Saturday, September 25, 2010

Prusik Peak

My brother Fras and I had set out a number of summer activity goals for ourselves at the start of the year, but as the summer wound down we were left pondering the relatively meager success rate we had in actually doing any of them. As the end of September approached we resolved that we should try and get something big done, and we settled on the north ridge of Mount Stuart, something we both had high on our tick lists. This is commonly done as a two or three day trip; we had originally hoped to do it in a single day but the shorter days at the end of September and the fact that this would be the longest climb of this nature that either of us had ever done (18-20 pitches with a 10 mile approach) led us to alter our plans for a 2 day assault on the peak.

However, as our targeted weekend approached it became clear that we would only have a weather window of one day, so we decided to adjust our plans once again and target a shorter route in the same area on another formation that we still wanted to climb, Prusik Peak. Prusik Peak has a similarly lengthy approach with about 9-10 miles and 5000-6000 feet of elevation gain, but much less climbing with just 5-6 pitches maxing out at 5.7.

Friday night we both got packed up and met up on Highway 2 in the town of Monroe, where we parked my car and continued on in Fras's Matrix after stocking up on food for the weekend at Safeway. We arrived at the Mountaineers trailhead near Leavenworth around midnight, and after a brief gear organizing session we curled up under clear skies on our thermal rests in the parking lot and drifted off to sleep at around 12:30am.

We know that it was going to be a long day, so our alarm went off at 4:30am and we slowly rolled out of bed after a woefully inadequate rest and fired up the camp stove to make some thick brew in my newly acquired backcountry french press (which is awesome!). One would normally feel pretty tired in this situation, but in my experience I have found that excitement does a pretty good job at compensating for sleep and we were both pretty amped up to get going. We went to leave at about 5:15am, and unfortunately when Fras went to switch on his headlamp he found that the batteries had leaked out inside and it was not working. This was, however, a step up from our last camping experience together when he had neglected to bring a headlamp altogether. That being said, a headlamp without batteries isn't much better than no headlamp at all, so we set off with Fras in front and me behind with my headlamp doing my best to illuminate the trail for him as it was still completely dark at this point. Here is Fras making his way up the trail, utterly non-plussed by his lack of illumination.

Another thing you will notice from this picture is that Fras also has no waist belt on his pack; he discovered it was broken on our last expedition on Mount Alpha, and evidently the 1.5 month timeframe between then and now hadn't been quite long enough for him to make his way into MEC and get a new buckle. Fras, if you are reading this: go get a new buckle, ski touring season starts soon!

We continued on our way up the trail, with it becoming quite light out by about 6:30am so that we no longer required the headlamp and could move a bit faster. Eventually we came up to Colchuk Lake, with a nice view of the giant Massif of Dragontail Peak at the end of it:

Our route of ascent would take us up Aasgard Pass, which is the pass to the left of Dragontail Peak (the peak in the middle of the picture) so we made our way around the lake and after a few routefinding snafu's we began making our way up the long talus field ascent to Aasgard Pass. We had nice views looking back out over Colchuk Lake at the rising sun:

Aasgard Pass seemed to go on forever, as each time it looked like we were nearing the top we realized that it was just a point where the angle lessened and we still had a long way to climb. We continued up, still making good time as we began to encounter small snowfields that reminded us we were starting to get pretty high.

We finally popped out over the top of Aasgard Pass, suddenly feeling like we were in the alpine with a glacier visible on the backside of Dragontail Peak in the background of the photo below:

Up until this point we had been following the trail, but we could now see Prusik Peak off in the distance and the trail didn't seem (to me at least) to be the most expedient way to get there, so I convinced Fras that we should set off cross country over some slabs and take a direct route to the peak. I am notorious for these "direct routes" and they never seem to work out very well, so if you are ever on a trip with me and I convince you that we should leave the trail and make a beeline for our objective, just ignore me and stay on the trail, hopefully I will follow suit. Here is Fras leading out on the direct approach, with Prusik Peak the prominant peak in the distance:

Our direct route across grassy fields soon turned to 4th class slab traversing followed by a snow field traverse in our running shoes, so we reluctanctantly abandoned our idea of a direct approach and headed back to the trail (which we had been paralleling anyways) and therafter made much better progress. Prusik Peak is in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness which is a really beautiful area with (as the name suggests) lots of lakes in an alpine setting. Here I am heading down to the shores of yet another lake with Prusik Peak and some yellowing Larch trees in the background:

As we continued along we encountered several really nice alpine meadows with small streams winding through them, the setting almost looked like it was out of a fair tale. Here I am stopped for a break in one such setting:

And here is Fras stopped in another, with a really nice view out over some more lakes.

