Saturday, November 19, 2016

The real type 2 fun

There's a lot to be said about why certain humans like to indulge from time to time in some of the good old fun of the second type. I now acknowledge I do belong in the said group and since then every time I feel  the impulse of doing it, it's become easier to understand. Sometimes a little bit of masochism will go a long way...
my friend David letting the magic happen
scarred from battling the Monster last year in Yosemite

Most of the time I'm pretty keen to sign up for different more-or-less purposeful type 2 adventures. Having been raised by enthusiastic cavers it was inevitable I would once change my bearings and go down instead of up. I have spent vacation in my childhood wandering around the Julian Alps with my mom while my dad was exploring underground and thus I have always considered speleology as a logical, natural activity. The Slovenian karstic landscape is littered with caves of all dimensions: big caves, deep abysses, huge caverns with a paradise of unique limestone formations. The exploration of caves follows a hundred year old tradition that has started to blend with the extreme endurance challenge as deeper, more technical caves were explored.

Fast forward 15 years; Matic from Ljubljana's DZRJL  persuades me to come with and "do some free climbing to save bolts" in a cave named 'Trubarjev dah' undergoing exploration in Pokljuka. After we descend to -600, we enter undiscovered sections of the cave and advance further. We bivouac the night at the cave floor and then jumar out on the fixed lines the next day which feels like a neverending nightmare. With a biceps that's hurting as if I'd just spent a week on the wall, I swear to keep away from any caving in the future half year, but as we exit and with every passing minute, the type 2 fun effect kicks in and I secretly start to like it. It's a pretty simple way to go for a full-on adventure.

the team that went into 'Trubarjev dah', my mom is looking fresh while I'm nearly passing out
After six months I'd already forgot the pains and hard work of caving and Matic suggests I should join in the expedition to 'Renejevo brezno' I am stoked! The cave is among the deepest in Slovenia and countless trips spread over 20 years have gone into exploring it, and I well remember the excitement when the DZRJL members were about to hit the -1000m mark in it. More exploration followed culminating in a major expedition that involved over 30 people carrying gear for a diver who explored the end syphon and eventually reached the -1300-something mark. This behemoth of a cave is far from explored yet, though - under the surface of the Julian Alps in Kanin region lies a swiss cheese-like network of tunnels where rain water carved it's way following the path of least resistence towards the valley floor. Only the water knows the passage downwards, but there is considerable draft through some sections of 'Rene' and the guys are mega psyched to find the continuation. It is an adventure, for science, for fun, and for the indescribable transformative experience that settles in when the sun warms your face again...
9 AM approach hike on the best bluebird day ever

Kaninski podi, littered with holes everywhere, some hiding giant -1000m cave systems!
I was part of the four-man team that carried supplies for the other, exploratory team that was going to attempt to find a passage further. We hiked to the cave on a bluebird Friday morning and after savouring a little bit of the nice breeze and still-warm sun, descended into the heart of Kanin. 700 metres of pretty much straightforward abseiling on fixed ropes took us to the first bivouac. Soon after, meanders and tight passages started, where the heavy haul bags slowed us down considerably. Some of the narrower sections were quite tight, but nothing too serious, and honestly the little boulder problems, funky squeezes and little free-climbing sections make it really fun (definitely more fun than hanging off a rope). I think caving essentially has never been regarded as a sport (in the sense of what climbing/alpinism is) so the focus is never on how one will pass certain sections, but rather where they will take you to and where the cave continues. Thus, anything goes and when necessary, cavers will use explosives or a chisel to make an unpassable section go (no strict ethics here). 
looking merry and clean at the cave entrance

After a considerable 14-hour effort we reached the second bivouac, ate a hearty dinner and passed out. Life in the cave has allowed me to better imagine what the World War one looked like, because I feel Rene well resembles an Orwellian picture of lying in a muddy trench. Most of the time it's pretty miserable, but as the saying goes, one gets used to everything, and nobody really minds it in the end.
The next morning we descended to as of now deepest point in the cave, the aptly-named Copacabana where an underground stream empties into the lake that then dissapears in a syphon. Then, we started to reverse the difficult passages from -1200 to -750 to reach the first bivouac, where we spent the second night. On the way we ran into the other team that came blasting past us, psyched to spend the next six days in the cave :)
at -1243m sunbathing on Copacabana

