Monday, June 27, 2022

Route Profile: Vesper Peak's True Grit (5.8, II)

The first year I worked as a mountain guide was the first year of the new millennium. I started guiding in June of the year 2000. And it was a busy busy season, full of things to learn. I didn't get to climb outside of work. I only had the opportunity to do that once.

In July of 2000, I climbed the North Face of Vesper Peak in Washington's Cascades with a long-time partner. It was a nice day out with a good friend, but the route itself didn't necessarily stick with me. 

Fast forward to the COVID summer of 2020. That was the second time I went to the mountain. I took the opportunity to climba newish route that my long-time friend Darrin Berdinka put up on Vesper.

 A climber clips a bolt on True Grit.

The route isn't that long -- only five pitches -- but it is high quality. The line is airy, exposed and beautiful. The crux fourth pitch climbs a perfect little crack right up the middle of the face. That particular pitch reminded me a lot of Birdland in Red Rock. The line was tremendously fun!

And it wasn't too far back in the backcountry. There are those that tend to camp near the mountain, but there's no reason to do so. It takes around three hours to get to the base. With a 7am start in the parking lot, we were at the base of the line by 10am.

Our intent was to climb both True Grit and Ragged Edge (a four-pitch 5.7 adjacent to True Grit), but when we were ready for our second line of the day, there were several parties on the route. It seems like the best way to do both climbs on the same day is to go to the mountain mid-week.

The hiking approach starts at the Sunrise Mine Trailhead off the Mountain Loop Highway. Directions to the trailhead can be found here, and a map can be found here. The drive takes between two and two-and-a-half hours from Seattle or Bellingham.

From the trailhead (2,500-feet), follow the trail, passing over several creeks (often with improvised bridges over them) until you emerge into the scenic Wirtz Basin, a cirque between the rocky flanks of Sperry and Morning Star Peak. Once in the basin, the trail peters and there are several sections where  you must follow carins. After the rocky section the trail reappears and switchbacks steeply up the right side of the basin to Headlee Pass (4,600-feet), at approximately the three-mile mark. 

From the pass, follow the trail to the northwest under Sperry Peak, eventually crossing a creek just below Vesper Lake. Continue up a climbers trail on the other side of the lake to approximately 5,700-feet. From there traverse north toward the pass between Vesper and an unnamed peak, but don't go all the way to the pass. There is a carin near at that elevation that indicates the climber's trail across the north face. 

From the carin traverse heather (or snow) to the base of the route. You may need an ice axe and crampons here, and maybe even snow pro, if it's early enough in the season.

Climbing Topo by Daren Berdinka

Pitch One: Start on a block and make your way up low fifth class to a belay below a chimney. (5.2, 200')

Pitch Two: Either climb directly up the squeeze chimney or climb the corner to the right. Eventually, you'll cross a heather ledge. Clip a bolt and then continue up, passing a few more bolts to an anchor on another heather ledge. (5.7, 100')

Pitch Three: Climb up the face, passing several bolts to an airy anchor. (90', 5.7)

Pitch Four: Launch up the finger crack. The crack is intermittent and there is a bolt here or there to connect it. Finish at another bolted anchor. (5.8, 120')

Pitch Five: Make a couple of harder moves, and then continue onto easier terrain to the end of the pitch, just below the summit. (5.8 then 5.5, 70')

Beautiful Views from the North Face of Vesper


The descent is embarrassingly easy. It is a simple 30-degree snow slope most of the year. It can be glissaded or walked down. If you're on the mountain in August or September, there may be more rock slabs to walk down, but there's no rappelling or shenanigans to get off this peak.

Vesper Peak will not disappoint. There is a fair bit of bang for your buck on this little peak, not far from the big cities.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 24, 2022

Technique: Frogging

Niel Gresham's Masterclass Youtube site is pretty darn good. He has a lot of quick snippets on there about technique that can help nearly anyone improve on the rock. In this particular segment, Neil talks about frogging, the technique where you use the inside of both feet in order to save energy...