What an awesome day! This is a worthwhile place to go even if you are not climbing any of the peaks in the area, it is one of the nicest outdoor settings that I have seen in Washington. We continued on our way, ascending Prusik Pass and then traversing a ridgeline to the base of our route, the West Ridge. Here is Fras racking up at the base of the climb:

We racked up our gear and headed up, with me taking the first pitch which was low 5th class and took us up on to the ridge. Fras led the next pitch which was more of the same, and then I led the 3rd pitch which had few moves of 5.7 slab climbing (a little tenous-feeling with the only protection being a piton down and to the right) and then popped up ontot he ridge crest and then traversed a bit. Here is Fras emerging on the ridge crest:

The next pitch was a traverse of mostly 3rd class terrain, which deposited us at the base of the final headwall. Fras led the next pitch up a 5.6 corner with some pretty fun climbing:

And then I took the final pitch which ascended a 5.4 chimney to gain the summit block. Fras seemed to be having some problems on the 5.4 final pitch which initially made me wonder about his chimney climbing technique, but I then realized that he was wearing the backpack which can sometimes be a hindrance when trying to stuff yourself in a chimney. Nevertheless he eventually made it up, here is a shot just after he emerged onto the summit:

There were some great views from the summit, and despite it being a bit windy we lingered for a while taking some photos and eating some snacks. Here I am celebrating our successful ascent:

And here is a panaramic view that I took from the summit:

As we started getting cold we decided it was time to head down, so we found the rap anchors and headed down the north face. Our guidebook had recommended having double ropes, but it turned out to be fine with the single rope that we had brough and we made it down after about 4 rappels. Here I am heading down:

After depositing ourselves back on terra firma we scrambled around the north side of the peak to where we had left our packs at the start of the west ridge, and after packing up we began the long walk out. We ended up taking a different route down from Prusik Peak that took us through some nice forests, here is Fras headed down:

We also had some good views looking back at Prusik, it is a really impressive peak when viewed from this aspect:

This is a peak that looks a lot harder than it as (at least by the route that we took), but a good climb nonetheless! We stopped for a break at one of the lakes where we ate the rest of our real food leaving us only with energy bars (gross!) for the rest of the walk out. We met some interesting characters on the walk out, most notably a group of east Indian hikers who greeted us with "Camping or Traversing?" spoken in a thick indian accent. We didn't think we were doing either and tried to explain that to them, but apparently people commonly do a hiking traverse of the area so our activity at that moment fit best with Traversing though we both felt we had left off traversing after finishing the 4th pitch of Prusik Peak. As we continued the shadows began to lengthen and we upped our tempo in an effort to try and finish in the daylight without having to resort to more team headlamp tactics:

We did stop to take in the incredible views a few more times though, here is a shot looking back across some lakes and snowfields at Prusik Peak:

We eventually made our way back to Aasgard Pass and began the long and torturous descent to the waters of Colchuk Lake below. As we progressed we were treated to some spectacular scenery with some of the yellow Larch trees being selectively illuminated by the setting sun:

We didn't meet our goal of getting out in the light as it was pitch black by 7:30pm as we were descending from Colchuk Lake, but we didn't have to hike in the dark for too long as we made it back to the parking lot by 8:15pm, for a grand total of 15 hours on the go. What a great day! Feeling pretty tired, we headed into Leavenworth for a mediocre burger served by a sullen waitress at Gustav's before heading back up Icicle canyon to the free camping area where we hoped to meet up with Jesse to connect for some bouldering the next day.

Jesse never materialized but we still had a good day bouldering the next day, checking out an area called The Beach that I had never climbed at before. After a few good hours of bouldering we called it a day and headed back along Highway 2 to Monroe. So, we had a great time on Prusik Peak, but it looks like Mount Stuart will have to wait another year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kirkland Triathlon/Starcrossed

Roanne has been on a bit of a post-cancer triathlon kick this summer, and after missing her first one back in August because I was up in Vancouver with my brothers (climbing Mount Alpha among other things, as detailed in an earlier post) I had resolved to join the wizard's triathlon team for the next one that she selected. This selection happened to be the Kirkland Triathlon, which was both good and bad. First the good: Roanne and I had planned on doing this back in 2005 (which would have been my first triathlon), but I then injured myself riding cyclocross the week before and I had been forced to pull out, leaving Roanne to compete solo (though I did come and cheer her on, of course). I did manage to do a triathlon the following summer (the Seafair Triathlon) and enjoyed it, but had not done once since, so it was fitting that Kirkland would be my second triathlon and long awaited comeback to the world of wetsuits, aero bars, and tri suits after a 4 year absence. However, the bad news was: the Kirkland Triathlon fell on the same day as Starcrossed, one of the biggest cyclocross races in the Pacific NW, and one that I was looking forward to competing in.

Faced with this conflict, I decided to do what any sensible person would do: race both! Problem solved. The triathlon was in the morning, starting at 8:00am, and Starcrossed was held in the afternoon with my race going off at 5pm (though I had to be there a few hours earlier to help out as a volunteer, since the race is promoted by people from my cycling club.

Roanne and I had managed to fit in a reasonable number of swims and runs in the 2 weeks leading up to the race (as well as riding my bike, which is a given and doesn't require any special events to motivate for), so we felt reasonably well prepared as we rose at 6am and made our way over to Kirkland to pick up our race packets before the 6:30am deadline. We met Ben and Emily (who had also registered to race) in the parking garage, so we all walked over to registration and then positioned our bikes and gear in the transition area. We felt lucky with the weather, as it was just mildly over cast instead of the rain that had been forecast. Ben and I went for a short run to warm up, and then I changed into my wetsuit before jumping in the lake to swim around a bit before they called everyone out of the water and onto the beach where the waves of competitors had assembled.