Lastly, on the third day, 750m of ropes separated us from the surface. Minutes felt like hours and every shaft looked alike as we inched upwards in what seemed like a slightly delirious bubble of thoughts and repetitive jumaring motion, interrupted by the occasional "Rope free!" from your mate above. Even though it felt like a real drag, I made the journey in only five hours - a considerable improvement since jugging the previous time in 'Trubarjev dah'! Suddenly, I felt a hint of breeze on my cheek. I looked up but couldn't see any light, but I knew we made it after all. Another 20 metres and the final tight squeeze and a blueish, piercing light of the midday sun shone on me. I busted up the last section of rope, staggered to the surface and a sense of intense satisfaction flowed through my brain. Eventually, the cave spat out the other three team-members and we packed up and hiked out to the valley for the well deserved pizza...

its a big cave!
Caving in 'Rene' blends the distinction between exploration and sport, between the 'casual' and extreme. While others may be driven by the passion to explore caves, I was above all just curious to see it and experience what it's like being disconnected for several days under the Earth's surface. It's pretty amazing actually - you are at least half a day away from sunlight, but chances of rescue if things go wrong are slim, so it's good to keep that in mind. And honestly, it's been a while since I've last done some offwidths and so I was also longing for some type 2 experience :)

Ever since doing the first more difficult cave this spring and being told about 'Rene' I've wanted to see it myself and see what goes into organizing an expedition like this. I wouldn't have joined this expedition if it wasn't for Matic and Špela thinking it's fun to let a caving noob learn the hard way and that going sub-1k right away is just a steep learning curve. So definitely thanks to the whole DZRJL team for putting up with me. I am hoping for some more caving adventures in the future! Also thanks for the photos, I've stolen most of them from here, where you can also find the trip report (in Slovenian).Whooo!

p.s. Also thanks to Treking šport for providing me with the caving essentials from Petzl - from the super solid helmet/headlamp combo, the back-up headlamp, ascenders and descender brake. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Val di Mello hit&run mission

I just got back home from a five day climbing trip to Val di Mello. Although it was short, this was a pretty cool trip. Thanks to Siebe for making it happen.
We planned to go climb on the 800-metres Qualido face, but our attention was drawn to a sustained 16 pitch endurance climb on 'Prezipio degli Asteroidi' called 'Non sei piu della mia banda'. It was a good decision, and the day we did it was pretty memorable including Siebe onsighting the overhanging 8a crack pitch (a beautiful, athletic handcrack!), getting shutdown on the 7c slabs and then the 3,5 hour descent through steep grass, stemming a wet gully and looking for trails in the dark.
There's a few particular things I learnt
- dirtbag climber travelling can be nicely enhanced via embracing some technology i.e. a smartphone with a foreign countries data plan, and I believe this does not necessarily take away from the travelling experience. It's just taking us a while to realize communication and travel have exploded to a different universe and planning a short-notice, hit and run climbing trip can be as easy as buying bread at the corner store.
- travelling light is so much more fun (Siebe provided all the gear, so I kinda just brought my shoes, harness and a toothbrush).
- some things never change a.k.a. going up is only half the job, can also be interpreted as 'ReadTheF***Manual' or politically correctly, 'study the descent beta carefully'
- I only knew Val di Mello for the bouldering there but never did the trad, so here it is: there is endless, amazing and heady runout slabs and few, select pure crack lines, but all of it is amazingly good on awesome granite. It's perfect.
- 'steep grass' is a style of climbing
- 'Non sei piu della mia banda' felt like a mini-Freerider and I think it would be a good testing run before going on El Cap because it has a good variety of styles (except no wide pitches) and is always really, really sustained, so you will have a big day no matter what (even Siebe was tired). So, to all aspiring granite warriors and Valley freaks, go for it.
- Siebe is a granite climbing machine (he just got back from a sailboat expedition to Greenland, and is about to spend next two months crushing routes on El Cap)
- it's been a while since I last dropped a shoe from a wall, but just in case I would have forgot, I tried it again, and it's pretty lame (but it earned us an extra half-rest day)
- I will be psyched to go back to Mello because it is a unique mixture of beautiful nature, lots of climbing, a friendly atmosphere and not many people. I really, really liked it!