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 6/23/22


--News Channel 21 is reporting that, "A climber from New York apparently triggered a small avalanche that sent him tumbling down the north side of South Sister on Saturday, prompting a lengthy rescue effort that ended late Sunday morning, when he was hoisted aboard an Oregon Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter and flown to St. Charles Bend." To read more, click here.

--The Statesman Journal is reporting that, "climbing Oregon’s tallest mountain will likely require a new permit beginning in 2023. The U.S. Forest Service will propose a rule this month requiring anyone heading above 9,000 feet on Mount Hood to get a special permit that would cost around $20 per person, per climb, or $100 for a season, the agency told the Statesman Journal." To read more, click here.

--Some trail updates from Mt. Rainier National Park:


--Outside is reporting that, "Yosemite National Park officials are seeking the public’s help to track down the person or people responsible for spray-painting graffiti along one of the most popular trails in the park. On May 20, Yosemite officials received multiple calls alerting them to fresh graffiti on Yosemite Falls, and along one of the oldest trails in the park. Upon further investigation, rangers found 30 different areas tagged with blue and white spray paint. They also saw that rocks had been dislodged and strewn about. Photos released by the park showed writing including the word 'Fresno' and the number 559 (the city’s area code) written on the rock walls that line the trail. The resulting images varied in size from about one square foot to eight square feet in size." To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Arizona's Snowbowl resort is sacred to native Hopi people. They have fought the resort since it's development in the 1930s, and now there are plans for expansion. From The Guardian, "the battle is emblematic of a vast cultural divide in the American west over public lands and how they should be managed. On one side are mostly financially well-off white people who recreate in national forests and parks; on the other are Indigenous Americans dispossessed from those lands who are struggling to protect their sacred sites. 'Nuva’tukya’ovi is our Mount Sinai. Why can’t the forest service understand that?,' asks Preston." To read  more, click here.

--It doesn't look like the iconic joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park will be designated as an endangered species. Climate change is a significant threat to this resident of the Mohave Desert. To read more, click here.

Colorado and Utah:

--The Denver Gazette is reporting that, "The family of Ronald LeMaster, a renowned Boulder ski instructor, is upset that prosecutors aren't pursuing manslaughter charges in LeMaster's skiing death. LeMaster died Nov. 30 in a violent collision with a snowboarder at Eldora Mountain Resort, on an intermediate run called Windmill Run, in what LeMaster considered his home ski area." To read more, click here.

--The New York Times is reporting that, "Bears Ears National Monument, whose red-rock landscape sprawls across more than 1.3 million acres in southeastern Utah, will be managed jointly by the federal government and Native American tribes in what administration officials said represents a “one-of-a-kind” model of cooperation." To read more, click here.

--St. George News is reporting that, "Two years following its original detection, the presence of toxic algal blooms in the northern part of the Virgin River and connecting water bodies continues to linger. Earlier this month the National Park Service reported that staff at Zion National Park continued to find evidence of the presence of toxic cyanobacteria in the North Fork of the Virgin River. The bacteria, which is produced by the algal blooms, has also continued to be detected in North Creek, and may also still persist in LaVerkin Creek." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--Colorado Newsline is reporting that, "the U.S. Interior Department will create a health and wellbeing program for wildland firefighters and boost spending on firefighting efforts by $103 million in fiscal 2022, Secretary Deb Haaland said Friday. The additional funding, which Haaland announced at the National Interagency Fire Center, comes as part of the $1.5 billion in last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law signed into law by President Joe Biden that’s meant to address wildfires, which also directed the creation of mental health services for wildland firefighters." To read more, click here.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Route Profile: Aiguille de I'M - North Ridge

The Aiguille de I'M is an odd feature in Boston Basin in the North Cascades National Park. Often referred to as "The M," this feature actually looks like an "M." Found just south of the Torment Forbidden Traverse, the small peak splits Boston Basin from Torment Basin, with the Taboo Glacier on the west side and the Unnamed Glacier on the east...