I was racing in the Men's 30-34 age group, which was the first of the "age-grouper" waves to go off at 8:05am, following the elite men and women who went off at 8:00am. Roanne and Emily left in the women's 30-34 wave right after me at 8:10am, and Ben went off right after them in the men's 35-39 wave at 8:10am. Several wagers had been made among us, with Ben and Emily wagering on whether Ben would be able to overtake Emily and Roanne and I wagering on whether or not I would get "chicked" (passed by a girl) by someone from her wave (what a ridiculous idea).

At 8:00am the first gun fired and the elite group swam off to much fanfare, and my group then waded into the chilly waters of Lake Washington. I took my place in the middle of the field at the front, as despite my current very low levels of swimming activity, two years on the University of Waterloo swim team left me with a built-in competence (as distinct from the built incompetence which I have in any sport that involves a ball or co-ordination) for this leg of the race.

"Bang!" The starters pistol fired, and we were off. I took off at a full sprint since that is the only way that I know to start a race (unless it is road cycling where you can lazily roll of the line, assured that nothing of interest will happen until near the end of the race). I couldn't see anyone ahead of me, but I assumed that at any moment I was about to be steamrolled by some lean and mean swimming machines who had started further back in the field. After a minute or so I hazarded a glance backwards, and to my amazement there was a gap between me and the rest of the field. Huh? What was everyone doing? Was this a race or a tour? In any case, I decided to keep treating it as a race, and continued my sea voyage around the course. Being in front allowed the luxury of taking really tight lines around the buoys, so I was grateful for that until I started catching stragglers from the elite field who had started in front of us. Nevertheless I emerged from the water first out of my group, mixed in with some of the elites who hadn't taken their swimming lessons seriously enough:

And up the beach we went, here I am simultaneously trying to chase down this girl (who will undoubtedly then get back ahead of me due to my painfully slow transition) and grab the zipper for my wetsuit:

I ran to my bike, and after a struggle, I finally wrestled myself out of my wetsuit (I blame my difficulties in this arena on my impossibly broad shoulders) and began the struggle to don a tight, sleeveless cycling jersey. I have since learned that you are supposed to wear your clothing for the rest of the race (preferably a dorky "tri suit") under your wetsuit, which is eminently more sensibile than spending two minutes trying to fight your way into them after having just spent one minute fighting your way out of your wetsuit. I finally gave up and started riding my bike with my jersey occupying the upper half of my torso only, but despite this I was passed in the transition zone by one competitor from my age group so I was placed second as I headed out onto the wet bike course with my bare midriff drying in the wind. Here I am on the bike, still struggling with my obstinate jersey:

It isn't obvious from that shot, but I do have an aero helmet on. I received one for Christmas a couple of years ago when I was still living in a dream world where I thought I might be a decent time trialist. After a number of time trials where I have yet to register anything even modestly resembling a respectable finish (at this point I would even be happy with mid-pack) I no longer live in that fantasy land, and as such I try to avoid entering time trials and the silver bullet helmet doesn't see the light of day as often as it should. So, despite my lack of time trial credentials and the fact that I don't like to dress the part for an event where I feel like I can't walk the walk, I decided that I couldn't roll down that starting ramp without donning the silver bullet.

After I finally worked my jersey down low enough so that it was almost concealing my navel, I abandoned any efforts at further sartorial improvements and I settled into a rhythm as I turned over the pedals with visions of spartacus dancing through my head. It wasn't much of a rhythm as it was a pretty torturous course with lots of hills and abrupt, tight turns on wet pavement. The hills worked in my favour as riding uphill is the type of road cycling that I suck at the least, and about halfway into the bike leg I caught the competitor from my age group who had passed me in the transition zone. He was wearing a Cucina Fresca kit (another local cycling club) and was on a full TT bike with an aero helmet, so I felt less like a dork wearing my aero helmet as I motored past him on the climb. Drafting is not legal in normal triathons, but using someone in front of you was a motivational carrot is legal, so for the rest of the race we stayed more or less together, with him usually going by me on the flats and me generally passing him on the hills.

I happened to be in front as we finished the long downhill that lead to the transition area, but once again he left the transition area first due to my inability to change clothes. This time all that was involved was a change of shoes, so I was only about 50 meters behind him as we headed out onto the run course. I'm not a great runner but he seemed to be worse, as I passed him soon after exiting the transition zone. He didn't seem too bothered about being passed and didn't make any great efforts to hold my pace, which once again left me wondering about the seemingly weak competitive fires burning in the bellies of triathletes. Oh well, as they say, don't look a gift horse in the mouth so I was pleased to be back in the lead with my weak-willed competition disappearing in the rearview mirror.