Other routes I climbed: 'Lavorare con lentezza' with Siebe and 'Piedi di piombo/Oceano irrazionale' with a mixed french/belgian team (David, Laura and Romerique)
it's a bonus when your bivy has grapes, (hitching through Italy with Xavier)

Siebe following on 'Lavorare con lentezza' - a great moderate crack route
crux of 'Lavorare'
selfie with 'Prezipio degli asteroidi' in the back on the right
morning on the wall! not a very alpine start, we were climbing by 8.30, but it turned into a massive day of 12+ hours of climbing
Siebe leading on 'Non sei piu...' a 7a+ pitch

me following the 7c slab... la Pedriza style! it doesn't get much thinner than this
Siebe questing accross the same slab on lead

Siebe following up a perfect 7b thin hands
me getting pumped on the wild 8a pitch, overhanging and exposed! One of the coolest pitches for sure, athletic and pumpy.
mega wrecked on the summit! the descent that followed is sadly not documented, but mostly it was a lot of vertical shenanigans

Monday, September 5, 2016

Chasing the shadow

Few lines are as awesome as the Shadow. Few offer such an intense experience of climbing. The Shadow is a 20 minute meditative journey that relates to normal climbing only by the fact you are using a rope and a rack.
It is the most unique pitch, intimidating and very tenacious and unforgiving to climb.
The difference between the onsight and redpoint on this route is not in knowing the sequence, since there is no sequence at all and you will always be improvising. The difference is rather in getting used to how it feels and the overwhelming intimidation of two slick featureless granite walls that you are trying to stem up between. It is about accepting the fact that you will never feel in control, accepting the peculiar feeling of a foot that could slip anytime, relaxing and going with the flow instead of fighting it.
I kept coming back to it on different days during the summer. My onsight effort was good, but it felt simply too big at that time. Then, on two consecutive tries, my foot blew due to pumped calves or a split-second of lost focus. I couldn't mind it as even those tries felt so epic, and the fall felt like somebody waking you from a dream. Yesterday, I busted out my sport climbing shoes (my TC's are worn out to the point of being dangerous), hoping for a last-ditch effort before my flight home. The tight shoes offered poorer smearing but I knew they would be solid.
I've usually sucked at the last day sending missions. I build it up way too big in my head, jitterishly fall off and am left with a bitter taste of defeat. Then I would usually take it all in, realize how cool it is to be sitting there under the cliff with a bunch of friends and how that tick never really mattered, except to the small selfish bit of your brain that is now still hurting and will make sure you will come back to the route one day.
Anyway, yesterday it all clicked and I latched onto the finishing jug with a huge smile. The Shadow was my dream pitch and I believe no sport route can match the beauty and excitement of this clean cut dihedral. This route alone is a reason to learn how to do trad. Granite is so wonderful :)
What a finish to the summer in Squamish! I feel it all passed so fast, suddenly it is September and everybody is leaving to the Valley or Smith Rock. I am returning home but for once feeling content because The Shadow was kind of icing on the cake. Peace :)
The best corner in the world! The Shadow 5.12d, on the Grand Wall of the Chief, Squamish

The 'jesus stance'

No hands! That's chill!
Many thanks to my friends who came out to belay and take photos. Martin, Daniel and Ben and Teresa yesterday for the great support. This was epic.

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Bugaboo expedition

I set out panting, kicking the soft snow under my boots, a heavy pack weighing me down and trying to trip me over. My glacier sunglasses, a 20 bucks score from the Squamish gear exchange, project a false image of reality to the eyes behind them. Not only the scratches on them, the dimming of the natural light feels so unreal and annoying. I want to strip them off. But we are well above 2000 metres, walking on a glacier and the sunnies are crucial to my eyes. It's always a bit of a shock going to alpine terrain for a crag rat :)
But even without the glasses, is what I am seeing really that what is there? My brain is flicking through a kaleidoscope of images of vast white fields, big granite spires, the evil looking gray moraines at their bottoms and powerfully reflecting crystal lakes. Fatigue and the monotony of our three-hour hike blend reality and imagination into one and I gradually take a third-person view of everything that is going on around me, blocking out the thoughts of tiredness.
When I pull on the rock though, what the senses are telling me seems to get closest to actual reality. A sharpened awareness and surge of adrenaline naturally quiet the passing thoughts in my head and my focus zones down to the stretch of rock in front of me. A face of golden granite, split by a striking crack... finally, I am in the Bugaboos! The climbing here is pleasantly stimulating my climber's taste. Psyched. During another full day of climbing, I am immersed in the beauty of the movement, still so unique to me and my limestone climbing roots, I am a bumbly tick-mark following sport climber after all. This place poses a different challenge, a fun mix of alpine adventure, masochistic hiking and splitter cracks. Wooo!