Aiguille de I'M
(Click to Enlarge)

The Aiguille de I'M has two named routes on it. The first is the South Ridge, a cool 5.6 romp up an exposed ridge. And the second is the North Ridge, a 5.5 exposed ridge line.

(Click to Enlarge)

Approach: Approach as for Forbidden Peak in Boston Basin (see Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Volume I) and camp at either the lower or the upper bivy sites. From the bivy, make your way up toward the Forbidden Gully or the Cat Scratch Gullies (the two options commonly used to access Forbidden Peak.) Traverse toward the notch to the right of the North Ridge of Aiguille de I'M.

Classic Sharp Ridge Climbing on "The M."

Route: From the notch make three or four fourth class pitches to the base of a tower. Make a final forty-foot 5.5. pitch to the top of the tower. It is possible to climb further, but not recommended as the true summit looks like it's about to topple over.

A cllimber cruising up the sharp ridge.

Working up the Summit Tower. 

Looking back on the ridge from the summit tower.

Descent: Make one forty-foot rappel and then reverse the ridge climb.

The North Ridge is a very cool ridge line. It can easily be done as a half-day climb from Boston Basin. And it is far less committing than almost anything else in the Basin since it is so short.

There are dozens of these little gems in the Cascades that are often missed. The M is well worth your time...

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, June 17, 2022

AAC Universal Belay Standard - Belaying a Leader

The American Alpine Club has produced a handful of educational videos. The following video -- concerning lead belays -- is a follow up to their video on toprope belays. This video does an excellent job of going through all of the nuances of each of the following aspects of belaying a leader:
  1. Positioning the belay to avoid a clash of bodies.
  2. Consciously managing the slack.
  3. Securing a leader who is resting on the rope.
  4. Arresting falls with a solid, yet "soft" catch, or stopping the leader cold if obstacles are in the fall line.
  5. Hoisting a fallen leader back to their high point as needed.
This nine minute video is a must-watch for new belayers, as well as for those who have been belaying leaders for a long time. There is a tremendous amount of information within each chapter of the video.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, June 13, 2022

Route Profile - North Arête of Bear Creek Spire (5.8, III)

The approach to the North Arête, which is the first ridge to the left
of the large notch.  John Scripps.

Bear Creek Spire (13,720')
Route: North Arête
Difficulty: 5.8
Elevation Gain: 3460'


Rising above Little Lakes Valley in the eastern Sierra, Bear Creek Spire is the most popular climbing peak of the Rock Creek area. It claims three of the classic High Sierra climbs - the North Arête and the East Arête both weigh in at 5.8, while the less technical but no less aesthetic Northeast Ridge is usually considered 4th class with a few easy class 5 moves.

Most climbers consider the North Arête to be the most compelling line of the three. With lots of cracks, some face climbing, stemming, and hand jams, the route contains all the best of a typical Sierra route.
View from the Arête, with the approach in the background.
Dade Lake is in the bottom right of the photo,
while the four small lakes behind the climber
are Treasure Lakes.  AAI Collection.

The good news is that the trailhead is at 10,260 feet, the highest access point in the Sierra, making the approach only about 4 hours for most climbers with light packs. (The bad news? It’s called Mosquito Flat - bring your bug spray in summer). Rock Creek Road can be closed as late as June due to snow, so check road conditions before you head out.

From the trailhead, follow the Little Lakes Valley trail, which is the remnant old road and has the corresponding gradual grade. After 3.5 miles, you cross a creek. There used to be a wooden footbridge here, which you may read about in old trip reports and the first edition of Supertopo. That footbridge no longer exists, but you’ll see a signed and well-worn climber’s trail to Gem Lakes. Camping is possible at Gem Lakes, but most climbers push through to Dade Lake, which can be reached by climbing up and to the left across (sometimes large) talus from Gem Lakes. Dade Lake is more exposed to weather and lightning, but has a better view of the route and is also the last water on the approach. The area has lots of bear activity, so bear canisters are required. 