As the run progressed one of my feet began to cramp a bit but nothing too bad, and the only events worthy of note were being re-passed by a couple of the elites who didn't know how to swim but evidently did know how to run (but then, who doesn't know how to run). The finish line came up out of nowhere (the legions of screaming fans I had been expecting were somehow conspicuously absent), and before I know it I was done and was being handed one of ridiculous "finisher's medals" that are so ingrained in the "you can do it!" triathlon culture. Here I am coming in to the finish line:

I met my friend and co-worker Adam at the finish line (he was the one who was kind enough to take the photos that appear in this post, thanks Adam!), and hung out chatting with him while I waited for the others to finish. Ben was the next to arrive, having made good on his promise of passing both Roanne and Emily (though in fairness, Emily got a flat tire on her bike which lost her some time), then Roanne and Emily. After recounting our respective race experiences, we made our way back to the transition zone to change and collect our gear. On the way there I made the mistake of accepting a free sample of "Muscle Milk", some sort of protein drink that looked and sounded a lot like chocolate milk. Unfortunately it did not taste anything like chocolate milk and it took about 30 minutes to get the terrible taste out of my mouth. Gross! I don't know why anyone would try to improve chocolate milk; it is already the perfect drink so any attempts to modify it will inevitably end in something that tastes worse.

On the way back to the cars we stopped at the registration for the "podium ceremony" (in quotes because there was no podium and very little ceremony involved), I had indeed ended up winning my age group and Ben and Roanne had both ended up 3rd in their age groups with Emily coming in 4th despite her bad luck with the flat tire. Here I am reveling in my moment of glory:

Despite all of my verbal digs at triathletes and their pursuit I did have a lot of fun, and will definitely do another triathlon next summer. I do think I will stick to the shorter distance though, I like how you seem to be able to do pretty well without training too much. The older I get, the greater appreciation I have for the types of events where you can "fake it" without having to train too much.

So, with the triathlon part of the day over and done with, we decided to head out for a celebratory breakfast at the Portage Bay Cafe. I have heard a lot about their delicious breakfasts and Emily and Ben and had both been and confirmed the rumours, so we all headed there for some well-deserved sustenance. Their reputation is well-earned, as we had a delicious breakfast before I needed to head off for my afternoon event, the starcrossed cyclocross race. I was scheduled to serve as a volunteer crossing guard from 2-4pm which I did, leaving me with an hour to prepare for my race at 5pm. I had opted to race with the Master's 1/2 field, since my newfound Cat. 2 status means that I otherwise would have had to race with the pros (which would not end well even on a day that I hadn't already completed a triathlon that morning). Happily at this race the Masters age limit was lowered down to 30 (from the usual 35), so I gratefully accepted this gift and registered to race with the old guys.

Crossing guard duties were uneventful (though in their abesnce I might have found a more restful activity than standing up for 2 hours), and after finishing I hustled back to the car and frantically began tuning my bike. I had received a new Blue cyclocross bike earlier that week from the cycling gods, which was a good thing, but I had made a few changes to it and had not yet had a chance to ride it to test either the basic fit or the mechanical integrity of my changes. I headed out for a quick spin as the start time was approaching, focusing mainly on the top priority of getting the seat height right. After getting what I thought was the right height (though you can't really tell until you start riding fast on the actual course) I headed over to the start area where I found that, like last year, I was slated to start right at the very back of the 90 riders in my field.

While last year I had felt disappointed at this turn of events, this year I felt like it was a stroke of luck as the sensations in my legs while warming up didn't signal that my forthcoming performance would be particularly inspiring. This way I could just roll out with the back markers and work my way up a bit if I felt so inclined. By the way, the lack of photo journalism in the latter part of this blog past are a result of Roanne being presented with the opportunity to attend a pig roast in the afternoon, which somehow was more appealing than coming to watch me suffer at Starcrossed. Who would want to eat succulent, roasted pork instead of watching their tired husband ride his bike in circles around a velodrome? Crazy.

Anyways, the metaphorical gun fired for the second time that day (there might actually have been a gun, but I was too far back to hear it if there was) and we were off, hurtling around the slightly damp course. I began working my way past a few riders, and at the same time coming to the realization that the seat height which had felt perfect on the gravel path that I had warmed up on was much too high for a bumpy cross course. Mental note: ride a new bike at least once before racing it. Nevertheless, things were going well until the third or fourth lap when I remounted my bike on an off-camber section and suddenly found that I couldn't pedal. I looked back and much to my dismay saw that I had rolled the rear tubular tire off the rim. This was likely due to two factors: one, I hadn't reglued the tired from the year prior, and two, I am not very good at gluing tubulars in the first place.

I stopped and pushed the tire back on the rim as the people I had worked so hard to pass streamed by me, but eventually the tire and rim co-operated and I was off and running again, taking a bit of extra care in the corners now that I know I was relying solely on friction and 35psi of tire pressure to keep my rear tire in its rightful place on the rim. I resumed working my way up, until a few laps later I heard a rattling sound as I rolled up to the barriers. I looked down, and was disconcerted to see that my front quick release was flapping in the wind with the "lawyer tabs" on the front dropout being the only thing between me and an abrupt face plant. I quickly stopped to tighten and reclose the quick release (Mental note 2: tighten your quick releases before racing your bicycle), as my fellow competitors once again went streaming by.