This trip was a great adventure, and surely the highlight of my three months in Canada. I got a ride from Squamish in late July, hiked in, spent a few days at Applebee campground, hiked to East Creek bivy, my partner Martin left and I joined a group of psyched Quebecers (new french canadian friends! Yay!), spent a full week with them and then hiked out. We spent a few rest days in Golden that were mainly composed of watching movies and drinking beer on the couch (civilization feels good after a short period of deprivation, at least for a few days...). Then we returned with renewed psyche and new supplies of peanut butter for another full week, this time staying at Applebee but managing another quick trip out to East creek for a mission on the North Howser tower, its tall and remote west face. None of the climbs I did were of extreme difficulty, in this sense I missed out on a couple hard ones like The power of lard or Sendero norte. Anyway, I grew more familiar and confident with rock climbing in alpine enviroment and above all spent a great time with new friends. I like lists, especially if they're long and since this one is considerably long, here's the routes I climbed:

Mysterious corner left of the Watchtower, ~5.11, North Howser tower, see below for the explanation

Beckey-Chouinard, 5.10, South Howser tower, a cruisy day with Martin

Club confidential, 5.11 into a unnamed (?) splitter crack of about 5.12- on the Great White headwall,
South Howser tower, mega splitter was probably the hardest pitch of the trip, anyone knows about it? (crack left of Your girlfriend gave me RP's)

Italian pillar free, 5.11d on the Minaret, a great day with Sebastien, finally reached the summit of this imposing 600m face after two attempts on the Millenium, scary and hard second-to-last, crux, pitch on diagonal 'flutes' with footholds crumbling away.

Two attempts at 'Doubting the millenium' on the Minaret, the best looking line of all in the Bugs, a 5.12 freed by the Belgian wild bunch, Villanueva&Favresse, a memorable rappell in hail

An attempt on the Wide awake on the Pigeon feathers, the most sandbagged 5.10 ever (I bumped a nr. 4 for 50 metres).

Solitary confinement, 5.11-, a 5-star single-splitter route that stretches for 6 pitches, more wideness

Nothing on the Pigeon spire (west ridge was a traffic jam)

Sunshine crack, 5.11-, on the Snowpatch, another cruisy trip with Martin after so much crack training in Squamish

The Labyrinth, 5.12-, on the East face of Snowpatch, a varied and interesting climb, spiced up with rappelling in the dark and crowned with a beautiful last night in the Bugaboos, spent on the Applebee slabs lit by the full moon

McTech arete, 5.10-, because classics are supposed to be done (it was great)
And the Kain route, 5.6, on Bugaboo Spire, done in my Decathlon approach shoes which probably still were grippier than what they used in 1916!

The climbs on the west face of the North Howser are considered some of the most serious due to their length and the remoteness of the face. I was debating going on 'All along the watchtower' with a couple of friends. It is the classic, featuring a long stretch of stemming in a sustained, 5.11+ corner. We were all slightly intimidated by the scale of the thing compared with our experience in similar things (plus all the glacier travel stuff, it's the 'axe and crampon and shit'...). Eventually me and Oli manned up and went for it and it all went smoothly. A 3 AM alpine start, rappelling to under the face in the dark, climbing the whole day, all free, right until the summit, bivvying under one sleeping bag but spending a beautiful, not too cold night after having had the most tasty instant mashed potatoes of my life. Anyway... all was good except for the fact we didn't actually climb the right corner (oh and I put a core shot in Oli's rope, that was stupid)! I worked out we must have missed the (very obvious) corner because it was considerably wet and the route sketch was kinda poor. We climbed over 100 metres of a beautiful, tight-hands corner (after having traversed too far left) in low 5.11 range and were expecting to hit the crux roof anytime, but then we suddenly entered easier terrain and broken ledges took us to the summit ridge. The route must have been done before since we found nice booty (well, that's something) in the form of a stuck .75 cam.
Nonetheless we were not too bothered with our poor route finding since the whole thing was a good (and tiring) adventure. Next morning we rapped the other side of the tower, past a huge bergschrund and walked out on the glacier that was indeed less sketchy than it looked from the distance. Mega!

