alpine climbing. We have similar goals. The current plan is to spend the rest of January here in Ashford, spend a month in Ouray, CO getting strong on waterfall ice, a month working on crack climbing technique in the Southwest, and another month alpine climbing in the Cascades once the snowpack settles in this season.

And there it is, all the pieces. Free time, transportation, a rope, rack, reliable partner, and the stoke to get things done.

See you in the records!

Posted in Blog