Thankfully this was the last bike problem for me of the race (other than the constant spectre that my rear tire might pop off again in a corner), and I ended up rolling across the finish line in a respectable 41st position after starting in the high 80s. Not bad for the second race of the day! After changing back at the car I went to watch the elite races (for which it once again poured rain, very similar to last year) and was joined by Roanne, Ben, and Emily after they managed to tear themselves away from the pig roast. The Elite women's race was painfully boring with Katerina Nash riding away from the field on the first lap for a solo victory with a huge margin, but the men's race was pretty fun as French national champion Francis Mourey took a flyer on the first lap only to be reined in by domestic strongman Ryan Trebon who when pulled the 5'6" frenchman around the course (Trebon is 6'6" and goes by the moniker of "Tree farm") before being bested by him in a 2-up sprint for the line. Anyways, a great end to a super fun day, I'll definitely do another triathlon in the future, and who knows, if I continue to taste success it might even become a yearly occurance!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Devils Gulch-Mission Ridge

Soon after returning from my trip to France with Roanne, the realization struck me that I haven't done nearly enough mountain biking this summer. That isn't too say that I haven't had enough fun, as I have been putting my time in with climbing and other forms of cycling, but nonetheless I needed to get my trusty Blur out for a workout so that he didn't die of boredom from hanging out in the the garage day after day. There are a pair of trails near Leavenworth called Devil's Gulch and Mission Ridge that are reputed to be among the best in the state and I had only ridden one of them before (I had ridden Devil's Gulch a few years ago with my friend Ryan), so I set my sights on Mission Ridge and began searching for a fellow enthusiast to join me on this adventure.

I didn't have to look far as my friend Andrew the young buck was also excited to to this classic Washington ride. Andrew drove up from Tacoma on Saturday morning, and after paying our respects to the wizard we threw our bikes on the back of his Tacoma and headed east. As we drove along Highway 2 we felt a very strong pull from the Sultan Bakery and were forced to stop and sample their apple cups (a cross between an apple fritter and a giant apple muffin) and their delicious donuts before continuing on. An apple cup probably has enough calories for an entire day, but we justified it with the long ride we had planned for ourselves.

It turns out that Andrew's truck is in dire need of a new engine which meant that it was a slow journey up and over Steven's Pass, but finally we made it and rolled down the other side and on toward the Devil's Gulch trailhead. Devil's Gulch and Mission Ridge roughly parallel each other and start at the same trailhead at the bottom. They actually cross over midway up, and are connected at the top by a stretch of dirt road. Each trail is about 15-20 km long, with about 4500 feet of elevation loss from top to bottom. There are several ways to ride them: many average people choose to ride up a long dirt road climb and then down one of the two trails, many soft people choose to shuttle up in their cars and then ride down one of the trails, and many hard men choose to ride up one of the trails and then down the other for maximum value. I think you can guess which ride option I was advocating, and after a little bit of reasoning, Andrew agreed that this was the best choice.

As we drove up the final dirt road to the trail head, we were dismayed to find that the road was closed and we would have to access the trails from an alternate parking area. We found the other parking area without any problems (trailhead for the Red Hill and Red Devil trails), and from our map we realized that the Red Hill trail connected into Devil's Gulch, so instead of having to ride up the dirt road to the Devil's Gulch trailhead, we could ride the Red Hill trail and connect into the Devil's Gulch trail a few km in. We changed into our gear and set off around noon, happy to be out riding in such amazing weather. The Red Hill trail was about 15 km long in itself which wouldn't have been too bad, but it also climbed and then descended over 2000 feet which made for an interesting prelude to the actual ride that we had planned.

Eventually we linked into the Devil's Gulch trail, and began the long and steady climb up the single track of Devil's Gulch. The riding was really fun and varied, with a few stream crossings and lots of smooth single track. The only stinker about these trails is that dirt bikes are allowed on them, and in some places they have caused some pretty significant trail damage where they have created huge ruts that make the trail unrideable on a mountain bike. Midway up Devil's Gulch it became clear that we hadn't brought enough food (this happens to me on long bike rides with surprising regularity), but luckily Andrew knows a lot about Northwest flora and was able to advise me on which berries were edible. After fortifying ourselves with some bitter berries to supplement our Clif bars, we continued on our way. After some time we made it to the intersection between Devil's Gulch and Mission Ridge, and continued on up, eventually making it to the viewpoint at the top of the Devil's Gulch trail.

From here it was another few km and 700 feet of climbing on a dirt road to the top of Mission Ridge. We were starting to feel the effects of the 6000 or so feet of climbing that we had done up until this point, but we soldiered on and after stopping for a brief converstation with a local who was higher than a kite and driving his bronco down the road we finally reached the top of the Mission Ridge trail.

By this point it was almost 6pm and there was a good chance that if we didn't hustle we would be finishing in the dark, so without further ado we set off down the trail. The riding was awesome, with great views from the ridge crest and the terrain alternating between more technical rocky sections and loamy dirt sections through alpine forest. It was a pretty steady down hill with very little pedaling involved since we had already done all the pedaling on the way up. Before long we reached the intersection with Devil's Gulch, and continued on the Mission Ridge trail. Unfortunately at this point the trail had another pretty significant climb, so with our legs screaming in protest we continued on up the climb before resuming our descent down the ridge. The section of Mission Ridge below the intersection wasn't actually all that good, mostly because it had suffered the most abuse from idiots on motocross bikes, creating huge ruts that were dangerous to descend through at any higher speed.