From Dade Lake, it takes about 1-2 hours to get to the base of the route. 

The Climb

As a north-facing route, the North Arête doesn’t get much sun, so bring your layers. Depending on season and snow, an ice axe and crampons may be necessary - you’ll be able to tell from the approach to Dade.

The North Arête starts just to the left
of the large flake above the first ledge. Graham Hamby. 
The route itself is a Sierra classic, with five or six pitches of great climbing followed by a long aesthetic section on a low 5th-class ridge. The first pitch involves a fun 5.7 crack, followed by some 5.7 flakes - but watch these flakes, as they may be expanding. Pitches 3 and 4 are a bit easier, generally 4th class or low 5th. The crux of the route is a series of steep 5.8 flakes in a chimney - the flakes can be awkward, so climbers tend to use the technique that feels right to them, whether that’s using some offwidth technique, chimneying between flakes, or stemming. It can be hard with a backpack, and be careful of pulling loose rocks above the crux onto climbers below.

The second half of the route involves 4th class climbing on an exposed ridge. The summit block is a 5.6 mantel.


Either downclimb the way you came up for use a rap down a 50-100 foot section. The head north to a saddle that looks down on the snowfields in the Dade Lake basin and the rest of the descent back to Dade Lake. The easiest descent begins past the notch, and may require an axe in early season. It takes about 3-5 hours to get back to Mosquito Flat from the summit.

Bear Creek Spire is one of our favorites for two or three-day guided alpine climbing trips. If you are interested in building your alpine rock skills on the North Arête or Northeast Ridge, give us a call at 360-671-1505 or email to set up a trip!

Friday, June 10, 2022

In Balance, Out-of-Balance

It seems simple, but the reality is that many serious falls take place in places that should not be that technical. Many falls take place in spots that could easily be negotiated with good technique.

When I started working at the Institute, I had quite a bit of experience. I intrinsically understood the techniques for walking on snow and on ice, but they weren't well defined in my head. Well defined techniques lead to better techniques.

The primary snow/ice-walking technique that I'm referring to is the in-balance vs. out-of-balance step. These steps are designed to be used on 30 degree to 50 degree terrain. And if they are used properly, a climber will be able to ascend a slope with a great deal of security.

In-balance and out-of-balance (the cross-over step) walking provides you with stability and a strong sense of when you are safe and when you are not. With practice it allows climbers to move effectively and safely over steepish terrain.

When one is in-balance, both feet are situated in such a way that if you stop, you will be completely stable. I shot the above photo looking down at my feet while I was in-balance. If you are carrying an ice-axe, it is best to move the axe from one placement into the next while you are still in-balance. The axe should never move while you are out-of-balance. If it stays stationary while out-of-balance, it will provide an extra point of security during less secure movements.

The above picture shows a climber taking an out-of-balance step in snow. Note that his left foot is directly above his right foot.

Clearly in the snow that the above climber is moving in, such a step is not required. One need only to move in-balance and out-of-balance in terrain that requires additional on steep ice...

The in-balance out-of-balance step is incredibly useful while wearing crampons. The cross-over step allows the ankles to bend in such a way that all of the crampon points on the bottom of the boot are engaged in the ice. You'll note in the above picture, that the climber's toe is nearly pointing down hill. This allows every point to engage.

The movements required for good in-balance and out-of-balance walking are not hard to master. And the reality is that most of the time that you are moving in the mountains, such steps are not required at all. It is only when the terrain becomes steep or dangerous that it really becomes important. Indeed, the important part is not just moving properly but being aware of your movement. In other words, always knowing when you are in-balance or out-of-balance leads to more security in the mountains.

--Jason D. Martin