Spending almost a month out on the glaciers made this trip feel like a mini expedition. A great deal of hiking had to be done to carry all the gear and supplies, and my legs progressively grew. Getting adopted by the Quebecers provided for an unexpected improvement of my diet as I ended up stuffing my belly with poutine, chocolate cake, bacon and fresh fruit for breakfast as they were clearing out their food stash (the perks of having a heli drop-off!). It grew from funny to ridiculous when we had to hike all the Rubbermaids, the plastic boxes accross the glacier (the perk of not being helied out!). Anyway, staying with them confirmed my theory of the importance of hanging around Francophone people if you want to eat well (haute cuisine, right? Is 3000m considered haute, already?).

Another weary hike-out, a drug-addict behaviour led raid of the 7eleven ice cream aisle and a two-day hitchhike accross British Columbia put me back to Squamish, the home base for this trip. Since then I've been a bit less motivated with some really hot weather in Squamish, lack of partners and blown out shoes. A short trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island for some surfing in Tofino... and now I'm back for the last few days of my BC trip.
Bugaboos is hiking!
'so what does a porcupine look like? don't know, but i guess they're quite a beast'
approaching the madness
Eastpost Spire and its reflection in the 'bathtub lake' 
soloing out the summit ridge on the South Howser after a great day on the mega classic 'Beckey-Chouinard' that features great sustained 5.8-5.10 climbing in chimneys and corners
on the Kain route on Bugaboo spire
The Minaret getting the first rays of sun
cool place to camp out...
hiking accross the Vowell glacier towards East Creek basin, left is Pigeon Spire and on the right is the backside of The Howser Towers
me on the amazing splitter on the Great White Headwall of South Howser! Things kept turning more epic as we found out it's harder than it looks, pretty runout even with a double rack (it was a desert sandstone kinda splitter!), full 60 metres between any belay options and the howling wind was announcing a storm. Luckily we were able to escape through a small squeeze into the Beckey-Chouinard chimney. One full pitch of the same crack was still above us - anyone has info about this route? The weather luckily was not too bad and we only got a few bits of hail, but it the exposure made it feel so epic!
spent the first few days climbing with my buddy Martin...
The Pigeon feathers in the morning fog
fighthing the 'Wide Awake', a hundred metres of the same size nr.4 crack, starting with this roof to warm you up. we were going to attempt the free variation from Villanueva&Favresse, but by the time we got up to the scary looking roof/flake (that gave the name Wide Awake Cornflake), I was pretty smashed, physically and mentally

Oli making lunch for the Watchtower! this is haute cuisine as well!

hanging out at the bivy boulder in East Creek

Birthday cake for Eliel!
and we're talking proper chocolate orange cake here!

chilling out on the porch in Golden after a monumental shower and breakfast
the curious neighbours in Applebee camp

the alpine warrior

...meets a Quebec strongman. 
Image result for howser towers aerial
the west face of the North Howser (with a bit more snow than we had)
Seb doing the Sherpa on the hike-out. I heard Rubbermaid are going to start making back packs!
hitchhiking accross BC... next time let's hop trains!

leading up a very wet corner on All along the watchtower. 'let's hope it's not going to be like this the whole way!'
the pseudo corner! even though we were off-route, the route was still pretty amazing :)
Patagonia provisions caters to high-class dirtbags who care about acting enviroment-friendly and are not friends with gluten. We just got it from somebody at camp, but it sure tasted good... thank you.
climbing out the sick ridge of the North Howser
Oli scoring the probable FA of this little flake right below the summit
nice job Pinti!
about to dissapear in the bergschrund. There goes!

hanging out at Applebee!

 I feel grateful this trip happened for me. Thanks to all the climbing partners, especially Seb, Martin and Oli, thanks to Leo Houlding and Will Stanhope for inspiration and fixed rappels to the North Howser, thanks Dylan for the ice axe and Chris for useful beta and psyche. A big shoutout to everyone who was there, the Quebec crew above all. Cheers!

p.s. Thanks to Martin and Oli for some of the pictures in this blog.