It was getting pretty dark as we reached the final section of single track, with it almost complete darkness by the time we rode out from the Mission Ridge trailhead onto the dirt road. Unfortunately our car was not parked here as we had ridden from Red Hill trailhead, so we rode the last few km of dirt road back to our car by feel, all the while dreaming of food as we had both run out a few hours ago. Finally we made it back to the car around 8:30pm, and after a quick change we loaded our bikes onto the car and headed out:

It was a great ride, but if I had to do it again I would probably do two things differently: I wouldn't ride up and over the Red Hill trail to access Devil's Gulch, this trail had a lot of climbing which normally isn't a bad thing when you get a payoff of an awesome descent (like on Mission Ridge), but the descent off of Red Hill down to the Devil's Gulch trail was not very fun, with most of it being straight down on very steep and loose terrain that is more scary than fun. The second thing I would do differently is that I would ride the Devil's Gulch trail as a "lollipop" instead of a "figure 8", meaning that I would still climb up Devil's Gulch and descend the top part of Mission Ridge, but then I would descend the lower part of Devil's Gulch instead of the lower part of Mission Ridge.

Still no complaints though, it was an awesome day of riding with the young buck. We were pretty hungry, so we made a bee line for Leavenworth where we went to Gustav's for a Gustav burger and some local beer. The beer was good, but the Gustav burger was a little lacking, I would suggest that anyone looking for dining options in Leavenworth should try their luck elsewhere. We had plans to do some bouldering in Leavenworth the next day and it would have been awesome to have checked into a hotel and had a hot shower and then slept in a bed. Unfortunately, Andrew and I are both cheap climbers so instead of that we parked at the Swiftwater Picnic area and slept under the stars near the river so that the noise of the rushing water would drown out the noise of the rushing cars on the nearby Highway 2.

We had an amazing sleep, not waking up until 9am at which point we brewed some coffee using Andrew's new Jetboil french press apparatus, ate the delicious breakfast that we had acquired at Safeway the night before, and then pulled out the crash pads and began our day of climbing. Nothing much happened during climbing (how much adventure can you have bouldering?) so I won't go into great detail about our day, but here is a picture of me on a fun V3 dyno-to-mantel problem at Swiftwater that we both enjoyed immensely:

After lots of good climbing we finished out on the footless traverse where Andrew pumped laps while I sat on a rock and pondered my sore fingertips. Andrew turns out to be a more motivated climber than I am, as he was still doing pull-ups on the finishing jugs of the traverse while I had started experiments to see how much nutella coudl be applied to a single bagel. After Andrew got bored of doing pull ups and I ran out of nutella, we both climbed back into his under-powered Tacoma and headed back to Seattle with another great L-dub weekend in the books.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


After my work obligations in Barcelona concluded on Thursday, it was high time for some more holiday making, so on Friday morning I hopped in a cab outside my hotel and headed to the Barcelona airport to catch a flight to Geneva where I would meet Roanne who had been spending the week hanging out with her relatives in the UK. The Spanish taxi driver that I had was pretty funny, he spent the entire drive telling me about how much he loved motorcycles, and how even though now he is too fat for it, he once did a 8 hour endurance motorcycle race. Funny! My flight to Geneva was uneventful, and upon arriving I had lunch in a restaurant called "Swiss Chalet" though not the one that we are used to in Canada. This lunch was also a good opportunity to be reminded how stinkin' expensive everything is in Switzerland.

Roanne strolled through the arrival gate around 2:30pm or so, and we went to find the shuttle that we had booked to whisk us off to Chamonix in the heart of the alps. The shuttle was run by a firm called "Alpybus" so I had been a little suspicious of booking with a company that had such a foofy name, and these suspicions were confirmed when the only evidence of our shuttle driver who was supposed to be meeting us was a note on a board saying that the Alpybus would be leaving at 5:00pm instead of 3:45pm. We asked another shuttle driver standing nearby if we could get an earlier ride instead, but she said no, as apparently the shuttle drivers have a standing agreement not to poach each others business. Luckily there happened to be a third shuttle driver standing nearby, and he was an unscrupulous Brit who had no problem pilfering business from the Alpybus, so we paid our fare in cash and hopped in.

The ride to Chamonix took about an hour, during which Roanne fell asleep as she always does in cars, and I stared out the window with my heartrate continuing to speed up as the mountains bordering the valley we were driving through got bigger and bigger. Finally we rolled into Chamonix, where we disembarked and checked in at hotel, "Le Prieure" which apparently means "The Priest" in french as the building had a huge depiction of a priest on it which bore more than a passing resemblance to the grim reaper. Scary!

Our room was on the top floor of the hotel, and after flopping down on the bed we stepped out onto the balcony and threw open the shutters to an amazing view of Mount Blanc:

Okay, I guess it is a little obstructed by cloud, but the fact is that we were right in the middle of the alps and could see the highest peak in the alps from our bedroom window. Holy smokes! So awesome. It was almost evening by this point, but I managed to convince Roanne that we should comemmorate our arrival in Chamonix with a celebratory trail run. We headed out and up the hill to the edge of the town where we joined a trail that ascended to "Le Petit Balcon Sud", the trail that traversed the valley on the south side. Roanne doesn't like running uphill as much as I do, and despite my assurances that the trail would soon level out, she made numerous threats that she would turn back until finally the trail actually did level out a bit (lucky!) and we ran through the forest along the hillside looking out at the alpenglow from the setting sun on the facing mountains at the breaks in the trees. Unfortunately I didn't bring a camera so we have no proof, but it was spectacular.

We made it back to the hotel just as it was getting dark, and after a quick shower and change we headed out to find some dinner. Chamonix is in an area of France called "Savoy", and all of their food seems to involve large quantities of cheese, meat, or both. This was fine by us, and we had a delicious dinner of something with a name I can't remember before strolling through the town and heading back to our hotel for bed time.

The next morning dawned bright and early, and after some delicious pastries for breakfast we headed to the Information Kiosk to figure out what we would do for the day. We had 2.5 days to spend in Chamonix and no particular agenda other than having fun in the mountains, so we wanted to find out what our options were. We had brought minimal rock climbing gear, cycling gear, and hiking stuff, so we had most of our bases covered. I had tried to convince Roanne that we should bring our alpine equipment and launch an all-out assault on Mt. Blanc, but she kiboshed this idea so anything involving glacier travel was out.

The Tourism office wasn't too helpful and since we were mostly interested in climbing-style activities, they directed us to the office of the French Alpine Guides which was just across the square. I entered the building first as Roanne looked at some postings outside, and as I crossed the threshold into the building I was caught off guard by a drop of about 4 inches. Luckily I caught myself, and after thinking "Stinkin' French people can't design anything right" I continued on to ask someone where I could get climbing information. I had just been told we needed to go upstairs and was walking back to towards the entrance when I saw Roanne come through the door and also get caught off guard by the drop, except that she wasn't as lucky as I was and rolled her ankle as she fell to the ground. Stupid French buildings! She got up and limped around for bit, her ankle was sore and a bit swollen but it could have been much worse. As we were trying to assess the extent of her injuries, another tourist entered the building and almost fell down, which made the situation a bit funny for how ridiculous it was. The French alpine guides must lose a lot of business since every other prospective client who enters their office sprains his/her ankle and is too injured for the climb they had hoped to be guided on.

We finally made our way upstairs to the climbing information room, where we asked about what the Via Ferrata and bouldering options were like nearby. There was one via ferrata but it looked pretty lame and was hard to get to, so we nixed that idea. I have come to the conclusion that via ferrata should only be done in Italy, since the ones there are the most legit as they were installed for training soldiers during the world wars. The ones in other countries are more like tourist amusement parks that have been built in recent years, and you don't get the thrill of climbing rusty ladders held in place by corroded 1/4" bolts way up in the mountains. There was a bouldering area that we could get to by bus, but any vaporous inclination that Roanne had to go bouldering had been thoroughly dissipated by her ankle situation so we nixed that also.

Feeling a bit dejected, we limped out of the Alpine guide office and though about what to do. We decided to have a chill day to allow Roanne's ankle to recover, and then hopefully do a bigger hike on the following day. Luckily for us, in Europe having a chill day doesn't stop you from going to the mountains as there are cable cars that can take you there, so we decided to take a cable car up the Aiguille do Midi. This is the highest cable car in Europe, and whisks you up from the valley floor (at about 3300 feet) to the top of a granite spire at over 12,000 feet. Awesome!

We each bought a round trip ticket for 41 euros, boarded the cable car, and up we went. The ride is divided into two segments, here is shot of Roanne at the midstation waiting for the next cable car to arrive:

It was pretty amazing how far the cables spanned without being supported, I can't even imagine the forces that are exerted on those. Here is a shot from the midstation up towards the Aiguille de Midi with the cables disappearing off into the distance:

Finally the cable car arrived, here is a nice shot of it as it approaches:

Pretty cool! We jumped on board, and headed up to the Aiguille de Midi. As we disembarked on top, the first thing we noticed was that it was stinkin' cold! I had for some reason decided that shorts were the appropriate apparel for visiting heavily glaciated terrain at 12,000 feet, and now I was having some doubts. Luckily we did have jackets and toques, so we put those on and headed out to explore the complex of rooms and viewing platforms that the French had tunneled into this granite spire. Here I am on the first viewing platform that we arrived at, pretty spectacular:

Here is a shot of Roanne looking back down towards the valley, with some of the buildings visible:

And an unobstructed view of Mount Blanc:

Pretty amazing! At this point I was struck by an intense desire to head out onto the glacier and go climb something, but somehow I managed to restrain myself (no doubt made easier by the fact that I was wearing shorts and running shoes) and we continued on through the the buildings toward our next viewing platform. On the way there we passed by the exit onto the glacier, seen in the photo below:

A narrow snow ridge descended from this exit, which was the start of the Vallee de Blanche ski route. The Vallee Blanche is usually done in the spring, and descends 9000 feet in 22 km, starting at the Aiguille de Mid and finishing in the Valley of Chamonix below. Awesome! That is high on my to-do list of backcountry ski adventures, but even higher is the Haute Route. The Haute Route is a 7 day ski tour that starts in Chamonix, France, and finishes in my favorite town of Zermatt, Switzerland. Speaking of finishing in other countries, as we walked to the next viewing platform we also passed the loading station for a cable car that traverses 5 km across the glacier to end in Courmayeur, Italy. We were sorely tempted to hop on the cable car, go have an espresso in Italy, and come back, but in the end we managed to resist the temptation and continued on to the viewing platform. Here is a view from the viewing platform of the cable cars setting off for the trip across the glacier to Italy:

From this platform we could also look up to the highest "populated" point on the Aiguille de Midi, which could be accessed by paying an additional fee to ride th elevator up:

We decided that the views at our current elevation were sufficient, so we forewent riding up to elevator and after the requisite tour through the gift shop we boarded the cable car and headed back down to the midstation. Roanne's ankle was still pretty sore at this point so any sort of longer hike was out for the day, but there was a short trail to an alpine lake near the midstation that seemed pretty reasonable so we walked about 15 minutes along a rocky path to reach the lake. The views from the lake were pretty impressive, here is a shot of Roanne basking in the sun on the "shore" of the lake, with a nice view across the valley to the mountains to the south of Chamonix:

Roanne napped in the sun for a while as I went on a short exploration mission through the talus field above the lake. After I returned we decided to circumnavigate the lake as close to the water's edge as possible before heading back to the midstation. Here is a shot of me during this rock hopping exercise:

We took the cable car back down to Chamonix, and as we left the train station we noted the good taste in automobiles exercised by the cable car lift attendants who had parked there for the day:

It was now the early afternoon, and since Roanne's sore ankle ruled out most of our normal activities we decided to go check out a sports center in Chamonix that I had seen a brochure for which advertised its outdoor 50m pool. Normally I wouldn't choose to go swimming in a place like Chamonix with so many other options, but an outdoor 50m pool in the sunshine with a view of the alps sounded like a pretty good option. We had a good swim workout, and afterwards we browsed in a few shops before having dinner which was a delicious Savoy specialty called raclette. Raclette involves taking a block of cheese and placing heating elements facing either side of it (but not quite touching) so that melted cheese periodically drips down, and then using a special knife to periodically scrape off the melted cheese and eat it with bits of other food like ham, potatoes, bread, etc. It was pretty good, although I think it was the most cheese that I have ever consumed in one sitting.

The next morning dawned as another beautiful, sunny day, so during a delicious outdoor breakfast at a cafe we discussed our plans:

Roanne's anke was feeling a little better, so we decided to try a longer hike in the mountains on the south side of the valley. We decided to hike the Grand Balcon Sud which traversed the upper part of the mountains on the south side. The trail could be accessed either by a long upill hike, or by taking a cable car up, and though it pained me greatly to do so, we opted for the latter since Roanne was still having some ankle problems. The cable car was again broken into two stages, here is a shot from the midstation looking up toward the high station:

After reaching the top we headed out along trail which traversed a rocky ridge line with great views:

We walked behind the main ridge line for a while, but eventually we came around a corner and Mont Blanc and the rest of the alps on the north side of Chamonix came into view:

We continued on our way, passing a lot of other hikers as we headed east on the Grand Balcon Sud. We passed through a few ski resorts along the way, one of which appeared to have down hill mountain bike runs in the summer though it didn't seem too busy. We stopped for lunch and then continued on, opting to finish in another town to the east of Chamonix and hopefully catch a bus or train back to our hotel. We passed a lot of nice scenery along the way, here is Roanne in nice surroundings on the latter part of our hike:

Eventually we began descending back down towards the valley, and along the way we had the pleasure of observing some European wildlife:

I always think of Europe as consisting only of cities and culture, but this is proof that they have animals too.We made our way down to the road and hiked along a trail to the nearest town, and as we neared the town we saw a train coming along the tracks headed in our direction, so we made a mad sprint for the train station (as "mad" as possible with Roanne's sore ankle) but didn't quite make it. Since the next train didn't come for 40 minutes, we headed out to the road instead where we caught a bus after waiting a few minutes.

After a few days of the traditional heavy Savoyan fare for dinner, we decided to go for a lighter dinner and opted for a sandwich spot where we had delicious baguette sandwiches laden with a number of toppings and ingredients, including ... french fries! What a gread idea, I am amazed that Americans didn't think of this before the French, especially since french fries are the #1 vegetable in the US and A. Here is proof of how delicious the sandwiches were:

The next day we had the morning to spend in Chamonix before catching the Alpybus back to Geneva for our flight out on Tuesday morning. We didn't have a real agenda and just browsed around some shops for the morning before boarding the Alpybus. The Alpybus whisked us back to Geneva where we spent the late afternoon and evening walking around the city before retiring to bed in advance of our early flight out the next morning. It was definitely a great trip, though next time I visit Chamonix I will be sure to bring either my skis or my alpine climbing gear, since those are the two pursuits that it seems to cater to.